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The Shadow Sygne (2006-2007)

January 26, 2012

Requiem for a Fantasy Video Game

In 2005, I rediscovered the wonderful world of Adventure Gaming, after years of having more or less abandoned them as too difficult to create, and thus too difficult to contemplate seriously as a vehicle for my storytelling. I’ve never been keen on spending too much time and effort on a medium I can’t ever use to my advantage.

But when my wife first moved in with me, she encouraged me to buy a collection of Myst games and play them again, which I did, and found I’d really missed the format and franchise, but even more, I loved where it had gotten to as a story. In the years that had passed between my previous playings of the first three games in the series and this time, a change in how I looked at story had begun to take place. What once seemed like a lot of extra bother for very little payoff suddenly became this idea of an entirely new storytelling medium. I became a convert, not of Adventure Games, but of storytelling through the interactive process of digital video gaming.

Then I discovered the great love of my life: The Longest Journey. It became the first game I’d ever shared with someone I was actively in a relationship with (i.e. my wife), and had a great time together playing it. My first great ‘Date Game’, if there can be said to be such a thing, which seemed the case for us, because we tried this activity a handful of times, playing a number of games in the hope that it would draw us closer together. Surely this actually worked with a few of them, but the experience of playing TLJ together was never truly repeated for us, and this activity soon became a solitary one, and in time stopped entirely, when I developed a case of performance anxiety about playing adventure games that still dogs me a bit to this day… but I digress.

There came a point, after having played TLJ, where I became feverish to know more about the game, and discovered that, in fact, the greatest controversy about the game was that there was a sequel in development, which had kept fans waiting for almost a decade. I looked it up, found out it was due to come out in a mere matter of weeks—what luck!—and immediately ordered the limited edition of Dreamfall for my wife and I. When it arrived, we ripped through it in a matter of days, and while there were some misgivings as to how successful it had been as a sequel, I at first felt myself most strongly moved by the fact that it had become ‘difficult’ to play, on a physical level—what modern game activists refer to as ‘ableist’, a portmanteau, in spirit if not intent, of ‘ability’ and ‘elitism’.

This notion became the background of an entire series of rants about how great storytelling games had a duty to be accessible to everyone, regardless of how able they were in comparison to young gamers who craved constant overstimulation at the expense of all else save perhaps the ubiquitous award-winning graphics and sound. Following on this, I found myself arguing for a number of concepts and features that seemed all-but-completely absent from games in 2006. I drove a number of people nuts, and have on at least one occasion read someone complain on another forum about how they ‘hate that Lee in Limbo guy’.

It was, however, through these rants, which mainly took place on the Longest Journey forums, that I came into contact with a gentleman from Germany who felt similarly that something needed to be done to revolutionise not just how games looked but how they treated their players. In the interest of not misrepresenting or maligning him, I will refer to him as Joel.

Joel told me about a semi-secret gaming engine he as developing that would make 3D games easier to create with smaller, less-rigid programming teams, as assets would be far more context-sensitive, and thus would largely behave and govern their appearance and functionality based on system-wide events and the passage of time and catastrophe. This sounded like the sort of revolutionary development I had been envisioning as a possibility for the near future, but as I knew nothing about programming modern video games, I didn’t know how much of what he said was possible and how much was just stuff he was selling his bosses.

Nevertheless, on the basis of this series of conversations, given his expressed wish to work with a writer of the skill level he kindly attributed to me, I suggested we collaborate on something. After fumbling around a little in Ideaspace™, I got hold of the tail end of an idea that sounded about right for us; The Shadow Sygne, a medieval fantasy with no elves, dwarves or hobbits, which I decided would have this unifying theme of sigil magic and ancient crypts containing the spirits and, in some cases the immortal remains of the original Lords of Sygneria. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but what I’d achieved was essentially to come up with another Link concept in disguise, and one that slots very nicely into the work I’d done previously on Link: West/Euroboros (what Rod refers to on the LinkWorlds wiki as Link: Gaslight, a title I find I’m growing rather fond of, actually).

At any rate, what had started as a fruitful series of emails outlining our ideas about what the story and the mechanics would be turned rather quickly into a series of miscommunications and misunderstandings, and before I knew it, I was complaining bitterly that we were supposed to be creating a new kind of Adventure Game, while Joel was arguing that what he thought we’d agreed to create was a new sort of strategy game. When it became clear that we were no longer enchanted with one another, we ended the project, and I took my notes away with me.

Now, if you were thinking that would be the natural end to that project, I would normally agree with you, except that it wasn’t.

Sometime in 2007, Rod got back in touch with me and told me that he and his wife were back in the tabletop gaming racket, but this time making supplemental PDFs for a sort of informal brand X series, and they wanted me to suggest a medieval game setting that they could base their stories in, as well as anything I could write for them. We started exchanging notes about this Sygneria place of mine, despite my wife’s staunch argument that I needed to keep the rights to it preserved for a novel series. I promised her I’d protect the family jewels, and then bravely waded into a second round of developing The Shadow Sygne, hoping this time things would be different.

Sadly, there had already been too much development of both gaming supplements and punch-out cardboard staging areas, which was the main product line of the new publishing company they were dealing with. As well—and I say this with no ill will meant—Amanda and I weren’t as comfortable collaborating with each other as Rod and I had been, given that he and I had been doing so since we were in high school. So I found myself arguing more and more for a preservation of my concepts, until finally I just had to beg off and took my ideas away with me again. I do still sort of regret not having made a better go of it, but over all, I think keeping the concept pristine has enabled me to improve and develop Sygneria into something I can start unpacking into a new gaming system when I finally find the right one.

To date, the Sygneria concept hasn’t seen the light of day, but I’m still on the lookout for the right platform for it to be realised the way I imagine it. When that time comes, I’ll release it under the LimboInteractive label. But that still leaves the last collaborative gaming development company I’ve been involved with…

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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