Opening a Time Portal to 1984
[Chris Bateman in Silk as Kushan Warlord]
GamesYouLoved spoke to veteran game designer and narrative designer Chris Bateman, from International Hobo, about how his experiences of games in the 1980s shaped his desire to make Silk, a tribute to square-based exploration games from the early days of home computers.
GamesYouLoved: What's so important about 1984? Was that a special year for you?
Chris: 1984 and 1985 were pivotal years for British videogames. In '84, we had Elite and The Lords of Midnight, and the following year we had Paradroid and Mercenary. Those four games lay down the template of what DMA Design were going to make with Grand Theft Auto over a decade later in 1997. So in the same year that Tetris and 1942 were the state-of-the-art coin-ops in the arcades, British bedroom programmers were creating some of the most incredible technical achievements in videogames and striking a new path that was going to alter the direction of videogames for decades to come.
So yes… that was a pretty special year for me, and for games! But the thing is, while Graftgold and Andrew Braybrook's successes are very frequently discussed by retro-gamers, Paul Woakes and Novagen's achievements are well-known, and Elite's story has already passed into legendary status, The Lords of Midnight has not enjoyed quite the same degree of 'digital Valhalla' of its peers. Which is a great shame, as I still think its the best (unlicensed) adaptation of The Lord of the Rings into videogame form – a far more impressive technical achievement in 1984 than recent attempts to adapt (I might even say 'butcher') Tolkien's legendarium.
GamesYouLoved: So was making a tribute to Mike Singleton's classic title the origin of Silk?
Chris: Well, yes and no! I'd been trying to make a game in the style of The Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge for much of my career, really. I made several attempts while I was working for Perfect Entertainment in the 1990s, making the Discworld games and Discworld Noir, which was my first game as lead designer and writer. I floated project ideas at Perfect for games in the style of Mike Singleton's classic's, but the market was moving in other directions, and they didn't get very far, so I shelved that plan and didn't really come back to it for quite some time.
It was Chris Wild's fantastic port of The Lords of Midnight for iOS and Android that really reawakened my interest in attempting to pay tribute…
But the other part of the origin story of Silk is the 2007 tabletop RPG I made with long-time collaborator Rob Briggs, while I was living in Knoxville, Tennessee. I fell in love with 200AD as a setting for games working on that RPG – you have the Roman Empire in Europe, and Three Kingdoms China thousands of miles way, collapsing into civil war… it's just a fantastic setting for an RPG. And I had several attempts to make a big budget computer RPG based on that time period, but they didn't come to anything.
And then, more by luck than by judgement, those two ideas collided, and that was how Silk came to be!
GamesYouLoved: The art style for Silk is odd – it's not quite the same as its influences, but it's also not exactly contemporary. How did it come about?
Chris: It all started with a recreation of the original rendering engine from The Lords of Midnight in Unity… that was made by Andy Wilson over a few weeks in the Summer of 2018. We had this engine based on Mike Singleton's 'landscaping' technique… but we didn't have assets to show in it. Jamie, lead artist for Silk, understood I wanted to pay tribute to these classic games, so at first we stayed quite close to the original style. You can see it in the screenshots from the early builds, with black and white sprites.
But when Becky, the portrait artist, joined the project, she was flatly against the black and white sprites, and Jamie was also keen to experiment with new directions. I think it was Patrick, the producer, who first suggested that a hand drawn style, something like Don't Starve (which got mentioned a couple of times in our meetings), might work for the game… So Jamie developed this new sprite style that was part retro and part hand-drawn. It's really like nothing else you'll find in videogames – it has this strong historical link to 1984, but it's also completely unique.
GamesYouLoved: Because of the 1984-style engine, the game is based on a square grid. Was that important to you?
Chris: It was vital! Mapping was a huge part of the videogames in the 80s, and the square-based RPG used to be a huge part of the industry! Wizardry shipped with squared paper so you can map it – Brenda Romero sent me a picture of the original box contents, that really tickled me…
Those square-based games were also hugely influential. Dungeon Master, from 1987, is the dungeon crawler that created the arrow-based real time controls that John Carmack would turn into Catacomb 3-D and thus ultimately DOOM – and it's also the origin of the grid inventory, that almost every RPG and MMORPG afterwards uses. So it's not an overstatement to say that the square-based RPG ultimately gave us World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and every FPS you care to name. If 1984 gives us the open world game, the square-based RPG gives us almost everything else that dominates the videogame world today!
But more than the historical influence of those games, mapping and using maps for games are among my fondest memories of gaming in my youth. I vividly remember mapping every square of The Bard's Tale on the Atari ST, and my favourite parts of Zzap! and Crash magazine were always the great maps, especially for Ultimate Play the Game titles like Sabre Wulf or Knightlore.
GamesYouLoved: Is Silk just for fans of The Lords of Midnight? Who has been enjoying it?
Chris: We have a lot of Mike Singleton fans among our players, but I wouldn't say they were the majority. Anyone who likes exploring a big world (especially a square-based world!) will find something to love in Silk, and it will also suit the kind of player who likes to be thrown into a world and let their own story develop there. It's incredibly open – more open than most so-called 'open world' games! – and it invites you to create your own path through it, in more ways than one. I'm still finding new ways to play and win that I didn't know were possible, and it's my design!
I would especially recommend Silk to anyone who enjoyed classic square-based RPGs back in the day – games like Eye of the Beholder, or Drakken, or any of the games I mentioned before like Wizardry, The Bard's Tale, or Dungeon Master. And of course, for anyone with an interest in history, the ancient Romans, or Three Kingdoms China. Not to mention, anyone who is just interested in games that are a little bit different – because despite the historical connection to 1984, it's really one of the most unique games anyone can play today.
It's not a game for everyone, no doubt – but the players who connect with what it does love it, and as a game designer, that's always what I'm trying to achieve. Plus, it has the largest hand-crafted open world ever made – three million square miles of explorable wilderness – that's surely worth anyone's time to check out!
Steam > http://tinyurl.com/silksteam