Game Journal – Metal Gear Survive PC Beta

This weekend Steam is hosting the free beta of Metal Gear Survive, Konami’s Phantom Pain zombie mod. This is a multiplayer only beta. Maybe I should have read the stuff it tells you to read before letting you play the game, but I didn’t, and it took me a while digging through the irritatingly laid out menu to find the “Return to Mother Base” (i.e.: single player) option greyed out. I should state up front that, due to the game refusing for whatever reason to work with the ordinarily fabulous x360ce, I was forced to play with mouse and keyboard controls, which are not quite as bad as you might expect, but still far from a smooth means of controlling third person action. So whatever you read here, keep in mind that I was labouring somewhat with suboptimal peripherals.

There has been much said about this game. Lots of people think that Konami is taking a beloved franchise and wringing a quick buck out of it by adapting Phantom Pain‘s base resource acquisition mechanics and adding zombies, hunger, and thirst into the mix, and I agree with them. The Metal Gear series has had survival mechanics before. My favourite instalment in the series, Snake Eater, took place largely in woodland and mountain environments and required you to hunt your own food and heal your own wounds, gun suppressors would wear down and break from use, and your radar and other gadgets would run out of battery life. So it isn’t an entirely alien concept.

What is alien is that series creator and “gaming auteur” Hideo Kojima is nowhere to be found. Kojima ended his time with Konami after the tempestuous rushed finish of Phantom Pain in 2015, and is now working on Death Stranding, which will finally see his dream of collaborating in a full game production with Norman Reedus realised. Previously they had worked together on P.T., a cleverly designed little puzzle box of a horror game meant to tease Silent Hills, which Konami promptly cancelled, presumably because it needed to divert extra computing power to its pachinko machine design AI. (I don’t know if they actually have one of those, but would anyone be surprised if they did?) Metal Gear games have been made in the past without Kojima’s involvement, from the infamous Snake’s Revenge to the well-received Revengeance, and often forgotten minor entries like Ghost Babel, but this is the first time that the series itself has been without him. In a way it’s probably very freeing for him, not to have to continue telling the same story, but for fans of the series it’s less than ideal, especially when Phantom Pain was released with its main story in a somewhat less than finished state.

Much has been made of Konami’s decision to make new Metal Gear titles. So far as I’m aware, Survive—which is a spin-off, a what-if based around wormholes opening up during the climactic sequence of Ground Zeroes so that, instead of becoming the Diamond Dogs of Phantom Pain, the MSF are Samurai Jack‘d into a world where zombies with red crystals in their heads mill around trying to destroy mining equipment, or at least that’s what seems to be going on—is the only one they’re currently committed to, whatever that means. Even so, the game is seen by many as an insult to the series and to Kojima himself, although he doesn’t seem to be taking it personally. He has however commented that he doesn’t feel that zombies belong in Metal Gear.

But all this has been discussed endlessly since the game’s announcement last year. What about the game? Well, the game is… Phantom Pain with zombies. Or rather, it’s Phantom Pain with most of what made that game what it was removed and replace with zombies. Also you can spawn fences out of thin air, but I didn’t get a chance to use that mechanic, if indeed it exists in the co-op horde mode, which is the only thing you can do in this beta aside from knifing endlessly respawning training dummies. Horde mode revolves around a “wormhole generator”, which actually appears to be a drilling machine, and which you are suppose to defend. You play as one of a team of four people, all of whom in my matches seemed to prefer to run off to collect resources rather than actually defend the thing, which is under assault from wave after wave of zombies.

Like most zombie games, Survive features a few different classes of enemy. There are the generic crystal-headed dudes who shamble about aimlessly until they detect you, at which point they start running full pelt until they get you. They aren’t very smart though, as you’d expect from people with crystals where their brains should be, and their AI often had difficulty navigating its way around basic obstacles like broken walls to get to me. Stepping up from that is the bomber class. This is the obese zombie that explodes either naturally or after taking too much damage. They can take a lot of hits, be it from knives, guns, or the apparently totally useless punch move which seems to do absolutely nothing to anything, and the only way to stop them is to blockade them.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to see any more types than that, if indeed there are any in this beta, because I never got past the second wave. I don’t wish to paint the other players as people who had no interest in trying to play properly and were only there to farm mats for the full game (I believe cloud saves transfer from the beta), but they kind of were exactly that. Also unfortunate: the one Steam friend I have who also played this beta was not online when I was playing, so the only potentially good match I could have had, barring the fact that we would need two others to make a full party, was not in the offing. The matchmaking is also quite slow, it took almost four full minutes (the beta has a generous five minute wait time to find all of four people) just to populate a room on the European servers in early evening (GMT) on a Sunday, plus extra every time someone quit.

While I obviously cannot talk about how it will work in the final release, the game’s emphasis on resource gathering and crafting, which is definitely a mat grind timesink, feels at odds with the immediacy of the horde mode’s fast, action oriented gameplay. You have a couple of minutes to run around getting materials before the “wormhole generator” begins generating wormholes drilling and thus attracting zombies, and the zombies hit it and then you shoot them and then you run out of ammo and then they all blow up for some reason and then the fat ones show up and explode at you and it’s over. Whatever emphasis on survival style gameplay the final game will have, what I played in this beta feels like an action game laden with mechanics which only serve to hamper the action itself.

I thought Survive was a dumb idea from the very first time I heard about it, but I tried to go into this experience without too many preconceived notions of what it would be. After all, trailers are rarely if ever an indication of what the actual product is going to be like. It’s often true of films, where the “best scenes”, whatever that might mean for a given film, are excerpted and cut together in a 90 second reel, but it is inherently the case for games. There is no way to know what something plays like just by watching someone else play it, much less a member of the dev team, who has been living and breathing it for the past however many months or even years. Had I just gone by the trailers, or even gameplay footage from third party companies, I might have thought that Survive was going to be another dumb zombie game. It isn’t. Zombie games, no matter how mindless or derivative, are usually at least a little bit scary or overwhelming, this is just confused and unpleasant.

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The World Unbuilt – Iridius Barquentine

Stories about wizards fucking things up for the sake of fucking things up are not very interesting, unless you go into why that darn wizard wants to fuck things up. The grievance that led me to create, for the core of my story, the subject of this essay, comes from The Elder Scrolls. In Oblivion, the fourth main entry in the series, Mankar Camoran, a devotee of Mehrunes Dagon (no apparent relation to just plain Dagon of the Lovecraftian mythos), through his Commentaries on the Mysterium Xarxes, really a mediocre acrostic puzzle written in rambling purple prose, seeks to initiate members of the Mythic Dawn, a cult devoted to the summoning and physical manifestation of Dagon in Tamriel. Eventually, you travel to Camoran’s paradise realm, through the use of said Mysterium Xarxes and the magical powers of one Sean Bean, and ask him what the hell he thinks he’s doing. Well folks, it turns out he’s doing something because of reasons. And then you kill him.

I knew that I wanted above all else to avoid having a Camoran for a main villain. Our initial main villain was “The Lich”, a generic undead superbeing type entity who would be, Frozen Throne styles, sending his rotting plague hordes and abominations to destroy the realm. In practical terms, the final result wasn’t far off. The undead guy commands undead legions, but he has also brokered a deal with demonic forces of another realm, who will serve as his generals until his aim is achieved, whereupon they will saddle up for a rematch with the gods who long ago bested them. For the game’s purposes, you have a clear set of bad guys to go and take care of, but from the perspective of telling an interesting story, one that ties into the lore of the world you’ve created, it’s a tiny bit bland. Cue the psychological turmoil of one 16th century Thorian parliamentarian.

Iridius Barquentine is a Thorian hero, best remembered as a politician and prosecutor who punished blasphemers and traitors to the realm many centuries ago, and ensured that the empire would ever be impervious to acts of treason. Ask who exactly was punished, and for what—never mind how—and you’ll not get an answer of any substance, only a rephrasing of what has already been said. The Cathedra Magna’s great tradition of censorship, which followed immediately in the wake of Barquentine’s “Shiedaric Trials” and surrounding events, and has been kept up now for some three-hundred years, effectively prevents the loosing of such knowledge upon the public. Try though they might, the Arlaug has only been successful in acquiring a handful of disjointed documents, relevant and related, though not complete enough in themselves to present a solid case against the myth of Barquentine.

So who was he? In The Life of Barquentine, a “Great Thorians” series pamphlet containing all the nice bits—including some made up stuff to patch over the wounds where great chunks of controversial detail has been cut out—of his life’s story, we are told that he was born in 1508, and was a child prodigy, selected for a career in the Cathedra Magna at the tender age of six years. But a document containing what purport to be the last entries in Barquentine’s journal prior to his disappearance tell us otherwise. He was an illegitimate child, sent away for fear of scandal to live with the Quithians, a working class family of farmers, only returning to Arch Thorian to be at his biological father’s side when he was twelve years old. Iridius was presented to society as the adopted son of Victor Barquentine, who had rescued him from poverty, a gracious and well-received showing of philanthropy. Despite the confusion the young Iridius faced, he accepted his position, never seeing the Quithians again, and attending throughout his teenage years the academies at Arch Thorian, where he received a fine education, preparing him for ascendancy to the Hierarchy. However, he left the Church so that he could marry Floella Agon, which he did, and sought a career in politics.

The Life of Barquentine, if we take Yulud’s histories to be accurate, which in broad strokes it is, has to dance around the Reformation and the Council of Aspects. The former is ignored completely, the latter is transposed to seventeen Hierarchs “observ’d speaking Blasphemies”. In this way, it actually makes quite a weak case for Barquentine’s notability. In a theocratic state the prosecution of blasphemers is par for the course, and in the kind-of-but-not-quite-Mediaeval-ish setting it would have been a matter of routine for someone in Barquentine’s position to sentence them to execution or tortures, most likely to undergo the latter until the former has been achieved. Barquentine’s real significance in this period is in leading the way for the restoration of a broken empire by destroying the ones who broke it; if Thoria’s situation at that time is now shrouded in fiction, then the hero himself is rendered lesser. On a personal level, however, it was a resurgence of a bloodlust that had been brought out in him when, in his teenage years, an insult was thrown his way by a fellow student. He had bloodied the student’s face and been imprisoned in solitary confinement for a week as punishment. The resurgence was far worse. As Radolphus Lantulla tells us, writing from Barquentine’s dictation, in the Record of the Shiedaric Trials, Part I, Barquentine ordered the brutal torture, execution, and dehumanisation of the Council of Aspects. (For an example of dehumanisation, at least two convicts were to be eaten, either alive or after death, by animals, and the dung of those animals to be burned, in effect denying the elevated status of humanity in Eadratic doctrine.)

