Classic Quests: Can CRPGs be Hot and Cold?

By Scott M. Bruner
PhD Student, English, Bard of Skara Brae

One of the issues that’s come up a few times during Classic Quests (Every Tuesday from 1-2ish!) is that most of us didn’t play a lot of Richard Garriott’s Ultima games during their original 1980s release.  As we played “through” Ultima IV last semester, we spent a lot of time analyzing the game’s impressive simulation mechanics. The game features one of the first open worlds in an RPG where characters can visit towns, castles, and dungeons while also traversing a remarkably large overland area. In each town, the player can shop, rest, and even steal while also being able to converse with nearly every NPC. The game even tracks the player’s actions through the game’s morality/virtue system. The game presents Ultima’s world of Britannia as the simulacra of a living, breathing world. It’s an impressive achievement certainly by 1985 standards, and one that creates a game space that is often as compelling as it is intriguing.

Still, all of us on Classic Quest (Dr. Thomas Malaby, PhD candidate Kristopher Purzycki, and myself) have remarked that we’re more familiar with Ultima’s contemporaries such as the Wizardry (1981) andThe Bard’s Tale series (1985).

The Wizardry and Bard’s Tale games almost completely eschew world simulation and place a laser-like focus on simply recreating the combat mechanics of the tabletop RPGs, such as Dungeons & Dragons, that earlier cRPGS wanted to emulate. Unlike Ultima, story and world-building are secondary to resource management (equipment, spells, wealth) while the gameplay is based on surviving a vicious grind of attrition through constant combat. While Ultima IV shipped with three books detailing the game world of Britannia, its history and magic system (along with a cloth map and metal ankh), the Wizardry and Bard’s Tale games’ diegetic background took up little more than a paragraph of exposition in a manual mostly devoted to navigating the game’s combat, spell-casting, and class progression systems.

There’s little debate that Ultima IV, in its regard for narrative, diegesis, and thematic arcs (while Ultima has the player’s avatar beginning a quest of spiritual discovery to become a shining beacon of hope for Britannia, Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale’s plot requires gaining enough experience points to kill an evil wizard) is the more sophisticated game.

screenshot of opening splashI keep wondering why I wasn’t a bigger fan of Ultima in 1985. I have a few ideas – and I think a lot has to do with the lack of patience I had when I was 13-years-old for a game which required the heavy intellectual lifting, and note-taking, that Ultima IV requires. The other idea that’s been nagging at me, however, is that Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale might have been more fascinating to me because they did provide so much more opportunities for my creative, adolescent imagination to fill in the gaps – and I loved doing so.

I created entire backstories for the Mad Overlord of the first Wizardry (“Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord”) scenario and saw the uncanny, monster-infested streets of Skara Brae in The Bard’s Tale 1 as the feverish, incarnation of the sinister dreams of the game’s main antagonist, the evil wizard Mangar. My favorite cRPG of all-time is 1979’sThe Temple of Apshai – and although the manual for the game features a wonderful short story about the recently-discovered Temple, the game itself is nothing more than a simple dungeon crawl for loot and treasure. However, as a young player – and one who was still enraptured by the possibilities of personal computing intersecting with games, I created an elaborate history for the Temple as well as for the PC I created to explore its arcane mysteries. The expositions I manufacttured for the games which lacked them was my own nascent form of “fan-fiction.”

I was also recently thinking of Marshall McLuhan’s conceptions of hot and cold mediums. McLuhan argued that hot media, such as film, offer a comprehensive communication of the “message” which engages multiple modalities for its transmission. A hot media requires very input, or “non-trivial effort” (apologies to Espen Aarseth), from a passive viewer in order to experience it. Cool media, on the other hand, engages fewer senses, leaves gaps in its realization, and/or utilizes a very specific genre lexicon, which the viewer/reader/interactor must fill in in order to interpret and experience. Cool media includes television and comic books – media which require the audience to participate with on a more engaged level.

I’m curious if this idea is useful for thinking about the alterity between Ultima and its peers; Is Ultima a “hot” game where Richard Garriott has attempted to create, and present, all aspects of his fictional world of Britannia for players to explore. Do Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale represent “cool” RPGs because the game only presents one facet of the adventurers’ lives within the game world. Does their focus on resource management and combat demand that the player (if she desires) fill in the diegetic and expository details for the game’s narrative realization to make any sense?

…This does lead us to another question: is it even necessary for a game’s narrative realization to be coherent? While Garriott certainly seemed to think so, neither Sir-Tech software nor Interplay did in the 1980s, and all three series were astronomic commercial successes. It might simply be that players in different eras have different expectations (can you imagine a contemporary RPG shipping without significant effort given to its world, narrative, and background?) – and different capacities. I wonder if that’s true of myself; I think I’d prefer Ultima IV today (I’m actually about to replay it myself from beginning to end, finally!) to Wizardry or The Bard’s Tale simply because my own imagination isn’t nearly as robust as it was in 1985.

Either way, we’d love to have people who want to continue this conversation (and others) by either commenting below or, better yet, by joining us each week on Classic Quests! This week, we’re continuing our trek through the (expositorily-vapid) streets of Skara Brae in The Bard’s Tale 1 (full name: Tales of the Unknown Vol. 1: The Bards Tale) – which, even in 2019, is still a lot of fun!


Watch Classic Quests: Bard’s Tale from Serious_Play on


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