Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role Playing Games Review

'Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-playing Games' is an exhaustive 450+ page review of computerised role-playing computer games (CRPGs) by Matt Barton. I first came across the author whilst youtube surfing and falling down the rabbit hole into his show, 'Matt chat'. I found the information and discussion about CRPGs interesting so thought I'd invest in a Kindle version of the book. I wasn't disappointed as this is a comprehensive study of the CRPG genre, looking at the 30 or so years of games.


The book starts with the origins of the genre, tracing it's roots back to the classic 'Dungeons and Dragons' etc. It also discusses the criteria by which Barton considers games CRPGs- as a gamer you'd know all this but for research purposes its great.

Barton then breaks down the 30 year history of CRPGs into six ages: Dark Age, Bronze Age, Silver Age, Golden Age, Platinum Age, and Modern Age.

The Dark Age (1975-76) discusses University Mainframes and the PLATO system. The section mostly covers text-based games, which were freely traded among mainframe and timesharing systems. It explains how many games were lost as administrators of these systems saw such frivolities as time wasters and taking up valuable resource space. This section covers games such as 'Rogue', 'Zork' and 'Colossal Cave Adventure' as well as early MUDs (Multi-user Dungeons). 

The Bronze Age (1977- 1980) discusses the Apple II and Commodore. These computers were popular and many classic games came out in this period including 'Akalabeth' and 'Wizards Castle'. This is an interesting chapter as it discusses how the games were cross-pollinating and influencing each other. 

The Silver Age (1981-1983) is a meaty chapter as it is here that many of the CRPG conventions were laid. It is during this era that we see 'Ultima 1-3', 'Wizardry 1-4' and 'Tales of Doom'. The chapter pays particular attention to 'Wizardry' as it was this series that really helped influence the JRPG (Japanese Role-playing Game) scene. The fact that many sequals were made that improved and enhanced the previous game meant that CRPGs were quickly evolving. This is an interesting chapter and one that most people into CRPGs would be really interested in as before then the games are a lot more obscure. 

 Richard Garriot, creator of Ultima.

Richard Garriot, creator of Ultima.

The Golden Age is split into two eras, one that runs from 1985-1986 and from 1987-1993. The reason is that it is during the first Golden Age that we see the formation of companies, CRPGs had become a viable genre in the games industry. The venerable SSI company is born and games such as 'Bards Tale', 'Ultima 4' and 'Realms of Darkness' are discussed. This is a packed chapter and it was nice to read about the software house, I would have liked more information about the other companies as I am sure there is a lot of information available. 

The Golden Age also discusses the JRPG scene with mentions of 'Zelda', 'Chrono Trigger', 'Secret of Mana', 'Final Fantasy 1-3' and 'Phantasy Star 1-4'. I found this section to be too short as it is these games that I am really familiar with but Barton mentions that a lot of the JRPGs are Action RPGs and goes into detail explaining the difference between those and conventions CRPGs. A good chapter but too short for my liking. 

                                         The amazing Final Fantasy... whilst it required A LOT of grinding it was a great game.

                                        The amazing Final Fantasy... whilst it required A LOT of grinding it was a great game.

Barton then has a chapter discussing the fall of SSI and discusses their good and mediocre games, providing information on 'Ravenloft' and 'Ultima 8-9'. 

The Platinum Age (1996-2001) represents a high-point in the CRPG genre. As technology advanced the development of CRPGs was undertaken larger development teams and art departments. Games that came out in this era include 'Ultima Underworld 1-2', 'Daggerfall', 'Diablo 1-2', 'Fallout', 'Baldur's Gate' and 'Dungeon Keeper'. This chapter is short and bitty as there are a lot of games to cover in this era. I would have liked a more in-depth discussion of each game, especially the rise of studios such as Bethesda and Bioware. 

The Modern Age (2001 - present) continues to see the publication of quality games including 'Neverwinter Nights', 'Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic' and 'Fable'. However the traditional CRPG genre finds itself i eclipsed by Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG). Barton discusses the rise of game consoles and a growing focus on action encourage the development of games like 'Diablo', which borrow some elements of CRPGs but replace careful tactics with a clickfest. Barton ends the book discussing the demise of the CRPG due to the encrouachment and rise in popularity of consoles, saying that the CRPGs would be for a niche gaming group. Considering that this book was written and published in 2008 I can see where he is coming from. Looking back at an era before Steam was such a powerhouse PC's seemed to be on the way out. Little could he have known about their rise in popularity.

After reading the book from cover to cover over a couple of weeks I have to say that the amount of passion put into the book by Barton is obvious. The amount of hours he must have poured into playing the games is mind boggling. He is a passionate CRPG man and it shows in his writing. However this book is not meant to be read like a conventional book. Rather I feel it is a reference book, useful for picking up bits and pieces. The book reads well and whilst there are a few grammatical and spelling errors it doesn't detract from the overall work. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the evolution of CRPGs. The fact that I found myself tracking down several of the games to check out as I read through the book is testament to the interest the book created in me. 

LINK- Matt Bartons 'Matt Chat' youtube channel