The Mak­ing Of: To­tal Eclipse

The team be­hind the third Freescape game on cre­at­ing its ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ad­ven­ture game for the Am­strad CPC

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS -

The jour­ney that you make around the im­pos­ing great pyra­mid in the first mo­ments of To­tal Eclipse is one that fills you with ex­cite­ment, in­trigue and ad­ven­ture. There’s the bright yel­low sun cast­ing a shadow over your bi­plane sit­ting on the desert sands. There’s a door­way into the pyra­mid to your right. But just be­hind that struc­ture is a glimpse of the moon, two hours be­fore a to­tal eclipse. It is, as the watch icon be­neath the play­ing area sug­gests, 8pm. And it is time to get a move on. Quite why you need to be such in a hurry is ex­plained in the game’s instruction man­ual. At 10pm on 26 Oc­to­ber 1930, the moon is set to to­tally eclipse the sun, trig­ger­ing the curse of Re, the God of the Sun, caus­ing Earth’s nat­u­ral satel­lite to ex­plode. So there is no time to lose as you seek to de­stroy the shrine of Re, lo­cated at the pyra­mid’s apex. Only then you start play­ing. To­tal Eclipse is slow. Some­times painfully so. Yet there is a per­fectly valid rea­son for this. The game – which was orig­i­nally go­ing to be called Curse – was built us­ing the won­drously in­no­va­tive Freescape en­gine cre­ated by

Ma­jor De­vel­op­ments, the soft­ware depart­ment of pub­lisher In­cen­tive and it pushed the tech­no­log­i­cal bound­aries like few games be­fore it.

“It wasn’t thought pos­si­ble to do solid 3D graph­ics on 8-bit com­put­ers at a rea­son­able fram­er­ate,” says In­cen­tive Soft­ware’s founder Ian An­drew. “Be­fore Driller there had been flight sims and Bat­tle­zone-type games that used wire­frame 3D but you could see through the shapes.”

Un­de­terred and with some pro­gram­mers turn­ing the project down, Ian turned to his brother,

Chris, who reck­oned he could make it work. It was at that point that the fun­da­men­tals of the Freescape ti­tles were nailed. “They had to be ad­ven­ture games, they had to use shad­ing to get more ef­fec­tive colours and we had to find a method faster than Z buffer­ing [the name given to the man­age­ment of im­age depth in 3D graph­ics],” ex­plains Ian.

To­tal Eclipse be­came some­thing of a pin­na­cle in the Freescape ‘se­ries’. Driller and Dark Side, which were both set in space, had taught the team a lot, not just about the tech­nol­ogy they were putting to good use but the type of games that would appeal. “We had learnt that peo­ple like the

‘real world’ bet­ter

than space,” says Ian. “You can be im­mersed in a game in a familiar-ish en­vi­ron­ment much more if you recog­nise ob­jects and the sur­round­ings bet­ter. We learnt how to op­ti­mise the code, so we could make things a bit faster and the en­vi­ron­ments could be big­ger.” The re­sult was, as Zzap! con­cluded, “the most com­plex and cap­ti­vat­ing Freescape ad­ven­ture so far”.

Ma­jor De­vel­op­ments con­sisted of Ian, his brother Chris, Sean Ellis and Paul Gre­gory, with Freescape – to­gether with its ear­lier games – cre­ated first on an Am­strad CPC. “It had 128K mem­ory and a disc drive,” Chris ex­plains of the choice to use Alan Sugar’s 6128. “The mem­ory also al­lowed room for the de­vel­op­ment tools: Dev­pac Z80 as­sem­bler and de­bug­ger. Ev­ery­thing was writ­ten in Z80 as­sem­bler in­clud­ing the rou­tines to mul­ti­ply and di­vide num­bers.”

To­tal Eclipse was the most am­bi­tious ti­tle yet for the en­gine. It used 20KB of the CPC’S RAM for the rou­tines, 10KB for the game-spe­cific parts and 10KB for the data. The re­main­der was used for buf­fers, vari­able stor­age and cal­cu­la­tions. More than that, how­ever, was the way in which the game was struc­tured. Aside from us­ing a first-per­son per­spec­tive (“If we showed the char­ac­ter in 3D, it would all move too slowly,” Ian says), To­tal Eclipse in­tro­duced a mul­ti­tiered level de­sign.

