The evolution of the RPG

From its humble text adventure origins, to the quest that awaits in Dragon Age: Inquisition, the RPG has come a long way...

The Role Playing Game, or RPG, is one of the most popular, and enduring genres in video games, and continuous to grow stronger and stronger, making the most of the various advances in technology. It’s spawned many sub-genres and regional variations, such as the JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game), and RPG mechanics have found their way into other types of game, including FPS, action adventures, and even sports. The deeper mechanics, and more personal progression RPG’s allow enhances almost any game, and gives many a bigger sense of achievement, as you’re not simply advancing through levels or quests, but improving your own character, which is often designed and named by you. It’s your hero, your adventure, and so you’re far more invested than playing a generic soldier, unrealistically busty heroine, or faceless protagonist.

Of course, with the more simplistic technology available, the RPG wasn’t always the impressive romp around amazing virtual worlds we have today, and the likes of Skyrim, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age were far away. In many ways, though, the core basics of the RPG have always been present, whilst the genre as a whole has arguably grown more than nay other. Se, let’s have a look at this evolution, which has lead us all the way to the upcoming release of Dragon Age Inquisition.

Emergence

It’s common knowledge that video game RPGs have taken inspiration from the table top game, Dungeons & Dragons. From the first RPG titles all the way through to today’s releases, the classic pen and paper pastime has been a source of guidance, and some games even use official D&D rules. This was the case for what many consider to be the very first RPG video game, Colossal Cave Adventure, also known simply as Adventure. Created by Will Crowther, this was a text-based adventure set in a real life cave formation. He created a version of this game for the PDP-10 with collaborator, Don Woods, who contributed fantasy elements to the previously realistic title, and thus the game many would say paved the way for the fantasy RPG was born.

It was a simple game, a classic text adventure like the kind that would become very popular in the 80s, but it’s considered by many, thanks to the fantasy element, to be a forerunner of the modern RPG.

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For the first RPG that most would recognise as such, and as a real role playing game, we come to the likes of the classic Ultima and Wizardry series on the Apple 2 in 1981. Ultima in particular has become renowned for being one of the longest running and most successful RPGs around. It brought with it a simple visual style, which was still impressive at the time, and the RPG staples of playable characters, large, open worlds, all sorts of nasties to encounter and fight, gold to find, and items to buy. It’s all simple, basic stuff now, but Ultima, Wizardry, The Bard’s Tale and their ilk broke new ground introducing this, and these were many veteran gamers’ first look at RPGs.

The foundation of the RPG was laid during this time. Character levelling, looting, dungeon crawling, it was all basic, but was first demonstrated here, and these are all staple feature that have remained to this very day.

The basic, top down perspective of early RPGs eventually made the leap to a more 3D perspective, most famously with 1987’s Dungeon Master. This was released on a range of platforms, including the Atari ST, Amiga, PC, and even eventually the SNES. It put the player firmly in the boots of a team of four adventurers, with the action viewed from a first person perspective. Now you really were in the thick of it, seeing all of the action through your own eyes. The result was incredible, and it quickly became a bit hit. It was also one of the new breed of RPGs that introduced the players to a party of heroes, instead of just one lone warrior. Here you could choose up to four different heroes, with the traditional roles including such things as warriors, wizards, assassins and thieves.

Dungeon Master wasn’t a first person title as we known them now, but was a grid-based affair which let you move in four directions, able to rotate your view. Combat was simple, but satisfying, and there was a big emphasis on looting and inventory management, as well as the epic dungeon crawl the game was centred around. There were quite a few clones of DM around afterwards, including The Eye Of The Beholder, and most recently the impressive Legends Of Grimrock has embraced DM‘s classic formula. For a more open world RPG adventure, though, we turn to one of the most pivotal titles ever released, in any genre, and that’s Nintendo’s Legend Of Zelda, released a year before Dungeon Master, in 1986.

Triforce

Arguably the first major console RPG to be successful, Zelda may not be a traditional RPG, and more of an action adventure, but it does feature many aspect of the RPG framework, and introduced even more.

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For one, the main character, Link, gets stronger as he progresses, able to find and use various items, and he explores a range of dungeons. The game also featured a large (for the time) overworld map, and a more open approach, with many tricky puzzles and secrets. The game was so big Nintendo even introduced the first ever battery-assisted save system, something that would become a permanent fixture for all games, battery-aided or not.

The same year also saw the first real turn-based JRPG. This was Enix’s Dragon Quest, which still endures today. It featured the familiar turn-based combat so many RPGs in the genre still use, including another massively popular series.

A year later, in 1987, another major RPG franchise would rise, in the form of Squresoft’s Final Fantasy, which arrived on the NES. You’re probably familiar with it by now, as it’s had more sequels and spin-offs than you’ve had hot dinners, but long before the mainstream success of Final Fantasy VII, it was making turn-based JRPG action popular, if only in a more underground, genre-specific way. It also introduced much larger worlds and more complex mechanics, taking plenty of ideas from Dragon Quest. It’s fitting then, than the two companies would eventually merge to become Square Enix.

