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Monday 30 July 2012

The mask of time

concept art
I can't remember whether this image has appeared on the blog before. This is Russ Nicholson's rough layout for the cover of The Court of Hidden Faces, of course. It was a good long time ago, so hard to say now whether this was done before or after Kevin Jenkins drew his pencil version. I used to design the covers myself, so it's possible that I sent that sketch to Russ along with the descriptions for the interior illustrations and he decided to have a go at it.

Publishers' art directors used to have a fixed sense of whether an artist could do maps, drawings or paintings. They might allow that somebody could do two of those, but never all three. Jamie and I, having worked with Russ on many projects, know how incredibly versatile he actually is, but even so it took us until the last two FL books to get the publisher to let him do the world maps.

One nice little detail you can see here: the mechanical buttresses on the palace that enabled it to walk. That was Russ's idea, and one we happily incorporated into Harkunan mythos. And it must have been a decade before Mortal Engines, too. And did Edgar Rice Burroughs get there even earlier, or was that a Disney retcon?

Sunday 29 July 2012

Gardens of riotous foliage in the white sea-cast sunlight

You saw it here first. The new paperback edition of Fabled Lands 5: The Court of Hidden Faces has gone to proof stage this weekend. All being well, you can expect it on sale within a few weeks.

Now I really need to get on with other pressing work (the follow-up to Frankenstein for one, the six gamebooks for our spring venture for another) but I'm going to keep tinkering with the files for Book 6: Lords of the Rising Sun whenever I have a spare moment, and that should certainly be ready in good time for Christmas.

In the meantime, here's a taster of Book 5. Most of the book was written by Jamie, but a small chunk of it was ghosted by Tim Harford and this was my own contribution:
From a distance the towers of Aku seem to hover in the air like a city in a mirage. Gardens of riotous foliage cascade like green waterfalls from the elegant pinnacles and domes. Windows of brightly stained glass glint and sparkle in the white sea-cast sunlight. Choir music drifts languidly from the highest minarets. Men and women in gorgeous silk robes glide decorously along the raised esplanades and balconies. For the masked nobles of Aku, life is one long round of banquets and masked balls. 
Not so for the poor. The city is built right across the top of a narrow river canyon hundreds of feet high. The rich live in the city proper, the better-off merchants have mansions on the upper ledges of the canyon walls, and the slums of the poor cluster far down below. There they must endure the daily shower of sewage and refuse from above but, even so, many covet the sites directly under the city. This is because the nobles sometimes toss scraps of meat or half-eaten fruits from the balconies, or even whimsically drop coins off the marble balustrades; a desperate man can always dream of a windfall from on high. 
Guards stand on duty beside the ramps leading to the noble palaces, as stiff and unmoving as figures of cast iron. These men are members of the Expunger caste. Their tunics are cut away leaving the right arms bare from the shoulder down, the skin patterned with a black filigree of tattoos swirling down the forearm and hand towards the long, iron-hard fingernails with which they can slay a foe with a single cobra-like stab. 
On the terraces of the canyon wall just below you are the warehouses and homes of the merchant class. A few shrubs are the only decorative touch to relieve the grey tedium of those narrow peak-roofed dwellings. Aku is the capital of Uttaku. A great palace, resting on massive buttresses, sits above the city like a spider. In the palace lives the Faceless King and the nobles of the Court of Hidden Faces. You ask a passerby about the people of Uttaku. He tell you to go to an inn, where your questions will be answered.  
The homes of the merchants are safely clear of the sewage outlets in the underside of the city, although a strong wind can sometimes carry an unpleasant whiff. In front of them runs a paved promenade where heavily laden ox-carts trundle day and night. From the edge of the promenade you can get a dizzying view of the harbour far below. Strains of delicate harpsichord music waft from the leafy terraces of the city suspended over the chasm. 
A merchant pauses beside you and half closes his eyes, smiling serenely. For an instant you think he is also enjoying the music, but then he hawks and spits over the side. You see the gobbet of phlegm swoop down to catch a slum-dweller where he squats in front of his shack a hundred feet further down the cliff. 
‘A-ha-ha!’ crows the merchant. ‘See that? The stupid dozer didn’t expect that, did he?’  
Delightful people, the Uttakin. Their motto seems to be: no matter where you are in life's heap, always take time to dollop dirt on the guy below you.

Friday 27 July 2012

Everybody's got their Jar Jar Binks

If I had three wishes, I'd spend the first one going back and expunging this ghastly little critter from The Court of Hidden Faces. It's not that I don't like leprechauns - quite the reverse. Two of my grandparents were Irish, and I grew up on tales of the Little People. But never in my wildest dreams did I visualize them as squeaky, mule-eared dwarf clones of Shirley MacLaine in begorrah boots. And what in the name of Ebron is a leprechaun doing in Uttaku anyway? If you want the truth, I suspect it involved a tight deadline, a bottle of Jameson's, and me and Jamie giving in to a plea from a very young relative. (Crowdsourcing is one thing, but don't ever give in to kidsourcing.)

Luckily I don't need to waste a wish. I'm currently typesetting Fabled Lands book 5 for re-release in paperback, so I had a long hard think about little Lorna and - oops, whaddya know; she didn't make the cut.   'Tis only a stepmother would blame me.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

An open secret

Things have been quiet around here for a few days because I've been working around the clock on something. The picture is all the hint you need...

Friday 20 July 2012

Mirabilis Year of Wonders book 2

Gearing up for the (hopefully) imminent release of Volume 2 of Mirabilis, my ongoing comic book fantasy epic, here is an online preview of the first ten pages. New to the party? In that case, you can see how the story starts with the first 30 pages of Volume 1 online here.

