The roles we play: on the redemptive power of games

How a fantasy geek with polyhedral dice and no playmates accidentally created a global video-gaming phenomenon.

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I committed my first act of terrorism in 1997. I joined the group, a ragtag bunch of well-meaning, down-and-out eco­warriors, for financial rather than ideological reasons – a gun for hire (although, in my case, I carried a blade). The target was a multinational energy company whose unregulated practices had been polluting the city and the ground on which it stood for years. AVALANCHE, as the vigilantes called themselves, believed in the virtue of the plan. I just hoped that I’d get paid. We rode the train into the city one night, punctured a perimeter fence and, in the rain-slicked dark, fastened a home-made explosive device to the carapace of one of the company’s greedy power plants. The explosion tore the structure to the ground and, the next morning, lit up the papers. Vengeance followed, swift and total. True to form, the company cruelly dropped one of its stratospheric towers on to a slum where we were rumoured to be hiding out. Scores of people died. I am not yet – if I am being honest – quite over it.

Today, Final Fantasy VII looks appallingly dated. Its graphics are jagged and antiquated: a virtual world as if viewed through steam from the spout of a boiling kettle. Those vigilantes, who once seemed to me and to many of the 11 million other people who bought the game like the most expressive virtual actors ever pushed on to a stage (it was Sony PlayStation’s second-best-selling release), appear now as strange balloon animals, all grotesque bulges of rudimentary 3-D art. And yet Final Fantasy VII remains a beloved classic. You can watch a seven-hour YouTube compilation of so-called reaction videos from fans, many of them sobbing inconsolably, following last summer’s news that the game is being remade for contemporary technology.

For many, Final Fantasy VII was their first experience of a role-playing game (RPG), a style of expansive video game whose origins lie in the pen-and-paper RPGs of the 1970s, with their dungeons, dragons and polyhedral dice rolls. I remember taking the game home on the bus that summer, poring over the instruction manual, bewildered by its arcane terminology, fearful that I had made a tremendous mistake. I remember calling my father upstairs a few hours later as my character fled the scene of the explosion, trying to communicate my astonishment at what I saw playing out on screen, the vivid characters, the unstoppable momentum of the drama, of which I was the motivating force. (My father remained unmoved.)

I had played scores of video games before. Through them I’d lived out the worn boyhood fantasies of becoming a racing driver, a fighter pilot, a crack soldier, a football manager, an acrobatic plumber. This was somehow different. Here was a game focused fully on exploration and role play, on world-building and world-roaming. Here was the chance to play as a character on whose shoulders the fate of the universe seemed to sit. Here was a character who, over the course of a story of Homeric expanse, would become the embodiment of thousands of my micro-decisions. Here was a character, crucially, with whom I shared my real name.

Although in 1997 Final Fantasy VII was the most lavishly rendered RPG (the game’s development cost $45m, with a team of more than 100 – unprecedented figures in the industry at the time), it was, as its title suggests, far from the first. In the game’s home country, Japan, the RPG had long been the most disruptively popular video-game genre. In 1988, for instance, 392 Japanese schoolchildren were arrested for truancy in what a police spokesperson described at the time as “a national disgrace”. The mass malingering was caused by the launch of Dragon Quest III, a fantasy RPG that had sold a million copies that day. Its release proved so diverting that its publisher reputedly promised the Japanese government that it would only bring out subsequent Dragon Quest games at the weekend or on national holidays. Today, on prime central Tokyo real estate, you can visit a Dragon Quest-themed café where patrons are served bubbling potions and rice buns shaped like gurning monsters, which the waitresses deliver with pirouettes and incantations.

In 2016 the Japanese RPG turns 30: 1986 was the year of Dragon Quest’s debut, as well as that of The Legend of Zelda, the Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto’s lighter, more primary-colour take on the genre. Named after Zelda Fitzgerald, the archetypal American socialite of the boisterous 1920s, Miyamoto’s game was inspired by his childhood adventures in the early 1960s. He would explore the caves around his home, in the rural village of Sonobe, about thirty miles north-west of Kyoto, imagining that each one housed peril and treasure. Hyrule, the verdant kingdom in which the series is set, was intended to be, Miyamoto once said, “a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit any time you like”. His instinct proved correct. Thirty years after its debut, the series remains one of Nintendo’s most popular, a recurring myth that beguiles each new generation of players.

If Zelda’s roots can be found in a river valley surrounded by wooded mountains, Dragon Quest’s roots can be found, unexpectedly, in Hawaii. It was here that, in the 1970s, Henk Rogers, then an undergraduate, first encountered Dungeons & Dragons, the boardless board game that plays out in the imagination of its participants, who assume the roles of, usually, warriors, working together on some grand quest, under the guidance of an omniscient chaperone known as the “dungeon master” (DM). Rogers and a group of like-minded friends would play lengthy campaigns using their own rules, sometimes starting on a Friday after lectures and not finishing until the following Monday. After college, Rogers moved to Japan, chasing a girl who later became his wife. When he arrived in Tokyo, he could find nobody with whom to play. In February 1982, he took the subway to Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics shopping district, and spent $10,000 on a computer, which he intended to use to develop a computer RPG.

Rogers worked on the game, which had to fit within just 64 kilobytes of memory, for just nine months. Set in a Tolkien-esque fantasy world, it was a synthesis of Dungeons & Dragons and text-based computer games such as ADVENT. As in earlier Western computer RPGs such as Wizardry, the computer assumed the role of the DM, rolling metaphorical dice in the background to determine the outcomes of the on-screen duels. Rogers made it possible for the player to name the protagonist, to choose the character’s class and equipment and, as the story unfurled, to decide where in the world they wanted to explore next.

Inspired by his father’s gem business, Rogers named his game The Black Onyx and took out an advertisement in a computer magazine using artwork depicting a hero arcing a sword while standing on top of a pile of monsters. In its first month of release, just one order was placed. The following month: four. The money was running out. In a final attempt to generate interest in the game, Rogers hired a translator and visited the offices of every computer magazine in Japan at the time. He sat down with each editor and asked for their name; he typed this into the computer before choosing a lookalike head for the hero. The ploy worked. Within two months, every magazine had run an extensive review of The Black Onyx, with pages of coverage explaining the arrival of this brave new genre. The Black Onyx was the bestselling computer game of 1984, shifting tens of thousands of copies and inspiring a slew of Japanese companies to work on their own versions.

Dragon Quest was the first majorly successful, home-grown title to adapt Rogers’s vision. To date, the series has sold more than 60 million games. Its closest competitor, ­Final Fantasy, which is published by the same company, boasts even greater success, with more than 100 million sales globally. RPGs are now one of the country’s most popular video-game exports.

In the West, too, the genre gained ground and influence. Where Dungeons & Dragons, even at the height of its popularity, carried a certain stigma, the peer-acceptable video-game form enabled players to enjoy the number-crunching role-play dynamic behind closed doors without, ironically, the antisocial overtones attached to the pen-and-paper format. The settings, which had been dominated by the aesthetic of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (which had infused all role-playing games since the novel’s US release in the mid-1950s), began to diversify. Fallout, for example, is an RPG series set in postwar, post-nuclear 1950s America. Tabula Rasa focuses on humanity’s last stand against an invading alien race. Diablo is set in a Dante-like vision of hell.

Final Fantasy VII was different, too. The series, launched by Hironobu Sakaguchi in 1987, and which gained its name from how it was a last-ditch attempt to save his company from insolvency, had never wandered far from medieval knights and castles. Yet here, now, was a game set in a steampunk alternate universe, with themes of ecology and climate change, of love and loss.

***

The game entered my life at a crucial moment. I was midway through its winding story when I returned home from college one day and my father asked me to take a seat on his bed. He left soon afterwards, never to return to the house. In the chaotic, disorientating weeks that followed his swift departure and my parents’ divorce, the game became a steadying refuge, a place of comforting routine. The framework of my life on the other side of the screen appeared to be collapsing, like the toppling power plant of the game’s memorable opening scenes. Final Fantasy VII, meanwhile, presented a place of opportunity and optimism.

It is no accident that the role-playing game should provide this heady combination of empowerment and refuge. These are games that slot into the ancient tradition of heroic fiction. They promise manifest destiny, a route to inevitable victory, so long as you dutifully follow the story’s thread, play by the rules and invest the appropriate amount of time. RPGs are not capricious, even if you are occasionally blindsided by an unexpected battle or plot twist.

In the words of the critic Marilynn Strasser Olson, they present “a metaphor for a vision of life that can be ordered, understood and won”. The appeal of computer RPGs in particular goes beyond the mere victories of plot in which we rescue the prince or princess and save the world. Our characters also measure our experience and growing expertise in points. As our digital protagonist levels up, so they quantify our effort and progress in a way that real life often fails to do, once we have left school and its grades, or when we miss out on a promotion.

