The View from the Trenches (or, Some Deadly Sins of CRPG Design)

12 May

From the beginning of this project, I’ve worked to remove the nostalgia factor from my writing about old games, to evaluate each game strictly on its own merits and demerits. I like to think that this approach has made my blog a uniquely enlightening window into gaming history. Still, one thing my years as a digital antiquarian have taught me is that you tread on people’s nostalgia at your peril. Some of what I’ve written here over the years has certainly generated its share of heat as well as light, not so much among those of you who are regular readers and commenters — you remain the most polite, thoughtful, insightful, and just plain nice readers any writer could hope to have — as among the ones who fire off nasty emails from anonymous addresses, who post screeds on less polite sites to which I’m occasionally pointed, or who offer up their drive-by comments right here every once in a while.

A common theme of these responses is that I’m not worthy of writing about this stuff, whether because I wasn’t there at the time — actually, I was, but whatever — or because I’m just not man enough to take my lumps and power through the really evil, unfair games. This rhetoric of inclusion and exclusion is all too symptomatic of the uglier sides of gaming culture. Just why so many angry, intolerant personalities are so attracted to computer games is a fascinating question, but must remain a question for another day. For today I will just say that, even aside from their ugliness, I find such sentiments strange. As far as I know, there’s zero street cred to be gained in the wider culture from being good at playing weird old videogames — or for that matter from being good at playing videogames of any stripe. What an odd thing to construct a public persona around. I’ve made a job out of analyzing old games, and even I sometimes want to say, “Dude, they’re just old games! Really, truly, they’re not worth getting so worked up over.”

That said, there do remain some rays of light amidst all this heat. It’s true that my experience of these games today — of playing them in a window on this giant monitor screen of mine, or playing them on the go on a laptop — must be in some fairly fundamental ways different from the way the same games were experienced all those years ago. One thing that gets obviously lost is the tactile, analog side of the vintage experience: handling the physical maps and manuals and packages (I now reference that stuff as PDF files, which isn’t quite the same); drawing maps and taking notes using real pen and paper (I now keep programs open in separate windows on that aforementioned giant monitor for those purposes); listening to the chuck-a-chunk of disk drives loading in the next bit of text or scenery (replacing the joy of anticipation is the instant response of my modern supercomputer). When I allow myself to put on my own nostalgia hat, just for a little while, I recognize that all these things are intimately bound up with my own memories of playing games back in the day.

And I also recognize that the discrepancies between the way I play now and the way I played back then go even further. Some of the most treasured of vintage games weren’t so much single works to be played and completed as veritable lifestyle choices. Ultima IV, to name a classic example, was huge enough and complicated enough that a kid who got it for Christmas in 1985 might very well still be playing it by the time Ultima V arrived in 1988; rinse and repeat for the next few entries in the series. From my jaded perspective, I wouldn’t brand any of these massive CRPGs as overly well-designed in the sense of being a reasonably soluble game to be completed in a reasonable amount of time, but then that wasn’t quite what most of the people who played them way back when were looking for in them. Actually solving the games became almost irrelevant for a kid who wanted to live in the world of Britannia.

I get that. I really do. No matter how deep a traveler in virtual time delves into the details of any era of history, there are some things he can never truly recapture. Were I to try, I would have to go away to spend a year or two disconnected from the Web and playing no other game — or at least no other CRPG — than the Ultima I planned to write about next. That, as I hope you can all appreciate, wouldn’t be a very good model for a blog like this one.

When I think in the abstract about this journey through gaming history I’ve been on for so long now, I realize that I’ve been trying to tell at least three intertwining stories.

One story is a critical design history of games. When I come to a game I judge worthy of taking the time to write about in depth — a judgment call that only becomes harder with every passing year, let me tell you — I play it and offer you my thoughts on it, trying to judge it not only in the context of our times but also in the context of its own times, and in the context of its peers.

A second story is that of the people who made these games, and how they went about doing so — the inevitable postmortems, as it were.

Doing these first two things is relatively easy. What’s harder is the third leg of the stool: what was it like to be a player of computer games all those years ago? Sometimes I stumble upon great anecdotes in this area. For instance, did you know about Clancy Shaffer?

In impersonal terms, Shaffer was one of the slightly dimmer stars among the constellation of adventure-game superfans — think Roe Adams III, Shay Addams, Computer Gaming World‘s indomitable Scorpia — who parlayed their love of the genre and their talent for solving games quickly into profitable sidelines if not full-on careers as columnists, commentators, play-testers, occasionally even design consultants; for his part, Shaffer contributed his long experience as a player to the much-loved Sir-Tech title Jagged Alliance.

Most of the many people who talked with Shaffer via post, via email, or via telephone assumed he was pretty much like them, an enthusiastic gamer and technology geek in his twenties or thirties. One of these folks, Rich Heimlich, has told of a time when a phone conversation turned to the future of computer technology in the longer view. “Frankly,” said Shaffer, “I’m not sure I’ll even be here to see it.” He was, he explained to his stunned interlocutor, 84 years old. He credited his hobby for the mental dexterity that caused so many to assume he was in his thirties at the oldest. Shaffer believed he had remained mentally sharp through puzzling his way through so many games, while he needed only look at the schedule of upcoming releases in a magazine to have something to which to look forward in life.  Many of his friends who, like him, had retired twenty years ago were dead or senile, a situation Shaffer blamed on their having failed to find anything to do with themselves after leaving the working world behind.

Shaffer died in 2010 at age 99. Only after his passing, after reading his obituary, did Heimlich and other old computer-game buddies realize what an extraordinary life Shaffer had actually led, encompassing an education from Harvard University, a long career in construction and building management, 18 patents in construction engineering, an active leadership role in the Republican party, a Golden Glove championship in heavyweight boxing, and a long and successful run as a yacht racer and sailor of the world’s oceans. And yes, he had also loved to play computer games, parlaying that passion into more than 500 published articles.

But great anecdotes like this one from the consumption side of the gaming equation are the exception rather than the rule, not because they aren’t out there in spades in theory — I’m sure there have been plenty of other fascinating characters like Clancy Shaffer who have also made a passion for games a part of their lives — but because they rarely get publicized. The story of the players of vintage computer games is that of a huge, diffuse mass of millions of people whose individual stories almost never stretch beyond their immediate families and friends.

The situation becomes especially fraught when we try to zero in on the nitty-gritty details of how games were played and judged in their day. Am I as completely out of line as some have accused me of being in harping so relentlessly on the real or alleged design problems of so many games that others consider to be classics? Or did people back in the day, at least some of them, also get frustrated and downright angry at betrayals of their trust in the form of illogical puzzles and boring busywork? I know that I certainly did, but I’m only one data point.

One would think that the magazines, that primary link between the people who made games and those who played them, would be the best way of finding out what players were really thinking. In truth, though, the magazines rarely provided skeptical coverage of the games industry. The companies whose games they were reviewing were of course the very same companies that were helping to pay their bills by buying advertising — an obvious conflict of interest if ever there was one. More abstractly but no less significantly, there was a sense among those who worked for the magazines and those who worked for the game publishers that they were all in this together, living as they all were off the same hobby. Criticizing individual games too harshly, much less entire genres, could damage that hobby, ultimately damaging the magazines as much as the publishers. Thus when the latest heavily hyped King’s Quest came down the pipe, littered with that series’s usual design flaws, there was little incentive for the magazines to note that this monarch had no clothes.

So, we must look elsewhere to find out what average players were really thinking. But where? Most of the day-to-day discussions among gamers back in the day took place over the telephone, on school playgrounds, on computer bulletin boards, or on the early commercial online services that preceded the World Wide Web. While Jason Scott has done great work snarfing up a tiny piece of the online world of the 1980s and early 1990s, most of it is lost, presumably forever. (In this sense at least, historians of later eras of gaming history will have an easier time of it, thanks to and the relative permanence of the Internet.) The problem of capturing gaming as gamers knew it thus remains one without a comprehensive solution. I must confess that this is one reason I’m always happy when you, my readers, share your experiences with this or that game in the comments section — even, or perhaps especially, when you disagree with my own judgments on a game.

Still, relying exclusively on first-hand accounts from decades later to capture what it was like to be a gamer in the old days can be problematic in the same way that it can be problematic to rely exclusively on interviews with game developers to capture how and why games were made all those years ago: memories can fade, personal agendas can intrude, and those rose-colored glasses of nostalgia can be hard to take off. Pretty soon we’re calling every game from our adolescence a masterpiece and dumping on the brain-dead games played by all those stupid kids today — and get off my lawn while you’re at it. The golden age of gaming, like the golden age of science fiction, will always be twelve or somewhere thereabouts. All that’s fine for hoisting a beer with the other old-timers, but it can be worse than useless for doing serious history.

Thankfully, every once in a while I stumble upon another sort of cracked window into this aspect of gaming’s past. As many of you know, I’ve spent a couple of weeks over the last couple of years trolling through the voluminous (and growing) game-history archives of the Strong Museum of Play. Most of this material, hugely valuable to me though it’s been and will doubtless continue to be, focuses on the game-making side of the equation. Some of the archives, though, contain letters from actual players, giving that unvarnished glimpse into their world that I so crave. Indeed, these letters are among my favorite things in the archives. They are, first of all, great fun. The ones from the youngsters are often absurdly cute; it’s amazing how many liked to draw pictures to accompany their missives.

