Sunday, March 18, 2018

Announcing Strangeland

A man awakes in an otherworldly carnival and watches a gold-haired woman hurl herself down a bottomless well for his sake. He seeks empty answers from mocking ravens, an eyeless scribe, a living furnace, a mismade mermaid, and many more who dwell within the park. All the while, something awful screeches from the top of a towering roller-coaster, and he knows that until he destroys this Dark Thing, the woman will keep jumping, falling, and dying, over and over again ....
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A Greek, an Australian, and an American log into a forum. “Hey,” says the Australian. “I’ve got an idea for a free adventure game we can make in six months!” “Six months! I can write the story in three weeks,” says the American. “If I’m coding this, it’ll be done by Christmas,” the Greek promises. And, whaddya know? It is done by Christmas… three years later.

Some jokes are funnier if you already know the punchline. So five years later, the American says, “Hey! I’ve got an idea for an adventure game we can make in six days!” “Six days!” the Australian answers. “I can do a dozen rooms in three days!” And the Greek promises, “Don’t worry, it’ll be a snap ....”

Anyway, the joke always seems to be on us.
About a year ago, for some now-forgotten game jam, Vic, James, and I decided to get the band together again, to make a quilt-like game from the scraps of other projects, ongoing and abandoned: some Norse mythology from Fallen Gods; some visuals from Trenchmouth; some code from Cloudlands; some themes and imagery from all around. (The working title was The Wretched Refuse.) The thread to stitch these together would be various still-raw personal tragedies. “Surely, there is no risk whatsoever of bloating if we took our favorite castaways from other projects and bound them with our unresolved intimate feelings, right?” thought no sane developer ever.
But there was a method to our madness, namely: (1) the hope that when the never-ending road to Fallen Gods was done, we could make another substantial adventure game in the spirit of Primordia; (2) the belief that making another smaller adventure game would keep our skills sharp and get our long-starved players appetized; and (3) the assumption that, since we managed to make Salt over a three-day span, surely we could make this new game—this Strangeland—in a week or two or, at most, three.

First Room Layout
Anyway, that was in May 2017.

Now, in March 2018, Strangeland is nearly done, and we can unveil Vic’s lurid, feverish visions brought to life again by James’s code. There is still plenty of work left (testing, casting, polishing, more testing, bickering, etc.), but we are well past the clunk-a-clunk-a-clunk uphill part of the roller-coaster and onto the omigod-im-going-to-die downhill part.
As we bring the project to completion, we’ll be exploring publishing and distribution options, but our hope is to find a way to share it with as many people as possible. Strangeland is a smaller game than Primordia, but as with our last offering, we hope that it will hold some of the pain and dreams and fun that went into making it. Most importantly, we hope you enjoy the ride!


There was no convenient place to mention Strangelands audio design, which is a surreal saga unto itself. Suffice it to say, Vic has had the opportunity (and burden) to indulge his gift for music, foley, and circuit-bending. The result is a soundscape as haunting and surprising as his artwork, and a perfect complement to Strangelands visuals.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Fallen Gods Update #2: Days of Yore

Your fire’s gleam seems to dim in this great room, swallowed by shadows that swim and loom like whales in the dark sea. Blacker than light’s lack, the hall must hold some lost, last scrap of the unmade world. Bats flap through this false night on leather wings, their shrill songs ringing softly off the far stone walls. It is an uncanny cleft, one which waits with unwelcome dread.
I’m old enough that when I was very young, we had no computer at all. And the computer we did get, when I was around six or seven, was an Apple IIc that plugged into a black and white television. This gift came from my grandfather, a NASA engineer who rightly anticipated that facility with computers would be essential for my generation, and using this machine he taught me basic (literally, BASIC) programming. Essential or not, it wasn’t much for gaming, and even when my brother and I pooled our allowances, we never managed to get our hands on much more than a two-sided floppy with David’s Midnight Magic and Choplifter. The formative games of my childhood were thus not computer games but board games, video games, “narration games” (rule-free RPGs in which whining and punching replaced rolling dice and tracking stats), and gamebooks.

