The year 2000 saw the release of Deus Ex and Sacrifice — both innovative, genre-bending titles for the PC. The first would go on to have strong sales, critical acclaim, and would retrospectively redeem John Romero’s troubled studio, Ion Storm. The second would garner critical acclaim but none of the sales: it would be the last burst of creativity from Shiny Entertainment before the studio would go on to make three terrible licensed games that buried forever its reputation for creating fun, unique, and often humourous games. 15 years on, Deus Ex has spawned two sequels — with a third due out in 2016 — and was recently the focus of an oral history and video retrospective on Gamasutra. Deus Ex is a byword for innovative, immersive and intelligent game design and has had a significant influence on first-person action titles and role-playing games, while Sacrifice — also innovative, immersive, and intelligent — has disappeared down the annals of video game history, never to be heard of again.
A tale of two games
What happened? Why did Deus Ex flourish and Sacrifice simply vanish? I think the answer lies in these games respective genres and design histories. Deus Ex is a blend of first-person gaming and role-playing and is also the culmination of a design philosophy of immersive, first person games pioneered by Looking Glass Studios that began with Ultima Underworld and then continued with System Shock and Thief. Warren Spector, the head of Ion Storm Austin and Deus Ex‘s director, was a game designer of considerable reputation who had also been producer on both Ultima Underworld and System Shock while at Origin Systems, Looking Glass Studio’s publisher. When Looking Glass Studios closed down in 2000, he folded some of its personnel into the development team for Deus Ex. A storied history of developing and refining similar design concepts for half a decade as well as the — by that time — familiarity of navigating 3D spaces from a first-person point of view certainly helped Deus Ex‘s general appeal.
Sacrifice on the other hand blended real-time strategy conventions with the frenetic pace of third-person action games and mild role-playing. You are there on the battlefield, summoning strange creatures that look as if they just fell out of a painting by Martin de Vos or Hieronymus Bosch, and casting spells at opposing wizards and their armies. In Kieron Gillen’s interview with Sacrifice‘s lead designer Eric Flannum, Flannum confessed that Sacrifice didn’t have a difficulty curve but rather “a difficulty wall.” This is a game that comes with not one but three different tutorial missions for you to play: there are just that many new concepts you have to buy into. This might have had to do with the fact that the game had a core design team of just three. Shiny Entertainment was a successful contributor to gaming in the 90s, with the 2D platformer Earthworm Jim, and a successful breakthrough into 3D with MDK. The beginning of the end came at the start of the new millennium: Messiah, the 3D game Shiny used to debut their new tessellation technology was a mess of weird ideas that never really clicked. Sacrifice on the other hand was a mess of even weirder ideas that absolutely worked. However, neither game sold much and the company’s reputation for smart, unconventional games disappeared forever.
Why am I taking so much time to explain what Sacrifice became rather than what the game actually is? As Kieron Gillen, one of the few game critics who ever championed Sacrifice, so aptly put it in his overview of the game:
Sacrifice reminds me exactly how good, how imaginative, how brilliant it’s possible for a videogame to be and it’s clear that no-one’s going to spend serious money on making a game like it ever again.
It’s because I want you to understand: the fact that this game didn’t have more of an affect on games and games history is heart-breaking. To talk about Sacrifice is to talk about a world that can no longer exist. This isn’t to say that there aren’t great, interesting, experimental, or even unique games being produced today — it’s just that we’ll probably never something quite like Sacrifice appearing again in our lifetime. Unlike Homeworld we won’t see a lovingly remastered version of the game. We won’t even see a revival —in the same way that classic cRPGs have been revived for the PC through Kickstarter — of its particular blend of third-person action and real-time strategy.
Much like the animated films of Fleischer Studios, Sacrifice never influenced games in a larger fashion, remaining sealed forever within its own mysterious world. So why is this game so important to me?
Sacrifice, my first immersive world
Sacrifice is a game of deep, personal significance for me: it showed me just what was possible in the context of a video game. I first came across Sacrifice in 2003. It was a piece of software packaged with a new computer my father had built at a local computer store. All I had to go on for a recommendation was purple CD that had a strange-looking creature with a cape and spiked head running into the clasped hands of a God.
