Wandering in Virtual Landscapes



Some Thoughts About the Early Days of Computer Role Playing Games

By Leslie Evans

Computer games for those over fifty who were not tech adopters are mostly an alien terrain, viewed as the morally questionable province of teenage boys. There is some truth to that, but it is also true that the whole of this interactive computer entertainment field, which includes computer games proper, video games played on a console attached to a television set, and coin operated arcade machines hit $9.9 billion in 2004 in the United States alone, taking in more money than movie theaters, excepting the sale of popcorn.

That number is tossed out to try to command respect from nonplayers, although it conflates together a wide variety of technologies, entertainment experiences, and subgenres. What they share in common is interactivity, an element missing from films. While it can't be denied that films are better written, where computer games have any writing in them at all, and provide a deeper moral experience, the computer experience offers the player the ability to become an actor or mostly THE actor in the situation or story.

I am frankly a player not a technician. My perspective is as a consumer, not a designer, and as one who came to this stuff early in its development but late in life. Also my own interest has pursued one strand of the many in this field: medieval fantasy role playing games, RPGs in the shorthand of the genre. Since the early days of the computer game field at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s as graphic technology was first added and then rapidly developed, the various genres solidified: flight, ship, submarine, and giant robot simulators; first-person shooters; hex-based war games; point-and-click adventures; sports simulations; life simulations, notably the Sims; adaptations of traditional board and card games; a wide range of turn-based and real-time strategy games such as Sid Meier's Civilization and the lengthy Warcraft series, and more recently the online persistent worlds of massively multiplayer games such as Everquest, Ultima Online, and Dark Age of Camelot among many, some of which have thousands of people online at the same time. There are even people who make their living brokering game objects such as magical armor and swords for real money, where buyers pay with credit cards to meet purveyors in the game world to collect their merchandise, which can only be used in the game world. There is even a more or less official exchange rate between American dollars and the currencies used in the game worlds.

I am picking out onetype among these and ignoring the rest: single player fantasy role playing games.

Infocom and the Commodore 64

My first computer was a Commodore 64, which I bought in the late summer of 1983, a year after they were first released. This proved to be the largest-selling computer of all time, down to the present day. The Apple II had been around longer and already had its own backlog of software game titles.

To pay for my Commodore I sold a 9mm Walther PPK pistolI had purchased from a hard-bitten iron miner on the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota. I have sometimes regretted that I parted with the Walther and did not find some other way to finance my entrance into the personal computer world.

My Commodore came with a single external disk drive that could write 170K on a single-sided 5-1/4 inch floppy disk. It had a monochrome orangey monitor. The advertised 64K -- 64,000 bytes of RAM compared to the 2 gigabytes or 2 billion bytes of memory in my current computer -- had to first load the operating system, written in an amazingly small 25K of code, leaving 39K of usable memory. No hard drive. The main application was a pretty nifty word processor called PaperClip which could do all the basic things a word processor should, except it could only save 11 pages of text in a single file. There was some cumbersome way to chain files together for printing to keep the page numbers flowing on longer documents, but when you read an 80 page printout and needed to correct something you had to try to remember if the error was in file 5, 6, or 7 and usually had to open all three before finding the mistake. Oh, and the screen displayed a line only 40 characters wide.

The Commodore was also a game machine. It had the fastest graphics of its time and a music synthesizer to boot. Fascinated with the various things the computer could do, and somehow suspecting in that pre-Internet age that some level of real intelligence lurked behind all of its clever programs, I began to buy or copy games.

The outstanding game was Zork: The Great Underground Empire. This was, for those who missed them, a text adventure. No graphics. Just words on the screen. It was written by Marc Blank and David Lebling and a few others on a mainframe at MIT in 1977-79. It had to be broken up into three separate games to run on the Commodore 64, the Apple II, and the Atari.

Zork I begins with the now-famous lines:

"West of House: You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door."

