Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Fallen Gods Update #5: Witches and Dwergs

The witch gives a low growl and grabs a dwerg by his scruffy beard. “The maid is mine,” she warns, and all four dwergs break down blubbering at her cry. “Mother, mother,” they whine, wheedling for at least a lock of golden hair or a touch of the hag’s hard hand. She swats them away in Karringar’s name, and they flee beneath the earth like worms before a crow. Without waiting, the witch grips the girl’s chin and plants a kiss upon her brow. Lithe limbs twist, smooth skin sags, and gold goes gray, till the young one’s weathered and withered as the crone who claimed her. The witch licks her lips and stands, eyes agleam with stolen dreams. There is no more to be done.

Left unminded for so long since the war of the Overthrow, the land of Fallen Gods is now beset on all sides by foes both worldly and unworldly. While the player’s titular god certainly cannot ignore the danger of outlaws and upstarts, the greatest threat comes from beings worse than men. This update will discuss two categories of such foes: witches and dwergs.

But before diving into the specifics of these two groups, however, I want to step back for a moment to talk about the way that myth and folklore have inspired FG’s fantastical setting. This is a long digression, so if you would like to get back to the point, skip everything between the asterisks.
* * *
Like basically anyone of my generation or later (I was born in 1980)—particularly any English speaker—the fantasy I grew up with was “Tolkienian.” To be sure, there was plenty of other stuff around the margins, particularly in children’s books: King Arthur; Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain; C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia; Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series (though this owes a detectable debt to Tolkien); Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels; Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. And of course there was distinctive stuff that lingered on from pulp fantasy stories that weren’t “kids’ stuff,” particularly the sword and sorcery legacy of Robert E. Howard. And most fantasy movies of my childhood (like Kull or Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal) weren’t Tolkienian at all, perhaps because of film rights and production costs. But at least for me, this was marginalia, with the main columns of the fantasy “text” being a narrow one penned by Tolkien himself and a wide one penned by his imitators (Brooks, Feist, McKiernan, Williams, etc., etc.).
Moreover, because Dungeons & Dragons consciously imitated Tolkien’s races of dwarves, elves, halflings, and orcs, RPGs and other games simply reinforced the sense that this was fantasy. Indeed, Tolkien’s success was so overpowering that his dwarves (not dwarfs, as it ought to be) and elves managed to displace (at least for nerds like me) their established antecedents from Disney and Christmas (and Keebler), powerful cultural icons themselves. To be sure, various glosses were added to the Tolkien model—the strongest being the Games Workshop patina of green-skinned orcs and Scotch dwarves and condescending elves, which came to me first by way of Warcraft and Myth. But these modest variations merely served to confirm that fantasy was inherently Tolkienian.

The problem with occupying the middle of the mainstream is that the sheer force of its flood scours away the details—sometimes sharp, sometimes coarse, sometimes even ugly—that make a thing itself rather than merely a polished lump that fits comfortably in the hand. I was once told (and have never verified or disproven) that Tolkien conceived Middle Earth in an effort to create an English legendarium, in part out of concern that the chivalric romances of King Arthur were more French than English and were thus not properly English at all. If that was his intention, he did not reckon with the speed and thoroughness with which mass culture could dislodge that legendarium from English soil. What would Tolkien, a man who agonized over his miscoinage of “dwarves” as a “piece of private bad grammar rather shocking in a philologist,” think about Gandalf’s heirs “pre-buffing tanks”? Alas (and hurray!), having founded a genre, Tolkien’s creation became generic.
Luckily enough, one can still walk the same roads Tolkien took from our modern world, through our mythic past, to a timeless “fairy land.” I had tried, unsuccessfully, wandering that direction as a kid, after being repeatedly informed (always condescendingly by people who had never read Tolkien and often had not sat through Das Rheingold) that Tolkien had “just copied Wagner.” Thus misled, I spent a long rainy childhood day in front of a fuzzy television watching PBS’s airing of the entire Ring Cycle, complete with ridiculous stagecraft for Fafner. Being too young to really appreciate either of the masters or their masterpieces, I saw no connection whatsoever between the decidedly unheroic heavy-set singers groaning out tragic German and the delightful hobbits facing off against trolls, goblins, orcs, wargs, wights, and wraiths in rollicking adventure. This should have come as no surprise since I already knew the story of Andvari’s ring from childhood Norse mythology books and had never linked it with The Hobbit or the The Lord of the Rings. But still, the experience soured me the prospect of looking behind the fantasy novels I was reading.
It wasn’t until years later, when reading the Poetic Edda’s “Völuspá” that I first realized that Wagner’s and Tolkien’s two magic-ring stories really had sprung from the same Norse tales. For there, in its list of dwarfs, are Durin, Dain, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Nori, Thrain, Thorin, Thror, Fili, Kili, Gloin … and Gandalf? (Who knew that “wand-elf” was a dwarf’s name?) And the more I wandered through these myths and stories and sagas, the more familiar elements I found. Here was more than just the earth in which Tolkien had planted the Lord of the Rings; here were the roots from which he had cultivated it.

