Philippa Irving


It’s drawing near to the end of what we call Hilary Term here in Oxford. Soon the students will be cycling off home to their country estates and the Japanese Tourist Season will be declared officially open. I won’t be returning to my native land north of the border this vacation; I’m staying amongst the dreaming spires to do battle, partly with the Germans (there are a lot of Germans this month — as ever) and partly with revision for my Finals. And not forgetting the Japanese tourists.

For me, the end of term means the end of roleplaying. Could your Spectrum play the part of an absent human opponent as convincingly in this type of game as it can for a cardboard-counter wargame? There have been a number of attempts in the not too distant past to produce what the designers optimistically describe, and the buyers and critics surprisingly seem to accept, as computer role playing games. The Spectrum, without the advantages of a disk facility, has not been treated to too many of these. But still, there have been attempts — most notably PSS’s Swords and Sorcery — and although some have met with moderate critical enthusiasm, all have failed to work as games. At the least, game players who buy them are aware of an extreme failing — short of the experience of ‘real’ roleplaying.

The reason for this is fundamental. A board wargame is ideal for translation to the computer medium. Its game mechanics rely heavily on arithmetical calculations and the manipulation of numbers in a tightly-defined, self-enclosed, unvarying and predictable environment. However complex a wargame is, it can be reduced to figures in the abstract, and implemented on a board with cardboard counters in the actual. All that can go into a computer and onto a computer screen.

A roleplaying game may be based on numbers in part and on text in part, but it’s played in the air between the game master and the players; word, imagination, flexibility and above all, interaction are important. RPGs are closely related to the kind of ‘let’s pretend’ games that children play, or to put it in a more sophisticated context, to improvised drama. The rules of a RPG make the difference and give the game structure and purpose; and yet despite the size and apparent complexity of roleplaying rulebooks, anyone who has actually played knows that the practice, if not the theory, is extremely simple.

This is human simplicity, which can in no way be simulated by a computer yet. Swords and Sorcery, and the more sophisticated versions of the same sort of thing available for the Commodore, resemble if anything a very bad early Dungeons and Dragons scenario: a random network of badly-decorated rooms with a different monster bedsitting in each, there to be clobbered and burgled, and a quest of no inherent interest. A computer can certainly keep count of gold pieces, experience and hit points, but it can never do more than imitate these mechanical aspects which are the least important part of roleplaying.

That is not to say that a computer cannot, in a different way, provide atmosphere and interaction. Computer adventure games work, as everyone knows. The only time I have really felt in the presence of a computer-generated personality was while playing INFOCOM’s Deadline. Adventure games have nothing to do with RPGs of course, even though I feel a lot of people intuitively feel that they are closely related. They’re a computer-defined genre, working within the limitations and using them. All successful computer games do that.

I’ve got a tutorial in three-quarters of an hour, so it’s time to start reading for the essay. Next month I’ll be talking about the definition of a strategy game.