The game accepted typed-in commands such as north, south, down (when there was a staircase), pick up (the lantern, the sword, etc.). There was a way into the house through a back window. One of the rooms contained a rug on the floor and if you thought of typing "move rug" you would be rewarded with the message: "There is a trap-door in the floor." Open the trap door, go down, and you were off into the underground empire. Be sure to carry a lighted lantern or the grues would get you. Somewhere lurking in the vast caverns there was also a thief who would steal the treasures you collected. There were puzzles: turning multiple wheels in one room of an installationopened floodgates and drained a passage a few rooms awaythat would let you into a new area of the underground kingdom. There were inscriptions here and there honoring the long-gone monarch, Lord Dimwit Flathead.

The game, taking up little space since everything was just words, contained 110 rooms and 60 distinct objects, most of which could be picked up and added to the player's inventory. There was a sense of mystery and exhilarating exploration as you wandered from one room to another, encountered trolls, all described to you by the flowing text. The game's parser presented a special challenge: what did it expect you to write to get something to happen? This could be extremely frustrating when nothing seemed to work, but gratifying when you hit on the right phrase to get to the next cave or throne room.

Blank and Lebling in 1979 had founded their own game company, Infocom, which marketed the three installments of the Zork trilogy and then wrote many more, such as Deadline, a mystery; Planetfall, science fictionfeaturing a robot companion named Floyd; Enchanter; and Witness. All of these were intriguing but the one that made the greatest impression on me was "A Mind Forever Voyaging" written by Steve Meretzky and released in 1985.

The premise was that you thought you were a human but were told that you were really a computer. You had, you thought, lived in a small town which proved to be a computer simulation. You were now asked to return to the "town" to record the projected effects of a piece of congressional legislation that would be a major reorganization of the American political system. The first simulation was a projection 10 years in the future to look for effects of the social reorganization. Everything was fine, you made your report, and the legislation was approved by Congress. Next you were sent 20 years ahead, but this time things were starting to go wrong. At 30 years everything was terrible, which you experienced by typing in directional commands that took you from intersection to intersection in the imaginary town, or into a few accessible buildings. Here is a sample of the 30-year mark. The sentences in all caps are your commands:

Broadway & Devon
Entrance to Base Devon Street, which continues to the south, ends here at the gate to the National Guard base for this sector of the city. On the west side of the street is a large, imposing building. To the east is Devon Park. The front page of a newspaper is pinned against the fence of the base by the wind.
(taking the newspaper first) The headline story is about President Mazzotta's defense of the Martial Law Board's decision to lower the mandatory euthanasia age to 55. "Without this ruling," the President is quoted as saying, "we'd have a full-fledged famine by the end of next year." The President agreed that it was a difficult and unpopular step, but blamed it on decades of neglect by previous administrators. The article ends with a reminder that everyone over the age of 55 has two weeks to report to a Euthanasia Center.

I remember vividly entering the town zoo and finding a poster that read "Monkey torturing, 2 pm in the primate cage." The point was not the writing in the game but your own seeking out each location and piecing together what was going on.

Adventure Games: Sierra's King's Quest Series

In the early days of computer gaming the companies were small and personal. Roberta Williams, unusual in the industry as a woman game designer, founded Sierra software with her husband and business manager Ken and launched the King's Quest series in 1984. These were graphic adventure stories with color pictures on the screen. Your character could walk across the pictured landscape and exit at fixed points where there were roads or doorways. Certain few objects could be picked up or activated by finding the hot spot on the screen and clicking on it -- hence the term point-and-click adventures.

King's Quest 1 came out in 1984, but I only dipped into the series in 1986 when the third installment was released. As a general rule in game software, unlike movies when sequels are repetitive and usually worse than the original, because of rapid technological innovation most series improved with each new episode. The graphics got better, the stories more complex, more objects could be activated, and the level of realism rose year after year.

In 1986 the computer of the day was the IBM 286, a whiz-bang system with 640K of memory and a 20 meg hard drive. The monitors were the EGA standard -- grainy color in 16 shades only -- introduced in 1984, which would be replaced with more or less the current VGA standard in 1987. I started with episode 3 and bought the next two as they came out in 1988 and 1990. By King's Quest V in 1990 the screens had a kind of Walt Disney style of fairy tale animation with ambitious background music and a fairly coherent plot. My response to them was mixed. I appreciated the more elaborate situations, artwork, dialogue, and music, but found them frustrating because of the limited number of choices, the lack of freedom of movement, and the frequent stalemates when you couldn't figure out what to click on to get the story to move forward. In the end I abandoned the adventure genre, although with some regret as the stories, which became fewer in the 1990s and 2000s, clearly became much more complex over the years (as per the reviews of the very tempting Syberia series of recent years).

SSI's Gold Box Series

Moving in another direction was SSI's series of dungeon and dragons games in its famous Gold Box series. Again, I only touched this series briefly, with its Champions of Krynn, released in June 1990. These were adaptations of pen and paper role playing games incorporating the elaborate D&D rules for character advancement. Using an already antiquated EGA crude graphic format, to permit the game to run on the Commodore 64 as well as the IBM and Radio Shack's TRS 80 (known affectionately as the Trash 80), the Gold Box series let you maneuver a party of four over a sketchy landscape to accomplish various missions.

Generally by convention your party included a knight, a mage, a cleric good for healing, and usually a character good with a bow. Your mages had an affiliation as good, evil, or neutral, and their orientation increased or decreased their power with the phases of the moon. Also by convention, the party moved in a square formation with your fighters in the front row and the weaker mage and bowman in the back. Clerics could fight with blunt weapons such as maces or cast healing spells. Setpiece battles would occur as you crossed the terrain and suddenly encountered an enemy party. Winning a turn-based battle was a matter of careful strategy.

Exploring Brittania: Lord British and the Ultima Series

The two games that I spent the most time with in the nineties were Ultima VI by the Origin company of Austin, Texas, the sixth episode of a long series whose earlier installments I had missed; and Daggerfall, second in the Elderscrolls series by Bethesda Softworks of Rockville, Maryland. Except for the theme of adventuring in a large territory and using swords and magic these two projects explored opposite ends of how to construct a computer role playing game.

Origin, and its founder Richard Garriott, created their own mythos in a way absolutely unique among computer gaming companies. They were the Arthur and his round table of the industry where everyone else were only gamers and programmers. Garriott was born in Cambridge, England, to an American astronaut father who was also a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford, and a mother who was a professional artist and silver smith

In high school in Texas Garriott was nicknamed Lord British because of his English accent. He studied computer programming on his own, writing one of the first computer role playing games, Akalabeth, when he was nineteen for the Apple II. Sales of this were in plastic baggies, but it made so much money that Garriott dropped out of college to found his own game company, Origin Systems, in Austin, Texas. Origin under Garriott's leadership produced the long-running Ultima series.

At the height of the series popularity in the 1990s Garriott built a 4,500-square-foot hilltop house outside Austin, complete with dungeons, secret passageways, a moat, an indoor swimming pool with artificial rain effects, an observatory, and, in the backyard,a 1,150-foot-long suspension bridge. An amateur scientist, Garriott tracked gorillas in Rwanda, canoed down the Amazon, hunted for meteorites in Antarctica, flew a MiG jet in Russia, and dived to view the Titanic in a submersible with his girlfriend. He would appear at trade shows dressed as Lord British, and cut a striking figure in his doublet and crown.

He was an active member of the Society for Creative Anachronisms, a sort of Renaissance Fair organization. He freely incorporated friends into the story line of his games, which made them a kind of role playing roman a clef. The fantasy land in which the Ultima series is set was originally named Sosaria. Over time it comes to be ruled by Lord British, Richard Garriott's alter ego, and is renamed Britannia. In Ultima V Lord British is imprisoned and the country falls into the hands of the tyrant Blackthorne. The goal of the episode is to unseat Blackthorne, which gamer legend had it was a real associate of Garriottt's with whom he had a falling out.

Richard Garriott

I arrived in Britannia with Ultima VI. The convention of the series was that you play the Avatar, who is called to Britannia from the United States by Lord British when there is a national crisis. The party your Avatar leads can have various members but usually includesthe old knight Dupre, said to be modeled on a man Garriott knew in the Society of Creative Anachronisms. Then there was the young blond fighter Shamino, a name transposed from Garriott's Japanese Shimano bicycle. The third was Iolo, a bowman.

In Ultima VI your party also included a mouse, that is literally a small rodent, named Sherry. Sherry, the legend had it, was actually the girl friend of one of the programmers. As part of the standard machinery of an RPG, you and each of your party members began very weak, that is, with few hit points and thus easily defeated in combat with enemies. The mouse, naturally, was by far the weakest of all, beginning with perhaps 10 hit points. You needed Sherry because in one of the towns on the south coast you had to have a party member small enough to get through a narrow crack in a wall.

