Thursday, September 11, 2014

Eulogy for the Stillborn Cloudscape

Primordia ate up a huge amount of my time, energy, and passion for two years, but at the end, there it was, our baby!  Unfortunately, the follow-up to Primordiaa project called Cloudscapealso ate up a huge amount of my time, energy, and passion, for almost a year.  At the end, there's really nothing to show for it.

Originally this was going to be a postmortem, trying to understand what went wrong with our ambitious, beautiful, doomed project, but candidly I don't see any point in that exercise.  Instead, I want to share with you guys some of what it would have been.

* * *

On Perebor, a world of seething clouds and strange wind-borne creatures, the La civilization flourished and faded, leaving behind mysterious towers to be picked clean by treasure-hunters, archaeologists, and profiteers.  Now, the scavengers’ boom years have passed.  What remains is a decadent world, nominally run by the Amarant Corporation but in fact ruled by a ruthless criminal known as the Headman.  For decades, no starships have passed through this backwater, but an unexpected visitor has suddenly arrived: Dahlia Hein, a messenger from the Interstellar Courier Service, coming to claim a bequest left by a certain “Angelo Nemo.”  The trouble is, no such person seems to exist . . . . 

When people ask about Primordia sequelsand about unanswered questions in the game, such as why the War of the Four Cities began or what happened to the Choir in Civitasmy answer tends to be that Primordia's universe only seems big and elaborate.  The peripheral things, however neat they may have sounded, were really just there as ideas not as fully realized content: for example, the War of the Four Cities just represents war for no good reason to no good end; it's not a particular fictitious geopolitical conflict spawned from social and economic considerations.

With Cloudscape, howeverambitiously imagined as the first game in a trilogyI wanted to build a universe that could actually sustain more than a stage-production scale.  As preparation, I spent years gorging myself on space opera and planetary romances, and I fell particularly in love with the works of the late, great Jack Vance.

To the extent Cloudscape's "universe"as opposed to the particular planet on which the game takes placehas a single strongest inspiration, it is the Oikumene of Vance's The Demon Princes series: a decadent but not depressing faster-than-light human civilization that serves as a fun-house mirror to our present-day virtues, flaws, and foibles.

But I didn't just want to create a big setting for the game(s): I wanted to have both the big setting and a content that was basically about "ideas" just like Primordia's smaller content was.  So there's this elaborate backstory that sets up a sociopolitical history and fictitious universe for the game, but also operates as a bunch of symbols and allusions.

For example, "Perebor," the world on which the game was to be set, takes its name from a Russian word that is both a Russian Orthodox funereal bell-striking ritual and a nerd slang term for a problem that lacks an elegant solution.  The planet was colonized by a Russian corporation (Amarant ZAO), although by the start of the game's timeline, most of the Russians were long since gone from the planet.  (Unlike Primordia, Cloudscape would take place in a "real world future.")  Russian cultural allusions, from Tchaikovsky's Snow Maiden (a leitmotif, puzzle solution, and parallel to the game's story) to prison slang, were woven through the setting.  (Tchaikovsky, of course, was a double allusion, the second one to Loom, one of my favorite games.)  Other cultures flitted around: Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist thought, Saami traditions, Romantic poetry, Conway's game of life, Gold Rush-era prospecting, analog technology, and so on and so forth.

Thematically, the game was about the breakdown of families, death rites and rebirth, and captivity.  Crows were integralin the imagery, in the themes, and in Pereborian culture (they served as a primary meal item, sometimes passed off as "black squab"; another key staple was "small mutton," the euphemistic term for rat).

As with Primordia, I spent an inordinate amount of time on language and wordplay.  I agonized over nameslike Moeder Veer (actually, Vic's inspired adaptation of my "Mother Feather"), the cult leader; Anton Walzer, the Headman's brutal enforcer; Jules Barba, a fossicker who served as an informant for the Amarant Security Office.  Sometimes I tried to create a kind of echo in different names.  




