"Your Creatures Are Falling In Battle!"
Once upon a time there was a little developer called Bullfrog. Its hero, an eccentric young goose called Peter, simply couldn't stop laying golden eggs: from tactical masterworks like Syndicate to the classic Populous series. In 1997, however, Peter decided to form Lionhead Studios and create Black & White... but he just had time to lay one last golden egg before he left.
Well, two if you count Theme Hospital. But that's a Blast From The Past for another time.
This week, we're going to dust off our copies of Dungeon Keeper, fire up our DOSboxes and remind ourselves of why being bad has rarely been so utterly brilliant.
Traditional fantasy RPGs tended to revolve around a fairly simple premise, and still do even to this day. Monolithic evil lurks beneath the lush green fields of whatever pseudo-medieval setting happens to be popular at the time, and it's up to brave heroes to delve into the dark dungeons, battle hordes of monstrous creatures and banish the big bad to wherever fantasy heroes typically banish things. This setup brought us countless fantastic dungeon crawlers, but Bullfrog realised that the entire concept could be turned on its head. Instead of controlling the heroes, Dungeon Keeper let us create and manage the dungeons: creating horrific pits of despair, attracting legions of nightmarish minions and eventually expanding our insidious reach throughout the bright and happy realm.
All while enjoying some healthy character-building sadism in the process.
See, there was a good reason why Bullfrog didn't call it Theme Dungeon. While the need to continually cater for the needs of a growing set of demanding tenants was very much intact, Dungeon Keeper let you exercise your inner bastard at every opportunity. Burly Demon Spawn could be motivated to train harder and gain levels by slapping them around, while the corpulent Bile Demons required constant physical abuse in order to stop them scoffing your entire supply of helpless chickens in a single sitting. Heroes, when vanquished, could be carted off to your torture chamber and brutalised beyond all reason, occasionally even succumbing to Stockholm Syndrome if you tempered pain with pleasure. Plus, when things were all getting too much, you could reward your eternally-loyal imps for their backbreaking toil with an open-handed five-fingered treat.
This was all good fun, but of course, Dungeon Keeper worked so well because it was designed so well. The symbiotic relationship between your dungeon and its denizens needed to be kept in constant balance, meaning that you had to continually work to top up your resources in order to pay your studious Warlocks and vigilant Horned Reapers when payday rolled around. As well as stopping your creatures from brawling amongst themselves. This could have been an utter chore and a confusing mess, especially considering the wealth of different structures and units at your disposal, but the slick GUI and single-click interface made for an instantly intuitive experience that kept you informed and in control.
When battles broke out, you knew where it was. When your creatures were falling in battle, you knew who had died (admittedly, we did hear that a lot). And while that was all going on, you were free to chisel out a couple more gold tiles or even leap into a hapless minion's body to engage in some combat first-hand. Bullfrog delivered a lecture in thoughtful game design, and I can't help but feel that many strategy developers should have learned some important lessons.
Dungeon Keeper also debuted the land of Albion, which may or may not be the very same world in which Molyneux decided to set the Fable series. Unlike the RPGs, however, Dungeon Keeper knew what Albion really is: a thinly-veiled parody designed to get laughs, not a world to be taken seriously. None of the Fable games ever managed to inspire a genuine emotional connection with the realm because they played it straight despite the transparent reliance on silly voice acting and clichés, but Bullfog were under no illusions. I'd like to explore this idea in a later article, but suffice to say that Dungeon Keeper played Albion for laughs and received them in spades.
WaterDream Warm. A region of pointless frolicking and endless pleasure.
No-one here understands the true meaning of suffering and random shocking violence meted out arbitrarily.
After Peter's departure, Bullfrog embarked on Dungeon Keeper II, which was a better game in many respects. Erm, well, one respect. It was in full 3D. Shiny, yes, but the core gameplay always felt like an incremental upgrade compared to the titanic prowess of its predecessor, a visual revamp that still didn't quite measure up to the first. It was still a great game, but for many players, it's the original that still brings up those blissful memories of time spent underground, spanking imps like there's no tomorrow.
Bullfrog wanted to make Dungeon Keeper III: War For The Overworld, and we wanted it too. Badly. So badly. Being able to take our own brand of evil to the complacent fools on the surface would have been the logical next step for the franchise, but after some "high level conceptualisation," EA decided that it was just too big a risk to take compared to pumping out some videogame tie-ins. Nothing changes. Developer Ernest W. Adams fills us in with the details:
We got a fair bit of work done, thinking about typical RTS-like issues – supply lines, siege engines that needed creatures to work them, creating unique individuals by mesh warping, interfaces for managing mixed indoor and outdoor combat (the dungeon heart would still have been inside the castle), and so on. However, it all became moot about March of 2000. Electronic Arts foresaw bad times ahead because of the downturn in game sales that preceded the arrival of the PlayStation 2.
At the same time – unbeknownst to us – they were negotiating with J.K. Rowling for the rights to Harry Potter, and with New Line Cinema for the rights to The Lord of the Rings. Given the choice between an experimental DK3 and the absolute license-to-print-money that were Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, it wasn’t a difficult decision. Dungeon Keeper 3 was cancelled, and we were moved on to other things.
Still, we'll always have Albion, and our Dungeon Hearts beat for it even to this day. Right then, I'm off to eat a live chicken and excavate my garden.