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Friday 23 May 2014

Red as blood

I've dropped a few hints about Blood Sword coming back. The rumors are of a deluxe, hardcover edition of the complete series with full-color artwork throughout - and I'm not going to deny those rumors here, no indeed.

A previous post discussed whether to keep Blood Sword's very complex rules or to go for something a little bit easier. The current thinking is to start off with a "classic edition" using the original text and rules complete with tactical maps. That's the version the diehard fans will want. I can always revise it as a rules-lite edition later.

Fabled Lands LLP will start by releasing the classic edition in paperback, with the first two books, The Battlepits of Krarth and The Kingdom of Wyrd, appearing this summer. Personally I think the full tactical rules are better suited for an app version than print. In an app the tactical stuff would work brilliantly and require no work by the reader; something a bit like Warhammer Quest. But as the apps would necessarily prune the text down (those books are like thumping great GoT novels) we're going to publish the print version so that you can have both.

The hardcore collectors among you will be asking when the hardback edition is coming. Well, it's all just speculative right now, but probably this time next year. It all depends on Megara Entertainment's Kickstarter campaign for the Way of the Tiger books. Given the success of that, maybe we should try the same with Blood Sword's hardback edition.. Or maybe the Kickstarter should be to get the app launched, as that's going to take a little bit more oomph than most gamebook engines have going for them at the moment.

While you're waiting, here are a couple of images from the fourth book in the series, Doomwalk - which can be yours right now if you have $175 handy. The map is by Geoff Wingate, who I tapped for these books after seeing the fine cartographic work he was doing for Paul Cockburn in Imagine. The drawing of the marketplace storyteller is by Russ - as if you needed telling. And if you want to see an overflowing treasure house of great Russ drawings, hie yourself over to his blog this minute, for he generously posts collections of his outstanding fantasy and SF work, both old and new. The interesting thing about this one is the Vulcan (or Romulan?) in the audience there at top right. (I don't think I ever noticed that before, and I've been looking at this picture for 27 years!) I can't wait to see what these classic images look like in glorious color.

Friday 9 May 2014

From Fighting Fantasy to the Empty Quarter

There were supposed to be eight Virtual Reality books. Mark Smith had written most of the first draft of his third, called (if memory serves) The Masque of Death and inspired in part by a Fritz Leiber Jr short story, but it was proving complicated and Mark was getting a lot of feedback from the series editor, Ian Marsh. By the time I’d handed in Heart of Ice there was a yawning gap in the schedules and I had to write a book in a hurry to fill it.

Heart of Ice had been a lot of fun, but it wasn’t easy to write. By basing it on a Tekumel role-playing campaign I’d run with several groups of players over the years, I thought I’d save myself some work. Not a bit of it, as the world and the characters had to be created from scratch and that had knock-on effects on the story. So coming off that I really wanted a rest, and most definitely didn’t want to turn around another gamebook from scratch in eight weeks.

I had a vague outline hanging around from the late ‘80s, when Jamie Thomson and I had pitched a number of ideas to the Fighting Fantasy editors at Puffin Books. One, which had begun life as a storyline for a novel called, at various times, A Thief of Cairo or The Best Thief of Baghdad, and was then reworked as The Thief of Arantis, now got dusted off. I found it was a very scanty outline indeed. Oh well, I’ve always been a pantser. And in any case it was supposed to be loose and shapeless and picaresque. An Arabian Nights homage can’t look like Tolkien, you know.

So here’s what I had to start out with:

The Thief of Arantis

This gamebook takes as its setting the ports and coastal waters of Arantis, in Titan. Its flavour, however, is derived from the Thousand and One Nights. It deals with the protagonist's picaresque adventures as he or she rises from being a common sailor to the exalted rank of adviser to the Sultan.

Stopping off in one of the richer ports of Arantis, the protagonist hears talk of a marvellous egg bigger than a house. This egg, laid by the fabulous giant Roc, is prized for its qualities of good fortune and rejuvenation. A single piece chipped from the shell could be worth 10,000 gold pieces or more. Naturally, as with most tavern stories, the details are hard to pin down. Everyone knows of the Roc's egg, but no-one has much idea of where it might be found. Nonetheless, the protagonist is sure that it truly exists (he saw it on the cover of the book, after all) and sets out in search of the Roc's eyrie.

Along the way his ship is wrecked on an inaccessible stretch of shoreline. Luckily he alone survives and is brought before a wizard, who listens to his story with great sympathy. Moved by his plight, and taking his survival as sign of the favour of the gods, the wizard gives him some magic slippers that allow the wearer to levitate - once only. These should enable him to reach the Roc's eyrie.