It was a pretty grey, bleak and rainy morning in early spring. There wasn’t much for me to do so trying a game that came with our new computer seemed as good an idea as any. The opening of the game makes you feel like you’re stepping into a different alien world. The music is haunting and ethereal and you’re greeted with the image of portal, whirling and spinning out of control. When I finally opened the first tutorial mission, I was greeted with the site of a large, insectoid creature standing in the midst of a beautiful green landscape. My breath was nearly taken away. The landscape and the sky were the most beautiful I’d ever seen in a game. While Sacrifice looks a little more dated now than it did in 2003 when I first played it, I’d never seen anything that looked so verdant and alive in a game before. The music was also incredible; it was epic and expansive much like the tesselated landscape I saw before me — the possibilities seemed endless. A little homunculus with small purple pants flew over to me and greeted me in a British accent, and there my adventures began.
Sacrifice’s story is basically a black comedy version of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. I’m not kidding— that’s the best possible description of the game’s narrative.There are five gods — Persephone, the God of Life, James, the God of Earth, Stratos, the God of Air, Pyro, the God of Fire, and Charnel, the God of Death. To showcase just how ridiculousl this game is: Stratos is essentially a balloon being continually inflated and deflated as he talks to you. He’s also voiced by Tim Curry. James is basically a 3D version of Shiny’s Earthworm Jim wearing overalls. When Pyro or anyone else speaks about Pyro’s inventions, a trademark symbol is added after each instance. During an argument among the Gods Persephone says “Charnel! Death isn’t the answer to everything!” to which he replies: “Yes, torture also has its merits.” Charnel later says he doesn’t want to destroy the world “because that’s where all the best slaughter takes place, you know!” The script is often perfect in its comic timing.
The game’s design looks as if Antoni Gaudi, Salvador Dali, and Hieronymus Bosch had a fun weekend together. The actual gameplay has a few twists on regular strategy tropes. First, instead of being a disembodied person overlooking the entire battlefield, you’re there in the thick of it with the rest of your army. You are responsible for casting spells, summoning creatures, and building the structures that will ensure your victory over any rival wizards. You also each have an altar dedicated to your chosen God. The point of the game is to fight enemy wizards, destroying their structures, and sacrificing their creatures at your altar to get souls. To defeat them you have to take one of your own creatures to their altar and sacrifice it there because if you sacrifice at another wizard’s altar their altar is desecrated and the wizard is banished from the realm, and you win. Got it?
The game at times is also really, really difficult (remember the difficulty wall?) and I can see how that limited its appeal. I remember when I first played I was completely stuck on Charnel’s second mission where you have to resurrect a forbidden demon gate. A rival wizard — an ethereal and distant sorcerer by the name of Lady Abraxus — simply kept pummeling me! By some miracle I found the right combination of creatures and spells and was able to pull on through. It might have been that I memorized the keyboard shortcuts for the most important spells. I don’t remember. Anyway, it “clicked” for me and then I was off. It was my first, truly immersive world; the first time I played a game that I felt was inside a unique, living, breathing, and interesting world.
I was so passionate about the game that I even tried using it’s custom map-building tool, Scapex, to create worlds of my own. Building maps was easy and intuitive to use. You simply dragged and dropped different pieces of the world, raising impossible mountains or even placing or even creating small villages full of interesting looking houses and creatures. I even wanted to create a series of maps for my favourite character from the game, a gravelly voiced necromancer with a top hat named The Ragman. Sadly, nothing came of my youthful ambition except a few custom maps I played myself, but it was still fun and interesting nonetheless. This was my attempt to get into the guts of the game, to discover more about this fascinating world and its creatures.
Sacrifice is the reason I think games are important cultural artifacts to write about. It’s what showed me that games were more than narratives about shooting things with guns or lasers. It taught me that games can be smart and different too. For me it’s a game of endless possibilities and branching storylines, of different nuances and ways of looking at a three dimensional world, of beautiful, haunting melodies played through mysterious islands floating in the sky.