While all my other party members were strong enough to wear armor and carry swords and additional weapons, I found that Sherry was only strong enough to carry a dagger. I thought I would try to match her against some very weak opponent to build up her strength. In some of the dungeons the party was attacked by groups of rats. You could move each party member independently of the others, so I would range a few strong members forward on the sides, then send Sherry the mouse in alone with her dagger to fight the rats. If she got into trouble I would have her retreat and a more powerful fighter take over the combat. Over time each party member was rewarded for their victories in fights by increasing their various stats. Sherry soon was strong enough to carry a sword. Then I had her take on creatures like goblins. Eventually she was able to wear armor, although this was before games showed what your characters were wearing or carrying, as the mouse really had no place to put the armor. By the end of the game many weeks later Sherry the mouse was my strongest fighter.

The Silver Serpent

Garriott, more than any other major game developer, tried to use the limited technology to pose moral issues. He invented his own religion in which shrines of various virtues played a major role. He used semi-religious symbols. The Avatar always wears an Egyptian Ankh, and a symbol of the realm is the silver serpent, based on a piece of silver sculpture made years before by his mother. Ultima also used the runic alphabet popularized by Tolkien to label place names on the map included with the game and on all in-game signposts, forcing players to learn the runic script to be able to tell where they were.

In Ultima VI Britannia is invaded by the Gargoyles, drawn to look like traditional demons with red skin and horns. In the early stages of the Avatar's arrival he visits hospitals where injured soldiers curse the enemy. Later he meets a bard who expresses some ambivalence about the purposes of the Gargoyles, and by the end the Avatar discovers that the Gargoyles are responding to the rapid destruction of their world caused by a previous action of the Avatar himself, and he must go to the Gargoyle country where everyone looks like a demon to undo the damage.

Ultima VI despite its top-down graphics and limited resolution had six or seven towns, travel by ship, underground caverns, and nonplayer characters with their own brief stories to tell. In one dungeon, unexpectedly, you are attacked by a group of children. In an interview I read that this was a moral test. If you thought fast enough you could cast a sleep spell on them and not kill them. Other companies have shied away from this dilemma altogether. In the Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda even though the worlds are larger than the old Ultimas with hundreds of characters there are no children, for fear that some players would kill them deliberately and this would incense the right-wing censors who are always looking for grounds to restrict or ban computer games.

In the next installment, Ultima VII, there is one place wandering through a forest where you encounter a large troll. By reflex toward all such nonhuman creatures I killed him. Then walked my character into his cave, and there found his wife and children seated around the dinner table. I still regret that action, definitely bad karma,a measure of the power of the interactive medium.

An annoying innovation in Ultima VII was that the characters in your party got hungry but expected you to feed them. You would have your group, a straggly line, marching through the countryside to get to some town and first one then another would post a text balloon saying "I'm hungry!" Each character had a backpack which you could click on to have a small window on the screen open showing its contents. If you had thought to pack lots of bread and cheese when in the last town you could click on a loaf of bread and drag it over to the complaining party member, and they would be quiet. Then the next one would start in. You spent an inordinate amount of time dragging food items from backpacks to satisfy the digital hunger pangs of your group of followers. There were many complaints about this and the idea was abandoned in Ultima VIII.

In the end Origin Systems ran short of money and Richard Garriott sold the company to Electronic Arts. In short order they sped up the development cycle, released the next few installments unfinished with almost unplayable bugs, and finally killed the franchise except for Ultima Online. The failed games had a few memorable advances, notably the seamless connection between building interiors and exteriors where you could enter a structure and look out the windows, something still not duplicated in such state-of-the-art productions as the Elder Scrolls Oblivion of 2006. Richard Garriott has gone on to other projects, mostly in online gaming, but has never recovered the old magic.

