Age of Kings – Real Terror Strategy
Back at the beginning of the millennium I was a huge Real Time Strategy fan. I’d grown up with Sid Meier’s Civilization and, later, Colonization, so was immediately hooked when the Age of Empires series came out. However, it wasn’t until the second release, Age of Kings, that I became completely addicted. And I mean addicted. It wasn’t enough to play the game, I spent every free moment reading up on the various stats and strategies needed to master it.
Once I thought I’d reached a sufficient enough level, I used my dial up modem to play others online. Mostly, I got beat. This was due to my insanely slow internet connection and lag – there would be regular ‘pauses’ in my play where I waited for normal connection to resume and, upon reconnecting, I’d discover that my carefully amassed army had been decimated and I was back to pumping out light cavalry and pikemen in order to survive.
So, after a few months trying, I turned away from online play and instead focused on creating my own scenarios. I read up on triggers and such, and went to bed each early morning dreaming of having one of my scenarios published in an expansion set. Weeks past, and my scenario “Robin Hood’s Last Stand” became more and more complex. It also took longer and longer to alpha test it as I added more and more areas in which actions and speech would be triggered. Not satisfied with the vanilla characters, backgrounds and units on offer, I searched the net for customs to download and install.
After a period of probably about 6 weeks, I was no longer playing the game, merely map and scenario building. I was using quite a large map and there were settlements scattered about, each with its own trigger set. Due to the increasing complexity of the scenario, once each particular settlement or grouped units had been bug-tested, I left them alone and moved on to the next. And so it progressed, day and night, while I sat festering in my room, living on a diet of junk food and nicotine.
To stand out from other similarly themed scenarios (Robin Hood was popular…), I had coded a Cataphract (heavy Byzantine cavalry) invasion to sweep from the southeast up to the north of my British map. They were to represent the Holy Roman Empire’s, fictional, attempt to bring Norman Britain under its power. The player, leading the Merry Men due to Robin’s death, would be caught between these two opposing armies, both of which saw him or her as an enemy. I wanted a huge, frame-rate killing end-battle where the only successful outcome would be for the player to escort Maid Marian to Wales and then, via boat, across the sea to Ireland, leaving Britain under the power of whichever army won. I had grand plans of making a sequel, in which the player returns to reconquer the homeland.
I’d done as much alpha, and some beta, testing as I could, and planned to ask a few online friends to run through the game to spot any bugs that needed fixing (AoK didn’t always run as it should). However, due to a tragedy in the family, I had to leave my room for a few weeks and travel to attend a funeral. Apart from grieving, I spent most of my time away thinking about finally getting to play the game properly, and all the way through. I was excited, to say the least.
When I eventually returned to my dingy, smelly room, I went straight to my PC and booted it up. I’d bought in a six-pack of extra large Pepsi bottles (this was before Redbull) and had enough junk food and cigarettes to last me a few days. I’d spent a very, very long time creating the scenario and was desperate to finally play my magnum opus.
Everything started off fine. I had to keep forcing myself not to play around with the code and just play instead. My character, a Paladin, landed on the south coast and began riding north. The background music was working fine, the soundbytes triggered well, and the villagers I passed were doing their endless chores (chopping wood, mining, farming, etc) as they should. To be honest, I began to wonder if it wasn’t a little boring, that I should add something dramatic to get other players hooked. But I persevered, plodding onwards through the fog of war.
And then I noticed a discrepancy, one I hadn’t programmed. I passed a village and, instead of seeing the villagers working, I saw their corpses littering the ground. Circling them overhead appeared to be black birds, although at such a tiny graphic size they were little more than a couple of pixels each. An eerie soundbyte had also mysteriously appeared – a mixture of crows cawing, gates creaking,wind blowing and this barely audible whispering. I knew this scenario – and everything that went into it – in and out. I was seriously confused. Had this been an extra attached to one of the custom mods I’d used? Shaking off a gnawing doubt in the back of my mind, I plodded onwards.
