Thursday, October 20, 2016

Shadowgate (NES Version) and D&D

My internet was out at home yesterday, and I wanted to do something spooky in keeping with this wonderful season, so I popped Shadowgate in my NES and played through it again for the first time in a while. The game was clearly influenced by D&D (and/or games or fiction related to D&D), so I had a few thoughts about old-school tabletop RPGs while playing it. Needless to say, there are going to be spoilers, but this game is about as old as I am, so I doubt anyone is going to care.

As with D&D, Shadowgate is cool because it draws from a variety of sources to create its fantasy setting. D&D had the famous Appendix N, plus it often drew monsters and magic items and such from fairy tales and folk tales, from mythology and religion, from urban legends, from history, and even from jokes and puns. Shadowgate has a greedy troll guarding a bridge, a riddle-loving sphinx, a cyclops who gets dispatched almost exactly like Goliath (complete with a cry of "Death to the Philistine!"), a shark swimming around an underground pool like something out of Jaws or a cartoon, a wishing well that responds favorably to money, green slime straight out of D&D, a dragon and some dragon-like creatures, a werewolf, a hellhound, and much more packed into this relatively short and simple game.

In some ways, Shadowgate does some things that would be inappropriate in D&D. Puzzles generally (perhaps always) have only one solution, and other than the fact that some puzzles can be solved and some areas can be explored in different orders, the game is very linear, so a tabletop version of Shadowgate would be a total railroad if it were run just like the video game. Also, things in Shadowgate are either lethal or non-lethal; there are no saving throws or hit points to give the player some slack for making bad choices or having bad luck, although the game does give the player infinite lives and the ability to save their progress, so I guess it's a wash.

On the other hand, Shadowgate gets a lot of things really right about old-school, D&D-style dungeon crawling as far as I'm concerned. Running out of torchlight is a constant concern. Life is cheap and death is often hilarious. There are secret passages and chambers all over the place. Burning things is often the key to winning. The challenges come from a good mix of NPCs, traps, and puzzles. The environment has a lot of stuff to examine and interact with, and not all of it is necessary for victory. There's at least one magic item that feels a bit more unique and strange than just another magic sword or scroll - I'm specifically thinking of the super-cold magic orb, which gets more than one use, unlike most items in the game other than torches, and the use of which requires some clever thinking on the part of any player who lacks a walkthrough. The titular castle is enough of a gonzo funhouse dungeon to offer lots of surprises and amusement, but also pretty coherent overall since it totally seems like the kind of place an evil and powerful warlock would design. And of course, you can't trust the woman chained up in the tower begging for help. That's a classic trick in fantasy games. Playing Shadowgate feels to me like a satisfying old-school dungeon crawl distilled into a quick, rules-light, solo game with great music.

Sometimes I think that when RPGs started being adapted to video games, both directly and indirectly, the various things that make RPGs good got split up between different genres. Point and click adventures like Shadowgate (and their older cousins, text adventures/interactive fiction), especially really good and complex ones with multiple puzzle solutions, nonlinear progression, and choices (especially dialogue choices) which can heavily alter the course of the story, often handle the creative side of the RPG experience really well. Meanwhile, video game RPGs tend to do interesting things with "crunch" like creating intricate combat systems, offering a variety of interesting choices in character creation and advancement, making in-game economies that matter to the player (because they need to get better equipment or more supplies or what have you), making the player balance exploration with resource management, and getting the player addicted to collecting loot and XP. But looking at older video games, and perhaps newer ones to a lesser extent, adventure games don't generally offer the "crunch" of RPGs, and RPGs generally don't offer the puzzles or dialogue of adventure games. This is obviously not true across the board; for example, the Quest for Glory series combines the adventure and RPG genres, while many RPG series like Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, and Mass Effect have won over fans with branching stories, interesting dialogue systems, quests with multiple solutions, and open-world gameplay. Sometimes this genre separation in video games is not a bad thing, either, but I think it holds true much of the time as an overall trend. One cool thing about D&D and many other tabletop RPGs is that they're like playing a point and click adventure and a video game RPG at the same time, in one fairly seamless experience and with a plethora of options and possibilities more or less unavailable in video games due to the limits of pre-programmed game systems vs. human imagination and ingenuity. This, along with the social and cultural aspects of tabletop RPGs, helps explain why I love such games, despite (or maybe just in addition to) my love of video games. Tabletop RPGs continue to be amazing fun in a world of electronic entertainment, and their versatile, free-form nature accounts for much of that.

UPDATE: If you want to learn more about video game RPGs, I recommend checking out The CRPG Addict. Ditto with adventure video games and The Adventure Gamer.

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