But it’s when I turn to the letters from older writers that I’m gratified and, yes, made to feel a little validated when I read that people were in fact noticing that games weren’t always playing fair with them. I’d like to share a couple of the more interesting letters of this type with you today.

We’ll begin with a letter from one Wes Irby of Plano, Texas, describing what he does and especially what he doesn’t enjoy in CRPGs. At the time he sent it to the Questbusters adventure-game newsletter in October of 1988, Irby was a self-described “grizzled computer adventurer” of age 43. Shay Addams, Questbusters’s editor, found the letter worthy enough to spread around among publishers of CRPGs. (Perhaps tellingly, he didn’t choose to publish it in his newsletter.)

Irby titles his missive “Things I Hate in a Fantasy-Role-Playing Game.” Taken on its own, it serves very well as a companion piece to a similar article I once wrote about graphic adventures. But because I just can’t shut up, and because I can’t resist taking the opportunity to point out places where Irby is unusually prescient or insightful, I’ve inserted my own comments into the piece; they appear in italics in the text that follows. Otherwise, I’ve only cleaned up the punctuation and spelling a bit here and there. The rest is Irby’s original letter from 1988.

I hate rat killing!!! In Shard of Spring, I had to kill dozens of rats, snakes, kobolds, and bats before I could get back to the tower after a Wind Walk to safety. In Wizardry, the rats were Murphy’s ghosts, which I pummeled for hours when developing a new character. Ultima IV was perhaps the ultimate rat-killing game of all time; hour upon hour was spent in tedious little battles that I could not possibly lose and that offered little reward for victory. Give me a good battle to test my mettle, but don’t sentence me to rat killing!

Amen. The CRPG genre became the victim of an expectation which took hold early on that the games needed to be really, really long, needed to consume dozens if not hundreds of hours, in order for players to get their money’s worth. With disk space precious and memory space even more so on the computers of the era, developers had to pad out their games with a constant stream of cheap low-stakes random encounters to reach that goal. Amidst the other Interplay materials hosted at the Strong archive are several mentions of a version of Wasteland, prepared specially for testers in a hurry, in which the random encounters were left out entirely. That’s the version of Wasteland I’d like to play.

I hate being stuck!!! I enjoy the puzzles, riddles, and quests as a way to give some story line to the real heart of the game, which is killing bad guys. Just don’t give me any puzzles I can’t solve in a couple of hours. I solved Rubik’s Cube in about thirty hours, and that was nothing compared to some of the puzzles in The Destiny Knight. The last riddle in Knight of Diamonds delayed my completion (and purchase of the sequel) for nearly six months, until I made a call to Sir-Tech.

I haven’t discussed the issue of bad puzzle design in CRPGs to the same extent as I have the same issue in adventure games, but suffice to say that just about everything I’ve written in the one context applies equally in the other. Certainly riddles remain among the laziest — they require almost no programming effort to implement — and most problematic — they rely by definition on intuition and external cultural knowledge — forms of puzzle in either genre. Riddles aren’t puzzles at all really; the answer either pops into your head right away or it doesn’t, meaning the riddle turns into either a triviality or a brick wall. A good puzzle, by contrast, is one you can experiment with on your way to the correct solution. And as for the puzzles in The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight… much more on them a little later.

Perhaps the worst aspect of being stuck is the clue-book dilemma. Buying a clue book is demeaning. In addition, buying clue books could encourage impossible puzzles to boost the aftermarket for clue books. I am a reformed game pirate (that is how I got hooked), and I feel it is just as unfair for a company to charge me to finish the game I bought as it was for me to play the games (years ago) without paying for them. Multiple solutions, a la Might and Magic, are very nice. That game also had the desirable feature of allowing you to work on several things simultaneously so that being stuck on one didn’t bring the whole game to a standstill.

Here Irby brings up an idea I’ve also touched on once or twice: that the very worst examples of bad design can be read as not just good-faith disappointments but actual ethical lapses on the part of developers and publishers. Does selling consumers a game with puzzles that are insoluble except through hacking or the most tedious sort of brute-force approaches equate to breaching good faith by knowingly selling them a defective product? I tend to feel that it does.

As part of the same debate, the omnipresent clue books became a locus of much dark speculation and conspiracy theorizing back in the day. Did publishers, as Irby suggests, intentionally release games that couldn’t be solved without buying the clue book, thereby to pick up additional sales? The profit margins on clue books, not incidentally, tended to be much higher than that enjoyed by the games themselves. Still, the answer is more complicated than the question may first appear. Based on my research into the industry of the time, I don’t believe that any publishers or developers made insoluble games with the articulated motive of driving clue-book sales. To the extent that there was an ulterior motive surrounding the subject of clue books, it was that the clue books would allow them to make money off some of the people who pirated their games. (Rumors — almost certainly false, but telling by their very presence — occasionally swirled around the industry about this or that popular title whose clue-book sales had allegedly outstripped the number of copies of the actual game which had been sold.) Yet the fact does remain that even the hope of using clue books as a way of getting money out of pirates required games that would be difficult enough to cause many pirates to go out and buy the book. The human mind is a funny place, and the clue-book business likely did create certain almost unconscious pressures on game designers to design less soluble games.

I hate no-fault life insurance! If there is no penalty, there is no risk, there is no fear — translate that to no excitement. The adrenaline actually surged a few times during play of the Wizardry series when I encountered a group of monsters that might defeat me. In Bard’s Tale II, death was so painless that I committed suicide several times because it was the most expedient way to return to the Adventurer’s Guild.

When you take the risk of loss out of the game, it might as well be a crossword puzzle. The loss of possessions in Ultima IV and the loss of constitution in Might and Magic were tolerable compromises. The undead status in Phantasie was very nice. Your character was unharmed except for the fact that no further advancement was possible. Penalties can be too severe, of course. In Shard of Spring, loss of one battle means all characters are permanently lost. Too tough.

Here Irby hits on one of the most fraught debates in CRPG design, stretching from the days of the original Wizardry to today: what should be the penalty for failure? There’s no question that the fact that you couldn’t save in the dungeon was one of the defining aspects of Wizardry, the game that did more than any other to popularize the budding genre in the very early 1980s. Exultant stories of escaping the dreaded Total Party Loss by the skin of one’s teeth come up again and again when you read about the game. Andrew Greenberg and Bob Woodhead, the designers of Wizardry, took a hard-line stance on the issue, insisting that the lack of an in-dungeon save function was fundamental to an experience they had carefully crafted. They went so far as to issue legal threats against third-party utilities designed to mitigate the danger.

Over time, though, the mainstream CRPG industry moved toward the save-often, save-anywhere model, leaving Wizardry’s approach only to a hardcore sub-genre known as roguelikes. It seems clear that the change had some negative effects on encounter design; designers, assuming that players were indeed saving often and saving everywhere, felt they could afford to worry less about hitting players with impossible fights. Yet it also seems clear that many or most players, given the choice, would prefer to avoid the exhilaration of escaping near-disasters in Wizardry in favor of avoiding the consequences of unescaped disasters. The best solution, it seems to me, is to make limited or unlimited saving a player-selectable option. Failing that, it strikes me as better to err on the side of generosity; after all, hardcore players can still capture the exhilaration and anguish of an iron-man mode by simply imposing their own rules for when they allow themselves to save. All that said, the debate will doubtless continue to rage.

I hate being victimized. Loss of life, liberty, etc., in a situation I could have avoided through skillful play is quite different from a capricious, unavoidable loss. The Amulet of Skill in Knight of Diamonds was one such situation. It was not reasonable to expect me to fail to try the artifacts I found — a fact I soon remedied with my backup disk!!! The surprise attacks of the mages in Wizardry was another such example. Each of the Wizardry series seems to have one of these, but the worst was the teleportation trap on the top level of Wizardry III, which permanently encased my best party in stone.

Beyond rather putting the lie to some of Greenberg and Woodhead’s claims of having exhaustively balanced the Wizardry games, these criticisms again echo those I’ve made in the context of adventure games. Irby’s examples are the CRPG equivalents of the dreaded adventure-game Room of Sudden Death — except that in CRPGs like Wizardry with perma-death, their consequences are much more dire than just having to go back to your last save.

I hate extraordinary characters! If everyone is extraordinary then extraordinary becomes extra (extremely) ordinary and uninteresting. The characters in Ultima III and IV and Bard’s Tale I and II all had the maximum ratings for all stats before the end of the game. They lose their personalities that way.

This is one of Irby’s subtler complaints, but also I think one of his most insightful. Characters in CRPGs are made interesting, as he points out, through a combination of strengths and weaknesses. I spent considerable time in a recent article describing how the design standards of SSI’s “Gold Box” series of licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs declined over time, but couldn’t find a place for the example of Pools of Darkness, the fourth and last game in the series that began with Pool of Radiance. Most of the fights in Pools of Darkness are effectively unwinnable if you don’t have “extraordinary” characters, in that they come down to quick-draw contests to find out whether your party or the monsters can fire off devastating area-effect magic first. Your entire party needs to have a maxed-out dexterity score of 18 to hope to consistently survive these battles. Pools of Darkness thus rewards cheaters and punishes honest players; it represents a cruel betrayal of players who had played through the entire series honestly to that point, without availing themselves of character editors or the like. CRPGs should strive not to make the extraordinary ordinary, and they should certainly not demand extraordinary characters that the player can only come by through cheating.

There are several more features which I find undesirable, but are not sufficiently irritating to put them in the “I hate” category. One such feature is the inability to save the game in certain places or situations. It is miserable to find yourself in a spot you can’t get out of (or don’t want to leave because of the difficulty in returning) at midnight (real time). I have continued through the wee hours on occasion, much to my regret the next day. At other times it has gotten so bad I have dozed off at the keyboard. The trek from the surface to the final set of riddles in Ultima IV takes nearly four hours. Without the ability to save along the way, this doesn’t make for good after-dinner entertainment. Some of the forays in the Phantasie series are also long and difficult, with no provision to save. This problem is compounded when you have an old machine like mine that locks up periodically. Depending on the weather and the phase of the moon, sometimes I can’t rely on sessions that average over half an hour.

There’s an interesting conflict here, which I sense that the usually insightful Irby may not have fully grasped, between his demand that death have consequences in CRPGs and his belief that he should be able to save anywhere. At the same time, though, it’s not an irreconcilable conflict. Roguelikes have traditionally made it possible to save anywhere by quitting the game, but immediately delete the save when you start to play again, thus making it impossible to use later on as a fallback position.

Still, it should always raise a red flag when a given game’s designers claim something which just happens to have been the easier choice from a technical perspective to have been a considered design choice. This skepticism should definitely be applied to Wizardry. Were the no-save dungeons that were such an integral part of the Wizardry experience really a considered design choice or a (happy?) accident arising from technical affordances? It’s very difficult to say this many years on. What is clear is that saving state in any sort of comprehensive way was a daunting challenge for 8-bit CRPGs spread over multiple disk sides. Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale didn’t really even bother to try; literally the only persistent data in these games and many others like them is the state of your characters, meaning not only that the dungeons are completely reset every time you enter them but that it’s possible to “win” them over and over again by killing the miraculously resurrected big baddie again and again. The 8-bit Ultima games did a little better, saving the state of the world map but not that of the cities or the dungeons. (I’ve nitpicked the extreme cruelty of Ultima IV’s ending, which Irby also references, enough on earlier occasions that I won’t belabor it any more here.) Only quite late in the day for the 8-bit CRPG did games like Wasteland work out ways to create truly, comprehensively persistent environments — in the case of Wasteland, by rewriting all of the data on each disk side on the fly as the player travels around the world (a very slow process, particularly in the case of the Commodore 64 and its legendarily slow disk drive).

Tedium is a killer. In Bard’s Tale there was one battle with 297 bersekers that always took fifteen or twenty minutes with the same results (this wasn’t rat-killing because the reward was significant and I could lose, maybe). The process of healing the party in the dungeon in Wizardry and the process of identifying discovered items in Shard of Spring are laborious. How boring it was in Ultima IV to stand around waiting for a pirate ship to happen along so I could capture it. The same can be said of sitting there holding down a key in Wasteland or Wrath of Denethenor while waiting for healing to occur. At least give me a wait command so I can read a book until something interesting happens.

I’m sort of ambivalent toward most aspects of mapping. A good map is satisfying and a good way to be sure nothing has been missed. Sometimes my son will use my maps (he hates mapping) in a game and find he is ready to go to the next level before his characters are. Mapping is a useful way to pace the game. The one irritating aspect of mapping is running off the edge of the paper. In Realms of Darkness mapping was very difficult because there was no “locater” or “direction” spell. More bothersome to me, though, was the fact that I never knew where to start on my paper. I had the same problem with Shard of Spring, but in retrospect that game didn’t require mapping.

Mapping is another area where the technical affordances of the earliest games had a major effect on their designs. The dungeon levels in most 8-bit CRPGs were laid out on grids of a consistent number of squares across and down; such a template minimized memory usage and simplified the programmer’s task enormously. Unrealistic though it was, it was also a blessing for mappers. Wizardry, a game that was oddly adept at turning its technical limitations into player positives, even included sheets of graph paper of exactly the right size in the box. Later games like Dungeon Master, whose levels sprawl everywhere, run badly afoul of the problem Irby describes above — that of maps “running off the edge of the paper.” In the case of Dungeon Master, it’s the one glaring flaw in what could otherwise serve as a masterclass in designing a challenging yet playable dungeon crawl.

I don’t like it when a program doesn’t take advantage of my second disk drive, and I would feel that way about my printer if I had one. I don’t like junk magic (spells you never use), and I don’t like being stuck forever with the names I pick on the spur of the moment. A name that struck my fancy one day may not on another.

Another problem similar to “junk magic” that only really began to surface around the time that Irby was writing this letter is junk skills. Wasteland is loaded with skills that are rarely or never useful, along with others that are essential, and there’s no way for the new player to identify which are which. It’s a more significant problem than junk magic usually is because you invest precious points into learning and advancing your skills; there’s a well-nigh irreversible opportunity cost to your choices. All of what we might call the second generation of Interplay CRPGs, which began with Wasteland, suffer at least somewhat from this syndrome. Like the sprawling dungeon levels in Dungeon Master, it’s an example of the higher ambitions and more sophisticated programming of later games impacting the end result in ways that are, at best, mixed in terms of playability.

I suppose you are wondering why I play these stupid games if there is so much about them I don’t like. Actually, there are more things I do like, particularly when compared to watching Gilligan’s Island or whatever the current TV fare is. I suppose it would be appropriate to mention a few of the things I do like.

In discussing the unavoidably anachronistic experience we have of old games today, we often note how many other games are at our fingertips — a luxury a kid who might hope to get one new game every birthday and Christmas most definitely didn’t enjoy. What we perhaps don’t address as much as we should is how much the entertainment landscape in general has changed. It can be a little tough even for those of us who lived through the 1980s to remember what a desert television was back then. I remember a television commercial — and from the following decade at that — in which a man checked into a hotel of the future, and was told that every movie ever made was available for viewing at the click of a remote control. Back then, this was outlandish science fiction. Today, it’s reality.

I like variety and surprises. Give me a cast of thousands over a fixed party anytime. Of course, the game designer has to force the need for multiple parties on me, or I will stick with the same group throughout because that is the best way to “win” the game. The Minotaur Temple in Phantasie I and the problems men had in Portsmouth in Might and Magic and the evil and good areas of Wizardry III were nice. More attractive are party changes for strategic reasons. What good are magic users in no-magic areas or a bard in a silent room? A rescue mission doesn’t need a thief and repetitive battles with many small opponents don’t require a fighter that deals heavy damage to one bad guy.

I like variety and surprises in the items found, the map, the specials encountered, in short in every aspect of the game. I like figuring out what things are and how they work. What a delight the thief’s dagger in Wizardry was! The maps in Wasteland are wonderful because any map may contain a map. The countryside contains towns and villages, the towns contain buildings, some buildings contain floors or secret passages. What fun!!!

I like missions and quests to pursue as I proceed. Some of these games are so large that intermediate goals are necessary to keep you on track. Might and Magic, Phantasie, and Bard’s Tale do a good job of creating a path with the “missions.” I like self-contained clues about the puzzles. In The Return of Heracles the sage was always there to provide an assist (for money, of course)  if you got stuck. The multiple solutions or sources of vital information in Might and Magic greatly enhanced the probability of completing the missions and kept the game moving.

I like the idea of recruiting new characters, as opposed to starting over from scratch. In Galactic Adventures your crew could be augmented by recruiting survivors of a battle, provided they were less experienced than your leader. Charisma (little used in most games) could impact recruiting. Wasteland provides for recruiting of certain predetermined characters you encounter. These NPCs can be controlled almost like your characters and will advance with experience. Destiny Knight allows you to recruit (with a magic spell) any of the monsters you encounter, and requires that some specific characters be recruited to solve some of the puzzles, but these NPCs can’t be controlled and will not advance in level, so they are temporary members. They will occasionally turn on you, an interesting twist!!!

I like various skills, improved by practice or training for various characters. This makes the characters unique individuals, adding to the variety. This was implemented nicely in both Galactic Adventurers and Wasteland.

Eternal growth for my characters makes every session a little different and intriguing. If the characters “top out” too soon that aspect of the game loses its fascination. Wizardry was the best at providing continual growth opportunities because of the opportunity to change class and retain some of the abilities of the previous class. The Phantasie series seemed nicely balanced, with the end of the quest coming just before/as my characters topped out.

Speaking of eternal, I have never in all of my various adventures had a character retire because of age. Wizardry tried, but it never came into play because it was cheaper to heal at the foot of the stairs while identifying loot (same trip or short run to the dungeon for that purpose). Phantasie kept up with age, but it never affected play. I thought Might and Magic might, but I found the Fountain of Youth. The only FRPG I have played where you had to beat the clock is Tunnels of Doom, a simple hack-and-slash on my TI 99/4A that takes about ten hours for a game. Of course, it is quite different to spend ten hours and fail because the king died than it is to spend three months and fail by a few minutes. I like for time to be a factor to prevent me from being too conservative.

This matter of time affecting play really doesn’t fit into the “like” or the “don’t like” because I’ve never seen it effectively implemented. There are a couple of other items like that on my wish list. For example, training of new characters by older characters should take the place of slugging it out with Murphy’s ghost while the newcomers watch from the safety of the back row.

The placing of time limits on a game sounds to me like a very dangerous proposal. It was tried in 1989, the year after Irby wrote this letter, by The Magic Candle, a game that I haven’t played but that is quite well-regarded by the CRPG cognoscenti. That game was, however, kind enough to offer three difficulty levels, each with its own time limit, and the easiest level was generous enough that most players report that time never became a major factor. I don’t know of any game, even from this much crueler era of game design in general, that was cruel enough to let you play 100 hours or more and then tell you you’d lost because the evil wizard had finished conquering the world, thank you very much. Such an approach might have been more realistic than the alternative, where the evil wizard cackles and threatens occasionally but doesn’t seem to actually do much, but, as Sid Meier puts it, fun ought to trump realism every time in game design.

A very useful feature would be the ability to create my own macro consisting of a dozen or so keystrokes. Set up Control-1 through Control-9 and give me a simple way to specify the keystrokes to be executed when one is pressed.

Interestingly, this exact feature showed up in Interplay’s CRPGs very shortly after Irby wrote this letter, beginning with the MS-DOS version of Wasteland in March of 1989. And we do know that Interplay was one of the companies to which Shay Addams sent the letter. Is this a case of a single gamer’s correspondence being responsible for a significant feature in later games? The answer is likely lost forever to the vagaries of time and the inexactitude of memory.

A record of sorts of what has happened during the game would be nice. The chevron in Wizardry and the origin in Phantasie is the most I’ve ever seen done with this. How about a screen that told me I had 93 sessions, 4 divine interventions (restore backup), completed 12 quests, raised characters from the dead 47 times, and killed 23,472 monsters? Cute, huh?

Another crazily prescient proposal. These sorts of meta-textual status screens would become commonplace in CRPGs in later years. In this case, though, “later years” means much later. Thus, rather than speculating on whether he actively drove the genre’s future innovations, we can credit Irby this time merely with predicting them.

One last suggestion for the manufacturers: if you want that little card you put in each box back, offer me something I want. For example, give me a list of all the other nuts in my area code who have purchased this game and returned their little cards.

Enough of this, Wasteland is waiting.

With some exceptions — the last suggestion, for instance, would be a privacy violation that would make even the NSA raise an eyebrow — I agree with most of Irby’s positive suggestions, just as I do his complaints. It strikes me as I read through his letter that my own personal favorite among 8-bit CRPGs, Pool of Radiance, manages to avoid most of Irby’s pitfalls while implementing much from his list of desirable features — further confirmation of just what a remarkable piece of work that game, and to an only slightly lesser extent its sequel Curse of the Azure Bonds, really were. I hope Wes Irby got a chance to play them.

I have less to say about the second letter I’d like to share with you, and will thus present it without in-line commentary. This undated letter was sent directly to Interplay by its writer: Thomas G. Gutheil, an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry, on whose letterhead it’s written. Its topic is The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight, a game I’ve written about only in passing but one with some serious design problems in the form of well-nigh insoluble puzzles. Self-serving though it may be, I present Gutheil’s letter to you today as one more proof that players did notice the things that were wrong with games back in the day — and that my perspective on them today therefore isn’t an entirely anachronistic one. More importantly, Gutheil’s speculations are still some of the most cogent I’ve ever seen on how bad puzzles make their way into games in the first place. For this reason alone, it’s eminently worthy of being preserved for posterity.

I am writing you a combination fan letter and critique in regard to the two volumes of The Bard’s Tale, of which I am a regular and fanatic user.

First, the good news: this is a TERRIFIC game, and I play it with addictive intensity, approximately an hour almost every day. The richness of the graphics, the cute depictions of the various characters, monsters, etc., and rich complexity and color of the mazes, tasks, issues, as well as the dry wit that pervades the program, make it a superb piece and probably the best maze-type adventure product on the market today. I congratulate you on this achievement.

Now, the bad news: the one thing I feel represents a defect in your program (and I only take your time to comment on it because it is so central) and one which is perhaps the only area where the Wizardry series (of which I am also an avid player and expert) is superior, is the notion of the so-called puzzles, a problem which becomes particularly noticeable in the “snares of death” in the second scenario. In all candor, speaking as an old puzzle taker and as a four-time grand master of the Boston Phoenix Puzzle Contest, I must say that these puzzles are simply too personal and idiosyncratic to be fair to the player. I would imagine you are doing a booming business in clue books since many of the puzzles are simply not accomplishable otherwise without hours of frustrating work, most of it highly speculative.

Permit me to try to clarify this point, since I am aware of the sensitive nature of these comments, given that I would imagine you regard the puzzles as being the “high art” of the game design. There should be an organic connection between the clues and the puzzles. For example, in Wizardry (sorry to plug the competition), there is a symbolic connection between the clue and its function. As one simplistic example, at the simplest level a bear statuette get you through a gate guarded by a bear, a key opens a particular door, and a ship-in-a-bottle item gets you across an open expanse of water.

Let me try to contrast this with some of the situations in your scenarios. You may recall that in one of the scenarios the presence of a “winged one” in the party was necessary to get across a particular chasm. The Winged One introduces himself to the party as one of almost a thousand individual wandering creatures that come and offer to join the party, to be attacked, or to be left in peace. This level of dilution and the failure to separate out the Winged One in some way makes it practically unrecallable much later on when you need it, particularly since there are several levels of dungeon (and in real life perhaps many interposing days and weeks) between the time you meet the Winged One (who does not stand out among the other wandering characters in any particular way) and the time you actually need him. Even if (as I do) you keep notes, there would be no particular reason to record this creature out of all. Moreover, to have this added character stuck in your party for long periods of time, when you could instead have the many-times more effective demons, Kringles, and salamanders, etc., would seem strategically self-defeating and therefore counter-intuitive for the normal strategy of game play AS IT IS ACTUALLY PLAYED.

This is my point: in many ways your puzzles in the scenarios seem to have been designed by someone who is not playing the in the usual sequence, but designed as it were from the viewpoint of the programmer, who looks at the scenario “from above” — that is, from omniscient knowledge. In many situations the maze fails to take into account the fact that parties will not necessarily explore the maze in the predictable direct sequence you have imagined. The flow of doors and corridors do not appropriately guide a player so that they will take the puzzles in a meaningful sequence. Thus, when one gets a second clue before a first clue, only confusion results, and it is rarely resolved as the play advances.

Every once in a while you do catch on, and that is when something like the rock-scissors-paper game is invoked in your second scenario. That’s generally playing fair, although not everyone has played that game or would recognize it in the somewhat cryptic form in which it is presented. Thus the player does not gain the satisfaction of use of intellect in problem solving; instead, it’s the frustration of playing “guess what I’m thinking” with the author.

Despite all of the above criticism, the excitement and the challenge of playing the game still make it uniquely attractive; as you have no doubt caught on, I write because I care. I have had to actively fight the temptation to simply hack my way through the “snares of death” by direct cribbing from the clue books, so that I could get on to the real interest of the game, which is working one’s way through the dungeons and encountering the different items, monsters, and challenges. I believe that this impatience with the idiosyncratic (thus fundamentally unfair) design of these puzzles represents an impediment, and I would be interested to know if others have commented on this. Note that it doesn’t take any more work for the programmer, but merely a shift of viewpoint to make the puzzles relevant and fair to the reader and also proof against being taken “out of order,” which largely confuses the meaning. A puzzle that is challenging and tricky is fair; a puzzle that is idiosyncratically cryptic may not be.

Thank you for your attention to this somewhat long-winded letter; it was important to me to write. Given how much I care for this game and how devoted I am to playing it and to awaiting future scenarios, I wanted to call your attention to this issue. You need not respond personally, but I would of course be interested in any of your thoughts on this.

I conclude this article as a whole by echoing Gutheil’s closing sentiments; your feedback is the best part of writing this blog. I hope you didn’t find my musings on the process of doing history too digressive, and most of all I hope you found Wes Irby and Thomas Gutheil’s all too rare views from the trenches as fascinating as I did.


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76 Responses to The View from the Trenches (or, Some Deadly Sins of CRPG Design)

  1. Andrew Plotkin

    May 12, 2017 at 5:26 pm

    “Nobody ever got a date, much less got lucky, from being a ‘hardcore gamer'”

    I agree with the sentiment you’re trying to convey, but this kind of absolute generalization is begging the counterexamples to “well-actually” their way out of the woodwork. There must be *someone*.

    And plenty of people are more concerned with their own social circles than with what the “wider culture” thinks. I include myself without embarrassment.

    • Sol_HSA

      May 12, 2017 at 5:57 pm

      Hm, Korea and their hardcore starcraft players? =)

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 12, 2017 at 6:04 pm

      Sure, I’m sure there’s someone. But you can’t endlessly qualify everything, else there comes a point where you’re not saying much of anything.

      More to the point, my strong impression is that most people I was thinking of when making that observation really *do* care — care desperately, in fact — about what the wider world thinks of them. It’s their feeling that they aren’t getting their due that is the source from which their resentments spring.

      • Jimmy Maher

        May 13, 2017 at 2:50 pm

        So, I’ve gotten a little more push back on this. In writing that, I thought it would be clear that I was expressing the values of the people who tend to make such comments — such as the fellow around here was recently bragging that Gary Gygax was “snorting cocaine off of strippers” when he died — rather than expressing my own. But it seems that wasn’t coming through liked I assumed it would. In retrospect, it was a little juvenile by any standards. So, it’s gone.

        • MalcolmM

          May 14, 2017 at 3:24 am

          As an at times hardcore gamer I don’t mind your comment, even if it isn’t strictly true.

