Editorial: Why the Future of Videogames Depends on Looking to the Past

In 1972, two little-known game designers, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, met while playing a role-playing game called Blackmoor, designed by Arneson. Gygax was so impressed by the game that he asked for a copy of the rules, and then began editing them. Together Gygax and Arneson developed a handwritten 50 page rule book titled Dungeons and Dragons. They didn’t know it then, but D&D would go on to become not only one of the most popular pen and paper role-playing games in history, but a major influence on the video game world that was to become a huge industry.

Early Dungeons and Dragons rule books show just how far the industry has come

For those who don’t know much about D&D, the game centers on the interaction between the players of the game and the Dungeon Master, or DM, who narrates and, in many cases, creates the world of the game for the players. In order to make this task more manageable for DMs the game is standardized into a set of rules and systems for various kinds of interaction within the game, many of which can be traced back to that original handwritten rule-book. The DM’s job is to create, or interpret, an original world and story for the players to experience, but the direction of the story is almost always driven entirely by the players’ choices.

D&D was by no means the first role-playing game of its kind; in fact, both Gygax and Arneson were fans of many other games that inspired their creation. D&D did have several unique aspects that likely contributed to its early runaway success. For example, D&D was one of the first role-playing games to support and encourage continuous long-term games, experiences where stories developed over weeks or years instead of hours, where each new game, or session, not only built on previous sessions but also developed future plots. This also gave players the chance to develop the characters they played in meaningful ways over time, lending a sense of accomplishment to the experience not found in other games.

So what does a role-playing game from 1972 have to do with the future of video games? Well, D&D was one of the first standardized role-playing systems to allow for long-term creative storytelling by the game master. This gave game designers the opportunity to develop ideas and plots that had until that point been limited to books, plays, movies or other forms of media that did not allow for direct interaction with the story. Interestingly, this all happened in the early 1970s, about the same time the commercial video game industry was starting to take off.

Dungeons and Dragons attempted to adapt, but was ultimately out competed by the video game industry

However, these early video games had necessarily limited options for interaction. For example, the 1958 game Tennis for Two, widely believed to be the first ever video game, had only 3 buttons. Even as video games began to develop, the ways that players could interact with a computer system were obviously more limited than the way players could interact with a living, breathing DM.

 So what did video game programmers use to help players interact with the game? They turned to something already widely known, the standardized rules from Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games. These systems became practically universal in the video game industry, so much so that many are still present in modern games today. Aspects like hit points (HP), experience points (XP), the concept of “leveling up”, and various video game quest systems can all be traced back to pen and paper role-playing games.

From fight scenes to side-quests, Breath of the Wild takes a lot of inspiration from pen and paper role playing games

Unfortunately, while early programmers were no less creative than pen and paper game masters the limited options for interaction in video games also limited the ways that programmers could tell stories. So, while the systematic ideas of D&D and other games were preserved, the story-telling freedom they provided was lost.

Up until now the difficulty of programming and the limited capacity of the average computer has made graphics and program design the two main priorities of the video game industry. Given a choice, game designers would usually prioritize making a game with cool graphics and impressive design rather than a great story. However, in recent years the nature of the video game industry has been changing. Advances in the capabilities of the average computer have made high quality graphics more widely available, and free high-quality game design systems like the Unreal Engine have made programming far more accessible to amateurs. In this new industry where graphics and programming are more achievable, the most popular of modern games tend to be story driven. The mobile puzzle game Monument Valley earned acclaim for its compelling yet low graphics experience, while Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild runs its sweeping, open world plot through a D&D style quest system.

Puzzle game Monument Valley compliments its simple but beautiful art style with a poignant story of redemption

In this new world of video games, where what players want most is an engaging and original story, game developers need to return to Dungeons and Dragons and other “old school” role playing games for inspiration. Pen and paper game designers have had a long time to practice storytelling techniques that more ‘traditional’ storytellers don’t have cause to use. Many of the virtues recognized by narrative storytellers such as the concept of “show not tell”, creating a world that readers can feel absorbed by, and the use of dynamic, compelling characters are not only encouraged but required by the very nature of pen and paper role-playing. In fact, popular book series and now blockbuster TV show The Expanse is based on the authors’ pen and paper roleplaying campaign. Just as the systems of D&D have long since become universal in the gaming world, the story telling techniques long used by DMs are now the key to video game success.



Former Editor in Chief of The City Voice, finally graduated City High Middle School as part of the Class of 2022.

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3 years ago

[…] relies on the conversational interaction between players and game designers. As we discussed in our article a few weeks ago, in-person role-playing games allow you to do anything you can imagine, but the […]