New World Computing's Might and Magic

A word should be said about the Might and Magic series of Jon Van Caneghem. Van Caneghem founded New World Computing in 1983 and created the Might and Magic role playing games. These were distinguished by a landscape of bright primary colors, a first-person viewpoint, and a party usually of six members represented by faces in a row across the bottom of the screen. The series went through nine iterations between 1987 and 2002. I came into the series with episode three in 1991. I spent the most time with Might and Magic VII published in 1998. Here the party was reduced to four, and the interest was mostly tactical, in that you were often confronted with large crowds of computer controlled opponents. To win against them you needed to strike fast and run, or find a narrow hallway or defile where only a few could approach your party at one time. As with Origin, New World Computing fell foul of an acquisition. It was sold to 3DO in 1996. 3DO went bankrupt in 2003, taking New World Computing down with it. Jon Van Caneghem should also be remembered for the turn-based strategy spin-off of the Might and Magic series, Heroes of Might and Magic. This was a game with almost infinite replayability, especially as it included its own map editor which spawned an online community of fans who spent endless hours creating their own detailed maps. Many sought to adapt their maps to tell stories, a seriously difficult project in an open ended strategy game based on capturing castles and resource mines. But many tried, creating maps with hero characters and situations based on the Arthurian legend, on Sherlock Holmes, and on other computer games such as the Ultima series. After the collapse of3DO theHeroes of Might and Magic franchise was sold to the Frenchcompany Ubisoft, which brought out Heroes V in 2006, adding a 3D game engine, to mixed reviews.

The World of Tamriel

One of the most successful role playing series is the Elder Scrolls, set in the fantasy world of Tamriel, produced by Bethesda Softworks of Rockville, Maryland. The episodes have been widely spaced in time, with only four major releases and two minor ones counting from the first in the series, Arena, published in 1994. Where the Ultima and Might and Magic series were tightly scripted and every character had fixed lines, the Elder Scrolls world was vast and sometimes disturbingly empty. The programmers concentrated on a first-person realistic landscape of huge dimensions, in the early iterations generated from stock materials on the fly. It was a single player game from the start, no party to manage here, and presented from a first-person perspective through the player’s eyes.

Arena gave the first rude idea of what the programmers were trying to do. It was a rebellion against the linear play of graphic adventures or even of the Ultima series. It aimed at the creation of an immersive world in which the player could roam with no definite goal. Endless roads wandered through pixilated landscapes, occasionally dotted with tiny towns or isolated huts, inns, or stone keeps. It was not that there were no people. Plenty of people appeared to walk around the towns, while in the countryside monsters or bandits would attack you. It was that there were too many people and towns for any of them to have any specificity or individuality. The whole place was generated from computer algorithms — the nonplayer characters were walking signboards. If you clicked on one of them they would stop and a text screen would let you ask a few simple questions, like where is the nearest inn. The vastness was impressive but the emptiness dispiriting.




Two years later with the release of Daggerfall the Bethesda vision began to come into focus. The fantasy land was Tamriel, divided into nine provinces (offering significant potential longevity to the series). Daggerfall was a city on the northwest coast in the province of High Rock.  Daggerfall, the game, contained a plot, something about a scheme by the King of Worms to kill off the existing monarchy, plus subplots of struggles within the royal family and aristocracy. I did a small part of that, with an interesting episode where a woman aristocrat asked me to deliver a cloak to a friend at his rural estate, only to have it turn out that the cloak was poisoned. The local lord died on the spot as he put on the gift, and I was nearly killed by his retainers. But the game was so open ended that you could, and I did, play for months while only touching base with key plot characters on a few rare occasions.

Here I should explain for any readers who don’t know what the motor is of role playing games what keeps the player at their keyboard. The core elements, independent of where there is a plot  line or not, are straight forward. You begin each of these games as a very weak character. You have a series of attributes such as strength, intelligence, endurance, dexterity, etc., which in turn control your power in a physical fight, what level of magic you have access to, how much armor or treasure you can carry around, and whether you are any good with a bow and arrow, and so on with numerous other attributes and skills. Most games in the last ten years have more attributes than these and complex rules for how they can be increased.

As you go out into the open-ended game world you encounter people who give you quests, and characters or monsters who attack you. In the simplest quests you are asked to deliver a letter to someone far away. In more complex ones you may have to meet a group, break into a castle, recover some object, get information from someone, assassinate a well-guarded or powerful enemy, undergo special training. Along the way you accumulate gold, better weapons, magical objects, plants that can be sold at an alchemy shop. Your armor and weapons wear out in combat and must be repaired or replaced, you become ill with diseases that need to be cured with elixirs or by a temple priest. The towns are full of stores, the stores are full of merchandise. Often the proprietor also asks you to do him or her a favor. And of course out in the hinterlands there are caves, bandit camps, outlaw fortresses, wandering spirits and magic workers, and wild animals.