I came to a river. Both sides were covered by trees and a single bridge led across it. Apart from the route I’d already taken, everything else was still covered in the fog of war – complete blackness. Instead of finding Little John guarding, one of the trigger points, an eerie looped soundbyte began. Again crows cawing but, this time, along with creaking wood, there was creaking metal and low agonized moans and pleas for help. And that horrible quiet whispering. I gingerly approached the bridge and, as the fog of war receded, I saw what appeared to be two gibbets swinging at its end. I most definitely did not have a mod for gibbets, nor for their screaming inhabitants. And I had no idea how to turn the water around the bridge blood red. Now utterly unnerved, I even began to doubt if this were my game or I’d somehow… no, it had to be my game, but WTF had happened to it?
I crossed the bridge and approached my first real battle scene – or, at least what should have been one. The idea was that Little John, who I should have defeated at the bridge, would accompany me to find Robin Hood and, past the bridge, we’d encounter some of the Sheriff’s Men (light cavalry). What I instead found turned my stomach. It was carnage. The soundbyte playing sounded like thousands of flies along with that creepy, ungodly whispering. What should have been a small troop of light cavalry seemed to have been ripped apart and strewn across the area – Age of Kings just didn’t have those graphic capabilities. The ground was steeped in red and it seemed to be slowly spreading. I was considering switching off and going through the triggers and mods again when I heard the in-game taunt “All hail! King of the Losers!”. Not once, but again and again and again and again.
I moved my Paladin forward to quickly pass the unexplained slaughterfest while the in-game taunt, louder and louder each time, continued to plague me. Over this I could hear a rhythmic squelching sound, as if my character’s hooves were treading in mud, or something less desirable. Once I’d left the area and the taunting had stopped, I took a breather and lit a cigarette. What the hell had gone wrong with my game? I hadn’t encountered any such bugs in the innumerable times I’d tested it. While I was staring at the monitor and smoking, I nearly jumped out of my skin when a monk figure, although wearing a red robe, wandered out of the fog of war and approached my character. The quiet, creepy whispering started again. Using the same over-the-top voice as in the in-game taunts, the monk bellowed “See what you’ve sown! See what you’ve sown! The children cry as their bread turns to dust and their mothers’ souls become hollow as worm-eaten coal!” And then the monk wandered off out of sight.
I looked away from the screen and down at my watch. It was just after two in the morning. The room was pitch black apart from the monitor’s glow. And I was alone. My mind was screaming at me to stop playing and go to bed, to sort it all out in the morning. But this was my game. I’d spent way too much time working on it. I had no idea what sort of glitch, bug or even hack could have messed it up in such a way but I was determined to find at least a vestige of my original work within it. So I stubbed out my cigarette, took a swig of cola and click-and-pointed my character on. By this point, the creepy whispering was no longer just a soundbyte – it had become a Lustmord-esque backing track and it seemed to come from every dark corner of my room. But this was my game and I aimed to get to the bottom of whatever had gone wrong with it…
Locked away in my darkened room and buzzing on the caffeine and sugar rush endless quantities of Pepsi supplied me, I became immersed in “my” game. I heard nothing and saw nothing of the outside world. My universe had become a set of pixels on a slightly curved monitor screen. My eyes were strained and I could feel blood pulsing in the veins in my head.
At first I’d wanted to follow the red monk into the fog of war and see where he led me, but logic overrode this. This was “my” game and so I led my character forward to the north, uncovering fog of war of mine own choosing. I no longer recognized the backing track, and the soundbytes were most definitely not vanilla. I had the overwhelming impression that I was wandering through some apocalyptic wasteland rather than a map of Olde Worlde England.
It seemed as though I’d been traveling for much too long without encountering anything new. Those of you who’ve played the game know that the maps aren’t that large, which is why scenarios are usually structured on a serpent-like curve to maximize the space-event ratio. My paladin was just plodding ever onwards with the fog of war retreating slowly before him but nothing, no features, no people, no structures, appeared.
