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Friday, 16 July 2010

Once bitten

Another never-was gamebook today. This one might have eventually been pitched to Puffin Books's gamebook editor, Marc Gascoigne and could have ended up as a Fighting Fantasy title, except that Jamie and I got sidetracked by working on a number of computer games at Eidos - for Fighting Fantasy originator Ian Livingstone, as a matter of fact, who was then Eidos's creative director, and may indeed still be.

The title of the book/game was either going to be Slurp or Thirst (the latter an hommage to horror author Gerald W Page, as explained here) and the idea was that you played a Victorian vampire lord called the Count. Casting a glance over the design overview today, the only feature of any real originality was that, instead of a power bar, you got to see your current health by the color of the images. Full strength was to be shown by vivid saturated color with strong reds, fading towards sepia monochrome as the Count went without blood. A common enough trick today (eg The Witcher) but new at the time.

The concept of player-as-villain was something Jamie and I were toying with a lot in those days. I've already discussed our gamebook proposal for Keeper of the Seven Keys, and we also had a proposal for a PC strategy game in which good fought evil, which we called Light & Dark. (Yes, Black and White was a much better title - but we came up with ours first, so there.)

Slurp would have been okay as a gamebook, but was rather too vanilla-flavored to work as a videogame. Pea-soupers, hansom cabs, gaslight - needs more, something to make it brandable and unique. A year or so in the industry stripped the scales from our eyes and we reworked it from the grave-soil up as Shadow King. But, just for those completists out there, here's the original book blurb:

Fog swirls thickly, blurring the wan gaslamps that line the narrow London streets. Underfoot, the cobblestones are slick and dark. From far away, beyond the maze of alleys that is Seven Dials, comes the muffled clatter of hansom cabs. The theatres on Shaftsbury Lane are emptying. There is a distant ring of laughter, made eerie and forlorn by the fog.

Here, among the shadows, is another world. A haunted labyrinth of thieves and opium dens, where figures lurk in the dark doorways and human life has little worth. It is a jungle of rain-streaked glass and soot-blackened brick, a jungle teeming with prey whose warm rich blood excites your senses like a drug.

A girl turns the corner, footsteps echoing off the alley walls as she hurries on her way. She glances at you as she goes past. You did not need to see her eyes to sense the fear. It is obvious from the nervous posture, the quick life-scented breath, the triphammer of her heart.

You turn to watch her, her shadow scurrying across the bleak shuttered facade of the street. There is no-one to see her fate. If you had lifeblood of your own you might feel it quicken with excitement, but your own veins are dry and dead. It is the blood of others that you crave to stir your shrivelled heart and give another night of almost-life.

The girl reaches her home - a squalid bedsit. She looks behind her as she fumbles for the key, but she does not see you. You have merged with the fog. The hunter and the jungle are one. You study your prey coldly, as if from a gulf of eons, waiting for the moment to strike.

She closes the door behind her and leans against it. Now, when she thinks she is safe -

The door is no barrier. Like mist you seep around it, taking shape again as the girl lights her lamp. From behind the dead hands seize her - hands that tamed falcons, slew a thousand Turks, played chess with Voltaire, made love to the most beautiful women of Europe. The same hands now hold your prey like a vice and the long white fangs slide into her.

The girl makes the slightest of moans and then goes limp. You stand there with her in your arms, immobile as a statue. As the life drains out of her and into you, your arid veins rush with blood. The sensation is the closest you will ever come, now, to pain or pleasure.

Too soon, there is nothing left. You let the empty carrion fall from your grasp. Your heart throbs again, vigour restored, but the bitterness and frustration are like bile within you. A parched desert washed by sudden rain, the life you gain each time is potent but short-lived. This victim was poor, too underfed to yield much sustenance. Tomorrow you must hunt again.

The door splinters inwards. You turn with a snarl. Engrossed in feeding, you did not sense their approach. There are three of them. The reek of garlic flowers surrounds them and there are lethal hawthorn stakes in their hands. The silver crucifix you sense before you see it, its deathly power is so great.

Van Helsing steps forward, pushing the crucifix towards your face. "Dracula!" he cries. "Fiend, you have slain your last victim."

The fool! Does he think himself well-armed? To challenge you now, in the dead of night, when your strength has just now freshly been renewed? Despite his bluster, you can see the terror behind his eyes.

"The blood is the life, Van Helsing. And now I will drink my fill of yours!"


  1. It's interesting how you often submitted ideas to the FF editors that were clearly beyond the limited range of the series. I mean aside from some SF titles the series never had any titles happening within the confines of our universe so i'm not suprised they turned this down (although you say this one was close to happening) but it clearly shows the kind of ambition and unwillingness to settle for easy and unoriginal ideas that you guys had. I guess in some cases too you were possibly hoping Puffin would consider starting new series. In any case the concept and picture of Christopher Lee immediately calls to mind J.H. Brennan's Dracula's Castle though of course your book was bound to be a lot more interesting with a serious tone (unlike Brennan's title which is pretty bad, even though I do have a soft spot for his similarly-toned Grailquest series).

    I see you mentionned the Witcher. have you played it? If so, did you like it? I tried it because of all the great reviews but I find this kind of character and story-driven RPG not to be my cup of tea, preferring by a long shot open-endedness to great but ultimately limiting storytelling (to tell a good and coherent story you often have to limit the player's choices and paths). Of course the best would be if the two could be combined (for all the greatness of the Elder Scrolls series for example, storytelling wise it's just passable)

  2. Hi Milk, I much prefer open-ended adventures, both in videogames and in my face-to-face roleplaying. Jamie and I did try playing The Witcher but it crashed us to blue screen several times so in the end we had to give up. A much better experience imo was the classic game Outcast, which had a somewhat constrained story but with so many strands and options about which order to tackle problems in that it felt like you had real freedom.

    1. Let me just update that by saying that Jamie and I have now played both Witcher 1 and 2 and really enjoyed both - though I would have liked an Elric videogame even more. I'm looking forward to Witcher 3 but I have to wait until I have a clear fortnight!

  3. A little part of me died inside when Outcast 2 was cancelled.