Then there are guilds to join, and there is the race issue to consider. The stock races of these games — usually elves, dwarves, orcs, and humans of two or three sorts, a generally Tolkienesque cast, plus a catlike or reptilian race — involve prejudices in which whatever you are in the game will produce favorable or unfavorable reactions from shopkeepers and other nonplayer characters. All of this is comparatively independent of any story line. It’s just a place where a lot of  things are going on that you have to react to.

Typically the game will go in cycles. You receive a quest that you know will involve a difficult fight. You spend time then buying supplies in different stores, such as better arrows. You get your armor repaired. If you are short of gold, you find some chore or small quest that can get you enough gold to buy the new boots you need, or to have your magic sword recharged in a magic guild. This part is very task oriented and involves careful planning.

Then you set out, walk miles through mountain pathways and forests, during which you are usually attacked several times by robbers or wild animals. You finally arrive at the required cave, tower, castle, or inn, meet your enemy, exchange a few words and then get into a major fight. When you win, if you win, you scour the place for salable items, decide how much of this you can carry without becoming dangerously overburdened, then walk back to whoever gave you the quest to claim a reward. When you arrive in town — it is usually a town but it can be an isolated country inn — you make the rounds to sell off the objects you have collected, have your equipment repaired at the right shops, see what better equipment you can now buy with your savings, and then off to find another quest.

Your aim, if you have no other, is to explore the countryside, and to increase those stats; more strength, intelligence, endurance, and dexterity; to acquire better armor, more and stronger magic spells, and better weapons. Early in the game almost anything can beat you and you often have to run away. Later, usually much later, you are a match for most of what you may encounter, although even then often only if you carefully plan out your attack and don’t take foolish chances. Of course, you also want to explore. Have you ever been to the village of so and so? What is up on that mountain range to the east? If you had a ship you could get to that island you see off the coast. And there is that dark inland forest. In the early 1990s these landscapes, while very large, were pixilated and often had little you could move around or affect. As the years have gone by the landscapes have gotten better with the higher power of current PCs. The wind now blows in the trees, there are rainstorms, snow, you can swim across rivers, watch the sun rise or the moons (usually plural), read books, eat food (tasteless), and these days the nonplayer characters speak real words instead of printing out their comments.

Now for a few old war stories from. . .


There were now a few scripted situations, somewhat lost in a sea of cardboard automatons. But the complexity of the world began to be intriguing. Daggerfall was a good sized town containing numerous guilds, many stores, temples, and ordinary houses. Outside the town walls the territory was absurdly huge. It was said that the virtual world of Daggerfall, limited to the province of High Rock, was the size of England. You could walk your character for an hour in real time and not get to the next town, much less to edge of the land mass, except for the coastal sea, where you could wade out a ways but were stopped by the conventions of the program.

The graphics were still fairly grainy, but the game had a true 3D engine and you could explore at will, beginning with the town itself. There were days, when there was a quiet rain or snow falling, when it was a genuinely peaceful experience to meander through the by-now familiar streets and alleyways. I recall once on a journey into the countryside in a winter snowfall seeing a dramatic stone fort on an island in a small river, and feeling a certain thrill in jumping into the river and climbing out onto the island in the shadow of the old walls.

Advancement in life meant joining one or more guilds and taking on quests either for the guild or for individuals. You wanted to work your way up in your guild to gain access to benefits of various kinds. In the mage guild reaching a certain level opened up permissions to enchant objects and to create spells with particular effects and strength. Promotions required that you had achieved certain levels in your attributes or skills. And unlike earlier games where advancement was governed by how many monsters you had killed, in Daggerfall a wide range of skills and magic specialties progressed only through use.

