a flight of fancy (and the beating of a broken tin drum) by the Crow.
(This might seem a strange post to some, as I will be talking about something which doesn’t — and will never — exist. This will also be a rather personal post, unlike my usual fare on The Corvid Review. Imagine this as an ode, or a diary entry. Normal service shall resume soon.)
In 2005, I started an idea (scraps of it can still be found online, if one wanted to waste a few hours of their life). The idea was simple: two authors, four characters, one world. My co-author at the time has technically appeared on The Corvid Review, but I’ll keep mention of her name out in this post for privacy reasons. (<If you’re reading this, DQ, you know what I’m talking about.>) As far as I recall, we completed five chapters before our mutual interest in the project faded.
Little about these chapters (and they barely qualified) was special. Originally titled something forgettable, by 2007, all that was left of the project’s future was a single MS Word document titled:
(Before I proceed, I will ask you for one thing.)
(Grant me your patience. That is what this whole endeavour is about. We have lost something special over the last few years.)
As far as I was concerned, the world was available for me to cannibalise for later projects. The world was the single thing about the project which kept me from forgetting about it. It featured a planet tidally-locked with it’s star (its mornings and nights lasting millenia), in some far-flung reach of space. Its people — humans — had no notion of any other significant celestial bodies save for the twin moons. The population was sparse, with most people living in the few “great cities” dotting the planet. These cities were built around deposits of natural resources which — in turn — influenced their development. One of these cities was Artifice, where our story begins. And Artifice — like its sisters — sits upon secrets which the people are beginning to wake up to.
Here is an expanded “pitch” summary of the story (in no way should you pitch to an agent like this. This is not an example):
On the eve of the annual monsoon, the scientific society of Artifice uncovers a deadly secret. The Clock Tower which has defined the city’s resolve since time immemorial is no mere symbol of the human spirit against nature. It is a conduit — a conduit for an ancient resource which can reshape reality to its will. With hours left until the surface becomes uninhabitable, Avance — a former student of the sciences, now investigating missing children — must protect this secret. Hounded by the same agents who massacred the scientific society, he finds himself in more forgotten tunnels beneath Artifice. And he isn’t alone. The woman who he was closing in on during his investigation — Imber — is waiting for him. Together, they must make a choice: save themselves, or save the known world.
Rather straightforward stuff on the surface. It reads as a young adult action novel, but it wasn’t. This was always meant to be “hard SF”. It was meant to delve into concepts derived from works such as Ghost in the Shell and Primer. It was about selfishness and falling into a greater purpose you wanted nothing to do with. Avance was a meek, secretly-manipulative bastard who would be forced into becoming a hero, and Imber was a hero who was set up for a crisis of “faith”. At the heart of it all was a problem in physics we are still working on, told through the lens of suffering children. I was drawing from 1990s North Korea, from the Cold War, and from the many plights of the Romani peoples alike.
With all that said: why didn’t I go through with it? The answer is simple: I couldn’t resolve the ending. The world and the lore had become so expansive that I had no way to end the story. Avance and Imber would both suffer heroic — as much as they could — deaths, sacrificing themselves for the greater cause; and in doing so, understand the “hidden truth” of their world.
But it was never enough.
And so the project would remain. Until 2011, that is. But before we get to that, let’s talk about 2009.
2009: Tʜᴇ “Cᴏᴍᴘʟᴇᴛᴇ” Gᴀᴍᴇ
In 2009, at some point during my first semester at university, I rekindled my interest in gaming. A few years prior to joining university, I was a Warcraft III player of some minor notoriety, but my origins lay in shoot-’em-ups and stealth. At some point, I decided that the world was poorer for not having a game which managed to marry the two (according to the 90s and the early 00s) pillars of gaming: strategy and action. By strategy, I wasn’t thinking of a Snake deciding when best to strike. I was thinking of group-selecting minions and sending them on missions (which most likely resulted in their death).
And then: another idea came to me (see: recurring themes).
