Aeonite writes "Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-playing Games chronicles the rise and fall of the Computer RPG industry, from Akalabeth to Zelda and everything in between. While the bulk of the book is devoted to the genre's 'Golden Age' in the late '80s and early '90s, author Matt Barton explores the entire history of CRPGs, from their origins in the mid '70s to the very recent past. While not entirely comprehensive, the book covers not only the major players and award-winners, but also dozens of obscure 'also-ran' as well as notable games in related genres." Keep reading for the rest of Michael's review.Barton first defines the genre, insofar as one is able to do so, explaining that a CRPG generally includes elements such as: a system of statistics to track characters (ability scores and skills); the ability to advance characters via experience points; and randomized combat. Barton further attempts to define the genre by comparing CRPGs to what they are not, including JRPGs (Final Fantasy), MMORPGs (World of Warcraft), Adventure Games (Zork), and Strategy Games (Warcraft). A bit later, he explores the origins of the CRPG, listing Baseball Simulation Games (such as Strat-O-Matic), Tabletop wargames (Chainmail), Tolkien, Colossal Cave Adventure, and (of course) Dungeons & Dragons as having had an impact on the creation and evolution of the genre.
The next nine chapters of the book are devoted to the history of the CRPG, which Barton breaks down into six phases, somewhat akin to Hesiod's Five Ages.
The Dark Age covers the period of time from 1974 through the end of the decade, and includes PLATO and Mainframe games such as pedit, Dungeon, dnd and DND (not to be confused with each other, or with D&D or D&D), Oubliette, Moria, Avatar and Orthanc. Also included here, somewhat out of chronological order, are a discussion of Rogue and Rougelikes (Hack, Moria and Angband) and MUDs all the way through to 1989's TinyMUD. The Bronze Age of the CRPG begins in 1979 with the publication of Lord British's Akalabeth: World of Doom (which would go on to sell thousands of copies, making it the first commercially successful CRPG, if not exactly the first) and includes a host of obscure titles, including Wizards Castle, Eamon, Space and Empire, The Tarturian, Odyssey: The Complete Apventure, and Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai. In 1983, Bronze turns to Silver with the appearance of the Ultima and WIzardry trilogies, games which truly began to lay the groundwork for all that came after. Also mentioned in this chapter are less well-known games such as Sword of Fargoal, Dungeons of Daggorath, Tunnels of Doom, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Universe.
The Golden Age dawns in 1985, bringing with it the refinement of prior ideas and the perfection of the genre's underlying systems. Barton divides coverage of this age into three chapters. The first covers the Early Golden Age, beginning with the console crash of 1983 and ending with the arrival of the NES in 1985. The CRPG market survived the crash rather unscathed, and in fact flourished thanks to games such as Phantasie, The Wizard's Crown, Ultima IV, and Autoduel. Most notable of all, of course, was 1985's The Bard's Tale, which spawned two sequels (three, if you count 2004's "spiritual sequel" starring Carey Elwes), both of which also receive some attention here.
It is here where the book's structure begins to drift a bit. By Barton's own admission, progress in the CRPG industry is "neither linear nor orderly," and in fact the attempt to align CRPG titles, trilogies and series along a single timeline almost necessarily breaks down. The Bard's Tale trilogy seems as if it would more properly be discussed in the next chapter (The Golden Age Part I). Instead, Barton calls it "The Dawn of the Golden Age" and places it about a third of the way into the "Early Golden Age" chapter, where it somewhat loses some of its impact. Further confusion surrounds the inclusion here of Might and Magic Book I: Secrets of the Inner Sanctum; published in 1986, it is not only followed by a discussion of Alternate Reality: The City (published in 1985), but is preceded by a lengthy discussion of several games which came after it, including The Magic Candle (1989) and Bloodstone (1993). While the author has thematic reasons for covering these games here, one wonders if a strict chronological order would have served better. Even Barton seems a bit off track when he invites the reader to "turn to the second half of the Golden Age," which runs from 1987 to 1993 (for those not keeping track, the first "half" only ran from 1983 to 1985). I don't mean to nitpick over throwaway segue lines, but in a book with a historical focus, the time-shifting is just a bit disconcerting.
Regardless, "The Golden Age Part I" covers the period of time that many consider to be the era of the CRPG, when companies like SSI, Origin, Interplay, and New World Computing dominated not just the CRPG industry, but the computer game industry as a whole. Ample coverage is justifiably given to SSI's Gold Box games, including Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Secret of the Silver Blades, and Pools of Darkness. Somewhat curious (to me) is the omission here of any discussion of AD&D Second Edition, which was released in 1989 and officially introduced the concept of THAC0 (which appeared in Pool of Radiance). Other titles covered in this lengthy chapter include: SSI's Krynn trilogy and Savage Frontier games; the original Neverwinter Nights on AOL; Ultima V, VI and VII; Wizardry VI and VII; Might and Magic II, III and so on; Neuromancer; and Interplay's Wasteland.
The next chapter, "The Golden Age Part II," is devoted to JRPGs and groundbreaking CRPGs with real-time 3d graphics that appeared alongside the aforementioned CRPGs. Covered here in the JRPG category are games such as: The Legend of Zelda and its sequels; The Dragon Warrior series; Final Fantasy; Chrono Trigger; Super Mario RPG; and the Phantasy Star series. The chapter also covers Sierra On-Line's Quest for Glory series; the SSI Black Box games (including Eye of the Beholder); Dungeon Master ("the most successful Atari ST game ever released") and its many clones; and other notable genre-bending games including Beyond Zork and Star Saga.
