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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.

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