There are two games from that era that loom large not just in my memory but in the design of Fallen Gods: Arnold Hendrick’s single-player RPG board game entitled Barbarian Prince (Dwarfstar, 1981) and Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf gamebooks (1984 and onward). Arnold Hendrick is a name any RPG fan should know because he was the genius, the seemingly mad and insatiable genius, behind MicroProse’s Darklands. His earlier work shows the same genius. And Joe Dever has rightly ascended into, if not the pantheon of renowned game designers, at least the ranks of “designers with longform Wikipedia entries.” His recent untimely death at 60 robbed the world of a generous spirit and a tireless pen.
Barbarian Prince contains many of things that computer RPGs would take years to include: a vivid setting with open exploration; many towns, castles, ruins, and other locations of interest to visit; multiple victory paths to discover; engaging encounters with different resolutions; gear, mounts, relics, followers, and resources to manage. Its core conceit is not far from that of Fallen Gods. The eponymous Barbarian Prince has been ousted from his throne and must regain it within 70 days or else live forever in exile. During that time, he must gather strength, wealth, and followers and typically something special (a particular relic, the favor of a particular patron, etc.) in order to overcome the usurper back home. While Barbarian Prince is now (was always?) too complex to play easily as a board game, that’s because the “computer’s” job in a cRPG (tracking stats and enforcing rules and so forth) is foisted upon the player alongside his normal job (digesting information and making decisions). In a hypothetical scenario where the player could be freed from such extra obligations, Barbarian Prince’s visionary design reveals that a rich, strategic RPG can emerge from what are, actually, pretty simple rules.

Despite its embarrassment of riches, or maybe because of it, Barbarian Prince lacks the “flavor” that a DM or cRPG designer brings to an RPG. It has almost 200 events, but each is extraordinarily thin, barely more than an encounter chart in an early P&P RPG. For instance, “e164 Giant Lizard” provides, in inelegant sum total: “A huge, giant lizard that shakes the earth as it walks attacks you. It is combat skill 10, endurance 12, but you strike first in combat (r220). Escape is only possible if you have mounts, those without cannot escape.” That’s it.
There is no such shortcoming, if it is a shortcoming, in Lone Wolf. Those gamebooks—by which I mean “choose-your-own-adventure books with RPG statistics”—also reveal a design genius, but a very different kind of genius. The long series tells a sprawling epic in a vividly described world with unique cultures, creeds, and creatures. Scenes are brought to life by Dever’s clear prose and use of familiar fantasy tropes. The story begins thusly: “You must make haste for you sense it is not safe to linger by the smoking remains of the ruined monastery. The black-winged beasts could return at any moment.”
In counterpoint to its more complex storytelling, Lone Wolf offers much simpler rules than those of Barbarian Prince. Because of this simplicity, everything the game asks of you feels significant, down to each ration of food. Every skill you can choose sounds appealing, and the inability to take them all is heartbreaking. That longing grows stronger as you play because the skills you do have—esoteric abilities like “Animal Kinship” and “Mind Over Matter” and more workaday knacks like “Hunting” and “Camouflage”—offer such rewarding possibilities. Likewise, finding magical items or superior gear feels as exciting as discovering a new item in Zelda or a new weapon in Metroid, rather than being the kind of dull, incremental upgrade now ubiquitous in cRPGs.

These two masterworks from master craftsmen returned to my mind around 2006 when I played a modest but excellent “coffee break” procedural space game called Weird Worlds (Digital Eel, 2005). It struck me then that the simple framework of my childhood favorites could be combined with procedural generation because Barbarian Prince’s rules would work just as well in a procedural setting as in a fixed one. Indeed, Barbarian Prince’s events already occurred with a great deal of randomness; only the map was fixed. And Lone Wolf’s prose adventures, in vignette form, could replace the thin events of Barbarian Prince. For a variety of reasons, a space opera seemed the right setting for this, and for many years I worked on Star Captain, a project that would blend the three games into one. A series of setbacks and distractions (including the very fine distraction of Primordia) delayed the project, and by the time I got back to it in early 2013, it had largely been preempted in gameplay by FTL and in setting by Mass Effect.

Fortunately, just a year earlier I had read The Long Ships. The novel had rekindled my love of Norse mythology and Viking adventurers and of Iceland itself, which I had visited in 2003 as part of my dad’s vain 60th-birthday attempt to see the aurora borealis. The Long Ships led me to Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson’s account of the old Norse kings. And Heimskringla led me to Snorri’s Prose Edda which led me to the elder Poetic Edda, and thence to Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths. And from these, I began to browse my way through the enormous, majestic body of Icelandic sagas as well as many collections of Norse myth and Scandinavian folklore.

