Mar 25, 2016

Urban Planning for Lovecraftian Horror: The First Steps

[This article was written for the Frogwares site and originally appeared there.]

Cultists can worship ancient and essentially unknowable deities in or around any city. A basement in New York, a posh London apartment, a secluded New Orleans swamp, a derelict church in Kiev and, in extraordinary cases of summoning something truly gargantuan, Mexico City’s Plaza de la Constitución can all work brilliantly. Cultists operating in them and strange things happening hidden in their shadows wouldn’t though make New York, London, New Orleans, Kiev or Mexico City Lovecraftian cities in and of themselves. It would only make them cities in which something Lovecraftian is going on.

Happily, when Frogwares approached me to work on the Sinking City’s open world city, they already knew they weren’t just looking to create an intriguing, living 1920s urban environment, and then simply flood and fill it with horrors in order to create a passable background of urbanism. They wanted to create something fundamentally different. A city the foundations of which had been subtly but definitely shaped by the Cthulhu mythos. A truly Lovecraftian urban environment with a strong sense of place –a Genius Loci— and the ability to feel disturbing even on a lovely autumn afternoon.

But, how would such a city differ from, say, a haunted version of Providence or Boston? Well, let me indirectly answer this by giving you an example; the very same example that helped me approach the matter. Think if you will of Lovecraft’s ‘The Horror At Red Hook’ and ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’. The first is taking place in a brilliantly presented yet still metaphysically mundane Brooklyn, whereas the latter in the decidedly different from your average city Innsmouth. Innsmouth, you see, is not merely a place inhabited by strange people with alien customs, nor is it just the hiding and mating place of the Deep Ones.

It is instead a very unique town built around the needs and desires of a hybrid and Deep Ones population, which simultaneously allows for some semblance of seemingly normal city life and maintains a facade of humanity. Innsmouth serves the monstrous religious needs of its inhabitants, lets them, among other things, move around unseen, live in relative comfort and have easy access to the sea, but it also has a small network of shops, residences, hotels etc to offer to the unsuspecting mortal. Obviously, it can never feel absolutely right, even though people who’ve lived there for years still can’t exactly describe what is wrong with the place. They know they should be scared, but cannot tell what of exactly.

A spoiler-free glimpse at the 90-pages long ‘Urban Manifestations of Lovecraftian Horror’ I wrote for the Sinking City team.

The main question I and the Sinking City team had to answer was thus what the city of Oakmont would look and feel like, and that was a question that, handily, could only begin to be approached in a perversely traditional geographic way. The works of H. P. Lovecraft simply wouldn’t be enough in providing us with all the answers, though admittedly re-reading HPL’s urban focused stories felt too good to be considered work. And, uninhabitable as it might be, R’lyeh is quite the metropolis…

Anyway. I was certain that the first thing we’d have to do would be decide on what the functions of such a city would be, and acknowledge the fact that they would have to be divided into two broad and necessarily intermingling categories. Not dissimilarly to Innsmouth, on one hand there would have to be normal urban functions such as traffic, commerce, and production, and on the other hand there would have to be the secret functions serving ancient inhuman goals. Both sets of functions would have historically shaped the city, while dialectically tending to the dark soul of Oakmont and allowing for a hefty 1920s urban center to exist and retain its population in pre-Depression New England.

Until the flood* struck, that is, and promptly submerged great chunks of the place under water, while allowing its less advertised set of functions to take over and start inviting every passing Old One to the city. The flood that helped Oakmont’s dark core to emerge and make itself obvious.

Said majestic and terrifying core cannot emerge in an unshaped vacuum though; nor in front of a flimsy, obviously fake urban background. The horrors of the flood and those unearthed by it have to manifest themselves in a city that actually feels and behaves like one. No matter how strange and disturbing Oakmont might at times (and places) be, it will have to feel lived-in and real, and that’s why we have to excavate its present in its history. That is why crafting its detailed history has been so important to me.

It will be –and to a point already is– a history that even when invisible has informed planning choices ranging from the mundane (what street furniture do we need?) to the architectural (how does this temple look like and has it changed during the past 100 years?) to the urbanistic (why is this house here?) to the occult (when were those half-hidden monoliths erected?)  to those important matters of everyday life (what do people do on a Sunday evening when not running away from eldritch horrors?). Planning choices both collective and individual, both spontaneous and institutional.

The Sinking City is not being treated as a collection of buildings. Its streets are not merely an opportunity for Frogwares’ artists to show off their skills in creating facades.  We are not limiting ourselves to horror or architectural elements either, and the whole team has realized that cities are much more than even their functions. They are way more complex than that. They are the people. The public spaces. The climate, the sky, the smells and colors. The impromptu festivals and the strikes. The looming factories and the old harbour.

In the case of Oakmont the city is also the roaring ’20s, New England, speakeasies, Prohibition, and most emphatically the flood, and we’ll be doing our very best to create a complex, living, breathing Lovecraftian urban environment unlike anything else and possible only in the interactive medium of videogames.

*This is not your average garden-variety New England flood. It is a flood stranger and way more persistent than even the 1936 one that devastated much of New England leaving behind over 150 dead.

Mar 16, 2016

Progress Harder with Workers In Progress: Special Edition

I announced it a while back and it finally happened. Huzzah! Just like that and in the most magical of ways possible the brand new WIP is here and it's no longer a WIP, so, please, do take a moment to welcome and several to play Workers In Progress: Special Edition - Progress Harder. The definitive be-the-working-class-of-Greece simulation and, thanks to the amazing twine-powers of lectronice, a truly beautiful and polished text-based game.

