Beckoned like minions to their tyrannical master, gaming press from across the UK were called into the Overlord’s dank dungeon; sealed away behind several magic gateways in the cold underbelly of the country’s heart. Or a basement pub in London: it’s all the same.
Overlord is a comical, fantasy RPG created by Triumph Studios in the Netherlands where players donned the steel helmet and gauntlet to become the Overlord, a harbinger of evil and controller of the minions. Now, two years after the original was released, Codemasters has turned the game into a franchise spanning multiple consoles and telling brand new stories, extending Overlord’s evil empire further than ever before.
To discuss the history and future of the Overlord empire, I entered the catacomb-like basement of the Parker McMillan bar to play all three new games and interview the brains beneath the helmet; Overlord II’s designer and director Lennart Sas and the writer for the entire Overlord franchise, Rhianna Pratchett.
After a run of successful turn-based strategy games in the Dutch company’s Age of Wonders trilogy, the company needed a change. “What are we going to do next?” Sas asked himself after the last Wonders game, “boxed products on PC aren’t really expanding and costs are going up – we’ve got to move to console”.
But despite Triumph, and indeed Sas’ history of turn-based games, his team was by no means trying to coax strategy games onto consoles with Overlord’s unit-esque minions and commander-like protagonist, “we decided to add tactical elements, and not pure strategy. A lot of other games have puzzles; we try to do tactical based puzzles by using different minion colours and taking advantage of the environment”.
For Sas, Overlord was always putting accessibility first, “we wanted to make the game feel familiar to people who play third person action games. If you’ve played a hack and slash RPG or a platformer or even a shooter, you should be able to pick this game up,” he explains, “controlling a minion should be as easy as shooting a fireball or a gun”.
Both Sas and Pratchett share a love (or hate) of campy 80s B-Movies, bringing up Jim Henson’s mix of fantasy epics and puppetry in Labyrinth and Dark Crystal as venues for inspiration. “Taking the piss of out fantasy films I watched during the 80s, taking revenge on the tweeness of things like Labyrinth; I derive a pleasure out of that”, explains Pratchett.
“I’ve always had a big problem with elves. They’re very much the wet end of fantasy; they’ve had a good kicking coming for a long time. Unicorns as well”. Pratchett’s most despised fantasy tropes often appear as cannon fodder in Overlord.
On more positive influences, Sas looked at films such as Gremlins for creature design and is the first to admit the similarities between Overlord and Lord of the Rings’ Sauron, while Pratchett name checks Monty Python as an inspiration for Overlord’s writing style. “I used to go to fantasy conventions a lot; I’ve been immersed in fantasy for a long time. It’s very hard to pin down my influences”, she explains.
If you’re courting controversy, it doesn’t come hotter than bashing baby seal heads with clubs. “This is a feature that has started to live its own life”, says Sas, who explains how the Overlord’s rise to power involves little in the way of environmental awareness: “you melt ice caps, you club seals”, I bet he doesn’t even sort his glass into coloured and clear. “It’s all there to set up one of your main enemies; Florian Greenheart, a Greenpeace elf who’s out to stop you”.
Pratchett isn’t too worried about PETA poking their nose in. “You’re an evil character doing evil things; it’s probably not going to launch a spate of kids grabbing a club and going off to the Antarctic to kill seals”. Surprised at the enthusiasm towards the concept, she remarks “it turns out that everyone has been suppressing the desire to club seals and punch pandas”.
Good to be Bad – Better to Be Evil
Seal Clubbing is just the tip of the iceberg in Overlord’s array of evil deeds and selfish endeavours. In fact, both interviewees were quick to assert that Overlord II will be far more malevolent than its predecessor. “In the first game we got complaints that there would be slightly good and heroic things to do so we’ve taken that stuff out,” explains Sas, “We’ve replaced it with a tyranny rating which gives the choice of destruction or domination”.
“Kill, destroy, raze buildings to the ground, scorched earth” Pratchett lists off. It signifies an instant reward of all the life-force from the slain villagers and the loot from their pillaged houses.
“Have everyone enslaved, have them worship you, work for you and bring in resources over time” – this time, rewards are filtered out over time. “They may follow you around and cheer for you or fight for you or even mine resources or build a farm where you can club seals to your heart’s content”.
“We make evil in a funny way, we’re not out there to eat babies or really shock people”, explains Sas. We’re talking about a current trend of moral dichotomies and good/evil gauges, “it’s great to see that in games, we just do it from a different angle; if you like the evil experience, our game is typically tailored to that”.
“The game is all about the minions” says Sas, “we still have four minion types. What they can do has been expanded a lot; the brown work together and they can block enemies, they can ride wolves and there is more intelligence all round”.
But while Sas was in charge of giving the minions more abilities, including rowing ships and loading catapults, Pratchett was at the helm of giving more character, personality and individuality.
“The minions have names! I wasn’t sure if they were going to appear in the game, but I’m glad that the hours and hours I spent coming up with names were worth it”. Looking through the graveyard of squished minions, names like Gloob, Nutts, Nibbles, Scabies and Dave stand out, “I just started using words that I found funny”.
“We really wanted to create more minion characters”, she explains, before listing off a number of new gremlin archetypes. “You’ve got Gnarl who’s an essential figure across all Overlord games”; he shows up in all three new Overlord games this month.
“Quaver is a replacement for the Jester; he’s much more of a character”. In the first game, the Jester would come up with names and titles for you based on your accomplishments in the game, this time round “he makes up little limericks”. “He’s a bit more cheerful and amicable than Gnarl, but still really sycophantic”.
With the Overlord’s mute nature and imposing figure, it’s up to the minions to inject character and heart into the franchise.
From Climax in Portsmouth, Overlord Dark Legend brings tyranny to Wii, commanding minion units by pointing the Wii Remote, slashing enemies by shaking the nunchuck and releasing magical spells with pinpoint accuracy. Pratchett was eager to point out “this is not a port, this is a completely separate story in the Overlord world”, placing you in the iron boots of a new, younger Overlord, predating all other games in the series.
Also from Climax, Overlord Minions on Nintendo DS is a quirky puzzler, with a touch of Zelda Phantom Hourglass. Completely stylus driven, you control a number of different minions, each with a unique advantage or ability. You’ve got to mix and match your demonic chums to get around the game’s puzzles and foes.
“We really wanted to give the minions more personality and character. The DS version allowed us to focus on them”, mentions Pratchett. Giblet, Blaze, Stench and Zap represent the multicoloured minions from the console games, and Gnarl is on hand with information and tactical advice.
Putting the Laughter in Slaughter
Overlord’s claim to fame, more than its tactical combat or strategy legacy, is its humour. I quizzed Sas over the connection between the company’s Dutch heritage and the game’s unequivocal British humour: “the Dutch like their dark humour as well; culturally the Dutch and the English are very similar, there’s just a little strip of water between us”. He went on to explain how the Dutch-created Big Brother was a hit in England but I decided to spare him my opinion of the show.
Pratchett, however, is the impetus of the game’s humour, and explains why funny games are so hard to make. “To have a properly funny game, you need gameplay that supports that”, she begins, ”we’ve seen games, that I won’t name, which were taking the piss out of the genre that they essentially are, and they become what they’re mocking”. She might not name “Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard”, but we won’t pull any punches.
“With Overlord, the gameplay itself is inherently funny and twisted, so a twisted, funny script suits that”. She’s right, it’s not just Overlord’s witty lines and playful parody that amuses, but also the minions making helmets from sunflowers, Florian Greenheart’s outlandish poses and the headless chicken scampers of armies when you take out their commander.
“You don’t get as much control writing a funny game as you would writing a sitcom because you don’t have control of all the elements; things like timing and context can be difficult to keep control of in a game world”, says Pratchett, “I worked very closely with the level designers to make sure I knew what the player was doing at every single point so I could make the lines and the jokes relevant to what’s happening on screen”.
The final word comes from Sas; the creator, director and designer of Codemaster’s latest franchise. You can really sense his enthusiasm for creating the games and his pride for his series, “I can’t imagine working on a grim military game when Overlord goes all out with its craziness. Sometimes we really have to work, to be more serious”.
Photographs courtesy of Kapil Bhatt and Barrington Harvey PR.