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Amnesiac Heroes: Why are we abandoning gaming history?

A talk about why older games are vanishing from popular memory, who's profiting from this and why we're all losing.

A few months ago we had the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons. This date was widely celebrated in the circles devoted to tabletop role-playing games, but barely mentioned in those focused on video-games. Which is a sad thing, not only due the undebatable impact of Dungeons & Dragons in video games, but more importantly, because 2014 also marks 40 years since D&D players sat in front of their PLATO mainframes and started to program virtual adaptations of tabletop RPGs, such as pedit5, m199h and dnd.

Yes, it has now been 40 years since the first Computer RPGs were created. But it doesn't feel that way, does it? How often do you hear about RPGs older than 20, or even 15 years?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Avatar can’t Samba

Hi, my name is Felipe Pepe, and I’m the guy behind The CRPG Book Project, a nonprofit crowd-sourced project that aims to record the history of Computer Role-Playing Games into a free e-book, written by fans and developers all over the world.

I’m Brazilian, lucky enough to be born son of an engineer fascinate with computers. I grew up playing copied floppies on a smuggled Amiga 500. It was a rare privilege in those days, as Brazil suffered at the hands of a military dictatorship which blocked all computer-related imports up until 1992.

At that time, information was limited. I treasured the months-old CGW magazines my father would bring back from his business travels, excited for all that new information, the interviews, the review of games I would only play years later. But was also saddened by how all that happened in faraway countries, was debated in BBS that I could not access, and all in a language I could barely read.

But thanks to the wonders of the world wide web, things changed. Technology today is magical. I sound like an old man typing this, but I feel like a kid on a toy store experiencing it. In the months I’ve been working on the CRPG Book Project, I’ve managed to contact childhood heroes such as Scorpia, Warren Spector and Tim Cain, gathered over 100 contributors from all over the world and had articles about the project published not only on US websites, but also in Polish, Korean, Italian and Spanish.

And I can, very excitedly, purchase and play games that were never available here. I can read about them, watch people playing them, debate with other fans and even message their creators directly. As they say, it’s all in the reach of our fingertips.

But one thing stroke me as I went deeper and deeper down the hole, trying to learn all that I could. It was a sad realization that led me to begin my own attempt at recording and sharing CRPG history:

Gaming history is vanishing.

Despite all the wonder of technology, of how easy it's to share information, to contact individuals and to make your voice heard, our past is being left to die. At best, it’s limited to tiny circles, such as the cyber monks at VCampus Corporation, that still run an operational PLATO network. At its worst, it is forgotten — or was never learned.

Above, Scorpia's CRPG retrospective, from 1978 to 1992, published on CGW #87. It's freely available here, and still a wonderful read.

We’re in a lot of trouble

 In 2012, Frank Cifaldi published here on Gamasutra an article on how poorly gamign history is being kept, exemplified by how we don’t even know when Super Mario Bros. was released in the US. He ended his article by saying “If this is the state of video game preservation in 2012, 50 years after Spacewar!, we're in trouble”. I couldn’t agree more.

While researching CRPG history, I was shocked at how the old editions of the now defunct Computer Gaming World magazine are still one of the best sources for anything pre-Windows. At how articles often omit sources and citations. At the amount of misinformation circulating the web. At how only a handful of few websites and individuals, such as Matt Barton , The RPG Codex and The CRPG Addict, actually work towards preserving our history. At how I have to explain that Fallout 3 had two games before it.

Think for a moment on what is commonly said about pre-90’s CRPGs, on what the younger generations have heard about: Wasteland is the grand-father of Fallout Wasteland 2; Rogue lead to roguelikes; Pool of Radiance “became” Baldur’s Gate and Ultima IV was made by that weird guy that went to space and did a kickstarter recently. That’s all you’re likely to find about the first 16 years of CRPGs in the mainstream media, almost half of our history. And there’s a good chance that it was written by people that never actually played those games.

Cinema is over a century old, yet it’s expected for any decent critic or self-proclaimed enthusiast to have a knowledge ranging from ancient classics such as Battleship Potemkin and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to recent movies only shown at foreign festivals. If you tried to write about cinema having watched only post-90’s movies and one or two older Disney animations, you would be nothing more than a joke. Renting Citizen Kane once, or the fact that you grew up watching movies, aren't remarkable achievements in a serious industry.

So how can we ask others to respect games as art, when even gamers and industry professionals don’t bother to learn about its history?

Why it’s that gaming, with such a short existence, is already forgetting its past? Why people that proudly call themselves "hardcore gamers" are ignorant and wary of anything more than a decade old? Why do we accept people writing about games that they only read on Wikipedia or watched a Let’s Play? Yes, believe me, its plain obvious that someone that struggles to understand Ultima Underworld’s interface isn’t “a long time Ultima fan”.

Recently, with the kickstarter frenzy, old names came back from exile and many tales of their past glories were told – usually with very detailed descriptions, such as “the classic old-school game X”. But no one bothers to ask about the ones that never returned. There's no research, no fact checking. It’s always easier to interview the legendary Lord British that mailed you to promote his new game than to go after the long-forgotten Lord Wood, who revealed he was working a fifth Phantasie game a year ago and no one noticed. In 2011, Wizardry’s 30th Anniversary was greeted with a big event in Japan, yet I challenge you to find a single article in western gaming media celebrating the date, interviewing developers or bringing any information to their audience that didn't came from Wizardry Online's press release.

Hell, a group of over 30 professional game journalists recently wrote a book listing 1001 games you should play before dying, yet didn't include a single Wizardry, Might & Magic, King's Quest or Gold Box title. Again, one thousand and one games listed, yet there's no room for some of the biggest and most influential series of the past.

So I must ask: when the media say that they don't talk about older games because the audience has no interest in them, is it a proven fact or a self-fulfilling prophecy? People can’t crave what they never heard about.

The False Prophets

Now, I’m not utopic or ignorant of the market forces. I hold a Marketing degree and worked in the field for almost a decade now. This means that I've consorted with demons and, sadly, know that occluding the past is profitable. Malice does play its part.

It's very important to make consumers feel that they are living at the very best gaming period ever, that there's no time like now. Hype is built by telling people how expansive Skyrim's world is, not how miniscule it's compared to Daggerfall or Arena. Similarly, you can't release a new XCOM and let everyone know that the original game had way more tactical options and randomly generated maps. And it isn't nice to mention how Baldur's Gate 2 had 298 spells while Dragon Age: Origins only has 96.

Now, a sequel doesn't need to always expand upon the previous game, but it should at least be aware of its shortcomings and offer something in exchange. And although there's a mantra being repeated about how far games have evolved, a more critical view will show you that little has been offered in the past 15 years besides better graphics.

And again, that isn't bad per se. Developers should pursue whatever goal they desire, but it's dishonest to pretend that nothing is being lost in the process. Yet removed features are often hand waved away as "outdated" or "unnecessary", and not by PR agents, but by supposedly neutral reviewers. That is, when they even mention the existence of such features in older games.

Of course, the "official" reason why no one talks about older games is that "the audience don't care about them". I again wonder if they really don't care, or simply don't know about.

You could say that consumers don't want to meddle with MS-DOS, emulators or compatibility issues, but thanks especially to Good Old Games, it’s now as easy to purchase and play 20 year old games as it is to play recent releases. Arguably, even easier, since older games are cheaper, smaller to download and start as soon as you click play, without always-online DRM or waiting for Origin, Steam or Uplay to load.

You could also say that the controls are too awkward. Well, while some older games do have controls spread all over the keyboard, that’s far from being the rule. Star Control II is a shining counter-example; a complex space RPG that features intense battles, hundreds galaxies to freely explore, amusing dialogs with various alien races and a entertaining planet scanning & mining system (which Mass Effect 2 failed to imitate), yet the whole game requires only two buttons and the arrow keys to control.

A decade ago you could simply say they are too different from the graphical wonders that audiences enjoy. But you can't keep blaming graphics in a world were games like Nidhogg are so well received. The indie scene has shown audiences that great gameplay or storytelling trumps over state-of-the-art graphics. And more importantly, the simpler graphics allow for an unrivaled degree of creative freedom. Roguelike players know of what I'm talking about.

Not only the art is amazing, but the king is voiced by Patrick Steward.

On a side note, while pixel art is popular today, I’ve yet to see a game that can stand up to the art of games such as Lands of Lore. Did I mention that the King above is fluidly animated and voiced by Patrick Steward? Not bad for 1993, eh?

Back to the Future

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

Yes, that was the most obvious quote to use here, but also the most pertinent one. Gaming history is being forgotten, and that is part due laziness, part due convenience. It’s about time for the gaming industry to stop ignoring its past and embrace it. To stop feeling ashamed of being compared to games from 20-30 years ago and face its compromises head on. To research their art, instead of just echoing misinformation.

I don't say this expecting to see articles about Star Trail or Wizard's Crown on mainstream media tomorrow, but rather as a hint to developers, critics and gamers out there. Listen to the market: there's a demand for new experiences in gaming. Ironically it's being attended mostly by retro-styled indie games and by nostalgia-driven kickstarter campaigns. But there's also a vast selection of older games ready to be played now, that offer experiences unlike anything in modern industry.

Thanks to digital retailers, we don't need to remove older titles from the shelf to make way for new ones. We don't need to erase the past to make way for the future. We don't need an industry soley devoted to games released in the past 3 months. If GOG exists, if old games are being re-released in huge batches on Steam, you can bet that there's a demand. Long Tail, ho!

Fellow developer, learn the lessons from the past. Don't repeat old mistakes, and keep a lookout for innovations that were lost in time. Take note of how Ultima IV to VI subverted heroic quests in a way no game dared ever since. How Ishar party members have real freewill and will vote against your decisions. How Dungeons of Daggorath replaces hit points with audible heartbeats. How Wizardry VII was programmed and designed by a single man, yet had a massive world with rival adventuring parties that would solve quests, forge alliances and slay monsters the same way that you did.

Legend of Grimrock didn't reinvent the wheel, they just did a competent new entry on a genre from 80's that the industry declared long dead, but the fans still crave. And they are close to selling 1 million copies. I can guarantee you that there are many more niches like this to be found.

Fellow critic, learn about the roots of gaming, about the purpose of mechanics. Abandon pre-made sentences such as "games were only turn-based due to technological limitations" and research into the subject yourself. There's too much misinformation floating around, and that will only be solved by informed individuals.

Fellow gamer, be curious. Look beyond prejudices and try, wholeheartedly, to play older games. There's a reason why those games are considered classics and people still play them today. I promise that it will be a much more interesting (and cheap) experience than buying the latest AAA release, playing it for 15 hours and never looking back.

And to all that made this far into the text without thinking something like “ugh, such rose-colored nostalgia glasses” and closing the tab, thank you. I'm doing my part and trying to compile the history of CRPGs into a free, accessible and passionate book. And I could use some help!

Thanks for reading.

As a freebie, here's a preview page of the book - a Star Control II review, written by Tim Cain (Fallout, Arcanum, Pillars of Eternity). - click it to expand it -



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