It became clear that from these pieces I could build the setting to house my game idea—a sort of homecoming, since Barbarian Prince itself is about a great warrior from the North. To round things out, I read through other sagas and sources from farther abroad: the Irish Táin Bó Cúailnge; the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf (Seamus Heaney’s amazing translation); the Finnish Kalevala; and the Anglo-Saxon poetry in The Exeter Book (introduced to me by the project’s Polish linguist-editor-scripter-factotum, Maciej Bogucki) to try to get closer to how our language was used in telling those sorts of stories. I don’t have a scholar’s memory or a poet’s craft, but from these I started to feel some of what C.S. Lewis called “Northernness,” and to trace the deep folkloric roots of the modern fantasy genre that J.R.R. Tolkien brought into flower.

With all that, I consigned Star Captain to the dark abyss in the sky, and set sail for the lands of Fallen Gods.  I will leave you with this piece by our wonderful composer, Anders Hedenholm, fittingly hailing from Uppsala, Sweden, once home to the greatest Norse temple complex.

NEXT MONTH: “Winning Was Easy. Governing’s Harder.”

* * *

You can download Barbarian Prince for free thanks to the generosity of Dwarfstar Games:

You can play all of the Lone Wolf books in a wonderful online format thanks to the hard work of Project Aon and the generosity of Joe Dever:

You can buy Weird Worlds for five bucks on Steam:

Friday, February 16, 2018

Fallen Gods Update #1: Introducing Fallen Gods

Once, the world was better, the gods greater, the wars over, the end farther. You were born in the Cloudlands during those days, one of the Ormfolk, forever young and strong, worshiped by those below for your forefathers’ deeds. But all is not well. Now, wolves and worse haunt the night, the law holds no sway, and men’s hearts grow hard toward your kind. Fearful of their dwindling shares of souls, your brothers turned against each other ... and against you. And so you were cast down from the clouds, a fallen god broken upon the bitter earth. You rise, still free from death, with only the slightest hope of winning your way back to the heavens that are your rightful home.

Fallen Gods is an RPG inspired by the board game Barbarian Prince, the computer game King of Dragon Pass, and the sagas, eddas, and folklore of the far north. With a dark, wry tone, it tells the story of a god trying to survive in a dying world ruled by beings with great might and wits, but without the wisdom to heal the wounds left by their wars. The game has been in production for about four years, and its concepts have been building in my head for decades.

At the core of Fallen Gods are interactive events, choose-your-own-adventure vignettes in the spirit of the Lone Wolf gamebooks. Throughout the game, the player will enter towns and tunnels, meet strangers and friends on the road, face earthly and unearthly foes, and witness wonders of all kinds. Each of these events, accompanied by a hand-painted illustration, consists of a series of nodes, each a paragraph of text followed by several choices that depend upon the skills the god knows, the items he bears, and the followers he leads. 
A forest village quest.
These events, like Fallen Gods itself, are about exploring the game’s world, mechanics, and story. In every session, dozens of the hundreds of possible events are spread across a procedurally generated landscape in a way that creates both surprise and coherence. Events are both destinations for the player to seek out and obstacles to bar his way. They provide the landmarks and characters that bring the world to life and make geographic exploration rewarding and dangerous.
Heading toward a cave dungeon.

A wurm, one of the more dangerous foes in Fallen Gods.
Events also provide a laboratory for mechanical exploration. Just as the world is unique in every session, so too is the god, with different skills, strengths, supplies, followers, and gear. These things, alone and together, are powerful tools that can open up new paths, some obvious, others requiring thought and experience. Thus, for example, the Death Lore skill (allowing the god to speak to the dead) and the Wurmskin Cloak (allowing him to understand the speech of birds) can together unlock a new path through the “Windfall” event, which begins with the god finding a field full of dead starlings. Or, in “The Whale,” the player might use the Wild Heart skill (allowing him to bend beasts to his will) along with Nail (a magical spear) to draw back and harpoon his titular foe. In another example, the screenshot below shows a few of the possible forks at the start of the “All Is Lost” event.