Meanwhile, back on computer, the RPG genre was going from strength to strength, and the arrival of the first official D&D video game only helped to bolster it further. Pool Of Radiance by SSI used D&D rules, and you could create your own party of six heroes, also using the D&D rule set. It featured numerous side quests alongside the main story, and an advanced, tactical combat system. Visually, it looked similar in many ways to Ultima, but the core gameplay was far more advanced. The importance here, though, was D&D‘s crossover to the digital world. This really opened the floodgates, attracting many hardcore D&D tabletop players.

Diabolic

The RPG genre continued to produce titles at a steady rate, but it was fairly quiet on the major release side for many, that is, until the mid-90s, when Blizzard released Diablo. Quickly hailed as one of the best RPGs ever Diablo had all of the RPG staples, but focused on one system in particular, loot. This game was a looter’s best friend, and slaying foes and besting bosses wasn’t solely for experience, but also to find increasingly better gear, of which there was a a ton. This made for gameplay that was addictive in a different, very unique way, and is a system that’s been used many times since in Diablo‘s sequels as well as many other RPGs, and other genres. The FPS Borderlands is one perfect example. Diablo also made another couple of major contributions to the RPG genre, and that’s introducing decent multiplayer, which was great, and the random generation of dungeons. This was a full-on RPG that more than one person could experience at a time, and it was different every time. Bliss.

Another mid-90s RPG that made major waves was Baldur’s Gate by BioWare and Black Isle Studios. Whilst Diablo was often seen as a more arcade-style action RPG, Baldur’s Gate was the polar opposite, and was a far more complex and traditional RPG. It was simply huge, and embodied everything about the RPG. It was possibly the richest and most complete RPG to that point, and this is where we can see the most similarities to many of today’s RPGs, including the classic Neverwinter Knights, and Dragon Age, both from BioWare. It was a game designed for the true RPG hardcore, who wanted to lose themselves in a fantasy world for days and weeks on end. As well as Diablo and Baldur’s Gate, the same period also saw the debut of one of today’s most successful and popular RPGs, and that’s The Elder Scrolls.

The Elder Scrolls: Arena was the first game in the series, and even in its early guise, it was clear what direction Bethesda wanted the game to take. Arena was a huge first person, real-time RPG. Set in a massive world (the whole of Tamriel), it let you create your own character and chart your own course through the world with few restrictions.

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Visually, it was primitive by today’s standards, but on release the 3D first person view was unlike most other RPGs. Similar to the previous year’s Ultima Underworld, the game let you see your adventure from a smooth, real-time first person view, not the tile-based, limited manner of Dungeon Master. You could explore the wilderness, dungeons, and even towns full of NPCs. It was a world the likes of which we’d never seen before, and even in its first outing was a complex, and accomplished RPG.

Seven

For western console owners not privy to the plethora of RPGs that continued to saturate the eastern market, most of which we would never see officially on our shores, one console RPG stands above all others, and that’s Final Fantasy VII. Undoubtedly the biggest reason the JRPG-style turn-based RPG formula became so popular in the west, Final Fantasy VII was a sublime RPG experience. The impressive visuals that combined pre-rendered environments and FMV with polygonal characters were draped over rock solid turn-based combat, a large, open world, great characters, and a deceptively complex RPG system. As well as individual character progression through normal XP, the Materia system made magic using flexible and user-customisable. The introduction of summons was also an eye-catcher, and a focus on large, powerful boss creatures, with long, difficult confrontations also helped to evolve the genre in terms of spectacle. It also boasted a great story, with genuinely emotional moments.

Final Fantasy VII’s influence was huge, and spearheaded a new wave of RPGs, which persists to this day, and the growth of today’s JRPG popularity can arguably be traced back to Square’s classic.

The same year also saw the arrival of another major name in the RPG, and one that also made advances, and that’s Fallout (spiritual successor to Wasteland). The original entry in the series wasn’t an FPS, like Fallout 3, but was a turn-based strategy title with heavy RPG elements. Battles were similar in some ways to the XCOM series, and players had limited action points to use in each confrontation. It also introduced the perks system, alongside the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. character progression system that would become a series staple.

Many hardcore Fallout fans would say the Interplay originals are the best outings of the game, and it’s not hard to see why, as they embrace the D&D-style RPG system far more than the later, Bethesda releases.

Hybrids

Jumping ahead to the turn of the century, or just a year before. One of the most critically acclaimed games of all time arrived, and set a new benchmark for the possibilities of the RPG. Looking Glass Studios released the superb System Shock 2 in 1999, and whilst the original game had many impressive features, setting up the sequel, it was the second outing that really hit the sweet spot. The game perfectly fused RPG, FPS, and survival horror, and is still one of the most tense and absorbing titles ever created. The RPG elements weren’t overshadowed by the FPS play, as can happen quite easily in other titles. Here, gunplay took a back seat to RPG character development, the use of special abilities, and the need to carefully plan out how you wanted your hero to grow. The game may have spawned BioShock, which is far heavier on the shooting side, with limited RPG content, but System Shock 2 has some of the best hybrid RPG gameplay you’ll ever see.