If it's your cuppa, you can still order the gorgeous hardcover edition of Book 1 here and you can pre-order Book 2 here. And the paperback edition is available here.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Orbsome news

At last it can be revealed: Megara Entertainment, publishers of the Keep of the Lich Lord and Fabled Lands apps, have chosen their next project and it is... Way of the Tiger. Quoting from their press release:
Roleplaying in the fantastical realm of Orb.,, 
Walk among the shadows, strike unseen: the martial arts gamebook series The Way of the Tiger by Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson becomes a pen-and-paper RPG! The Way of the Tiger RPG brings intense action in a world of strange fantasy, where ninja dwell in the darkness and sorcerers unleash powers beyond comprehension. 
Match your skill and cunning against brutal villains, strange beasts, and the followers of dark gods. Become a ninja of the Way of the Tiger and seek vengeance on Yaemon, Grandmaster of Flame. 
Become a samurai of Eo or errant knight of Rocheval and wage war on the scorpion sons of Nil, Mouth of the Void. Become an elven enchantress of Tanajla and use mind-bending powers against the Order of the Scarlet Mantis. Become a templar of Time or scholar of Fate and manipulate your own destiny! 
From the Sea of Snows to the Desert of the Forsaken. From the Island of Tranquil Dreams to the Mountains of Undying Solitude. The realm of Orb awaits!
As that overview makes clear, there's a lot more to Orb than Japanese-style magic and characters. The world was originally created by Mark Smith for the Dungeons & Dragons campaign he ran when he was at school, and to my eternal regret I never got to play in it. Other Brighton College alumni like Jamie Thomson and Mike Polling ("The Key of Tirandor") describe Orb as one of the great roleplaying experiences of their lives, and many of the characters in the gamebooks are based on their adventures.

This is a print RPG, incidentally, not an app, so the technophobes out there can breathe a sigh of contentment. What could be any more perfect? How about the return of the Way of the Tiger gamebooks themselves? And in both digital and print form, would you believe? I'm not kidding... More news very soon.

Sunday 15 July 2012

Creative doctrine for Frankenstein's Legions

I alluded last time to the fact that, in developing any creative project that entails a group of people, you have to do an awful lot of work that won't appear on the screen or the page. Today I'm posting the "design doctrine", an evolving document that shows everybody what makes the show, game or (in this case) comic they are working on unique.

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Frankenstein's Legions: creative doctrine

First and foremost: they're not zombies.

Zombies you can get elsewhere. Everywhere. There's no shortage. What Martin McKenna and I thought when we looked at the original Frankenstein: "This is science fiction."

So it's not about undead, it's about conquering death. The "lazarans" or "revenants" brought back by the Frankenstein tech, they are living men. That's the tragedy. Because other people don't treat them like living men. They treat them as soulless monsters, despised and feared. We know that humans don't need much of an excuse to put a label on others, to dehumanize and enslave them.

That's part of it. The other part is how you would feel, yourself, brought back from the dead. Physically there may not be any reason to feel differently about yourself. But say it happened next year. You die in an accident, you're on a slab for a couple of weeks, and then some new technology brings you back. Your family would already have begun the grieving process. Think they'd welcome you back? Think you'd feel the same as you did before?

How about those guys who have a hand transplant, or a face transplant. They're still the same person. But they need counselling not to want to cut a piece of themselves off. And this is the 21st century. Think what it'd be like in the mid-1800s, if you've been ripped apart on the battlefield, stitched back together from the body parts of your buddies, and jolted back to life. That tattoo on your new arm, that's the name of your best mate’s wife - the arm was all that was left of him. As for the souls of the dead, who knows where they are. People tell you you're a monster now, a second class citizen whose only home and family now are his battalion.

Some thoughts arising from this:

The emotional charge in the story is about the anguish and despair of living. Frankenstein's Legions is about the unbearable position of the monsters - about the terrible and very personal things that have been done to them, the awful things they themselves have done, and about the power and violence that only fantasy lets you resort to, as a vent for your frustration. These monsters are heroes of pain.

So the stories need to get inside their heads, sympathising with their stories, understanding their disgust - at humanity and at themselves - and then letting all hell break loose in righteous, visceral wrath. It's a story for the outsider in all of us. If you look at the green "vat monster" painting: I asked Martin for the image of two scientists, staring in horror at what they've achieved. And then you notice the reflected eyes in the glass and you realize that you are the head waiting to be attached to that torso in the background.

There are two levels of horror in Frankenstein's Legions. The first is the body-horror of the pieced-together abominations that we’re looking at. The second is the individual's moral horror at what they have done and what they are forced to do. Imagine a tortured soul who has had an awful life, finding himself woken in a monstrous body, dragging himself around because he must, loathing himself and everything around him... The life the monsters are forced to live is just unbearable.

For me, a big inspiration is the early Hulk stories. I'm talking about right back at the beginning, the Kirby issues, where it was all about this tortured nightmare self. A lot of that probably came from stories like the Karloff Frankenstein movies. We don't have to be sappy about making the monsters likeable. They can rip off innocent heads like daisies. That only makes them more interesting. They are entitled to treat "the living" (us) with savagery, when you look at how they have been treated.

So don't let's have the noble savage who just wants to be left alone to love. Let's have the men who, loathed as monsters, will take every chance to act as monsters. The dirtiest dozen you can imagine, the Inglourious Basterds turned up to eleven. And make the reader side with them so that we, too, despise "the limps" who expect us "stiffs" to fight their wars for them.

