Wizardry [1981]

On my last-played RPG, Rogue [1980], I wrote, “I have always considered the video game RPG in purely negative terms, and I don’t simply mean that I don’t like them.” But that was a cowardly way of veiling the truth: I have always considered the video game RPG in purely negative terms largely because I don’t like video game RPGs. It’s fine that something’s not really my bag, good even that tastes in media vary wildly from person to person. (Although it might not be best for the blog reader. I hope it’s still at least interesting, but apologies if this article is not up to my usual analytic standards and doesn’t justify its exorbitant length. I didn’t even finish this game. This is definitely the post thus far where I think my position as someone hitherto inexperienced with gaming looms largest.) What worries me is that I’ve never understood why or how anyone else likes video game RPGs, and also I have never felt able to satisfactorily articulate what it even is I don’t like about them because I’ve barely given them a chance.

Arc – War Of The Ring [1981]

I’m more knowledgeable about music than I am about video games. No surprise there, I started getting into exploring music for myself when I was in middle school and I’m just now beginning my study of video games at age 25. I’m also a lot more positive about music than games. For a long time now, I’ve said that 90% of music is good, and I really mean it. There’s a lot to love even in mediocre and below-average music, from the workmanlike to the amateurish; the truly bad is I think a very rare thing. The difference in how we regard music is partially determined by context and taste, but what I find for myself is that a lot of music appreciation is down to just figuring out how to listen. There’s a big difference between a symphony and The Symphony.

That’s not to say, as the music cliche goes, “I just like everything.” I know, through study of the broad selection available, pretty well where my limits as a listener lie and why: I don’t care for most folk, country, chiptune, reggae & friends, lo-fi beats to study to, or the one I’d like to talk about: metal. In ignorance of both genres, I think metal is a lot like RPGs, in that they’re often-fantasy-themed epics, intricately-crafted. When I’ve said I don’t like metal around metalhead friends, recommendations of milder stuff for beginners begin to flow along the lines of an initial assumption that metal is too intense for me. Not so: I can get down with free jazz, hardcore punk, and straight-up noise. Rather, what I find off-putting and alienating in metal is basically how bombastic and larger-than-life it is. The response to that has been “Oh, that is the core appeal of metal music.” Point is, I don’t like metal, but I think I do understand why people do. Same goes for any other music genre I don’t like: some part of the fundamental core appeal is what drives me away. Lo-fi is too chill, folk is too unadorned, I have a Pavlovian panic response to the innocuous off-beat upstroke rhythm that undergirds and defines reggae and ska and such, et cetera.

I don’t have a single clue what the core appeal of a video game RPG is meant to be, even though I have friends who are into them that I’ve asked, and I’ve read plenty about them. Even The CRPG Addict’s grading system which explicitly outlines what he’s looking for in a game didn’t clarify the point for me. I was so desperate to find answers in preparation for playing that I took to flat-out Googling “why do people like RPGs” and then reading decade-old forum threads where pre-teens say how they’re in it for the story, the character, the world. Well, Wizardry [1981] doesn’t have a story, characters, or a world. Wizardry has a dungeon full of monsters, and you’re armed with the standard retinue of menus and statistics to slay them with. It is the bare scaffolding of an RPG.

When I told people I know who like RPGs that I’m going to play Wizardry (and when necessary, what it is,) they tell me they also think it sounds like a miserable time, and even that’s it’s possibly the very worst place to start with the genre. But Wizardry was enormously influential and is internationally beloved to this day! It’s the bare scaffolding of a video game RPG because almost everyone who made an RPG for like the next ten years of video gaming loved Wizardry and built on top of it. Why did they love it so? Moreover, if you like games that inherit mechanical DNA from Wizardry, but the simple idea of a game consisting of only those mechanics inspires dread, how does that work? Are you playing RPGs and deep down hating the parts of it that are like Wizardry — isn’t that the bulk of the time spent in the game, the entire gameplay part!? If you want a story, play a visual novel you chicken! Nah nah, that’s unfair, lots of people play both.

So I go into Wizardry thinking: it might be like building up an affection for spicy food. If I can find my way to liking this game or even just tolerating it, that would be great, that might could set me up here for comprehending later RPGs instead of hitting my wall of negative bias there. One of my inspirations for taking things chronologically, the Rate Your Music Dot Com User Zephos, found success in appreciating metal in that fashion (though I think more people would say the song Black Sabbath by the band Black Sabbath off of the album Black Sabbath is a fine starting point.) If not, well, I was warned it wasn’t a good place to start, but at least if so I’m committed that it’s not going to be the place where I stop starting. I really, really want to see the good in this game.

