Akalabeth Playthrough, Part 3: A Reimagining

The ending of Akalabeth came rather quickly after the creation of my lizard man avatar. His beast-like ferocity wreaked havoc upon the inhabitants of the anonymous dungeon and the king’s quests proceeded more like chores, or mundane tasks that my supercharged avatar used to pass the time between skin peels. As I tossed aside the shredded remains of a giant rat, I began reflecting on what this game really was.

Akalabeth is clearly a predecessor to role-playing games, but does it really function as one itself? Two of the genre’s hallmarks are conspicuously absent here: character building and story. Okay, there is a modest attempt at character building, but not enough to drive the gameplay as it would in a typical RPG. There are things you can accumulate, like gold, HP, and food, and the king does raise your stats after you finish quests, but neither are sufficient improvements to give you a reasonable chance at completing the game. Similarly, the introduction gives a skeletal story, but it’s very short and not even consistent with the in-game text (see part 1). Garriot will add both character building and story in his next game, Ultima, but they require a major expansion and actually end up de-emphasizing the entire dungeon crawling component.

Instead, I think it makes more sense to view Akalabeth as an early example of survival horror. To be clear, I don't think it succeeds in that respect either, but I believe it would require only a few mechanical changes to do so. The most important change is to do away with the freedom of choice. Rather than starting the character in the overworld with a chance to allocate resources, the king should immediately toss them into the lower levels of the dungeon with some basic equipment. The character must then kill the designated monster and escape the dungeon with his or her life. Suddenly the closing line in the game's introductory text makes more sense: "Tis thy duty to help rid Akalabeth of the foul beasts that infest it, while trying to stay alive!"

The second change the game should make is to slow down the monsters. As it stands now, the monsters of Akalabeth can match you step-for-step, and without a pre-made dungeon map to guide you to the exit, this basically forces you to fight them. If your character can move faster than the monsters, you will then have the option of running away from battles, a crucial strategic element when your character is clearly not up to the task of conquering the dungeon single-handed. Note that this would also make the gremlins considerably less unfair, since you could survive multiple encounters with their food-grabbing asses.

And the rest of what the game needs to work as survival horror is already there.The dungeon is already filled with plenty of scares, including pit traps, monsters that can sneak up on you (even through secret doors), and a maze-like structure filled with dead ends.You already collect most of your resources in the dungeon, through chests and monster kills, so the towns really are expendable.  And there is already a mechanism for losing your equipment, by way of a thief that can steal from you. There would be some other tweaks that would be necessary, like eliminating the ladder up spell and starting with more food/HP, but those are just details.

The source code of the game is widely available, so maybe someday I will find the motivation to attempt these modifications myself. In the meantime, I will have to settle for demo-Ultima.