I learned then the (probably obvious) lesson that however ridiculous fantasy tropes have become, they hold such innate appeal for us because they are a part of us. There is a reason trolls fear fire; there is a reason dwarfs crave gold and gems; there is a reason why dragons are simultaneously noble and loathsome; why witches are warted; why swords have names; why names have power. And these reasons fit together, the way words fit together. You can make a sentence out of any kind of words and convey information, but that information is only part of the sentence’s possible meaning. When the right words are used in the right order, a spell is cast, and there is power because we are not just giving literal information, we are calling upon a wealth of hidden knowledge inside the listener or reader. “The dwarves of yore made mighty spells, while hammers fell like ringing bells.” It is no coincidence that this chain of metrical Anglo-Saxon words swells inside us while no spirit rises up to answer, “In the past, dwarves used magic in their forges.” And even less meaning is found when both language and lore are displaced, as in the Kohan setting in which I had the privilege to work: “In the past, gauri used magic in their forges.”

Tolkien understood the magic in words, and he understood the magic in lore. His novels became so thoroughly enmeshed in culture because they were already enmeshed in culture; Tolkien played old songs on strings that were already inside us, even if they may have needed his tuning and touch.

When I say “us,” it’s not as a man of English stock or Scandinavian heritage; my father’s side came from Belarus, and my mother’s people are Scots Irish and Huguenot French. None of them ever spoke Anglo-Saxon and none of them ever told the Norse myths as their own folk stories. Yet that lore has become part of my story—just as, to my surprise, I found parts of myself in the myths of the Haida people in A Story as Sharp as a Knife. Today’s culture is a rope woven from many strands. In tracing the strand of “Northernness” I am not trying to fray that cultural rope, but to bind it more tightly.

So, to build the world of Fallen Gods, I wanted to walk as far back down the road blazed by Tolkien as I could, and then wander off the trail and try to find my own way back. Tolkien, of course, was a brilliant scholar, a gifted linguist, and a man who had spent his life on serious rather than frivolous pursuits. There is thus exactly no chance that I could achieve anything on an order comparable to his. But it would be an interesting hike all the same, and perhaps might produce a kind of fantasy that is both familiar and disquietingly other.

Whew! Now onto the specifics of how that method yield FG’s witches and dwergs.
* * *
The witches of European folklore and fairytales are terrifying beings, but most of that terror has been lost over the centuries. Perhaps that’s for the best, given the awful historical consequences of that anti-witch hysteria. But it still seems to me that something has been lost when witches are relegated to buffoonery, as in the children’s books Room on the Broom or The Big Pumpkin.

So thoroughly have witches been defanged that we are comfortable reading stories to children in which they do the most awful things. For instance, in the children’s classic Little Brother and Little Sister, a witch curses all the water in a forest so that if the runaway titular siblings (her step-children), desperately thirsty, drink from them, the brother will turn into a predatory beast and eat his sister. (Note for a moment that the title itself emphasizes that these are not merely children but little children.) The siblings last long enough to reach a stream that merely turns the brother into a stag, at which point he succumbs. Years later, after the king nearly kills the stag, he falls in love with the sister, marries her, and conceives a child with her. The witch then boils the sister alive and disguises her own hideous daughter to take the sister’s place in the royal marital bed. This is not a “children’s classic” in the sense that it’s buried away in the original Grimm Brothers’ collections; it was sold as a standalone read-aloud children’s book well into the 1980s.

