Feb 16, 2017

Eye^Game^Candy: Where Time Stood Still


There were but a few games that really took advantage of all the extra RAM the 128k ZX Spectrum provided, and even fewer that attempted to craft beautiful, isometric open worlds populated by rule-based AIs, and the odd Tyrannosaurus Rex. Actually, Where Time Stood Still by Denton Designs (published by Ocean Software), a follow up of sorts to the already groundbreaking The Great Escape, is the only game that managed to really pull off such an impressive feat on the humble Sinclair 8-bit. It is still a beautiful, ambitious, and engrossing survival horror, exploration, RPG-lite action-adventure that has aged remarkably well. Its crisp and fluidly animated black-and-white graphics look as beautiful as ever, and its exotic The Lost World-esque setting remains properly fresh. Interestingly the game also got MS-DOS and Atari ST ports.

Find out more, download a copy, or even play Where Time Stood Still online on World of Spectrum, and then read a bit more about it over at Hardcore Gaming 101

Feb 3, 2017

Game Cities: A Nékromegàn Tale of Two Cities

Nékromegà, a game by lectronice powered by the RPG In A Box engine, is an unexpectedly ambitious freeware project, and also a 3D, voxel-based, adventure with RPG elements, that has already had both a long pre-production phase, and an accordingly longer production one. Hopefully though, Nékromegà will grow up to become an actually released game with an engrossing story to tell, vibrant cities to experience and possibly sack, clever mechanics, a unique take on undeath, and some very harsh yet cunningly subtle words about colonialism.

Provided things do not change in a cataclysmic manner, players will get to play as Bàmoq Cxohàmon, a young citizen of Suùn and eventual priest of Sleep. Torn between his family and his motherland's conquerors, Bàmoq is used as a tool by two not equally evil sides, until deciding that speakers of the language of the dead can actually take matters into their own desperate hands. Possibly even bring whole empires down. Or, you know, enjoy some city sight-seeing along with an army of well behaved undead.

Now, having worked quite a bit on the game's urbanism, I do hope said sight-seeing (and possible sacking) will be worth the players' time, and that the game's urban centres will be evocative, intriguing, and rich. We have attempted, you see, to not only come up with believable, immersive, and exotic ideas for the cities of Nékromegà, but to also use them -- their image, their structure, their form, their feeling -- as storytelling tools. As grand environmental storytelling devices. 

The first step towards achieving what I believe to be effective and implementable city designs was, of course, closely working with lectronice on the world building itself. Getting to both thoroughly understand and even influence the setting was incredibly helpful to me. There was a crucial interplay between city, world and game design, that informed all aspects of Nékromegà and actually uncovered new ideas, and unexpected solutions.

Said dynamic back and forth, said continued discourse, was the main force shaping a very interesting and realistic fantasy world sporting some, hopefully, completely original elements. And it also got our excellent and ever-evolving RPG In A Box voxel engine to impress everyone by allowing for walls like these:


Curves aside, lectronice and I had lengthy discussions regarding the cultures of the Suùn Archipelago and the Bohr Imperi; that is, about the two opposing and vastly differing nations around which the game's setting, central conflict, and story were constructed. Happily, we couldn't help but agree that one of the best ways of showing said differences would be to let two vastly contrasting cities explain things for us.

Obviously, different architectural styles would have to be employed, but, more importantly, we would have to express fundamentally differing spatial organization and space creation views. Showcase the planning mindsets guiding the evolution of each city, as these mindsets would express important aspects of the societies that gave birth to them. A small, almost class-less, self-contained matriarchal collective, and a huge and ever-expanding proto-capitalist empire simply cannot regard urban space in the same way.

It was all about manifesting contrast in a realistic way, and making said contrast evident as an expression of the built environment via city planning. Admittedly nothing can sum up contrast better than the juxtaposition of  fundamental shapes. In our case it simply had to be circles versus squares. Not only are those ur-shapes instantly opposing to each other, they felt very appropriate too, as each one could intuitively imply differences in beliefs, goals, and even societal and ideological relationships to nature.

