Dungeon Master and the Birth of the Modern Computer Game

There are moments around which entire timelines pivot: The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which led to the First World War and the death of most of a generation of young British males. The election of Adolph Hitler, which led to the deaths of millions of Jews and hundreds of thousands of other innocent victims. The series of cosmically unlikely accidents that brought about the evolution of intelligent life on earth, which led to…us.

Me, I don’t worry too much about these things. They happened, there’s nothing I can do about them, and I’m not even well informed enough to speculate about what would have happened in alternative timelines where these events never occurred. But I do know enough to wonder about a smaller, less important, more personal timeline — the last three decades of computer gaming history — and what would have happened if the 1987 game Dungeon Master had never existed.

Dungeon Master: A pack of regenerating Screamers that you can practice your attack skills on. Go ahead. Shoot a fireball at them.

There’s a good chance you’ve never played Dungeon Master. It was released by FTL Games three decades ago and isn’t currently available through any retail outlet (though you can find a perfect, playable clone of it at this website). It was ported to a number of platforms, but the major versions were for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, which only a small contingent of current gamers even owned, though if you did have one of those computers then you played Dungeon Master. It was the game to have, the pinnacle of RPG achievement in the late 1980s. You may also have played the Super Nintendo port.  I haven’t, but I can’t imagine that it was as good as the ST and Amiga versions. There was a PC port eventually, but it came too late in the curve, and I found a copy at precisely one small computer store. I never saw it on the shelves of Egghead Software, Babbages, Electronics Boutique or CompUSA — the must-visit shopping stops for gamers in the years BS (Before Steam).

What makes Dungeon Master so significant, and why it was an essential pivot point in the history of game design, is not the number of gamers that played it but the number of game designers that played it and the lasting influence it had on the way they developed games. Dungeon Master was the first RPG to feel genuinely immersive, a term that gets bandied about so offhandedly in the modern gaming environment that it’s becoming almost meaningless, yet three decades ago it was a concept that seemed almost unreachable given the slow CPUs and rudimentary graphics cards that hobbled gaming rigs in that period.

I’d only experienced a sense of genuine immersion in a game world twice before Dungeon Master and they were in very different sorts of games. The first was in the Infocom text adventure Deadline, where you spent 12 hours (over and over) in a large mansion following characters around, spying on them, having conversations with them, to solve a locked-room murder mystery. That mansion was alive and interactive, reacting to your presence the way Schrodinger’s Cat reacts to being observed. The second time was in SubLogic’s Flight Simulator 2, where you flew a Piper Cherokee Archer across large regions of the United States, hopping from airport to airport (the game meticulously modeled even the smallest airfields in those regions) or just looking at the sights because part of you believed that they were real.

Dungeon Master plopped you down in what was, by the standards of that period, a photo-realistic stone dungeon — and trust me when I say that the dungeon looked a lot more photo-realistic on the smaller, fuzzier monitors of the late 80s than it would look on the widescreen, 1920-by-1080 pixel, crystal clear mega-displays of the 2010s. You moved through that environment in quantum strides on a four-way grid, turning to each of the major compass points at the tap of a key, seeing what your party of four characters could see from each position. (See Legend of Grimrock for a modern take on a grid-based dungeon crawl.)’

Dungeon Master wasn’t the first game to use that sort of 3D dungeon grid. Even the first Ultima installment in 1980 used simple wireframe graphics to achieve a kind of grid-based movement. By mid-decade, games like The Bard’s Tale and Might & Magic were doing the same thing with more realistic texture mapping. What made Dungeon Master stand out was that it did this in real time, with your enemies moving along that grid toward you whether you made a move or not, and you could see them coming from a distance. You could even see them through barred doors and when the bars weren’t there, even sometimes when they were, you could fight them by clicking on icons representing your characters’ weapons and spells. (The spell-creation system alone was a small wonder.)

What really made Dungeon Master innovative and influential, though, was how well integrated all the pieces were, what one envious game designer referred to as its “seamlessness.” You fought monsters from the same view that you used for movement, without being transported to a separate combat screen, the way you were in Ultima or Wizardry or almost every Japanese RPG ever written. DM was the first RPG to make full use of the mouse in its control system. While you could move the characters with the numeric keypad, you could simultaneously use the mouse to scoop weapons and potions off the floor or drag food into the mouths of your hungry characters. This seamlessness made the mechanics so intuitive that it rendered them invisible and you quickly forgot that you were sitting at the keyboard of a computer, looking at pixels on a screen. You were there, in that dungeon, fighting for your life, and there were moments when you really felt your life depended on concocting just the right spell. Even today, decades after I first played it, I remember the world of Dungeon Master not so much as a game environment but as a place where I’ve actually been.

The seamless hallways of Dungeon Master.

If all that seems unremarkable, it’s because almost every AAA game on the market today feels like that, but Dungeon Master is where that immersive experience began. You can see echoes of it in first-person shooters going back to the inception of the genre in the early 90s, and outright homages to it in games like Stonekeep and Legend of Grimrock. But every game from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare to The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim to Prey owes the seamlessness of its design to Dungeon Master. Games rapidly went beyond grid-based movement to outright 3D maneuvering as the underlying hardware became more powerful, but the designers of those later games either learned how to achieve their seamlessness from having played Dungeon Master or (probably in the vast majority of cases) from having played games designed by someone who was influenced by Dungeon Master.

The seamless hallways of Prey.

This December, Dungeon Master will turn 30 years old. I think there should be a celebration in the gaming world to mark the occasion, perhaps involving a completely remastered edition of the original (though modders have already created acceptable substitutes by tinkering with the Grimrock engine). Most importantly, though, I think gamers should know how influential DM was to the development of the games that followed it. Westwood Associates, a company that rarely made a game that wasn’t copied from something some other company had developed (Dune 2/Command and Conquer being the lone exception), stole FTL’s thunder when they released their own Dungeon Master clone, Eye of the Beholder, on the PC before DM was ported.

I’d hate for gamers to think that immersive 3D gameplay was invented by Westwood, or Id Software, or even the brilliant Looking Glass Studios (Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief). Perhaps because they were so late to the VGA-PC platform, which by the early 90s dominated the world of computer games, FTL has faded from the industry’s history as though they never existed. They deserve a monument for having inspired the modern computer game and every gamer who respects the history of their hobby should bow toward that monument at least once and give thanks to the brilliant minds that gave Dungeon Master life. Maybe modern computer games would have happened anyway (and maybe World War I would have happened without the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand), but to the extent that I can see across the alternate timelines and visualize the one where Dungeon Master didn’t happen, I can guarantee that it would have looked at least a little bit different and a little bit diminished for the loss.