LB&LS encapsulates some (but not all) of essential “witchiness.” Witches strike at our most sacred institutions and most powerful taboos: the bonds of family (supplanting the children’s mother; attempting to cause a brother to kill his sister; interfering with the sister’s marriage and maternal relationship—the newborn must suckle from a ghost, presumably since the faux mother has no milk to give); the taboo against cannibalism (it is not enough to cause sororicide, it must be cannibal sororicide); the order of good governance (insinuating her witch-daughter onto the throne); the boundary between man and beast (dehumanizing the brother who not only loses his human shape but also his able to restrain himself by reason). Of course it’s just one story. I could cite Hansel and Gretel (caging children like animals and then eating them; enticing the children to eat sweets that, in at least some tellings such as Humperdinck’s opera, are made from other children) or Macbeth (spoiling Macbeth’s friendships, upending his marriage, and inciting civil war) or any number of other sources. Even the more quotidian crimes of witches (curdling milk in a cow’s udder or afflicting a maiden with acne) have a similar quality of attacking what is good, clean, wholesome, beloved, or holy precisely because it is good, clean, wholesome, beloved, or holy.

As I talked about in a recent interview with Chris Picone, these same qualities in witches give them a kind of countercultural appeal. By defying social norms and by living beyond the margins of society (often in a cave, a forest, a swamp), they can occupy the role of an off-the-grid iconoclast or a gadfly. Whether the ones who first told the tales intended it or not, it’s hard not to read into them the sense that witches exploit our flaws when they strike at our virtues such that they are exposing, and punishing, our hypocrisy. For instance the same king who (1) is too stupid to notice that his beautiful bride (Little Sister) is now an ugly hag-daughter also (2) betrothed that bride at first sight in a hut in a forest knowing nothing about her. Has he not invited the possibility of being wedded to a witch? (In the Saga of the Volsungs, Byrnhild warns Sigurd against exactly such reckless behavior.) Is it not Hansel’s gluttony for sweets (and not just his hunger) that drives him and his sister into the witch’s clutches, and does this piggishness perhaps invite being roasted like a suckling for dinner?

In Fallen Gods, we have tried to capture both halves of the witches. They are physically and magically powerful, vulgar, independent, and rich in hidden lore. They claim to be daughters of a “tenth sister”—the other Nine being the Singers who sang the world into its shape—devoted to thwarting orderly fate to create the chaos in which freedom can exist. (The association of witches with wyrd, fate, is an old one, that shows up not just in the modern usage of weird but in the Weird Sisters of Macbeth. The valkyries delivering the nightmarishly prophetic “Darraðarljóð” in Njal’s Saga (Brennu-Njáls saga) certainly seem like witches, too.) Because witches are defying an order that is very flawed, their defiance has a certain nobility to it. But they are ugly, evil creatures, and their help almost always involves the kind of fundamental wrongs discussed above.
In appearance and character, our witches draw also from the saga tradition of “troll-women.” In the Icelandic sagas, the word “troll” can encompass both the giant beings that we normally think of as trolls and a more nebulous concept of otherness and magic (take, for instance, the “troll-bull” on Iceland’s coat of arms or the term “troll-drum” used, pejoratively, to describe the Sami shaman’s instrument). Troll-women are vividly described in The Saga of Illugi, Foster-Son of Grid (Illuga saga Gríðarfóstra) and The Saga of Grim Shaggy-Cheek (Gríms saga loðinkinna).

Here is the first saga’s description:

Snot hung above her mouth, she had a beard and she was bald. Her hand was like an eagle’s claw, and her sleeves both burned, and the cape that she wore went no further than her rump, and was scanty all over. Her eyes were green, her forehead straight, and her ears rose like a mast. You could not call her fair.

And here is the second one’s:

But he’d not been lying there long, when he saw a woman comingif you could call her a woman. She couldn't have been more than a seven-year-old girl, going by her height, but so fat, Grim doubted he could have got his arms around her. She was long-faced, hard-faced, hook-nosed, with hunched up shoulders, black-faced and wobbly-jowled, filthy-faced and bald at the front. Both hair and hide of her were black. She wore a shriveled leather smock. It barely reached down to her buttocks. Hardly kissable, he thought, as she had a big booger dangling down in front of her chops.