The Suùnian people live in a peaceful, generally fair society, where equality and harmony are both the norm and a core value, whereas the Bohr are stuck in a highly competitive class system the hierarchy of which is literally defined by personal wealth. So, the Suùn would get a city with soft round shapes carefully adapted to their idyllic environs, and the Bohr would have to go for sharp, functionalist shapes that, though definitely not fascist by definition, are at least emphatically industrial.

Round shapes have the added advantage of their historical association with matriarchy and actual proto-communist neolithic settlements, but they cannot define an urban geography all by themselves; let alone map out a functional topography. As the Suùnian civilization was supposed to be spread over an archipelago, tackling the topography and physical geography of the place was first on my list. Based on lectronice's descriptions I came up with an early sketch; mainly to get things started and placed on a map.



The initial placement and shape of settlements made decent sense both geographically and when taking the RPG In A Box engine into account, and even though the region's topography would have to evolve quite a bit from this early concept to include such elements as huge desert islands, and some geological storytelling, this first core sketch really helped us. It provided the basis on which we designed and built the cities -- towns, actually -- we needed to.

Speaking of engines, and thus also engine constraints, the main problem we (well, lectronice) faced was that voxels are by definition cubic. This made the construction of circular or curved buildings rather taxing technically, but apparently lectronice did manage to overcome those barriers. Besides, even non-circular buildings or architectural elements can be arranged in circular patterns on a city planning level, and sometimes the effect of rounded corners is more than enough.


Alderhil, on the other hand, the imposing capital of the Bohrian dystopia, solved many of its technical problems by following the path of rectangular functionalism, and a planning logic of utter efficiency and strict divisions. Even though it was a city that would have to be designed in its complete and (sensibly) detailed whole, all it took was a few early sketches, and then inspiration struck. An original concept that would instantly define the city appeared. Alderhil would thus look a bit like the following sketch, which already implies its stark class divisions, production focused ideology, paranoid defenses, obsession with symmetry, and complete disregard for the nuances of the environment.


All the plans, cross-sections, and descriptions that followed never really altered the core of this design. It was, we felt, perfectly oppressive and anti-egalitarian, built for the comfort of the elite and the efficiency of the workers. The working poor were compartmentalized along with major production facilities in the east and west parts of the city, and would have no access to the outside world except through the two main gates at the north and south of the central, administrative and monumental, district. 

The Imperi's architecture, a sort of weird Brunelleschi-inspired wood/timber-punk with hints of Stalin-Gothic, would help emphasize a perfectly planned, geometric, and imposing city. Such a city would be both perfect for our voxel engine, and LEGO bricks would in turn be equally perfect for its physical representations.


As Alderhil was set in the mountains, and mountains unlike your average archipelago are less of a hassle in the topographical department, getting the physical geography right was relatively easy. The Bohrians' utter disregard for the environment and their tendency to level things was also helpful. Not that eventual plans didn't include a much more detailed topography, or that a flattened city in the mountains wouldn't feel imposing in 3D...


And did I mention that Alderhil was to come complete with a functioning undercity? Well, it was. As you'll hopefully see in the finished game, it's a rather sensible and definitely horrific underground city with cisterns, living districts, markets, some mining tunnels, factories, and the odd death pit. Frankly, it will have to be a horrible place for workers, the undead, and undead workers, but also a central part of the city's defenses including the bunkers of the rich, secure administrative facilities, vaults, etc.

It should be quite the dungeon too, and was actually a joy to plan and map out. Working with visual artist Maria Kallikaki to create the finished map of the undercity as it will appear in-game was, admittedly, even more entertaining, and on that high note, I'll leave you to actually go and do some work.



Related @ Gnome's Lair:

You can find out more about my game cities, urban consulting for games, and interactive urbanism over at game-cities.com.