One of the things I'm proudest about regarding the design is the way in which image, idea, and setting were fitted together, such that we could have an awesome creature like the teratorn or a tortured tree like the terebinth actually make sense as organic elements of Perebor, rather than just part of a quilt of striking but unrelated elements.

Because one of the important charactersan "off-screen" character, since he's long-dead by the time the game starts—was a Pereborian poet, I found myself dusting off the old Primer playbook and writing a variety of poem-based puzzles.  One of the more clever ones IMHO (I'll avoid spoiling the puzzle) worked off of this poem:
The Sum of Man
The seven sins are all man’s worth,
a fitting match to seas of earth,
the churning, teeming devil’s brew
from which evolved those sinning two,
whose lust ten generations bore
until the One could take no more.
He rent the firmament asunder,
sending forty days of thunder
to drown his murd'ring, grasping brood,
who, still abiding, grew more shrewd
and so connived fourscore more arks
to spray their seed across the dark.
A thousand worlds were claimed by man,
new bowers where he’d breed his clan,
and thus a star-crossed race would sire,
unsmiteable by flood or fire.
Setting aside the poem's dubious merits as a work of art, it did manage to cram in some of the game's background lore (namely, the project of seeding different worlds with humans) and a puzzle, so there's that. Plus, a shout out to Days of Thunder?  That's worth something, right?

I wanted to retain the eccentricity that we had in Primordiaeven build upon itwhile still having the characters come across as human.  Primordia's robots provided a good excuse for monomania; it's a bit harder with real people.  Still, I was pleased with the roster of knights errant, mad poets, rusting AIs, bumbling tycoons, plucky urchins, longsuffering priests, gas-choked miners, touring freaks, and the like.  With Vic at the wheel and Cory Webster riding shotgun, our designs were great.

Perebor, like the world of Primordia, is a dying world: in fact, it's dying for the second time.  Humans are scavenging the planet, but they've held on too long and are being pulled under by the very corpse they're clutching.  That message was sometimes delivered by the game with a light touch, but sometimes (as in the case of the slaughter of Perebor's "whales"), with a heavier hand. 
The graphical quality we could hit arose from a few things (aside from Vic's genius): a built-from-scratch engine by coder Steve Poulton; additional concept work from Cory Webster, and fantastic sprite work from Ben Chandler.  (Below, Dahlia Hein, the game's protagonist.)
It all actually came together in a working, high-res build with ambient sound, music, dialogue built using our new editor, and so on.  (I'll save the screenshot for a later post.)

So, what happened?

There's no great explanation.  It was a very ambitious project that could succeed only with all of us pulling together in the traces, and that never seemed to happen.  For the months we spent on it, most of what I have is hundreds of pages of design, ten thousand emails, a few dozen pictures, a lot of music, and a few invoices.  Ultimately, several different things coincided in Vic's life to create additional challenges, and for a three-month span, I didn't hear from him at all.  (I hear from him occasionally now; he's mostly doing murals.)

The truth is, independent game making is a tricky thing under the best of circumstances.  We probably would've been wiser to aim smallerperhaps with that sequel to Primordia I always refuse to contemplate.  But I hope that someday I'll be able to dust off what I did on Cloudscape and make something of it.  If not our beautiful, ambitious adventure game, perhaps at least some kind of a sourcebook for other people to pick over.

The Storm

I dreamed a new behemoth,
of wing and eye and claw,
a creature wreathed in seething mist
that poured out from its maw.

The thing I dreamed regarded me
with sneering awful mirth,
as I in youth once viewed alike
my fellow sons of Earth.

In fear I tried to rouse myself,
to flee its burning gaze.
Yet then I knew I was awake,
and stared at naught but haze.

The vision was an eidolon,
a pipe dream, nothing more.
But the pipe is just a boatman,
and the night has awful shores.
 * * *
Anyway, all is not lost: as it happens, the despair left by Cloudscape's untimely death eventually turned into a surge of energy propelling me to my next project, which I hope to announce very soon.