This striking language formed the starting point for Dan Miller’s wonderful sprite, shown above.

Whew! Enough about witches, and onto dwergs.
Dwergs are our “dwarfs.” Their name is a rare instance in Fallen Gods in which we’ve used an obscure word where colloquial English retains an accurate Anglo-Saxon term. The reason, alluded to in asterisk-bracketed digression above, is that “dwarfs” and “dwarves” simply hold too powerful a connotation of stoic, stubborn, hard-drinking, brogued, axe-wielding, orc-bashing, underground-city-building nobility. English has held onto the old word but its modern meaning is strongly contrary to what I want to convey. “Dwerg” (from the Old English dweorg and Norse dvergr) can be recognized quickly enough and pronounced easily enough, but has just enough distance to let me dress it with different connotations.

Dwergs were one of the first beings I “defined” for Fallen Gods, and they established my methodology for others. I started by looking for what seemed the essential qualities of mythological and folkloric dwarfs: they are small (though scholars question whether they were viewed as small when the myths were first told); they live underground; they covet gold and beautiful women; they are master craftsmen and cunning cowards. Notably (and lampooned in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation), they seem to have no women. And, indeed, per the eddas, they were conceived without a woman’s involvement, directly from the dead (male) giant Ymir: either spawning spontaneously from his rotting flesh like maggots (in the Prose Edda) or being made from a mixture of his blood and bones (in the Poetic Edda).
Even if it has become dissociated from dwarfs themselves, our culture routinely invokes the symbol of the ugly, stunted, sexually deprived, technically gifted, darkness dwelling social pariah who is belittled by, and bitterly plots his revenge against, handsome heroes and their beautiful paramours. For instance, how many times have people who enjoy computer games been reviled by their critics as unattractive nerds who live in their parents’ basements, doomed never to have a girlfriend? This is one of the milder examples for how this symbol is used as a weapon.

The sum of these flaws is a being that is rightly unloved. This is vacuum so awful to basic decency that when it appears, we rush to fill it: witness the need to humanize those who seem least worthy of love (tyrants; serial killers; etc.). Norse dwarfs were never nursed by a mother; never kissed by a lover; never admired by a child. They live away from green, blue, and sunlight. The softest thing in their world is gold, and inevitably it is stolen from them. And before it’s stolen, they cut the gold from the earth, burn it in fire, strike it with hammers. They have brothers; their brothers kill them. They foster sons; their foster-sons kill them. And this is their just deserts, the myths and folklore teach us. Alone; unloved; cut off.

So that is where we started with our dwergs: the lonely, bitter yearning of stunted beings beneath the earth. Our dwergs were born when the threefold goddess Karringar was killed and broken open. Inside her was the gold of the Golden Maiden (taken by Orm to make Skyhold); the iron of the Iron Crone (left to rust beneath the sleet and snow); and the quicksilver of the Silver Lord, which spilled to earth and begat the dwergs upon the dirt and rock.
The moment of their birth was thus the moment at which they were separated, forever, from the mother and maiden they loved. They crave what they have lost, and clutch for it in gold (which they eat) and stolen maidens:  This girl will never meet the need they feel, the half-crazed craving for their golden thirdsister, lover, lost when the quicksilver seed spilled from Karringar’s shattered womb and spawned them in the filth.  And when they work in iron and grovel before an iron-willed witch, it is the fond approval of maternal love they want and will never get. For they are unloved, rightly, and in all their craft is bent, at bottom, on wrighting (not righting) wrongs: cursed gifts; wicked schemes; cruel traps; kidnappings and killings.

So, at last, we come to the end of this long, long update. Two foes down. The next will, I hope, fall faster.

NEXT UPDATE: To Battle!


