Lively words about plague and Death Inc.
Death is quite possibly the only sure thing in life these days, but we’re not big fans of talking about it. We created entire religions just so we could briefly pretend that death doesn’t exist, then, when that started failing, we invented medicine to become immortal. That second part is still a work in progress. Even in the transient world of video games, where lives are a literal commodity, it’s often a primary goal to avoid death at any cost. But a little British developer by the name of Ambient Studios is showing itself unafraid of mortality, with an RTS project that casts you as the Grim Reaper himself. Grim T. Livingstone, freelance reaper, if you want to be specific.
Death Inc. is a real time strategy affair with elements of god games and business sims thrown in. Your goal is to infect as much of the population with the bubonic plague as possible, terrorising 17th century England with your army of victims and grabbing everyone’s delicious souls. We recently held a seance in a virtual cemetery and summoned the spirit of the Death Inc. Director and Co-founder of Ambient Studios, Jonny Hopper, who said — in a spooky, yet reassuring voice — the idea was borne from a desire to tweak some old ideas: “We started talking about how cool it would be to do a zombie game where you controlled a horde of zombies, acknowledged that zombie games have been done to death (aha!) and went from there.”
The first thing you notice about the game is the interface, or lack thereof. Much like Black & White — a series some Ambient staff worked on — there is very little on-screen interface to get between you and the game world. Most interaction in Death Inc. is moving troops around the field of play, and this is accomplished by “painting” a line across the ground which your bouncy crowd of diseased minions will follow to the end. Plague soldiers will attack anything with a pulse and attempt to convert it, so players only need to paint through a crowd of villagers to send chaos marching.
Additional tasks, such as opening doors, flanking a fleeing enemy or gathering for an assault are all done with simple strokes. Ambient says coming up with their own system has had advantages, chiefly the ability to experiment while maintaining the core of the RTS experience. They note that the tremendous amount of clicking can “scare off” some players who aren’t used to the genre, and hope this lack of a barrier will make things more user friendly. It certainly felt very intuitive dipping into the very early demo (which can now be found here) to mess with some infected peasants. Moving them this way and that felt more like herding sheep than commanding an army. which makes things feel more dynamic than a standard RTS. That dynamism is helped along by the addition of physics puzzles, such as turning a crank by painting a circle around it and having troops push start the mechanism.
The demo is the result of a mere 10 weeks of development, so it’s understandably rough around the edges. There’s no sound at all and the environments are rather stark. That said, it actually looks pretty darn great. Ambient have gone with an arts and craft feel for the graphics, with landscapes that look as if they were sculpted from modelling clay and architecture constructed out of digital paper. With a strong base for the art direction, even the in-progress demo has a certain charm that many finished, triple A games lack.
A conscious choice was made to pick themes and settings which were a little different to the norm. The Black Death isn’t the most traveled ground in video games, for a start, but Hopper also wanted the location and time period to be compelling — both for gameplay and visually. “Historically we found the 17th century architecture and whatnot to be more compelling and fresher.” There were even rumblings of a larger range of architecture should the project suddenly find itself flush with cash. Death Inc. is a game that puts fun over facts, however. “Our resident historical consultant is actually Wikipedia,” says Hopper, “We’re playing pretty fast and loose with history – which we’re fine with as you’re playing a Grim Reaper after all.”
Indeed, victims of plague haven’t been historically known to get up and start coughing infectious pink gas over people in order to recruit them into some sort of undead army. But there will be elements of the real events in the way battles pan out. Ambient mentioned plague doctors, who will wander areas marking the houses of the infected. “This will translate into additional gameplay as any houses marked by the plague doctors can’t be used by the player. In our game plague doctors are tough adversaries to get and they’ll be able to cure your infected.” On top of regular villagers — who will flee at the sight of your horde — there are soldiers and archers that will attack the infected, and boiling oil can be poured on your diseased troops from defensive walls. Lakes and rivers will also provide barriers for the human side.
Apart from the rather handy ability to spread fatal and disgusting viruses, your wee pink troopers will also have some significant toys to play with. Of particular note is the plague rat ability, which is used by scouring the level for piles of garbage and abandoned buildings. “If you can find these objects and then cast the plague rat ability near them, then you’ll see hundreds of rats pouring out of windows, doorways and rubbish piles who will attack any uninfected. The more items around the better the chances of your rats attacking nearby humans and the more chances you’ll infect them.”
Your main goal as the reaper is to infect all of England and depose the (reportedly evil) king. Ambient is designing the game as discreet levels currently, all within the context of a country map. The developers have even said other European countries could be added with appropriate funding. Ambient also want to add a multiplayer mode — which would include dual-reaper co-op play, as well as PvP for reapers and humans — and move the game to different platforms like the Wii U and tablets. Death Inc. is as much about the business of death as the dealing. The “incorporated” part of the name refers to the player’s headquarters, which contains the Grim Reaper’s office and surrounds. New rooms can be purchased as well as various bits of furniture; staff members can be recruited from the lost souls you reap, which can in turn be used to research upgrades for troops. “The more you research,” comments Hopper, “the better your troops will fare in battle with the humans.” All in all, it seems there will be a lot more to the game than just making people sick, and you get to choose attractive furniture options!
Sadly business is more difficult in the real world. There are no exploding cows and you don’t usually get to wear an ominous black cloak. Death Inc’s Kickstarter campaign, which was asking for a paltry £300,000 (quite a minuscule amount for making a video game), was ultimately unsuccessful. Ambient Studios have pledged to keep going with the game regardless, and hopefully the attention the campaign attracted will catch the eye of some wealthy industrialists. Death Inc. is an original idea in an industry often filled with utter pap, and the team seem quite dedicated to producing something great. I hope to be spreading pus-filled joy across medieval Europe in the future with all of you.