There were various schools of magic. Some had healing powers, others specialized in illusion spells such as invisibility, or spells that influenced people, such as charm spells. And then there was simple destruction, shooting off firebolts and such, a staple of the kind of combat that turned up frequently. Advancing in Destruction magic could only be achieved by using it, not by random battles. It was common for Daggerfall players to hole up their character in an inn or a room in the Mages Guild, and fire off low-level firebolt spells by the hour as a means to raise their levels. I did it, and so did many others.

Then there was exploring the stores. Some paid better prices for booty; some sold their goods at cheaper prices. Some had a better selection of higher level arms or armor. So you spent time figuring out the geography of the town and where to go for what. It reminded me a bit of the first weeks after moving to New York from California in the 1960s.

Quests commonly sent you out to retrieve something from a dungeon. And here the programmers had used the algorithm method to generate what came to be called spaghetti dungeons, places with so many winding tunnels that once lost in them you could spend two or three real hours trying to find your way out again.

When you got in a fight, especially in a dungeon, your character usually was wounded even if you won. If you could sleep, your wounds would heal. But there was always the chance that some creature in the dungeon would find you while you were sleeping, worst of all was if they found you soon, when very little healing had taken place. Then you were forced into another combat under unfavorable circumstances.

Once you had risen high enough in the Mages Guild to have use of the enchanting services, one thing I tried was to enchant a complete outfit — shoes, pants, shirt, and hat, each imbued with a boost (cumulative) to my mercantile skill. On coming back to town loaded with Orc armor and such in my wagon (the game included horses, wagons, and ships), I would take off my armor (here to avoid a lot of extra verbiage let me just refer to my character as me) and put on the suit of mercantile-enhanced clothes. Now I could double the sale price of my goods. I could even, unethical as it was, buy a merchant’s goods and sell them back to him for more than I had paid him in the first place. After a while I had enough gold to buy my own house and a ship.

The above raises the issue of how to talk about your activities in virtual worlds. It is unreasonable to prefix every remark with “in the game,” “my character,” etc. But blending the two worlds also has its pitfalls. Once in 1990 when I was managing a computer service at UCLA, I and a fellow who worked for me were at our respective homes in the evenings both playing a game called Circuit’s Edge, a cyberpunk adventure set in the Middle East. We were stuck trying to follow clues to an in-game mystery. One night I figured out the next step and was eager to share it with Kevin. In the office the next day I said to him, “I figured out how to get into Mustafa’s Pawn Shop last night. I went into that alley behind his store, and there’s a way to break in through the warehouse next door. I found proof that Abu Salah was involved in the murder of Kenji Carter!” We were intent on our discussion and didn’t notice the three people standing around with their mouths open. Luckily this was before Homeland Security or we would have really been in trouble.

A lot of what you did in Daggerfall, as in the real world, had to do with making money. A young fellow who was living with us at the time named Jared also got deep into Daggerfall. And while the game did not script moral issues as the Ultima series did, they could arise naturally from how you chose to play.

There was a law in the city of Daggerfall that you could not sleep on the town streets except in an inn or guild, or within a certain distance of the town walls. Jared would camp just outside of town. A pair of guards would show up and try to arrest him — there were jails you could be put in until you paid a fine or did some time. Jared would kill the guards. This would produce a very large number of guards who would show up to subdue this criminal. Jared would systematically kill them all. Pretty soon he would have a huge pile of armor, swords, pikes, boots, and odds and ends, which he would load into his wagon and take back to town to sell, reminiscent of a scene in Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti western A Few Dollars More.

Now, I was horrified at this behavior. If you are going to suspend disbelief in the reality of the place and its inhabitants, then you are going to want to treat them as you would in the real world. Even in the game world this behavior gave Jared a hideous reputation and most citizens would run from him on sight.

Then I encountered an insurmountable necessity to do some evil myself. Somewhere in one of the dungeons I was bitten by a werewolf. A few nights later my character began to have strange dreams. And by the end of the week I had myself become a werewolf.

I investigated the lore about werewolves in Tamriel and discovered that there were special rules that don’t appear in films or Anne Rice novels. Once a month at the full moon (Tamriel did have cycles of its two moons), you would turn into a wolf, complete with muzzle and hairy paws. As a werewolf you could not use any ordinary weapon, armor, or clothing. Worse yet, your hit points would fall to about 15, making you helpless before almost any serious foe. To avoid dying you had to kill a human. Then you would be extra strong for the few days of the full moon.

