OPINION | GAME ON: Text-based RPG ‘Roadwarden’ immerses players in grim story

"Roadwarden" video game is a text-based storytelling RPG that immerses the play in a grim fantasy world of moral anxiety. (Photo courtesy of Moral Anxiety)
"Roadwarden" video game is a text-based storytelling RPG that immerses the play in a grim fantasy world of moral anxiety. (Photo courtesy of Moral Anxiety)

In a throwback to an early era of gaming, the newly released "Roadwarden" is an homage and advancement of the text-based role-playing game, showing once again that the foundation for excellence starts with storytelling, world-building and well-written characters, not flashy visuals or complicated systems.

Created in the style of an interactive visual novel, Roadwarden features muted, amber-colored, pixel-art illustrations that evoke the feeling of reading a weathered manuscript. The game is a window into an often despair-filled world where monsters roam an untamed wilderness and night-time fogs reanimate the dead.

There's hope, but also hopelessness.

The protagonist is the roadwarden — a sheriff-like individual tasked with patrolling dangerous roads between isolated villages. The roadwarden is hired by a merchant guild to help tame a region teeming with dangers mundane (such as bandits) and fantastical (goblins, necromancers and the undead).

The roadwarden also is tasked with finding out what happened to the previous roadwarden, who is missing.

The gameplay is text-based: You read what is happening, look at the illustration for clues and either select from a number of responses or type in a prompt of your own, with the game recognizing various keywords. For example, if the game says you're in a room with stone walls and then asks what you want to look at, you could type "walls." It would then tell you there are markings on one wall; and typing in "markings" would provide another clue.

At the game's outset, players will choose one of three classes — a physical-based fighter, a magic-using wizard or a scholar who specializes in alchemy. You'll also craft a backstory, and combined with an "attitude" system, these choices will affect how different scenarios play out and how the various villagers you interact with will react to you.

In addition to the story elements, there's a simplified RPG system. Your roadwarden has a health bar, armor, an inventory, a hunger meter and a tracker for how clean he or she is. It's a grim fantasy world and you'll guard travelers, establish trade between villages, fight mythical creatures and try to unravel the area's many secrets.

Accompanying the simple illustrations and story-rich text is an excellent, evocative, post-rock soundtrack by Nick Roder with slow, dramatic buildups of instrument layers that always seem on the edge of despair. You can take a listen at arkansasonline.com/0116tunes.

It's highly likely that initial attempts at the game will end in the roadwarden's death, but even a successful run bears the possibility of heartbreak and tragic consequences. This is not a world where everyone will find the happiness they seek. The game creator's studio is called Moral Anxiety, and that's exactly what "Roadwarden" delivers.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » arkansasonline.com/0116road/]

There are three difficulty settings in "Roadwarden," which affects how long you have to complete your mission (30 days, 40 days or no time limit). The game will take between 12 to 15 hours to complete, and there is some replayability because of the various class choices and the many ways the player can choose to interact with people and influence the outcome of the game, such as helping or not helping certain characters or factions.

Playing "Roadwarden" reminded me of the "Lone Wolf" book series from the 1980s, similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure books but with added RPG elements and a character sheet that could be carried over from book to book. The Lone Wolf series sold 12 million copies and was hugely influential on modern video games. It can be difficult to find print versions now, but the author, Joe Dever, authorized many of the books to be downloaded and played/read at projectaon.org, and they hold up surprisingly well even today.

Upcoming Events