I started envisioning a game. The most “complete” game that could ever be. All I have left from those sessions now remain as notes on paper and a handful of diagrams and drawings. In light of that, why not let me give you the guided tour?
In this following section, imagine yourself as a player who has just started this untitled game up for the first time. The production credits roll, the title is shown, you are asked for your patience, and then you are presented with an option to state your name. No “creative” choices will be allowed, but alternative letters such as “ß” and the like are available.
Once past this screen, you are presented with a selection of sliders. These sliders have no names, no context. What these sliders represent are your base attributes. Just as in real-life, you have no control over which slider corresponds to what attribute. You also have no control over where your character is “born”.
At its most expansive, the game would feature six distinct landmasses, broken up into multiple territories. Once your character is generated (no control, again), you are given a tutorial section. This tutorial serves as a sped up allegory for childhood, mostly consisting of puzzle/skill tests to indicate which attributes you are best suited for (or thought to be best suited for, according to your in-game tutors). And then, when the allegorical tutorial is over, your character achieves the age of majority, and you may now play.
You are now faced with two sets of choices. They are:
- Emigrate to a different “nation”, or remain.
- Choose a “corporation”.
Unlike most games from the time, loyalty to the corporations and the “nations” exist as two different sets. Your character has two loyalty meters (hidden, for the most part), and you may choose your own fate as far as these are concerned. The corporations are much more powerful, and offer greater perks. The nations have no reedeming qualities, and are not designed to have any outside of aesthetics. The most important difference (revealed later) is that it’s much harder to leave a corporation than a nation.
All set? Now let me take you to the initial gameplay (and a little bit of lore):
Tʜᴇ (Iɴɪᴛɪᴀʟ) Gᴀᴍᴇᴘʟᴀʏ
What I have described so far points to the MMORPG genre, and I must admit that this is what I settled on, as much as I didn’t want to. UI-wise, the game was a third-person game much like what Metal Gear Online 3 would become. And yes, this was a decision wholly informed by its predecessor.
While I had planned for multiple gameplay options (within as much reason as an excitable twenty year old could contain), there is only one that warrants discussion. The following is what you are expected to be doing. It’s what the game will hang over your head and instruct you to do.
Within the world of the game, you are contracted by a corporation (if you have one) to secure disputed — or unclaimed — territories for the “spoils within”. Each territory (read: map) features a central objective which must be defended at all costs by capturing “nodes” which it links to. (This was inspired by the Onslaught/Warfare game-modes from Unreal Tournament 2004.) But there is an added twist: the central mechanism/objective is also the source for your “spawn counters”. The healthier the source, the more you can die sans consequence. Attacking it is always an option, but I’d only recommend it if you want to see the world burn.
What I’ve left out is that the game tells you up-front that you have one life. When you die, you indeed die. That’s it. Your copy of the game might as well go in the bin. While I didn’t want people to pay again for a game which treated its consumers in such a disrespectful manner, trust me when I say I had my reasons. Only when you are contesting a terriroty against another corporation are you granted extra “lives”.
But back to the game:
You have the option to bow out: to flee a battlefield if you see your temporary “spawn counters” running dangerously low — a fact that will be flashed in your face repeatedly. Doing so costs your team, but your corporation will understand. You might be asked to make it up to them by handling some less-desirable missions. These missions will usually play out as escort missions through enemy territory, where your one life might come under threat by other players or environmental factors. Failing those, you will be instructed to grind out some pointless tasks. All of these types of missions can serve to level up your character for added perks. It all sounds fair enough, but have you yet asked the operative question?
Why are you doing any of this?
The answer is multi-faceted.
On the one hand: you are in a fight for your “survival” within the game.
On the other hand: territories in the game are dynamic. While the national borders are hard to change within the game, the territories in the “free lands” are subject to constant change. And the corporations want these territories. But then, why do the corporations want these territories? The answer to this is — thankfully — simple.
The structure which counts as the “objective” is a conduit for a resource from deep within the soil you are standing on. It’s the same resource which grants you the ability to “re-set time” and respawn. That is the battle in which the corporations are locked: a battle for the one resource (a sticky black “goo”) which can grant powers over time and mortality.
