Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Reverse Dungeon

Evil simulators are few and far between.  I think the reason is not many games want to let the player be the bad guy.  That said, there are a few.  Overlord, Plague Inc., and my personal favorite Dungeon Keeper.  In this case the game we're discussing is The Shrouded Isle.  As far as I can tell it appears to be set on a small, remote, northern latitudes enclave during the late 19th or early 20th century.  Five families own the place and answer to a high priest who is the player's avatar.

The deity worshiped by this isolated community is "Chernobog," a slavic word derived from "čĭrnŭ" meaning "black," and "bogŭ" or "god."  I should mention that the only written information on this particular entity comes from a 12th century christian priest who, while recording local customs, mentioned him in passing.  The pagans who worshiped Chernobog left no records.  Because of the lack of information, a lot of mystery surrounds this ancient (and mostly forgotten) deity.  Although I should mention that Chernobog makes an unnamed (but major) appearance in the 1940 animated Disney film "Fantasia."  He is the bat-winged demon that constitutes the peak of a mountain top in one of the ending segments.  I should also mention that the accompanying music "Night on Bald Mountain," was created by a russian composer named Mussorgsky as a tribute to slavic paganism, but was not actually performed by an orchestra until 1881 - five years after the author's death.

Considering the fact that the shrouded isle is (by definition) surrounded by water, it's a little strange that the cult in the game doesn't worship Cthulhu or some other aquatic deity like Dagon.  Supposedly the developers didn't want to copy from H.P. Lovecraft's Mythos too liberally, though they don't deny the influence it had on the design of the game.  The artwork and soundtrack do an excellent job of setting an appropriately dour mood.  The color pallet, on the other hand, perhaps takes it a bit too far.  In a post-release patch the devs introduced a black and grey (excuse me...CREMATION ASHES and DARKNESS!) scheme which is easier on the eyes.  As for the gameplay itself...

If you've ever tried Gods Will Be Watching then The Shrouded Isle will feel quite familiar.  Like that game it is a turn-based time/resource management sim wherein, the player must hold out for a certain number of turns.  In this case the amount is three years, which are divided into four seasons each - that are then subdivided into three month phases.  No matter what the player does their net resources will decline in the long run.  So, in essence the game is all about minimizing losses mixed with risk management and peppered with the occasional random event or hint/request from the upper managment (a.k.a. Chernobog).  Sadly, that's about it.  The game is rather barebones with no announced plans for further expansion.

Back when I used to play Dungeons and Dragons, there was this interesting module called "Reverse Dungeon."  Essentially, it took the generic premise of adventures going into underground locals in search of treasure and flipped it.  Instead of clerics, fighters, thieves and wizards, the players controlled the underground inhabitants (mostly monsters) with the goal being to expunge the intruders.  I can't help but feel that a similar approach would have work wonders for The Shrouded Isle. Sort of like a reverse "Shadow over Innsmouth," if you're familiar with the short story.  It would be interesting to see what options the player had if, say, a reporter or private investigator showed up in town.  Instead of resources like ignorance, fervor, discipline, penitence and obedience, I'd much rather see things like obscurity and influence (outside of the five families) play a more prominent role.  As is, the whole human sacrifice thing is the only major differentiator from being the high priest in an esoteric cult and the manager at some mid-sized corporation.  I'm sure some would argue that if one were to replace murdering people with firing people the two would be largely indistinguishable.  Realistic?  Possibly...Fun?  Not so much...

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