About the imagery: Gothic has been way overdone. Castles, dungeons, darkened labs... we can't make a brand from clichés. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at the end of the Age of Reason. The Georgians built geometrically regular houses, very modern in their tastes. Napoleon held conferences on river boats. Ballrooms would be well-lit, brightly painted. This was not the Dark Ages. I say that because when a lazaran platoon marches onto the lawn of a chateau, the intrusion of the horrific into everyday, orderly life will be all the more shocking.

We should decide: is this to be set in 1830s Europe? It could as easily be set in 1860s America, Victor Frankenstein's notebooks having been brought over by Clerval's family fleeing the wars in Europe. And just when one institution of slavery is being abolished, suddenly a new and more widely acceptable version is found...

All the above is my vision for what makes Frankenstein's Legions stand apart from other interpretations of the genre. I'd like it to shake up the Frankenstein story the way District 9 shook up SF movies. Not to be Van Helsing or The Wolfman, another tired retread of that whole played-out Gothic horror vibe, but to bring something fresh, visceral and at the same time thought-provoking.

Friday 13 July 2012

Story development for Frankenstein's Legions

For the last couple of weeks we've been looking at the Frankenstein's Legions game design document, which dates back to the late '90s when I was working alongside Martin McKenna on a bunch of games at Eidos, notably Plague, which later became Warrior Kings.

About a decade after we dreamt up Frankenstein's Legions, Martin and I had a go and rethinking the idea for comics. This got a little further along, and you can even find a link to part of the script here, but we soon found that the artists whom the comic book company had hired were not familiar with our Napoleonic Wars setting. Instead it was all massive Civil War sideburns and zombies torching Atlanta.

Well, if we learned one thing in big development teams it's how to be flexible. And, short of waiting for the long-promised Temeraire movie to come out, we couldn't see any way of bringing the (American) artists up to speed. So we started thinking about how we could move the whole caboodle over to the US during the 1860s. Here's the first of two story development documents that might interest you if you want to find out what a lot of iceberg goes under the surface of the comic book, movie or game that you get to see.

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Frankenstein's Legions: US Civil War story notes

In the treatment, the setting was Napoleonic Europe and there were two distinct threats. First, the left-wing revolutionaries of the French government (kind of Khmer Rouge extremist communists, if you like!) were willing to use the Frankenstein tech in really horrible ways: grafting human heads onto giant eels, dog heads onto human bodies, etc. In real life, those were the same guys who invented industrialized executions 150 years before the Holocaust, so it makes sense they would blithely authorize experiments that would horrify any normal person.

I wanted that because we have a world in which horrific things are happening - the dead being brought back to life to serve as slaves and soldiers. So pretty soon that becomes the new status quo and we need something even more horrific, like creating hybrid monsters, to define our bad guys for whom fanatical logic dictates the unthinkable.

Secondly I had Napoleon as a personified bad guy. The French revolutionary government sent a commando team to bring his body back from St Helena, where he died in a British prison. After being restored to life, he had to be kept in a tank of preservative chemicals because he'd been in the grave a while. He was slowly recovering his memory, so whereas the fanatics thought they'd just acquired a kind of military strategy computer, they didn't reckon on him hatching plans to overthrow them.

I needed both those elements, the fanatics as a group and Napoleon as an individual, because the story couldn't just be "the Brits are good, the French are evil". Both sides use the Frankenstein tech, and the villains are individuals or creeds who go a step further. I think you'll need to keep this idea in the Civil War version. Most Confederates were not evil racist autocrats; most Unionists were not fighting like paladins with the lofty goal of emancipating the slaves. There is good and bad on both sides. You may need an equivalent mythic figure to Napoleon (perhaps from the War of Independence? though I guess the world has had few dictators of Napoleon’s calibre) and an equivalent to the extremist fanatics of the French revolutionary government. It needs to be a creed, not just a few mad scientists. Maybe a crazed cult who believe God has authorized a new Eden on Earth and it's okay for mankind to play around creating abominations.

Incidentally one of the key ideas in Frankenstein's Legions is that you aren't just brought back to life by the technology. When you get off the slab, you don't know who you are. It's a new you. Like Frankenstein's monster - he didn't think, "Oh, my brain came from a criminal who was hanged" or whatever. The brain got rebooted, so in a sense it's a newborn person getting off that slab. Lazarans are like amnesiacs in that they know the skills they had before – how to shoot a gun or play the piano, how to speak – but specific personal memories are lost. The tragedy is that they may encounter their loved ones, but they don't remember them. There may be snatches of memory, that's all.

So the search to recover memories is one way a resurrected character may go. Another might want to shun anything to do with who he used to be: "today is the first day of the rest of my life". Interesting character tensions.

As far as the artwork we've seen so far, it's important that the lazarans don't look like zombies. I'm sure there are a whole bunch of Civil War zombie books out there already, and we need to be brandably distinct. A resurrected guy may have scars if he was stitched together from separate parts, so some of the ones who've been resurrected many times could be quite monstrous: hands or arms out of proportion, different skin tones, asymmetric bodies, etc. Others who died a clean death could look almost normal. Almost. Here is Mary Shelley's description of the original creature:
I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they  were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
I like the idea that such a face, with skin taut on the veins and muscles, could be both ugly and beautiful at the same time. In some cases, the yellowish skin colour (caused by their differently colored blood) might be the only sign at first glance that the person is a lazaran. Most certainly they aren't undead – the opposite, in fact: full of vigor, intimidating to ordinary men because of their raw energy and animal strength. They are the homo superior of their time, and it's only a matter of time before we see a lazaran Magneto, or even some people who are willing to kill themselves in order to get the enhanced strength, speed and senses that come with resurrection.