This is your incentive. This is your corporation’s incentive. Over time, the game was meant to sway in states of power much like the storied EVE Online has come to be. You aren’t fighting for yourself, really. You are fighting for your right to call yourself the saviour of the world. This is why the corporations are better than the nations. They’re better because they hold the future in their hands.
And to most, that is it. That could be “it” for you. An endless fight for no “real” reason, barring the cathartic escapism of being a hero — no matter how flawed. That’s where these stories usually end.
— Crow out.
Tʜᴇ Iɴᴛᴇʀᴍᴇᴅɪᴀᴛᴇ Gᴀᴍᴇᴘʟᴀʏ
I see you’re more patient than most.
Whether or not you’ve read anything by me, you knew this wasn’t going to be so simple, didn’t you? Before I go on, I want to thank you for sticking with this long-winded ode for so long, but we’re about to get to the good part.
There is — of course — a bigger point being made, here. And that is: death.
When you die (and I do stress that death in this game is final), you are treated to a short cinematic — the only one in the game so far. The cinematic is the old cliché of travelling through a tunnel and rushing into the flicker of light at the end of it. And then, there is nothing.
Until you start the game up again, that is. Once restarted, you are faced with the same blank, white screen once again, but walking in any given direction for sixty seconds will start to cause a change. The mist will begin to fade, like a veil being lifted, and you will find yourself where you died. The same place sans any signs of life. In the place of the structure you so valiantly fought over (or died like an idiot for) is a tower. And this is where you’ll have to hang up your guns.
The game is now a single-player experience. Most gamers will assume that this is where you are expected to find a way back into your previous experience.
If you decide to enter these towers, you are faced with a number of puzzles/platforming challenges which you must complete to progress. And you are put on the clock during these puzzles, much like in Amnesia: The Dark Descent (which I only found out about later and loved). Something is coming for you. And it will find you if you can’t finish the puzzles quick enough.
Just like with the initial death scenario, this is also meant to be a deterrent to all but the most stubborn of players. And now, you have to ask me the question: why is this game designed to make people hate it?
The answer is — again — simple. The game wants the best of you. It wants someone who is open to playing in and out of different genres. It wants to find those who excel at every format that has been offered so far. You have completed action and stealth. You are now completing the more classic formats of platforming and puzzles. What remains? Strategy.
When you reach the top of the tower, you are finally given the choice to restart your previous existence within the game. The other option? To embrace your new role: that of a game “master”.
Tʜᴇ Uʟᴛɪᴍᴀᴛᴇ Gᴀᴍᴇᴘʟᴀʏ
Congratulations. You have arrived at the true idea.
You are now a strategy gamer. You are the one who assigns tasks to those who are fighting over the resources. You are the text which hangs over their heads. You are the one who reminds them that their lifetime in the game might be coming to an end. You are the one mining resources to provide support bots whenever a battlefield isn’t populated enough. You are defending your tower and its nodes from being sucked dry. But to do that, you must ensure your tower isn’t mined to the point of erasure. To ensure this, you must invite conflict.
You are the pupeteer. You are the one encroaching on other players on your level. You are the one who is trying to dominate the world, for once you control the “goo”, you have dominion over life, death, and time. Be warned, however, that the moment you tell anyone who you are, they may remove you from power by uncovering where you were born and murdering your existing family (bots).
I’d wish you good luck; but by now, you are a part of this story.
And so concludes your comprehensive guided tour of the game that never was.
For years, I had no clue what to do with this idea. It was too ambitious, too vast for the technology of ten years ago, too subversive from the result the gaming population wants. I wanted a game where real-life issues would be reflected within the first few hours of explorative gameplay. I will never count myself as an expert in the subjects I wanted to deal with. I wanted to see what players might do when faced with an in-game avatar which they didn’t want. I wanted to see what they woulddo if their attributes didn’t match with who they were in-person. Of course, these things could be rectified, but as an analogue for real-world problems, there would always be opposition from a corporation or a nation, and a price to pay.