Things start off great, actually. The manual has these really charming illustrations (below: my favorite) that helps the 25 solid pages of straight-up-vital information go down real easy. It even helpfully offers advice on exactly how I should go about enjoying myself: “Part of the fun of Wizardry is experimenting to find out the best methods for handling various situations.” This sounds very promising to me, because I’m coming in with an attitude of befuddlement about the mystery of the game already!

In actual D&D or Pathfinder, I always loathed character creation for being an overcomplicated slog, even though my friends vocally liked the building their sheets more than playing the game. I learned to just leave all of its many build options, races, classes, spells, feats, whatever untouched in favor of generic, hastily-built human rogues. Wizardry improves vastly on its inspirations there for me, firstly just in automating and doing the arithmetic for me, and secondly in its streamlining versus the era’s AD&D with its fine distinctions of Druid and Cleric and Paladin and so on. Conversely, the labor of designing a character also gives you a little more attachment to them than what you have in Rogue, where the main character is so much a cipher they’re a cursor. Despite the party structure, I felt a bit more invested in the success of my characters like “10 PERCENT BABY,” “WIZ@GMAILDOTCOM,” and “GARY DELICIOUS.”

This all takes place in yet another video game The Castle, but here, unlike in The Prisoner [1980] or Castle Wolfenstein [1981], it is not an incongruous place of menace to be escaped, but a womb. This Castle is the very home of life, where your characters are born, where they are revived from death, where they can rest and heal from its brink. Of course, there’s a price tag placed on the latter two, and the fourth thing in the Castle is all price tags: a trading post, or to drop the euphemism, a pawn shop. Capitalism is naturalized and all-pervasive, even in our capital-f Fantasy scenarios of the vaguely antiquated, to the point where your characters are born with a small fund of gold. It’s just enough to outfit themselves with suitable gear, especially if you pool your resources among your party or cheese the system by creating characters who exist to give away their money then get thrown away. (Sucks for them.) There’s no reason not to buy the best thing available except that you cannot afford it — don’t buy your thief a 5 GP dagger when you could get them a 15 GP short sword, or a 15000 GP +1 short sword. Not only are prices completely rational and stable, but items themselves reduce to nothing but math, easily compared on quantifiable apple-to-apple lines where a short sword is simply better than a dagger, not two different weapons for different ranges and situations. One could say this is the actual most fantastical element in the whole game, even a gesture towards the core of its fantasy: In this game, even magic is more rationalized and easy to reduce and understand through investigative experimentation than our own world’s science. It’s the reassuring simplifying dream of capital. The manual even makes a point of saying that the trading post, which is also the only place that pays you in any way and so comes the closest to being an employer, is the real winner in this society. Your adventuring party are more like laborers, miners where the trading post is the archetypical pickaxe middleman, and your success is playing out the Gold Rush fantasy of accumulation and self-improvement where an independent miner can become fabulously wealthy with the right combination of luck and determination. Now, I could say monetary greed motivates you to leave the castle, but that’s not accurate at all. Rather, there’s simply nothing else to do in this world but stay in the castle, safe but barely extant for how little there is to do, or cast yourself down into struggle.

When you enter the dungeon, or yet another maze as the game text itself would have it, the game fundamentally changes and truly begins even moreso than in Zork [1980]. Like in Zork, you have yourself a combat encounter shortly after, again one where the result depends even more heavily on randomization. Well over a dozen times, before I got any of my characters past Level 1, they were killed in one hit in the easiest zone of random encounters in the game. This kind of turnover completely eradicates any tentative emotional attachment to any particular character except insomuch as their usefulness. The party becomes not a family of individuals but a firm you manage of replaceable, disposable units. Wizardry inherits the old “game doesn’t properly begin until characters are about level 3” problem that most DMs I’ve played with sidestep by simply having characters start at around level 3. (This is a tangent, but I started off with the 1984 DOS port before I found a more chronologically accurate Apple II disk image that worked, huge thanks to The Data-Driven Gamer, and what I haven’t seen notated on the Internet anywhere is that, while disarming treasure chests seems much less reliable and aging is accelerated on DOS, I did not run into this massive Level 1 character churn in it.) If I go and randomly get my ribcage caved in at the first combat encounter in Zork, I think I’ve done something wrong. Here, though, there’s enumerated menus of my possible options, so I know for sure that I didn’t do anything wrong. The computer game just up and decided to wreck me, and there was nothing I could have done about it. I can say this, though, for this game: It’s an accurate tone-setter. The entire time I played the game, I never stopped running into these random, arbitrary set-back punishments. Did I mention yet this is a game with permadeath? Did I mention that this game gives you an option to run away from combat encounters that’s less effective against tougher encounters, or in other words, when you need it the most? Did you know that Wizardry 2 [1982] was an expansion pack for high-level characters with no character creator of its own so if your characters died you needed to go back and powerlevel though Wizardry 1 again?!

