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Friday, 29 March 2019

The other side of reality

I finally got around to watching Stranger Things. After all the hype it came as a disappointment. I get that it's a pastiche of '80s movies, but I like my pastiches to be more than just familiar ingredients slung together and reheated. Nostalgia doesn't rule out putting something fresh in the mix. Think of Super 8, or even Fargo (season 1, obviously). Without the spark of originality, you might just as well be listening to greatest hits covered by a tribute band.

But I digress. I don't want to talk about 1980s, Stephen King, or pastiches in general. It's just that the Upside-Down in Stranger Things jogged my memory about a game concept I sketched out at Eidos in the mid-'90s. We needed a quick-n-dirty game (famous last words that have brought many a developer low, those) to show off Sam Kerbeck's cutting-edge 3D engine. It needed to be a realtime strategy game because that's what our game Plague, later renamed Warrior Kings, was. Sam happened to flip the landscape upside-down while showing off what it could do, and something in my brain put that together with the Aztec land of death.

We never got around to doing the game, as Eidos shut down internal development a few months later and Sam went off to do other things. His engine got used for another RTS game, Warzone 2100, but never in the freaky way I had in mind.


A variant on Plague set in pre-conquest Mexico, using the same engine and basic game design principles. It's anticipated that Plague will make quite a splash, and Aztecs will satisfy demand for follow-ups in the long wait for Plague 2.

Aztecs will however not be simply a copy of the original game swapped into a different setting. The Mesoamerican world is uniquely colourful. The architecture, costumes and imaginative mythology have rarely been used in computer games and merit a product that stands alone.

City management will be less intricate than Plague. This will be a game of warfare and keeping the gods happy.

All flesh is grass
Villages supply food. Food is not an explicit resource in the game as with Plague but is simply shared out to any units within range of your buildings. Rather than bothering with quantitative measures, you can tell how well the farms are doing by the landscape textures used: rich green if there's plenty of food, dusty scrubland if times are hard. Lack of food leads to loss of hit points; an excess is required for units to recover from injury.

As long as your people are healthy and well fed, new Aztec children continually appear in the School. You can pick these up and drop them onto other buildings, which will determine their fate in life. For example, a child dropped onto a Temple becomes a Priest, one dropped onto the War Lodge becomes a Soldier, etc.

Do it this way
Units are given orders through a (graphic) verb/adverb icon system. This means you can tell a unit to Attack (the verb) and just leave it at that, or you can go to the next level of icons to specify how the attack should be carried out: Aggressive, Balanced or Defensive (the adverbs). As with Plague, what you don't specify is left up to the individual unit's AI.

An eye in the sky
Your view is provided by a flying camera giving an eagle's-eye view of the world. You can fly the camera anywhere, but how much you get to see depends on whether you have any units nearby. Within range of a friendly unit, the camera can see enemy units and the condition of enemy farms and buildings. Outside this range the view enters the Fog of War; it becomes sepia-tinted, buildings appear stylized without hit point info, and enemy units freeze and gradually fade as if from a persistence of vision effect.

Trading in secrets
Merchants were notorious in the Aztec world for spying. This is reflected by allowing all players to have a clear view, free of the Fog of War, when within range of any player's Merchants. Thus the Merchant who increases your wealth by trading with another city will also allow you a clear view of that city's defences during his visit there but this advantage is a two-edged sword.

Discriminating views
View of enemy units is subjective. This reflects Aztec warfare, where experienced soldiers were needed to recognize details of enemy deployment. In the game, you can only distinguish the enemy's elite units (Eagle Lords, Jaguar Lords, Arrow Knights and Hummingbird Priests) if you have elite units of your own near at hand. Otherwise all the enemy's troops appear as generic soldiers and you won't know where the danger lies.

The flipside of reality
Slain units become Skeleton Warriors in the Underworld: a subterranean mirror-image of the living world, where mountains ridges become narrow defiles and vice versa. You view the Underworld by flipping the world around to see the underside. The Underworld is another front where you must fight wars, because the concentration of your Skeleton Warrior forces in the Underworld affects the power of your Wizards' magic in the world above. You have only very limited control of your Skeleton Warriors: you can order them to move, but once they get where they're going they'll just attack any other tribe's Skeleton Warriors that are nearby - even if the other tribe are your allies.

Open heart surgery
Morale is improved by human sacrifice, making it worth capturing foes and taking them back to your Temples. This also prevents the slain foes from becoming Skeleton Warriors in the Underworld, as well as earning you the favour of the gods. You can see this as a strengthening of the glowing aura around the shrine on top of the Temple, which is what your Priests draw on to cast their prayer-magic.