I wanted mostly to see how many people would stick with the idea until its natural resolution, I guess. But I always knew it was unsustainable. This was too large to exist. It was too subversive to exist. It was never going to work. My conversations with professionals in the field proved to be the final nails in the coffin.
If it had to work, I would have to find another medium to show it off.
Fɪɴᴅɪɴɢ Pᴇᴀᴄᴇ Wɪᴛʜ As Dᴀʀᴋᴇɴs
I should point out that there were a few people I bounced this idea off while I was developing it. One of them decided to take the idea for himself and try to write a novel about it at one point. While ideas never belong to any one person, their specific execution does, and I was never going to let Artifice go. He took everything, right down to the lantern-posts from a vignette I’d written and tried to pass it off as his own. That did not work, considering I’d already sent out materials to people within the business.
I wouldn’t have cared as long as this arse didn’t take my specific words and my years-long Gedankenexperiment for his own. I didn’t also care much for his chosen name for my world, although I will point out that the idea of the hidden sliders came from him. We stopped talking about the world of the game over creative differences, but we both knew that it was not going to be viable for another few decades.
A few years went by, and I resurrected the idea of my own accord. The solution? Merging it with the established world I already had in As Darkens in a one-off.
The problem? The same problem I had before. The lack of a conflict. I had these two great characters: Avance and Imber. The Deckard vs the Aliens Ripley. And I still couldn’t resolve them.
I’ve always held one thing close to my heart: if someone achieves what you want to do before you, they simply got there first. This is why I always tell other prospective writers to share their work. You should never be scared of being lifted from by people who don’t know you. People have ideas, and if they get there first, that’s just plain bad luck. It sucks, but that’s just what life is. If someone who knows you lifts from you, there’s the possibility of an argument. And then you’re arguing details. I’ve done it before, and it’s much messier than you’d expect, even though my case was very open-and-shut.
With all of that said, I must now tell you that this project is officially dead. And the reason for it is:
Hideo Kojima is a hero of mine by a good degree. I’ve devoured everything this man has created post-1997. Death Stranding is a game I know little about. It’s the first game of his which I’ve not read into up until today (hours before its release) because it is a new IP. I chose not to speak about P.T., and have spoken about MGSV at length. I’ve added so many sneaky references to him over the years that I’ve lost count. Hell, I even “starred” in a (kind-of) an indie game as the creator of “Metal Gear Chicken” (miss those people). I’ve since lost my original PhotoShop file, but here’s the last known image:
Mr Kojima is someone I deeply respect, and from what little I’ve seen of Death Stranding, it is toying with ideas very close to what I once envisioned. This is a case of “they got there first”. And I couldn’t be happier that someone as significant as Mr Kojima is the one to take us there. He has always been a visionary, and the fact that he’s breaching the grounds of using death and time as mechanics tied into each other makes me very proud that I — at one point– was thinking along the same lines. Death Stranding comes out in less than 24 hours from now, and while I don’t play on a console, I’m excited to see how a master of the art has dealt with some the concepts I’ve always wanted to see in a videogame.
My whole angle on “disrespecting” players and “subverting expectations in a game” are rooted in how Mr Kojima dealt with the fanbase in MGS2: Sons of Liberty, so the whole situation has come full-circle, in a way (for me, at least).
Whether or not As Darkens will ever come back, I don’t know. There is a lot of value in the world and its characters, but I can never seem to find a resolution to it. In its incarnation as a game, it won’t, and it will never be. That’s a job that the professionals are taking over. I have high hopes for Death Stranding, and while Mr Kojima has let me down with MGSV, P.T. was good. The man is a menace when it comes to quality, but henever delivers it via conventional means. That’s what I’m most excited to see.
What the future holds, we’ll have to find out together. But for the moment, I’m hanging up my hopes of delivering a digital experience through games. Next time, I’ll hopefully be faster.
(I’ll also leave this right here:)
— Crow out.
THE CROW: 6.5/10
Here’s another picture I took of my old notebook: