"An obsolete videogame for a dark passage of history." That's how the creator of this week's Free and Worth Every Penny feature pitches his own game. Kind of a strange angle to take, isn't it? Sure, retro-style titles have been in fashion in the freeware community for awhile now, but to label your own work "obsolete" seems a bit harsh. Then again, you could argue he's just setting the tone - I'm not going to lie to you, this game's kind of a downer. But I think it's also something really special. Welcome to...
If you've read other installments of this column over on Colony of Gamers, you may remember Locomalito as the author of the superlative side-scroller Hydorah. While Hydorah was a throwback to the days of the 16-bit space shooter, L'Abbaye des Morts goes considerably further back for its inspiration, taking its visual and aural cues from the early 80's and the ZX Spectrum.
In terms of plot, though, it goes much further back than that, which I freely admit is the real reason I wanted to write about it. From Locomalito's description of the game:
In the 13th century, the Cathars, who preach about good Christian beliefs, were being expelled by the Catholic Church out of the Languedoc region in France. One of them, called Jean Raymond, found an old church in which to hide, not knowing that beneath its ruins lay buried an ancient evil.
...This little game has been created at nights during our vacation in southern France. The whole style is spontaneous and sincere, straight out of our trips in the region during the day. Be sure to visit the Languedoc if you feel somehow attracted by the game ;-)
We must assume, I think, that monk Jean Raymond is probably a fiction, and certainly his adventures as presented here are not drawn from history. But the Cathars were quite real, as was their violent expulsion from France under Pope Innocent III in the 13th Century. More on that in a bit. What sort of a game am I asking you to play here?
For the most part, it's a straightforward action-adventure, though it's a completely nonviolent one on the part of the player. You have no weapons, and indeed no actions available to you at all other than to run, jump and duck. It's a game entirely about escaping death, and as you'd expect from the fellow who brought us Hydorah, that can be infuriatingly difficult at times.
You will come to loathe rooms like these.
You are given 9 chances to collect the twelve crosses scattered in the catacombs by your former monastic brothers before facing the evil that lies at the bottom and hopefully claiming your freedom. Checkpoints abound, and extra lives are scattered about in limited supply, but make no mistake, this isn't a game like VVVVVV where you keep trying until you succeed. Run out of lives, and it's back to the beginning for you - expect this to happen at least once while you get the hang of things.
Expect, also, to scratch your head more than once about how to proceed; many of the rooms are puzzles in one way or another, and the clues to those puzzles are not always presented clearly. It's unfortunate that a game with such harsh penalty for failure requires so much experimentation to succeed, as those design choices would seem to be directly at odds with each other. Luckily, this is mitigated somewhat by the brevity of the game as a whole - once you know what you're doing, getting to the end in 20 minutes is a reasonable proposition.
Let me give you a hint I wish I'd had - this room is really important.
Unfortunately, I can't fully talk about why I think this little game is so neat without delving into spoiler territory, but let me dance around it a bit by saying this: what Locomalito has essentially done here is to use a video game to write a martyr tale... to craft a myth. The title's hero may not have been a real person, but his religious order was real. Their persecution was real. The churches like the one under which you explore and fight for your life were and are real. Pick any pseudohistorical figure whose story has become a jumble of fact and legend - King Arthur, Robin Hood, Homer - this is how they begin. Real events occur, and somewhere along the retelling a sword is pulled from a stone, or perhaps from the waters of a lake. The sad story of a criminal fleeing to live in the forest becomes the great legend of a rebel who overthrows an unjust king.
And here, the story of a monk who hid in the catacombs under a church to avoid persecution becomes the legend of a hero who braves death to stare down the Devil himself. Is it great storytelling? No, it's an antiquated ("obsolete"? perhaps so) and occasionally frustrating video game. But you know what? Twenty-four hours ago I didn't know much of anything about the Cathars. And now, however briefly or immaterially, I've been one. This is precisely the sort of thing that keeps me playing games.
L'Abbaye des Morts is...
- a unique experience by an unquestionably talented developer.
- not exactly a history lesson, but it might prompt you to go find one.
- a little bit frustrating and depressing, but not in ways that deterred me from playing.
- a strange little game that I'm very glad someone wanted to make.
It's a tiny game - under 3MB, though sadly Windows only - that can be had for the low price of clicking right here. A poster, DVD cover, manual and soundtrack are also all available, because Locomalito is serious about his freeware. Long may he continue to be so.