* * *
You can read Illugi’s Saga, Grim’s Saga, many other sagas, the Eddas, and more on William P. Reaves’s site Germanic Mythology: http://www.germanicmythology.com/

You can also read many sagas, including a rather dated translation of Njal’s Saga at the Icelandic Saga Database: http://sagadb.org/

You can read Chris Picone’s interview of me and Vince Weller, the man behind The Age of Decadence and The New World, here: http://www.cshpicone.com/interview-mark-and-vince

I mentioned A Story as Sharp as a Knife in the update. It is, in my opinion, not merely a fascinating recounting of Haida mythology but a powerful argument for preserving the tales of the past and letting them speak with their own voices. Fallen Gods does not do that; it is not even a retelling of the source material so much as a deconstruction and reconstruction of it. But the game would not be possible without the tireless work undertaken by skalds like Snorri, unknown monks like those who made and preserved the Codex Regius, and scholars like Neil Price, who helped me not only with his books and lectures, but also by taking the time to respond to my email and point me toward helpful first- and second-hand sources. There is a trite expression that “every day is a gift.” That is true not only for the day we enjoy now and the days to come, but also for the long train of days gone by, and we are the fortunate inheritor of those gifts, sometimes worn and sometimes dated though they may be.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Primordia Sales Data

With the untimely death of Steam Spy, independent developers have lost one of the few free sources of game sales data. My friend Vincewith his transparency about The Age of Decadence, a game I adore—has convinced me that developers need to fill that gap by sharing their own data with others who might need it. In that spirit, here are some facts on Primordia.

Primordia has sold just about 200,000 copies for a total of a bit over $600,000 from December 2012 until now.  (Note that there is some lag time here because I receive sales data from the publisher a month after the publisher receives it from Steam and GOG, which is itself delayed a month for Steam and as much as a quarter for GOG.)  That means that the average (mean) sales price is about three bucks, 30% of the listed price of $9.99.

Of those sales, around 40,000 were from junk bundles that yielded almost no money (~$7,000 or something ludicrous like that). Unfortunately, Primordia was never included in the one bundle that makes some economic sense (the Humble Bundle). Of the remaining 160,000 sales that I consider more meaningful, about 46,000 were through GOG, 7,000 through the App Store (for the iOS port), with almost all of the remaining 107,000 through Steam (a very, very trivial number were sold directly by the publisher through BMT Micro).

Primordia sold well at launch (about 43k non-bundle copies in its first year), and has had a long tail (21k, 19k, 22k, 39k copies in each of the next four years, excluding iPhone sales).  But the overwhelming majority of the copies were sold, even during the first year, in the seasonal sales on Steam and GOG.  The only other time considerable copies were sold was during non-seasonal themed sales in which Primordia and a small number of other games were featured. Sales span multiple months, making it hard for me to break the data down. But in 2017, for instance, during months in which Primordia was discounted at least some of the time, we tended to move around 6,000 copies, while during non-discounted months, we moved around 150 copies.

In terms of the proceeds, of the $600,000, the first 30% went to distributors (GOG, Steam, and the bundlers). A further cut was taken by the publisher. What remained was divided among the three of us who developed the game (Victor, James, and me), not quite evenly initially but evenly now.  My own share has worked out to about $110,000 (for a game that took two and a half years to develop, and which I have tried to continue supporting for another five), which is to say 18% of the gross sales. Those proceeds have been divided about (1) a third to taxes; (2) a third to support (a) other developers through Kickstarter and charities and (b) our own development of Fallen Gods and Cloudscape (no out-of-pocket expenses for Strangeland); and (3) a third as “take-home” income.

I have always viewed Primordia as a surprising, resounding success commercially and, more importantly, in terms of player engagement. A devil’s advocate, or my own sometimes pessimistic self, might say that Primordia proves that it makes little economic sense to develop such games. After all, even assuming we could churn out a game that sold as well as Primordia every two years  or so, that would yield less than the median salary for an American game designer (different sites put that median between $60,000 and $85,000, plus benefits). And what if it sold less? As far as I know, Primordia is the third-best-selling game made in Adventure Game Studio, below Gemini Rue and the Cat Lady but above the rest, despite many of these being truly excellent games. Probability suggests that our next title might not be as fortunate. Faced with this math, and with an ever-growing field of excellent indie games on Steam, one could be discouraged.

Instead of being discouraged, I’ve spent even longer working on my next game, an RPG (Fallen Gods) in a market much more saturated than retro point-and-click adventures. To me, far from being in an omigod were going to need to bury millions of E.T. cartridges in the desert panic, matters are much more positive. As the song goes: “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” This is a golden age for developing games. 

When I started out trying to make games in the 1990s, they had to be coded more or less from scratch, and it was extremely hard to connect with artists interested in, and capable of, making game graphics. Friends and I tried valiantly many times and got nowhere close to making a finished game; if we had, we would have had to try selling it as shareware. This wasn’t impossible—David Gray’s inspirational Hugo series of adventure games was made under just such conditions in the ’90s, and so were Jeff Vogel’s inspirational Exile series and Forgotten Sages’ amazing Gladiator (and dozens of other games I played to death back in those days). But it was a very steep climb. For me, the challenge was insurmountable.

Nowadays, Steam provides a huge sales portal to anyone who wants it and GOG provides a smaller, but more receptive, audience; Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and niche game forums provide direct contact with customers; a huge panoply of streamers, Steam curators, and gaming news sites provide broad outreach; positive Steam reviews provide a perpetual motion machine for indie developers, as every positive review draws in additional customers who leave reviews; and a variety of engines (Unity, Love2D, AGS, RPG Maker, ChoiceScript, Inform 7, Twine, etc., etc.) provide relatively easy means to develop relatively professional games.  Moreover, the internet brings together people who want to make games from all over the world, an embarrassment of riches in terms of possible collaborators. And with Google Translate, I (and any other developer) can communicate (after a fashion) with players posting comments in Hungarian, Farsi, Mandarin, etc., who I would otherwise never have had a chance to meet.

If you had told me when I was toiling away on my fifth failed adolescent effort to develop an adventure or an RPG that in a scant 20 years I’d be able to work with amazing people from all over the world in turnkey development environments and super-easy distribution channels, I doubt I would’ve believed it. If you had then told me that hundreds of thousands of people would have bought a game I worked on, I would’ve started getting upset that you were clearly making fun of me. And if you’d added that thousands of those players would have provided bottomless moral support in reviews, tweets, emails, posts, translations, plushies, paintings, songs, sculptures, etc., I would probably have started backing away slowly in the face of such obvious madness.

How lucky I am to be making games right now. And one of my greatest joys has been hearing that the creators of the amazing games like Paradigm, K’Nossos, and Neofeud were inspired by Primordia to bring their own great games into the world. Of course, I hope that Primordia’s tail keeps growing indefinitely, as in Wanda Gág’s The Funny Thing, and that Fallen Gods manages to enjoy the same support when, at last, I cross “RPG” off the same adolescent bucket list that had “adventure” on it until December 2012. But even if Primordia stopped being sold tomorrow, I would count it a grand success. Hopefully the data in this post will, in some small way, help others enjoy successes of their own.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Fallen Gods Update #4: The Fallen God

Before you stands a man warped by time and wrath, crook-backed and bitter, barely able to heft the sword in his hand. Others crowd about, like and yet unlike the first, each twisted in his own way, smeared on stones so smooth and bright that they are like looking glasses. It is a maze made of you, and staring into it, you seem to see into your self.


The titular hero (or anti-hero) of our game may be fallen, but he is still a god. And even when cut off from Orm’s great soul-hoard in Skyhold, a son of the Cloudlands has many gifts that set him apart from mortal men.
The first is that he is very hard to kill for good. Only a few things are strong enough to make his soul abandon his flesh and bones. Most deaths merely mangle his body, and a few days and a bit of soul-strength are enough to heal even the ghastliest wounds. (Of course, every day is precious to a fallen god who must make it home within three months.)
Indeed, Ormfolk are very hard to kill at all, for even the most bumbling of them has a strength and skill with the sword that outstrips most hardened earthly fighters. And a god can grow even greater in might and wits by drawing on his soul-strength—“leveling up” in RPG parlance, though here at the cost of the same hard-won “mana” (i.e., soul) pool that feeds his greatest skills.

