Determining the boundaries of a genre is always tricky, and RPGs are no exception. Over the course of its long history, role-playing games have changed many times, influenced other genres and themselves borrowed some new mechanics for themselves. Likewise, fans over the years have changed the requirements and criteria by which they considered some kind of role-playing game.
Therefore, speaking about the history of RPGs, one has to ignore games that, if released in a different time and in a different context, would be perceived as part of this genre: for example, the Diablo series, Legacy of Kian, Deus Ex, Dark Souls. And for reasons of space saving, you will have to leave the JRPG overboard, especially since there has already been material about them. For the same reasons, games that have appeared in recent years are ignored in this material – you already know everything about the third “Witcher” or Tyranny.
If we try to still introduce a definition, then we can say that RPG is a genre in which the player’s character has to fight and talk, and do it according to clear rules.
Unlike games that can be roughly classified as action RPGs like Diablo, in “pure” RPGs, dialogue is not just a way to get information and tasks or create an atmosphere. They require the player to actively participate in the choice of lines and often, but not always, allow you to invest character development points in the ability to communicate. The key parameter is not even the amount of text, but the need to “play” the dialogue, the ability to finish it “successfully” or “unsuccessfully”, which is absent in roguelike and action RPGs.
In turn, from “interactive films” like Heavy Rain RPGs differ in the presence of a single combat system. All these elements, like any genre boundaries, are arbitrary, but they explain why many successful and interesting games that contain elements usually associated with RPGs were not included in our list: character development, isometric camera, side missions.
The only way to truly understand this genre is by familiarizing yourself with its history. Computer role-playing games date back to tabletop role-playing games, in particular to the famous Dungeons and Dragons. The first edition of ND, by Gary Gig ax and Dave Arneson, was released back in 1974 as a modification of older strategy board games. Gig ax and Arneson wanted each player to command just one unique character. This shifted the focus from winning the battle to the cause of the battle, role-playing, and fulfilling unique goals.
The new entertainment gained popularity among American geeks, fans of the Star Trek series, Tolkien’s and Howard’s books. As now, in the 70s there were many such people among technical specialists at universities. It was there that the idea of “digitizing” a new hobby appeared, and the first attempts were made very quickly.
In 1975, several of these games were released: Don Dayglow at the University of Claremont released Dungeon, Rusty Rutherford at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign did pedit5, and Gary Weissman and Ray Wood, his neighbors at the University of Southern Illinois, released did. In the last game, for the first time, “bosses” were introduced – unique monsters with which the hero must fight at the exit from the level.
The authors did not hide the fact that they tried to “copy” ND, and did not try to make money on it. However, from a modern point of view, their games resembled more a roguelike simulator than an RPG. Dungeons were created randomly, and the only thing that could be done in them was to kill.
But it was from these games that people were repelled, who gave the new genre a complete form. This happened in full six years later, in 1981, with the release of the first parts of two iconic series: Ultima and Wizardry.
Ultima (Richard Garrett, June 1981)
This name is still familiar to many. Last but not least, the popularity of the series is associated with the charm of the permanent creator of all nine parts – Richard Garrett, also known as “Lord British”. There are not many people in video games who are usually called authors with their own style, but Garrett is undoubtedly one of them – along with legends like Sid Meier or Hideo Kojima.
All nine Ultima parts follow a common pattern. The main character, according to the plot – an inhabitant of the Earth, known as the “Stranger”, will find himself in a magic kingdom and save him from this or that misfortune. The player wanders around the world, completes tasks, kills monsters and develops his character.
The cycle is divided into three trilogies – in the first, which its creator described as “Richard Garrett is learning to program”, the action takes place in the kingdom of Solaria, and the plot and structure of the world is closer to the classic ND. In particular, the player can choose a race for his character.
The game also featured sci-fi elements like demonic supercomputer and time travel. But in the 80s, this did not seem to anyone to be a serious departure from the canons of the genre.
The first parts won the recognition of many players, but they did not make the revolution. British still made “monster extermination simulators” similar to the old free projects, albeit with a number of interesting gameplay solutions. However, these games showed both Garrett himself and other people an important thing: the demand for fictional worlds, with their own names, culture and history, and for greater “literary” games, both in terms of the universe and in terms of plot.
In many RPGs before this, the player acted in a conditional “dungeon”, fighting a faceless set of monsters and from time to time returned to an equally unmemorable “tavern” or “city”. But Solaria was a real fictional world, albeit not the most original by modern standards. Her success inspired Garrett to create the universe in which the rest of the games took place – Britain.