Why The Hell Is No-One Playing: The Count Lucanor?!

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Video games don’t often do subtle or literate. Games like Gears of War and Call of Duty succeed with no philosophical hinterland or characters worth talking about. Cutesy games are sickeningly so, shooting heroes speak in single syllables, and sincere indie games beat you over the head with how much everyone is suffering. Few seem to learn from the thousand years of fiction at our fingertips. And then there’s The Count Lucanor, which might be the purest distillation of the Gothic novel as a game.

The modern gothic genre started with Horace Walpole’s bizarre 1764 book The Castle of Otranto. It’s a story about a usurping lord tormented by a giant armoured figure, and an odd cross of fairy tale, horror and farce. Even the language is odd – as Walpole characterises it in the book “There is no bombast, no similes, flowers, digressions or unnecessary descriptions. Everything tends directly to the catastrophe.” From its gruesome beginning to its tragic end, the sense of men being the playthings of unholy powers is chilling – and it’s a genre that’s continued to the present with stories like Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth The Wanderer or Clark Ashton Smith’s uncanny A Rendezvous at Averoigne.

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Until I played The Count Lucanor I hadn’t considered that a video game would be able to replicate the Christlike purity of Otranto or Melmoth. Rogue Legacy has already trod some of the paths, so perhaps could be considered Lucanor’s John The Baptist, but its platforming combat doesn’t segue with the novel as well as Lucanor’s studied strangeness or the exploration. Bloodborne is closer, but too sketchily drawn, and too close to Lovecraft. Silent Hill is close, but it’s too modern.

The Count Lucanor starts as a Zelda-like fairy tale. You take the part of Hans, a ten-year old boy who’s father hasn’t come back from war. Over a poor supper Hans announces to his mother that he’s leaving home to find his fortune. She doesn’t argue with his conviction, but gives him three gifts to help him on his way; his grandfather’s cane, all the money she has, and some food. It’s a classic folk tale opening.

(After this point there are spoilers for the game’s early storyline. Skip the text between the next three images images, if you wish to avoid them.)

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On the road to his fairytale success, the young boy encounters several travellers who are in need of exactly the items he has. Whether you give them away is up to you, but it’s at this point the game turns, from a gentle fairytale of innocent fortune to something much darker and more gothic, more like a classic folk tale prior to the bowlderising of the Brothers Grimm.

After getting drunk with a shepherd, Hans wakes to find the world has shifted, filled with bipedal demonic sheep, and worst monsters. Fleeing, he encounters again all the people he met before, twisted to inhabit this dark world. He’s rescued by a Kobold, who leads him through the woods to the Castle of Count Lucanor, and explains that the Count’s fortune and title are available to anyone who can guess his (the Kobold’s) name. It’s totally Rumpelstiltskin, seguing into Struwwelpeter.

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At first the castle is just a place to explore, with puzzles blocking access to certain chests. The puzzles range from simple push-the-block puzzles to more complex things, where you have to gather items from all around the castle. I think I’ll have nightmares about the Fire Room for a while yet.

In the central courtyard, the people who Hans encountered en route are ensconced, warped by the castle. The old woman’s pig, who she beat with your grandfather’s cane if you gave it to her, turns into her (naked, quadraped) son. The friendly shepherd who you shared your cheese with, has been decapitated by his goat herd (though he’s still chatty), who’ve turned into nightmarish bipedal monsters. And the donkey has turned into a donkeycorn, who excretes gold if you feed him apples. Each of the human characters develops as you talk to them, with a gentle, terse script, much like Bloodborne’s few survivors, but with much clearer characterisation.

Soon, however, the clock strikes midnight, and the Count’s unearthly servants awaken, to roam the pitch-black corridors, and cause regular rapid death. Hans must place rare candles as he goes so that he can spot the servants from a distance, hide beneath tables when they’re close – and spend his extremely rare coins to save his progress at the castle’s fountain (you’ll die often). It’s a game that doesn’t waste a mechanic.

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(Spoilers over)

What’s particularly impressive is the presentation. Whilst the game itself has the over-familiar pixel look, it’s well-handled, and augmented by hand-drawn almost-Anime cutscenes. The interface is like Dark Souls, down to the ‘YOU DIED’ announcement, but integrated thoroughly into the world – even the loading bar is the kobold jester itself, floating hugely above your desktop. And backing up everything is perfect baroque chiptune music.

The animation of the world and characters is particularly excellent, evoking Monkey Island sometimes, Darkest Dungeon at others. It’s one of those games that’s happy to create a single asset and mechanic to tell a key part of its story, giving it a handcrafted rich feel. When a shrieking tricorn-clad servant of Lucanor lashes out with its tentacle-tongue or when the man-who-behaves-like-a-pig lowers his torso to quaff his corn, or when the jester-like Kobold tells tale of his master Lucanor, the simple pixels judder – judder in the way that Laverne’s eyebrows twitched in Day of the Tentacle – big enough to see, but indistinct enough in its blockiness that your brain fills it in, making the game more grotesque and unworldly than it could ever be if clearly drawn.

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The real horror is that the press, Youtubers and public haven’t noticed The Count Lucanor exists yet. Today, Steam Spy estimates the total playerbase at just over 1,500. Don’t worry, when the media see it has a 96% average score from users, they’ll big it up like they did Stardew Valley. (Sigh. I remember the day when the press used to *lead* the public to good games, not the other way around.)

The Count Lucanor takes a theme – gothic fiction, the baroque folk tale – and reimagines it amongst the indie mandates of today – pixel graphics, chiptune music. It draws on the best games of our generation – Bloodborne, Dark Souls – as well as respecting the tradition of adventure games galore with its tough puzzles, hard choices and rich dialogue. I haven’t guessed the Kobold’s name yet or attained the title of Count – but if this is anything like the fiction it draws on, it won’t be a pleasant name or a happy ending.

- Dan Griliopoulos

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