For a god, even a fallen god, has skills beyond swordplay. The player’s god has two out of the following five such skills: Soulfire (by which he can kindle souls into a holy blaze that can burn away curses or burn up foes); Healing Hands (by which he can heal wounds and cure sickness in himself and others); Death Lore (by which he can speak to the dead, calling on their wisdom or driving off restless undead draugar); Wild Heart (by which he can bend beasts to his will or cause the woods themselves to hasten him on his way); and Foresight (by which he can see what lies in distant lands or times to come). These too draw on soul-strength.
And a god has his “fetch,” the fylgja of Norse mythology (or “familiar” in folklore and modern fantasy). As the lore holds, a god’s fetch is female (a bitch wolf, a vixen, a hen raven, or a she eagle); a goddess’s would be male. Each fetch has its own advantages. For instance, the wolf fights beside you in battle, while the eagle can strike foes unaware before battle. Fetches also unlock new paths, such as letting your vixen lead starving miners astray to get them out of your way in the “Lost Ones” event.

Finally, the fallen god starts with a mighty item from the Cloudlands, such as the Lur, a horn that can stir the slumbering heart or clear the muddled head of any mortal man. And he will find more as he goes. Our items (as will be discussed in a later update) are like Lone Wolf’s: each is significant, providing not just a noticeable statistical bonus but also new abilities (like crossing streams with the Fording Stone) and new opportunities in events (such as covering an escape by opening the Fog Pot).
All of this power depends on soul-strength. When the god stirs the faith of men and women with mighty deeds (a faith born of fear and a faith born of love are equal sources of this strength), they freely yield some or all of their souls to him. He can also take soul-strength in harsher ways, such as killing lingering beings of old that are still swollen with souls from when they were gods themselves. And there are darker tricks still, like the Soultrap, which snares a soul as it leaves a dying body. One way or the other, perhaps one way and all the others, the fallen god must gather enough soul-strength to win his way home.
I’ve been writing primarily about the mechanical aspects of the god: what the player can do with the god and to the god. There’s a reason for that. The best way to define a character in a game is by the gameplay. Gameplay is like the “showing” of a character in the shopworn “show, don’t tell” writing advice, while narrative is like the “telling.” I’ve mentioned this in connection with Horatio in Primordia: he had to be a scavenger and a tinkerer and a near-pacifist because scavenging and tinkering and eschewing violence are important point-and-click conventions. Horatio needed to be laconic because with so many other characters, if he were a chatterbox the dialogue would become too extensive. Thus, his core traits were dictated (and I would say demonstrated) by the gameplay before any narrative. The same lesson applies to the god in Fallen Gods.
That lesson was first suggested to me in the mid-90s by Scott Dudley, who was making the ill-starred and in-hindsight-troublingly-named Legend of Talibah, a PC Japanese-style RPG. I was a high schooler well into my own ill-starred PC jRPG making career, and I corresponded a bit with Scott about his game, which featured a party member named “Staulker.” I opined that this name seemed a little much, and he replied that Staulker would prove his bad-assery in combat, which, he explained, was really the way that you show a player that a character is cool. A few years later the same lesson was repeated by Suikoden, in which the also ridiculously named Kwanda “Iron Wall” Rosman (an enemy general who could turn coat and join you) was defined primarily by his absurdly high defense statistic, and others of the 108 “Stars of Destiny” were similarly defined by look-and-feel rather than expository dialogue. Yet more years later, Chris Avellone made the same point about western cRPG companions (specifically, that players reacted to them primarily based on how useful they were).

So what character traits arise from the gameplay constraints in Fallen Gods? Well, the game doesn’t really have “quests” in the way a typical contemporary RPG does (i.e., meet NPC; learn about NPC’s problem; visit other NPCs to learn yet more context; discover various solutions; choose a solution; implement it over multiple steps; return to receive a reward). Our encounters usually resolve quickly, with a single paragraph of text describing the dilemma, a single multiple-choice decision resolving the dilemma, and another single paragraph describing that resolution. In order for those thin dilemmas to have meaning, they need to be about the god’s interests, since there is no pathos-laden dialogue tree to make the NPC’s interests compelling.