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A year later, another FPS/RPG hybrid arrived, and this is largely considered to be the best game ever made by many, and that’s not an exaggeration. Ion Storm’s Deus Ex continued the style of System Shock 2, but placed a greater emphasis on freedom, and the ability to tackle situations as you saw fit. All the time, you had full control over how JC Denton, the main protagonist, evolved, and which skills he would develop. It was also one of the first examples of the now staple RPG mechanic of character interaction.

Here, you could meet and talk with NPCs, choosing your responses to their questions, and your actions in the game actually affected your standing with some characters, a feature that would go on into many of today’s RPGs.

Multiplayer is massive

Around the same time, the online RPG was starting to gain a real foothold, and a new age of role playing was beginning. Two of the earliest, most popular examples of this has to be Ultima Online, and the later release, Everquest. These two games took the solo RPG experience, and thrust players into vast, online worlds where players teamed up and adventured together. These titles, and their plentiful successors, were, and still are possibly the most faithful in terms of play to the original D&D RPG, as they placed groups of friends together, living out their adventures as a team, or guild, just like the tabletop original.

The pinnacle of the MMORPG is, of course, World Of Warcraft, which has enjoyed highs and lows in its time, but remains the most popular online RPG of them all. Other notable entries include Guild Wars, EVE Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Elder Scrolls Online, and Final Fantasy.

Contemporary questing

This brings us to the RPGs of the last few years, and here we’ve seen even more changes, as well as old traditions being continued. BioWare has continued to lead the way in this regard, and with 2007’s Mass Effect being yet another successful blending of RPG and other game styles. Mixing RPG elements with cover-based third person shooting and a sci-fi universe, the game was a personal journey that focused heavily on player choice and the ramifications of those choices. This would continue over the original trilogy, producing one of the most unique, and successful RPG series of all time.

The same year, The Witcher also arrived, and like Mass Effect, this mixed RPG with action gameplay, this time melee combat, and also focused on choice and consequence. It was a sleeper hit, coming out of nowhere, and already it’s a favourite amongst RPG gamers, with the third outing due next year.

2008 saw the release of Fallout 3, which took the series from the older style of the originals, and thrust it into Elder Scrolls-style first person role playing, and it did so to plenty of critical acclaim. Like BioWare’s Mass Effect, Fallout 3 gave players the chance to interact more personally with NPCs, and develop their character in more ways than simple XP. Choices could be made, including the destruction of an entire town, and your actions, would change future events, in a large and densely packed world.

In 2009 BioWare struck gold once more, this time in a more traditional fantasy world. Dragon Age: Origins was an RPG purist’s dream. It did away with a lot of the modern conventions, such as first person views and action-based combat, and replaced it with more D&D-style content, like more strategic conflicts that focused on skills and character classes instead of your fast reactions, and it also played much more in the style of classics like Baldur’s Gate. It had several character classes, with their own back stories and origins, and a large world to explore, with a deep, lore-heavy story to unravel. It’s widely considered to be amongst the best modern RPGs.

The same year a totally different RPG experience was released, and that was Demon’s Souls. Now known in its Dark Souls guise, and soon in the upcoming Bloodborne, this was a hardcore, action RPG that placed challenge and skill above all else. Not an RPG in the traditional sense, it still features a customisable character, and a levelling system that includes all of the staples of the genre. For pure RPG fans, though, this isn’t really the best option to go for, despite being a superb series.

Enter 2011’s Skyrim, the latest game in The Elder Scrolls series, and possibly the best example of open world RPGs you can find. It’s won more awards than we’d care to mention, and it seen by most as the current pinnacle of single-player, open world RPGs. The sheer scale of the world, coupled with an unrivalled amount of content, all wrapped up in old and new RPG mechanics make for a sublime mix. It possesses most of the features we’ve seen arrive in the genre, from user-created heroes, character progression, NPC interaction, impact on the world, freedom of choice, and much more. In fact, you could say that Skyrim is the most advanced and impressive RPG ever released, but is his about to change?

This month, on November 18 in the US (November 21 in Europe) we’ll see the arrival of BioWare’s next entry into the Dragon Age series, Dragon Age: Inquisition. Our road along the evolution of the RPG has brought us to this point, and with BioWare learning from its impressive track record, as well as mistakes made with the second Dragon Age, Inquisition looks like it could ignite the genre again, just as Origins did on its release.

Inquisition will return to the solid foundations laid by Origins, but will feature a larger, more open world, and combat that once again focuses on planning and the use of character and class abilities. And, as you’re the leader of the Inquisition, you’ll have more choices than ever before, with your decisions affecting the world in ways we’ve not seen thus far. We can’t wait.

Dragon Age: Inquisition will be released for Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PC.

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