The influences that shape an author’s work can be varied – I’ve posted before about some key influences on my writing, such as the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, Watership Down and many others.
One area I’ve not mentioned previously is video games. I’ve enjoyed playing fantasy RPG games such as Dragon Age and the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, but the era of gaming that left the greatest impression upon me was my childhood days on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. I loved many Spectrum games – Sabre Wulf, Dun Darach and Where Time Stood Still were great favourites – but for me nothing matched The Lords of Midnight and its sequel Doomdark’s Revenge.
The Lords of Midnight was originally released (published by Beyond Software) in 1984 for the ZX Spectrum. The player undertakes a quest to defeat the evil Doomdark, who has cursed the land of Midnight with an everlasting winter. The Lords of Midnight could be played like an RPG, where you seek to destroy the Ice Crown, the source of Doomdark’s power. Or, if you were feeling more war-like, you could recruit other lords and gather armies to face and defeat Doomdark in battle.
The game’s creator, Mike Singleton, punched through the technical limitations of the ZX Spectrum to create a truly innovative piece of software. Singleton developed a bold technique he named landscaping to bring the world of Midnight to life by offering the player a first-person perspective. This technique provided an immersive experience, as the player moved through forests, mountains and past powerful stone fortresses. It was said the game contained 32,000 views of the landscape, a staggering programming achievement with only a scant 48K available. Singleton followed The Lords of Midnight with an equally strong sequel, Doomdark’s Revenge, which used a similar structure and game mechanics but was even larger in scale and complexity.
Everything about The Lords of Midnight gripped me, from the superb packaging and cover art, to the memorable characters such as Luxor the Moonprince, Rorthron the Wise, and my favourite, Farflame the Dragonlord. The landscapes were simple but so atmospheric . The game’s day / night cycle created tension - I would nervously watch the text commentary during the night section, seeing the various battles listed, waiting for dawn to discover the fate of my characters. Night has fallen and the foul are abroad...
How could a video game with no animation, no sound, no music, prove so absorbing, so memorable? First of all, The Lords of Midnight had a clever, well-worked story and an evocative, Tolkienesque setting. Crucially, the varied gameplay meant no two games were ever the same, drawing you back to play time after time. By today’s standards, The Lords of Midnight seems simplistic, but there is something about the game’s crisp, distinctive graphical style – it provides so much atmosphere and energy, you almost think you can hear the crunch of snow and ice beneath your feet, and the howling of hungry wolves. The Lords of Midnight somehow managed to meld the imaginations of the developer and the player – the game gives enough symbols and leaves enough space for the player to add in their own details, to imagine elements beyond those presented on screen.
I am not surprised The Lords of Midnight has continued to inspire game designers and authors; there are numerous websites, emulations and now even an official novelisation, written by Drew Wagar, all drawing upon the rich tapestry of Singleton’s creation.
Elements of The Lords of Midnight have certainly appeared – unconsciously or otherwise - in my own writing. The cursed snow-bound realm of the Myrkvid in The Map of the Known World is influenced by the land of Midnight, and in This Sacred Isle, I am sure the dragon Athanor has echoes of Farflame the Dragonlord!
I believe Mike Singleton quietly inspired many others in their creative endeavours, and that his work, especially in the icy lands of Midnight, will continue to influence and entertain for many years to come.