A barrow event.
As the player passes along these different event paths, he uncovers more about the world and what has befallen it. This “narrative exploration” reflects three values (aside from the basic goal of engaging writing). First, what the player learns should be relevant to the game’s mechanics and thus of practical value. As in the wonderful King of Dragon Pass, an understanding of the setting’s laws and lore helps in handling both friends and foes, in making informed choices rather than guesses. Second, while Fallen Gods involves plenty of words, reading should lead to doing: there is never more than a paragraph of text before the player is back in control, either making a choice with strategic consequences, fighting foes in a tactical battle, or exploring the world while managing resources. Third, the setting should be uncanny and unsettling, rooted in the same rich soil from which modern fantasy springs, but growing along different lines.
An example of an illustration before it goes in game.
That setting grew from my fascination with Iceland and its marvelous Commonwealth, a nation of silver-tongued skalds, quick-witted warriors, troll-women, and land-wights, a land haunted at night by the Northern Lights, where some men still worshiped the beautifully flawed Norse gods. Where but in that Iceland would they compose an epic about a man who “was so great a lawyer that his match was not to be found”? This is Njal Thorgeilsson, the 10th century hero of the hauntingly titled Saga of Burnt Njal, a man who warns that “by the law alone will our land be built up” in a saga that vividly shows the other path, as scenes of farms and families give way to an endless blood-feud that brings Njal his fatal epithet. Where but in that Iceland would men dream up nabrok, wealth-bringing pants stitched from a dead man’s skin, or tilberi, milk-sucking worms shaped by witches from wool-wrapped ribs? What other land, so tiny, so remote, so poor, could bring forth not just Snorri Sturluson but Leif Erikson?

But Fallen Gods is not a “Norse” or “Viking” game; neither is it a Tolkien-inspired fantasy setting. Rather, like Tolkien’s own setting, it is drawn from the old lore and poured into a new glass, hopefully yielding something familiar but also strange.

Over the next weeks, we’ll be sharing more about the game’s setting and its systems, its paintings and its pixels, its music and its narration, to give you a sense of what has already been done and what still needs to be finished. The game has no targeted release date because everything about it has taken far longer than I ever imagined. Perhaps it will come in 2018; perhaps in 2019; perhaps later still. One way or the other, it will be done “in the fullness of time.”
A stronghold with no quest available.

NEXT WEEK: Days of Yore

Incidentally, if you have not played our first game, the point-and-click adventure Primordia, you can grab it on Steam (or

While the gameplay couldn’t be more different from that of Fallen Gods, the games share a similar design philosophy of careful worldbuilding through beautiful artwork, rich lore, and memorable characters.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Primordia 2 Concept Art (jk)

My four year old daughter has been designing a "new Horatio and Crispin game."  It appears the energy crystal and conductive putty make an appearance in the sequel...

Friday, August 19, 2016

Divide By Zero


When I was 19, I was unexpectedly hired to write the story to a GameBoy Color RPG, entitled Infinity.  This was my first paid work as a writer, and actually my biggest paycheck for many years.  More importantly than that, though, writing a jRPG story was something I had dreamed of -- and attempted -- for many years.  As a little kid, I'd played Dragon Warrior with my older brother (the last RPG he ever played, the first of many for me), and after playing Shining in the Darkness, I became committed to the idea of making one myself.

I attempted to make an RPG in many different programming languages (BASIC on an Apple II/c, BASIC on a Macintosh IIsi, LogoWriter on that same Macintosh, QuickBASIC on a PC, and TurboPascal on a PC) and then a series of kinds of game-making software (ZZT, MegaZeux, Unlimited Adventures, Verge, and RPG Maker 95).  This doomed endeavor -- and in a sense, it really was a single endeavor -- was probably most fueled by Final Fantasy II, a game I played at a friend's house and dreamed of mimicking.  It consumed most of my creative energy and much of my free time from about 1992 until 1999.  Over the years, I collaborated with many people on the Internet, and dragged them into the black hole of wasted time.

One of those collaborators was Eric Haché, the indisputable king of jRPG-style music in that era.  I solemnly believed that if I could get Eric on the project -- a game called Shadow Incarnate -- we couldn't fail.

Well, we failed.

After that, I became decided to stop importuning other people and wasting their time, and set out in RPG Maker to create a throwback homage to Final Fantasy II, a game called Redemption.  About three months into making it, I got an email from Eric out of the blue: he was doing the music for a GameBoy RPG, but the writer had flaked.  Would I be interested in working on it?

