Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hey Where'd Everybody Go?

Epic Citadel is a tech demo. This means it’s the videogame-industry equivalent of a late-night infomercial:

Check out the Unreal Engine for iOS devices! It slices! It dices! It facilitates bump offset mapping and dynamic specular lighting with texture maps!

Personally I think calling this particular work a “tech demo” diminishes it. Epic Citadel is a gorgeous little sandbox designed in just eight weeks by Epic’s Principal Artist Shane Caudle. The demo, which can be downloaded from the iTunes app store, lets you walk around the grounds of an imposing medieval castle and look at stuff.

Sounds pretty boring, right?


Because Epic Citadel is a tech demo and not a game in the traditional sense, its designers were under no obligation to stuff it with the usual game elements. There are no monsters to kill. Despite the heroic fantasy setting, there are no princesses to save. There are no NPC characters bustling around in the streets waiting to feed players their next quest objective. There’s no HUD. No health bar. There’s no opening cinematic letting you know the name of the dark lord that’s about to hijack the realm’s magic crystals and/or yank the curtain down on humanity.

Because Epic Citadel isn't meant to be a game, it naturally becomes so much more than a game. It contents itself with simply being a world—an emotionally resonant one that invites players to fill in all the backstory. As I wandered down the winding cobblestone alleyways, craning my neck to watch sunlight dance on the wash somebody had pinned to a clothes line, watching the slow arc of a hawk gliding overhead, watching a colourful banner whip in the breeze atop a stone parapet, my mind worked feverishly to fill in the gaps.

Why are there no people in the city even though there are signs of habitation everywhere? Candles are lit. The cathedral bell chimes. A dog barks. It appears to be late afternoon based on the sun’s perch.

I begin to imagine the citadel as part of a hypothetical videogame called Rapture (I know, I know, try to forget about BioShock for a second) in which all the castle’s pious inhabitants have been whisked up to heaven. Except for yours truly.

I imagine Rapture opening, with no backstory, no map, no narrative anchor. This wouldn't be a game about trying to find out what mortal sin kept you from being admitted to glory. This would be more like Cillian Murphy’s character beholding the unsettling grandeur of deserted London in Danny Boyle’s zombie classic 28 Days Later. The game’s one-word title would be the only thing colouring your interpretation of your circumstances.

In Rapture you'd see vestiges of human life everywhere, but the whole of humanity would seem to have vanished into the air. You'd find cauldrons of water boiling over lit kindling and piles of scrubbed potatoes that had not yet been scooped into the pot. You'd stumble across fields half-tilled. The whole game you'd wander in search of life, wondering if you were the only person left behind on earth. This wouldn't be a game about checking off the laundry list of adventure-game to-dos. Instead the experience would center on exploration, loneliness, human connection. Confusion and fear and instinct and desperation.

Rapture would be a game suggesting the darkest extreme of the single-player experience. Only what if the experience merely appeared to be taking place offline. What if other players’ exploration left behind dynamic footprints—a far subtler version of the overlapping universes of Demon’s Souls’ multiplayer component.

Perhaps what the player initially thought was simply a missed train to Paradise was actually a sentence to something more sinister—being left to wander a version of earth that forever teased you with the promise of human connection but never delivered.

Obviously Rapture is not a game that will ever be made (Irrational Games would issue a cease-and-desist on the name anyway). But I like to think a videogame world that took environmental storytelling seriously enough could capture a player’s imagination without reams of dialogue and cutscene plot development. Or any plot development whatsoever.

It's time for developers to leverage our restive subconscious.

So many games bend over backward trying to be movies. For once I’d like to play a game that felt more like a colouring book, where the developer provided me with the wire-frame outline of a narrative and then set me loose to colour it in with my own fever-dream what ifs. Till that sort of game arrives, I’ll be busy compiling the first issue of my new magazine Tech Demo Enthusiast Quarterly.


[You can download Epic Citadel from iTunes here.]

1 comment:

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