But looks and fancy typography are not all that's changed. I've actually edited and partly re-written most of the game which, handily, can now be played in English, French (translated by EnsembleVide), Turkish (translated by Işık Barış Fidaner) and Spanish (translated by Pablo Martínez). Oh, and there's still a book suggestion for every ending you reach!

WIP:SE-PH can be played online on or downloaded from a variety of sources to be enjoyed off line and in the browser of your choice.

Reminder: I could really use your support via Patreon in order to survive long enough to make more indie gaming (and gaming in general) words and, of course, actual games and things. Thanks! 

Feb 25, 2016

Game Cities: Five Essential Books

Despite what many seem to naively and inexplicably believe, designing a more or less fictional (and in equal measures functional) city is not an easy thing to do. Even less so when it's a city that will have to take a myriad of technical and cost constraints into consideration; a videogame city. Still, one has to start from some place and should one actually desire to come up with something believable and interesting, well, I do suggest one starts by reading through the five books I'm about to suggest.

A word of warning though: It would be wise to keep in mind that, what with cities being the incredibly complex and dynamic entities they are, five books could never be enough. Every imaginary urban place project I've worked on, for example, did indeed require quite a lot of fresh research and I've been studying cities since the late '90s.

On to the books:

The City In History by Lewis Mumford. 650 pages of exquisitely written history that go beyond merely presenting readers with the exciting story of urbanism from the neolithic to the modern era, and actually attempt to define the essence of the city. To identify its core and understand its function, while presenting readers with an amazing journey through human evolution, philosophy, architecture, planning, politics and art. If one ever hopes to truly understand any urban environment, one simply has to have read Mumford's classic, definitive work.  

Good City Form by Kevin Lynch is, despite its narrower scope, another classic that has defined contemporary urban thought. It may not be as all encompassing and grand in its ambition, but it does focus on the visual aspects of the city and is thus crucial when it comes to the quite visual medium of videogames. Good City Form examines and reviews the physical forms of the city, its image, its planning, its design and its structure and is thus a very handy tool for every designer of places both imaginary and real.

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson. A recently released and unexpectedly excellent book that, you'll be happy to know, is not aimed at planners and/or architects. It's a book that effortlessly moves from Cavafy's barbarians and Wright's unrealized projects to revolutionary Hungary, post-revolutionary Russia and the wildest sci-fi urbanism, only to return to Bruno Taut, the pirate utopia of Libertatia and the mad Great War heroics of Gropius. A book that will definitely inspire and get you both thinking and imagining.

City of Quartz by Mike Davis. Often described as the work that predicted the Rodney King riots, the City of Quartz impressively does what it says on the cover: it excavates the future in Los Angeles by exploring an immensely intriguing and very existing contemporary dystopia and its brief but brutal history of breakneck evolution. What's more, the book manages to showcase just how complex, dynamic and vibrant every city is, while simultaneously telling a story involving Chandler, Brecht and some absolutely excellent jazz.

Key Concepts in Urban Studies by M. Gottdiener and Leslie Budd. Back when I was actively teaching people about cities, geography and planning this was the book I had used the most in order to provide students with a spherical knowledge of the field. It's a small, excellently researched and up to date work that swiftly covers an impressive variety of subjects from housing and gentrification to the models of urban growth and suburbanization.

[In the off chance you are fluent in Greek, I'd suggest you also read my PhD thesis. It's freely available online here and it will cover most of your metropolitan and theoretical needs.]

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Dec 16, 2015

The Paradise of Issyos, Priorities and Progress

Two freeware games I'm most proud to have helped with have been released and that, dear reader, does make me rather happy. Here you can download Locomalito's excellent arcade platformer The Curse of Issyos and here you can play the Greek version of educational/political/strategy twine The Paradise of Debt (Ο Παράδεισος του Χρέους). I did come up with the Greek names for monsters and things for the former and translated the latter. 

Now that you know, I suppose it's time for me to get back to finishing Workers In Progress SE: Progress Harder which is almost done and looking way better than I expected it to and Earthling Priorities which has stalled again but is really close to release.

Dec 14, 2015

Game Cities: The Motionless City

Did you know that I spent over 10 years of my adult life almost exclusively studying cities, urban planning, the geography of cities and urbanism? Well, it's absolutely true. I even have the PhD, papers and teaching experience to prove this and, to cunningly and swiftly change the subject, as I've always been fascinated by those intricate, built manifestations of society and loved working on games, I've decided to bring the two together. My first attempt was that ambitious City RPG that's been --to put it mildly-- put on hold, but now more things are afoot.

I've already started consulting on city matters and exercising my fantasy urban planning skills for an amazing indie project I cannot say much about (yet), am actively looking for more work of the sort and have even slowly began organizing a book about the crafting of cities and settlements for games.

What's more, I thought it might be a nice idea to start writing a few simple articles about games and cities. Or even about the principles of urban planning that can be applied to level design. About storytelling via the built environment. Then again, a series of articles might be too time consuming to be a great idea after all. We'll just have to see how that goes I suppose, as I'm in no position to make any promises. For now, let me attempt a first take at an article of the sort.

Oct 28, 2015

Eye^Game^Candy: Life and Death

It may have been released across all major computer gaming formats and may have looked impressive on the Amiga, but it was always the CGA, MS-DOS version of Life and Death I considered the more appropriate. Its garish colours had an uncanny ability to make the subject matter just a little bit more disturbing to turn each operation into an exercise in bloody horror, whereas the PC beeper powered scream was simply unparalleled in its other-worldliness. Oh, yes, and this was actually the version I've always owned and loved complete in its magnificent box with the surgical mask and that brilliantly written The History of Surgery book. 

Find out more about Life and Death on MobyGames and Abandonia.