This meant that in­stead of traips­ing around the var­i­ous rooms that made up the game with your feet firmly on the ground, the 3D en­vi­ron­ment was much more com­plex. As you worked your way through the game, solv­ing puz­zles and ex­plor­ing to your heart’s con­tent, you could climb steps and edge your­self across gal­leries, look­ing at rooms from up high. It also added a level of con­fu­sion which meant play­ers had to map the game or else risk get­ting lost, but that cre­ated a sense of won­der.

It also gave Ma­jor De­vel­op­ments an ex­cuse to play around with Lego to pro­to­type the rooms and map the game for their own de­sign pur­poses. It would cer­tainly have needed a fair few bricks since To­tal Eclipse was 70 per cent big­ger than pre­vi­ous Freescape games, with 50 lo­ca­tions. But, by this point,

Ian and his crew had be­come more familiar with the en­gine and they could spend more time on the game. One ad­di­tion was the in­tro­duc­tion of spheres. “I think they were sim­ple to add but I didn’t have to pro­gram them in,” re­calls Ian. “It was an­other ad­vance­ment, though, and I thought the more we could add, the closer to re­al­ism we would get, there­fore the bet­ter the ex­pe­ri­ence it would be.”

Chris ad­mits the spheres weren’t that dif­fi­cult to achieve given there was a cir­cle rou­tine for draw­ing the sun and the moon (“they con­ve­niently ren­der as cir­cles,” he says). But aside from the fancy vi­su­als, puz­zles were the key com­po­nent of the game. There were wall pan­els, pres­sure pads and trea­sure chests, to­gether with a need to avoid putting too much stress on your beat­ing heart and keep your­self hy­drated by fill­ing your bot­tle at wa­ter stations dot­ted around the pyra­mid. “The think­ing went along the lines of, ‘We are in Egypt, we are in a pyra­mid, so what would be in there?’” Ian says. “I think the In­di­ana Jones films in­flu­enced me and we looked at ways of keep­ing play­ers on their toes.”

In­deed they did, es­pe­cially with poi­son darts to con­tend with. “I like the darts. They re­ally get you go­ing,” Ian con­tin­ues. “The chest bal­anced on a pole that may crush you seemed a bit harsh look­ing back but the in­creas­ing heart­beat added a good sense of ur­gency.” The team re­sisted, turn­ing the game into an all-out shooter, how­ever, even though the player would need to make good use of a pis­tol. “I don’t like first-per­son shoot­ers and I didn’t feel com­fort­able de­vel­op­ing a game like that. Per­sonal pref­er­ence, I guess,” Ian con­fides.

Al­though the speed was touch­ing upon snail-like in re­la­tion to 3D games to­day, To­tal Eclipse was nev­er­the­less an im­prove­ment on Driller and Dark Side. Co­pro­gram­mer and de­signer Paul says ev­ery as­pect of the Freescape en­gine was “un­der pretty con­stant op­ti­mi­sa­tion” and that, “as new tricks and tech­niques were de­vel­oped, op­ti­mi­sa­tions were em­ployed from the very low­est level poly­gon ras­ter­i­sa­tion through to the data rep­re­sen­ta­tion, data flow and ge­om­e­try rep­re­sen­ta­tion”.

In­deed, as Chris elab­o­rates, by the time To­tal Eclipse was be­ing de­vel­oped “we had learnt how to make the best out of the min­i­mum num­ber of ob­jects”. “We also in­tro­duced pre­de­fined ob­jects that could be used in more than one area,” he adds, “al­though Driller had this in a lim­ited pre­pro­grammed way. This al­lowed big­ger worlds for the same data stor­age.” The 3D en­gine also let the de­vel­op­ers pull of some neat tricks in­clud­ing the abil­ity to not only look up and down and ro­tate left and right but crouch, too. “Be­cause

“i Think The in­di­ana jones films in­flu­enced Me” Ian An­drew

we had built a true 3D en­gine, things like crouch and look up and down were all there for free,” says Ian.

Mem­ory was the big­gest prob­lem, how­ever. “The world data had to be com­pact – ev­ery spare bit was used if pos­si­ble,” Chris ex­plains. Colours were an­other is­sue. “The Am­strad had only four colours at the res­o­lu­tion re­quired and the Spec­trum only two, so stip­pling was used to make up to 15 shades.” On top of that were tech­ni­cal re­quire­ments. “The co-or­di­nates were only 8-bit, so the worlds were broken up into smaller ar­eas,” Chris con­tin­ues. “You couldn’t see more than one area at a time ei­ther, so that re­duced the pro­cess­ing power re­quired.” This helped enor­mously be­cause, as he points out, the Z80 wasn’t fast and the 6502 in the C64 was even slower. “I am still amazed that we man­aged to get playable games,” he con­fesses.