The Journal of Iridius Barquentine does not acknowledge the political situation in Thoria either, but expresses regret for the punishments he devised in the Trials. The author appears to be describing a state of mental breakdown, possibly of schizophrenia. Perhaps driven to despair by his violence, he becomes reflexively attached to a voice that only he can hear. It is implied near the end of the journal that he has discovered this voice through “books”. Throughout the journal “books” seems to mean other journals, which he “speaks to”, in the sense of writing in them. It’s possible that he is writing his journals in books possessed of corrupted magical energies (and the implications of that would be huge), or, more likely, that he uses “books” interchangeably to mean journals and Dark Books. As someone of high standing in the Thorian government, and as a former student of the Cathedra Magna, who left in excellent standing, he would undoubtedly have had access to Dark Books, many high quality examples of which exist in the Secret Library of the Cathedra Magna. Whatever the case, Barquentine leaves for Eenwyck under cover of night.

The player, in travelling from Arch Thorian to Eenwyck, will note that, far from taking Barquentine’s recorded ten days, it takes probably the better part of ten minutes on foot (I’m guessing). Obviously, a world in which it takes ten days to walk from one city to another would be insanely time consuming to construct and and populate. But the dramatic weight of the character of Barquentine walking for ten days, presumably without food or sleep, drawn on by the voice, is extremely useful in conveying the consumptive power of his sudden obsession. Is it madness, or is Arch Sapherion actually reaching out to him? When the player arrives at the final sequence of the main quest, a huge twelve-level dungeon crawling with tough mobs and tougher bosses, the answer to that question begins to unfold. Scattered throughout the levels, a sequence of fragments, which seem to pick up where the Journal left off, tell the story of a wanderer’s descent into the abyss, where either he falls victim to madness or ascends to godhood. The Dungeon Fragments, comprised of seventeen (and don’t go reading too much into that—whatever the “divine mathematics” of the Numeris may be, I certainly didn’t plan nothin’ ’round no number seventeen) short pieces in total—a theoretical eighteenth could be thought of either as a blank page or even nothing at all, if that weren’t a far too on-the-nose reference to the “remove the page” mantra (or maybe it could be a Samuel Beckett reference?)—were an attempt to do character development, which I think is the main thing that had been missing up until that point from the in-game literature, and do it entirely from the character in question’s perspective.

I think it came out sort of Lovecraftian in its overall effect, but Lovecraft tends to use his main characters as symbols of humanity and human fragility, and in doing so does not treat them as individuals so much as figures that would be inanimate were he not there to move them about the alien landscapes he envisions. I was focused entirely on the individual nature of Barquentine, his inner violence, desire for status, dislike for external authority, his paternal and familial issues. The notion of “removing the page”, which I take to be a metaphor for removing one’s physical form, is reminiscent of, or rather directly parallel to the supposed transformation of Arch Sapherion in the Caudex Magnus when, after having created the Aspects from parts of his own body, he sheds his physical form entirely. Is what Barquentine records in these fragments reality, or is he just going mad with hunger, possibly amplified by his use of Dark Books? Don’t look at me. This is one of those things I wanted the player to decide for themselves. You have the Journal, the Fragments, and, following the gruelling dungeon series, the final battle with “The Lich”, an extremely powerful entity which may or may not be the ascended form of Barquentine. If it is Barquentine, does it even matter? Players who choose to RP as a patriotic Thorian might well have significant qualms about the whole situation, or their faith may compel them to ask no questions and fell the abomination where it stands. (…or floats…? I had the idea that The Lich’s body, which he would take so as to have terrifying combat presence before his enemies, would be made out of hundreds and hundreds of bones, human bones, animal bones, maybe even the bones of extraterrestrials, bound together by the sheer force of spiritual power he has attained, and would be able to split apart, form and unform limbs, and maybe even weapons, attack from multiple points etc. That would have been a programming and animation nightmare, so it’s probably for the best that my continued involvement in the project didn’t work out, but I can’t help thinking: man, that would have been cool!) For the non-RP’ing player, he’s just another big dude to take down, but for RP’ers, and particularly for readers (well duh) I wanted to think about what kind of effect the idea that he very likely is a god who used to be a human being, and an important one at that, one that through official histories they know as a legend, one that through the narrative of his journals they know as a deeply troubled man, would have.

Such a big part of the writing as I envisioned and hoped to realise it was getting the player to question the world they were exploring. I wanted them to question religion, history, perspectives of NPCs, of writers in their books. If I could get them to question whether the final battle has meaning beyond being the final battle—that is, does it imply something for the character, for the world that hopefully was now very much their own, or is it just the last big fight, the dramatic climax that gaming convention demands?—that would be putting a great big interrobang at the end of one long sentence. In the broader scheme of things, if it is Barquentine, that suggests that godhood of the sort possessed by Arch Sapherion, is possible to attain for human beings, and I guess any living being capable of ratiocination. But who knows—you see a flat hedgehog out on the road, think about it, maybe it wasn’t using that body any more anyway.

Further Reading

The Life of Barquentine

Journal of Iridius Barquentine

Dungeon Fragments

Record of the Shiedaric Trials, Part I

The New Fear Effect Is Not Fear Effect

Probably a cause for confusion more than anything, Sedna, the even-more-obcsurely-than-usual named third major entry in the Fear Effect series, is coming out next month. It looks exactly like its two predecessors, both released on the original PlayStation console way back around the turn of our glorious abysmal millennium, it’s got the cel shading, the in-your-face sexuality, the lesbian fanservice, and the strong gore, and yet it looks nothing like Fear Effect. The classic Fear Effect look and feel is somewhere between old school Resident Evil and full CGI anime, and you might be thinking “well thank fuck it isn’t like that!”, but what they’ve gone with for the latest instalment might not be any better.

“What’s popular right now? MOBAs, squad tactics, Infinity Engine inspired RPGs… Yeah, let’s do that!” Though I have just made this quote up for illustrative purposes, it could well have been transcribed from a preliminary meeting of the dev team. But why not do that? Can tank controls and fixed-camera perspective really offer anything but a nostalgia trip for jaded young oldsters who just want to see cel-shaded underboob again but in 4K, like it was for the first time? In all likelihood they’re just going to become frustrated by the frankly awful controls and look-up “The Movie” supercuts on YouTube instead, wherein minimalist accounts of gameplay serve as transitions between one cutscene and the next.

So then, in an age of remakes and reboots and remasters—a treatment which, by the way, the original Fear Effect is currently undergoing (also slated for release this year)—shouldn’t we be glad that the developer has decided to brave a different path in order to give the player something new? Well, “different” and “new”, much as I might nominally prefer them to “same” and “old”—and disregarding the fact that in marketing terms they are largely synonymous with each other—don’t guarantee “good”. A cursory glance at Sedna‘s pseudo-isometric real time tactics gameplay can be added to the Everest-sized mountain of supporting evidence for that statement.

It’s not that tactical action is a bad idea, or that old series can’t be reinvented with radically new gameplay, but feast your eyes on this demo footage and see what comes to mind. People of a certain age, old enough to remember the PlayStation 2 as an exciting new thing, will probably be reminded of the curious quality possessed by a good many of its more cut budget titles, especially the slew of superfluous and terrible character action games such as Tekken’s Nina Williams in Death By Degrees (and yes, that is the actual title), in which impactless hits and slow gameplay made slower still by bullet sponge enemies were the stale bread around a rotten meat filling of badly written, acted, and directed cutscenes every bite of which delivered a story that actively disincentivised continuation of play.

Obviously Sedna is not a character action game from the mid-2000s, cheapo or otherwise, and more’s the pity, for the campy high-octane style of a Devil May Cry would suit Fear Effect‘s B movie silliness to a tee. Alas, our oversexed assassins/secret agents/softcore idols are to be contained like ants (and they are about the size of ants on the screen) in an isometric farm. The tone is appropriately clinical and rote, and while the dialogue aims towards the knowing daftness of its predecessors, it too is rendered clinical by the presentation, consisting of two or more light-up cardboard cut-outs like the very worst movie tie-in games.

Even though the old games could not really be called good as games, what they did have was great visual style and fully animated cutscenes that helped bring the characters and story to life, in turn making the often tedious action or obtuse puzzle gameplay less intolerable. Sedna does appear to have some proper cutscenes, but either I’m overestimating the quality of Fear Effect‘s presentation, or the simple passage of time has made what was once novel and interesting far less so, because it just seems kind of bland. Without a doubt, something is very off about the proper cutscenes in this demo.

Looking back at the old games, the real problem seems to lie in the 3D models and skins. Previously, characters’ facial expressions were handled through manipulating the skins themselves to create less fluid animations that had a sort of Harryhausen-esque charm to them, offsetting the smoother 3D animation of the models while static camera work contained the action like a comic book, each shot its own panel. Sedna‘s cutscenes look like they could have come from just about any game of the “cinematic” era, they’re slicker and of a much higher fidelity than those of the originals, but what they have gained in overall image quality has come at the unnecessary expense of character.

Now, the demo footage I’ve seen came out going on a year ago, and a lot can change in a year’s development. Games get cleaned and polished, stodgy mechanics are reworked and fine tuned, look and feel is made snappier, at least in an ideal world. But the games industry is not an ideal world, it’s an industry, and like any industry its focus on profit and machine-like creation of product often means that a game which starts off being developed misguidedly keeps on sucking because there simply isn’t enough time to fix problems tantamount to the game itself. Politics may lead to some minor, superficial changes, like JonTron being removed from the voice cast of Yooka-Laylee, but that’s all. In terms of game design, if you start off going the wrong way you will end up in the wrong place, not necessarily because you didn’t realise you were heading in the wrong direction, but because even if you did realise it, trying to turn back is like trying to change the course of a ship on an ocean that has suddenly turned from water to molasses.

It comes as little surprise then that the trailer for Sedna published today looks exactly the same. The characters move around the isometric space slowly, shooting things which seem to be able to take a lot of bullets, fire damage, and whatever else, no matter whether they’re some beast of Chinese mythology or just a regular guy in a shirt, before even getting hurt at all, let alone being killed. The cutscenes on show also offer no hope of improvement in terms of direction, they all have the same bland “cinematic” feel, and for all the facial contortions the character models are forced to make, they do not have anything of the expressive quality of the simpler, lo-fi aesthetic of the older games. The classic Fear Effect games were not masterpieces, but they were unique, and having the latest addition to the series throw away almost everything that made them what they were seems like such a waste.

Game Journal – Toribash

Although I’m really very bad at them, there’s sometimes nothing as exhilarating as a fighting game. Whether it’s a round of Street Fighter IV or Smash Bros. Melee, beating the crap out of your friends—or, if you’re like me, getting the crap beaten out of you—is among the most fun you can have in a video game. The challenge of mastering Akuma, which I never really succeeded in, is still one of my best gaming memories. But what if instead of learning move sets and combos, you could actually design entirely unique moves with a high degree of granularity? Cue Toribash. Toribash is a martial arts “simulator” in which you control a ragdoll by manipulating its joints in a turn based battle. Each joint has four modes, and used in a well-orchestrated manner you can get your ragdoll to do pretty much anything. You can grab and flip and twist and turn and punch and kick, potentially dismembering your opponent, or more likely yourself.

My first experience with Toribash was some years ago. The game was released in 2006, and I must have played it around 2009. Two things I remember: 1) It’s obtuse, 2) Everyone else is better at the game than you are. Both of these were confirmed when I returned to it in January. If you’re the kind of person who likes a pick-up-and-play level of simplicity or tutorialising, this game might not be for you. Then again, I’m someone who gave up on the fairly straightforward Ratchet & Clank, and I really enjoy this game, even if I’m no good at it. There’s something incredibly satisfying, even when your plan goes horribly wrong, about watching your ragdoll execute your instructions. However, in my experience this is not the kind of game where watching replays is especially instructive. Even watching high-level play only really serves to attack your own resolve to keep playing.

So the game is obtuse, yes, but an even bigger barrier to entry is the small and dedicated community which remains to this day, some twelve years after release. Like classic Counter-Strike, the only people who are still playing today are phenomenally good, so for a newcomer for whom even Uke, the training bot, is intimidating, having your head ripped off by masters of the game in a dazzling tour-de-force of balletic kung fu over and over is maybe not such a great incentive to continue. But for me, at least, the beauty of movement that is attainable with mastery is appealing enough that I keep coming back for more punishment.

The game has amassed a vast collection of mods, which include everything from rule sets (e.g.: disqualification for touching the ground with body parts other than feet and hands), to modes with weapons, to environments such as obstacle courses, which require you learn how to run and jump and climb. On some level modes like this seem to be spiritual precursors to Gang Beasts, although that game has nowhere near the same level of granularity. Unfortunately trying to load these mods seemed invariably to cause the game to crash, so I can’t relay my experiences with them beyond that.

Despite the issues I have encountered, I still feel like Toribash is novel and well-designed enough to deserve a bigger following than it currently has, and I’m not just saying that because I want to play against people who suck as much as if not more than I do. It costs nothing, the learning curve is a steep but a rewarding one, and it’s still actively supported by the developers after all this time—check it out!

The World Unbuilt – Dark Books

Dark Books are the Thorian, or rather Eadratic name for magical tomes that have been corrupted by magic diseases. For the purpose of this discussion it should be noted that a) “magical tomes” refers to any book imbued with magical energies, not necessarily books of spells; and b) “magic diseases” are in fact varieties of a yeast-like organism which feeds on magical energies and causes them to undergo changes, as in fermentation. Dark Books were either invented or popularised in ancient Lazulide by the scholar Eadranismus, whose writings were inspired by his experiences and are the basis of the legends which in turn informed the Caudex Magnus and the Church of Eadra. The effect on the reader of a corrupted tome may involve hallucinations or out of body experiences, much like psychotropic drugs, or some documented cases of religious euphoria.

The idea for Dark Books came to me first as an interactive feature. There would be so many of them scattered throughout the game which would give the player insight into the world around them. The player might might be able through use of such books to meet historical characters and ask them questions, or go on voyages to distant lands and other worlds, and maybe a few jokes and Easter eggs as well. I also wanted them to figure into the main story. I had always intended that the multiplayer co-op mode would be simplified to provide parties with quicker access to raid content, so I reserved most of my energy for a more elaborate and, I hoped, properly canonical single player mode. To that end I plotted that each level of the final dungeon would be locked by a magical gate, and the player would have to find a particular Dark Book with which to open it. For the sake of avoiding busywork it seemed best that the book to open the next level should be dropped by the boss of the current level. This device would lead the player, assuming the player was reading books and following some of the threads within them, to question approximately how much of what was happening in this grand finale was “real”. I felt that this would work mainly because the bosses encountered are the supposed demon lords of Draxiaadem. The player would fight such characters of the Caudex Magnus as Aguantiad, Meldivenor, Kalamdan, and Arktoris at the end of each level. As has been established, not even Eadranismus, the source of the stories in which these beings feature, was sure that what he saw on his adventures was real. This is the main point of contention among scholars of corrupted tomes. That the mind or spirit is the medium through which they operate is not disputed, at least not generally, but the question of whether the mind contains the experience or is contained by it has fuelled many sleepless nights of inebriate debate at favourite watering holes of academics in Port Elidea, Lazulide, and other cosmopoleis around the world. If the former is true, then presumably the Book operates like a mind-altering drug, and the reader’s subconscious is the author of their experience; if the latter is true, and the mind or spirit is literally transported to another place, then the Book is some kind of portal. (It should be noted that, while seemingly similar in concept to the books of Atrus from the Myst series of adventure games, the exact nature of a Dark Book experience is not, indeed cannot be the result of authorial intent.)

In Thoria, Dark Books are illegal to create, distribute, possess, or use. It is the position of the Cathedra Magna that the books are demonic in nature and cause the corruption of the spirit. Because of this illegality, means of procuring corrupted tomes made in accordance with established, safe methods, is practically zero, unless users are willing to travel out past the Thorian borders to find independent trading posts, or other lands where magic corruption is either legal or at least easier to get away with. Within Thoria, people are left with the choice either of not using, or of seeking out sellers of Books made by organisations that create cheap, inferior products, using bad strains of the magic yeasts, which are cultured using harmful substances like nitrosamines derived from rock salts cut out of the Tocanum mountains. Those particular salts are very attractive to the yeasts, having formed within the magic-infused rock of the mountains, but the toxicity of the nitrosamines kills the best yeasts and leaves only yeasts that have adapted to it and which are hazardous to human health in themselves.

Dark Books strongly affect the underclasses, and denizens of the Labour District of Arch Thorian are particularly afflicted. But the Books are now a growing cause for concern among the upper classes in the richer cities of Thoria. Popular among their youth are “Book Clubs”. These are underground orgies, Dionysian in nature, where Dark Books are used in conjunction with alcohol. Because of the Cathedra Magna’s staunch position against Dark Books, it has proven especially difficult to conduct research into the effects of Dark Books on someone who is already intoxicated on drink or some other mind altering substance. As such there is currently little being done to tackle the issues besides Tribunal raids on suspected Book Club gatherings. Death counts are also kept secret. While the official position of the government in all its bodies is staunchly against these events, it also declines to offer commentary on them, taking a naively hopeful “out of sight, out of mind” approach to policing the issue.

In other parts of the world, Dark Books are not such a concern. In the International Zone they are used freely and openly, and scholarly research into their effects in the tradition of Eadranismus is plentiful. Owing to the maritime nature of the IZ, scholars claim that the place of origin of both a Book’s energies and the yeasts used to alter their composition plays a factor in determining the nature of an experience or trip. It is thought that sea voyages, where the Books are unavoidably exposed to a higher concentration of salt in the air, affect Books in unpredictable ways which cannot be corrected for in testing, and that therefore the differences between a Book created in Lamantaleòrna and one created in Udghan, both using locally sourced yeasts, cannot be properly tested and recorded.

Debate as to the nature of Dark Books and the experiences they provide in general, as was outlined in the third paragraph of this article, is split largely in two, but a fairly broad range of ideas exists on the matter. Despite research being extensive in both the International Zone and Ochvad, neither has been able to determine a methodology for handling the seemingly endless variables that must be accounted and controlled for in a proper study. As such, any research remains largely hypothetical, and the main hypotheses are thus:

  1. Dark Books provide the reader with fully hallucinatory experiences that contain no “real” content. In this case they operate like a psychotropic drug.

  2. Dark Books capture situations which the reader then inhabits and interacts with.

    • Some posit that these are literally captured moments in time. In this case they operate like a video, playing and replaying a predetermined sequence, but with some variables which are largely controlled by the user. Almost like some kind of… video game.

    • Others suggest that the “situation” captured is abstracted from time and space, and is a recreation of a moment but not the moment itself. This may appear to be a subtle difference, but proponents of this idea believe that, since such moments can be revisited and played out the exact same way like scenes from a play, they must be simulated recreations rather than the actual moments themselves.

  3. Dark Books are time and space warping talismans that literally move the reader to another time and place. This notion is often dismissed as fantastical by proponents of other views, but like any thought on Dark Books it has yet to be proven wrong.

  4. Dark Books project the reader into the consciousness of another being. Like in 3, the reader is transported, but not physically.

    • Some believe that this means the reader appears to that being as some kind of spectral entity. That is to say that, rather than causing the reader to hallucinate, the reader becomes the hallucination of another being in another time and place.

    • Others believe that this means that, like in Theory 2, the reader is inserted into a situation, but that instead of being placed there themselves, they inhabit a being that is already there. The amount of control the reader has can be observed to vary from one experience to the next, it is posited that the mental power of the reader vs. that of the host accounts for this discrepancy.

Since each book is different, it is entirely possible that all the above beliefs are true, but not for all books. On a case by case basis, it may be established that one Book provides an experience with features which correspond to Theory 1, but another may provide an experience with features which correspond to Theory 2, and so on.