Soon after arriving at the next city, however, the protagonist is mistaken for a notorious thief and is thrown into gaol, charged with having stolen a magnificent ruby from the Sultan's treasury. There he is befriended by a beggar who tells him a story about the legendary Roc. In return, the protagonist might choose to tell the beggar about his magic slippers. If he does, his trust is rewarded with treachery: he awakes the next day to find the beggar has escaped using the slippers, leaving behind only his mangy cat.

Unless he still has the slippers and uses them to levitate to freedom, the protagonist is still in the gaol a week later when the real thief is caught. This fellow, Azenomei, is thrown into the same cell, but the gaolers make no move to free the protagonist, assuming that even if he did not steal the ruby there must be some other crime he should pay for. That night the protagonist mentions his obsession with finding the Roc's nest. Much to his surprise, Azenomei agrees to help him on condition that they first go to the rescue of his sister, who has been carried off by a sinister Jinni to a citadel on the western edge of the Plain of Bronze.

Assuming the protagonist agrees, they escape from gaol that very night and within a week they have reached an oasis in the Desert of Skulls. The protagonist is summoned to the tent of a nomad princess who turns out to be a hideous ghoul. Although he should be able to survive this encounter relatively unscathed, it forces him and Azenomei to flee into the desert without filling their water-bags. A few days later, weakened by thirst, they stumble on another oasis at twilight. A stranger they meet here tells the protagonist he has found the Oasis Beyond The Mirage, and reveals a vision where the protagonist's reflection in a pool seems to be accompanied by an evil, gold-eyed man. When they awake the next morning there is no sign of the oasis or the stranger, though they now have full water-bags.

After a few further adventures they reach the Jinni's citadel. It seems deserted. With pounding heart the protagonist begins to search for Azenomei's sister, but somehow he loses Azenomei in the maze of corridors. At last he finds a scented chamber where the girl reclines on a divan to which she is bound by a golden chain. He is about to free her when the Jinni appears. It is his former companion, the one who called himself Azenomei! This is the meaning of the vision at the oasis. The Jinni reveals that he truly believes the protagonist to be the notorious jewel thief that the Sultan's guards mistook him for. The same thief once stole a great gem ("as big as the egg of the Roc that perches in its eyrie atop the Isle of Palms") from the Jinni's own hoard, and that is why he has lured the protagonist here. The protagonist's protestations of innocence are ignored and he is forced to fight for his life. Various items must have been gathered to stand any chance against the Jinni, but in fact the protagonist is helped by the girl, who reveals a knowledge of combat sorcery. After the battle she tells him she is actually the Sultan's daughter. Her magic was taught to her by her old nurse. However, she was not taught any spell to unlock the enchanted shackles binding her. For this, she says, the protagonist must get a jewelled key from the eyrie of the Roc.

Fortunately the Jinni has mentioned where the Roc can be found: on the highest peak of the Isle of Palms, which lies in the Gulf of Shamuz. The protagonist travels there and must use his magic slippers to levitate up to the nest. If he has already made use of the slippers, it is possible to succeed if he has bothered to keep the beggar's mangy cat. This miraculous animal has the property that its tail grows longer whenever an outrageous lie is spoken in its hearing. If the protagonist has treated the cat well and has learned of this power, he can cause the tail to reach right up to the Roc's nest and can climb up to get the jewelled key...

The protagonist might not have met the Sultan's daughter, of course, in which case he can just take part of the egg as he originally intended. This will make him rich beyond the dreams of avarice. If he takes the jewelled key instead, though, then his reward is even greater. After freeing the girl and returning her to her father, he is rewarded with a Robe of Honour and becomes the Sultan's vizier. Throughout the city he is lauded as the most daring thief in the world, for he stole the jewelled key from the Roc's nest and the princess from the Jinni's palace. Thus, one who began by being mistaken for another ends by becoming the one he was mistaken for.

I felt it needed more of a route in, but not the enforced quest of most single-story gamebooks. The story needed to be set in motion by the kind of arbitrary twist of fate (aha!) that characterizes the Arabian Nights. After that, the protagonist is cast around the world like a pinball by happenstance, coincidence and enemy action until it all ends happily ever after.

What I didn’t account for – or didn’t have time to correct – was that the original outline was predicated on you playing a thief. But in Virtual Reality books, the whole point is that you get to customize the kind of character you want. You might be a thief, but equally you might be a merchant or a nomad or a holy man. In a sandbox environment like Fabled Lands, it wouldn’t matter. You could bypass the thievish narrative, or come at it from another angle. In a single-story gamebook, the picaresque structure risked seeming unfocused.