Okay, so back to that prologue. A raid on a remote farmhouse where lazaran hybrids are being created? Or perhaps a cult who have their own unique interpretation of Revelation 20:6:
Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of the Lord and will reign with him for a thousand years.
So these cultists are deliberately committing suicide, performing surgery to enhance the bodies, and resurrecting each other as the new "chosen ones" who believe they're going to reign for a thousand years. (Obviously you'd need to have some normal, sane preachers on the good guys' side to show that this cult is a definite aberration!) We start with a small band of Civil War deserters looking to raid a remote homestead. They sneak inside, bit of banter, the place seems deserted – then they are picked off one by one, fast like Alien, and that pre-title sequence ends with the last of them being leapt at by a horrible hybrid: human head, wolf-like body, serpents growing out of its back or whatever. Let Martin have some fun here! Then cut to the opening we have already, a quieter scene with a family pushing the body of their loved one in a cart.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Frankenstein's Legions game overview Part 5

Today's post is the final part of the Frankenstein's Legions high concept document. In a parallel universe, Eidos did this game instead of - well, take your pick!

The Notebooks of Doctor Frankenstein

“A dream has power to poison sleep.” – Mary Shelley

Tom Clerval, raised in the United States by his father, an exiled French aristocrat, enlists as a surgeon on the British allies’ side during the Promethean War of 1821-36.

Clerval has inherited the notebooks of his godfather, Victor Frankenstein. Although familiar with Frankenstein’s experiments, he has never put the resurrection procedures to use – not even when, a few years before the start of the game, his fiancée Victoria died by drowning.

When, after fourteen years of war, the fanatics of the Second Convention that governs France restore Napoleon – “the Boney Man” – to life, Clerval gives in to pressure from his own side and agrees to release the Frankenstein notebooks. Clerval insists, however, that the use of resurrected men in battle remains limited and Sir Percy Blakeney, the head of military intelligence, concedes.

Clerval and his platoon of monsters become a legend on both sides. He rises swiftly through the ranks, turning the tide of war with a series of decisive pitched battles coupled with daring raids behind enemy lines.

Although kept strictly under guard at Versailles, Napoleon succeeds in restoring his former lieutenant, Marshal Ney, to command of the French cavalry in place of the Convention’s general. Internal political divisions within the revolutionary government begin to pave the way for Napoleon’s return to power.

After a year when the fate of Europe hangs in the balance, the Allies (Britain, Prussia, Russia, Austria and the United States) finally manage to split the Convention’s forces and defeat the army of Citizen Valdemar at Crecy. However, Napoleon seizes power in Paris and returns with a new army raised from the dead.

Clerval is betrayed. When he encounters other monsters on the Allied side but not controlled by him, he realizes that his best friend has given the technology to the government. Angrily he vows to wage a war to end all wars. He swears to Blakeney that, when Napoleon is defeated, he will destroy Frankenstein’s secrets for good. It seems an empty boast.

During an expeditionary attack in Eastern Europe, Clerval’s army is seemingly surprised by Napoleon’s larger force. Defeat seems inevitable, but Clerval retreats into the steppes as winter closes its grip. The intense cold of the Russian steppes disables Napoleon’s cannon – his “beautiful daughters” on which his tactics depend.

Clerval defeats Napoleon’s army only to discover that the Emperor has fled. He overtakes him on the road to Paris. Marshal Ney, sickened by the barbarity into which the war has descended, offers Clerval a duel and is killed. Clerval destroys Napoleon with a bomb that blows his body to pieces.

A last mission, this time in the English countryside. Clerval locates the laboratory where the Allies are creating monsters and destroys it, ensuring that Frankenstein’s notebooks go up in flames. Clerval’s last remaining monster sacrifices itself to save him from the flames.

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Epilogue: Napoleon’s personal physician arrives by carriage at Vilnius in Lithuania to oversee a huge excavation. A tall figure emerges from the carriage – Marshal Ney, but now with his head shaved and a scar indicating cranial surgery. He surveys the excavations, which are revealed to be the mass graves of the Imperial Guard, crack troops of the Grande Armée who had died of starvation during the retreat from Moscow more than twenty years before.

These are the best troops the world has ever seen. They lie in the soil, still with their weapons and uniforms intact.

“The cold has kept them young,” says Ney, although he speaks now with a Corsican accent and a cadence that is instantly recognizable. “Glorious sons of France, now you can arise and go home at last…”

The Emperor raises his face to the west. We go close on his eyes, which are burning with an inner light as he speaks over the open graves:

“I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me – he shall never die.”

Smash cut to black. Music and end credits.

Look & Feel

“What disturbs our blood is but its longing for the tomb.”

In the gothic romances of the early 19th century, nature is seen as immense, remote and daunting. Man is a speck in the eye of an uncaring universe. Against this world view, the idea of a mortal man daring to usurp the power of life and death becomes both inspiring and doomed to catastrophe.

Weather and environment in the game convey the gothic view of heightened reality. Fast-moving clouds send ragged shadows racing across the hills. Rain gusts in horizontal sheets and sluices off gutters. Snow swirls like fine desert sand in the wind. Fields become mires of mud or featureless blisters of rock-hard frost.

The interface utilizes a crackling, dynamic, scratched-negative effect. Icons seem to flicker unwillingly into life, accompanied by a mournful electrical hum.

The main game screen will present a behind-the-character 3D view of a nightmarishly ravaged European landscape – blasted heath, craggy hills, unkempt cemeteries, wild forests, sullen cities. The colors are stark and desaturated. On the surface this is the mid-19th century, but in spirit it calls to mind the horrors of modern mechanized warfare from 1914 onwards.

