The Making Of: Arx Fatalis
Robert Zak is your guide as Raphael Colantonio and Christophe CARRIER Return to arkane’s debut ‘immersive sim’
Discover how Raphael Colantonio’s passion project led to successes like Dishonored
rx Fatalis was Arkane Studios’ maiden game; a passion project at a time when the industry had little time for such sentimental ventures. The game led to both the creation of the studio and its near-collapse, while also setting Arkane on a creative path that would eventually lead to Dishonored and Prey.
At the time of its release in 2002, Arx Fatalis was widely referred to as a first-person RPG, though today the buzzphrase ‘immersive sim’ is more apt. It’s set in a world where humans have been forced to migrate underground after the sun fizzles out on the surface. Building medieval settlements amidst these warrens and caves, humanity learned to coexist – not always harmoniously – with goblins and trolls, while the deeper levels held all manner of fantasy horrors.
It was as open a world as you could’ve expected within the confines of a subterranean tunnel network. You could take on side-quests, and were free to procure money and items in whatever ways you saw fit – be it bartering or thievery. There were plenty of playful systems too; you could buy shares in a mine, for example, then sell them on for more after resolving a miners’ strike, or you could break the game by robbing a shop of its powerful rune and weapons.
If that description conjures wistful memories of Ultima Underworld, then your nostalgia compass is well tuned, because those games are what inspired Raphael Colantonio to begin work on Arx Fatalis. “We’ve all had that moment when something changes from being a game to an ‘experience’,” he says. “Those two games touched me forever.” Raphael had the idea for
Arx Fatalis while working as an assistant producer for EA in 1993 (the year Ultima Underworld II came out). “I had this dream of being able to sell Arx inside EA. It was a pretty clear vision that I’d gestate for about two years.”
But during this gestation period, Raphael saw EA’S priorities veering away from his beloved, complex RPGS like Ultima towards the bigger business of sports franchises and console games. It was 1995, after all, and the cutting-edge Playstation was redefining the market, wooing publishers with its popularity and accessible development tools. “Super-hardcore RPGS were not where it was at anymore,” he adds.
Instead of adapting to the new landscape, Raphael doubled down on his vision. He left EA in 1997, and after a stint at Infogrames, founded Arkane Studios in 1999. By this point, however, it had been six years since the release of Ultima Underworld II, and its particular breed of RPG was looking (it has to be said) arcane by this time.
Finding a publisher would prove arduous, but Raphael was spurred on by support from his personal heroes. At E3 in 2000, he showed the game to Ultima Underworld designers Doug
Church and Paul Neurath, who saw the potential for it to become not just a spiritual successor to Ultima Underworld, but a literal one. Paul arranged a meeting where he would to pitch for Arx Fatalis to become Ultima Underworld III.
He had the meeting that summer, during which EA insisted on wholesale changes such as toning down on the RPG elements and prettying up the environments. Raphael wasn’t willing to make such compromises. “Even though I’d seen EA from the inside and knew it was unlikely to work out, I thought if there was a third party like Paul and the Looking Glass guys behind it, then EA would definitely go for it,” he laughs. “That was naive, in hindsight.”
The EA deal never materialised, Arx Fatalis was without a publisher, and things were starting to look desperate. “We were weeks away from reporting to the French government that we had to close the company”, Raphael tells us. “It had been a year since we started looking for a deal, and at some point you need to just move on.”
Discrepancy between an Arkane game’s commercial success and critical reception would become a running theme throughout the studio’s work (though never as dramatically as with Arx Fatalis). Their appeal lies in imaginative mechanics and playful systems-based worlds where players are encouraged to experiment, and even try to break the game – from using the GLOO Cannon to sequence-break Prey to using Blink to speedrun Dishonored in half an hour.
You can find the roots of this off-the-leash playfulness in Arx Fatalis, skipping large chunks of the game using a levitation spell, for instance, or paralysing guards to get into areas you shouldn’t. The problem is that these qualities only manifest themselves when deep into an Arkane game, and are not all that easy to market.
It’s fitting then, that Arx Fatalis was eventually saved by people with ties to games journalism – passionate gamers rather than calculating businessmen. While Arkane searched for a publisher, it sent the game to various magazines and websites in the faint hope that it would create a buzz. “We were so desperate and worried, that we thought maybe we’d contact the press or something. Maybe people would at least want to talk about our game?”
The plan worked. A writer praised Arx Fatalis on a Looking Glass Studios fansite called TTLG (which still exists). The article was spotted
“super-hardcore Rpgs were not where it was at anymore” RAPHAEL Colantonio
by former games journalist and Ultima Underworld fan, Frank Heukemes, who was now in charge of acquisitions at a small publisher called Fishtank. “He was totally on board with the risk of doing a game that maybe the market and publishers didn’t want, but he wanted,” says Raphael. Within two weeks of their meeting, in October 2000, Fishtank had signed up Arx Fatalis.
But the game wasn’t quite safe. In 2001, Fishtank went under, and sold all its assets (including an obscure fantasy game called The Witcher) to an Austrian publisher called Jowood. “They were barely in better shape, but thought of this as an opportunity that could save them,” says Raphael. “After, I was told that our marketing budget was literally ‘zero’, but that didn’t matter. These guys were putting our game in a box. Imagine that! They knew people who had trucks that would put it in stores. This was magic to us.”
