Day 226: How Kids In The 70s Slew Computer-Generated Dragons

originally published August 13, 2012

For as long as they have had the ability, people have yearned to escape their drab lives by crafting a more interesting one inside a video game. But imagining yourself as a large yellow circle-portion, munching on white Tylenols whilst being chased by a bunch of ghosts out of a Benetton ad wasn’t much fun. This is why game designers crafted role-playing games. The ultimate form of pretend.

The first ‘dungeon-style’ role playing game is pictured above. It came out in 1974 or 1975 and was called pedit5, named after the programming workspace on the PLATO network where the game was built. The idea was almost exactly like the rudimentary bones of any other dungeon-y game: walk around, collect treasure, kill evil creatures (which is all of them), and for a few hours you can enjoy the unfiltered liberty of living in a land where no one turns you down for a date, especially that hot blonde at the bakery who was way out of your league but you tried anyway and… damn, which sword was my character holding again?

In the mid 70’s, anyone playing this game probably had an extensive education in computing sciences, and yes, quite likely conformed to the stereotypes that were associated with fantasy role-play and computer geekery in my youth. But it’s to their credit that these early role-playing games so brilliantly forged the fantasy realm within which so many games take place today.

Think about it. These guys wanted an escape. Rather than construct games wherein the enemies were mulleted, Trans-Am-driving jocks that they could gleefully slay with no consequence (the 70s were prior to my youth, so I’ll just assume that the standard nerds vs. jocks dynamic from movies and TV were prevalent back then), they instead delved into the realm of Tolkien-esque non-realism.

Nobody thought that these games would one day have significant museum value, so pedit5’s sacred server space was wiped and new time-wasters were concocted. DND was the next big thing. Not “D&D”, just DND, though the game’s inspiration was quite clearly the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game.

This game had graphics, nonlinear gameplay, and practically everything you’ll find in today’s RPG games, minus the hearty online profanity and accusations of being worse than Hitler. People still play this thing too, on something called the NovaNET system, which I can only assume is a virtual breakroom for whoever is still trying to develop a Flux Capacitor for their Prius.

You know, I’m starting to feel that my efforts to include photos with these games is a little pointless. These are all text games, they all look pretty much the same – orange, green or white words on a blank screen. I’m just going to throw in some random, completely unrelated pictures from this point on.

Space, released in 1979 for the Apple II computer, finally yanked the RPG out of the dungeon and created a new fantasy world. Keep in mind that, as much as the 2000’s decade was filled with wizards and sparkle-washed, watered-down vampires, the late 70s was all about space-based sci-fi.

In Space, you can learn all sorts of skills to help your character, including brawling, piloting, bribery, swordsmanship (why?), navigation, seducing green biped women from other planets, space-ping-pong, cockfighting, high-yield mutual fund management, space-humping, jogging, Hungry Hungry Hippos, violin tuning, waste management, and volleyball. The game progresses over a four-year span (not in real time, thankfully), after which you can retire from service or continue to work on your skills.

Once you retire, you then use your skills in one of the following scenarios: space exploration, combat, defense, trading, or participating in the galactic stock market. Wow. I made up that thing about high-yield mutual funds. Guess that was real.

Moria was another swords & potions game, but this one featured first-person graphics. Well, they were tiny lines on a dark screen, but that’s still better than pure text. And Moria also featured chatting among players, as well as the more realistic feature of depleting food and water supplies. In other words, new ways for your character to die.

The thing is, if some of these features didn’t work, it wasn’t simply a matter of abandoning the game and picking up another one. Up until 1979 there were only one or two of these games being developed per year, so you either played with what you had or you had to go outside and face the sunlight.

If you ever played the Ultima line of games, this would actually be of interest to you. If you haven’t, and if you’re sick of reading about these video games, you might want to simply tune in tomorrow when I’ll be writing about something completely different, like Wile E. Coyote or maybe Garage Door Openers.

Akalabeth was created by future architect of the Ultima line of games, Richard Garriott. This one actually featured some intense graphics, which is why I’m showing a screenshot of the game instead of a photo of Admiral Ackbar playing basketball.

Much like in his later games, Garriott scattered into Akalabeth a heap of Elizabethan English, a top-down world interface, and hotkeys to be used for commands. In 1979 the game was sold in Ziploc bags; now you can play a remake of it on your iPhone.

In 2009, PC Magazine named Rogue as the #6 pick on their list of the ten best computer games of all time. In 1980 Rogue rewrote the idea of a guy in a dungeon, fighting evil things. It was more user-friendly, and more graphics-intensive than its predecessors. Sure, characters and monsters were represented by letters and symbols (a capital ‘Z’ stood for a zombie), but this was the Diablo of its time.

If you ran into an Orc in the midst of the dungeon, rather than having to type “Stab that fucking Orc in the neck and listen to its gurgling pleas for mercy”, you just moved your little dude over to the capital ‘O’, typed ‘W’ to wield your weapon, and hopefully stabbed the thing successfully.

These early games may seem laughably archaic by today’s standards, but without them we’d live in a desolate civilization, completely devoid of an alternative world (like, say, one of Warcraft) into which people could escape for hours, or possibly weeks. If that doesn’t sound like such a loss to you, well okay. I hear you. And to thank you for making it to the end of the article, I give you this:

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