It's not entirely clear when the first video game RPG was created. Even after reams of research, writer David Craddock only hesitantly identifies it as Beneath Apple Manor in his new book Dungeon H@cks, which sheds light on the birth and subsequent evolution of the roguelike genre. It speaks to the rather nebulous roots of the medium, which was born in the homes and labs of a million hobbyists.
Still, Craddock's reticence shows a desire for accuracy that is reflected throughout his tome. Dungeon H@cks meticulously connects the dots from the days of university mainframes to the present day, devoting one to two chapters apiece to Beneath Apple Manor, Rogue, Angband, and a handful of other foundational RPGs.
In his detailed history, Craddock traces a path from the computer labs of UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, and MIT, where students played basic versions of Star Trek on huge mainframes, through the rise of the Macintosh, the Commodore 64, and the modern PC. Through it all, he is at pains to explain the operating systems and programming languages that developers like Rogue co-creator Michael Toy used to create their games, in the process highlighting the evolution of early PC fixtures such as usenet and UNIX.
As depicted by Craddock, early game developers like Toy and Beneath Apple Manor's Don Worth were mainly hobbyists - university students who got their start with RPGs playing Dungeons & Dragons and wanted to translate that experience into a computer game. A common thread in the early going is the boredom that came with solving games like Colossal Cave Adventure and the desire to create something more dynamic. Hence the creation to Rogue and its procedurally-generated challenges.
In the course of tracing the lineage of the roguelike genre from Rogue to NetHack to Moria, Craddock also shines a light on the peculiar community that continues to enjoy these seemingly simplistic text-based games to this day. It's apparent that Craddock himself is a part of this community - his matter-of-fact prose is at its most lively when he's describing individual systems and what makes these games tick. He dives deep into each of his subjects, using extensive interviews with the original creators to discuss individual design choices and the development of particular systems, as well as the rise of the communities surrounding them.
Craddock uses the final chapter to evangelize for roguelikes, highlighting the ways in which they've permeated gaming as a whole. Among other things, he discusses the prevalence of procedurally generated content and the popularity of permadeath modes in games like Diablo II. From his vantage point, roguelikes cut to the very heart of what makes gaming great, arguing that video games should be more about the journey than the destination.
In many ways, it's hard to disagree with Craddock's assertion, even if it's difficult for most gamers to come to grips with the ancient text-based interfaces of most of these games. True roguelikes - games with minimal story, very complex systems, and often arbitrary deaths - tend to appeal to a very particular type of gamer, many of whom are programmers themselves and care as much about how the game itself works as the overall experience. They are a test of intelligence, patience, and luck, and they defy the assumption that games exist to be beaten.
Interestingly enough, though, we are in some ways returning to the days when roguelikes thrived. Independent developers, many of whom aren't much different than Michael Toy and Don Worth, are increasingly co-opting elements like procedurally generated content for their own games. Indie roguelikes continue to proliferate on Steam and other platforms, and even if many of them only superficially resemble the original Rogue, they speak to the timelessness of mechanics first developers back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In that light, Dungeon H@cks is essential reading for roguelike neophytes like myself in helping to put both the past and future of the genre into perspective. With the exception of ADOM's Thomas Biskup, almost all of the original developers profiled in Dungeon H@cks have moved on with their lives; but in one way or another, their games live on. Having read Dungeon H@cks, I'm beginning to understand why.