Friday, May 29, 2020

Arnold Hendrick, Rest in Peace


On May 25, 2020, Arnold Hendrick, the creator of the revolutionary board game Barbarian Prince and the revolutionary computer game Darklands, was taken by cancer, just shy of the three-score-and-ten years the Psalmist allots us. “It is too soon cut off, and we fly away.”

I never met him; I know next to nothing of his life story. But all the same, Mr. Hendrick had a direct and significant impact upon me. Fallen Gods is inspired by both Barbarian Prince and Darklands. Both games are marvelously inventive and brilliantly realized. Sometimes works of fantasy are called “escapism.” To “escape” literally means to shed one’s cloak. (One can ponder the age of brigandage when slipping a robber’s clutches in that manner was frequent enough to coin this expression and put it in common currency.) Mr. Hendrick’s games were the opposite—the player does not shed his cloak so much as garb himself in another’s clothes. Contrary to the genre’s name, most RPGs do not achieve this effect. The player’s role is not that of a hero, but that of a hedge fund analyst, crunching numbers, maximizing upside and minimizing downside. But in Barbarian Prince and Darklands, the player is immersed in the characters and the setting. For a while, he sees a different world through different eyes. A person is greatly enriched by such an experience, while merely shedding a cloak—in contrast—leaves one a little poorer, even if we sometimes need to escape to survive.

When I began designing and developing Fallen Gods years ago, I tracked down Mr. Hendrick’s email address. When our game was ready, I wanted to show it to him as tangible evidence of the impact and inspiration of his work. But I kept delaying the email because I wanted to make sure Fallen Gods was worth his time. Now there is no time left.

So I must end where I started: I never met Arnold Hendrick; I know him only through his published games and articles about game design. To me, all of them bespoke an abiding curiosity, a creative vision, and an overflowing generosity toward his players. The man put 136 saints in Darklands. May they speed him to his Maker.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Primordia Fan Art

Fantastic piece of fan art from Ivette Navratilova (https://twitter.com/ivettenihil)! I've always loved this little moment in Primordia, glad to see it glossed by such a fine artist.
Sorry for the radio silence on Strangeland and Fallen Gods.  Both continue to progress, but what energy I have these days (after homeschooling kids, doing my day job at night, and trying to plan ahead of this slow-moving catastrophe) is better spent on developing, rather than discussing, these games.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

2019 in Review

The past year has been a very good one for Wormwood Studios, and I think we’ve laid the foundation for an exciting 2020.  As always, we owe these successes to the support of our players:  without your encouragement, we’d never be able to make it through the inevitable low points of the development cycle.

In 2019, we released a major Primordia patch, likely the last we’ll ever do.  We ported the game to a new version of AGS, which significantly improved stability on modern machines, integrated French, German, and Spanish translations, fixed dozens of bugs (including a few reasonably significant ones, such as the inadvertent removal of music from an important scene), and included a variety of quality-of-life improvements to the game’s UI.

We also hit 2,000 reviews on Steam, a significant milestone by any measure and a particularly significant one for an indie adventure game.  The only other AGS title to reach that number is The Cat Lady, and it’s more reviews than Thimbleweed Park has, despite that game’s far greater prominence.  Player reviews not only help keep the game commercially viable (it’s really the only way that new players get brought in at this point), they’re also a great reward for us in and of themselves, since that kind of interaction is one of the best aspects of indie game development.  We’re lucky that reviews have held strong over the years—though our halcyon days of 98% positive are behind us, 97% percent isn’t too bad!

In one of the crazier and more delightful pieces of fan art, the Spanish heavy metal band Taste My Sweet Revenge put together two Primordia-based metal songs for their soon-to-be-released album.

Finally, we were approached with an interesting proposal from a television producer to create an animated adaptation of Primordia.  These things usually come to nothing, but we’re cautiously optimistic, given the producer’s track record, interest in science fiction (particularly robot-oriented sci-fi), and excellent background in visual effects.  We’ll post more when there’s more to share.

Strangeland can now be played from beginning to end, although it is missing a considerable amount of art (and some design) in the last 15% or so of the game.  We had hoped to finish it entirely in 2019, but we’re very close now.  The game is divisible into four sections, and we’ve had testers play the first two of those sections extensively.  The reactions seem quite positive.

Strangeland’s a bit, well, strange, in that the whole thing is confined to a dream-like carnival, which makes it feel much smaller than Primordia, even though the actual number of rooms, puzzle interfaces, characters, and so forth is probably roughly comparable.  The art is spectacular (no surprise), and benefits from four times the pixels that Primordia had in terms of resolution.  But the real leap forward, I think, is in the code.  There are dozens of features, from striking visual effects to behind-the-scenes conveniences, that make Strangeland really exceptional.  Without James’s code wizardry, there would have been no way to achieve the warped and unnerving scenario that the game requires.