          I always liked what Dan/Danielle Buten said – “No one ever said on their deathbed, ‘Gee, I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer.”.

          • Dougl

            May 15, 2017 at 4:13 pm

            I might say something about…ahhh…Cyberpunk 2077 is coming out next, why now? Why now!?

    • Lisa H.

      May 12, 2017 at 7:23 pm

      I was thinking a “Well, actually…” in my head when I read that.

  2. James Schend

    May 12, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    In the spirit of your closing paragraph, I’d like to comment but I have nothing substantial to say. Just a typo.

    In the second letter, “Boston Phoenix Puzzle Context” should be “Puzzle Contest”.

    Please keep up the excellent writing, I’m a big fan of your blog.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 12, 2017 at 5:58 pm


  3. Sol_HSA

    May 12, 2017 at 5:57 pm

    The original mechwarrior had a hidden time limit. If you grinded your character to a point where the battles are easy and then started following the plotline, at some point the game would, instead of letting you fight the baddies, simply say that you’re too late. I was rather pissed.

    • Jayle Enn

      May 12, 2017 at 6:19 pm

      I think it did say something like ‘Five years remain’ at the end of a cryptic passage that began the game, but it wasn’t really obvious. It was pretty easy to lose track of the plot if you went to one of the dozens of wrong planets.

      I think a friend tried to follow the plot all of once, after we realized it was there. Pacing was so tight, he didn’t have much of a chance to assemble a decent lance of ‘mechs.

      At least there was no formal game-over for literally losing the plot. We spent a number of months buying expensive ‘mechs and experimenting with lance configurations.

      • Sol_HSA

        May 13, 2017 at 9:24 am

        The five years remain does ring a bell. However, most games throw something like that at you and don’t really mean it (pool of radiance’s twin tower thing comes to mind – after conquering one tower, you’ve told to hurry to the other.. I spent couple months in game time healing before continuing to the second tower).

        Also, mechwarrior lets you follow the plot completely, just the last fight is denied from you. That was annoying.

      • barnacles

        May 15, 2017 at 2:59 am

        I seem to recall the time limit was made a bit more obvious throughout the game, particularly when taking missions, but as a young teen playing the game I simply was never able to get my group good enough in time. I was also pissed at the game, because I just wanted to be able to play the game and enjoy it on my own time and just have fun being a mechwarrior, not having to work to an arbitrary and capricious time frame.

        In the end, MW was a major reason why I taught myself about hexidecimal savefile editing as a slightly less-young teen. They didn’t give me enough time to play the game as I wanted to, so instead I just set the game clock back whenever it started to get too tight.

        That skill came in handy a year or two later when I decided to play Ultima 2. For how quickly rations ran out, it should have been called “food buying simulator”. Hex editing to the rescue, again!

  4. Jayle Enn

    May 12, 2017 at 6:12 pm

    I played Ultima V for about two years. Probably half of that time was because the copy protection ‘puzzle’ took far too long to click for me. That, and I was one of those kids who wanted to -live- in Britannia.

    I’ve tried to go back. I can’t. The story is still there, and I recall the stick figure graphics fondly, but the gameplay is clunky and slow and boring, and I don’t have the time or inclination to scour dialogue for keywords. Amusingly, I remember being -aghast- when I saw that Ultima VII got rid of the typing parser and laid its keywords bare.

    Honestly, I think that a lot of these old games are admirable from a technical perspective… but as games and stories, they’re primitive or amateurish. It’s like, you wouldn’t expect L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat to entertain a modern audience, but it’s still noteworthy for being the first publicly shown motion picture, ever.

  5. Carlton Little

    May 12, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    “Shaffer died in 2010 at age 99. Only after his passing, after reading his obituary, did Heimlich and other old computer-game buddies realize what an extraordinary life Shaffer had actually led, encompassing an education from Harvard University, a long career in construction and building management, 18 patents in construction engineering, an active leadership role in the Republican party, a Golden Glove championship in heavyweight boxing, and a long and successful run as a yacht racer and sailor of the world’s oceans. And yes, he had also loved to play computer games, parlaying that passion into more than 500 published articles.”

    Had to instill that envy, eh mate? Such a person is not “higher quality” than the rest of us, who don’t excel in anything, not even games. I’m not sharp or focused enough even to excel at games–the point is experiential for me, mostly–much less to do any of the other things this man allegedly did. (I’m sure he didn’t do it all on his own, though.. no man is an island.)

    Where’s the love for the curveballs among us, those who don’t do well in anything, and still play games (although not very well!) That elitist sensibility, man.. it just grates on me.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 13, 2017 at 7:44 am

      Well, I haven’t done a fraction of what Shaffer did in his life either, nor am I terribly good at games. But I’d suggest we might both be able to honestly respect his achievements without feeling envious of them. For my part, I have no interest in hitting people for sport, and the last place you’d ever find me is anywhere near the Republican party.

      A journalistic endeavor like this one is, alas, a difficult place to capture what you seem to be looking for. I prescribe some Replacements:

    • ShadowAngel

      May 16, 2017 at 9:47 am

      Must suck to realize what a pathetic life you have compared to other people who are actually successful, eh?
      Crying about that won’t change a damn thing though.Maybe get up from your lazy ass and try to accomplish something? It’s not that difficult. Also has nothing to do with “elitist” anything but actually just with living and every human just try to make as much as possible out of his/her life.

  6. Infinitron

    May 12, 2017 at 7:22 pm

    as among the ones who fire off nasty emails from anonymous addresses, who post screeds on less polite sites to which I’m occasionally pointed, or who offer up their drive-by comments right here every once in a while

    Ahem. If you’re referring to the site that I think you are, then I guess I should apologize for inflicting a certain individual on your comments section. I certainly don’t like the idea that our little hive of villainy has disturbed your regular posting schedule.

    However, I should note that one of your recent critics there (who has not posted in these comments) is the designer of a well-received Wadjet Eye graphic adventure game and a person who is very much not a basement-dwelling troll. His opinions are worth taking seriously.

    • Captain Rufus

      May 13, 2017 at 9:22 pm

      You mean the Codex.

      A place that for years has had two sides to it: the side which is practically the ONLY active site for classical RPG discussion of a computer bent. And the other side which is more or less a readable version of Reddit/4Chan full of elitist douchebags who “ironically” post alt right screeds and homophobic, racist, and anti Semitic garbage while bashing video games that don’t fit their narrow view as to what is acceptable to play.

      The second part honestly ruins the site and probably has pushed more people away from Classic CRPGs than it has brought anyone into the fold.

      There are quite a few of us who have to put caveats in even linking to the Codex for just that reason. And it’s a shame as it is like the only active forum for such Classic RPG talk. There is only so much that a comment section here or on a Matt Barton video or on RPGAddict’s blog can do! And the few times any Codex thread actually starts discussing if the site should be more than just posting like douchebags most of the time it dies out quickly.

      • Iffy Bonzoolie

        June 3, 2020 at 2:54 am

        I like RPGs, and I like… Codices? Books, I guess, which I do like. But, RPGCodex seems like some kind of alt-right incubator that also happens to talk about RPGs. If anyone mentions Social Justice Warriors in a perjorative way, I have to assume they come from the Codex.

        I just don’t understand the correlation.

  7. Alex Freeman

    May 12, 2017 at 8:11 pm

    Yeah, it’s interesting how much my taste in games has changed since the old days. Almost all of my very first computer games like Rescue the Hostages, Mummies, and Bugs Bunny’s Hare-Brained Adventure have not held up well (although I still like Castle Adventure). I remember showing a friend Hostages a few years ago only to apologize because the game was much worse than I remembered it being.

    In a less extreme instance, I’ve had my younger brother play some adventure games I played a while ago, and most of them didn’t hold up quite as well as I remembered them although it wasn’t a disaster like showing Hostages. King’s Quest 2 is much more bare bones than I remembered it being, and there’s more trekking back and forth than I remembered.

    On the other hand, I revisited King’s Quest 4 about a year or so ago, having lost some of my memories due to something I won’t get into, and it still held up despite some major problems I’d forgotten all about like climbing the whale’s tongue.

    I do remember when I first played adventure games, I used to not see a problem with deaths without warning or objects lying in the middle of some field for no reason. I did have a problem with making the game unwinnable, though. Although I still think that’s been a major problem for adventure games, I’m not quite as inflexible about that as I used to be. I used to be OK with grinding in RPGs although I now think RPGs need to reduce the need to raise stats or raise them differently such as for overcoming an obstacle.

    “Here Irby hits on one of the most fraught debates in CRPG design, stretching from the days of the original Wizardry to today: what should be the penalty for failure?”
    I’ve thought about this myself. Depending on kind of game it is, perhaps rather than restricting the ability to save games, reward the player for only using one saved game file, maybe with better loot lying around or having a special victory message or whatnot at the end.

    “The characters in Ultima III and IV and Bard’s Tale I and II all had the maximum ratings for all stats before the end of the game. They lose their personalities that way.”
    That’s one thing I’ve never liked about RPGs. Your stats often start out piddling and then go up as if your characters were on steroids. Same with wealth. RPGs all seem to have broken economies. You start out having hardly anything and end with more money than the real kings and queens of the middle ages ever had. These games need living expenses and stats that go up only a little if the game doesn’t take place over years. And make it so your stats don’t go up AT ALL if you’re doing the equivalent of rat killing. Doing first grade math over and over is unlikely to make a high schooler any better at trig.