The day I saw Infinity running on a real life, actual GameBoy, I nearly swooned.

That the game should be a technical marvel is no surprise because its coders, Justin Karneges and Hideaki Omuro, were basically superhuman savant programmers.  Justin, for example, had managed to make a full-featured RPG (Joltima) on the TI-83 graphing calculator, something that in a sense vindicated my Quixotic effort to make a jRPG in, e.g., LogoWriter.

Getting to work on Infinity was beyond the biggest dream I'd had -- namely, to mimic a console RPG, but not actually to make one.  The problem was, there was a tiny window of time to write the story, so I dusted off Redemption, and got writing: 25,000 words in three days.

Nineteen at the time, I imagined myself to be writing a mature homage to the games I grew up on.  With the distance of 17 more years, I realize how mistaken I was -- it is a decidedly adolescent appropriation of those games.  The story begins with a flashback to a heroes many generations ago and their tragic conclusion (just like Lufia and the Fortress of Doom), before turning to a fallen knight who has more than a little Cecil from FFII in him visiting a castle that is plainly Tintagel from Dragon Warrior.  There he meets a king who is equal parts taken from the the king of Baron in FFII and the king in Faxanadu, before encountering a villain who is plainly Kefka from Final Fantasy III and having a send-off that is plainly the bridge scene from FFII.  He sets off through a series of environmental dungeons facing environmental enemies strikingly reminiscent of Secret of Mana, while visiting a desert town straight from The Magic of Scheherezade and then a post-apocalyptic (not in the modern sense) refugee town that is just like the future city in Chrono Trigger (right down to an elder who riffs off the "Heal-thy" line).  Along the way, all the characters spout emphatic one-liners that are somewhere between Destiny of an Emperor and River City Ransom.  All of this adventuring takes place against a backdrop of a resurgent supernatural evil that is mostly Dark Force from Phantasy Star with a dash of Lavos from Chrono Trigger.

Anyway, this game got very, very close to completion, but a series of insane and insanely frustrating factors conspired to doom it.  For example, Squaresoft's American branch expressed interest in seeing it, but shuttered its offices before the project lead (Justin) could arrive: when he showed up, he found empty office space with a Parasite Eve poster on the wall and a single telephone on the floor.  He called the contact number he was given and the phone rang.  Later, Crave Entertainment entertained publishing it, but while they mulled it over, the GameBoy Advace was announced and Golden Sun with it, and the technical marvel that was Infinity was now the most advanced Cro-Magnon scratching his beard at a newfangled Neanderthal.

So it goes.  The project faded away.  We all went onto other things.  Years passed.  More years passed.  All the while, the game's sound engineer, Matthew Valente, kept the spark alive by teasing tidbits about Infinity on YouTube and elsewhere.

Finally, in 2016 -- a good 17 years after the project began and 15 years after it stopped -- Justin and Hideaki dusted off the code, and persuaded the game's visionary financier Matt Rossi to let a build and the code be publicly released.

So here it is.  A time capsule.  A living Cro-Magnon.  A homage, pastiche, bricolage, fiasco of a story. Go grab it here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Traducción Española

Tenemos el placer de anunciar la traducción de Primordia al español por parte de Eduardo Moreno Martín. Durante casi siete meses, Eduardo y su equipo -- José Morales, Antonio Reyes y "cireja de abandonsocios" -- han trabajado de cerca con el escritor de Primordia (Mark Yohalem) y el traductor previo al francés (Flavien Gaillard) para cerciorarse de que la traducción capturara los singulares modismos y expresiones de Primordia. Dado el papel inspirador que la literatura española, en particular las obras de Jorge Luis Borges, ha tenido en los temas de Primordia, es apropiado que el juego disponga ahora de una adaptación al español adecuada. Por favor tened en cuenta que sólo se ha modificado el texto; las voces siguen en inglés.

Como en la traducción francesa publicada previamente, en la actualidad no podemos distribuirla a través de los canales oficiales de Wadjet Eye Games. Tendréis que descargar un parche desde la página web de Primordia. Tenemos la intención de dar soporte a este parche con la misma diligencia y entusiasmo que al Primordia mismo, así que por favor informad de cualquier error para que podamos subsanarlo.

¡Esperamos que disfrutéis de la traducción!