Amazing Journeys: Role-Playing and Adventure Games

By Lee Perkins (April, 1995)
Role-playing games (RPGs) and adventure games should be more than pretty visuals and cute soundtracks. These features may help to get a game off the shelves and onto one's hard disk, but there are better standards than mere aesthetics. When one considers that most monitors are not quite up to say, Silicon Graphics display quality, or that your average sound card has a price tag of around $150, graphics and sound quality are hardly the best way of assessing product suitability. However, they can be an added bonus.

Interplay's Neuromancer, SSI's Curse of the Azure Bonds, or The Legend of Blacksilver by Epyx were hardly earth-shaking examples of audio-visual wizardry, but I will always maintain a healthy respect for these early games. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Bard's Tale I and Ultimas I through IV... I loathed them from the start, in spite of all the accolades they received from other gamers. This aversion stems mainly from ill-defined plots, awkward gameplay, generally repetitive action and a host of other niggling irritations too petty to name.

Happily, most recent RPGs have a lot more going for them: intricate but resolvable plotlines, evocative soundscapes, complex logic puzzles, admirable graphics, and in some cases, a range of different skill levels and options to vary gameplay.

Before buying any software be sure that your PC hardware is suitable for the task. Usually, a lack of extra onboard memory (RAM chips) causes the majority of operating problems. Fortunately, most current software is able to identify low RAM as a base cause of failure. By way of an observation, recent games are remarkably resource-hungry, and appear to be gaining an appetite for truly expensive hardware. For the majority of games that require a Windows environment, a bare 8 megabytes of RAM is nowhere near sufficient. A CD-ROM player with a good data transfer rate (approximately 300 kilobytes/second), a speech-capable sound card, as well as a Super VGA video card and compatible monitor are highly recommended for the current crop of RPGs and adventure games. Not only do most games make good use of high-end hardware ... they depend on it!

The first thing that I examine in any game is its player interface. Game controls should be (but rarely are) explicit in their functions, or at very least, be user-definable. It is frustrating enough wrestling with logic puzzles and the odd combat encounter, let alone trying to figure out which keyboard/joystick/mouse button/icon combination performs any intended task. The worst possible combination is that of ill-defined "hot zones" on the screen and left-click/right-click actions. Mindscape's Dragon Lore has a definite problem in this area, thus marring an otherwise appealing game. On the other hand, it is possible to have a mouse-driven interface that does the job properly: Origin's Ultima Underworld and System Shock are 3-D adventure/RPGs played from a first-person perspective. Both games have an intuitive point and click control system, providing access to character movement as well as a variety of other adventuring options from one central display screen. This is an important feature to look for, since a frustrating game is rarely enjoyable.

Am I playing an RPG or a Graphic Adventure?
On the face of it, the shade of difference between RPGs and adventure games is a matter of personal interpretation. As I see it, RPGs differ from adventures because they require a player's in-game persona(e) to be generated and/or modified prior to starting the scenario. Admittedly, some RPGs have a pool of pre-generated playing characters available, but their attributes should be subject to some form of modification as the plot unfolds. In this manner, a player is able to decide the fate of his or her character with greater precision, instead of being restricted to making an obvious series of right move/wrong move decisions.

RPGs generally have greater scope for experimentation. A strategy or action that works in one situation may not be suitable in the next encounter. A number of RPGs take factors like this into account, mainly for the sake of "realistic" non-player character (NPC) behaviour. In short, RPGs provide more complex alter-egos and immersive situations for players.

Games like id Software's Doom, Apogee's Rise of the Triad and even Origin's System Shock might be more correctly viewed as being arcade-style shoot-em-ups, even though they are played from a first-person perspective. Because there are no further character choices, complex interactions with NPCs or skill modifications available to the player, these games cannot be accurate examples of RPGs. In addition, female players are rarely represented, characters do not become more effective in combat unless they discover heavier firepower (no increase in skills!), and oddly enough, never need to eat, drink or sleep. Our brutally heroic Space Marine is, and will forever be, nothing more than a two-dimensional Arnold Schwarzenegger clone. Personally speaking, this is not a role to empathize with easily. Doom, and most games of that particular style also have a plethora of challenge-killing cheat codes that only serve to widen the gulf between plausible alternate realities and preposterous fantasy.

The essence of RPGs is found in a process called "character generation". Before a typical RPG adventure begins, players are presented with a variety of choices (species, gender, everyday occupation, spiritual alignment, etc.). From that point, you are required to "roll the dice" for the attributes and skills of your character(s), in the manner of the first pencil and paper version of Dungeons and Dragons (and other RPGs of that type). The computer generates a random number of points to fill each attribute, and if you are unhappy with the resulting figure, it may be altered to provide a slightly more viable character. This useful feature seems designed to forestall any embarrassingly short combat encounters, and has my official approval for all time. Any RPG character with a Strength of 8, Intelligence of 2, Dexterity of 5 and 10 "Hit Points" (basic health level) is unlikely to be much of an asset to the party. In fact, count on it.

Depending on the structure of your chosen RPG, you may find yourself in control of one to six (or more) characters. To have an effective adventuring party, each character's pool of skill-points should be expended on talents specialized to his or her function within the group, although a knowledge of essential talents like healing, swimming and defensive combat can be useful in most awkward situations. For example, in a "typical" archaic adventure, I would suggest playing with the following mix of bodies: Fighter, Magician/Fighter, Ranger or Archer, Thief, Healer, Magician. I favour magic-using classes in almost every RPG I play, even if they only become truly formidable in the last levels of the game. Chances are, they will have to be! Naturally, the same selection process works for any RPG's location and time-frame, although you may substitute "Technician" for "Magician" with a reasonable degree of confidence.

BROAD HINT: Never annoy a 15th-level magic-user. They hurt.

As a general rule, triple-class characters such as Fighter/Mage/Thief or Ranger/Cleric/Assassin (or whatever) are not a good idea to run with. If an RPG has a lot of intense combat integral to the plot, these unhappy hybrids have a fairly short lifespan ... unless you surround them with a solid phalanx of rather meaty single-class fighter characters, of course. They rise quite slowly in experience levels, since any bonus skill development points have to be split three ways. If your party absolutely HAS to have someone double-up on a skill, I suggest that ONE ONLY should be either a Fighter/Mage or a Fighter/Cleric. Any more "50 percenters" than that, and your party's chances of success/survival will be severely handicapped.

Realism in Role-Playing Games
Unlikely as it may seem in a fantasy setting, there is still a certain internal logic to the plot mechanism of an "average" RPG. For instance, a party of adventurers may only travel a certain distance per day, they can become tired, hungry, thirsty, poisoned, cursed, lost, diseased, wounded ... in fact, just about everything awkward one would expect from wandering around in dangerous lands. In some very rare cases, this attention to fine detail can actually detract from the game. Nowhere was this more the case than in Star Trail, one of the Realms Of Arkania series. Its characters fell sick from sleeping outdoors too long, boots wore out, swords snapped, characters wounded themselves during combat, magic and health points were slow to recover, and characters were subject to more physical restrictions than you may care to imagine. Suffice to say, I lost interest in that unwieldy game rather quickly. There is such a thing as a fantasy that is TOO "realistic".

The number of RPGs is legion. Exactly what may constitute a "good" entry-level game depends entirely on personal taste. There are games dealing with "sword and sorcery", Gothic horror, space exploration, law enforcement, military, espionage ... in fact, almost any adventure/fantasy theme conceivable. SSI produces a range of integrated Advanced Dungeons and Dragons RPGs, although there is really little to differentiate one title from the next. They are basically similar in content; most having a heads-up movement screen, switching to either an isometric 3-D display or top-down view of combat encounters. Occasionally, a first-person 3-D game may be available, but the majority of SSI RPGs stick to a standard format. However, SSI's Fantasy Fest! CD-ROM pack is extremely good value as a broad introduction to this genre.

Dungeon Hack, Betrayal At Krondor, Eye Of The Beholder trilogy, Crusaders Of The Dark Savant, Darkside Of Xeen, Wolf, Ultima Underworld, Menzoberranzan, Lands of Lore.

Adventure Games
In the context of computer gaming, an adventure is a quest. Recovering a lost artifact, finding a missing person, solving a murder mystery, or even setting a whole world in order are common themes, although it is not unknown for an adventure game to use any number of variations on the principle idea of people, items and information going mysteriously AWOL.

The very first games of this type were text based. To make any sense of these adventures, it was often necessary to draw a rough map of wherever your character travelled. Golden oldies like Adventure, Zork, The Leather Goddesses of Phobos and The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy relied solely upon the strength of their narrative, describing whatever scenery, people and items your character had discovered. Player commands were single words in early adventure games (NORTH, EXAMINE, GIVE, USE, EAT, FIGHT, etc.). As games evolved, these commands became more explicit (GO NORTH, EXAMINE WOODEN CRATE, TURN BRASS KEY IN LOCK, etc.), in order for players to envisage their "surroundings" more easily.

Many aspects of early adventures have carried over to their modern counterparts, although improvements in graphic displays and PC sound devices have taken over much of the storyteller's role. For the most part, even maps drawn on innumerable sheets of graph-paper (an invaluable dungeoneer's trick) are redundant, as many recent games use automaps and note-taking features as a matter of course. Lucky you!

One thing remains constant about adventure games: Puzzles. Whatever the situation, your character is required to use an odd assortment of items in solving a logic puzzle of some description. The watchword here is INGENUITY. If you have ever watched TV's MacGyver shows with any interest, his knack of gadgeteering a way out of tight situations can be worth imitating, especially when playing an adventure game. Games are replete with examples of lateral thinking, so you can count on every item in your character's inventory having more than one function.

For example: Sir Basil is trapped in a tiny prison cell. Its walls begin closing in on him. He has found a switch that shuts down the deadly mechanism. Unfortunately, it is on the other side of the corridor, and there is nothing in the cell that will reach it. His pack contains a lead musket ball, some twine, a bamboo flute and a 30 cm wooden rule. As the cell is very small (and getting smaller by the second!), he cannot swing his arms to throw anything at the switch through a barred opening in the door. How can he possibly escape?

Eco-Quest: The Search For Cetus, Inca I & II, Sam & Max Hit The Road, King's Quest series, Lost In Time, Entombed, Return To Zork, Relentless: Twinsen's Adventure, Goblin's Quest III, Inherit The Earth, Space Quest IV, Gabriel Knight: Sins Of The Father, Blue Force, Kronolog.

Rather than leave you dangling, here are two ways to do it.

  1. WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE DONE: (The MacGyver Solution).
    Using the twine, Sir Basil binds his flute firmly to the bars of the cell's spyhole. He pokes the musket ball half into the flute, holds the tip of the rule over the end of his loaded flute with one hand, then pulls it back with the other. On release, the ruler slaps smartly against the ball, shooting it straight down the "barrel" of the flute to strike the switch. All quite simple, really.
  2. WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: (The Deus ex machina Solution).
    Unknown to Sir Basil, his flute is special. Just before the walls meet, he notices a small hole in one of them. This hole emits a strong air current. Working quickly, he inserts the flute into this hole, then sits back to await his demise in a fitting manner. The draught plays an unearthly tune, summoning an earth elemental from the floor of his cell. It pushes back the walls, smashes the door, then blocks his path, demanding a morsel of food by way of payment. Sir Basil gives the elemental his musket ball, then sets off to garrotte a gaolkeeper with the length of twine. After scaring a savage guard-beast off with a bull-roarer improvised from his ruler and twine, Sir Basil confronts and finally kills the evil wizard with a handy enchanted grenade-launcher (unearthed by the elemental's entrance), only leaving one last headlong dash through a deadly rain of crumbling masonry between him and freedom!

Remember: Think sideways to reality, and enjoy the ride!

Copyright © Lee Perkins 1995. All rights reserved.