Jan 11, 2017

The Neverending Betrayal at House on the Hill

With the release of the Widow's Walk expansion I and my beloved boardgaming (also, you know, proper) friends decided to return to Betrayal at House on the Hill, only to discover we had never really left. We never actually stopped playing this game, and even though we were all busy appreciating what the expansion did for it, and how subtly Widow's Walk managed to integrate itself into the overall experience, I just couldn't help myself. I kept on wondering why on earth we were so happy with what essentially seemed like more of the same.

The obvious answer, of course, is that this was exactly what we all wanted. More of the same, only slightly better. More weird procedural buildings, and more weird stories to play through, even more variety, a few much needed clarifications, new cards, and an extra floor, and we'd be perfectly happy.

Then again, I do for a fact know just how easily I'm bored when it comes to playing the same boardgames over and over again. There are favourites of mine like Space Alert, Carcassone, and Ticket To Ride I haven't touched in ages, and I did notice three years separating my two latest Space Hulk campaigns. So, really, why have I/we stuck with Betrayal at House on the Hill?

Sadly, I haven't managed to come up with an incredibly elegant answer that will solve ancient game design problems and provide invaluable insights, but I have at least come to the realization that this game has a lot going for it, and it all starts with coming in a lovely box:


What's more, and beside those ominous greens, Betrayal is incredibly easy to explain to new players; even to complete boardgaming novices. The fact that it is played in two phases, with the first one being completely co-operative, further helps ease newbies into their first game, and makes sure they've got the game's simple set of rules all figured out before things heat up. When the haunting happens and the slightly more demanding and definitely more interesting second phase begins they are ready to enjoy the game.

Said second phase of the game where one (usually) player becomes the traitor and the rest work together to foil her/his satanic/silly plan is the meat of Betrayal, and sits comfortably at the core of what apparently makes me love it. There are, you see, 50 wildly different scenarios -- every haunting results in one being chosen -- offered in the base game, and another 50 in the expansion, and though not all are equally well designed or outlandish, they all come with their unique mechanics to play with and different stories to tell.

Things never get old. Never get boring or repetitive. The traitor might turn into a huge snake, the investigators might have to stop the mansion from flying away into space in true Rocky Horror fashion, horrible incantations might have to be chanted, a movie director might have to pick a suitable actor, and every scenario is so different on every level the game can never feel stale. Good writing, clear goals, dozens of counters for all sorts of monsters and items, and mechanics that change but remain familiar, certainly do more than merely help support things. They turn the game into a consistent canvas for the dozens of its scenarios to be played out.

Even if/when you get to run into the same scenario twice, chances are the role and condition of each player and the layout of the mansion will be different. Besides, knowing what to expect from the other side will allow Betrayal to become more strategic than usual. Oh, and did I mention how delightfully asymmetric the game is or how cunningly it disguises the goals of each side from the other? Well, it is and it does, and it's all the better for it. 

To the clever mechanics and the constant expectation of fresh stories, add the procedural nature of the game board and the Event and Omen cards that sometimes manage to construct brilliant micro narratives within the main stories. Simply exploring the mansion and expanding the board is a joy in and of itself. And I did once draw a card that had my future self appear and give me some rather handy weapons, only to draw another card 5 turns later that had me giving items back to my past self. 

Frankly, I can't help but enjoy each and every one of those delightful moments Betrayal at House on the Hill has to offer. I can't help but appreciate every weird new idea the game presents me with. And I frankly can't think of anything else to add, but suggest that you try Betrayal out at least once, and that you should feel free to make more games like it for me to enjoy. Oh, and have a look here to get an idea of how the thing plays.


Related @ Gnome's Lair:




Reminder: I could really use your support via Patreon in order to survive long enough to make more words and, mostly, actual games and things. Thanks so muchly!

Dec 8, 2016

Let there be Game Cities

It took a little bit longer than expected, all things do, but I do believe it's looking rather lovely, and hopefully as enlightening as possible. I am of course referring to my brand new personal/professional site (and not blog) Game Cities, that can be found over at game-cities.com. A place for my work on designing game cities, consulting on urban matters, and approaching  the creation of all sorts of settlements in video games, board games, and RPGs.