Meanwhile, down on the ground Arx Fatalis’ development was without unwanted surprises, although there was a sense that the team (initially four people, then nine) was in deep, uncharted waters. “We were this young team that had never directed anything, and we’re in France, far from everybody and making a super-hardcore game that nobody wants,” says Raphael. “And we started from scratch in our own engine. How stupid is that?
Back then, developers weren’t spoiled for choice with engines. Quake’s engine was an option, as was Renderware, used for games ranging from Rayman 2 to GTA III, but the
Arkane team was unanimously opposed to it. “Renderware was expensive and very consoleoriented,” says Raphael. “We were hardcore PC types, thinking along the lines of ‘No! Not the consoles. They’re going to kill us with their small amounts of money and stupid games.’”
A custom engine gave Arkane the flexibility it wanted, but it was hard work, as there was precious little information available on the fledgling internet about how to do it. Sound designer Christophe Carrier, however, recalls working on Arx Fatalis with fondness.
he homemade engine meant we could literally chuck things from the editor to the game in seconds, making room for experimentation,” says Christophe. “If you needed to animate something, you didn’t have to wait for an animator to do it; you did it, and if nobody said it was crap then it would stay in the game.”
Christophe ended up designing a few areas in Arx Fatalis, and even added a segment where gargoyle statues turned their heads to follow you. “This feature was in one room, nowhere else,” Christophe reminisces. “It was this kind of freedom that I loved. It’s not totally impossible today, but it’s rare to have that kind of agility.”
Christophe’s main focus was still sound design, however, – one of the more striking elements of Arx Fatalis. The caves reverberate with a moody drone, supplemented by a hypnotic soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch movie. “We worked with D-sonic, the same guys who made the Thief and Bioshock ambiences,” says Raphael. “I was amazed by what they had done in Thief – thick and deep, with no music.
“i was told that our marketing budget was literally Zero” Raphael Colantonio
Thief was clearly a departure from what was done in sound design, and we wanted that in Arx.”
Then there’s that bold, bizarre spellcasting system, whereby you use your mouse to draw magical coruscating symbols in the air in front of you. This, Raphael reveals, was inspired by the Palm Pilot. “In order to type a letter on one of these, you’d draw a letter on the screen using a stylus, but every letter had to be done in one stroke, so ‘A’ wouldn’t have the horizontal line.”
Obsessed with immersion, Raphael would’ve gone further with the spell system had it been feasible. “If we’d had good voice recognition technology, I would’ve come up with a way to truly do an incantation for a spell as well,” he says. “I was looking at ways of making spells feel like a process, something that you do and feel.”
Unfortunately, if not unexpectedly, Arx Fatalis did not sell well when it launched in June 2002, even though reviews were largely positive. Broadly fitting the bill for a ‘western RPG’, it was lumped in for comparison with Morrowind and Neverwinter Nights, against which it couldn’t compete. “Neverwinter and Morrowind were value propositions – ‘If you buy our game, you’ll be in our world for ten years with an infinity of content, dialogue, choices,” says Raphael. “It sounds more appealing than ‘Hey, you’re stuck in an underworld where there’s no more than 10km² to visit.”
Arx Fatalis was a game out of time, arriving when RPGS were increasingly defined by dialogue choices and dynamic open worlds rather than these ancient underworlds. Crucially however, it brought Arkane to the attention of all the right people in the industry. Valve’s Marc Laidlaw praised the game, and encouraged Raphael to use the Source engine for Arx Fatalis 2, which became Dark Messiah Of Might And Magic.
Deus Ex designers Warren Spector and Harvey Smith also took note, and the latter eventually joined Arkane years later to make Dishonored. Thanks to Arx Fatalis, Raphael established himself as a leading member of the immersive-sim rat pack; a purveyor of highly interactive, systemsbased worlds and playful, ambitious mechanics.
It took a long time for Raphael to get over his bittersweet relationship with his first game, but from Arkane’s influential position today, he can now look back with pride. “I think Dishonored helped us get over those near-successes we had,” he concludes. “It’s allowed me to appreciate Arx Fatalis as an important step to success, as opposed to a failure.”
» [PC]YOU can see the DNA of Arkane’s later releases, such as Dishonored. in Arx Fatalis. » [PC] In the city of Arx, you can chat with locals, raid shops, and kill chickens; the Holy Trinity of immersion.
» [PC] There’s enough novelty in Arx Fatalis that it’s allowed a few cookie-cutter giant spiders. » [Xbox] The port to Microsoft’s first console isn’t bad, although it’s not as intuitive to play as the PC original. » Raphael Colantonio’s love of Ultima games led to Arx Fatalis.
» [PC] Arx Fatalis wasn’t conventionally beautiful, but environments were rich and deceptively varied. » [PC] Despite not being too fond of it at the time, Raphael now looks back at Arx Fatalis with pride.
» [PC] The gesture-based spellcasting system was tough, but immensely satisfying once you grasped it.
» [PC] Despite being set on a faraway planet, Arx Fatalis’ visual style is rooted in traditional fantasy.