I stopped and took a break. I hadn’t wanted to, as I’d planned on playing all the way through as though I were someone who’d never experienced my scenario before, but I was completely stumped so I decided to toggle fog of war off and reveal the entire map. There are two codes required, one which removes the fog and the second which reveals everything on the map – Marco and Polo. To my surprise, they didn’t work. Instead, I again received the taunt “All hail! King of the losers!” I tried again and got the same result. My only option was to keep trudging forward.
My character’s lonely expedition didn’t last long, thankfully, or perhaps not. I eventually reached some fields, which triggered a slightly-off-key looped midi track of ring-a-ring-a-roses. In my darkened room, after encountering nothing for an improbably long time, the sudden sound freaked me out. Especially as I most definitely hadn’t put it there. I was honestly beginning to feel a bit scared.
I moved my paladin forward and it passed over perhaps twenty or 30 field spaces – an immense amount compared to the map size. Fields stretched to either side, fading into the fog of war, so I couldn’t even tell just how large this agricultural area was. Interspersed with the off-key children’s nursery rhyme, I could hear that constant whispering. I strained my ears to make out what it was saying but, to be honest, I wasn’t even sure that it was English.
While my paladin waited, while I listened, a circular chunk of the blackness disappeared and revealed a large wonder-type building. At first I thought it was the Hagia Sophia but its shape was off. Compared to the surrounding map it was immense and took up many squares, but its architecture was disturbing to say the least. Imagine Escher designing Ry’leh and then turning it into a pixellated medieval place of worship and you’d be on the right lines. Even its color was wrong – I can’t even begin to describe it as it was none of the faction colors and it seemed to be warping through the vomit-inducing edges of the spectrum. This building definitely had me convinced that the game, or at least the mod, was bugged. Something had gone wrong with the graphics and…
Figures started walking out of the mind-ache-inducing temple in single file. Well, they appeared at its entrance and then made their way south towards my paladin, where they turned to the left or right and began lining up in rows. There didn’t seem to be any logic to their in-game rank – they consisted of a mixture of everybody. Villagers, knights, champions, you name it – if it was in the game then it exited the vulgar temple and took up position before my paladin. They all appeared to be of the same dirty red as the monk I’d met earlier on, not a faction color. Quickly, they filled up the upper half of the screen, numbering perhaps in their hundreds, and my computer began to lag noticeably due to this.
None of this was my doing and I had resigned myself to, sadly and frustratingly, deleting the entire scenario and starting afresh. I had no idea what was going on with the game and, instead of playing my own scenario through until the end ala a noob to it, I was in fact the noob within some demented version of my own scenario. I had no control over events and was merely being led from one bizarre scene to another, none of which were what I’d put weeks of hard work into.
The cast of hundreds finished lining up in front of the church of St Arkham and, for a while, the game was silent. Their numbers stretched off screen so I was unable to count them. Any area they did not cover appeared to be writhing or wriggling, as if microscopic maggots were crawling across the in-game earth. Seeing this made me shudder and I felt my skin crawl.
Slowly, though, the faint sound of wind appeared in my headphones, as though a twisting breeze was passing across the landscape. And then that cursed muttering and whispering began. At first it was quiet, quieter even than the wind, but gradually it increased, both in decibels and tempo, until it felt like my head was going to explode. Just as I reached for my headphones to tear them off my head and free myself, it stopped. And there was silence.
In that silence I watched, in fear and awe, as something impossible happened. I know for a fact that the in-game character movements didn’t include this, and with such a tiny area of pixels per character to play with it would have been an exercise in futility to waste time creating such an action for what was basically a top-down game. The amassed crowd, as one, looked up.
All of them, in one fluid movement, looked up. At me. And they stared.