It was my hope to have the player encounter at least some of these different theories, for the sake of having those who were curious about lore and such be able to think about what each Dark Book encounter actually signified for them, for the story they were playing through and for the world in which it took place. I didn’t want furthermore to provide a simplistic answer to the question of to what extent the things they were seeing were real. In The Matrix, when Neo awakens in the real world, everything is explained clear as day: superintelligent machines created a hyperreal simulation, plugged humans into it, and used them as living batteries. The Animatrix, probably the best thing to come out of the otherwise ponderous and self-congratulatory franchise (probably because the Wachowskis had very little to do with the writing or directing of any of its segments), explains further about the world before the fall, and how machines rose up against the humans in a manner shot through with underclass revenge fantasy. You can rely on this, in-universe it’s essentially documentary footage, doubt as to what is real only exists for the characters within the film, not for the viewer. I had written or at least plotted some Dark Book encounters involving Sapherion, Draxiaadem, the playwright Pynchonius, a couple of joke scenes with Thod the Coward and Robert of Cress (and you can fire up the old synapses trying to work out just who they could possibly correspond to), and other dialogues. While initially the opportunity to engage first-hand with the history of not just Thoria but of the world, of not just the world but of the universe itself, may seem enticing, if the player has been paying attention they’ll have more than an inkling of doubt as to the veracity of what they’re seeing. If possible I wanted these encounters—joke scenes and easter eggs aside—only to become available after you had already heard of a given character, read a book by them, or something along those lines, thereby suggesting that the mind of the reader is an integral component of the experience.

Beyond that, Dark Books, or anything that can seemingly take the player out of their immediate surroundings and pop them down somewhere else, give an excellent opportunity for secret bosses or other gameplay challenges. For example, how about a fight with Shiedar, the Aspect of Violence? It might seem to be of minimal interest to the discussion from a lore perspective, but suppose you gained an item, a weapon or some such, on defeating her. If you can take that back into what passes for the real world with you, what does that signify? Was the fight a real, physical thing? Was it a mental struggle, and you are somehow, through great mental exertion, capable of manifesting objects in physical space? Or is a spiritual encounter in itself capable of producing physical matter? The implications are manifold and potentially very interesting to think about. If these secret battles and items were part of the game, I would also have made it possible to talk to people about them, and, hopefully, depending on who you talk to, see a variety of consequences. For example, if you told a pious Church-goer about it you might possibly become wanted by the Tribunal for speaking heresies about fighting with the Aspects. At some point you reach a depth that is not possible to actually come up with in a reasonable amount of time, although to update games and integrate changes is fairly simple these days owing to the always connected platforms they are distributed from, and new features such as this, additional content etc. can be inserted seamlessly at any time.

I think of Dark Books as kind of tying the whole thing together. They bring the central theme of uncertainty to its logical conclusion, they are of great importance to several major historical figures, they are furthermore of great importance to the sociopolitical climate of present day Thoria, and their fruits offer the player another level of interaction with the world that is not possible through normal play instances, through dialogue, or through regular books. To have such a major player in a fantasy story be an inanimate object that did not operate as a MacGuffin, I felt, perhaps arrogantly, was a fairly impressive thing.

Further Reading

The Art of Dark Books

On the Lack of Motivation to Do Anything from a Role-Playing Perspective in Fallout 4 (Game Journal… Sort of…)

Recently, Bethesda held a Fallout 4 “free weekend” on Steam. For about four days, the game was available to any and all to download and try out. Very probably you could play through the main story and then some in that amount of time, should you be dedicated enough to do so. Lots of people are that dedicated to Bethesda’s open world games, but then those people all bought Fallout 4 already, so I’m not sure who this was for. Maybe Todd Howard thought it would be a great idea to put it out there so that I could play it for a little while and then write an over-long blog complaining about it. He knows I would never make the decision to give Bethesda my money, so this works out nicely. Thanks, Todd.

Fallout is a series of “post-nuclear” RPGs which began in the late ’90s. Developed by Interplay, its first two instalments were isometric, turn-based death marches into the wild unknown of an America which had diverged from our own timeline somewhere around the 1950s. In this reality, space age visions of the future came true, and the goofy retro-futuristic science fiction setting is today instantly recognisable, with its gangly robots and giant talking supercomputers sitting nicely alongside a fixation on body horror that is without doubt a child of the 1980s. When Interplay bigwigs decided that what Fallout fans wanted instead of an actual Fallout 3 was an X-COM style squad tactics spin-off, no one complained. But then they decided that what the series really needed was a third person shooter with a nu metal soundtrack developed exclusively for consoles. Much as I might lament what the series has become under Bethesda’s stewardship, its previous master did not treat it kindly either. Eventually Interplay suffered insane losses, and amid the vulturing of its assets Bethesda purchased the rights to the series.

The Fallout 3 we eventually got was Bethesda’s first attempt at translating the wasteland into its alarmingly bad Gamebryo engine. In that masterpiece of jank, the player was tasked with rescuing Liam Neeson from a mad scientist and purifying some water, against the wishes of the Enclave—the villains of Fallout 2, resurrected presumably out of laziness, but more charitable views might paint it as an homage, as they might all the other lazy cribbings from previous entries—who want to use the purifier to infect the water with some kind of toxin that will kill all creatures contaminated by radiation, so that the world can be made safe for repopulation with their pure genes. Unlike previous Fallout stories, in which the player was encouraged to invent their own character with a history and traits of their choosing, Bethesda’s approach sought to create the Heart-Wrenching Personal Story™, with Liam “Taken” Neeson as the player character’s father, who escaped from Vault 101 (gee, how’d you come up with that one?) to fulfil his life’s mission: clean drinking water for the people of former Washington DC. The game begins with the player character’s birth (during which their mother dies), moving through their childhood and teenage life in the vault. One day all hell breaks loose, dad’s gone, and you gotta get gone too! It’s prescriptive to a degree which precludes real role-playing, yet it is but a taste of what was to follow.

Fallout 4 also features a prescriptive introductory sequence, but handles it quite bizarrely. It is 2077, the year of the nuclear war that tore the world apart and created the world of Fallout. A man stands before a mirror, his wife staring at him. He says to himself “War. War never changes.” This is the series’ well known catchphrase. From the classic games through to the newer entries, a playthrough always begins with a monologue, which in turn always begins with that phrase. However, in previous entries it was spoken by Ron Perlman, a gruff-voiced narrator with no relation to anything in the game itself. This time, it’s the male player character who delivers the monologue, and for the first time the protagonist is fully voiced. Where previously you picked dialogue options from a menu, free to imagine what you sounded like, now you have no option but to play a monotone goon. You can choose to play as the female if you wish, but from the get-go the choice is heavily skewed in favour of the male: he voices the introduction, he’s the default option at the character creation screen, in which he and his wife stand around staring at each other with the cold glassy gaze of Terminators in front of a bathroom mirror as you stretch, colour and otherwise skew their faces, making the same three comments, two of which are “there’s the handsome man I married” and “I clean up pretty good”, over and over until you’re defeated into just saying “fuck it” and going with whatever sub-Jon Bernthal looking mess you’ve ended up with.

Once you’ve gotten away from the plastic surgery bathroom nightmare, you are treated to the world’s frostiest middle class domestic environment. The robot servant Codsworth bods about the place making chummy conversation while trying to do a John Cleese accent, and there is a Baby Thing you can play with, sort of, left unattended in a bleak room. After being forced to open the door for Paul Eiding (Metal Gear Solid‘s Colonel Campbell), a vault placement salesman, whose job it is to quickly get you signed up for a place in Vault 111 (really pushing the boat out there guys) and introduce you to the anti-role-playing and frankly abysmal dialogue system, you are then forced to placate the crying Baby Thing. Within ten seconds, Codsworth alerts you to a news report on the television, and you are forced to go to the living room to watch someone talk about an imminent nuclear attack. You are of course then forced to run with your family to the vault, which as it happens is just up the road. Kind of funny they only got around to registering you three minutes prior and you’re approved for entry already, but that’s because war, war never changes. Or something. Shut up.

Once you’re in the vault, you, your wife and the Baby Thing are for some reason placed inside cryostasis chambers and frozen. At some point a man who looks like Vinny Caravella’s evil brother arrives, unfreezes your wife, kills her, steals the Baby Thing, and then freezes you again. When at last, in 2287, you are thawed for good, you rush over to your wife’s pod, steal her jewellery, and depart, determined to find your Baby Thing. You exit the vault and return to your neighbourhood, finding it in ruins. But somehow, miraculously, Codsworth survived, and wants to help you, though it is in denial about the death of your wife. But you are a man unstuck in time, before you lies a world that was once your own, but now, now… Hang on a minute… You’re not any of those things. Sure, the “character” you are “playing” just about qualifies for it, but how are you supposed to get into that headspace? The wife he loves has been killed, but your level of interaction with her doesn’t extend beyond her staring at you in the mirror, then telling you to open the door for Paul Eiding. You don’t know her, you barely spent five minutes with her. And the Baby Thing? You literally had to be forced to interact with it, otherwise it would have been possible to miss its presence entirely.

So here you are, lumped with the blandest man in the United States, or what’s left of them, and you have to somehow find it within yourself to care about avenging and/or rescuing “characters” who have only existed for you, in all their mannequinoid flatness, for the past few minutes. Call me crazy, but maybe, just maybe, if you want me to become attached to things which are to be the protagonist’s sole reason to go on living for the bulk of my time controlling him, you should have let me spend more time with them. How far can you stretch that kind of an introduction out for a game that is largely about shooting abominations in the face? I don’t necessarily need ten hours of gameplay in which I take my family to the zoo or a picnic or whatever, but maybe we could have had multiple episodes across a period of time, showing us courtship, engagement, wedding, childbirth, buying a house etc., as Fallout 3 did in order to establish at least some kind of connection to the father character, however tenuous and dramatically unfulfilling it ultimately proved to be.

Rather than that, though, what I would have done is have the whole family emerge fit and healthy from cryosleep into a terrifying new world where they have to adapt quickly, learning to survive and thrive by hunting their own food and defending themselves from marauding gangs. Moving as a unit across the world map, they would seek out a place to call home, and the story would be delivered through a number of chapters, each one corresponding to a year, over the course of which the child would mature and become a skilled survivalist as their parents face the trials of growing old in an unforgiving wasteland. Then if over the course of the game my lovely wife, with whom I have experienced great hardship, were to be killed, then I might feel something, approaching what the character themselves should be feeling. If my son, who I had spent hours of play time protecting, were kidnapped, perhaps then I would be motivated to go and find him. Perhaps then any of what Bethesda’s writing staff wants to be meaningful to the player in Fallout 4 would actually be meaningful. But it ain’t. This is a Bethesda open world RPG: don’t worry about the story, or the setting, or the people in it, go forth and shoot things, because war, war never changes. And we’re going to keep saying that over and over again until it becomes absolutely meaningless, just like the story in this game.

The World Unbuilt – History of the Caudex Magnus

In attempting to create a world through short fictions, posing largely as grand non-fictions, it emerged early on in the process that I was required to create a complete, yet condensed literature. I took real world literature as my model, specifically the portion of it which I knew myself, this comprising various novels, poetry, histories, essays, travelogues, diaries and so forth. I wanted to, rather than create a static history and culture, as one might find in an Elder Scrolls game, particularly in more recent, simplified instalments like Skyrim, build something as contradictory and bizarre as the sum total of human thought in the real world. I wanted books to challenge each other directly, for a single sentence in one source to call into question the very fabric of another, I wanted furthermore for the player to be able, in reading a book about a particular place featured in the game, to go there and confirm if what was said was true or not. Book A says such and such about so and so, while Book B claims something else as truth, and the word on the street is both books are bullshit, but ultimately the player’s own experience may lead them to conclude differently still.

I began by attempting to write a book, an official dispatch from the Cathedra Magna, on how to spot demon worshippers and black magic users. Taking my cues from a smattering of words remembered from the Malleus Maleficarum, a tedious Mediaeval tome on witch hunting that I kinda sorta maybe skimmed through a little bit once at 3AM whilst wired on caffeine, I was halfway through writing the second paragraph of this first book when I realised that I had no idea how the Church of Eadra defined “demon”, nor how such a being would fit into the overarching conception of the world as laid out by this particular religion. It didn’t take long to conclude that for me to establish this I would have to write the holy scripture. So I got to work, crafting a story of creation, of holy war between gods and demons, and of human (or “Eadratic”) history, making it as fanciful and fantastical as I could, veering towards comic book vulgarity at points but always pulling back, as if the tale were being invented on the spot by a cleric trying to entertain a troop of children while retaining some kernel of doctrinal truth. Once this big book (by far the longest I wrote at 8000+ words) was completed, I had in all its garish and vulgar excesses the core around or even against which everything else could be written. I could invent literally anything and work it around this one document with its over the top violence, clichéd world history, bad poetry, and pointless final chapter.

The idea that the Church should be a kind of paradoxical cultural dinosaur, too large and fearsome to be a joke but too ridiculous and toothless to be taken seriously, is encapsulated in the Caudex Magnus, which we learn is actually presented to us in abridged form, and of just one section at that. How ugly must it be when viewed in full? As I pondered this it also became apparent to me that the laity, for whom such an abridgement would be intended, would be considered fairly dumb by Church standards. After all, the Church is the primary educator in the land, and the educated either work for them or for some other branch of the government. The average man on the street, the butcher, the baker, the shepherd, the poor sod who has to thresh barley all day, they don’t want treatises on the nature of justice or the “divine mathematics”, if they can read at all what they want is a story about really powerful beings hitting each other with swords. They want anime. Anime shall they get. And we’ll throw in the famous guy being sick and writing a bad, overlong poem about trees or whatever as a freebie.

For all its bombast, the Caudex Magnus doesn’t amount to much more than a poorly preserved collection of folkloric stories originating in some distant land that has been edited and translated many times, moving around the room of history like Chinese whispers, resembling its sources less and less with each passing generation, only once you get to the last person in the circle the original whisperer can’t clarify the situation, they’ve been dead for thousands of years. Perhaps just as well, if Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor is anything to go by. In the case of our Caudex Magnus, and the Church of Eadra, to untangle the mess we have to look back to a person by the name of Eadranismus. Who was Eadranismus? He was a scholar who lived in a city state called Lazulide, on the continent that was then called Iqhvadhgh. Eadranismus lived in a time when the religion of his own day had become garbled and corrupted, which, while considered a tragedy among certain of his classicist colleagues, he found quite liberating. It meant, for example, that he could partake of certain magic rituals which would have been blasphemous in prior centuries.

One particular ritual of which Eadranismus was fond was the corrupting of magical energies using magical “diseases”. These diseases, so-named colloquially and of course inaccurately, are similar to yeasts in the way they operate, feeding on a component of the energies, as a yeast feeds on sugars, and causing them to undergo changes like fermentation. When the energies of a magical tome are corrupted, the effects of that tome upon the reader can be vastly altered. What might ordinarily cause the reader to experience, through an induced meditative state, the techniques and processes of forming and controlling magic fire with the mind, might when corrupted cause the reader to experience visions of other worlds, “out of body” experiences, or hallucinate ghostly apparitions. Eadranismus didn’t really know if the things he saw when he read his books were real, but he transcribed them anyway and presented them as scholarly findings on the nature of the universe, and life beyond the known world.

Living in a time when intoxication, especially at orgies, had become fashionable, Eadranismus’s rather more academic book experiments were public knowledge on some level but hardly ever thought about. After all, without transcendental group sex, what good was tripping balls in the first place? While carnal delights were sought in the streets of Lazulide, it was in a private wing of the great academy there that Eadranismus began to write down his experiences, and those experiences would be transformed over generations into legends and myths and, ultimately, the Caudex Magnus. He wrote of his voyages to the worlds of Saverinh and Drakhjadem, his meetings and conversations there with ancient and prodigious spirit beings who could attain corporeality on a whim, but spent most of their lives immaterial, unseen and unaffected by time and the motions of the cosmos. He wrote of their conflicts, and how they had come to war as each of them had splintered from a single greater consciousness, which was perhaps lost forever if the reunification of their spirits could not be achieved.

Towards the end of Eadranismus’s life, conservative movements in the Lazulidean government banded together to wrest control of the city from the laissez faire “banqueteers”, so named for their hedonistic lifestyles, who had begun to enter the ranks of government with the liberalisation of the patrician classes over successive generations. The new conservatives set armies upon the streets to flush out the orgiastic revellers, including Eadranismus and his disciples, whom he had educated in the ways of magic corruption. Being owed a favour (it is not known for what deed) from a powerful figure among the new conservative government, Eadranismus and his students were saved from death, but exiled forever. Using their rich educations for all they were worth, they were ultimately able to break bread with some of the savage tribes in the southern lands of Iqhvadhgh, and in time their descendants (sorry, Eadranismus died between the lines) were regarded as seers, possessed of the spiritual geographies of worlds beyond the physical.

At this time four of the tribes had begun to unify, soon referring to themselves as Eadranites. This unification was the basis for the “Eadratide” section of the Caudex Magnus, which speaks of the First Council of Man arising from a gradual coming together of morphologically and culturally diverse peoples from four extremities of the planet. Over a few hundred years the Eadranites absorbed more and more of the southern tribes, each one adding a piece of their own folklore while reluctantly losing the rest to time. This southern area, known as the Great Seat, would also become central to the future Church of Eadra, as it is the source of “Cathedra Magna”, the name of the Church’s highest authority.

The voyages of Eadranismus were reinvented for each new generation, losing their essence and gaining distance from their sources just as the original tribes had. Saverinh became Sapherion, Drakhjadem became Draxiaadem, the unique gods of the tribes became the Aspects of Sapherion, those beings who had split from the grand consciousness Eadranismus described were now so many fragments of Sapherion. For the Eadranites, Sapherion slowly became their all-encompassing, multi-faceted creator, and their protector. They were his chosen people, and his supposed direct interaction with Eadranismus became a piece of evidence in support of their status as such. Sometime between then and now, the exodus of the Eadranites from Iqhvadhgh to Omidius began, and the stories became transcontinentally distended, losing their meanings, their contexts, and their lingering essential truths at rates far greater than the speed at which their ships could carry them west across the Dauud sea. The lineage gets even more complicated when you consider that some of the Eadranites landed on Omidius on the north side of the Tocanum mountain range, eventually founding Eòrna, while others ended up south of it, founding Thoria, where the Cathedra Magna more or less reigns today.

But why the exodus? Well, I needed some way to get ’em from one place to the other, and I hadn’t really come up with a good reason by the time I was done working on the damn thing. My initial idea was that the Eadranite seers prophesied a lush, temperate land to the south west, and received from their bookish wanderings some knowledge of basic naval engineering. I also thought probably most of them should die because their boats would be shit, but Lazulide in general ended up being more advanced than I had planned for, so maybe not. Definitely not when, if an old man and some pasty intellectuals could reach some of the original tribes on foot, the geography separating civilisation from the wilderness cannot have been all that vast. It is highly likely for there to have been cultural exchanges between the Eadranites and the Lazulideans over the centuries, almost certainly when taking into account the expansion of both peoples. It is even possible that the Lazulideans came to fear the growth in numbers and technology of the Eadranites and began a campaign of genocide, and the departure of the Eadranites was a last ditch effort for survival.

Who the hell knows? The Caudex Magnus, dismal mutant coda to what once, we may at least hope, was a somewhat noble scholarly endeavour, was shaped by histories that must largely remain unseen. Not only because to plot them out in full would be totally superfluous, but also because I would go insane, and I can do without that.

 

Further Reading

The Abridged Caudex Magnus

The World Unbuilt – History of Thoria

Thoria is a country occupying the midlands of the continent of Omidius. It is bordered on the north by the vast Tocanum mountain range, and stretches from the east coast of the continent to the territories of Lut and the Aldweyn Plains in the west. To the south lie the ruins of Thedan, the demise of which occurred simultaneously with, though largely unrelated to the expansion of Thoria to its greatest extent. Its eastern expanse is dominated by the Silvarum, a great forest that covers much of the east coast of central Omidius. It is home to diverse, but largely temperate biomes, from meadows and lakeland to the northern mountains and their snowy foothills. Its centre is dominated by the Scaphium, a great but shallow concave depression, which contains its capital city, Arch Thorian, and vast expanses of farmland, which are protected from cold temperatures and flooding by the gently sloping landscape. Most of Thoria’s water comes from the Tocanum mountains, which collect rainwater to feed both the north-western lakes and the many underground waterways which criss-cross central Omidius.

Thoria was founded by the Eadranites, a disparate group of tribes who were unified—or absorbed—under the assumed banner of the exiled Lazulidean scholar Eadranismus (and if you think all these names are difficult to keep track of, don’t worry, over the course of these essays I will be going into most things in great detail), though it is safe to say that he would have been less than enthusiastic about their viewing him as a prophet. The Eadranites, possibly owing to war, fled their home continent of Iqhvadhgh and sailed west, landing on the Isle of Oleand, off the east coast of Omidius. (A split some time before the exodus resulted in at least two distinct groups sailing in different directions, one of them would arrive in the northernmost expanse of Omidius, and found the country, now mostly in ruins, of Eòrna.) As more of their ships arrived, they soon outgrew their island home, and began making the journey en masse to the mainland that scouting parties had been making ever since settling. Those who stayed behind founded the city of Oleand, which to this day is Thoria’s one and only international trade hub.

Some time during the exodus, the connection to Eadranismus, however fleeting it had become in the centuries since his exile from Lazulide and first contact with the southern tribes of Iqhvadhgh, was lost completely. Divorced to a large extent from physical histories, the Eadranites, now Proto-Thorians, began taking land under orders from the first ever “emperor” of their people, Arcath (possibly Erghadh in the Proto-Thorian tongue). First they moved west, scouting passages through the Tocanum mountains. At the foot of a passage leading directly to Mt. Tocanum itself, Fort Tocanum, which would later become the north gate of the city of Tocane, was built. In game the player is told that this was built to guard against northern invaders, and this may be true, but it seems more likely that attacks by strange beasts from the mountains encouraged the mining and cutting of the magic-infused rock of Tocanum, which was then used to build the fort, the magical properties of the building materials warding these creatures off somehow. To date, no recorded passage of the Tocanum mountains has ever been completed starting from either side, but expeditions have been mounted to investigate the diverse flora and fauna that grow in a mysterious lush plain lying amid the central peaks, made fantastical by the magical energies that permeate the surrounding rock and underlying soil. To date, no explorer has ventured there and made a successful return journey.

The expansion of Thoria into the heartland of Omidius was a violent one. No longer was the emperor able to simply claim land, others were already there. Their main enemy in those days was Ruris, which dominated the centre of the continent. The Rurisians were an advanced people with a strong literary tradition and great cities. The Rurisian King Axyngis commanded a vast and well organised army, which were ever at pitched battles in the south for control of certain territories claimed by their neighbouring power Thedan. Proto-Thorian scouting parties revealed as much in the form of a weakly guarded northern border, which the current Emperor Cerangal seized upon, laying claim in mere days to the Rurisian cities of Tydwik and Ynwik. Unlike the barbarian hordes of Hakic that Axyngis had fought against to secure Rurisian control of Knychesfelde (today known as the Aldweyn Plains), this new force from the north did not raze conquered settlements or slaughter their inhabitants, but rather absorbed them under its own banner. In fact Proto-Thoria not only absorbed Rurisian cities and citizenry, but furthermore took the Rurisian language, literature, and culture, in doing so making the leap from proto- to the thing itself. In the conquest of Ruris, Thoria was born.

The Thorian army, which by now was no longer a disparate mob cobbled together with weapons and armour to match, but an organised and uniform juggernaut bearing terrifying arms forged in the Rurisian method, was primed to stand on near equal footing with the brunt of Axyngis’ military might. But Axyngis could not deliver it, dealing as he was with resurgent Hakic fighters, who had taken to employing guerrilla tactics and brutally raiding his Knychesfelde camps in the night, and Thedanese reinforcements in contested territory. Growing old and weary of battle, he died one night in his sleep, and his son Barsedoun took the throne. Barsedoun was an excellent swordsman, and did not relish succession of his father, for he would now be directing forces in matters of strategy, and could no longer take to the field. He obliterated the Hakic, supposedly to their last man, but as a strategist he displayed a bloodthirsty recklessness which ultimately allowed Thorian forces to encroach upon his castle doorstep. It was said by the Rurisian courtier Thrastene, who survived the massacre by hiding in a secret passage known only to the castle’s most trusted residents, only to be captured by Thedanese soldiers, that Barsedoun and a handful of his best soldiers stood and fought for six hours, sending hundreds of Thorian soldiers to their deaths by funnelling them through one of the castle’s narrower entrances so that the influx would not overwhelm them. Ultimately, however, and whether or not the story is true, Barsedoun succumbed to fatigue and collapsed dead in his heavy suit of armour. Initially it is said that he was taken for a display suit that had fallen from its mountings during the fight. When it was discovered by Thorian soldiers that the king of the enemy lay slain within, Cerangal, who was now very old, declared that Barsedoun had earned his respect, and should be given a hero’s burial. However, the location of the tomb that was erected for this purpose is unknown, though some believe it lies in deep catacombs underneath Arch Thorian.

What remained of the Rurisians split up into three major groups and went separate ways in search of land that could safely be settled. One group went north-west up the Knychesfeld, crossing at its northernmost point a vast inland body of water to a large island, where they founded the coastal settlements of Zidoun and Lannod, and became the Tribe of Lut (from “lud”, meaning sound, voice). The second group went south-east, tracing the territory between Gephala and Thedan, which at that time was unclaimed, and came around to the forked end of the Serpent’s Tongue river, and followed it east, where they founded Ux Taur (from “vyx”, many, and “turre”, a type of tree native to the Silvarum), and became the Tribe of Duul (from “dool”, aggrieved). The third group headed the short distance west across the Knychesfeld, where the Hakic no longer walked, and founded Altwey (lit. “old way”), which would later become Aldweyn some time after the fall of Thedan and the Altweyan King Tresibbe’s decree to welcome a considerable number of Thedanese diasporans into his land, on the western coast just north of Gephala, which had then expanded its northern border by the founding of the city of Eidu.

Meanwhile, Thoria bloomed as a great power. Successive emperors Dithecius, Padranes, and Saxabourd oversaw the centurion construction of Arch Thorian, a great walled city where sit the chambers of the Imperial Seat, the Cathedra Magna, the Tribunal, and the Parliament. Arch Thorian was built outwards from the district containing those core governmental institutions to include trade, education, residency, military, and labour districts, each of which is a walled and gated addition to it. The completion of Arch Thorian was followed by the reinforcement of the northern settlements, including Tocane, which had now become its own city, and a great expansion southward to found the cities of Luctaris and Aguedii and secure the territory against Thedanese encroachment. Thedan at this time, around the mid-600s (by the counting of the Thorian calendar, present day 1846) was already crumbling, but the bloody history of its northern neighbour had given rise to paranoia, and the two cities were two testaments to that grim culture.

For a time, then, thanks to the luck of having no neighbouring powers to contend with, Thoria enjoyed, or endured, an extended period of stability. The Church of Eadra and its ruling body, the Cathedra Magna, spent much time devising hierarchies and systems, and many things changed in the internal bureaucracy of the Thorian governmental apparatus. The Cathedra Magna was not as authoritarian as it is today, and, following the conquest of Ruris and the settling of the Thedanese border, had settled into a fairly lax and permissive state. So too the Imperial Seat, which under Astrateus I had extended powers to Parliament that would enable a certain autonomy of the cities. This largess encouraged the cities to flourish and to develop their own distinctive cultures and reputations, and of particular importance in determining the future of Thoria was that original settlement upon the Isle of Oleand.

Oleand had held the freedom to trade internationally for essentially as long as it had existed. Through exchanges with the Ochvadi, the Eòrnamen, the Gephalans, and the people of the young city state of Port Elidea, it gradually became the primary interface between Thoria and the rest of the world. Its trade with the mainland in fresh seafood was bolstered by the import of exotic materials, literature, clothes, jewellery, and so on. In the 1100s it became home to the first branch of the now monopolising Vespeiad Freight Company, and saw even greater trade and with countries much farther afield, including Yakuyanu in the far south of the world. These developments heralded accelerated change in other areas of the country, especially in the north.

Eenwyck became an attractive home for the arts. The independent and open nature of its scene, which was quite different from the moneyed gatekeeper culture among the galleries and playhouses of Arch Thorian’s trade district, reached by word of mouth to Oleand and brought in artists from overseas. And because it was a relatively inexpensive place to live—compared to Arch Thorian, one could expect to rent rooms at a quarter of the price per month—these artists were often able to stay and produce new works.

Thadwyck’s proximity to the Tocanum mountains, its expansive lakeland environs, and the ease by which materials may be transported over land there, piqued the interest of an Ochvadi inventor who had secured a grant from his government to travel and investigate foreign rock formations for their raw materials. Applying successfully to the Parliametary House of Thadwyck, he took Thadwyck men to the foot of the mountains and paid them to break into the rock, looking for metal veins, precious stones, and mineral deposits. When he had gathered enough samples for his purposes, he was able to negotiate transferral of his permit to the people of Thadwyck, and businesses were quickly started and grew, gathering the fruits of the range. This in turn kickstarted the smithing industry in Thadwyck, which remains to this day the biggest producer of weaponry and armour in Thoria.

The final collapse of Thedan in the 1000s saw those Thedanese diasporans who did not merge with the Altweyans heading for Aguedii and Luctaris. Luctaris accepted many, while the often violently pious Aguedii turned them away if they refused to accept Arch Sapherion as creator and god, and few, despite their situation, were willing to forsake Ferren, who, though his Faitour be gone, they still believed would wait for them in the time beyond death. In Luctaris the influx was a mixed blessing. On the one hand more people meant more workers, and new businesses were created, including many distilleries producing Luctarine, at the time a very popular spirit, thus a big market in which new competition was nearly always viable; on the other, cultural tensions sparked violence, as street gangs clashed with the city guards and with each other. In time an uneasy peace, but peace nonetheless, was reached, and though stormy periods occasionally erupted on the streets, integration of the Thedanese, many of whom dropped their religious heritage over successive generations, was achieved.

But this centuries long period of prodigious economic and cultural boom would not last much longer. Conservative elements in the Church were able to wrest control of the increasingly lax Cathedra Magna around the 1200s, and instituted means to preserve the Thorian culture. Firstly, the Tribunal was given orders to institute monetary incentive for city guards to remove foreigners from the city walls, receiving per-head bonuses on their stipend. This only extended to people born overseas, and resulted in the creation of a class of children separated from their parents. Under the banner of Zephoran, Aspect of Compassion, charitable organisations were founded in each of the affected cities to help, but many children ended up in the labour district of Arch Thorian, where they were put to work in poor conditions for the benefit of the trade district. The military also took in children and fed, clothed, and prepared them for service. In time, then, the children gained new adoptive families of sorts, but their true parents were often forced to flee.

Oleand remained an internationally open city, but from then on foreigners were not allowed beyond its bounds, only their cargo could travel to the mainland, provided it had been already sold and had a definite destination—that is, their goods could not be taken by salesmen, nor could they be resold, they had to be used in the creation of Thorian goods, as only goods of Thorian make could be sold on the mainland. The Cathedra Magna also then instituted its strict literary policy, and with the executive power of the Imperial Seat, under Emperor Apoleus IV all foreign literature was banned, and most printing presses were either closed or brought under governmental control. The All Persons Press of Eenwyck remained open for business as an independent company, but was forced to show fealty to the Cathedra Magna, turning away any manuscripts not meeting the criteria of the new policy. As this darker, more theocratic age crept over the land, a tendency towards autocratic excess, enabled with the support of the Cathedra Magna, took hold of the Imperial Seat. Successive Emperors were more and more gluttonous for power, and now we get into the lore books at last.

Pretty much all of what you’ve just read would not have been revealed in game, it’s more background that’s necessary for me to know, while the player is left to contend mainly with the aftermath of events unknown. The histories by Yulud of Udghan are our main in-universe source for Thorian history beyond the past couple of centuries. They are imperfect, and the Arlaug, who translated the works, would note to the player that they are only collected for the sake of having something to fill in the gaps of knowledge about those times. Yulud never lived to complete his work on the war between Thoria and Gephala, so there is still some mystery as to how exactly the situation in Thoria came to be as bad as it is in the present day, but even if he had, it would hardly be reliable. Udghan is a port city, controlled by the International Zone, on the continent of Ochvad. Yulud never saw Omidius, much less Thoria, and his work is mostly collected from the scuttlebutt of sailors, merchants, travellers, and literary fragments, all bound up in a conjectural glue. His War of the Five Princes tells us that Emperor Preselleus III demanded that succession should go the one son of his who could best the others in mortal combat, and that this was the opening required by General Haectullus Listor to seize power for himself, throwing his military might behind the weak young Astrateus and ultimately manipulating him into madness and self-imposed exile. It is a dramatic tale, full of mad ambitions, double dealing, backstabbing, twists and turns, and I hoped to make it quite entertaining, somewhere between a Jacobean drama and Herodotus. A sequel, The Listorian Reformation, continues the story in similar fashion, telling of Listor’s rewriting of the Caudex Magnus and his brutal domination of the land, his becoming drunk on power and ultimate demise. The story never really ends, Thoria commits acts of terrorism against its own people, disguising them as acts of Gephala, and we are left with Thorian soldiers marching across the Aldweyn Plains to commence a brutal invasion.

Whether or not any of the above actually happened was to be left up to the player to decide for themselves, or not at all, seeing as evidence either way would be so thin. Certainly, Thoria is in a devastated condition, especially in the south, where Luctaris seems to have suffered greatly and now exists in a state of near total poverty. This is attested to in Wallavic Ileusis’s ongoing travelogue series A Passage to Eòrna, in which Ileusis travels from Port Elidea to Lamantaleorna on foot. The description of Luctaris would be largely accurate, but the player would probably notice glaring inconsistencies later on. If the player has, for example, been to Arch Thorian, which Ileusis describes in the sixth and most recent part of his series, it becomes apparent that at least some of the book is complete fiction. I wanted in this way to hint to the possibility that the International Zone, for all its supposed superiority, was not above propaganda. I left off at the sixth part and brought the date in line with the current day so that it led up to the timeframe of the game itself. Initially this was because the game was to have taken place entirely in the city of Eenwyck. For a time I considered having a seventh part be published and imported during the game’s action, if the player took long enough, but it was never established if there would be real-time consequences for the player’s rate of progress, so I never wrote additional parts. Above all, Ileusis’s mission is to entertain, readers will notice that the Popular Press of Lamantaleorna published the book, not the Port Elidea Press, which normally deals in classics and scholarship, and this is a tip-off, along with the jocular and affable narrative style. I intended this superficially along the lines of Candide—and there are a couple of indirect references to Voltaire’s satire in it—but told in the first person by a hustler weaving a tall tale.

I make these digressions into literary hearsay because I want to impress upon you the situation of modern Thoria. It has fallen from the lofty heights it once occupied and suffered greatly, whether in line with Yulud’s patchwork histories or not, under successive and progressively insane dictatorships. Following the invasion of Gephala, which saw incredible losses on both sides, the Shiedaric Trials, overseen by the legendary parliamentarian Iridius Barquentine, helped to restore a sense of stability and order after the excesses of Haectullus Listor and the Council of Aspects. They were extremely bloody, and for this reason were named after Shiedar, Aspect of Violence. A report written by Radolphus Lantulla, from Barquentine’s dictation, of which only one half is presently available, the rest presumably being locked away in the secret library of the Cathedra Magna, paints a picture of sadistic punishments. The members of the Council of Aspects were variously eviscerated, emasculated, eaten alive by wild animals, beaten and otherwised tortured to death. One of them was sent to the one secessionist faction during the reign of Listor, the northern city of Tocane; as an olive branch, he carried a list of his crimes and a writ of permission from Barquentine that they may do whatever they wish as punishment. Following this peace offering, Tocane sent a parliamentary envoy to present a request of reinclusion, which was accepted. However, notions of independence have remained popular in Tocane, and a movement to secede has sprung up in Oleand, which could eventually become another of the International Zone’s maritime city states. Similarly, some agitators in Luctaris advocate for its secession that it may come under the power of Aldweyn.

Currently Thoria, from an administrative perspective, finds itself in a kind of stasis. Many of the old rules established by the auto-theocrats still exist in Thorian law, yet fewer and fewer are actually observed with each passing year. Executions have become infrequent, and in the previous year not even one took place. The Cathedra Magna is being pushed by national crises to finally do away with the law against vigilantism—which was originally instituted in order to clamp down on the influence of the Thedanese philosopher Vigilia, and send her followers fleeing from Thorian territory, or jail and execute them—so that agents of the Tribunal are not overwhelmed by the increase in what they define as “degeneracy”, even though it would in itself be a concession to such degeneracy. The International Zone, in collusion with the underground network known as the Arlaug, floods the cities with its literature, encouraging heretical thought and perhaps even open rebellion. The Arlaug itself is involved in translating and distributing forbidden works, and even secret documents stolen from the Cathedra Magna. The criminal trade in “dark books”, corrupted magical tomes which can have profound, addictive, and detrimental mental and physical effects on the reader, has become seemingly unstoppable, and is affecting rich and poor alike. Thoria is undergoing transformations which may prove tantamount to death.

I wanted to plunge the player into all of that in such a way that the unspoken history unfurled above would be tangible on some level, that through exploration and dialogue and books some semblance of Thoria’s true history could be assembled, and yet always remain somewhat elusive. The question “Does what I’m doing have a point?” is often asked by players of narrative driven games. Unfortunately it is usually due to a perceived aimlessness, shallowness (i.e.: narrative reasons for doing things are thin veils adorning repetitive gameplay mechanics) or poorly structured narrative that lacks a solid base from which to draw meaning for its conflicts and quests and characters and locations. I hoped that, by building in Thoria a solid world with a solid history, the player would be asking that question because they could live within it to an extent, and through living in it consider whether the world may be in a terminal downward spiral that not even their best efforts as the hero can rescue it from. If that would have actually happened, I obviously can’t say, but damn it I gave it my best, and I think of Thoria, bearing in mind that there is much detail that can and will be discussed beyond this particular essay, as a creation that is approaching a kind of completeness outwardly visible yet really intangible, really out of reach, something mad and grand and hopelessly unachievable.

Further reading:

Yulud’s Histories

A Passage to Eòrna, parts 1-6

The World Unbuilt – Introduction

Howdy buckaroos, welcome to The World Unbuilt. This is a series of essays on worldbuilding, and in particular on a fictional world I created for a computer role-playing game. Unfortunately, due to the disappearance of a crucial investor, my time on the project was cut short. Since I could not be paid for my work, I took it with me when I left the project. I was determined not to let my efforts go completely to waste, so I decided to do this with it instead. I will not be writing about my experiences working on the game, at least not any more than is absolutely necessary, nor will I be discussing the perils of small team shoestring budget game development. What I will be talking about are the places, peoples, religions, histories, mythologies, and whatever else it occurs to me to talk about that is at least semi-relevant to the topic at hand, that I invented to provide the broader contextual framework for the game’s action.

Officially, I was the writer and composer for the project. A friend had come to me in September of 2015 to ask if I would be willing to compose the soundtrack for the game, which was to be a new attempt at realising a project we had failed to get off the ground some years prior. At the time I was without a suitable work computer, and so I said that I would be happy to compose music, but was not presently able, offering instead to help out with writing. For a long time I had had an interest in fantasy worlds and their creation, and had in fact previously attempted to create my own JRPG (Japanese RPG, as in the Final Fantasy franchise) style game, which eventually ended up—once I realised that opportunities for player driven action were constantly being reduced at an untenable rate by virtue of what I felt was excessive unskippable dialogue—turning into a novel manuscript that will probably never be finished. In particular I had a fondness for fantasy and science fiction role playing games like the Fallout series, particularly the way in which those games grounded what was on some level pure fantasy with detailed histories, cultures, organisations, and characters. When Bethesda took over the series and put out the massively popular Fallout 3, I was not best pleased with their efforts, which seemed half-hearted and born of laziness and misunderstanding of the source material, but it wasn’t until I played Skyrim, from Bethesda’s own original series The Elder Scrolls, that I realised just how many things I disliked about the way their writers handled lore, narrative, culture and all the things that make a fantasy world what it is.

I was determined to address those issues in my own work for the game. I decided that I would write books of lore, similar to what one would expect to find in an Elder Scrolls game, but do it differently. For a start, I would very strongly consider questions of authorship and perspective, of the evolution of language over time, how culture and religion and time and place influence such things, and in doing so build a literary framework in which the sum total of perspectives on my fictional world could be contained. I wanted it to be contradictory, to have a line in one book call into question the very fabric of another, and vice versa, and furthermore to have all or most of it be testable against the player’s own experience of the worldspace. I used what I knew of real world literature, mostly Western literature, not only because that is what I know best of any tradition, but because my goal of populating the world with books demanded a literary culture, something that had grown up with the written word, as the European and Anglophone have from Ancient Greece and the Homeric epics. I could not take the oral tradition of a pre-colonial Africa or South America, where histories are passed down through the air, or through pictorial records. (Incidentally, readers interested in how European colonialism has impacted upon oral tradition could do a lot worse than checking out Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Solibo Magnificent). That said, I did take inspiration from outside the west, in particular the Tao Te Ching and Ezra Pound’s Cathay—this a book English translations of High Tang Chinese poetry by Li Bai (he transliterated the name by a Japanese scheme as “Rihaku”), though Pound’s intuitive approach to translation, based largely on the notes of Ernest Fenollosa, is argued by some to have resulted in the creation, in effect, of new, thus Western, poetry—in writing the couple of books that come from Gephala.

In planning the lore, the nation of Thoria was one of the first things I came up with. Initially it was just a name. The game was to take place entirely in a Thorian city called Eenwyck, and would deal with the player fighting to save the city, and thus the country itself, from invasion by undead/demonic forces. Eventually, and apparently this was my fault, the project director felt that this simpler approach would not serve the piles of potential content I was producing, even though I thought then and still think that a densely layered game taking place in a smaller space would be far more interesting than a typical open world type deal. That “potential content” was never intended to be content, but context, a suggestion of the moreness of what lay beyond Eenwyck’s city walls, and perhaps even the sky above. I wanted players who were curious enough to stop and talk to every NPC and read every text they could find to feel like Oedipa Maas: totally overwhelmed, unsure of who to trust, led to find patterns hinting at conspiracy but possibly amounting to nothing at all, a superfluity of narratives whirling about them from every direction. I wanted to write something dense but tightly contained. Alas, creeping bloat put paid to that. So Thoria had to be fleshed out, and it would therefore be necessary to establish geography, history, religion, government etc.—all the things which previously could have been hinted at now had to be made vivid in detail. Thus this series.

Up front it should be noted that this is not a documentary piece. I cannot recall every stage of the development of the world of the game, much less the order that those stages came in. Ideas came to me in the form of bits and pieces, a name, a concept, an event. I made for myself a jigsaw puzzle of many many pieces, but these were pieces which spawned other pieces, so that the puzzle was built out from side to side and top to bottom, could be viewed in two, three, even four dimensions. The thing with building a world is that every time you come up with something, you imply or reveal ten more things which must also be explained, and those things will beget more things as you explain them, and so on. Like the real world it is endless, unlike the real world it must be contained, limited, ultimately fathomable. In our daily lives we use systems of filtration to pare the world down to as close to a manageable size as it is possible for the world to be. Such systems may be external or internal, and the purposes of each may be different but their functions are the same. Generally we use both kinds at the same time. Take an article in a news publication. All news articles have as their fundamental source a situation, but beyond that they have a writer, who is answerable to the editor of the publication, who is answerable to the company that owns the publication, and this chain of subordination is a system of filters by which a composite political perspective renders the situation in print. When we read the article we receive a reduction of the source information to which we apply our own perspective, further filtering and reducing that information to personally salient points. We see what we are shown of what there is the way we would like to see it.

What the player was to be shown of what there was of Thoria was everything immediate in time and space, and something more remote, but these would be delivered by way of those filtration systems, the latter to a greater extreme for reasons which either are or will become obvious. In discussing with an NPC a particular situation, what the player receives is perspective, not facts. So too in reading a book of lore, or even witnessing a situation first-hand. Perspectives on the world are part of the world, all except the player’s own, which has the added bonus of being changeable through the sorting of information and thinking, the forming of connections. Obviously, the world the player sees has been sorted and thought about by the worldbuilder, but the worldbuilder’s perspective, which is the world itself, is set in stone, near enough, once the player is permitted access. For simplicity’s sake I am not going to add to this the question of the distribution model, which was not a factor in my approach to worldbuilding, but yes: if the world is made available via a game in early access, the worldbuilder can react to the player’s perceptions, and the world itself can change as a result.

For better or worse, my world did not ever get the chance to change under the pressure of external influences (would I have been too stubborn to let it?) but in writing this series I have been forced to clarify details and to deal with the facts behind the intentional fictions that would have been presented in game, so it has had to undergo some small transformations anyway. Some of the essays to follow will be on general topics, a country or character, while others may deal with historical figures and events, or more general topics like language. In each case whatever relevant materials I had written to appear in the game will be presented for the reader’s perusal, in the prototype book format I had designed as a proof of concept. I will also be going over, in some kind of a list format, a number of points which are too small to write full pieces about, but which are worth talking about nonetheless. I will not, however, be making available the extensive notes that were compiled over the course of development, for the simple reason that most of it is only valuable insofar as it helps me to remember, where it is relevant to do so, the order in which things were put together, and bears little resemblance to the world and its contents as will be presented in this series. While I would ultimately like to collect the texts I write for this series into some kind of order, possibly in ebook or PDF format, the release order for this initial publication will largely follow the order in which they were written.

Saddle up. Here we go.

Game Journal: Unreal Tournament Pre-Alpha, Thoughts and First Impressions

I finally got a new graphics card after years of nursing a much-in-need-of-retirement Nvidia 8800 GTX. In a direct comparison the GTX 1050 Ti is obviously much better, with over four times the amount of VRAM and DX12 compatibility, but in terms of what the 8800 was in its own time, nothing less than a Titan would suffice for parity. Alas, I ain’t got thousands lying around to spend on my shit, not to mention I only need 1080p, so this really quite amazingly good budget card will more than suffice. Anyway, with my GPU situation fairly well proportioned to the rest of my system, I reckon now is the time to get in on all the gaming I’ve been missing. To that end I’ll be trying out as many new-ish (and maybe old-ish as well) titles as I can and recording my thoughts here. As usual I make no claim to objectivity and am probably wrong about everything, but thaaaaaaat’s my life!

To begin with, there’s nothing like visiting an old friend to ease yourself back in. Well, maybe ease is the wrong word to use when talking about this series. Unreal Tournament, in its various incarnations, and especially 2004—for my money the best arena shooter ever made—took up a large part of my teenage gaming time. For me there was nothing more satisfying than a round on Face 3 with zoom instagib. For the past few years, Epic has been crowd developing a new addition to the series, the somewhat irritatingly named Unreal Tournament. I would have thought the taint of Sonic ’06, officially titled Sonic the Hedgehog (go ahead and try to guess why they didn’t want that title associated with that game), would keep people away, but no!

Currently Unreal Tournament is in a public pre-alpha, so it’s very rough around the edges. But, as an old hand of the arena shooter, I was impressed with how well the game has already captured the instantly recognisable movement of the older games. Dashes, wall dashes, elevator jumping, shield gun jumping, rocket jumping etc. all feel like they should. Dashing is still triggered by the double-tap gesture (e.g.: tapping W twice will perform a forward dash) but you can also hold shift, which is handy for performing lots of dashes in sequence. On top of the classic movement framework, the devs have added wall running, a Mega Man style slide manoeuvre, and slope dashing, which can be used to get up certain walls at high speed. The only area in which the movement is noticeably lacking right now is the absence of the double jump. Hopefully, this is just a pre-alpha limitation and not a design choice.

A full complement of weaponry (minus the Target Painter superweapon) is in evidence. Basic stuff like the Translocator, Enforcer, Rocket Launcher, Shock Rifle, Shield Gun is all there and feels authentic, plus killing people by translocating into them never gets old. My old favourite the flak cannon is back with hailstorms of shrapnel and explosive shells, and the ubiquitous Redeemer nuke launcher can still lay waste to everyone in the room, including you. It was cool to see both the Sniper Rifle and Lightning Gun available to play. The Lightning Gun still zooms, but now it has a charge shot that makes it more than just a Sniper Rifle with fancier particle effects. Best of all, they look great and feel great to use. One thing I’ve noticed, however, and this may just be a case of me being out of practice, is that the shock combo, triggered by shooting a regular shock beam at the Shock Rifle’s alt-fire projectile, seems a lot more fiddly than it ever used to. In a way, however, that just makes it more satisfying when you do pull it off, especially with the awesome gravity well kills it produces.

Team Deathmatch, my favourite mode of old, feels as crazy and chaotic than ever. Close quarters combat on the Outpost 23 map, new to this instalment, is as intense as the series has ever been. I haven’t really played around with the new modes too much yet, but if they can get the old stuff right, to me that’s what’s really important. Excepting the lack of double jump, it feels right. The levels themselves feel like UT levels, but the look is a little clean for my taste. For me, UT‘s style was exemplified not just by intense combat, but by the variety of its settings, which ranged from grimy, abandoned industrial buildings, to natural beauty spots including alien forests, to literally on top of a spaceship travelling through hyperspace. Above all they felt substantial and appropriate unto themselves, while the current selection of maps for this game seems kind of bland and clinical. However, I love the latest incarnation of Facing Worlds, and lots of maps (including remakes of classics like Deck) are in development right now, so I hope to be eating those words eventually.

Somehow to call this a pre-alpha seems a little disingenuous, the gameplay is there, the maps are coming (at least, I hope they are), if anything it’s just a matter of polishing the presentation. The sound mixing, even with the granular volume controls, can be horrendous. Voices seem to be cranked to the maximum no matter what I do, and the ear-numbingly bassy menu sounds propa did my nut in guv. As I mentioned earlier the art design is a little underwhelming. It’s early days yet, but it definitely looks blander than its predecessors. UT has always been mod friendly, so it’s cool to see that almost all of my issues, should they persist at release, could be taken care of by the community marketplace, where people can upload their own creations like weapon skins and model redesigns to share with other players either for free or as microtransactions. Epic’s free-to-play business model for UT is banking on turning a profit by taking a cut of marketplace sales, which seems extremely risky given the arena shooter’s fall in popularity to bland Call of Duty type shooters. I don’t think the package is currently complete and polished enough to compete at that level, and unfortunately it seems like Epic has shelved it for the time being in favour of developing Fortnite, which currently stands to compete with the insanely popular Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. It’s a great shame, but one of my favourite series of all time may well be gone for good if this keeps up.