When, last year, I came back to the book released as Twist of Fate (never liked that title - another area where time ran out on me) and got to rework it as Once Upon a Time in Arabia, the biggest change I made was to give it an entirely new prologue. The bad guy is now badder, his villainy toward you more egregious, and the stakes are higher right from the start. This goes somewhat against the fairytale dream-flow of the Arabian Nights – but it makes for a better gamebook, and on the question of foolish consistencies, I’m with Emerson.

Monday 5 May 2014

Ulukai te ho!

I’m typing this in madcap haste because I only just heard about a Kickstarter for the greatest game of all time. And the campaign has only four days left to go. So think of this as the blog equivalent of your TV screen going crackly and dissolving to an emergency announcement. We interrupt your regular program...

Oh, which game am I talking about? Outcast, of course.

Outcast was released in 1999 to a whole lot of fanfare, courtesy of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra no less, and Atari’s (then Infogrames) CEO Bruno Bonnell on a high wire in a leotard. Which is not something you’d catch Bill Gates doing, though he can jump over a chair.

At first glance, Outcast fits neatly into the adventure genre, albeit with an unusual pitch of science fantasy imagination that owes more to Vance, Druillet and Moebius than to the usual Flash Gordon serials that inspired Star Wars - and everything else like it that's come since. Outcast wasn't just an original setting, though. It did so many things its own way that it really defies definition.

Our hero is Cutter Slade, a Navy SEAL who is roped into a dimension-hopping experiment that takes him to an alien world where he learns that he’s a legendary hero whose coming has been prophesied for years. Hitting the ground running, Cutter has to lead a revolution, rescue the girl, and save the planet Earth from destruction.

Sounds familiar? Not the way Outcast does it. (Trust me on this. If I know anything, I know a good interactive story.)

To begin with, most story-based videogames even today are mostly linear. Outcast is an open world that allows the player to explore the story in the same way that he or she explores the landscape – by roving freely between different territories, picking up information in no particular order, ignoring elements that don’t interest and concentrating on others that do. No two players’ experience of the Outcast storyline are exactly alike.

It also helps that Outcast has a witty, intelligent script that keeps our interest and makes us care about the characters. The musical score, composed by Lennie Moore, would do credit to a great Hollywood epic. The voice acting is superb and the sound effects highly evocative. As we walk through the market of Talanzaar we hear the babble of voices, the strains of pipe music and the trudge of alien feet on ochre sand and we can easily forget that there are only a few characters visible on screen at any one time. It feels like a teeming city.

Also, Outcast is far beyond the simplistic black-and-white conflicts you usually get in SF blockbusters. Cutter’s enemies don’t do things simply because they are evil. Characters have real, complex motivations. There's at least one twist that is thought-out and executed as brilliantly as the best moments in cinema. And what makes it all the more believable is that the bad guys aren’t orcs or occupying aliens, existing solely to do evil acts. They are an army drawn from the same population they terrorize.

But all those things merely show that Outcast can do great storytelling as well as any movie. The really important factors are the unique stylistic touches that go to make it more than just an interactive adventure movie. To play this game is to take a trip to an amazing new world.

Outcast is full of great locations. The landscapes are set against alien skies that were painted as dioramas by lead artist Franck Sauer. There are points during Outcast that you have to forget about the adventure for a moment and just stop and marvel at a breathtaking view.
The creatures who populate the alien world, the Talan, aren’t just humans with a few bobbles stuck on their head. They really are alien, different, interesting. Their unusual appearance is a clever way around the limitations of the graphics, of course. We don’t have the same expectations that an alien face will display detailed emotion, so we quickly get used to taking emotional cues from their gestures and tonal inflection instead. But that’s just the technical question. Most importantly, the quaintly comical Talan with their clumsy splay-footed gait and child-like innocence are endearing. We get to like them, and so saving their world ceases to be a cliché or a mere game objective. It becomes personal. It’s something we want to do.

Outcast is distinguished by hundreds of tiny details that reveal the care and artistry that have gone into its creation. The rusty streaks that stain the stonework of Fae Rhan’s palace, the unique and clearly non-Terran flora and fauna, the simple yet engrossing subplots, the breathtaking otherworldly vistas, the humour and the humanity. All contribute to a work of art that ranks among the greatest in history. Cutter Slade goes on an adventure. And we go with him.

Now, the original team are trying to raise the money to overhaul the old voxel-based graphics and give the game an up-to-date look. It deserves to find a whole new generation of players, and maybe – thanks to Kickstarter – it will.

UPDATE (March 2017) - The Kickstarter didn't reach its target, but Appeal are now working on Outcast: Second Contact for a UK publisher, so here's hoping Brexit doesn't scupper that.