If we feel empowered and freshly alive in these single-player stories, how much more vivid and appealing are those facets when shared with others, through the internet? Indeed, a few years before Henk Rogers brought the Dungeons & Dragons genre to Japan, another branch of the role-playing game’s family tree began flowering in England. Richard Bartle grew up in the 1960s on a council estate in Hornsea, Yorkshire. His father was a gas fitter and his mother a school cook: a working-class family with working-class prospects. Bartle claims that he invented RPGs when he was 12 by sticking pieces of A4 paper together, drawing a large map of lakes and mountains and coming up with a character who had to move from one side of the imagined world to the other.

Bartle was bright and wanted to find a way to go to university, something nobody in his family had yet managed to do. His talent for mathematics earned him a place at Essex, where, after a year, he switched to a computer science course. There he met Roy Trubshaw, a student in the year above, who had recently written the first proof of concept for a multiplayer RPG called MUD. The pair worked on the prototype, which required players to sit at a teletype (a device similar to a typewriter that accessed a computer mainframe) and enter commands. There was no screen. Rather, details about the world and everyone’s actions within it were delivered through paper printouts.

Development on the game blossomed as the ever-improving hardware allowed for new complexities. Bartle was responsible for setting the rules by which the game’s world would operate. “We thought the real world sucked,” he told me in 2014. “The only reason I had been allowed into a university is because the country decided that it was so in need of programmers that it was prepared to tolerate people from backgrounds like mine in further education. We wanted to make a world which was better than that. It was a political endeavour right from the start, as well as an artistic one.”

Bartle’s political aims are evident in MUD’s use of character levels, which, as he put it, gave people an indication of their merit based “on what they did, rather than where they were born”. MUD spread quickly, thanks in part to an accident of geography. The University of Essex was close to a BT research centre at Martlesham Heath, which allowed the game to be shared with other university campuses around the world. Bartle and Trubshaw also gave MUD away for free (“I wanted to change the world through this game,” he once said, “and if you want the world to change, then making people pay to read your message isn’t going to work”), allowing for the values baked into its design to promulgate quickly.

In this way, Bartle’s virtual meritocracy became the predominant value system in online RPGs, an influence that can be seen clearly in the so-called massively multiplayer online RPGs that dominate today, such as World of Warcraft and EVE Online.

The appeal of the design is clear. At the height of its popularity, 12 million players paid a monthly subscription to reside in World of Warcraft (more than the populations of Greece, Portugal or Belgium). Although the figure has slowly declined (the latest stat puts it at 5.5 million, a population still equivalent to that of Finland), this is, analysts say, largely the result of emigration to alternate, newer virtual worlds, rather than a wholesale exodus from the medium. Three hundred thousand people log in daily to Dragon Quest X, the most recently launched title in the series, which is currently available only in Japan. Fallout 4, the bestselling RPG of 2015, earned more than $750m in the 24 hours following its launch. Final Fantasy XV, which is expected to be released in 2016, has been in development for more than five years, while the next Zelda game, which shares its title with the original 1986 version, is rumoured to be the Wii U console’s swansong.

Compared to blockbuster giants such as Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Destiny, conventional RPGs sell in relatively modest numbers. Nevertheless, their fundamental political values of equal opportunity and the right to make and own your choices have spread across the entire video-game medium and can be perceived everywhere. Increasingly, most blockbuster games include RPG aspects, be it the chance to name your character after yourself, or to chisel their digital face to look like yours, or simply to choose to invest in those abilities that suit your temperament and approach to virtual life. Do you prefer to rely on charm to get what you want, or on violence? In this way, the RPG’s influence has been fundamental and ubiquitous in the medium. Most video games reflect values of justice and democracy, even if they are set within the clichéd landscapes of fantasy or apocalyptic anarchy.

It is within the fabric of our virtual worlds, rather than the style, that the elemental appeal of video games is found. The RPG offers a welcoming and comforting escape from the rigour and unpredictability of reality. Yes, it provides the unhelpful fiction of manifest destiny, a reinforcement of the untruth that you are the axis on which the world’s fate swivels. But more than that, RPGs offer a glimpse of a better, fairer, freer existence. They teach the value of tenacity and offer a context in which to explore character, or to play against type. For others, they are an irresistible distraction, a lure away from reality’s unconquerable tasks and never-ending responsibilities, a fiction with which life cannot compete.

Simon Parkin’s “Death by Video Game” is published by Serpent’s Tail

This article appears in the 07 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue

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