What if we lived in an alternate universe where the production and direction of video games was overseen not by a cabal of short-sighted, money-hungry cretins in suits, but was instead the domain of history’s most creative and all-around worthwhile human beings? What if the production of great, memorable games was no longer an accident, but was a regular occurrence easily replicated through common sense and creative insight? What if we could replace the likes of Bobby Kotick, the malicious CEO of Activision-Blizzard, with someone like renaissance artist Leonard Da Vinci, or the warrior-poet Bruce Lee, or those who are so often copied that the extent of their artistic contributions is often overlooked, like J.R.R. Tolkien or Dune’s Frank Herbert?
It would be a world in which gamers would no longer repeat the worn-out phrase, “I could do better than that.” As we count down the hypothetical list of Top Ten Games Made by Historical Figures, this week we have games TEN and NINE. The former is a title directed by rebel psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and the latter is a story-driven combat game inspired by Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian national hero that most of the world remembers as a bloodthirsty monster and the inspiration for Dracula himself.
Super The Undiscovered Self: A Game Made by Your Own Subconscious
also known as
Blind Spots of the Mind
for use with the Shadowself Peripheral Enlightenment System
Carl Jung, former disciple and later critic of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, made a game that took players on a journey of self-discovery using symbols, themes, and mythological patterns important to the individual gamer. Super The Undiscovered Self, the first game in the “art therapy” genre, uses the amazing Shadowself Peripheral (a set of nodes easily attached to the player’s head) which scans the brain, reads the coded language used by the innermost self and which is usually not readily available to the conscious mind, and constructs a game based on those symbols.
“Over 6 billion different games… and counting!” boasts the game’s packaging.
Only the first few minutes of the game are identical for every player. The player begins in a place referred to as the Loading Town, which consists of a few houses and occupants. While the player interacts with the environment, the Peripheral combs the pathways of the mind and constructs a narrative. A situation arises in the game: A neighbor says that a strange being, possibly an alien, has been seen walking along the road.
From there, the game branches in a different direction for every player.
If the player investigates the alien situation, he could find a 1940s cinema-style alien dressed in tin foil, or a diplomat from the distant future, or a vengeful knife-wielding freak with a small door in his torso who demands that the player crawl through the door, or a fish with a mysterious key in its mouth, or a lost uncle bearing a bag filled with human organs, or an orange kitten with a nails-on-blackboard meow in need of a home, or… anything. The story branches once again after that; nothing can be said for certain about subsequent gameplay.
Super The Undiscovered Self met with harsh criticism from many who believed the game would be “perfect”, as in, tailor-made to suit the tastes of each individual. Instead, the game dredges up images, symbols, and situations which the inner self deems of great importance, but which the conscious mind may actually find annoying, boring, discomforting, or too frightening for entertainment purposes.
The ESRB was also concerned with the existence of a game which could not be rated. “How do you rate the contents of the human mind?” said a janitor at the ESRB office, who was the only employee willing to comment on the situation. “I mean, the ESRB exists to keep incendiary material out of the hands of either 1) a young closet psychopath who’s one gaming session away from going on a killing spree, or 2) a kid with a prude for a parent that’s going to freak out if they see some sex or violence in their kid’s game. In the former case,” continued the janitor, “there’s nothing the ESRB can do to keep a crazy person from blowing up, and they know that, and it bothers the shit out of them. And in the latter case, who can a parent complain to if they’re disturbed by the content of a game essentially made by their own child? Are they going to talk directly to the kid about the content?”
Laughing, the janitor concluded, “Like that would ever happen!”
Spear of the Sovereign
Vlad Draculea, King of Wallachia
When the people of Romania wanted to honor their king by making a game about his life story, they went to Japanese game studios for character design concepts. Designing Vlad Draculea, known to most of the world as Vlad the Impaler, was no easy task. The best the Japanese game makers could come up with was a spike-haired, lithe little boy with exposed midriff, whose panties (yes, panties) were visible due to his tight, low-slung pants, and he had pursed red lips prone to melancholic pouting. They speculated on a combat system that included “Super Combo-minations” (long attack combos within combos) in which enemies could be juggled in the air for up to an hour (on average), and a revolutionary new “Juggle Time” camera mechanic.
“You know what, we’ll try some Western studios,” said the Romanians. “Thanks anyway!”
The Romanians settled on a far more brutish Vlad character, a warrior who used his size and strength, rather than speed and grace, to his advantage. He had a distinctly un-sexy Mongolian handlebar mustache, and only looked intelligent the same way a reptile might – cunning, dangerous, with forbidding eyes that do not allow others to glance at his soul.
“We think he’s the first protagonist with ‘sleepy eyes’ and bags under his eyes,” commented one of the Romanians on the development team. “We’re very proud of that.”
Spear of the Sovereign took on a morbid, Gothic, distinctly Eastern European look not attempted since the first Blood Omen game years before. Environments included deathly quiet snowy forests, black swamps so clogged with fungal growths and so hostile toward human life that they look like vistas from an alien world, open fields with the light snuffed out by heavy gray cloud cover, and frozen Carpathian mountainsides that echo with the howls of demonic animals. The Old World soundtrack includes cosmic drone metal, hints of opera, even gypsy folk tunes.