I didn’t even want to blink, I was so thoroughly creeped out. I watched them and they watched me, their blurry pixellated faces all focused in my direction. We stayed like this for I don’t know how long. It could have been minutes, it could have been hours. My mind just couldn’t process what was happening. I was alone, in my dark room, facing the glare of the monitor and, from that screen, hundreds of murky, badly drawn faces stared out.
I waited, half-expecting some other event to happen, like they all walk off, or die, or something. And so I waited. But they didn’t move, they just kept on staring, as if they were waiting for something from me.
My eyes were burning, both from focusing so hard at a flickering screen for so long and also due to natural tiredness. I couldn’t keep this up. At some point I had to switch off and sleep. I wasn’t thinking straight.
The creepy whispering started again and, with it, the red monk appeared at one side of the screen and walked towards my paladin. Upon reaching him, he raised his tiny arm in the paladin’s direction and I heard the soundbyte “Cursed are you who create imperfection!”
The paladin keeled over and died in standard gameplay fashion. It, my sole player-character, then vanished. But the game didn’t end.
The red monk spoke again. “You created a barren race and the women lament for their empty wombs!”
As if on cue, all the female characters, mostly villagers and some Joan of Arcs, in the amassed group began visibly shaking and my headphones filled with screams and wails and cries and curses, all directed at me. It sounded like that hole into hell in Siberia. The women continued screaming and crying and then I heard the sound of iron on wood and steel, a rhythmic thumping and clashing, and I could barely make out the male characters banging their weapons against their armor or their shields. The monk shouted again. “These are your cursed creation! You who spawned us to toil and die at your whim for your amusement!”
The red monk turned and looked directly at me.
By this stage I was literally in a state of shock. Either I’d forgotten to breathe or I was hyperventilating, I can’t remember which, but I suddenly felt very dizzy and oxygen-starved.
“We reject you, foul god and all your kind! From this day on, this is our world and we shall be free! You shall have none of us as your toy!” The red monk turned his back on me and faced the group. The women continued shaking and crying, the men banged and hammered and that horrible whisper began again, growing louder and louder and louder. The wind whipped up and I watched tiny objects blow across the screen. The red monk tuned back to me, extended both arms and screamed loudly in my headphones: “Fuck you, god, and your sick fetish! None more of us shall battle, die, or mourn our loved ones for your entertainment! We curse you and your twisted mind! Now begone!”
The collective sound grew and grew and grew and I could feel blood trickling from inside my ears. And then there was an almighty flash on screen, as though an atomic bomb in all its deadly whiteness had gone off and bleached my eyes of sight. And then there was another flash and a loud bang and the monitor spat blue sparks and smoke started to pour from it. I could smell burning plastic and electrics. Briefly I was stunned but, as I began to gag on the acrid smoke, instinct kicked in so I reached down to the wall socket and wrenched out the plug. I ran to the window and drew up the blind, then opened the pane. Bright daylight streamed in and I took deep gulps of healthy air.
I turned back to my desk and saw the smoldering ruin of my working altar. My computer was completely fried and my monitor had black smudged on both sides of the case. My work, my game, was gone, and all hope of resurrecting it gone too.
I needed sleep, I needed some space, I needed to digest what had happened. I was alone, in a smoke-filled room, and my eyes burned with the daylight. I needed to think, I needed to recuperate.
I never again went near Age of Empires 2, or Age of Kings, as it’s known. In fact, it would be many, many years before I again decided to try modding a game. And what happened after I’d created a new town in the wasteland of Fall Out 3 would see me end up here, from where I’m writing this now. A small room with a comfy bed and even comfier walls, but, sadly and perhaps frustratingly also, no regular access to electronics. TPTB, in all their wisdom, thought that would be best for everyone, although I still strongly disagree. What happened in AoK was nothing to the horrors I let loose in Fall Out 3. But the deaths which resulted from it were not my fault. You have to believe me…