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Friday, 25 September 2015

A journal of the Plague years

Jamie and I went to work at Eidos Interactive in late 1995. I don't even think it was Eidos yet - that was some kind of reverse takeover manoeuvre cooked up by Charles Cornwall to finagle ailing software house Domark into a big money-spinning confection. As he put it at the time, "It's a minnow swallowing several whales."

None of that made any difference to us developers. Jamie was hired to do level design on the Deathtrap Dungeon computer game, while Ian Livingstone asked me to design a SimCity-type management and building game set in medieval London, or something like London. The inspiration was Daniel Simpson's short claymation movie H, in which a mark in the form of the letter h appears on the hand of a medieval stonemason who is sculpting a gargoyle for a cathedral. The stonemason is branded a heretic - or something else beginning with h - and burned at the stake We decided to call the game Plague, happily having talked Ian out of calling it P.

After struggling with economic models and architectural plans for a few weeks, I saw Ian in the corridor brandishing a copy of Warcraft 2 that he'd brought back from the States. He knew Warcraft was a favourite game of mine. "Have you played this yet?"


He chucked me the box. "You better take a look. Plague's got to be like this."

"OK, but Plague is a SimCity game."

I might have sprouted antennae, the way he looked at me. "Nobody wants more sim games. We want excitement. We want realtime strategy."

This was news to me, since I'd been hired to design a sim game, but I loved Warcraft 1 so I wasn't about to argue. I duly started to pack RTS elements into the city-building game the team were working on. It was going to be nearly a year before I realized that what was needed was to throw Plague out and start afresh - which is how Warrior Kings came to be conceived. That got mixed up in the political and business fallout of extricating a team from Eidos and forming Black Cactus, so the Warrior Kings that got released was a bit of a mishmash. A story for another day, that. We were talking about Plague.

As the wargame elements started to get bolted onto the original design, I realized that the team were still thinking of it as a city-building game. Our lead artist was an architecture graduate, and he had a lot of sway in the company, so it wasn't politic to junk the SimCity stuff right away. To help steer everyone's vision onto the new page, I wrote a script for the game intro sequence and got Martin McKenna to storyboard it. This wasn't even the intro I intended to use (more on that next week) but it made the team aware that the game they were working on was going to be about rather more dramatic issues than where to put the fish market...

Opening titles cards appear in sequence:

“The High King is dead.”

“The rule of law and justice is dead.”

“The dragon wing of night o'erspreads the world…”

We see the funeral of the High King. He's carried by his knights and laid in a burial mound, which is then sealed. As the knights and mourners file away, a storm-cloud darkens the sky.

Unhindered by the old King's edicts, resentment festers among his former knights. Each believes himself the rightful inheritor of the crown. Honour withers and treachery takes root, spreading like a poisoned weed in embittered hearts.

Across the countryside, the peasants huddle in fear. Murder, acrid-smelling, wafts on the air. The knights scent it; they grow grim and battle-keen. Each dreaming of dominion, they marshal their forces and prepare for the carnage to come.

In the court, knights look at each with hooded eyes, distrustfully. Some glance towards the empty seat at the round table, behind which hangs the dragon's-head banner of the High King.

Shadows on a castle wall: an assassin stabs a man in the back.

Kindled by intrigue, old grudges ignite. The kingdom is plunged into civil war. Armies surge and clash. Ringing steel and the wailing of widows drowns out the voice of reason. While Death sharpens his scythe, men who were once closer than brothers slaughter each other like wild beasts.

Crops and homesteads burn, great castles are shattered and left to ruin. A hundred noble knights lie dead, swords buried in mud, armour rusting. The victors bay for yet more blood. No quarter is given. The vanquished are hung on gibbets, ripe fruit for ravens.

Scenes of erupting battle, fire, dying men, executions...

A shadow sits now upon the vacant throne: the shadow of terror. The High King's dream has become a nightmare.

Sunset, falling through a narrow window on the deserted hall of heroes, leaves a slash of blood-coloured light across the dusty throne. The dragon's-head banner is by now moth-eaten.

Such brutal passion soon is spent. The fury of battle at last is lulled to sullen silence. In the aftermath thrive pestilence and famine. The soil, blood-clogged, yields weeds instead of wheat. Grain rots in dank barns where rats breed in the darkness. Behind the fortified walls of their towns, the survivors cower in dread of the plague that now sweeps the land. The sick are nailed inside their houses and abandoned to die. Bodies thrown into carts are left to blacken and bloat, the living too few and too fearful to bury them.

Prophets preach that Doomsday is near, that God means to wipe Man from the world for his sins. To most this is welcome news. The suffering is too much. Better the endless sleep of death than to endure the relentless horrors of the world.

Scenes of hardship. Narrow empty streets in a town, with smoke drifting on the breeze. Flagellants wearing crowns of thorns shuffle along, crying out as they whip themselves. A few peasants trudge miserably past – a weeping funeral cortege carrying the bundled body of a child.

Then, one night when the high winds howl, a traveller comes to your court. In these times, strangers are feared as carriers of the plague but he walks past your guards unchallenged, as if in a dream. With your ministers you listen to his words, even though he comes from far away and his tongue is hard to understand. In your hearts you hear him, in your memories you recognize the ring of noble speech. There is wisdom in his strange words. And he reminds you of the secret that in these terrible days of turmoil and death had been forgotten:

The court. Lightning outside. Knock at the doors, which swing open and a stranger enters. He looks like the High King seen on his bier in the first scene. This whole bit seems dream-like. We’re closing in on the stranger's face and into his eyes, sparkling in the firelight, and we hear the stranger speak:

“The soul of the land is its King. It withers because its soul, the King, is dead. So there must be a new King. His reign will mark a new beginning. For good or evil? Time will tell. But power cannot be shared. Others also come to take the throne. Therefore grasp you now this sword. Conquer by might, rule with right. One land, one King.”

While the stranger speaks, the view pushes into his eyes, fades to black, and then shows the faces of those listening to him. We pan around the court, ending on the lord's face.

The stranger reaches the bit about others seeking the throne and his voice becomes more emphatic and resonant. Cut back to where he was standing to find he's no longer there. A gleaming sword hangs in the air. The lord rises, reaches to take it –

The lord wakes, sitting bolt upright. He is surrounded by his ministers and men, who had fallen drunkenly asleep at the benches. Now they stir and, seeing the resolve in the lord's eyes, are instantly alert. Perhaps they shared his dream? We see his hand close, remembering the phantom sword he was reaching for. Jaw set sternly, he repeats the final words of the dream:

“One land, one king...”

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