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Making a Prototype of the Future: The Development of Immercenary
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Making a Prototype of the Future: The Development of Immercenary

September 19, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

A Burgeoning Genre

Given the 3DO's comparatively low install base and the fact Immercenary was a system exclusive, very few actually played it. The game's premise is that through astral projection, scientists are communicating with a future Earth, where an enormous virtual reality network known as Perfect has trapped humanity. The player, a psychic virtual reality soldier, has their consciousness projected into the future, into Perfect, in order to shut it down and free everyone inside.

To an observer the game may sound like The Matrix film -- which came years later -- crossed with the aesthetics of the schlocky early 1990s VR film The Lawnmower Man.

As Johnson-Norris confirmed, the team was influenced by popular media. "A main inspiration was the book Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. The book kicked ass! It was like Matrix long before Matrix. We watched tons of sci-fi movies and read graphic novels for inspiration."

For Johnson-Norris, the growth of the real-world internet also affected the team: "We wanted to contrast that dirty, real-world grunge feel -- seen in the game 'wake up scenes' with the old barn and slow-moving fans -- with the high tech, fantastic virtual world.

"We loved the idea of the player moving back and forth. The virtual world was seductive, and being a super hero avatar felt great. Leaving the 'real world' was not hard, even though it came with a hidden cost: the loss of freedom and self-determination."

Functionally, the game is closer to Wolfenstein 3D, taking place on a flat plane, rather than Doom, which gave the illusion of height through stairs and elevators. What makes Immercenary distinct, even today, is that it takes place over an enormous, evolving city, which continuously streams from the disc (at a rough guess it covers one square mile). There are no loading areas, unless you enter a building where a boss resides.

Populating the city are 255 ranked enemies, known as "Rithms" -- as in algorithm. These enemies are split between five lower-ranking divisions (ranks 255 up to 12), and then eleven bosses comprising ranks 11 up to 1. Kill a Rithm from any division, and they are dead -- permanently. This means it's possible to whittle enemies down until the city is depopulated. There's also a 256th ranked enemy called a Goner (because it's made of polygons), but these are infinite and randomly respawn, acting as generic fodder.

A Strange Future-Past

Given the intrinsic nature of the pseudo-online component, I asked Stashuk what everyone's exposure to the internet, and the nascent online games space, was. "We felt a strong connection to the future of what we now know to be 'online'. Though the internet was still in its infancy, there was enough suggestion to its phenomenal potential. As far as traditional gaming, we were all into playing D&D and other role playing games. I think some of that intellectual play also made its way into Immercenary."

For those fortunate enough to play Immercenary, there is indeed a noticeable RPG connection: killing enemies releases a patch of visible, snowy static, which when collected acts as XP and raises your stats for Health, Attack, and Stamina. The goal is to take out the lower ranked enemies until you're strong enough to challenge one of the bosses (each represented by red markings on the map).

Nebulous terms like "sandbox" and "emergent gameplay" don't describe it fully; apart from the final three bosses, you can go anywhere, collect any item, and fight anyone at any time. It's completely open. Enemy AI is also rather clever. Some enemies hunt in pairs, others surround themselves with the generic Goners as cover, and you'll even find different ranked enemies fighting each other while oblivious to your presence. It's a surprisingly effective digital ecosystem.

"I recall that we were always developing to achieve the most eloquent performance within the context of the new 3DO platform," says Stashuk. "Between the texture mapping and video inclusion, I think we really offered a rich experience. It's hard to see that now looking at the comparatively really low resolution, but at the time it worked." Indeed, while Immercenary may seem archaic compared to the best the genre now offers, in 1995 its blend of a surreal landscape, wide spaces, and complete freedom was legitimately impressive.

"We were looking to deliver a very cinematic experience," Stashuk says, "where mood was developed in both the psychological arena as well as the visual. Many people talked about an unusual magnetism to the game, which even found its way into their real-life dreams. Unlike other combat-based games of that time, this was definitely a different animal. I think in some ways the unknown was what was so compelling. The vastness of the city felt like an urban safari. This created an underlying sense of anticipation and stress, as you felt so exposed."

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