Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Part 9: The Game

I apologize for the delay.

I’ve been having some difficulty deciding how to properly contextualize what you’re about to read. It is, arguably, the most important part of the story, and as such I have made a solid effort to ensure all the information is as accurate as possible. My attempts to further research the events about which you are about to read have largely met with failure. All related data on the subject has been either lost or destroyed, and those personally involved have shown no interest in discussing the matter with me. Indeed, the man from whom I and the rest of The Princess Society heard this story is the only one who has ever willingly come forward on the matter, and unfortunately he is now dead.

As such, I have decided to abandon context and simply present this story to you as it was relayed to us by a man we will call Dan.

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It was the late 90s. The initial shock of 3D graphics on consoles was wearing down, and game companies were just starting to truly explore what was possible with the Nintendo 64 and Playstation hardware. Ocarina of Time was on the horizon, and the hype for it was giving gamers a hankering for fantasy, adventure, swords and sorcery.

In response, an up-and-coming game company began work on a title that would never see the light of day. This title, known internally as “Hero and Princess” was a very ambitious project for such a small team. Set in a never-named fantasy kingdom, the game would follow closely the Legend of Zelda progression formula, with gameplay beats divided by dungeons and the collection of new items and abilities to progress. However, the game’s claim to fame was going to be the helper who would accompany the player throughout the adventure. Never given a name, she was known during development only as “The Princess.” The idea was that The Princess would be the player’s constant AI companion. She would fight alongside you, help you solve puzzles, give hints when you were lost and provide charming, contextual banter with the hero. An important element was that she would be “full AI,” with no actions completely scripted. Indeed, there were plans for relationship and mood mechanics which would influence how effective and helpful an ally The Princess would be. In response to your actions, she could be a loyal ally eager to see the quest through with you or a grudging companion only following you to suit her own goals.

This dynamic was the brainchild of Mr. Carver, a lead designer on the project. While his area of expertise was providing the art and story direction for the game, he was always the strongest advocate of the AI companion system as a core mechanic. After all, he’d spent many long hours crafting an interesting and dynamic personality for The Princess, someone the player would want to spend a 45-hour game with, and had ended up getting quite attached to the character himself. He’d often spend what spare time he had idly drawing pictures of her, a young girl with red hair and a white dress, often in peaceful scenarios and idyllic landscapes. Strangely, despite creating a complex personality and extensive backstory for the character, he never gave her a name other than "The Princess," her development designation. When asked, he’d say he just hadn’t decided on a name, as nothing seemed to “feel right,” but was sure he would decide on a name by the time the game reached Beta.

The game never reached Beta.

Very early in development, it became clear that the AI companion mechanic as Mr. Carver had envisioned it was impossible to implement. The team was too small, the current console hardware too weak and the idea just too grand and elaborate for the resources available. There were attempts to scale the game back, put more control of The Princess in the hands of the player and other solutions but nothing could stem the incredible amount of feature bloat Mr. Carver’s ideas were causing. Carver himself was extremely indignant over any proposed limitations on The Princess’ fully-AI nature, insisting it was vital not only for the gameplay experience but for the story he was trying to tell and The Princess as a character. Eventually, though, the higher-ups lost their patience with Carver and ordered The Princess feature stripped from the game entirely.

Following this, according to close friends, Carver spiraled into a deep depression. He still performed his duties as story and art director, but became increasingly detached from the project. He began spending more and more time drawing The Princess, to the point where his office walls were becoming covered in concept art for the now-scrapped character. His drawings were also starting to take on a darker tone. He would often draw The Princess simply staring blankly at the viewer or pounding a wall in frustration. There were whispers around the office that Carver would speak to these drawings when he thought no one was around, but never loudly enough for anything specific to be heard.

As the game entered Alpha, Ocarina of Time was released. The Executive Producer of Hero and Princess demanded that work be sped up to ship some kind of product and get this disastrous dev cycle behind them. Mr. Carver began taking more and more days off. He would show up to work late, always looking extremely tired and unshaven. Among company executives, his mental health was called into question. During an evaluation, Mr. Carver apparently had a breakdown, ranting and raving at the Executive Producer about The Princess as though she were a real person. He pleaded to have The Princess put back in the game, but instead Mr. Carver was released from the project altogether. Following the meeting he immediately left the building, (some say in tears,) and returned to his apartment, not even bothering to clean out his office.

That evening, Mr. Carver was found dead in his apartment.

He was lying on the floor in the middle of his living room, blood pouring from his arm. He had taken his own life with a razor blade to the wrist. The walls of his living room were completely covered with drawings of The Princess. In every image, The Princess appeared to be in great distress. She was crying, screaming, reaching out pleadingly towards the viewer. The idyllic fields were replaced with dark, twisted landscapes that often seemed to be on the verge of enveloping her completely in shadow. And on the floor around Mr. Carver’s body there were even more drawings, these just hasty sketches of The Princess with no artistry behind them, as though scribbled in a mad haste. These drawings were little more than her on a blank white background, her limbs spread out, and her face not drawn on.

It is at that moment the Society believes that The Princess, as we would come to know her, was born.

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