We’re very hopeful for a 2020 release for Strangeland.

For a good while, I was writing Fallen God design updates that were really fun, but really time-consuming, to put together.  Then I got out of the habit, and decided that I should focus all my time on design/writing on the project.  The result has been an apparent stoppage where, in fact, there was tremendous progress.

As I’ve tweeted about recently, Fallen Gods is now a proper game—you can win and lose, and do everything we wanted on the way to that victory or defeat.  We still need quite a bit more content, and a lot of balancing, and then even more play-testing, but for the first time in the many years of development, it now feels inevitable that the game will be completed.  I am reluctant to put any release date on it, but 2020 is not out of the question.

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Once again, many thanks to all of you who have made our successes possible!  Hopefully we will live up to your support in 2020!

Friday, October 25, 2019

Primordia Upgraded on GOG

At long last, the upgraded version of Primordia has been posted on GOG.com!

Monday, March 11, 2019

Primordia Upgraded



We are delighted to release what we hope will be our last substantive update to Primordia (we may release future hotfixes if bugs are found). This patch was made possible only through the tireless efforts of French, German, and Spanish translators, a dedicate group of testers, and the labors of our coder, James Spanos, who shares the spirit of no game left behind! But the motivating force behind it was the ongoing love and support our players have shown for this game over the years -- your loyalty to Primordia compels a return of that loyalty on our part.

Among the changes:

  • The underlying game engine is updated to a recent version that is much more compatible with today's hardware (such as widescreen monitors and Logitech mice) and operating systems (such as Windows 10).
  • The French, German, and Spanish translations are now fully integrated into the game, and do not require separate downloads. Those translations have also been updated and improved in various ways.
  • Certain modest quality-of-life improvements, such as the ability to change between windowed and full-screen mode by using alt-enter.
  • An additional music track, which had been mistakenly deactivated, has been reactivated in an important scene.
  • A persistent crash relating to how the underlying game engine handled dynamic sprites has been fixed.
Various small fixes have been implemented to issues like sprites occasionally being misaligned by a pixel, or the years-long labeling oddity that could arise if players combined the sensor parts in an unusual order.

Unfortunately, old saved games will no longer work due to the significant engine-level changes and added content.

We've posted the new build on Steam and hope to follow on GOG shortly.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Fallen Gods Update #8: Violence

Wounded and weary, a young man sits beside his battered axe and shield. All about are fallen friends and foes who, unlike this youth, have lost their lives but kept their hope. His empty, guilty hands hold no gold to atone the dead and end this gruesome feud, and his doom resounds as if the Nine sang here aloud: blood begetting blood, kith upon kin, a red wave washing away all those bound by love, oath, and wrath to war until the end. He stares at you, shaking, speechlessly beseeching.


I want you to imagine a world in which meeting your brother’s murderer on the road is sufficiently likely that a wise man might pause in his practical advice to give you suggestions as to how to handle such an encounter.  That’s how the Hávamál, a kind of Norse Ecclesiastes, goes, and the suggestion (reasonable enough) is not to trust such a man-slayer. To the Hávamál’s skald, such a danger is no more or less worth warning about than rootless trees (which might tip over in a wind) or too much drink (which could lead to public embarrassment).  A man should not trust in any of these, the poem warns.  Everywhere is man against man, man against nature, and man against himself, and death hovers above all things like a hungry raven.

When reading the Norse sagas, what stands out to me about the violence is not so much its quantity—which is much less than in the Iliad, for instance—but its quality.  The variety and specificity of wounds, along with knowledge of their consequences and the ways of trying to treat them, bespeak the skalds’ firsthand or at least secondhand experience with killing and maiming.  We often think of modernity as violent, but in truth most of us will have the good fortune never to be caught up in the kind of bloodshed these sagas describe:  battles, burnings, and butchery.  The sagas’ authors, particularly whatever skald composed Njal’s Saga, are by no means desensitized to this mayhem.  This is not the proverbial water in which a fish swims, blissfully unaware; it seems more like water in which the author is drowning, fully and fearfully conscious.  A whole nation can be dragged down by such bloodshed: “by lawlessness, laid waste.”
This image of men sinking into a bloody mire of their own making has been a key part of my own writing and design for Fallen Gods.

Like many kids drawn to fantastical settings, I grew up taking comfort in the way fantasy situates violence within a moral plan.  Fantasy novels are chock-full of bullied young protagonists, last survivors of near-universal slaughter, and heroes who seem helpless and hopeless against villainous might.  This suffering is not just a preamble to, but a prerequisite for, later salvation.  It is not merely that the wicked are punished and victims avenged; those who have been wronged find themselves, Job-like, even richer than before.  (As a boy, I entirely believed that, say, Luke Skywalker could somehow be more than compensated for the trauma of coming home to the still-smoldering corpses of his murdered family.  But it turns out that old wounds only ache worse as the years go on, and there is no psychic currency with which early losses can be offset by later gains.)

In typical fantasy novels, when a villain tortures a brave young woman or torches a helpless town, the bitter herb of his evil is mixed with the sweet confidence that he is merely sowing the wind.  Even in ostensibly “grim-dark” series such as A Song of Ice and Fire, the long arc of history bends in favor of “breakers of chains” and once-bullied bastards.  I mentioned earlier that “the noblest aspect of fantasy” is “its ability to train us to view doing good as the proper exercise of power.”  Here I’ll add that its capacity to comfort, even if a kind of deceptive opiate, is no small virtue either.  Run-of-the-mill childhood bullying is hardly the worst thing in the world, but it’s still rough, and that roughness is at least a bit diminished by books like The Once and Future King or any of a thousand other stories.  But here, too, our game offers something different.
Unlike such fantasies, neither Fallen Gods nor the sagas that inspire it promises a moral plan for violence.  When the strong use their might to hurt the weak, that does not necessarily set in motion a Rube Goldberg device by which the aggressors will ultimately suffer a comeuppance at the hands of their victims.  The bloody slaughter of a people does not imply that the lone survivor will one day become king over a just, prosperous, and fecund realm; he may simply wind up an outlawed murderer meting out a measure of revenge until the day he’s caught and killed.  Or he might not even make it that far.  Perhaps, weak and weary, he’ll be run down a few days later and speared where he sleeps.

Our game’s setting is a world already whirling in the cyclone of such violence, and its story is that of a powerful, selfish fighter who sees others merely as a means to an end (or, we might say, a means not to end).  To tell that story in that world means not flinching back from its ugliness—one must heed the cry of Aldonza in The Man of La Mancha when she is at last pushed to the brink by Don Quixote’s refusal to see the fullness of her suffering: “Won’t you look at me, look at me, / God, won’t you look at me!”  As in the sagas, violence in Fallen Gods knows few limits, and it falls on the weak and undeserving no less than on the mightily wicked.  Their suffering deserves to be seen and told.
That’s not to say that Fallen Gods features nothing but ugly violence or that its depictions of violence are especially gory or torturous.  By the standards of modern video games and or R-rated movies, the violence is sparing and its depiction is restrained.  But it is designed to have a bit more heft.

As with other aspects of Fallen Gods, that heft is conveyed mechanically. Because HP are so limited (typically single digit, even for a powerful warrior), every wound is serious.  Healing is painstaking—in the field, resting restores a single HP per day, and time is valuable.  There are no healing potions; rapid recovery can be achieved only by the godly skill of Healing Hands, which costs precious soul-strength, a resource the god gains only with difficulty, as previously discussed.  Sickness (which encompasses both poison and disease) causes a person to grow weaker, rather than healthier, with each passing day, and unless you are strong enough to outlast the ailment, only Healing Hands or a priest’s craft can help.  So too with crippling, a condition that halves the might of the injured, leaving him or her vulnerable in combat and much less helpful in events.
The seriousness of violence is also conveyed visually.  Our attack and death animations avoid majestic or balletic movements.  Though blood and gore is minimal, blows are meant to convey force; we want the player to wince when he sees a churl club a wolf’s skull.  Illustrations likewise show battle not as glorious but in its rough-and-tumble grit.

Finally, Fallen Gods uses its narrative to drive this point home.  The vignettes told through events involve not only battles in which the god participates, but also the aftermath of battles he’s missed, the weary despair that comes from the anticipation of battles that have not yet materialized, the economic drain of feuds, and so on.  These events rely in part on the differences in perspective among the god (who is largely oblivious to others’ suffering), the narrator (who is aware of that suffering but takes it as a fact of life), and the player (whose values are likely very different from either the god’s or the narrator’s).  The parallax effect of these overlapping perspectives is meant to be disconcerting and in some instances even dizzying, as when the narrator grumbles about surly thralls going about “unbeaten by their betters.”
Fallen Gods is an adventure in which the player has the opportunity to slay foul creatures, wield magical weapons, win powerful allies, and earn the admiration of many.  But it is not unalloyed heroic fantasy, for beneath and within this quest is a frank and cautionary look at the uglier side of a world in which meting out death is viable way of life and perhaps the only way back to the heavens.

NEXT UPDATE: Anatomy of an Event


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To my taste, Cormac McCarthy is the best modern skald of violence and its awful price, and his most compelling work in this regard is Blood Meridian.  In a similar vein are Brian Hart’s The Bully of Order, Ian McGuire’s The North Water, Philipp Meyer’s The Son, which is probably the least agonizing of the bunch.