Frankenstein’s Legions will employ a stark visual style to evoke hyper-real images of a landscape blasted and laid waste by war. Common images: storm clouds over churned mud, stumps of splintered wood in the earth, barbed wire, mountains shouldering the sky, carts carrying body parts from the front, gibbets creaking in the wind, shrapnel whip-cracking the air, handkerchiefs covering the face from the stench of formaldehyde, lightning rolling along the hills, the hollow stare of patchwork soldiers driven beyond madness, the unease of living officers in command of reanimated men.

Sounds: sullen mutterings of villagers, keening wind, weeping from mourners at the graveyard, the distant rumbling of thunder, the howl of wolves, the shriek and snort of frightened horses, muffled voices from taverns at night, forlorn cries from mountain caves, the thunder of cannon, the whistle and crump of exploding shells, pebbles clattering down a steep cliff, the relentless wail of dying men, the dismal groans of the resurrected. During gameplay, the only sounds will be environmental: wind, gunfire, footsteps, the shouts of men, the snarl of monsters, and so on. The use of incidental music is restricted to inter-level cutscenes.

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I can't wrap up this saga of the Frankenstein's Legions game without mentioning that I originally conceived it, not as a squad-based tactical game, but a classic eye-in-the-sky RTS game. In that version, players chose to be one of three "races": Prometheans (creating Frankensteinian monsters), Artificers (creating armies of proto-industrial robots) or Expurgators (religious zealots opposed to meddling with nature in any form). At the turn of the millennium, however, there was a sense that the time of those old cerebral games was passing. Game design has its fads like anything else. The character-based game into which FL evolved would cost millions to develop, though, whereas the RTS could be perfectly adequate as a tablet game with almost retro graphics à la Starcraft. A famous game industry figure was fond of saying in the late '90s that platform games were dead, then a few years later that classic RTS was dead, but I would say: never say never!

Monday 9 July 2012

Frankenstein's Legions game overview Part 4

Gameplay features

Assembling monsters

Monsters are created at the player’s laboratory between levels. The player has a set number of heads and can choose what body parts to attach to them. Regardless of the body parts, it is the head that defines the monster.

The heads set the behavior protocols of the monster and the weapon and clothing that the body will be equipped with. Each head type has its own combat abilities and maneuvers. The five heads you begin the game with are:
characteristic behavior
Good vision and stealth
Good in attack; tendency to berserk; cannot be hypnotized
Favors missile weapons; avoids close combat if outnumbered
Extremely good in close combat, but slow to take initiative
Good vision, best suited to patrol and sentry duty

Each monster is characterized both by body language and the sounds it makes. Stubbs is breathless, twitchy, looking around, always thinking on his feet. Caulder lopes along cackling wildly. Graves glowers at you and is apt to respond to orders with a suspicious grunt or a contemptuous hiss. Newman snarls and stamps his feet continually, barely able to contain his rage. You can see that he’s eager to crush men’s skulls with kicks from those huge hobnail boots. Rackstraw is given to acquiescent groans and will howl dolorously if you leave him behind.

Throughout, the gameplay evokes a world in which characters are really responding to your presence, each with their own personality which the player will come to recognize and use to best advantage.

Body parts

Body parts have a mix-n-match effect on the monster’s attributes:
can be asymmetrical; thinner arms strike faster; muscular arms have more strength, longer arms give greater reach
a larger torso means more hit points but also more mass, reducing mobility
large hearts allow more frequent paroxysm attacks (see below) but use up galvanic charge faster
long shanks mean a long stride, fast on the flat; shorter limbs are more effective on slopes; thickly muscled legs are slower but good for leaping and climbing

Subject to the body parts available, the player can choose any combination of physical characteristics with any of the heads. This makes a very wide range of different monsters possible within the game. The gameplay trade-offs are subtle and can be exploited by the player: extra mass means lower speed, long arms mean greater reach but may be brittle, and so on.


Monsters need galvanism (electricity) to function at full effectiveness. Without any galvanic charge, a monster is a match for half a dozen men. With a full charge, each monster is a regiment in itself.

Each monster has both a hit point bar and a galvanic charge bar. Galvanic charge is expended making special attacks called paroxysms. A full charge makes the monster less prone to combat effects such as stun, knockback, and so on. Galvanic charge also functions as armor, absorbing some of the damage from direct impact attacks (but not from acid, fire, etc).

Injured monsters slowly recover hit points, like human characters, but only if they have a galvanic charge. The rate of recovery is proportional to the remaining charge. When a monster has used up its charge, it will no longer recover hit points. Damage at this stage can cripple or sever the monster’s body parts.

Heroes of Pain

Paroxysms are special attacks, unique to each monster. One kind of paroxysm is a direct assault whereby the monster wades into the enemy, dismembering men and scattering the bloody stumps in all directions. This can have a significant effect on morale. Other kinds of paroxysm have special effects. Stubbs leaps in among the enemy from behind, slicing down individuals and then darting off into concealment before attacking from another direction. Whereas Graves’ paroxysm causes him to dig into the earth and leave a deadly fizzing bomb that your own side can see but the enemy cannot.


The morale of human troops is a significant factor in the game. You will more often see units break and run than stand to be destroyed to the last man.

Monsters are immune to morale effects. The player’s goal is to direct his monsters around the battlefield to support wavering friendly units while inflicting maximum casualties and loss of morale on the enemy. This is in line with our intent that the game will convey the immediacy, feeling and personal experience of war, rather than simply the tactical choices.

