Aug 31, 2016

(Bits) Of Ancient Cities and The Dreaded Nékromegà

So. Here's what I've been working on both lately and mainly in case anyone was wondering and for everyone who doesn't really care for introductions: Nékromegà, Moribund, and an interactive, stylized version of ancient Athens for Culturplay. Now, as these things are taking up tons of time --all of the time actually- I will not be elaborating on any of them just now, but I will be fervently hoping that you try and check them out. Also, do please keep in mind that one of the lot will be a truly ambitious freeware thing and sport three (whole and wholly) imaginary cities.

Jul 5, 2016

Eye^Game^Candy: Wonderland

Being one of the most ambitious text adventures ever created, and making a brave attempt at thoroughly modernizing interactive fiction interfaces, Wonderland by Magnetic Scrolls is one of those few games that should be considered important. It also happens to be one I really do love. Somewhere between the fact that I never managed to finish it, the childhood memories of opening its big box with all those 5.25" floppies, the amazing little visual vignettes, and those incredibly appropriate and very whimsical puzzles I absolutely struggled with, I may have created a mental image of Wonderland that might just be too good to be true. I know. And even though I don't want to spoil the memories, I know I'll eventually have to revisit it.

You can play the game online here (albeit not in its full glory; you'll be needing DOSBox for that), and find out more about it on Mobygames and the Magnetic Scrolls Memorial

Jun 23, 2016

Game Cities: Implying Size and Complexity

Let's imagine for a moment that you have created a unique, believable, sprawling, and impressively detailed metropolis. You have it mapped out, thoroughly described, and have its architectural styles all sorted out. It's a unique, beautiful, and complex place, and you are rightfully proud of it. Only problem is that realizing all of it on screen would probably cost you a few million dollars/euros/pounds/what-have-yous.

Assuming you are neither Blizzard nor Rockstar, you'll thus have to try and keep things as simple and cheap as possible -- your ability to create assets will always be limited. Chances are you will have to abstract and generalize your world, decide to move to 2D, avoid creating an open-world, or to even allow exploration and gameplay in only a handful of locations. As you will not be able to show the full size and complexity of your work, your city, you will simply have to imply it.

Now, take a look at the picture above if you will. Notice how few buildings are actually shown, and ask yourself whether this could be a village scene. Or even a picture taken in a small town.

It could not. Of course, it could not. You know, possibly without exactly knowing why, that this is a picture depicting a part of a big city neighborhood; most probably of a 20th century metropolis. You might only be able to see a tiny part of said city, but this sort of density, and this kind of spatial organization couldn't be found anywhere outside a big urban centre. A town or village would neither be able to support it, nor would they need it.

What's more, said picture provides the viewer with even more information. Information that goes beyond the type of urban agglomeration we are looking at, and lets us feel the living texture of the particular place. A thousand little stories, some of them possible only in this particular city, have left their mark on the hanging clothes, those buildings, the women, and even the wires we see, while the organization of everyday life itself and the class-based nature of those tenements is instantly obvious.

Small urban scenes and carefully selected areas, you see, can work brilliantly in implying size, complexity, urban function and texture, and in letting us conjure images of everyday life. In showcasing our elaborate creation in an easy to summarize way. Provided of course, there is a sensible backstory of our city, and an imaginary or real geography to draw upon. It's incredible how the existence of a city plan, regardless of whether it's ever used in its entirety, can help lend even the tiniest of places character and, once again, imply size.

Here is a screenshot from the wonderful Blackwell series:

It is, admittedly, based on a very real place, but only a well thought out and decently mapped imaginary (or, indeed, real) city, would make it easy to calculate what the view from a particular position would look like, and to decide upon the street furniture. Besides, not every place sports ghostly jazz musicians, and only a metropolis of certain wealth would be able to both afford and need such a bridge.

Infrastructure, bridges and roads in particular, but not exclusively so, are another means of instantly conjuring images of massive urban formations. You don't see many places with the road and mass transport networks of big cities, and it would be sensible to assume that a huge, multi-tiered bridge close to the home of an important NPC, would imply said NPC is an urban dweller.

Admittedly, as cities are incredibly complex and dynamic entities, and as bigger cities are even more so, tricking players into believing that a handful of locations or a vastly abstracted open world setting are functioning, living cities, can be done in a myriad of other ways too. Ways that can and should be combined with each other, without obviously ignoring rather crucial matters such as the ones already mentioned.

We can have players travelling through space (but only looking at it via the highly controlled and easy to manipulate view of a car window) long enough to make them feel the sheer enormity of things, we can present them with architectural creations designed to daily service tens of thousands, we can model and properly arrange a few buildings in relation to each other, and obviously we can provide them with maps. Actual in-game maps.

Possibly like the one from the original Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father, which, combined with the excellent and highly atmospheric locations, gave adventurers the illusion of exploring a huge chunk of New Orleans:

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Jun 17, 2016

Out of the blue and Into The Basilica

Sometimes my brain works in mysterious ways. Some other times the poor thing gets hopefully confused, and on even rarer occasions it decides people should have free access to the Into The Basilica: Revisited PDF. Why? Well, because I think it's a nice little booklet I had fun putting together, and because it's a document oozing misguided pre-launch optimism. Oh, and it's not been available anywhere else since that one time it appeared as a Bundle In A Box bonus.

Also, the pictures in it are interesting, as are the words. Apparently and for some incredibly odd reason I still have fond memories of the making of Droidscape: Basilica too...

Jun 1, 2016

Adventures In Urban Imagineering

With the first (and hopefully not last) part of my cooperation with Frogwares on the Sinking City's city just completed, I felt I really should let you know what the plan is, oh reader dearest. Besides the odd patreon supported piece for, and those Warp Door or Retro Treasures posts, that is.

Well, excitingly, I've started working on another big project involving cities and games with a fantastic new studio. It's back to urban imagineering full-time, and I couldn't be happier!

I cannot say much more about this new project just yet, but I'm loving the fact that I got involved in it early in pre-production, and that the team is determined to create both an excellent game and a unique urban environment. Some incredibly intriguing concepts have been going around lately, though I do imagine there's a lot of work to be done before things can be made public.

What I can talk about though is Nékromegà. An adventure-RPG hybrid sporting voxels, that is already looking unlike anything I've ever seen, and will attempt to do very weird stuff with its storytelling, while simultaneously tackling matters of colonialism and undeath. My role in it is, not entirely surprisingly, being an urban consultant. Mostly.

Oh, and I'm very slowly designing a fantasy / medieval city for my own entertainment, which might or might not evolve into an exploration focused game. It's too early to say, and, before I embark on another project of my own, I will have made sure that all the work on Earthling Priorities has been completed.

Off to work! 

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.