Saturday Crapshoot: Ecstatica
Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week, controversy is a load of balls. Literally.
As anyone in the UK will know but those outside might not, our game ratings were historically handled by the BBFC - the same guys who a) handled film ratings, which are backed by force of law, and b) once decided that Shadow Warrior had to replace throwing shurikens into peoples' faces with impaling them with darts - a decision that no doubt made sense to at least somebody at the time. A person who is no longer allowed to cut their own food, but would probably consider using a chainsaw to do it.
For games, the key ratings were 15, which meant you had to be 15 years or older to buy it, and 18, which meant... well, you guessed. Ecstatica here was rated a firm 18, for scenes of intense graphic horror, controversial use of religious symbols, and a few more things besides. This seemed fair, to hear it described. Then people turned over the box and looked at the screenshots...
Yes, Ecstatica had one of the weirdest graphical styles ever attempted - a 3D game that looked at its rivals using boring old triangles, and decided to try something different. All its characters are made of balls, stretched and distorted in the service of demonic horror. There were reasons that this probably seemed a good idea, including allowing for better animation than polygons were offering at the time, and more detailed character models than the beaten-around-the-face-with-a-shovel cast of Alone In The Dark and similar. Still, it just never got over the obvious problems, not least that while the box art looked like this, with the only prominent ellipsoids on display being the ones on the witch lady's chest...
...the game itself, well...
This is not the end of the weirdness.
(Out of historical interest, the first game in the UK to be graced with the mighty "18" badge was a text-adventure called Jack The Ripper. Needless to say, no, there was no good reason. As a marketing coup though, it worked pretty well. The same company also made the first 15 rated game, Dracula.)
The basic premise of this one is that you're a traveller on horseback - male or female, in a pleasant detail, and both destined to get the shit kicked out of them - on a mysterious journey in 928AD. Out of water and with Pepsi Max not having been invented yet, he/she spots a village that's carefully placed on a floating platform in the middle of an abyss with only one bridge linking it to the other side. If you're wondering how long that bridge lasts once the game starts, the answer is 'about five femtoseconds'. It collapses as soon as you try to leave. Must be the same builders they hired in King's Quest II.
Even from a distance, it's pretty obvious that this isn't a good place for a supply run. All the buildings are trashed, and the people are either dead or praying for the sweet release of death - one guy for instance crawling around without the use of his legs. It's hard to be too disturbed though, not only because of the ball thing, but because Ecstatica can never decide what mood it's going for. It's horror, but it's horror where when you die, the Game Over sequence cuts to the monsters hanging around in the pub or similar and the werewolf telling the minotaur "Wow, that was easy..." as a dragon enjoys their company.
The main character's casual, bouncy walk doesn't help. It's this weird stride that, replaying the game now, immediately reminded me of something, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what. Then...
And while we're at it, there's one of the more controversial visuals right there - the upside down crucifixion. It's not the only one though, with Ecstatica loving nothing more than to decorate its scenes with images like priests hanging from the church rafters, naked people with spears up the bottom, and tortured victims as far as the eye can see. But it's also a game that spends a massive chunk of its time on a quest to make a potion that turns you into a weasel and the Devil really, really needs a dentist.
Actually playing it is odd. Like any game of this kind, the controls are beyond terrible. Alone In The Dark minus the smooth operation. Unlike most though, it tries to keep the surprises coming, with the sense that you're constantly being stalked by an evil werewolf. You can run away, but he just appears out of nowhere rather than at specific intervals, and is more than powerful enough to clock our hero's brains out in a few hits. There are much weaker enemies too, including some pixie guys, but much of the game is spent being hammered senseless and looking forward to the point where you get to fight back.
That's actually pretty cool for a horror game, albeit quite brutal, and not Ecstatica's only neat thing. Unlike Alone In The Dark for instance, the hero recoverd from damage quickly, meaning that it could get away with the muggings as long as you as a player could get away from the werewolf or whatever. The world is open, and it feels like you're poking around a real place and trying to deal with things as they come rather than simply going from set-piece to set-piece and being force-fed the solution.
The downside is that there's not much story here at all, or much in the way of direction. The one guarantee is that when things happen, they're going to be pretty weird. At the end of the game for instance, you face the devil with a weapon capable of killing him and he offers a deal - give it to him, and be rewarded. That reward then turns out to be being escorted to a personal harem to be fanned with fronds for the rest of eternity by naked men in bondage masks and thigh high boots, with the devil walking off and going "HAW HAW HAW." I am not making this up.
Like a lot of adventures, it's pretty short if you know what you're doing and confusing as hell if you don't, pointers and advice not having been high on the designers' priority list. The good ending also contains a great "Please don't think about this" moment in that the bridge out of town is never repaired. When the hero rescues the girl whose brain is producing all the weirdness (her name is Ecstatica, though that's a bit silly, since the word itself refers to a witch's trance and that's more or less what's going on), they just appear on the other side through the power of love or something. Truly, it is a curious thing.
Ecstatica was followed by a sequel which, and I've done the research on this, absolutely nobody remembers. Once everyone had giggled at its balls, and smirked at jokes about giggling at its balls, and then yawned at people smirking about jokes about giggling at its balls, there wasn't that much of note about the game or graphical style that stuck. Ecstatica 2: The Most Boring Box In The World lost most of the weird comedy and was much more of an action game, with Ecstatica being kidnapped and the hero turning out to be a prince, and the lady option being thrown out. It was dull as dirt even at the time.
It wasn't the intended follow-up though. After the original Ecstatica was done, the developers decided that technology like this was far too good to just be saved for horror and began work on a new project - that never came out, sadly. It was to be called Urban Decay, and bring this graphical style into a gritty real world of gangsters and street crime and life or death shoot-outs. What could possibly go wrong?
You know that one would have been worth playing. Sadly, it got shelved in favour of Ecstatica 2, with the plan being to return and do it in more traditional polygon form instead. Then it got shelved and forgotten entirely. Still, never mind. At least the technology got one unforgettable game before being filed firmly in the Bin Of Bad Ideas, and here it is in full. (You probably don't need to be 18 any more.)