Morale means that tactical choices can have a far-reaching effect. An unsupported cavalry charge on infantry in good defensive order (such as Ney undertook at Waterloo) leads to the cavalry taking far heavier losses than they inflict. This lowers the cavalry unit’s morale. If it routs back through its own lines, other units will be affected because morale is catching. The result is that combined arms strategies that make best use of different troop types will yield more success.

Morale is outside the player’s direct control and provides rich emergent gameplay. The player will have the choice of fighting a slow but effective war of attrition by attacking enemy units at the front and flanks – or alternatively, a riskier strategy of surgical strikes against key targets deep into the heart of enemy territory, where morale is harder to break.

Terrain & weather

The terrain on most levels depicts a rugged landscape of ditches, mud, sunken lanes, crags, high brows of hills, etc. Simply picking the fastest legs for your monsters is not always the best choice. Sometimes the monster with squat, powerful legs will make better headway.

Terrain and weather interact to create a wide variety of game challenges. Rain can make a field impassable. Frost can harden the ground to the point where boots cannot grip. Winds can be so powerful that ordinary men are beaten back. By contrast, bright sunlight will slowly sap the galvanic charge of monsters but raises the morale of human troops.

Weapon types

In addition to firearms and melee weapons, soldiers and heroes can use other weapons. Some of these are restricted to unique situations. Others require the player to have captured the necessary technology in an earlier level.
  • BombsEffective against men and monsters, generating plenty of spare body parts for carts to harvest.
  • FireFrightens monsters, who will not cross
  • Barbed wireInflicts damage to cross and drains monsters’ galvanic charge
  • SmokeAffects visibility – can create “friendly fire” situations
  • Acid gasDissolves body parts off monsters; does general damage to men
  • CannonCannonballs better vs monsters (can knock off body parts) but less likely to hit than canister, which is more effective vs men

The goal of the design is to create interesting trade-offs with all such features, as in the best strategy games. However, a deep tactical understanding of terrain, weather and combined arms is not the only way to achieve victory. A player who prefers fast-paced action can still win by boldness, persistence and fast reactions. The difference is in whether the player wants a victory that feels as if it was won by carefully considered means, or by luck and reckless courage.

Active camera

During a level, if the player hasn’t taken any action for a few seconds, the Active Camera AI cuts in. This allows the camera to track or cut away to show other scenes that may affect the player. For instance, the camera might do a fast-track over to a hostile cannon that is being swung round towards the player’s position. Typically this allows impressive cinematic visuals that also serve to give the player advance warning of certain events. The moment the player touches the controls again, the view switches back to him and Active Camera switches off.

Friday 6 July 2012

Frankenstein's Legions game overview Part 3


Combat is presented in third-person. Clerval leads his squad of monsters around the battlefield and can have a decisive personal effect on the outcome. Other friendly units behave autonomously according to the tactics selected before the battle.

The play can zoom out to a map showing the whole battlefield, and can see where friendly officers are in trouble. The player will need to direct his squad to address problem areas in order to achieve victory.

Solo missions

Solo missions take place in a variety of locations: Highgate Cemetery, the Limehouse Docks in London, an isolated chateau, the Latin Quarter in Paris, the Versailles Palace.

Solo missions very often involve an element of stealth. Success in the mission typically unlocks later missions and/or provides help in battles, in the form of new technology, information or special items.

For example:
  • Clerval must attend a dinner-dance at the Savoy and speak with Ada Lovelace. She can help in later levels by providing decoded information from the enemy.
  • A rival officer in Clerval’s regiment challenges him to a duel. If Clerval wins, he will have a greater influence over troops in subsequent battles.
  • Traitors drug Clerval and abduct Lady Lovelace to ransom her to the French. In the role of one of Clerval’s monsters, the player must get her back without panicking the citizens of Mayfair.
  • Clerval goes alone to meet a spy in no man’s land. However, the rendezvous turns out to be a trap and he has to escape and evade his way back to safety.

The laboratory

Between levels, you get to repair or reconfigure your monsters in the laboratory. The lab is represented as a 3D environment that you can walk around. The lab is depicted as a gothic chamber with flickering tesla coils, bubbling fluids, and lightning flaring outside as rain beats on the shutters. In glass tanks around the lab float your monsters. A superimposed screen shows body parts in storage in your vats. Success in previous level provides you with new body parts and (more rarely) with new heads.

Body parts can be removed from monsters to the vats, or taken from the vats to attach to a monster. The heads define each monster. You can change any other body part, but each head remains suspended in its tank. Sometimes you won’t have enough spare parts in to field a whole team of fully-repaired monsters. The choice then is whether to go with a small team using all your best parts, or a larger group of half-made (and so weaker) monsters.

Each head is a named individual with his own history and, while they are this dormant state, you will sometimes hear them muttering as they dream of the life they had. The life story of each head develops over the course of several levels, as snatches of memory float to the surface. For a player who chooses to follow them, these life stories – some poignant, some brutal, some darkly funny – will each have as much depth as a good short story.

Sometimes you will acquire the head of an enemy or rival – or even a friend who features in the backstory. These heads may have special knowledge such as the layout of a chateau or a secret route behind enemy lines. Listening to their stories unlocks additional scenes in the backstory – which in turn may reveal unsettling things about Clerval’s own past.

Whenever you win new technology in a level, this is where it appears along with new options associated with it. For example, acquiring Moreau Hybrids allows you to attach bats’ wings or giant eel bodies to your heads, instead of human parts.


The cutscenes will be used to illuminate characterization and build the backstory, rather than to provide the player with superfluous mission briefings.