    “Another problem similar to “junk magic” that only really began to surface around the time that Irby was writing this letter is junk skills.”
    True, aside from Quest for Glory, lock picking always seems to be a useless skill because of the availability of an “open” spell. Interestingly, magic users in most RPGs seem to be worse than fighters because of how quickly even the powerful ones run out of mana if you rely on it for fighting, thereby having to resort to physical combat, which the fighter is much better at.

    “It can be a little tough even for those of us who lived through the 1980s to remember what a desert television was back then.”
    Yup. I remember using YouTube to revisit the cartoons back (some of which I even watched back in the day), and they were generally unwatchable. It was almost always the same basic premise. It was Team Good vs. Team Evil. With few exceptions, they’ve been forgotten and with good reason.

    “Honestly, I think that a lot of these old games are admirable from a technical perspective… but as games and stories, they’re primitive or amateurish. It’s like, you wouldn’t expect L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat to entertain a modern audience, but it’s still noteworthy for being the first publicly shown motion picture, ever.”
    I’ve had similar thoughts about early video games, movies, and even TV. On the one hand, they could be quite primitive, but, on the other hand, you had pioneers having fun being creative, and it often shows.

  8. Eriorg

    May 12, 2017 at 8:55 pm

    So, we must look elsewhere to find out what average players were really thinking. But where? Most of the day-to-day discussions among gamers back in the day took place over the telephone, on school playgrounds, on computer bulletin boards, or on the early commercial online services that preceded the World Wide Web.

    What about *fanzines*, though? Since they were usually made for free and devoid of advertising, we might hope (I’m not sure) that they had somewhat less sanitized opinions about games than professional magazines, even if the articles were often amateurish and very short, unlike the in-depth letters you share in your blog post.

    I know of a website with tons of scans of old French Amstrad CPC fanzines, so I’d be very surprised indeed if similar websites didn’t exist for fanzines in English.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 13, 2017 at 7:32 am

      That’s a good point. There are a fair number of them collected on I should be making better use of them.

  9. Eric Lundquist

    May 12, 2017 at 10:59 pm

    Just curious if you tried to contact Wes Irby or Thomas Gutheil? I know one of my favorite things about the CRPG addict blog is when authors of obscure games are tracked down or come out of the woodwork with commentary.

  10. Ben P. Stein

    May 13, 2017 at 1:34 am

    When I was playing text adventure and role-playing games in my adolescence, and unable to solve a puzzle, I assumed that the underlying cause was some deficiency on my end. I cannot recall ever thinking that the game was at fault. Only in recent years have I realized the possibility, raised by other veteran gamers and even other game designers, that the puzzles were unreasonable.

    I guess I had always assumed that a difficult game puzzle was like a difficult physics problem, exceedingly challenging but always containing enough information, even if only a sliver of data, to solve with enough intellectual effort, creativity and perseverance.

    Is it possible this still could be true? Is any puzzle at least marginally fair, as long as it is not insoluble? In any case, my eyes are opened at this much later date that there were issues with the puzzles. No one could dispute that the puzzles with seemingly arbitrary solutions were not very fun. And the lack of fun may be the most relevant issue. But what makes for a truly bad or flawed puzzle? I would be interested in learning your continued thoughts on this issue.

    Thanks for another marvelous and thought-provoking essay.

    • Alex Freeman

      May 13, 2017 at 1:59 am

      Really good question since people can’t always agree. It’s hard to come up with criteria that always hold true and that every reasonable person would agree on. I’m inclined to think that any puzzle that someone somewhere solved without looking up hints or meta-gaming (such as using knowledge of how the designer thinks or using brute force to try every possibility or just doing random things, hoping something will work) or just by accident is at least arguably fair. After all, if it’s truly unfair, then how did someone who had no hand in the creation of game manage to figure it out?

      The Spoony Bard has a pretty amusing Let’s Play video series of him playing Phantasmagoria 2, which is a really awful game. One absurd puzzle involves the character’s wallet underneath his couch. The couch looks as though it weighs 40 pounds. So does he do it? Well, the Spoony Bard did manage to solve it by clicking everywhere, but the solution is preposterous. (In case you’re wondering, you’re supposed to put your pet rat under the couch to retrieve the wallet and then lure her out with a granola bar.)

      • Jimmy Maher

        May 13, 2017 at 7:29 am

        After all, if it’s truly unfair, then how did someone who had no hand in the creation of game manage to figure it out?

        Maybe by “using knowledge of how the designer thinks or using brute force to try every possibility or just doing random things, hoping something will work”? ;)

        • Alex Freeman

          May 15, 2017 at 3:01 am

          Just out of curiosity, how did you quote me in that post? I don’t see any quote or italics option.

          • Jimmy Maher

            May 15, 2017 at 5:18 am

            You can surround the text with the tag “blockquote”.

          • Sol_HSA

            May 19, 2017 at 12:19 pm

            Sorry, testing.


            blockquote with ‘s


            foo [blockquote]blockquote with [‘s and ]’s[/blockquote] bar

            foo quote with <'s bar

            foo [quote] quote with [‘s[/quote] bar

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 13, 2017 at 7:22 am

      I think the feeling that your inability to solve a puzzle was due to some deficiency on your part was a very common one at the time. Just as we love that feeling of achievement we get from solving a puzzle or otherwise making progress in a game, we can be made to feel pretty bad about ourselves if we can’t progress. I think that young people in particular saw a “professional” game, with the aura of authority conferred by its shiny box, and couldn’t even conceive that the problem might lie in the game, not the player. I remember as a kid that I had no real concept that fallible people like me made the games I played. Those boxes I mooned over in my local Babbages might as well have been beamed in from outer space. People like me can sometimes forget that thinking critically about media is a skill and a habit that must be cultivated, not something we’re all born with.

      (It can also be a double-edged sword. I remember back in graduate school chatting on a number of occasions with others about how much we missed being able to just *enjoy* a book or movie without always analyzing, analyzing, analyzing. The loss felt all the keener because most of us chose to pursue a degree in the humanities because of the “purer” love that our education ironically beat out of us; it certainly wasn’t for the money. In my nostalgic moments, I can’t help but think back to that feeling of infinite possibility I got from so many really very primitive games, and wish I could somehow recapture it. It’s the reason I consciously avoid writing about music; I want to reserve one place in my life to just be a fan, full of arbitrary likes and dislikes that I don’t have to justify to anyone.)

      I’ve never written a single article focused just on what makes a good puzzle; perhaps I should at some point. Like our two letter writers and, indeed, most commentators on the subject, I’ve tended to focus more on what *not* to do. One problem is that, writing about specific games, I’m usually happy enough to spoil a bad puzzle by dissecting its problems in detail, but tend to want to give my readers the joy of solving a good one. I really should try to find a way to remedy that.

      In the meantime, we tend to be left with proscriptive lists of things *not* to do. Generally, if a puzzle doesn’t run afoul of any of the problems listed in Graham Nelson’s Player’s Bill of Rights ( or my own list of graphic-adventure deadly sins (, it’s fair.

      • Alex Freeman

        May 13, 2017 at 7:38 am

        “I think that young people in particular saw a “professional” game, with the aura of authority conferred by its shiny box, and couldn’t even conceive that the problem might lie in the game, not the player. I remember as a kid that I had no real concept that fallible people like me made the games I played.”
        Funny, that practically describes my attitude towards adults and some institutions while growing up. When I was really little, I once asked my mom if she knew everything, and she said something like “No, Alex, but I do know almost everything.” Well, of course, I eventually realized that wasn’t even close to the truth, but I continued to think adults knew far more than they actually do. Whenever my dad would explain some concept involving engines for instance, he’d tell me I now knew more than most grown-ups, and I remember finding that so hard to believe.

        I still went through school believing it had been designed in some optimal way because school had been around for so long surely the people in charge had figured out how to make it work really well.

        It wasn’t until my mid-to-late twenties that I realized that, with some exceptions like mathematicians, engineers, and hard scientists, the human race as a whole just didn’t really know what it was doing more or less. That’s not to say almost everyone is incompetent of course, but people who hail from the same profession have a surprising amount of variation in how well they know what they’re doing, and there are far more incompetent people in, say, psychology than you’d think. Despite all the scientific and technological advances, we’re still largely a species groping in the dark when it comes to most things.

        That’s why I’d say Socrates is my favorite philosopher. According to legend, some oracle said Socrates was the wisest person in the land. Upon hearing this, he couldn’t believe it and set out to prove it wrong by asking respected about what they knew, only to find out it wasn’t much. He then realized he was the wisest person in the land precisely because he knew that he knew nothing. Well, that was a bit of a tangent. I hope that wasn’t too off topic. =P

        • Jimmy Maher

          May 13, 2017 at 7:56 am

          Not at all. Many of my friends who’ve had kids have told me how weird it is to be cast into that role of parent. They always feel like they’re somehow faking it, taking on the personas of these figures of responsibility and authority without having really earned them. By extension, the moment that we realized our own parents were just muddling through, doing the best they could, was a profound one for many of us.

          In the end, we’re *all* just muddling through.

          • Ben P. Stein

            May 13, 2017 at 12:39 pm

            Alex and Jimmy, thanks for these thoughtful replies. I’m really glad to hear I wasn’t alone in feeling as a youth that the player was always at fault for not solving a puzzle. And yes, the game boxes at the computer store did seem to come from a magical place…The links that Jimmy provided are excellent and really hit upon many of the qualities in fair (and unfair) puzzles. Interestingly, the brute-force solution is listed as the top deadly sin in graphic adventures. Back to physics, brute-force solutions are also seen as unaesthetic and a last-resort approach for figuring out something.

