The Mak­ing Of: Arx Fatalis

Robert Zak is your guide as Raphael Colan­to­nio and Christophe CAR­RIER Re­turn to arkane’s de­but ‘im­mer­sive sim’

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS -

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.

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