Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Summoned: A Victorian RPG in the tradition of H. P. Lovecraft

I first downloaded and installed Steam when Portal came out, and I subscribed to the Steam RSS feed shortly thereafter. It used to be a thrill, to see what the latest release was that was available on Steam. Publishers slowly moved onto the platform, and it seems it quickly became the de facto standard for PC game software. Steam promoted the Indie Revolution by making it cheap and easy for small studios to release to practically every gamer running Windows—cheap and easy compared to shipping things in boxes, anyway. We started seeing more and more frequent releases that looked, well, less and less interesting. Now, it seems that there's two or three indie games released each day that nobody cares about. I still subscribe to the RSS feed, but these days, I mostly close the release articles without reading them.

A few weeks ago, a game released that claimed to be an RPG in the style of H. P. Lovecraft. This caught my eye, and I posted on Facebook to see if anyone knew much about it. An alumnus responded that the game was decent, but fairly quickly it turned into blasting shoggoths with shotguns, or something equally ridiculous. Playing games like Elder Sign or Arkham Horror, you would get the idea that this is what "Lovecraftian" means—and indeed, pop culture may have co-opted the term for exactly that purpose. However, I read an anthology of Lovecraft's stories a few years ago, and that's not what I remember from it: I remember these stories being about the inexplicable, the infinite, and the insane. (NB: I have not played Call of Cthulhu, but I understand it to be a better vehicle for Lovecraftian themes than the others I mention.)

The semester is wrapping up here, and there was plenty to do this past weekend. Knowing it was Ludum Dare weekend, however, I dropped in Saturday morning to see what the theme was. "Beneath the surface." Well, immediately my mind turned to "Dagon," the first Lovecraft short story that I read and one of the first that Lovecraft wrote as a mature writer—a story whose themes would return in some of his famous later works as well. I could not let this opportunity pass me by, and so I created my submission to Ludum Dare 29: Summoned—a Victorian RPG in the tradition of H. P. Lovecraft. (Click here or the picture to play online.)

I have submitted a few Ludum Dare entries before, they have always been simple, action-oriented games. This was my first time creating a story-driven game, a piece of interactive fiction. It is designed to be an entertaining experience while also being a criticism of "Lovecraftian" games, and RPGs more broadly, although of course it was designed under considerable resource constraints. One of the positive effects of creating this game is that I was reminded how hard it is to write a good story. I mostly write academic pieces these days, not fiction. I'm sure the minimal story in Summoned could still be strengthened with some revision and editing, but for a weekend project in a handful of hours, I think it's passable.

The game was written using PlayN, my favorite tool for producing HTML5 games. I pulled the images from searches for Victorian-era photographs, which should all be in the public domain. The typeface is IM Fell DW Pica from Google Fonts. It took quite a bit of fruitless searching for music before I came across musopen, a site dedicated to improving access and exposure to music in part by releasing recordings for public use. The piece in the game is Prelude in G#m Opus 32 Number 12 by Sergei Rachmaninoff. I discovered the piece in this discussion thread about scary classical music. (I was going to use Piano Concerto no. 2 in Cm, Op. 18 as well, but there was a problem with the playback of the Mp3 file in Java, although it worked in the HTML build.)

Here are a few spoilers, in white text on a white background: highlight the text to view them.

Spoiler [after you have played two or three times]: It may seem that the game is always the same. Try fiddling with your character's attributes, particularly in extremes.

Bigger spoiler: The game always ends with the insanity scene. It's proper Lovecraft, after all.