Preview - Ecstatica (DOS, 1994)

Nowadays, most of America certainly considers fairy tales to be sweet, harmless entertainment for children. This is due in large part to the Walt Disney film adaptations of these old stories. While these movies are very entertaining, they should never be considered the "definitive" versions. It's worth mentioning that Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Little Mermaid" didn't end very happily at all. Indeed, there's been a lot of study and speculation on the original content and deeper meanings of our most beloved fairy tales. For example, Little Red Riding Hood is not only rife with surprisingly "adult" metaphors, but in it's original form there was no woodcutter to barge in and interrupt the wolf in his attempt to eat the title character. And I don't even want to TALK about what happens to the grandmother.

Ecstatica from Psygnosis is based firmly in this disturbing side of the fairy tale world. It takes the familiar trappings of the fantasy genre, and turns them into a genuinely horrifying game experience. In the story, a weary traveler leaves the road in search of water and shelter, and wanders into a town populated entirely by werewolves, trolls and other fantastical monsters who are extremely hostile to humankind. Barely managing to escape a gruesome death, our hero delves deeper into the dangerous city, and soon discovers that these creatures have all leapt from the dreams and nightmares of a young girl, who lies in a coma. The traveler tries to find the reason behind this bizarre turn of events, and is ultimately caught up in a nightmarish saga of death, torture and demonic possession.

This unusual story is supported by a graphics combination that is just as strange. The backgrounds are carefully detailed and very naturalistic, but there is a definite cartoony look to the characters. They are based on ellipsoids, like the fighters in the game Ballz. The shifting cinematic angles and three-dimensional playing fields will remind the player of the Alone in the Dark series. But Psygnosis promises that this game will be more realistic and even creepier than the continuing adventures of Edward Carnby. This is not your normal fantasy game.

Ecstatica is primarily the brainchild of programmer Andrew Spencer, known for his best-selling "International Soccer" for the late, lamented Commodore 64. In fact, the first programming drafts of Ecstatica were C-64 based. Working from the philosophy of separating programming from creativity, he first devised an extremely advanced game engine, which took a full three years of development. From that point, the completion and refinement of the story elements took a further two years.

To enhance the visual side of the game, Spencer teamed up with Alain Maindron, an animator who worked on American Tale 2: Fievel Goes West. Maindron had never worked with anything but traditional cel animation, but he was greatly impressed by Spencer's engine, particularly its efficiency at "in-betweening." Using this capability and his film experience, Maindron helped create the very smooth graphic flow of the game. His stated objective was to make Ecstatica so engaging that the player will forget he's playing a game. Instead of any menu bars or other distracting icons appearing on the screen, the hero carries his entire inventory in his hands. Also, the characters literally never stay completely still. Even the game's hero is constantly fidgeting and looking around, as you might expect him to do in such a strange environment. There are seven to eight hundred animated sequences that are calculated on the fly, rather than being pre-stored, to create a seamless flow from the player's deliberate actions.

The game will only be released on CD-ROM, due to its enormous size. There are a full 250 interconnecting locations, many of which are subdivided into smaller areas, encompassing the village, the surrounding fields, the local castle, and various other nearby buildings. It will also include full digitized speech and some very frightening sound effects. Spencer is particularly proud of the soundtrack, and maintains that it will "scare the shit out of people."

Even the most gruesome fairy tales were actually meant to be told to children, but Ecstatica is bound to bear an "18" on its box. It is definitely intended for an adult audience, due to the graphic violence, the mature themes, and the overall feeling of apocalyptic dread. Some of the games more gruesome sequences will include hanged priests covered in blood and girls impaled on swords, not to mention your own character being repeatedly punched in the face by a werewolf. However, Spencer promises that none of these things are gratuitous. They are all important parts of the overall story, and will help make Ecstatica into that rarest of all things, an original computer game.

Play the demo for this game directly in your browser