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Living with Cold & Dark: Part I

Posted on May 7, 2012 by Flames

The design essay series here at Flames Rising continues with the first part of a series by game designer Mischa L Thomas. Mischa tells us about the forthcoming Cold & Dark RPG.

Living with Cold & Dark: Part 1

    Hi, my name is Mischa L Thomas and I’m the lead designer at Wicked World Games 1.1, a small RPG design company based in Gothenburg Sweden. In a couple of months we’re going to release the gritty space horror science fiction pen and paper RPG Cold & Dark in partnership with Chronicle City. I thought I’d talk a little bit about the inspirational sources and conceptualization method behind the design process which led up to the finished game document. But first a little bit of background.

    I started to write Cold & Dark back in 2009 as part of a school project. Back then I was studying game design and project management and we were given three months to present a playable game product and project plan. As it happened I’d just played through Dead Space, which I bought on a whim after someone told me it was a cool and scary game. It turned out it was. Here the idea for my game project Cold & Dark came into existence.

    During the three project months I managed to create a simple first draft consisting of approximately a hundred pages of playable material. It passed muster with the examiner but for me the journey had just begun. I had one year left on my game design education, and still studying full time I plunged myself into the Cold & Dark project. Those first hundred pages would be all but scrapped, only serving as a reminder of how it all started. If I was going to design a game which would be released I really needed to be thorough. I had to sit down and wrap my head around exactly what it was I wanted to create as the scale of the project just had shifted.

    And so it began…

    I scoured my game and movie library as well as the net and local stores, looking for games and movies that might possess aspects I wanted in the design. Before the creature and character design got started I felt that I needed to envision the actual game world. How far off in the future would the stories take place, would Earth, our solar system or even our galaxy be of any importance in the game? There were a lot of questions and to find the answers I decided to “interrogate” some of the titles in my inspirational list. In many space age science fiction titles deep space mining is a very important part. But how would a society based upon this look like and what rules would govern it? Who decide if it’s legal to mine a planet in a far away solar system? Does anyone even have the right to own or regulate the use of an uninhabited planet? So basically, I asked myself a lot of questions in order to come up with answers that weren’t covered by the sources of my inspiration.

    And then it came to the design of the horror and gritty aspects. In order to get going I started to move concepts around between the titles in the inspirational list. All in order to create a kind of primordial concept design ooze. And I eagerly watched the edge of the sludge to see what crawled out of it. Some concepts were keepers and others were catch and release. Some were quite recognizable from the original while others were far removed. In the end the process left me with a plethora of jigsaw pieces. And I and the game testers had a lot of fun putting them together, exploring the world to be.

    “Standing on the shoulders of giants”

    There are some themes within gritty science fiction and horror that have a propensity for a kind of memetic conceptual spread, and according to me they have become important pillars of the genre: The monstrosity, madness, internal bodily mutation and parasitic gestation, fear of the unknown, contagion and the dead rising.

    These concepts have bounced around in different forms with different names. They’re the basis in many modern horror and science fiction lines.

    Main List of Inspiration

    Command and Conquer
    Dead Space Franchise
    Doom (movie)
    Doom 3
    Event Horizon
    Firefly/Serenity
    Mass Effect/Mass Effect 2
    Pandorum
    Pitch Black/ Chronicles of Riddick
    Resident Evil Series
    Screamers
    StarCraft
    Starship Troopers
    The Alien series
    The Thing (John Carpenter’s)

    The Xenomorph in Alien combines the fear of the monstrosity with the fear of internal parasitic gestation (and it taps into a wide range of concepts which makes humans anxious) as does John Carpenters The Thing. Although, The Thing leans more toward the mutation spectrum and contagion, bordering on the dead rising as it seems that the creature is very hard to get rid of. The Resident Evil series is based on the dead rising concept and contagion in combination with mutation. There is a clear pattern to it all.