Here again, we fall into a small hole in the timeline, for The Golden Age ends in 1993 and the next age doesn't begin until 1996. The chapter covering this black hole is called "The Bigger They Come," as if suggesting that Barton was unwilling to give a name to this second Dark Age of CRPGs. Here we see coverage of a variety of bad CRPGs, including Interplay's Descent to Undermountain, Ultima VIII and IX, and the Gothic series (which surely deserves more than the two paragraphs it gets). Covered in more depth is SSI's fall from grace following the publication of an assortment of sub-par D&D titles (including Spelljammer, Dark Sun, Al Qadim, and others) and the ensuing loss of their license with TSR. Some attention might have been paid to the "fall from grace" of TSR itself, which suffered financial ruin in the years that followed and was ultimately purchased by WOTC in 1997.
Ever the optimist, Barton instead moves rapidly into The Platinum Age, which covers the period of time from 1996 to 2001 and includes "the best CRPGs ever made." Covered here in some depth are games such as Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale and its sequel, Dungeon Siege, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, Might and Magic: The Mandate of Heaven, Dungeon Keeper, Arx Fatalis, Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series, Interplay's Fallout and Fallout 2, and Troika's Arcanum. The bulk of the chapter, however, is devoted to two games and their sequels: Blizzard's Diablo and Diablo II, which the author treats with noteworthy disdain, and Bioware's Baldur's Gate and its sequel, which Barton believes is "the best CRPG ever made."
While both games receive more or less equal time, it is a bit hard to swallow Barton's dislike for Diablo in the context of a historical overview; nowhere else does he editorialize quite so much, or so vividly. While at first he simply declares that Diablo's consideration as a CRPG "remains a divisive subject," he quickly moves on to less thinly-veiled potshots. At one point, he refers to "hordes of badly behaved teenagers (and middle-aged men, no doubt) scampering to Battle.net, 'pwning' each other and seeking out the latest cheats and hacks to gain an unfair advantage." Later, Barton expresses a "pang of regret over the overwhelming triumph of (the Diablo) series, since it seems to have come at the expense of the older, more sophisticated CRPGs of past eras." He insists that Baldur's Gate "offers much more strategy than Diablo," and argues that Baldur's Gate's multiplayer "helped the game compete against Diablo, whose Battle.net servers had become a swirling vortex for Daddy's money." I don't even know what that means — how can a free service be a vortex for money? The entire argument smacks of something one might find in a Penny Arcade comic strip, such as this one or this one. At the end of the book, Barton goes so far as to predict that "the real-time Diablo and Morrowind-style CRPGs that were so popular throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s seem fated to extinction, usurped by World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs." In the wake of all the buzz surrounding Diablo III's announcement in recent days, this prediction seems slightly premature.
Barton ends the book with a discussion of the Modern Age, "which we are in today." The chapter covers Neverwinter Nights and its sequel, as well as Vampire: The Masquerade and Bloodlines, and Knights of the old Republic and its sequel. After a mention of Fable, Oblivion, more Final Fantasies and Zeldas, and a discussion of why console-based CRPGs seem to be winning out, Barton closes out the book with a look at MMORPGS, from Meridian 59 through WOW and DDO (and every major title in between). He notes (quite properly, in my opinion) that an MMO like WOW has trouble handling a central story and plot as adeptly as a CRPG can, and points out several "emerging trends" concerning CRPGs, including the rise of online gaming, the tendency to announce the death of the standalone, single-player CRPG and — just because we can never have too many digs at Diablo — a mention of the increasing emphasis on action over strategy. "Whereas Ultima Online stressed role-playing, Diablo emphasized roll-playing," says Barton.
Of course, it is Barton's voice which makes the book entertaining; this is no dry history, but the enlightened point of view of a student of CRPGs, shared with the reader in a casual, accessible manner; in many ways, it is a bold manifesto in their defense. Says Barton: "CRPGs are not only the most fun and addictive type of computer game, but possibly the best learning tool ever designed." You may disagree with that, but you can never dispute the author's own dedication to that belief.
Despite the book's somewhat questionable chronological structuring (or, more correctly, its occasional deviations from that structure), the only major flaw worth noting is that the accompanying artwork is, to put it mildly, hideous. The original full-color screenshots look wonderful in Barton's Gamasutra column, but in the book they are mostly reprinted in muddy, blotchy black and white, making it impossible to determine what they depict even with the help of accompanying captions. The book does contain a color insert after page 208, but this 4-page, 8-picture centerpiece is at best forgettable — I flipped past it entirely while reading, and found that upon further review I hadn't missed anything by skipping over it.
Dungeons and Desktops is a mixed bag, somewhat akin to a sack full of Halloween candy. There are some genuinely good pieces of sweetness in there, as well as a great deal of hidden, forgotten gems and some bits you never knew existed. Despite a bit of a jumble towards the middle, taken as a whole the book is well worth picking up if you're a fan of CRPGs or fantasy games in general. Less die-hard fans might find themselves preferring to stick to Barton's Gamasutra columns, and Diablo fans might find themselves gritting their teeth at some points, but then every bag of candy's got a few pieces of black licorice in it, no?
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