The original subtitle for this game was “Dungeons Of Despair,” convergent evolution with Rogue’s boot message “Welcome to the Dungeons Of Doom.” Now that’s truth in advertising! You gotta respect these games that say upfront you’re going to have an absolutely wretched time. The subtitle on publication ended up being “Wizardry: Proving Grounds Of The Mad Overlord,” positing the game developers who were the ones actually designing these Grounds as your Mad Overlords. Wizardry’s pitch is not just the aforementioned process of discovery but also, in the “Proving Grounds” half of the title, a positioning of overcoming difficulty as something tantalizing. Now, I know not if this is virtue or dysfunction or just a difference between me and other people, but I had recent cause to reflect in a conversation with my friends, shortly after playing both Wizardry and then Superhot: Mind Control Delete [2020] that overcoming a difficult challenge has never, in my entire life, made me feel proud or satisfied or any positive value, I don’t think. I feel proud only of my acts of kindness or self-expression. When I painstakingly replaced the transmission and engine block of a truck, I didn’t feel accomplished, I felt all the frustration of hating every miserable second of it far outweighing my runner-up emotion of relief that I didn’t have to do that again. (I did, in fact, have to.) Same goes for the more trivial worlds of video games, where I have never placed any stock in achieving or performing well within them. It’s downright impossible to get myself to actually care about my high score or that I am playing on the lower difficulty settings or even with cheats, though Wizardry has none of that. (Well, I did use emulator save-scumming. Technical delay of this article aside, I’m trying to keep a schedule here!)

There’s a straight line from here forward to RPGMaker Work-in-Progress “I Hate You, Please Suffer,” by scitydreamer (games & blog,) and backwards to the concept of “adversarial Dungeon Master-ing,” like in Tomb Of Horrors [1975], although I must quickly stress that from what I’ve read Tomb Of Horrors is a comedic outlier purpose-built for a very specific context and not representative of some 1970s golden age of adversarial DMing. Though there have been players who liked and wanted it across the many table cultures, there have been (in my direct experience) many more who have been exposed to it and walked away from the entire medium with a sour taste in their mouth. The elementary lesson is that it’s trivial for the DM to kill the player characters if they so choose, but they win nothing by it. At the very least, there can be a proper cleverness arms race between a DM and their players across a table. In the June 1979 edition of Dragon Magazine, for instance, a DM shared their repartee with their party: to circumvent hidden pits, the players tied their characters together like mountain climbers, so the DM added a heavy weight that would crush and drag the party in (a literal Rocks Fall Everyone Dies,) so the players started pushing a cart in front of them to trigger the traps, and so on. In Wizardry, however, there is no capability of such a conversation of actions, no imaginative outsmarting of the designer when that same designer is the one who carved out the entire limited menu of what it is possible for you to do. The stereotypical Ten Foot Pole is not implemented, and even if it were it wouldn’t be your ideas how to go about using it. The only way to handle the many hidden pits in Wizardry is to walk right into them and then remember not to do that next time. It’s quite stupid.

Well, there is actually just one pit that’s hinted at. There is a poem that the player must not only recognize as a rhyming poem before it’s even rhymed by passing familiarity with the poetic form of Burma-Shave ads, but also complete the rhyme themselves (“LIT” with an implied “PIT.”) It’s very simple and easy, but it is actually a satisfying, amusing, soluble puzzle. The other puzzles in this game didn’t take this as a prototype, instead resorting to dressed-up lock-and-key puzzles that I managed to somehow solve all of (and thus not notice) entirely by coincidence.

What it is emblematic of for this game, though, is its preoccupation with language, especially as a method of obscurity. Enemies that appear before you in-fiction are not represented properly by the image displayed by the computer but by their text description, which always begins just a shade too vague to be able to differentiate between an Orc and a Kobold, no matter that you’re 2 feet away and seen dozens of each. The titular Wizardry is achieved by spell utterance, which must be replicated precisely when prompted — no typos! The main categorical difference between not the nature but the abilities priests and mages are is what language their spellbooks are written in. In the underlying Pascal architecture of the game, to save space, spells are not each given a bespoke entry in an index of some kind, but broken down into syllables and their effects are generated from the valid logical combination of those. Kind of like Japanese. This is most evident even to the layperson in the way that, say, the nonsense “HALITO” and “MAHALITO” are a fire attack and a bigger fire attack. In this program called Wizardry, to be a wizard is to be a programmer. Little surprise, then, that Wizardry spawned a cottage industry of cheat engines over the strenuous protests of the Mad Overlords.

Interestingly, the thief’s trap disabling prowess works by the same principle, by which “Poison” mistaken for “Posion” will mean failure, recalling also the command to type “BANG” correctly in The Oregon Trail [1971] while removing the action orientation of the time pressure entirely, and re-emphasizing that this entire virtual first-person world is built from the same magical linguistic processes. Thus, the seemingly basic physical existence of doors is folded back into the central linguistic mission of obscurity declared in the manual, seeing as they serve only to block your view of the area they lead into, wrenching mystery out of the obvious. Ah, yes, the view: when there are no tiny lying pictures of monsters, the computer produces a wireframe first-person image of the dungeon you walk through. Your task is to see through the walls — not with some x-ray vision spell, but to reject and transcend the thin fiction of embodied immersion in a kind of Platonic gesture. I get out my graph paper and, in another, more complicated pantograph translation, the territory which began as map and was transmitted through code into visuals is brought full circle back into map.

To me, this is actually the only remotely fun part, the very beating heart of the game from which combat is an unwanted interruption. I’m very surprised to learn that, apparently unlike every other mechanic of this game, this one is carried forward only for the Etrian Odyssey series of games. Initially I got thrown for a loop with things like darkness and secret doors and teleporters, and after that expectation is set jumping at corners expecting even grander navigational traps and trickeries, but soon I know the tricks and I have my locate-thyself spell at the ready. Soon, I’m firing my mirror neurons away recreating the spirals, halls, and symmetries of floor 2. This is the only time where I really do feel like I’m hacking away at the obscurity like an explorer.

As part of Wizardry’s larger commitment to obscurity, the obligation of managing the difficulty curve is offloaded onto the player, and the average player (not a hacker) must also perform this operation with partial information, gathered through a process of trial-and-error-by-fire and pattern recognition. It becomes clear to the player that the determining factor in how hazardous your combat encounters with wandering monsters are going to be is lightly random, but primarily reliant on your location within the dungeon. If you leave that starting area, and not just the first floor but the lower-left quadrant of the first floor, before your characters are leveled up enough, they will get smashed into paste, and this pattern holds true for the entire game. Leveling and experience points are a kind of pacing mechanism that serve to gently gate you from progressing to completion more quickly. Your characters’ collective ability to withstand encounters — their hit points, their spell retinue, their armor — act sort of as a scuba diver’s oxygen line, lengthening to allow you to deeper descend only after you retreat to the surface for a breath of fresh air. (You can only level up by returning to The Castle.) It’s intuitive enough to understand… but it’s a completely ridiculous way to design a game.

It might be separate or related to the pacing mechanisms Wizardry lays out — further games remixing these elements may show me — but the pacing that was implemented with those tools is a horror. It’s geared as though its goal is to beyond exhaust both its own stock of content and the player. Clearing a single floor in this game took me about 6 to 9 hours each, thus feeling all the more like a recreation of a workday than a game. I earlier talked about Wizardry’s high level of difficulty, but in another sense I could say that it’s not actually difficult. It’s simply inordinately demanding of patience (though, in another sense yet, that is how I could describe most nominally difficult tasks.) You have a very limited set of potential options, and then within those options it’s extremely obvious which option is the best. Every round of every combat encounter, you send 3 fight commands to the 3 frontline non-magic characters who can either fight or do nothing, and then have your 3 magic users cast their straightforwardly best spells, unless the enemy before you doesn’t warrant such an expenditure so you just tell them to do nothing. Progressing in the game is just down to steady perseverance, and to extensive randomization which makes it so that you never really feel like you’re in control or effective at anything. Either events are repetitive and trival and your party comes out the other end with mere bruises, or they’re a sudden sledgehammer to the nuts from the dark where it doesn’t really matter what you did. Everything is tedious until it’s upsetting.

To put in perhaps anachronistic terms, you are forced to grind. The equivalent term in a period tabletop RPGs, for a table with a heavy emphasis on throwing combat encounters at the party, is “hack-and-slash,” but I don’t think that’s quite the same thing as a grind, what with all the bespoke hand-crafting and invitation to creatively solve problems. Theoretically, you could indeed have a campaign of little but mechanistically rigid random fights in person, and it could be mitigated by hanging out with friends around pizza, but this is generally understood by anyone who takes the time to write about DMing as bad practice both now and in the 70s. Not only is it deathly dull to the point of inviting probable mutiny, but combat encounters done with physical dice and with narration and none of the arithmetic automated are far too time-consuming to run in batches of dozens. I can’t find any evidence of such gameplay happening before the influence of video game RPGs in the spotty records I can find. I think grinding is a true video game original. From whence, though?

