It's freezing inside this ramshackle cabin, and the stomachs of both the dapper gentleman and his lanky dog inside are grumbling. The dog, who speaks English, demands to know what the man's done with the sack of coins they earned from their last heroic deed. They're no mere vagrants. This is Lancelot Du Lac and Morgana Le Fey of Arthurian legend, and they're about to meet one of England's deadliest psychopaths, Jack the Ripper.
Jessica Saunders, the creative director of Du Lac & Fey (who formerly worked at Lionhead, Rocksteady, and Rare) considers herself a mere hobbyist of history, but she wants to set the record straight on one of England's darkest and most tumultuous periods. History's conflicting takes on notable figures has always fascinated her, few more so than Jack the Ripper.
"For me, the biggest piece of information that sparked my curiosity was the image of the Ripper himself," Saunders says. "You can buy costumes. When you go to the Jack the Ripper museum in London, there's a silhouette of the Ripper: top hat, cloak, the medical bag. That image didn't get put into the press until a year or so after the murders. Where did that image come from?"
To Saunders, the actual murders are the least interesting part of the Ripper years. Rather than the killer or the cops, it's the victimized women, the city, and the social upheaval that turn-of-the-century London was experiencing she sees as holding real promise.
And that's where an entirely different side of English history comes in. While the original idea for Du Lac & Fey was a simpler tale of a man and his dog, Saunders' equally rabid fascination with Arthurian legend and how it's evolved through the centuries provided a perfect lens to view late Victorian London through—two characters who are at home in England but foreign to its Victorian form.
So the man became an immortal Lancelot Du Lac, and the dog became an equally immortal Morgana Le Fey, but she's still a dog because some jerk wizard (probably Merlin) transformed her. It makes sense when you're playing, I swear.
Much of Du Lac & Fey involves exploring a painterly English world of dimly lit bars, misty cobblestone streets, and snowy churchyards. After bickering in their cabin, Du Lac and Fey are drawn to the yard outside, where a man weeps over the dead body of a friend, claiming some sort of hellish creature is responsible. Much to Fey's irritation she's largely ignored in her canine form, but being a dog does allow her to speak with the nearby horse that was carrying the men's belongings. It's rough going at first, as the horse has only a vague grasp of language, but eventually it points the way to the church down the road where a strange creature has made its nest. It's all conducted through the kind of fixed-camera point-and-click adventuring you're used to if you've played a Telltale game in the last six years, including the dialogue choices.
A different time
"We liked the idea of making the dog female, because especially in Victorian England women were often downtrodden and spoken to like animals, especially if you're a lower-class woman," Saunders says.
This matter of perspective (which switches between Fey, the regally dressed Lancelot, and a woman named Mary Kelly who is widely believed to be the Ripper's final victim) is the game's ultimate aim: to tell the story of a rapidly changing London through the eyes of three very different classes of people—or animal.
"Mary's a working class woman. Certain characters will not speak to her, but other characters will," Saunders says. "Then you've got [Lancelot], who's an upper class gentleman. So certain characters will speak to him and vice versa. They all have different stories to be heard."
Like the Ripper, the Arthurian legend that Du Lac and Fey are from experienced alteration over the centuries. Scholars debate whether the legend began proper in the 5th century or 6th, and just how much ownership British culture can claim when so much of the legend as we know it is full of French cultural references. What's undoubtedly true is how much it impact it had.
"The Victorians themselves were fascinated by Arthurian legends," says Saunders. "They were really fascinated by this idea of chivalry, the idea of modesty, knights, and being noble. So we took the Victorians' fascination with that and said 'OK, let's take these characters out of time.' By having these characters out of time, we can explain to the player more of what's happening at this time. We can be the outsider looking in, explain things, play with ideas and the fact that 130 years has passed. In many respects, Britain hasn't changed that much. You look at the newspapers from the Star then, they look like the Daily Mail now."
Back in the snowy churchyard, Fey sends Du Lac off to fetch a mirror from the cabin. Another corpse has been left in the entryway, his eyes plucked out. After searching through the church, its pews and floorboards torn to pieces, Fey comes face to face not with the Ripper, but a winged demon responsible for these two murders, howling, gnashing, and careening from one side of the room to the other. Du Lac arrives with the mirror, and after a quick (and almost painfully simplistic) combat sequence, the beast is knocked back through the mirror and into an alternate dimension, never to be seen again.
There's no escaping the ridiculous mishmash of time periods and mythology, but ultimately its aim is to shed light on one of history's greatest mysteries. Not what gave birth to the Ripper, but what life was snuffed out and reshaped forever by the world around him.
"There's no getting around the fact that this is a horrible story," Saunders says. "We can't sugarcoat that. I do believe we need to tell this story from the women's perspective. We need to show that these women were people, and that they weren't all prostitutes, that it wasn't this big, sexy thing. It was just this horrible, sad situation, but they were still people, they were still women. There was still life in Whitechapel and London. People still did have a bit of fun, live their lives, fall in love, all that. They lived then like they live today."
Though Du Lac & Fey: Dance of Death fell short of its Kickstarter goal, the developers are still planning to release it later in 2018.