Have a look. And, if you are looking for some help on your project, do drop me a line!

Oct 6, 2016

Game Cities: Five Equally Essential Books

Feeling that five books can never be enough --let alone cover the bare essentials of applied imaginary urbanism-- here is a list of another five books that will hopefully help you further understand cities, and design or tweak the ones about to appear in your game. It is, mind you, a proven list of books that has already assisted me in tackling the game worlds of a variety of projects. So...

Let's start with a classic; none other than Italo Calvino's literary masterpiece Invisible Cities. Though far from a technical handbook, this rather famous work is the darling of each and every urbanist, planner, and/or city geographer I have ever met. It follows Marco Polo as he explores dozens of fantastical, whimsical, and wildly imaginative cities, and describes them to the ageing Kublai Khan. Each city is fundamentally different to the other ones, and over the two or so pages that are dedicated to it, explores a different idea. One city might look like a ship from the desert and a camel from the sea, whereas another one might be hanging over the abyss, or be sitting atop a huge necropolis mirroring it and encompassing its past. Each of said cities could obviously help inspire an entire game world by itself, or even allow us glimpses at the reality of the human condition or, at the very least, its built expressions.  

A Burglar's Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh wasn't what I expected it to be, and though it really does help with providing a vastly different approach to viewing the urban environment --as a burglar and thus as someone not constrained by doors and the accepted use of urban space-- it isn't as thorough and methodical in its approach as I would have liked it to be. Still, the Burglar's Guide is a fine source of inspiration, and, unexpectedly, a very handy tool when it comes to actually approaching level design on the city level. The fact that it made me think of other alternate approaches to the use of urban space --say by a beggar, a dissident, or a prostitute, to name a few-- can only be considered a good thing. 

If you are working on a dystopic setting though, what you simply need to read is Evil Paradises (edited by Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk). It is a provocative, varied, and thought-provoking collection of texts, focusing on the horrible utopias pure capitalism has created for itself in cities, deserts, and even the oceans. A multi-faceted examination of how the (impressively innovative) utopia of the rich is bound to become the dystopia of the poor, the book covers places from Dubai and Orange County, to Kabul and Beijing. It features the words of urbanists, geographers, architects, planners, historians, and even China Miéville.

The Spotter's Guide To Urban Engineering was suggested to me by former PC Gamer US editor Logan Decker, and, despite trusting the man's taste and knowledge, I frankly didn't quite know what to expect. Happily, I ran into an excellent book covering everything regarding the foundations of the modern city. Everything I was taught when studying to become an engineer has been condensed, illustrated, and brilliantly presented in a way that will make sense to all sorts of creative and not-so-creative people. Infrastructure, materials, technology, roads, nuclear plants, communication networks, sewage systems, and all sorts of other mostly ignored crucial bits of the urban tissue get presented in a useful, and, most importantly, implementable way. 

Cities of the World - A History In Maps by Peter Whitehead does exactly what it says on the cover. It crams centuries of global urban history into its couple hundred lush 9"x12.2" pages, and shows it off with short texts and some wonderful cartography. Major cities across all continents are showcased, and unique insights into their history as well as the whole of the history of cities are provided. As for the 16th century map of Venice by Ignazio Danti you'll find in this book, well, it's a masterpiece. 

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Aug 31, 2016

(Bits) Of Ancient Cities and The Dreaded Nékromegà

So. Here's what I've been working on both lately and mainly in case anyone was wondering and for everyone who doesn't really care for introductions: Nékromegà, Moribund, and an interactive, stylized version of ancient Athens for Culturplay. Now, as these things are taking up tons of time --all of the time actually- I will not be elaborating on any of them just now, but I will be fervently hoping that you try and check them out. Also, do please keep in mind that one of the lot will be a truly ambitious freeware thing and sport three (whole and wholly) imaginary cities.