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Friday, 2 October 2015

Breaking the butterfly

Last week I was talking about Plague, the game I designed at Eidos in the mid-90s that morphed from sim-medieval London to "the game of war, Black Death and taxes" to the unabashed RTS that was Warrior Kings.

I wish I had more than snippets from old documents to show you. Sam Kerbeck's 3D engine was amazing. He and lead artist Richard Fletcher worked 24-7 for weeks to build a demo that would make the execs at Eidos take notice. Unveiled at E3, that demo reportedly rattled Peter Molyneux enough to put Populous: The Beginning back by six months. The engine was whisked over to Eidos subsidiaries like Pumpkin to use for Warzone 2100, but development on Plague itself was dogged by the politics that comes of being located at a games publisher's head office. One day I'll write the novel, only nobody will believe it.

So this (below) is the second attempt at an intro for Plague. The idea of writing these was more to give the team a creative focus than to necessarily be the actual game intro, as by this stage development had entered a kind of reverse Zeno's Paradox whereby the projected shipping date seemed to be receding into the far future. Within another year I had seen that the only way to fix the whole thing was to junk Plague and start afresh with Warrior Kings. It worked for a little while, but - Oh, maybe I'll save that story for the novel too.

Plague Intro Movie

A glimmer in darkness. Words briefly appear on the screen: Sunset, on the Day of Judgement. The words fade.

There's the sound of screams and moans, of many people. Flames licking up out of the darkness around ruined towers. We're pulling back gradually as the flames die down and the screams recede away...

The fires fade and we continue pulling back. What seems to be the walls of an immense dark cavern reveals itself to be the socket of a skull. We continue pulling out. It's not a whole skull, the lower jaw's missing, and it's charred and blood spattered. We see a black clawed hand is holding it.

The hand crushes the skull. There comes a hideous gasp of triumph. Continuing still to pull back, we see (from low angle shot - he looks immense) a figure. Under his cowl, you can't quite make out his face - it could be black bone, or hard black beak like a raven's. He has black raven-wings and a scythe.

We stop tracking out with Death in three-quarter shot and pan across as he turns to survey a wasteland, shrouded in smoke or fog. Music: the "Dies Irae" from Symphonie Fantastique. The sun hangs on the horizon, strangely close. Death lets the last fragments of the skull fall.

DEATH: It is over. Mankind's day is done. The last mortal soul speeds on its way to Hell, and Death holds illimitable dominion over all.

Hold on the scene a moment. The music fades away.

There's a flare of white light from behind Death. A wind roars across the plain, dispersing the fog. We pan round as Death turns to see...

A figure all in white, delicate features, with jagged fractal wings like a marvellous butterfly. The wings may have caused the wind, but now they're relaxing slowly back into position as we see the figure. White light shines from behind him.

DEATH: I thought I had slain everything.

ANGEL: I am the last of my kind.

DEATH: You come too late. This is the end of Time. Eternity is drawing to a close.

ANGEL: Perhaps.

DEATH: There's nothing you can do for Man. He has been judged for his sins and sentenced to extinction.

ANGEL: Perhaps not.

DEATH: Who are you? Tell me what name to carve in the stone that shall press your corpse into the earth!

ANGEL: I am hope. While I live, Mankind has a future.

DEATH: While you live - ? I'll putrefy your body with a thousand pestilences, rack you with a thousand agonies... break you down to atoms and less than atoms and scatter the debris across the cosmic void.

While they've been talking we've tracked across towards the angel (the whole thing is one continuous shot all the way through with no cuts), who turns briefly to look into the sky. With the fog gone, a long swathe of dim stars is visible in the darkness. The angel reaches up and takes them from the sky - a sword made up of a million stars that flare with renewed light at his touch. As he turns back to face Death, his eyes and mouth glow with inner white light.

ANGEL (smiling): Want a bet..?

As they move together, the scene blurs and starts to fade, becoming a swirl of black and white that spirals around and around...

The game options are superimposed, set out on bars that mirror the Light vs Darkness theme (ie, hardship level, difficulty level, etc). The player selects his options...

The swirl, like a whirlpool, opens up to reveal the start of the game.

Plague outro 1: Dark Lord victory

The same desolate plain seen the start, now completely shrouded in a thick blanket of mist. Slowly a hump rises, like a black mushroom. Tracking in, we see it's a hunched figure in black robes: Death. Slowly he rises to his feet, the mist swirling around him in slow eddies as he moves, and the camera POV moves around likewise, ending close in and to one side of him.