Many of these sequences will be flashbacks to Clerval’s past. Others show scenes whose significance will only become clear later. The cutscenes are presented in a style of “found drama”, in which the viewer is eavesdropping on secrets of great personal importance. Not everything is immediately explained. Some events seen may be subjective or open to various interpretations. This contrasts with the more common style of “staged drama” which resembles the storytelling grammar of a traditional movie.

Examples of this style can be seen in movies like Christopher Nolan’s Memento or Guy Maddin’s Careful. When successful, the effect is to intrigue and involve the viewer by presenting fragmentary scenes that can be gradually assembled into the complete story.

The player is free to skip the cutscenes. However, they should be a rewarding viewing experience in their own right. Even players who skip right through just playing the levels may later come back and watch the cutscenes like watching the extras on a DVD.

This innovative style will add to Frankenstein’s Legions as a groundbreaking, quality entertainment product unsurpassed by any previous videogame. It is especially appropriate to the lean-forward medium of games – where the plot-based, theatrical style of cinema-influenced cutscenes can often merely seem an unwelcome interruption.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Frankenstein's Legions game overview Part 2

A War Fought By Dead Men

Frankenstein’s Legions is an action-strategy game set in a gothic environment of moors, mountains and deserted villages. The style is a raw, modern take on Mary Shelley’s classic science fiction. Jittery Se7en style scratched-negative titles and icons, bleak war-torn landscapes, desaturated colors, haunting sounds of wind and rain, the howls and shrieks of reanimated men – all combine to evoke an eerie and highly original game experience.

The player takes the role of Tom Clerval, Victor Frankenstein’s godson. The game, presented throughout in third-person 3D, follows Clerval from army surgeon to high rank as officer in charge of a platoon of resurrected monsters.

Many levels consist of battles and sieges. During the action, the player controls only Clerval and his “dirty dozen” of monsters. Other characters are autonomous. However, Clerval’s orders will influence other soldiers on his side. His actions will affect their morale.

Other levels involve stealth or undercover missions, requiring the player to locate an item or person, perform an assassination, or gain information. Usually Clerval undertakes these missions alone or with just one or two of his monsters. The essential elements of stealth missions are always clearly defined – you locate the secret plans and the mission is complete. Incidental information that you discover along the way (in the form of rumors overheard from civilians, etc) can help in subsequent levels or add depth to the story, but will not be vital for completing the level.

Between levels, the player can repair and modify his monsters using body parts and new technology won during the level. He can also learn the monsters’ individual life stories – which will sometimes give a clue to special skills they can use.

Inter-level movies are not only used to give the player mission briefings, but principally as in a movie to fill out Clerval’s backstory in flashback and to show scenes that are happening to other characters.

There is additional story material in the form of each monster’s life story. The player can piece these together or ignore them as he or she chooses. After completing the game, it will be possible to go back and access all the monsters’ life stories, rather like unlocking extras on a movie DVD.

The built-in awareness of the brand will give Frankenstein’s Legions an appeal to a wide market beyond the gaming hardcore. The emphasis on story, atmosphere, a small core group of characters and simple gameplay mechanics will increase the appeal to this market.

“I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but by God they terrify me.” – the Duke of Wellington

All characters react to the player’s presence. Monsters cringe and howl as you issue them with orders. Friendly soldiers salute when you are near. Enemies glare and spit and shake their fists. Civilians avert their eyes and make the sign of the cross.

Monsters are hulking creatures with ill-proportioned limbs. They howl in anguish at the heavens and rip each other to pieces in gory battles. When at full strength, monsters are the most powerful characters in the game. They have devastating special attacks and can hurl ordinary men around and tear them limb from limb. Each side in a battle will usually field only a half-dozen monsters.

Heroes are stronger than ordinary men and may have special abilities. Senior officers on both sides are usually heroes. Tom Clerval himself is a hero. Others in the game include Sir Percy Blakeney (the Scarlet Pimpernel), Isabel Blakeney and Citizen Auguste Blanqui. The reanimated Emperor Napoleon and Marshal Ney are also classed as heroes, although possessing many attributes of monsters also.

Types of soldier include: hussars, dragoons, light and heavy infantry, sappers, and artillerymen. A unit of soldiers consists of around twenty men, and there should be up to twenty units per side in large battles. Over the course of the game, soldiers become more accustomed to monsters and will not automatically panic when facing them. However, a full-force special attack by a monster is usually enough to cause a wavering band of soldiers to rout.

Civilians are encountered both in stealth missions and (less frequently) on the battlefield. Civilians are frightened of monsters and will usually flee from them in panic, although sometimes they will band together, arm themselves with pitchforks and burning torches, and riot instead. Famous civilians in the story include Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Samuel Coleridge and George Stevenson.

Monday 2 July 2012

A new world of gods and monsters

Following on from recent posts about Frankenstein's Legions, the game concept I developed with Martin McKenna that grew to become an entire created world and a novel, I dug out our original high concept document and I'll be posting it up in instalments over the next few days.

(The usual caveat applies: this is nothing to do with my recent Frankenstein app book, which is not a bit steampunkish and in fact is not really even a genre novel (though it is interactive). But if you do like steampunk, hop over to Martin's blog where you'll find he is still working that side of the fantasy street better than anybody.)

In the mid 1800s, scientists recover and perfect
Victor Frankenstein’s secrets of reanimation,
with disastrous consequences.

The Emperor Napoleon is brought back to life and unleashes his resurrected armies on Europe.

Rival factions battle for control amid the war-torn ruins.