Thus, they typically take the form of, “Someone is between you and something you want: how can you get it most cheaply?” Whether a foe’s barring your path, a friend’s sharing a gift, or a stranger’s offering a reward, the god’s instinct is to give up as little as he can and get as much as he can. The game’s overall narrative needs to establish and reinforce this self-interest, and so the god—who is, after all, trying to escape the world’s sorrows and not lift them—must be a self-interested figure.
This self-interest is further compelled by constraints on interactions with followers. A mainstay of RPGs since Baldur’s Gate (arguably, since Ultima IV) has been intra-party interactions in which the player character talks to, and usually panders to, his companions. The more the player panders, the more his companion opens up, either as a romantic partner or a troubled friend in need of therapy, or both (as in Bioware games). This entails multi-stage, elaborate dialogue trees (e.g., the Circle of Zerthimon) delving deeply into the rich history and unique psyche of the NPC.

Fallen Gods has no dialogue trees. And the followers in the warband are not unique characters. Each berserk is like other berserks, each churl like other churls, and so forth. Mostly, they are ciphers like “hirelings” in Neverwinter Nights or Diablo II or soldiers in X-COM. Even when they interject thoughts and participate in events, they do so as fairly generic types, rather than as rich individuals, like a thinner version of the Clan Circle in King of Dragon Pass.
Image result for clan circle king of dragon pass
Thus, the god simply cannot be a thoughtful leader of men like Shepard in Mass Effect or The Nameless One in Planescape: Torment, one who takes the time to learn in excruciating detail the lives of his followers. He, like the player, must view his followers as chess pieces: means to an end rather than Kantian “ends in themselves.” He is again motivated by self-interest: what can they do for me and what must I do for them? That is true whether he’s giving them orders or giving them gifts. The latter is an important, thematic part of a saga-inspired setting: to be a leader is to be a ring-giver. But unlike gifts used in Dragon Age: Origins to foster romance and delve deeper into psychoanalysis, these gifts are given only to strengthen the followers and reinforce the bonds of loyalty tying them to the god. If a churl began to share sob stories from his rough childhood, the god would almost certainly stare him into shamed silence.

This overriding self-interest will likely create a gap between what the player wishes his avatar would do and the game lets his avatar do. Generally speaking, people want to do good, and that desire is particularly strong in single-player games, where doing good carries no meaningful cost (maybe a little less fictitious money paid to your avatar as a reward for his quest). People call this a “power fantasy.” Fine. But it is emblematic of the noblest aspect of fantasy: its ability to train us to view doing good as the proper exercise of power.
Fallen Gods has a crueler edge to its fantasy. Although the gods’ foes are mostly wickeder than he is, and although he is certainly capable of doing some good in the world, his motivations are ultimately selfish. He can be bold and open-handed, fearless before fearful odds, clever in outwitting evil minds… but at bottom, he is not on earth to accrue Paragon points, but simply to achieve escape velocity, no matter what gets scorched in his wake or battered down along his runway. Rather than a fantasy in which the player can practice goodness, it is a fantasy that hopefully will leave the player convinced he can do better in this world than the fallen god does in the game’s world, even if the player doesn’t have the same panoply of powers.

NEXT UPDATE: Witches and Dwergs. 



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Many people have asked about our pixel graphics.  They are made, dot by dot, by Daniel Miller, an avant-garde artist currently doing a series of residencies in Asia.  He actually does very little pixel art. While his live performances cannot be captured on a website, you can get a taste for the breadth of his work in his online galleries (as is not uncommon of artists portfolios’, these contain nudity): https://www.instagram.com/bydanielmiller/ and http://bydanielmiller.com/

A little over a year ago, I talked with Dan Felder, a thoughtful commentator about P&P RPGs, about how gameplay considerations should dictate character- and world-building.  You can listen to the two parts of the interview on YouTube: Part 1 and Part 2.

King of Dragon Pass, mentioned in previous updates as a significant influence on Fallen Gods, is a gem of a game.  You can get it for PC (75% off as of 4/17/18) or iPhone. The great folks behind it are in the process of making a sequel entitled Six Ages, which looks marvelous.

I fell out of touch with Scott Dudley decades ago, but was pleased to see that he went on to be not merely a successful game developer but something of a renaissance man.  Heres his website: http://zaskoda.com/