Backstage at "Exile of the Gods"

Now that “Champion of the Gods” has sprung a sequel, it’s high time for another backstage tour! Here are four behind-the-curtain facts about “Exile of the Gods,” with spoiler warnings duly affixed where appropriate. Click on a cryptic header to reveal more--but don't trip over the scenery!

+ The Blade Runner's Manifesto - No Spoilers

Plenty of historical research went into "Exile," most of it related to the military campaigns of the ancient world--but when I actually sat down to write, I found myself at a loss just how to implement everything I had learned. Should this new game be authentic to the period that its world-building was drawing upon? Could it be, given the broad changes I'd already made to the world itself? And what about the modern world--how much of its increasingly fraught politics should be echoed in the world of the game, to make the subject matter more urgent and accessible?

In the end, I came up with a manifesto of sorts, which I kept honing as the story developed. The main thrust of it was this: the player should never know precisely what they're in for. So, if the player recognizes the details surrounding them as being 100% authentic to a real-world historical event, I've lost--because the player could very well have opinions about that event already, and those opinions would mess with the game's ability to get a read on them. Furthermore, if the player recognizes anything in the game as a clear metaphor for a specific real-world phenomenon, particularly a political one, I've lost again, because people these days hone their opinions to a razor's edge. Making a player believe that something they're reading is a direct metaphor for something they think about all the time is another way to make them comfortable, and that is not what I'm about here.

All of this is why, even while I used period-specific details to give the game a (deceptive) sense of place, I worked behind the scenes to make sure that those features never added up to familiarity, or recognition. The same goes for the themes of the game: I never wanted a player to say, "Oh yeah, that's totally about INSERT ISSUE HERE." I would intentionally muddle metaphors and switch details around, so that nobody ever got the sense they knew what the real-world antecedent of their choice might be. All of this was done to keep the players unsettled, and to keep their responses honest, or at least fresh.

That said, the politics of "Exile" are certainly built along the same fault lines as all our modern fractures: How much do you really trust the state? How important is it that you have a particular right, if it could cause harm in someone else’s hands? Is it justifiable to lie to the people if the truth might cause unrest? How much would you sacrifice to feel secure? The context has been fussed with, but these are all the same kinds of questions we are asking ourselves every day. I’m just trying to provide you with a new challenge: responding to them in a world where you don’t have an answer prepared.

+ Virtual Harryhausanity - Mild Spoilers

Before "Exile of the Gods" came along, "Champion of the Gods" demanded its own line of research, which consisted of reading historical and cultural accounts, comparing different tellings of regional myths, and finally, taking a deep dive into the monster-rich fantasy-adventure films of Ray Harryhausen.

For those not in the loop on him, Ray Harryhausen was a film producer and special effects developer--but limiting him to just that job description is a little bit like calling Bob Fosse a director/choreographer. There is a whole genre of fantasy that has Harryhausen’s imprint on it, he’s influenced filmmakers from George Lucas to Guillermo del Toro--and although his effects relied primarily on stop-motion animation, a technique that looks surrealistic to modern eyes, his mastery of the medium impresses on its own terms. (Last I looked, nobody’s dinging Georges Méliès for his “unconvincing” moonwalk footage, and it's the same with Harryhausen--what might have read as "effects" once now lives again as pure artistry.)

I grew up watching 1981's “Clash of the Titans,” which was Harryhausen’s final movie, and his second to tackle the Greek myths. It had a profound effect on me, and colored my understanding of the myths from then onward--something my Junior High School instructors intentionally worked against, since the film gets the myths very "wrong." (And as my High School instructors were more forthcoming about, it also cuts a lot of juicy details!)

To pay homage to Harryhausen, I wanted “Champion” to contain winking references to all of his most famous monster encounters, so I decided to make it a kind of game-within-a-game to have "Champion" tip its hat to each of the major beasts. Think back, if you've played the game. Skeletons? Check! (Kinda.) Dragon? Check! (Kinda.) Giant scorpion? Check! (Kinda.)

But I didn’t get the chance to include killer statues or a cyclops in "Champion," despite their being two Harryhausen classics!

Rest assured you will get both of them in “Exile.” (Kinda.)

+ Metroretrofuturism - Mild Spoilers

As noted previously, nothing in the game is purely copied from the real world; everything is remixed, because I needed the game environment to be unfamiliar enough to get relatively “clean” reactions from the players.

That said, I did make an effort to combine historical details with complimentary details from modern life, to make matters more relevant. (To put it in “Jurassic Park” terms: my historical research was always the dinosaur DNA, while the modern details were the frog DNA, tying the whole velociraptor together.)

This is never more evident than when we’re talking about Vhyr, the City of Clay--a place where you'll either start the game, or visit halfway through it, depending on whether you choose the pathway of an exiled character.

While Vhyr draws a lot of physical detail from urban enclaves of the fertile crescent from 400 – 600 BC, all of its modern DNA comes rather noticeably from one place: midtown NYC, where I started work at an office precisely one month before I started writing/coding "Exile."

It's here that the ostentatious myth-inflected artwork of Rockefeller Center abounds, some of which has the nerve (or prescience) to depict the titans of industry as ever-watchful deities. It's also here that the most checked-out / decked-out locals parade around 5th Avenue with their checked-out / decked-out dogs. And with both Trump Tower and St. Patrick's Cathedral just a Vertu's throw away, one can't help but get the feeling that it all adds up somehow--that as Masha warned Max Renn in "Videodrome," it has a philosophy.

Whether that philosophy is real, or just a Rorschach-style illusion of my own, its tenets have certainly informed the City of Clay.

+ 100% Post-Consumer Plotlines - Major Spoilers

If you played "Champion," you'll recall that the realm of Agossa had a community of seers: people gifted with the ability to see the destined futures of anyone they met. But like most gifts, this one was also a curse, since the seers were shunned by their families and friends for knowing too much about their futures. They lived together at the Oracle, cut off from the world--and all for knowing it too well!

In the original version of "Champion," one of these seers turned snake: a young person who had agreed to betray you to Daggoras. I loved the idea of someone who was part of this monolithic plot point going rogue on the protagonist, it was like the story itself had been compromised. But much as I delighted in their meta-ness, that character got cut! I just didn't feel like the "rules" of the world had been clearly established by the time the young seer made their entrance.

Fastforward years later, when my research for "Exile" brought me to the astrologers of Babylon. The idea of crooked soothsayers came back to me, and wound up becoming the foundation for the sequel. And although the character of the archivist isn't quite the same as the seer who got cut from "Champion," I like to think that my new villain is doing their part to mess with narrative on behalf of cut characters everywhere.