Critically discuss the differences and similarities of Skyrim and Pool of Radiance.
By Byron Levene
Skyrim, 2011 (PS3, 360), by Bethesda is a fantasy game, has been one of the most popular and highest grossing video games to date. Although technically not a Role-Playing Game (“RPG”) in the traditional sense, it draws heavily from the RPG genre. Pool of Radiance, 1988 (Commodore 64, MS-DOS), was one of the earlier RPG games and drew its rules more canonically from the board game Dungeons & Dragons (“D&D”). This essay will critically discuss the differences and similarities between these two games.
Comparing Pixels and Polygons
The D&D rule-set that underpins early RPG’s like Pool of Radiance had a fairly strict style of play; Combat was turn based, as it was with the board game, and battle was played in a different user-interface (or screen) in a top-down 2-Dimensional third-person perspective. A separate interface for movement around the map was used; A simulated 3-Dimensional space, known as bitmap scaling (almost 5 years prior to this “interesting innovation” occurring in Wolfenstein 3D). This gave the player first-person perspective moving within the map. If judging only by geographical characteristics, we see how different these two games are.
The psudo-3D movement screen
The top down combat screen
This “discrete” movement in Pool of Radiance is a stark contrast to the freedom of “continuous” movement in an open world such as Skyrim–where movement and battle take place in the same interface, which draws more from the First-Person Shooter (“FPS”) genre. This real time control that the player has in Skyrim gives a feeling, or greater sense of immersion in the virtual world than the more turn based structure of Pool of Radiance.
Using Swink’s model for cataloguing game feel may seem unfair, as real-time interactions were somewhat limited to developers of 1988. The real-time interactions in Skyrim add that much more to the sense of immersion for the player, hitting a sweet spot in the centre of Swink’s model; Pool of Radiance on the other hand does possess a rudimentary form of spatial simulation, and any question of polish would have to be taken in account of the 8-bit standards of the day.
Is it Because I’m Khajiit?
Race has always existed as a character’s attribute prior to D&D moving to a virtualised space, once the framework migrated to a virtual platform these race attributes remained. However implicit racial undertones of “Nomads”, with Arabic sounding names depicted in crude 8-bit kefirs, as seen in Pool of Radiance were outside the race types that could be utilised by a player as per the rule-set. This is not negating Everett & Watkins claim that:
“…to build explicitly raced characters and worlds were limited by… the screen resolution (4-, 8-, and 16-bit), and processing speeds.”
As we see more explicitly in Skyrim evidence of raced characters; Effectively the plot throws the player directly in a Nords versus Imperials race war over religious worshiping rights. The complexity of such a racially charged world would be beyond the limitations of developers in the era of Pool of Radiance. Advances in graphics, sound and processing power have enabled a more racially charged virtual world, where race in Skyrim will effect how the player is treated by NPC’s.
Attributing this solely to technological advances does ignore the fact that Pool of Radiance is essentially a “barbaric” game, where battle is the only way to progress. Skyrim is a far more romantic approach, including raced characters adds a darker element to a game where a player can spend hours picking flowers and catching butterflies.
Pool of Radiance included Non-Playing Characters (“NPC’s”) that could venture with the players party when moving about the map, and when in battle the NPC would fight on the players side without any input from the player. After battle they would automatically deduct their percentage of the loot, and then reassemble with the players party back in the movement interface. This scripted behavior pre-dates any notion of AI that came later, but the similarities are there.
Skyrim also includes NPC’s that will join the player on their adventure, however with the unification of movement and battle in one interface, the NPC’s have much more autonomy in how they may follow you.
Modern games Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) enables NPC’s a “seeking” and “fleeing” ability, and its this seeking that facilitates the NPC to follow the player in Skyrim. This simple act of following was outside the technical limitations of both hardware and software in the time of Pool of Radiance, yet as mentioned above the rules of the game required the party to regroup before movement around the map.
What unties these two different approaches is the end result: NPC’s that are expendable cannon-fodder like bots that can be exploited for the gain of the player, which is part of the “implicit rules” a player will often observe when playing an RPG.
By critically discussing the differences between these two games not only gives us picture of the evolution of the RPG genre, but also helps us understand the technical advances that have changed video games from being just a virtual place to play a board game, to virtual worlds where we live out our character’s existence.
Pool of Radiance may seem archaic to gamers of today, but it is a fundamental piece of RPG history which many games drew their influence from; Skyrim, even though made 23 years later, is such a game.
“However, although Baldur’s Gate and Diablo may receive far more attention and interest today than Golden Age classics like The Bard’s Tale or The Pool of Radiance, we must forever keep in mind that these earlier games were their direct ancestors.”
Skyrim diverges in many ways from the traditional RPG format, mixing it with conventions from other game genres, but still owes much of its success to its RPG heritage. If we take this into account, then Skyrim is not a bastardisation of the RPG, but more its modernisation. Even when taking into account all the differences these two games have, there is still a definite lineage linking the two.
 Apperley, Page 17
 LaMonthe, Page 10
 Nielson, Page 113
 Ibid, Page 137
 Champandard, Page 63
 Swink, Page 2
 Swink, Page 8
 Ibid, Page 8
 King, Page 174
 Nielson, Page 99
Everett, Page 134
 Ibid, Page 134
 King, Page 175
 Champandard, Page 7
 Ibid, Page 113
 Nielson, Page 101
 Barton, online (This quote is referenced from the 2007 online version that later became a chapter in Matt Barton’s 2008 book Dungeons and desktops: The history of computer role-playing games. See bibliography)
Apperley, Thomas H. (2006) “Genre and game studies: Toward a critical approach to video game studies”, Sage Publications, Melbourne
Barton, Matt (2007), ”The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 2: The Golden Age (1985-1993)”, accessed September 2, 2013, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/130124/the_history_of_computer_.php
Champandard, Alex J. (2003) “AI Games Development – Synthetic Creatures with Learning and Reactive Behaviors”, New Riders, BostonMass.
Everett, Anna & Watkins, S. Craig (2008), “The Power of Play: The Portrayal and Performance of Race in Video Games”, MIT Press, CambridgeMass.
King, Geoff & Krzywinska, Tanya (2006) “Social, Cultural and Political Dimensions”, IB Tauris, London
LaMonthe, Andre (1995), “The Black Art of 3D Games Programming”, Wattle Group Press, California.
Neilson, Simon E., Smith, Jonas H. et al (2008) “Video Game Aesthetics”, Routledge, New York
Swink, Steve (2009), “Game Feel: A Designers Guide to Virtual Sensation”, Elsevier, Burlington, MA