            • Iffy Bonzoolie

              June 3, 2020 at 3:11 am

              I experienced interactive fiction pretty early in life. My mom used to play Planetfall with me, and would help me map on graph paper. Eventually, I played on my own, but I still wasn’t very good. I never beat even the fairest Infocom game without hints. I made lots of progress in Planetfall, Wishbringer, Beyond Zork, Hollywood Hijinx, but I always got stuck pretty early.

              I got older, and would go back to these games —because I loved them — but never got all that much farther. The puzzles I did figure out on my own were sooo amazing that it made the rest of it worth it.

              So, how much of my difficulty was because I was really too young, how much was because I am actually not all that good at these puzzles, and how much because the puzzles were unfair? I don’t know, but it’s worth reasoning about. I have my own ideas about how to categorize situational puzzles based on “complexity.” I should start a blog or something.

              As I’ve learned from reading the Antiquarian, most people didn’t finish those games. So it’s not just me, I think. Hopefully, it’s not just you, either.

        • matt w

          May 13, 2017 at 1:33 pm

          According to legend

          This is specifically in the Apology, Plato’s version of Socrates’ speech at his trial. I’m not sure whether scholars think this in particular was an accurate representation of what Socrates said at the trial, though I think the Apology is considered to be closer to the historical Socrates than many of the other Platonic dialogues.

      • Nate

        June 5, 2017 at 6:13 am

        “Those boxes I mooned over in my local Babbages might as well have been beamed in from outer space.”

        “I can’t help but think back to that feeling of infinite possibility I got from so many really very primitive games, and wish I could somehow recapture it.”

        I think that sums up my memories, and feelings today, pretty exactly,

        I loved computer games as a kid as much for _what they seemed to be or suggested_ than what they actually _were_.

        Maybe there never was infinite possibility, but the mere existence of software, of worlds created only out of electrons and glowing light on a screen, suggested that there MUST be somewhere.

      • Steve

        July 31, 2017 at 6:58 pm

        One problem is that, writing about specific games, I’m usually happy enough to spoil a bad puzzle by dissecting its problems in detail, but tend to want to give my readers the joy of solving a good one. I really should try to find a way to remedy that.

        Perhaps you can make one (or more) up yourself?

        Maybe even just variations of puzzles you’ve seen elsewhere, that you can then explain why you think they’re good without affecting any actual game experiences…

  11. hcs

    May 13, 2017 at 5:53 am

    typo nit: “relaying exclusively on”

    “every movie ever made was available for viewing at the click of a remote control”
    While it is probably not the commercial you mean, I remember how crazy this sounded even in the late 90s (Qwest):

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 13, 2017 at 6:54 am


      That may very well be the commercial in question. In fact, I’ll link to it. ;)

  12. Johannes Paulsen

    May 13, 2017 at 10:42 am

    Jimmy —

    You have won the Johannes Paulsen Award for Heroic Feats of Tact and Restraint in Blogging for fighting the urge to post the original cover of SOFTPORN ADVENTURE immediately after writing that, concerning KING’S QUEST, the “monarch has no clothes”.


  13. Realms of Quest

    May 13, 2017 at 12:03 pm

    Very interesting blog post/article. I’m currently in the middle of programming my own 8-bit retro CRPG, and I’m going back and forth as to whether to allow “save anywhere” and how I will implement “perma death”. I talk about this as well as mention your article on this forum here:

  14. Alan

    May 13, 2017 at 2:33 pm

    “…you tread on people’s nostalgia at your peril.”

    Gods, yes. Back in 2009 I played through and reviewed the first 7 King’s Quest games. I am, basically, a nobody. It would not have been easy for a random person to find my reviews. Yet somehow my reviews caused fanboys and fangirls to appear out of nowhere to defend their favorite games, to insist that I was judging them unfairly, that unlike other forms of art they should be held to a lesser standard, and to suggest malice in my reviews.

    • Yotam Barnoy

      May 15, 2017 at 3:34 pm

      Great reviews! I haven’t visited these games in a while, but it’s nice to be reminded of the nostalgia, as well as of how terribly designed they were.

    • Nate

      June 5, 2017 at 6:16 am

      I played Space Quest 1 in the late 80s and yeah those games were terrible.

      It’s sad, because they were so beautiful and – like Doom – they had a similar quantum-jump effect on the industry. Suddenly an adventure game which was like a cartoon! You could become part of the story! We desperately wanted to like them and for them to like us. But they punished us cruelly.

  15. WG

    May 13, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    My recollection is that the original Wasteland let’s you create macros so you can rest for as long as you like with a single key press.

    I still have my Wasteland 5.25″ floppies from when I was a kid :)

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 13, 2017 at 5:29 pm

      Only the (later) MS-DOS version had macros. It appears that Wes Irby was playing on an Apple II.

  16. Brian Mathews

    May 13, 2017 at 6:09 pm

    Jimmy –

    I’m definitely more of an uncritical fan boy for all things Ultima than you are, but I’d like to state unequivocally that I think your blog is fantastic! You do a fantastic job of setting things in their proper place and evaluating them based on their merits. Don’t let the unbiased masses bring you down. I appreciate your critical take on the Ultima series – and it certainly doesn’t dissuade me from reading your blog, but rather strongly the opposite!

    I found your blog about a year ago and downloaded the entire set of posts in Kindle format and devoured them over a few weeks… I couldn’t put them down without my nightly fix. As I finished them, I figured out what Patreon was for the first time and am glad that I can now support you and several other bloggers that I have found most enriching. I grew up in the late 70s and the 80s and hearing the inside story of my life has been fascinating.



  17. matt w

    May 13, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    One design note about permadeath is that it’s significant that roguelikes, the genre that hews closest to the die-and-you’re-done philosophy, also has randomized dungeons. Without randomized content, a total party kill that made you start over from the beginning would also make you replay the exact same content. Not too many people want to do that, unless there’s some kind of optimization puzzle involved. Though a preset dungeon with random encounters might be OK. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to allow saving everywhere, which really does seem like it could trivialize an RPG. (FWIW I read the CRPG Addict’s review of Shard of Spring and he mentions getting wiped out and reloading–this may be an emulator thing that wasn’t available in the original version. He also really hated the permadeath in nethack, even though it is a roguelike.)

    As far as the maxed-out stats problem, I feel like there are two separate issues that Irby touches on. One is being unable to succeed without an overpowered character–or inevitably getting a character who’s so overpowered that they drive everything before it. But the other thing is that there’s only one way to max out all your stats. Perfect characters are all alike, but each imperfect character is imperfect in its own way. So if a game doesn’t let you (or make you) max everything out, it’s open to different playstyles. This can even coexist with extraordinary characters–there’s a difference between a barbarian who blasts everything out of her way with her axe and a wizard who blows everything out of his way with his fireball* even if they both do wind up as juggernauts.

    *Pronouns reflect the actual genders of the nethack characters in question. Though the midgame where they can’t blast everything so effortlessly is more intriguing.

  18. FilfreFan

    May 13, 2017 at 7:06 pm

    I’m with Eric on this one.

    Fellow Filfre Fans, please darken your room, light your candles in the shape of a pentagram, and hold hands.

    Now close your eyes and concentrate…

    Thooommmaaaaas… Thomas Guuuutheiiiillll… Hear us from across that great veiiiilllll…

  19. A. Freed

    May 13, 2017 at 9:29 pm

    Regarding Irby’s meta-textual record screen suggestion: This sort of tracking was very popular in roguelikes by the ’90s, though I’m not certain about the ’80s-era versions. Given Irby’s enthusiasm for Nethack, (as pointed out by Lars, above), it seems likely he was either inspired by the feature there or inspired it himself.

    Really enjoyed this piece, and I was touched by the information about Clancy Shaffer. There’s something heartening about seeing someone outside the broad spectrum of “typical” gamers take such a passion to the hobby and integrate it into a varied and storied life.

  20. TsuDhoNimh

    May 13, 2017 at 10:06 pm

    One of my rules for both RPGs and adventure games is that a game must be more fun to play than it is to watch (or read about) someone else playing it. Early games like Dragon’s Lair and The Bard’s Tale both fail this test miserably in my book. This sin is still around today in the form of RPGs with cutscenes that last 15 minutes, turning your game into a (often not-very-good) movie.

    On the subject of games that require clue books to finish, The Bard’s Tale gets a special place in Hell for having a clue book that doesn’t even describe how to finish the game to the end! That clue book is structured as the story of an adventuring party (much like your own) who gets very close to lifting the spell of eternal winter, but never makes it because their thief runs off with a vital quest item. I didn’t make it either. On looking at the clue book today, I suppose that a more determined player could have made it, but after all of those endless dungeon levels I was through.

    I don’t like games that require maxed-out stats to win (like the aforementioned Pools of Darkness, but on the flip side, it is just as bad to have character advancement happen too slowly or to not really have much affect on your character’s effectiveness.

  21. Gnoman

    May 13, 2017 at 10:22 pm

    “Most of the fights in Pools of Darkness are effectively unwinnable if you don’t have “extraordinary” characters, in that they come down to quick-draw contests to find out whether your party or the monsters can fire off devastating area-effect magic first.”