    From The Thing and the Xenomorph to the Necromorphs of Dead Space. And I dare say that a lot of modern day horror concepts are inspired by the work of Lovecraft who really set the bar. And for that I’m eternally grateful. If it wasn’t for him and all those other great writers, directors and designers we would have missed out on a lot of wonderful fiction.

    Overall it’s a smorgasbord of crossbred concepts and this had a great influence on the design of Cold & Dark. For example, the Ripper race in C&D is greatly inspired by the Xenomorph, Zergs and the Arachnids. However, the parasitic gestation of the Rippers has been given some extra body horror aspects as well as they can replenish their ranks by using our dead. And how the in-game society relates to them is akin to how society in the Starship Trooper movie relates to the “Bugs” as the existence of Rippers is widely known.

    When it came to the theme of madness the phenomenon of VPS (Void Psychosis Syndrome) was implemented in the game. It’s an important part of the mythology and without writing a spoiler I can say that it’s more to it than a simple psychological ailment. When I designed VPS I was inspired by Event Horizon and Dead Space. Then I saw the movie Pandorum and it became even more evident that it is indeed a popular trope (and I of course mined that movie for more ideas). The madness trope always seem to find away to replicate itself and show up for another prime time appearance in the arena of gritty science fiction and horror. But there is something really scary about the idea of losing control, not being able to distinguish reality from fantasy, or having to deal with individuals who have trouble with that distinction. Combine this with being trapped on a ship in the middle of space and you’re in for a rough ride.

    The science in the fiction: Harder than diamond or softer than sponge cake?

    The definition of hard and soft science fiction is something that is often up for debate. This is a discussion I’ve had with my playtesters and fellow gamers. Of course, we have never been able to reach a consensus in this regard but we have been able to agree upon one thing: Softer science fiction does not have to preclude the very gritty.

    According to me, every title in my inspirational list is softer than sponge cake when it comes to the science of it all. Well, technologically speaking (excluding the flying saucer) The Thing is very down to earth but the creature itself…not very plausible. But most titles in the list make use of artificial gravity without any form of explanation and (in my opinion) this is enough to make it soft.

    In Cold & Dark I’ve used a lot of soft science fiction plot devices. Impossible alien creatures, new sources of fuel, FTL travel among other things (sponge cake land). But the grit has remained and there’s a consistency to the technology and the development of it within the context of the game.

    Some technological “solutions” have been inspired by avenues of research that exists today. Artificial gravity without rotating sections is managed by the use of advanced diamagnetism. I thought that if they can levitate a small living frog with it in this day and age, and want to use it as a means to study the effect micro gravity has on living bone and muscle tissue, we might just be able to reverse the process and make it even more effective in six hundred years or so. For a layman like me it doesn’t seem impossible. But a physicist would in all likelihood smack me over the head for my scientific illiteracy.

    Nanogenerators that feed off piezoelectricity systems, Ionic Polymer Metal Composites (IPMCs) that produce artificial muscle activity in suits and shape memory alloys are among other concepts that can be found in the game. These are concepts the scientific community are researching today. That being said, I think I would label the “hardness” level of the science in Cold & Dark as very gritty sponge cake. After all, we’re in Event Horizon and Alien country here…

    Luckily I’m only designing a game and not submitting a research report to a science committee in hopes of receiving funds.

    In the end

    When the game text was finished I took a step back, in order to give the final document a long hard look. It had become something that stood on its own legs. The game world in combination with the inspiration had taken on a life of its own. From the conceptual ooze and jigsaw pieces a fully fledged and realized game had emerged.

    It is my hope that I’ve been able to design a game that gamers who are fans of the gritty and dark science fiction genre will enjoy. The process of creating C&D has been a journey going on for nearly three years. It’s been a lot of fun but it has also been a test of mental fortitude at times but totally worth it.

    And a big shutout goes out to all the playtesters, proofers, illustrators, business partners, friends and relatives without which this game would have been little else than the scrawling of a madman. Big thanks!

    Mischa L Thomas – 2012

    For more information on the Cold & Dark RPG visit: Wicked-World.se.

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