And that is ex­actly what re­sulted. With To­tal Eclipse, as Ian says, “there was a feel of be­ing there;

“The home com­puter club had a LOT Of buy­ing power” Ian An­drew

be­ing aware of what was above and be­low be­came im­por­tant”. The ad­di­tion of a flash­light, a com­pass, wrist watch and a pis­tol, “were all game el­e­ments to have in mind so that the player doesn’t re­lax too much”. Play­ers would need to col­lect ankhs which al­lowed them to un­lock doors. Any trea­sure play­ers col­lected would also let them boost their score, dis­played in pounds – “Maybe if I had put a dol­lar sign in, then we would have sold it into the USA,” laughs Ian. Not that it proved to be a dif­fi­cult sell on UK soil. Am­strad Ac­tion boosted sales by slap­ping a spe­cial-edi­tion cas­sette demo of the game on to its Christ­mas is­sue cover in 1988. In the same is­sue, it made Dark

Side the Game of the Year and awarded To­tal Eclipse 93%, mak­ing it a Mas­ter Game. Mean­while, Zzap! gave it 94% and it be­came a Crash Smash on 93%. Sam made ver­sions for the Amiga, Atari ST and PC. “Just by hav­ing the fram­er­ate much faster meant the ex­pe­ri­ence was bet­ter,” says Ian. “We also put more de­tail in.” A se­quel be­came in­evitable.

Re­leased in the Sum­mer of 1989, To­tal Eclipse II: Sphinx Jinx was ac­tu­ally cre­ated to boost the sales of the first game. It was orig­i­nally made avail­able for the Spec­trum,

C64 and Am­strad CPC through the Home Com­puter Club, a pop­u­lar mail or­der com­pany that sent users a monthly cat­a­logue as well as games from its main se­lec­tion that re­cip­i­ents could de­cide to keep or send back. Mar­keted as a dou­ble pack with To­tal Eclipse for a com­bined price of £7.99 (down from a RRP of £14.95), the ruse alien­ated those who had the first game. But it worked well for In­cen­tive Soft­ware. “The Home Com­puter Club had a lot of buy­ing power,” Ian says.

The deal had been struck, be­cause In­cen­tive wanted to be­come the club’s Game of the Month. “That would get us a big or­der,” he ex­plains. “So to con­vince them to choose us, I of­fered them an ad­di­tional game. As the game for­mat was al­ready done, it only took me a few weeks to cre­ate and im­ple­ment the ex­tra en­vi­ron­ment and puz­zles.” The re­sult was a game with less im­pact than To­tal Eclipse but one that was nev­er­the­less very pleas­ing for fans.

For those that bought the game, more of the same was on of­fer in a world that was, again, built of shaded geo­met­ric blocks. The method of play was also the same, with ex­plo­ration top of the bill. But the over­all ob­jec­tive was dif­fer­ent. Rather than seek to find a point in the pyra­mid, gamers had to lo­cate 12 frag­ments of a statue hid­den in one rather than two hours. It en­tailed work­ing out the best route, ex­plor­ing the maze while deal­ing

» [Am­strad CPC] Sit­u­ated in the back en­trance of the pyra­mid, this room has a wa­ter trough to help pre­vent de­hy­dra­tion.

» [Am­strad CPC] This large room has a small green cube which, when shot at, will pro­vide a set of stairs.» Paul Gre­gory (be­low) and Ian An­drew (bot­tom) worked won­ders with the Freescape en­gine.

» To­tal Eclipse was given the lion’s share of pre­view cov­er­age, at the time.

» Some early pro­duc­tion work on To­tal Eclipse show­ing off the de­sign of the puz­zle-filled pyra­mid.

» [Am­strad CPC] Don’t go run­ning to mummy when this sar­coph­a­gus opens and the body in­side starts to zap you

» [Am­strad CPC] There are sub­tle hints to most puz­zles, just in case you end up get­ting stuck.

» [Am­strad CPC] Just like the first game, To­tal Eclipse II was split be­tween the main screen and the in­stru­ment panel

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