Visitors from heaven
Sometimes, when a Temple's aura is very strong, a Hero will emerge from inside it. These Heroes are beings sent by the god to aid you. They have special strengths in battle, magic, etc, depending on the god. (There are gods of Rain, War, Sun, Learning and Luck.) However, the main advantage of a Hero is that they can dreamwalk. This is essentially a way of setting up a long string of orders for the Hero to follow: a dream-self (Nahual) is created which you can run rapidly around the map, giving it a sequence of orders which it will remember. When the dreamwalk ends and the dream-self merges with the Hero's physical body, he carries out the orders you gave during the dreamwalk. This allows you to set up complex tactical patterns of attack and defence and hold them in readiness, waiting to awaken your Heroes at the moment of greatest need.

The nitty-gritty
There will be considerably fewer buildings and unit types than in Plague. The basic buildings featured in the game are:

  • Palace School (spawns new units)
  • Ball Court (increases public contentment)
  • Skull Rack (each unit sacrificed adds a skull, boosting morale)
  • Market Plaza (stimulates trade)
  • Gladiator Platform (combatant is upgraded to veteran or killed)
  • Wizards' Tower
  • Priestly College
  • War Lodge
  • Temple (five types)
  • Canal
  • Well
  • Road
  • Causeway

Buildings concerned with resource production &/or processing:

  • Farm (can be set to produce food or cash crop)
  • Fishing village (produces canoes that can be seconded in wartime)
  • Weaponsmith (upgrades swords, invents spearthrower)
  • Cotton Mill (supplies cotton for armour)
  • Quarry (supplies obsidian for swords and stone for buildings)
  • Mine (supplies gold)
  • Banner Maker (improves the commands you can issue to units)
  • Aviary (supplies Banner Maker)

Resources that the player is told about in detail:

  • Gold
  • Stone
  • Mana (decreases over time, but never below increasing limit based on total sacrifices)

Hidden resources that you have only qualitative control over:

  • Food
  • Cotton
  • Obsidian

Basic unit types:

  • Commoners
  • Merchants
  • Nobles
  • Priests
  • Wizards
  • Scouts
  • Swordsmen 
  • Javelineers

And veteran units:

  • Eagle Lords
  • Jaguar Lords
  • Arrow Knights
  • Hummingbird Priests

Not all of those ideas would have made it into the finished game, of course. This is just a brainstorming pitch document to get the design process started. That's my favourite part of any project, incidentally, though I'm also willing enough to roll my sleeves up and keep toiling away to the finish line.


  1. I'm looking forward to Pet Sematary and the sequel to.... oh, point taken. Core Design was a stone's throw (mmm, a golf shot), from my Nan's house.

    1. Actually, Andy, you just reminded me that Pet Sematary trailer does look good...

    2. Stand By Me is a favourite, as is The Mist. On a horror related theme, any recommends? Just watched Trick 'r Treat (very good) and Phantasm (?).

    3. Among recent(ish) horror films I liked Pontypool, Citadel and Get Out (until it goes OTT stupid at the end). I'll take a look at Trick 'R Treat. Phantasm... you mean the '70s one?

    4. Yeah, the 70s one. I'm going through all the cult classics at the moment that I didn't see (or can't remember) from back in the day. I can't recommend it as such, but it has a quirky charm about it. It beats Critters and Ghoulies anyway!

      I've not heard of the first two you mention so I've put them on the next order. I'd recommend Train To Busan. Nothing knew but slickly done. Bone Tomahawk is worth a look. You'll need a strong constitution for one bit of it.

    5. Kurt Russell as a Wild West sheriff? I'm in!

    6. Off topic once again, Dave, but I watched your recommends tonight. Pontypool was ok. It's one of those where I can broadly appreciate what's going on without me being clever enough to articulate what the deeper message is! Citadel is a minor classic. Thought provoking, bleak imagery, well handled. Not a horror and by no means a companion piece, but I would recommend Adam & Paul (apologies in advance if I've suggested that one before).

    7. I just googled it, Andy -- lawks, are you trying to put me off moving to Dublin? Still, I'll give it a go. I might have to rewatch Ondine straight after, though.

    8. The grass isn't always greener, Dave! If I stand by one film that people haven't heard about, it's that one. Hadn't heard of Ondine, despite the starry cast. Will assume it's a recommend not a piss take, unless otherwise informed!

      It got me thinking, any film you recommend, I'll probably watch, given only a two hour commitment for a fiver, usually. Barry's gone. Jonathan etc?!

    9. For my money Neil Jordan's movies are always worth a look, Andy, even when they don't quite work. When it comes to cinema I'm a man of strong opinions. Eg at Christmas, when Oliver said he was halfway through watching Lawrence of Arabia and I and his daughter (film studies student) gave him a hard time over taking such a casual attitude to the greatest movie of all time.

      Hmm, if I run out of things to say about roleplaying and gamebooks, I could always switch this blog over to film reviews.

    10. Not watched many of his, I must admit. Interview and Crying Game the only ones that spring to mind. I'll take a look. I must admit I rate my favourite films based on repeated plays more than substance. I'd go for MM2 and BTILC over LOA and Citizen Kane every time!
      I've scoured my film collection to see if there's anything worth a look that there's an off chance you may not have watched. The Dish, Frailty and Dead Man's Shoes were those I picked. Even then, all relatively mainstream, so only a small chance I suspect.