Spear of the Sovereign closely follows the life of Vlad. During the opening cutscene we see young Vlad inducted into the secretive Order of the Dragon, an alliance of nobleman against conquerors from the Ottoman Empire. We see Vlad’s father hand Vlad and his younger brother Radu over to Ottomans as hostage to ensure the father’s loyalty. We see Radu “the Handsome” charm their captors while Vlad, a troublemaker, is continually beaten and despised. Back home, Vlad’s older brother, an anti-Ottoman rebel, is captured, blinded with hot stakes, and buried alive. His father is killed.
The game begins as Vlad makes his escape from Turkish territory and returns home to Wallachia (present day Romania) to find his lands a degenerate cesspool of crime, rife with outlaws and “ruled” by noble houses that are pawns to Ottoman overlords. The narrative takes us through Vlad finding loyal allies, usually knighting and granting titles to peasants while ignoring the ruling class. Then follows a “night of terror” as Vlad leads his horsemen through the countryside viciously slaying outlaws.
“Gameplay is about the opposite of Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, or even God of War,” commented one critic. “If you’re used to juggling enemies in the air and seeing a combo-meter writhing with frantic intensity on the side of the screen, then the battles in Spear of the Sovereign are going to feel like slogging through peanut butter. Still, it’s pretty satisfying to hit some guy in the shield over and over until he collapses in exhaustion, then catching his chin in an upswing and knocking his head off his shoulders!”
Combat takes the controversial notion of “exhaustion” into consideration. A player, or an enemy for that matter, can swing away with a flurry of blows, and drop several opponents in a row, but he’ll likely be winded after such a feat. Then again, players who play too conservatively can find themselves overwhelmed by gangs of weak spearmen working in teams, so there’s a careful balance that has to be struck during combat. Vlad is not superhuman, though he does have greater strength and endurance than the average enemy.
The battles were not completely realistic, of course; the makers knew the game was supposed to be fun, rather than an accurate representation of reality (which is by its nature not very fun). For instance, characters can usually withstand more than one sword blow without dying instantly, and there are some items that act as unrealistic healing aides during combat.
During an interview, the project director said, “Sometimes overcoming a foe doesn’t necessarily mean killing him.” Replied the reporter, “So there are nonviolent solutions to some problems?” “Oh no!” added the director. “Please don’t misunderstand, all problems in the game are solved by brute force. What I mean is that sometimes a foe can have his limbs shattered, or be blinded because his face is smashed in, or have his intestines hanging out, and he will stop fighting but not necessarily be dead. He will remain on the battlefield, crying and screaming for help, but will no longer hinder the player in any way. And this will also help lower the enemy’s Morale Meter.”
After the “night of terror” chapter of the game, Vlad invites the heads of many noble houses to a dinner party. The noblemen believe that Vlad means to nominate himself as Governor of Wallachia, a cushy position rewarded with much Ottoman gold. The noblemen laugh, wondering how Vlad will beg them for their support, as he has no money of his own. In a beautiful twist, Vlad and his men bar the doors and brutally slaughter all the noblemen. Vlad forces law and order back on his homeland, making the land safe for his people but Hell for his enemies. The player can choose which traitorous noblemen or known outlaws can be hunted down and in what order, thus affecting the nature of the kingdom. There are even bonus stages in which the player can choose punishments given out to criminals and Ottoman-sympathizers. It is even possible to capture the man who killed Mircea, Vlad’s heroic older brother, and force him to read his own eulogy before his execution – as happened in real life!
The Ottomans come in force to stamp out the rebellion. Vlad fights them with guerilla tactics, impaling enemy commanders and soldiers. One cutscene shows an enemy commander forcing his men to march through a “forest of spears,” each spear topped with the twisted corpse of an invader.
Radu the Handsome, Vlad’s traitorous brother, is forced to lead an army against Wallachia. The narrative becomes ridiculously intense near the end. Vlad’s wife refuses to be captured by the enemy, climbs to the top of a tower, and leaps to her death. Radu, decadent and depraved, grows sick with syphilis and is crowned King of Wallachia, though few can barely stand to look at or be near him anymore. The battlefields become so littered with corpses that it is possible to trip over the dead, or slip and fall into channels of blood.
In the amazing final battle, the only part of the game which does not strictly follow historical accuracy, black-armored Vlad fights a man in ornate gold armor, which he believes to be his brother Radu. Upon hacking open his opponent’s throat and stripping off his mask, we find it is only Radu’s bodyguard – Radu himself is busy coughing up blood and dying of syphilis. Returning to historical accuracy, Vlad and his heroic peasant knights are overwhelmed and cut down. Vlad is beheaded. His head is sent to the heart of the Ottoman Empire, jammed onto a spike, and presented at a banquet. As the credits roll, the camera cuts back and forth between slowly zooming in on Vlad’s head, face twisted by rage, and the soft, effeminate Ottoman courtiers, their party ruined by the head, many of them slipping away from the party to throw up privately, all while triumphant, soul-stirring heavy metal music plays.
Thus the game’s final chapter is called TRIUMPHANT THROUGH DEATH.
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Hey readers! If you liked this post, you should check out some of my books. I’ve got an epic series called Demonworld, which is equal parts Mad Max and Lord of the Rings (think “science fantasy”), and a much-loved gamebook series called Heavy Metal Thunder which is currently a hyperlinked Kindle book but will be a fancy phone app any day now.