DEATH: So that was Hope...

He swings his scythe round. A single tatter of white robe hangs from the tip of the blade.

Death plucks off the tattered fabric, gazes at it a moment. In his hand it blackens and shrivels.

DEATH: ...but now he too is gone. In all the universe, there is no living thing left...

Death suddenly looks straight at the camera. It's a bit of a jolt, seeing into his eyes for the first time. More of a jolt is the implication that we're actually present in the scene.

DEATH: ...except for you.

But does he mean it as an acknowledgement of victory, or something more ominous?

As he starts towards us, suddenly, cut to black.

Plague outro 2: Bright Angel victory

Death and the Angel are locked in combat, but Hope has the upper hand. Death falls back, and behind him a swirl of nascent stars forms in the dark void. The mist is sucked away into them - and the plain too, leaving Death and Hope suspended in a cosmos which is starting to glow with new nebulae.

Death's scythe is pulled out of his grasp, sucked back into the swirl of stars, which now begins to resemble a galaxy - setting the scale as cosmically huge.

Death braces himself against the cosmic wind. His robes flutter and snap, but the Angel is unmoved. Remorselessly he reaches out to place his hand around Death's black mask-like face.

DEATH: You can't destroy me! I am Death...

We cut to the Angel's face. With the brilliant light behind his eyes and mouth, he hardly looks human at all.

ANGEL: Not any more.

Cut back and pull away fast as he closes his grip. Death's head seems to shatter, and as it does there is a blinding burst of light as the Universe begins again.

Cut to a man's face, waking startled from a dream. He's a BEGGAR, wearing rags and sleeping in the gutter of a medieval town. From the angle and colour of the sunlight we guess it's dawn.

The beggar gasps and mops his brow, relieved that it was all a dream. Then a shadow falls across him and he looks up, momentarily alarmed. We see him shield his eyes, squinting into the sun.

BEGGAR: Who are you..?

Cut to the beggar's POV, looking up at a STRANGER who is silhouetted against the rising sun so that we can hardly see his face because of the halo of light.

STRANGER: Do not be alarmed. I'm not here to hurt you.

BEGGAR: Stay away for your own sake. Do you not see I have the plague?

The stranger bends to help him up, and as he does we cut back to the beggar's face. Before he may indeed have been pockmarked, but now there are no sores on him.

STRANGER: The plague has gone. You do not have it.

The stranger steps back out of shot. The beggar gets up, feeling his face in growing amazement as he realises it's true, he's been cured.

He looks up for the stranger, then we see him look puzzled because the stranger has gone. He looks around.

Cut to see the stranger walking off down the narrow medieval street, trailing his fingers past beggars who are waking up to a new day. There's astonishment and delight as each realises that he too is free of the plague.

As the sun rises higher, there comes the sound of birdsong and the growing bustle of the town. The beggar watches till the stranger is out of sight, then notices something in front of him. He bends down and plucks it: a beautiful flower coloured like a butterfly's wing.

I do remember showing it to Ian Livingstone and he thought the intro script would be better if, after the Angel says, "Want a bet?" Death curls his (unseen) lip and purrs, "Oh really...?" I tend to think one punchline is enough, but that's the problem with being a writer. Everybody thinks they can do your job. There was also an Eidos game called Gangsters. The copy for the poster read: "Real power is never given..." with an image of a wild-eyed wiseguy with a tommy gun spitting lead. The Eidos brass added a line at the bottom of the poster: "...It's taken " - just in case you hadn't got the point. Two punchlines again, you see. May Death and the Angel of Life both save us from execs with too much time on their hands.


  1. Great piece of writing about writing, and the fact that the best lines are often those in which not all the words are ...

    1. I see what you did there, John :-)

    2. Could I just also take this opportunity to say how much I enjoyed your Dragon Warriors books, the tone and texture of their blend of hard medieval reality and haunted fantasy. Amongst the treasured reads of my teenage years they remain a source of inspiration to me when I tell my own tales. My son is 7 years old and has just successfully completed his first choose your own adventure book (Beast Quest by "Adam Blade") - I am looking forward to sharing the Blood Sword books with him when he is ready for a stronger vintage !

    3. Thanks, John. My own youthful imagination was hugely stimulated by games like Empire of the Petal Throne, and when Oliver and I wrote Dragon Warriors we were consciously aiming to create something to inspire the next generation in the same way. And to think that those books can also excite yet another new generation is really heartening!