      One film I've got does have a (very) loose connection to you. When Warlock magazine stopped, in my misery I purchased my first and last copy of Dragon magazine, in order to get my Fantasy fix. In it was a review of a film called Pathfinder (Ofelas in its native language). I remember the reviewer saying some of the action bits were good material for role playing scenarios (attempting to escape on one ski, as an example). The magazine has long since gone to the great recycling plant in the sky, but it got me wondering if you wrote the article! Anyway, I remember enjoying the film, so picked it up. It's crap! No, that's harsh, dated but worth a look.

    11. * For Dragon Magazine, I meant White Dwarf. Had a panic and thankfully I'm not dreaming the former publication! That'll teach me to try and squeeze 7 series of Game Of Thrones into a week!

    12. The Dish I have seen (and enjoyed). Frailty and Dead Man's Shoes are now on the viewing list. I haven't thought about Pathfinder in decades, but I remember enjoying it at the time. I don't remember White Dwarf having a film review section, but if it did then I really ought to have been writing it!

    13. Oh, perhaps I was right the first time then.

      The Shane Meadows regulars are from my neck of the woods. I've never bumped into Paddy Considine, but I once offered my mate (who looks like George Clooney) £50 in a bar if he went over to Jack O'Connell and asked him if he'd like to be in Ocean's 14. He declined the offer (my mate, not Jack O'Connell).

      I'll give you one for the road. Cube. If you don't start with high expectations, quite enjoyable.

    14. Cube, eh? There's another blast from the past. I did rewatch it a few years back and it still held up, I thought.

    15. I've got a soft spot for Pumpkinhe… Actually, I think I'm going to quite while I'm ahead! Hope you enjoy them.

    16. Sorry, Dave. Me again! Just because it's currently on telly, isn't 2001 the greatest movie of all time? Dave, Dave... Daisy

  2. Truly Dave to have such a rich imagination is a wonderful gift. Gee your “day job” brainstorming pitches like this must have been fun!

    1. Maybe I've made it sound a little too perfect, Nigel. Dreaming up cool stuff is fantastic, and getting to work with talented, creative people on your own projects is very heaven. But in most entertainment industries you have to get through the management layer, and those guys love meetings. The meeting about the meeting, then the meeting, then the meeting to talk about the meeting you just had. If a virus would wipe out just those people and leave the actual developers, filmmakers, etc, who want to get on with the job, *then* it would be great.

  3. Warzone 2100 was a fun game, at least for the first two-thirds. Then it got very grindy. Being able to design your own units was cool, and the world-building was nice.

    You are in violation of the New Paradigm.
    Warriors warriors warriors warriors warriors OF the Collective.

    And so on.

    1. I can't remember it much now. At the time, I took a look and Ian Livingstone asked me what I thought. So I gave him my analysis, and then he phoned up the design team at Pumpkin and said, "I have Dave here and he has some criticisms of your game." So as soon as that call was over, I went back to my office, phoned Jim Bambra back, and explained that it was not my idea to drop a bombshell on him like that.

    2. Wow! It was fun. Post apocalyptic, and you start out with trucks and machine gun trucks. You discover new technologies in a big old research tree, uncover more about the world and so on.

      Later on you can get into massive artillery duels across the whole map, which can be awesome!

    3. I like the feature of being able to create custom units. I can't actually remember what criticisms I had of the gameplay. They were quite minor, and I certainly wouldn't have thrown them in the developers' faces like that by choice.

    4. You could create custom units in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri too... so you could have Tanks that can parachute in from orbit if you wanted. Or hovercraft engineers. IIRC, the first unit you build of a type costs double, as it is the prototype. As technologies became obsolescent, they became cheaper to build too.

      Good stuff.

  4. Necklace of Skulls included good detail on many Pre-Hispanic cultures. I still missed the Purepecha (which was replaced with the land of the dead in the book). This was a complex culture which, among other things, used metal weapons in battle (unlike the Aztecs or Maya, who used stone weapons). Of course, including yet another empire would have made an already huge book much longer, but I can dream.

    1. I'd happily include the Purepecha in a book (here's a useful overview of their metallurgy btw ) but they couldn't have fitted into Necklace of Skulls because the action took place around 900 AD, at least three centuries before the rise of Purepecha culture. But if I ever write a sequel... ;-)

  5. I'm not sure I would take all the responses on Reddit at face value (the metal weapons did exist, according to peer-reviewed studies). On a different note, there is a lot about this culture that seems to be more legend than proven fact. I wonder what would the end result be if you ever got around ti writing something based on them.

    1. I think we can safely assume that most of what we hear about them these days is legend. History is the mother of truth, after all, not the other way round. Those metal weapons, for example -- I'd much rather wade into battle wielding a macuahuitl than a copper sword, so I suspect if they existed at all they were ceremonial rather than functional. But the gaps in knowledge invite us to get creative, and after all the Maya society depicted in NoS was wholeheartedly the mythic rather than historical version.