I considered this killing innocent humans thing for a while. But as there was no alternative I decided to do it with as little repercussion as possible. If I killed anyone in Daggerfall town I would have the guards all over me and an evil reputation that might drive me out of the city. Further, once I had turned furry, everyone I met would flee. I settled on traveling each month to a different tiny village well out in the country, run onto the main street, and kill the first person I got my claws into. Everyone would run from me at sight, but I could always catch some unlucky person. That would galvanize the locals and they would chase me far out into the fields. This led to some close calls, and some moral unease, but it was a way to survive.

Then one day the game revealed just how complex its unscripted interactions could be. Early in the game I had received an invitation to join the Dark Brotherhood, essentially a guild of assassins. I refused. Every now and then in retribution for my refusal I would be attacked suddenly by a would-be assassin. This usually came as a surprise, but had not been too much of a problem, as I was stronger than they were. Then one day I woke up in a bedroom on the second floor of an inn where I had booked a room to recover from wounds, to discover that it was change day and I was in wolf form with no weapons and extremely weak. I headed for the stairs, planning my usual excursion to a remote village to fix my problem, when at the front door I ran into a Dark Brotherhood assassin coming in to get me. He seemed to have no problem recognizing me in my wolf guise and gave chase. By the time I was up on the third floor it was clear that I was not going to get out of this one. I quickly employed my magic weapon: I exited the game and restored from my latest saved position. But I found myself back in my room, just waking up as a wolf. I went to the head of the stairs, and there was the assassin again coming in the downstairs front door.

I thought for a moment and came up with a piece of in-game magic that could give me a way out. There was a teleportation spell that worked by first placing an anchor somewhere, then later teleporting back to it. I went down the stairs, walked  right up to the assassin. I cast the anchor spell, then ran up the stairs with the killer on my electronic heels. Up we went to the third floor. Just as he was about to finish me off with his dagger I cast the return spell, landed instantly on the front doorsill, and ran off down the street.  Even for a purely virtual adventure I thought that one was pretty good.

May 15, 2006


Postscript, March 17, 2012


Sales of all computer and video game software and dedicated hardware, though hit by the recession after 2008, reached $25.1 billion in 2010. The demographics have also changed over the years. The Entertainment Software Association in a 2011 report found that 72% of households play video games, the average age of players is 37, and 29% of players are over 50.

The quality and complexity of these kinds of games has moved along with giant strides since Daggerfall came out in the summer of 1996. Bethesda Softworks, the creator of Daggerfall, has remained in the forefront of the field. The Elder Scrolls world of Tamriel has had three major iterations along with other less memorable releases: Morrowind in 2002, Oblivion in 2006, and Skyrim in 2011, as well as two in the Fallout series of a dystopian future in a devastated Washington, DC, and Las Vegas.

In each successive release the graphic quality has improved strikingly. In Morrowind weather appeared, rain and dust storms. In Oblivion, all the characters were now voice acted from a huge branching script, the talent including Patrick Stewart. Now you could swim under water, hunt deer, enter complex subplots, and in the forests the leaves shook in the breeze. A musical score was written just as for a major film.

By the time of Skyrim at the end of 2011 the strategy guide book that can be purchased as an aide runs to 657 8-1/2 X 11 densely packed pages, with scores of local maps, instructions on the use of many plants to compound potions, and a numbing volume of background and detail. In the game itself  NPCs carry on extensive lives independent of the player character, working at their trades, discussing with each other, arguing, and fighting over valuables. More than seventy actors were employed to voice the nonplayer characters, including Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow. The musical soundtrack by Jeremy Soule has been released on four CDs.

Skyrim in its first two months sold more than 10 million units, for more than $620 million. This is vastly more than any film grossed in 2011, and almost twice the income of the year’s top grossing film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, at $381,011,219.

Under the current Digital Rights Management anti-piracy controls, home users have to log in to the online Steam website to play their own copy. At one point in early January 2012, 5 million players were logged in at the same time, each playing Skyrim by themselves. While I have a copy and have spent an hour or two with it and been impressed, the sheer scale and complexity of the game world have told me that it would take an inordinate amount of time to master. Maybe on a long vacation. Below is a screenshot from Skyrim