The term “epic” gets thrown around a lot these days. We’ll throw it at almost anything, but especially at videogames; the all-caps, overhyped, predictable word bleeds out of web denizens. But some things are more literally epic—in particular, things that are literary epics. Beowulf, for one, a legend and hero from one the longest, oldest poems about monster slaying: he is pretty epic.
Epic, when not talking about a hysterically long poem, also refers to some incomprehensible sense of scale. King Post has some history with the epic, its team members having attempted to create the “unfundable videogame,” a AAA Shadow of the Colossus-style adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. While players were never given the virtual opportunity to harpoon a series of titanic metaphors, the project did lead to Moby Dick, or, The Card Game, a cult tabletop whaling voyage which sees everyone harvesting the ocean’s beasts and managing resources before meeting their fate.
“It’s a game that made you feel as if you were reading Moby Dick,” says creative director Joel Clark, who explained that the game liberated events of Melville’s tale out of sequence, away from the chronology of the voyage. While successful in creating an interesting game, King Post’s next “epic” undertaking lends itself a little more generously to play structure, as its monsters, giants and dragons aren’t some symbol for obsession. They’re actual monsters, giants and dragons.
“Beowulf itself is this very straight story,” says producer Tavit Geudelekian, “a precursor to a lot of dark fantasy, like Game of Thrones and Tolkien. We loved this idea of returning to this elemental space. It’s a beautiful story, and gives us a lot more flexibility in design to make a game. But it’s still going really deep into the subject. We found we were able to expand our lens on it. With Moby Dick, one of the most dense and verbose pieces of literature, so we had a lot of built-in rules and dependencies that came from characters and relationships, the dynamics that Melville laid out in what we called the ‘more boring chapters.’ With Beowulf, we’re not just excited because it’s an awesome epic story, but we’re expanding a little bit in a historical perspective of where Beowulf comes from.”
Players of Beowulf won’t be moving through the motions of the olde slayer—they won’t get to subdue Grendel and his mother, and they won’t succumb to a dragon’s wound. Players move astride Beowulf, killing their own beasts, accumulating their own wealth, but with Beowulf’s life and legend continuing on alongside them. But Beowulf’s actions aren’t merely shadows in the background of your game, and his journey, divvied up, creates key historical markers for your session.
“If you look at the 500-year period from when the time Beowulf supposedly lived to the stories written down in the 11th century, there are tremendous changes that the culture of the north underwent,” says Geudelekian. The game begins with your rise, migrating and fighting against the forces of the supernatural. Then, in the second stage, with your footing down, the game shifts towards player versus player, raiding each other and getting gold in your coffer. Then, in conclusion, a wind down, your kingdom crumbles as the influence of Christianity strengthens. All while Beowulf’s story plays out in full.
“It’s a different world power,” says Geudelekian. “It’s expressed as a parable through Beowulf’s own ascent to the throne and eventual death from the claw of the dragon. So while Beowulf’s life is progressing, his deeds are also the time marker, pushing the players to their eventual demise at the end of that period.”
“We love moving into spaces where adaptation is a really powerful process,” says Clark. “We’re certainly exploring ideas that are outside of literary adaptations, but there’s an audience out there and we’re avid readers, avid storytellers ourselves. And the stories we think are a cool piece of our company identity.”
While it may seem constrained to play, or even make, a game within the confines of adapted material, it also comes to the realization that many games, regardless, end in some conclusion. So why not make that ending—and the quests, struggles, slays and earning between leading up to it—more epic?
More information can be found out about Beowulf on its website at www.mobydickgame.com/beowulf.
All images in this article are from works-in-progress. Tavit previously worked at Kill Screen before starting King Post.
UPDATE: The Beowulf Kickstarter is now live!