By J.G. Newman / November 30, 2016
I typically don’t role-play when I play games. Which isn’t to say I don’t invest deeply in whatever game I’m playing; my emotional connection to my avatar is just fueled more by traditional audience-to-character empathy than actually inhabiting the role of whatever druid or space marine whose shoes the game places me in. Perhaps it’s because the perspective I’m bringing to video games relies much more heavily on fully authored sources like films and novels than on participatory pen-and-paper RPGs and the like, or that I got into video games around when they started cribbing their narrative tricks from more cinematic storytelling. Whatever the reason, I play games more to engage with the experience from my own perspective than to invest in a protagonist as an extension of myself.
I know this is sacrilege to some, a squandering of gaming’s interactivity and the intensely personal experiences that can result from feeling like the coauthor of the story. I want to dissect games the way their creators intended them to be played, but what if a game designer fully expected me to role-play while spending time in his game’s world? With some games, are my very attempts to respect an author’s intentions actually causing me to ignore those intentions? A potential answer to the dilemma came from an unlikely source: Adventure, Warren Robinett’s 1979 attempt to translate the early computer text games to the Atari 2600 console.
Adventure is an Arthurian pastiche stripped to its most basic. A lone hero ventures out to retrieve a holy grail, navigates a labyrinth, fights some dragons, and returns home. He finds a handful of items to assist him along the way, such as a sword and a magnet, the latter used to move other items out of hard-to-reach places. That’s more or less the whole of the basic game, made more difficult in a challenge mode that scatters the items to random locations on the map.
Many consider Adventure an antecedent of the modern role-playing video game. The ability to use and juggle items in particular could be seen as a primitive version of an inventory system. While its influence is undisputed, playing the game today could not be an experience more removed from the morally ambiguous choices, laboriously rendered universes, and endless hours of quests and character interactions that define the likes of Mass Effect and Fallout. For one, Adventure‘s graphics are beyond “retro.” While the Atari 2600’s limited processing capacity proved serviceable for less visually ambitious games like Asteroids or even Pitfall, players today might not even recognize what Adventure’s blocky graphics are trying to represent on-screen. The swords are just arrows, the dragons resemble giant seahorses, and a malevolent bat looks more like one of the Space Invaders than any winged mammal found on this planet. Most shockingly, Robinett either couldn’t or didn’t imbue his protagonist with any recognizable human characteristics. The hero is merely a square, one with the chameleonic ability to turn the color of whatever room he’s traveling through.
In short, Adventure is not a fully realized world. This is not a Skyrim or Azeroth, waiting for my fully customized warrior to barrel through and rectify disputes throughout the kingdom great and small. Graphically, the game is one step above the maze on the back of a Happy Meal menu. Most of Adventure‘s map isn’t even stylized enough to qualify as maze-like; it is actually just a maze. Yet despite or because of its simplicity, Adventure broke through my curmudgeonly realism and forced me to use my imagination. Those arrows became actual long, legendary blades. The strange seahorse-dragons (more commonly compared to ducks, actually) were fierce beasts hot on my trail. The monochrome, Lego-like brick walls surrounding me were the torch-lined halls of a spooky dungeon. And that square… well, that square was me, the daring hero, of course. Perhaps I was just trying to motivate myself to continue playing when the game seemed too frustrating or archaic, but it worked. This quest was mine.
This isn’t a tirade against modern games, or some pining for the good ol’ days of simplicity and straightforwardness. And I’m certainly not saying Adventure is a better, deeper game than the other examples I’m noting. Yet speaking purely of role-playing, I have to wonder if I was able to fill in the blanks playing Adventure because it actually gave me some blanks to fill.
Perhaps more so than any other genre, the role-playing game has evolved over the years to try and emulate the complexities and endless possibilities of the real world. And it makes perfect sense: while computer simulations may never be able to replicate the human-orchestrated improvisation that makes the tabletop games they’re mimicking feel so infinite, the upgrades in technology and disk space certainly make it tempting to try. But when these games ask me to co-pilot and help define their stories and characters, it feels counterintuitive given how thought-out the games already are. When the inclusion of dozens of moral quandaries, ornate pieces of armor, and gorgeous sunsets feels like someone else’s creation, how do I pretend that this is somehow my character’s story? Developers like Bioware and Bethesda are in love with constructing increasingly definite universes that they want to come to life. While Skyrim might not have some grand thematic agenda, its attention to detail and specificity speaks to some greater authorial presence in its fantasy sandbox.
Alternatively, I find it comparatively easy to get into the head of a more broadly drawn protagonist, like Link from The Legend of Zelda or one of Fumito Ueda’s heroes. The games they inhabit are certainly no less thoughtful or well-constructed than modern RPGs, but employ a minimalism and purposeful lack of context that allow the player to make of the characters and their worlds what he will. There are no tomes you can pick up in Ico that provide a millennia-stretching history of its castle setting; while the game is undoubtedly in Fumito Ueda’s voice, it’s a voice that’s more concerned with creating an absorbing story than fleshing out a universe. These games are really the direct progeny of Adventure (the original Legend of Zelda in particular feels like a realization of Robinett’s vision), and, like their predecessor, they strip their stories down to basics to discover something new and involving.
Of course, this is all just personal preference and conditioning. I’m sure plenty of Zork fans saw Adventure in the early 1980s and scoffed, deriding it as an overly literal bastardization of infinitely more imaginative and open-ended text-based games. It’s fitting, though, to discuss authorial command through the lens of Adventure, since its most iconic accomplishment was an act of artistic ownership. The story is now infamous enough that it’s even inspired a popular science fiction novel: Robinett, upset that Atari didn’t credit its programmers, created a secret room in Adventure that literally put his signature on the game. This is popularly referred to as the first video game “Easter egg,” and all the oddball trinkets and in-jokes players spend ages tracking through a game have their roots here. Yet as important as hidden secrets were for the future of game design, perhaps the even more important precedent Robinett set is the idea that games are created by someone.
No matter how much developers want us to fully inhabit their virtual landscapes, it’s important not to lose sight of a creator’s intentions, of what a game is saying beyond our immediate involvement with it. The reason we have so many beloved series today, after all, is because designers studied Robinett’s work on Adventure and decided that they could bring something new to the template. Yet I must admit, when a designer gives the player the right blanks to fill in himself, or creates a world so enthralling that it already feels intrinsically linked to the audience’s perspective, perhaps the point is to get a little lost.
J.G. Newman is a writer and film researcher living in Los Angeles. At his former blog, Playing the Canon, he reviewed highly regarded classic and contemporary video games.