Wizardry’s creators Andrew Greenberg & Robert Woodhead explicitly cite as direct inspiration the video game RPGs on the PLATO mainframes — the very first that we know of, in a parallel with how the first adventure and shooting games were born and proliferated in other University mainframe timesharing systems, all siloed somehow both by genre and by platform. Specifically, it looks that the game they took the most from was Moria [1975-77], which was made in ignorance of D&D, with stats like Cunning, Valor, and even Wizardry in itself. It’s also where it gets its aspirations to take up massive amounts of time and virtual space. Moria is gigantic to the point of absurdity: 5 dungeons of 5 floors each of 2000 grid squares each. It took the CRPG Adventurer 3 years to beat. It’s where Wizardry gets the first person view and as best as I can tell this idea of grinding and random encounters placed geographically. The apparent very first video game RPG that’s still around, dnd [1975], has a much more ingenuous solution I wish I could be writing about now: The algorithm of monster difficulty scales not to where you are, but to the monetary value of the loot you’re carrying. It’s an elegant, casually brilliant system that’s not only easier to implement and nearer self-balancing, but also has the clever and tidy implication that the greed that motivates you is also what motivates the monsters.

Speaking of money and monsters, one of the funniest pranks the game pulled on me was with its “Creeping Coins,” which I imagine as insects that look like money. They can’t do anything to harm you, but they can… breathe. So I ended up going against 18 of these things, and every single round having to wait patiently for the status message of the nothing they were doing to pass by. Then it paid out the most experience points of almost any encounter up to that point! Very funny. Not as funny the fifth time, where what came across like self-parody of how simple the ostensible gameplay was and the lengths it was willing to go to extend the time spent in it became a pristine example.

The epitome of all Wizardry’s most hostile tendencies though — at least as far as I know — is Floor 3, where I gave up. Floor 2 felt like it might have been, if I really strained my perspective, the game shedding the bullshit and really beginning, Floor 3 was a headfirst dive back into the bullshit, reminding me that that’s all that’s in this game. Where Floor 2’s map was kinda interesting, Floor 3’s is a perfect grid, the most mind-numbing map design imaginable. It’s strongly reminiscent of The Prisoner’s map, which was a joke. Although, credit where it’s due: where The Prisoner was a carnival midway where I couldn’t wait to see what was behind every door, Wizardry was much more like an actual prison! That’s what dungeons are supposed to be — not these subterranean, subconscious fantasies of colonial extraction and pain. All but one of the doors leads to identical cells holding absolutely nothing. On the floor, at most of the intersections, there are instructions like “LEFT” or “TURN AROUND”. If you follow them, they lead you almost immediately into pit traps and loops that might just kill one of your squishy mages outright. If you catch onto that and do the exact opposite of their instructions, the same happens. (Another funny prank.) In fact, once you’ve got them all mapped out, you can see that they don’t lead to anything but infinite loops of certain death. It’s a complete red herring, it doesn’t even serve as a hint for like a later maze or anything. I’ve known text adventures that ask me to peek down 10, 100, 1000 blind doors for the right one as a gag, but it’s much more quick and painless to simply type OPEN 1, OPEN 2 etc than it is to walk out from door 1 and into door 2 and get in like 4 combat encounters, and there’s usually some kind of hint somewhere. Not here. The only way to figure out where the door that’s actually going to let you go down to the next floor is straight up trial and error, checking 33 separate doors like an advent calendar than runs two too long. It’s an expression of contempt for the player and their time in full flower. I didn’t want to see what it had in store next, so I tapped out.

If I hadn’t been writing this blog, I wouldn’t have made it past level 1, even if it meant wasting over $100 and never playing another game as long as I lived. I hate Wizardry and the feeling is mutual. I can only at best respect Wizardry as a punkish or dadaist expression of antipathy towards the audience scrawled in the game’s own feces, which is something I’ve always been inclined to like. In that department, it’s a marvel! But I can’t understand how such an obstinate howl of hatred could become an international megahit so beloved and influential and praised as fun, though, how games like this didn’t leave the genre dead in the water. I embarked here hoping to gain some understanding, but if anything I’ve actually lost it and become less wise than I was before I played Wizardry. I consider this article a failure, hence why I am burying it by publishing it the night before a presidential election. I would recommend basically any other activity that a person might willfully opt to do (such as learning a musical instrument, or working overtime at a fast food restaurant) over Wizardry, the worst, most miserable time I’ve ever had playing a game. Next time: ET [1982]!

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