    This problem is so endemic at higher-level Dungeons And Dragons (and some other tabletop RPG systems) play that a special term has been created for it in the community. This term is “rocket tag”, where the first side to land a hit wins.

    The term is a fairly useful one.

  22. Pedro Q.

    May 14, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    Another issue i remember with puzzles were their “regionality”. I think it was mm4 that had one about “working hours” for which the solution was to set a dial to 9 and another to 5. I would never have gotten there, not only because I was a minor then, but also because 9 to 5 is not a concept (or a normal work schedule!) in the country I’m from

    • Iffy Bonzoolie

      June 3, 2020 at 4:37 am

      In the US, we had a movie and a song called 9 to 5 in the 80’s, so it felt like a universal truth.

  23. Mayhaym

    May 14, 2017 at 8:53 pm

    Regarding save games, in the last few years I’ve taken to restricting myself to 1/3/5 save slots that I then cycle through. Usually I go with 3 one “old” which I regard as very safe, one for tough decisions I might want to try other options for and the last one for throwaway/placeholder saves.

    I find it makes me play the games differently, where I try to be more thorough and am more anxious about death/defeat.

    It adds to the suspense for sure.

  24. Kate Willaert

    May 15, 2017 at 1:37 am

    I saw this and thought of this post:

    Thanks so much for posting those letters, amazing finds!

  25. David Scotton

    May 15, 2017 at 2:14 am

    _”The placing of time limits on a game sounds to me like a very dangerous proposal. It was tried in 1989, the year after Irby wrote this letter, by The Magic Candle, a game that I haven’t played but that is quite well-regarded by the CRPG cognoscenti. That game was, however, kind enough to offer three difficulty levels…”_

    Majora’s Mask is the game that came to mind when I read this. I think it probably handled about as well as it could be done – you do have real time pressure to get things done before your 72 hours is up, but rather than ending the game you always just go back to the beginning, losing some of your progress if you hadn’t finished what you were doing.

    • Jesse Fuchs

      May 19, 2017 at 3:27 pm

      The Persona games — or at least 4 and 5, which I’ve played — find a reasonable middle ground by having chunked time limits: that is, you have a specific time limit to complete each dungeon, but completing it right at the deadline doesn’t really affect your overall playthrough, as it just means that you’re doing the out-of-dungeon stuff while you wait for the next chapter to kick in. It does end up feeling a little contrived, in that if you defeat the dungeon super early the person you rescued/changed the heart of ends up just being in a limbo of “oh, they’re resting, I hope they get better/confess their crimes soon” for a couple of weeks, without anyone seeming to worry unduly about their weirdly lengthy recovery. (Also, while in Persona 4 the time limits are cleverly and organically tied to the weather, in 5 they tend to be less so—a lot of “this evil person wants you expelled, but for some reason they have to wait for the monthly faculty meeting to bring it up” type stuff.

      While I of course want Jimmy to focus on the history he’s so goddamn good at, if I were to recommend a modern game for him to check out, I would go with Persona 5: not so much because it’s great, although in some ways it is, but because it’s such an CRPG palimpsest—cutting-edge stylishness and au courant narrative tropes at the surface, straight-line derivatives of SMT/Pokemon 90s RPGs in the broader mechanics, and then at its core, the unkillable non-positional turn-based die-rolling dungeon-crawl-with-the-occasional-puzzle-but-it’s-mostly-about-managing-your-spell-capacity heart of Wizardry. I’ve read some interesting takes on the game, but none from anyone who can really put it in the broader context that someone like Jimmy (or Chester Bolingbroke) could.

      • Ian Crossfield

        April 28, 2021 at 6:22 pm

        “I don’t know of any game, even from this much crueler era of game design in general, that was cruel enough to let you play 100 hours or more and then tell you you’d lost.”

        One game with a firm time limit from this same era was Paragon’s “MegaTraveller 2: Quest for the Ancients,” released in 1991. You had seven years to solve the primary quest, and if you failed your entire homeworld was buried under a sea of pink slime. And this was clearly a classic RPG (unlike the rather different MechWarrior or Majora’s Mask), so such limits were imposed as least occasionally in such games. That said, I still remember how frustrated I was the first time I unexpectedly reached MT2’s time limit!

  26. MrEntropy

    May 15, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    If it hasn’t been mentioned (it might have been; my eyes are tired), the first Fallout game came with a time limit to find the water chip. It was later patched out (or extended enough that it didn’t matter). I know that, after the patch, there was a Post-It type note on the PIP Boy that showed how many days were left but I don’t remember if it was there before the patch.

    • KJK::Hyperion

      May 29, 2017 at 9:44 am

      Star Control 2 had a timer too, although it was pretty generous, had ample warning and as it got closer to the end, it made puzzles easier. I don’t think it was even disabled or made configurable in the open source re-release (The Ur-Quan Masters)

  27. Michael Russo

    May 15, 2017 at 7:26 pm

    Thanks for this sort of “catch-up” post – if you think of any other POVs that are interesting and relevant, don’t hesitate to go back in time for a bit and explore them!

  28. Jacen

    May 16, 2017 at 10:00 pm

    “Rinse and repeat for the new few entries in the series” next few?

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 17, 2017 at 6:36 am


  29. Tom

    May 18, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    Regarding this:

    Just why so many angry, intolerant personalities are so attracted to computer games is a fascinating question,

    Several notions come to mind:

    A. Angry, intolerant personalities want to feel like they’re in charge of something, and real life doesn’t offer as much of that as they’d like. A computer game, on the other hand, gives them that opportunity.

    B. Said people oftentimes don’t like dealing with actual people. Single-player gaming is by definition a solitary activity, and multiplayer, unless you’re doing a party game, is rather more solitary than the name implies.

    C. It might also be the case that the angry, intolerant people in computer gaming are more visible to you, as this is your field of study and it’s also on the Internet, where publishing is extremely easy and linking to other people’s articles is even easier.

    Also, just wanted to say that I stumbled across this website a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been going through the archives ever since. This is fascinating stuff.

    • Carlton Little

      May 18, 2017 at 6:27 pm

      Thanks for weighing in. Great points! I suspect you’re very close to the mark.

  30. Wolfeye M.

    October 5, 2019 at 3:08 pm

    RPGs are my favorite genre. But, I think if I’d been able to play them from day one, they probably wouldn’t be.

    The first RPG I loved was Morrowind. I can’t remember if it was the first one I ever played, but it’s the first one I remember playing. I don’t remember ever beating the game, even though I played it for at least 100 hours. It unleashed me on the world, and I didn’t even have to follow the main story. I spent most of my time just randomly wandering around and getting into trouble. It started my love of RPGs, just by letting me exist in the game, at my own pace.

    If I’d played, say, Wizardry first, with it’s no saving in the dungeons, I would have gotten so frustrated I’d rage quit. I also can’t stand roguelikes with permadeath. I want to be challenged, but without feeling like I wasted hours of my life when a character I invested that time in dies. I also would have hated a game with a set time limit. If I can’t take the time to smell the roses, really get to know the world of the game, and the characters inhabiting it, how am I even supposed to care enough to try to save them? It may not be “realistic”, but I don’t like being rushed. And don’t get me started on puzzles in RPGs. They’re just endless sources of frustration for me, and make me feel like I wasted my money on the game.

    I play games to have fun and relax, not be frustrated. And, I think that a lot of the original RPG games wouldn’t have made me to want to play more.

  31. Mike

    January 8, 2020 at 4:12 am

    Nostalgia is weird thing. Everytime ive tried to relive it, it falls WAY short. It’s something to be cherished , but not relived in my experience.

  32. Leo Vellés

    February 12, 2020 at 8:45 pm

    “It’s a more significant problem than junk magic usually is because you invest precious points into learning and advancing your skills;”
    Is this sentence right? Maybe is my fault, but it seems weird to read.
    Also: you mention a FRPG. Is that a typo or a genre of RPG that i’m not aware of?

  33. Leo Vellés

    February 13, 2020 at 6:10 pm

    I take back what i said un the Last point about that sentence, sorry about that. Being english not muy first language sometimes AND trying to correcto you is a little preposterous from me.
    But the FRPG thing still gets me confused

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 13, 2020 at 7:55 pm

      FRPG is not an acronym I use, but for the writer of this letter it just means “fantasy-role-playing game.” ;)

  34. Erasmus

    September 5, 2021 at 3:34 pm

    Two cents from my side.

    As a German = European player, a LOT of the puzzles were hardly solvable. The 9to5 example from a few posts earlier is a good example. I spent too much time playing Ultima, GoldBox and Bard’s Tale games to also play Might and Magic, but yes, that riddle would have been completely unsolvable for me. Also the language barrier was significant back then. There was no translation website. I had a printed, somewhat older dictionary. Riddles with innuendos and wordgames easily were quickly completely out of my reach.

    With regards to the pseudo-timelimits, I do remember making fun out of games like Ultima VII that tried to create a sense of urgency when looking at the moon and their movements that you had to act quickly. Well, as a completions I happily ignored that and even tried to spend more time on other things in-game, mocking the game technics.

    So you can imagine that I somewhat was surprised on the border of being annoyed that Pathfinder: Kingmaker REALLY had some in-game timetracking that matters. Will be interesting to see you reaction when you get there. As a 2018 game, illl wait for the next decade on your blog which in the meantime I will highly enjoy :).


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