Frankenstein’s Legions is a strategy-adventure game that will take the player on a journey into the heart of darkness. This is a world in which Victor Frankenstein’s discoveries have been put to terrible use by the military of the day. Dead men are hauled from the battlefield, their bodies stitched together and resurrected to fight again, regarded with fear and loathing by the living men they stand beside.

The player is Tom Clerval, an army officer in charge of a platoon of resurrected soldiers. This is a third-person action-strategy game with a fully developed story and with optional strategic depth for those players who want it.

In the course of the game, Clerval must maintain and expand his platoon, which consists of around a dozen monsters. Each monster has individual personality and customizable attributes. And each has his own unique life story, which you can find out in the course of the game.

This is not an “eye in the sky” strategy game. The player is right in the midst of the action with smoke and shrapnel and clods of earth flying all around him. Hundreds of soldiers are fighting to the death. The player controls Clerval and his platoon of monsters, and can set standing orders that friendly soldiers will recognize – for example to muster at a point or stand guard. Other characters react to the player but are not directly under his control.

The core design principles are:
  • A fast-paced, thrilling, immersive game with lots of excitement. You will feel as if you are right in there in the thick of battle, not watching it dispassionately from on high.
  • Gameplay depth for those who want it. Game decisions are simple but have strategic effect – whether to galvanize your monsters before a battle for extra strength, or save the electricity to heal up survivors afterwards, and so on.
  • A sense of dread as in the best science fiction. One of your monsters turns to glare at you. Will he obey your orders, or rip you to pieces? Then he is gone, charging into the mist, howling, arms flailing, to attack the enemy.
  • Emotional involvement evoked by having a small core team of characters, each with unique attributes, idiosyncrasies and a backstory that unfolds over the course of the game. These are characters you will care about.

A Modern Prometheus?

 “O pity the dead that are dead, but cannot make the journey. Still they moan and beat against the silvery adamant walls of life’s exclusive city.”

Extending the premise of Mary Shelley’s original novel, the game is set in an alternate 19th century in which wars are fought using Frankenstein’s technology. Armies are recycled into the field by resurrecting the dead and continually repairing them with spare body parts.

After Napoleon’s exile to St Helena following the Battle of Waterloo, severe penalties imposed on France by Britain and her allies leads to a new revolutionary Convention taking power. The Convention’s scientists discover Dr Frankenstein’s techniques and begin experimenting with bodies from the guillotine. To the Convention, this is Year Zero. Along with a rationalist revision of science and the calendar comes a willingness – even eagerness – to make full use of the Frankenstein technology in warfare.

By the mid-1800s, the war in Europe has been raging for decades and whole countries have become devastated wasteland. Trenches and barbed wire cut across churned fields of mud. Clouds of yellow gas poison the soil. It is as though the Great War has started eighty years early.

On the battlefield, surgeons employ the Frankenstein procedures to reclaim body parts from the dead and dying. Armies will fall in battle, only for the surgeons to go out at dusk collecting the undamaged parts for assembly into a new band of patchwork soldiers ready to take the field the next day. In most cases only the lowest grade of serum is used and the unfortunates tend to become progressively ragged and insane.

The cities too bear the scars of war. The slums stink of formaldehyde and there is a new and frightening underclass that causes people to lock their doors at night. Myths have grown around the revenant war veterans - that they are eaters of human flesh, that their blood is cold and does not flow, that death follows closely from their touch.

Recently the Convention sent a squad to St Helena to recover Napoleon’s corpse. They resurrected him using the best serum available to them at the time. It was a partial success. Napoleon’s body had already begun to decay and he now spends most of his time suspended in preservative oils brought from Egypt, emerging from the Versailles Palace only on rare state occasions.

From the Convention’s perspective, they have secured the greatest military mind of the age as a resource. Napoleon himself, however, has other plans.

Sunday 1 July 2012

Spark of genius

I wonder if it’s fair to blame J R R Tolkien for all the really bad fantasy? Those oriental monks rubbing shoulders with European knights. The elves in sports bras. It’s enough to drive you back to Ivanhoe. As Tolkien himself said: “Fantasy can be carried to excess. It can be ill done.”

Tolkien had a quality that his imitators don’t even see. There’s a creative unity to his work. He doesn’t keep throwing any old rubbish at you, he'll never perpetrate the incoherent text. He asks just that you accept the axioms of his world and the rest all falls into place.

To create something on the scale of the Lord of the Rings movies, involving a team of a thousand people over more than two years, is remarkable enough. To do it and maintain that cohesive vision is sheer genius. And only possible because, at the heart of the project, there was the novel itself.

It’s more than a question of having a core design document. You can’t build anything until you have a plan of what you are trying to build. Tolkien’s novel is the design document of the movies, but it’s also more than that. It lights the way for any new artistic work set in Middle Earth. It’s the creative Flame.

Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (the scriptwriters) became keepers of the Flame while they worked on transforming it for the screen. Peter Jackson took it over while directing. Throughout the project, all of his team had that Flame to refer back to.

That’s because the process of good creative design isn’t the dictatorship that some people seem to fear, with “the guy in charge” coming up with rules that everyone must slavishly follow. Nor is it a case of committee thinking, with everyone pitching ideas into the stew.

It’s more like proselytizing a religion. The designer or author is the prophet. He or she lights the Flame, is its keeper, and brings the team to it. Once you see the light, you can go off and do your own thing and the work you do will have unity with everyone else’s.

Movies like Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit - or The Amazing Spider-Man, or Star Trek - show that it’s possible for a team of a thousand creative people to share one dream. A handful of man-years to write the novel – and it lit the Flame for a two thousand man-year project. Doesn’t that sound like a bargain to you?