"Great Games transcend Technology": An Interview with a CRPGAddict

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Chester Bolingbroke has set himself a high goal: to play each and every computer role-playing game ever made, in order of publication. His page CRPGaddict chronicles this massive task, and is increasingly becoming a valuable resource for games history as well as starry-eyed nostalgic gamers, hungry for the game experiences of their youth.
 
Since his project's inception in 2010, Chester (who, by the way, keeps his real name a secret) has documented 75 games, starting with Akalabeth (1979). The rules he has set for himself are strict, and his schedule is full: After more than two years, his gargantuan task has led him up to the year 1989. I interviewed Chester for an article I wrote for Austrian online paper DerStandard; here's the full interview.
 
VGT: One could half-jokingly call you one of the few living "game archeologists", documenting these half-forgotten game-experiences for later generations. Would you see yourself as that: a games historian?
 
 Chet: I see myself as an "accidental" game historian. My primary goal is to have fun playing these games, and I would contend that you can have just as much fun playing a 1989 game as you can a 2012 game. The only reason I appear to be a "historian" is because my blog goes in chronological order. If I had decided to completely randomize the order, I don't think most people would see my blog as primarily about history. Nonetheless, I'm happy to uncover historical tidbits--particularly CRPG "firsts"--as I go along.
 
Museums around the world are starting to document gaming's history; but seeing a game displayed in a showcase and playing it for hours are two different things. Do you feel your site takes on part of that "burden"? 
 
 I have literally never heard of a gaming museum, so I learned something from your question. Yes, I think my blog does help to document the development of games throughout history and to give readers a sense of the major elements and plots of each game. Many gamers post "long plays" or "let's plays" on YouTube and other sites, but to me these are only useful if you're willing to sit down and actually watch hours and hours of someone else playing a game. I write my blog much more in the style about how I, personally, would prefer to LEARN about games: through textual descriptions, with the occasional short video.
 

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In the context of history, of old games being the products of their specific present: What is, for you, the most important "lesson" playing these games taught you? 
 
Because so many CRPGs are set in fantasy worlds, I think they serve very well as reflections of their times. You can see some Cold War angst in Wasteland and the influence of popular culture in science fiction games like Sentinel Worlds and Starflight. But most games, especially fantasy games, tend to be fairly timeless, which is one of the reasons I like them. I think that the most important lesson is that a good computer role-playing game, like a good film, is not necessarily dependent upon technology. A great CRPG never goes out of date just because the graphics and sound are primitive any more than Casablanca goes out of date because it was shot in black and white. Great games transcend technology.
 
Do you have plans to publish your work in another format?
 
Some readers have suggested that I compile my entries into a book, but I'm not sure who would buy it since they can get all of the entries on my blog. Every time I mull over some original ideas for a book, I can't think of any compelling reason to publish it in print form instead of as a blog entry. So right now, no, I have no plans to publish in another format. I would eventually like to upgrade my site, offer some additional resources, and get my own domain.

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For me, CRPGs always were vast, different dimensions, made for me to explore (and I also got started with Ultima IV). Was there really that much more "freedom" in these games or is this thought just nostalgia?
 
 It's just nostalgia, or selective memory. For every 1980s or 1990s game that offered a truly open game world--Ultimas IV and V, Might & Magic, The Magic Candle--there were 50 games that were linear or extremely small in scope. And even games like the Ultimas only seem large in our memories; the average Skyrim dungeon is larger than all of Britannia. Openness and exploration are elements that have undoubtedly gotten better with the improvement of storage space; The Elder Scrolls games are nearly perfect in this category.
 
 
You're in a unique position to be able to compare history with the present. What was lost, and what has changed for the better?
 
What we've lost is the investment of any real intellectual effort on the part of the player. Older games forced you to make maps, record quests, record exhaustive notes, and solve puzzles. Newer games give you quest pointers and describe in excruciating detail exactly where you need to go and what you need to do when you get there. I don't even understand why there are so many walkthroughs for Skyrim since the game gives you a living walkthrough as you progress. I love having to take dialogue notes and keep my own quest log in a notepad, and I'm going to miss it when this aspect of gameplay largely disappears in the late 1990s.
 
The second major loss is, I think, turn-based combat. Game developers seem to act like it's something that they did because of technological limitations, not because it offers a superior gameplay experience for tactically-minded CRPG fans. I think the AD&D "Gold Box" combat engine is one of the best ever made.

But even though I said earlier that "great games transcend technology," I'd be a fool to dismiss the wonderful improvements we've seen in graphics and sound. I thinkMorrowind is the best Elder Scrolls game, but I'd like it even better with Skyrim's graphics. The availability of ambient sound in modern games--water flowing, birds chirping, people shouting in the distance--makes for a truly immersive experience, and sound in many older games is painful by comparison. Finally, I also like that most modern games feature sidequests and faction-based quests that offer greater opportunities for role-playing and replayability. Older games tend to have one main quest with one ending.

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Finally, and inevitably, what was your favourite game you reviewed? Which game still shines brightly in its own right or should be remade with today's technology?
 
The games I have liked best so far are Ultima V, Pool of Radiance, Might & Magic I, and Starflight. I can't really pick a "favorite" among them. However, I think the technology used to make these games is inseparable from the gameplay experience. I loved them because of their interfaces, not despite them. For this reason, I'm not usually eager to see any games "remade."
If you were going to remake and update any game series, it would have to be the Ultima series starting with Ultima IV. These games offer the most original settings, plots, and main quests of any CRPGs I can think of, and they might deserve to have their plots told in a more technologically-advanced setting. There have been a lot of fan attempts to remake them, of course, and I haven't played any of them yet. The games were so much a product of Richard Garriott that I'd want him involved to take any remake seriously.

Kommentare

#1 Ryan

Great questions and great insights from Chet. Thanks for translating! :)

#2 Rainer Sigl

No need to thank me - this is the original interview, the German article was the translation. ;-)

#3 Lean forward, lean back: Play! | Video Game Tourism

[...] war nicht immer so, wie auch kürzlich Chet Bolingbroke, jener Mann, der als Spielearchäologe alle Computerrollenspiele seit 1979 spielt, bestätigte: What we've lost is the investment of any real intellectual effort on the [...]

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