Monday, July 10, 2006

CRPG Review: Akalabeth

One of my favourite hobbies is playing computer role-playing games, or CRPG's for short. I have collected 232 (at last count), played 63 of them, and have even finished 28 of them (I know these numbers because I keep a spreadsheet on them!) I started to wonder why I gravitate towards CRPG's in particular, out of all the different genres of game there are, and found the reason to be multi-faceted.

The first reason I have is my love of maps. As a child I used to pore over the world atlas we had (the lovely England-centric one with maps of each individual county, while giving one map to boring Canada), memorizing each town in Cumberland or tracing Peter Brownrigg's journey across Yorkshire and down to London on the Old North Road. At age eight years I discovered The Lord of the Rings, and spent hours studying the maps, referring to them constantly while reading the books. One of the major delights of the Swallows and Amazons series was the inevitable map in the frontispiece. My fascination continues even today - I own the complete set of topographical maps for the Bruce Trail. In each CRPG, you explore a unique world map, possible full of dark forests, deep jungles, jagged mountains, misty swamps, searing deserts and other phenomena. That joy of seeing what is over the hill is a major plus.

Related to my love of maps, is my love of mazes and puzzle solving. Every CRPG has its underground dungeons or impossibly spiring towers full of traps and treasure. It is extremely satisfying to break out my graph paper and transfer with draughtsman precision a rendering of the labyrinth I find myself in. My sisters may remember those Vladimir Koziakin maze books I used to buy when I was younger, with complicated mazes with rated time limits like 28 minutes. There is nothing quite like the satisfaction of beating a challenging maze.

Of course, mazes are not the only problems to be solved in a CRPG. There are traps to bypass, quite often needed to be worked out with logical analysis. For example, in one game, the blue bleebs always tell the truth, the red bleebs always lie, and the green bleebs sometimes lie and sometimes tell the truth. At some point you must talk to the bleebs to get help, and must weigh their cryptic utterances with what you know of their character to figure out your path. There are other types of puzzles as well, such as how to by pass the magical statue, where to find that magic Sword of Wounding, the location of the hidden tapestry, or the last person to have seen Chips O'Toole before he mysteriously vanished. Who can resist these mysteries?

The last few examples point out another enjoyable feature of CRPG's - the story itself. I enjoy a good read, whether fantasy, science fiction, mystery, spy, or historical fiction. I enjoy the story on an entertainment level, as well as the aspect of trying to discover what comes next (or whodunnit). All CRPG's tell a story, if you care to look for or follow it, and are thus an interactive novel. Even better than a book, is the chance to change the story, or have your character be the one to fulfill the plot, instead of just reading about the protagonist. This is extremely rewarding.

Of course, having your character be the prime mover is where the role-play comes in. In our childhood, we are variously fire fighters, cowboys, astronauts, baseball players, roman centurions, nuclear physicists, or whatever our imagination conjurs (think of Calvin and Hobbes). As adults, we are somehow supposed to ignore all these flights of fantasy and "enjoy" our serious role of whatever-we-do-for-a-living. Well, I still imagine myself as a rock star, or a mad scientist, or an evil genius trying to take over the world with an insane lab rat as my partner, so why not pretend to be a warrior or wizard?

In CRPG's you roll up a persona or alter-ego, and then armed with the abilities possessed by your electronic avatar, and whatever talents you personally profess to have in problem solving, you set out on your quest. In real life, I am neither particularly strong or charismatic, but I have a quick wit and quicker reflexes. Can I replicate myself in a fantasy game? I could be a studious wizard, gleaning spells from painstakingly researched tomes, or a nimble thief with sleight-of-hand swashbuckling my way through the world.

Why stop there? Why not imagine myself as something completely different? Now I can be that strong but dumb barbarian who solves puzzles with an axe. Or a gentle healer who eschews combat. Why stay human? I can play an elf who is deadly with a bow, like my hero Legolas from Lord of the Rings. I can even switch genders, and create a female alter-ego - the choices are limited only by your game system and your imagination.

But what I like most of all, is when you have to create a team of characters. In these games, one character is not strong enough to overcome all the challenges, but a group of four or six with enough diversity can make their way through. Now you are trying to solve a puzzle with imperfect information with a spectrum of characters who may or may not be up to the task. Each battle becomes a tactical challenge, as you husband or spend your resources, and commit your characters to actions, trying to get the most payback for the least loss. And if you mess up, unlike in real life - re-load and try again!

Now on to my first review. Akalabeth is not a particularly good game (see my rating of 1 star out of 5). The game is in black-and-white, the outside world is a featureless expanse relieved only by the occassional abstract symbol representing mountains, dungeons and towns dotted here and there. Your character is likely to die from starvation before even finding the first dungeon (you don't have enough money to buy both weapons and enough food to get to the beginning dungeon and back unless you get a lucky random map at the beginning). There is no save game feature, so if you do not finish the game in one sitting, you must start again from the beginning. There is also not much variety, with three weapons and two character classes. After ten minutes play, you have basically seen all the game has to offer. There is also an optimum strategy that once you figure out, you can beat the game with no thought and a couple hours work. There are so many better games out there that playing this is almost pointless.


In 1979, the Apple 2 home computer had penetrated into 100,000 homes. These people needed games to play, but there were few written. Richard Garriott, a fifteen-year-old high school student, had a part-time job after school working at the local computer store. For his own amusement, he wrote Akalabeth. His boss convinced him to send the game off to a publishing house, and it sold 25,000 copies. Garriot made $5 per copy, and no longer needed to worry about his college tuition. Why did it sell so well?

It was the world's first graphical roleplaying game. Until Akalabeth, all adventure games were text-based, where the scene was described to the players and then they typed in their input. Now here, the dungeon was represented pictorially. Take a look at the screen shot. You can see a 3-D representation of what your character sees. You are fighting a skeleton, while in the background is a ladder leading to escape, and down the corridor is a door you could also take on the left. This view worked so well, that it was still being used as a standard ten years later. Even twenty years after Akalabeth was released, this 90-degree pictorial 3-D view was being used (albeit with colour and texture) although full 360-degree motion had become viable in the early 90's. You have combat action choices, and statistics that affect your health, damage, etc. These are still staples of the CRPG.

In summary, this game is worth spending ten minutes on, just to view the origin of the CRPG, and to see both how much, and how little, has changed.

No comments: