Retro Corner: Dungeon Keeper

Posted on July 12, 2010 by

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There are’t many games that let you be evil. Okay, there are, but you know they all want you to be the goody two shoes who makes the world a better place. Blergh. They make it to be a choice like the one you’d make when deciding whether or not to set fire to the small child that’s just been left in your unwilling care, usually followed by laughing madly as it goes up like a noisy, smelly firework. I suppose that first sentence should actually read ‘There aren’t many games where you are evil’. And not milquetoast evil like ‘feed the people or take their food for yourself’. No, I mean evil as in building a grotesque army of the damned, conquering their insipidly green, happy lands and turning them into a hellish nightmare place of screaming and torment, and basically becoming satan. Dungeon Keeper is one of these games, and it was magnificent.

Produced by Bullfrog way back in the mists of 1997, and designed by industry legend Peter Molyneux before he went off to found Lionhead and makes games you can only play if you have an Xbox (frazen dazen ratzen/Mutley) Dungeon keeper is one of those rare games that tasks you with being the bad guy. The writing was hilariously dark and twisted, especially the progress reports from the disembodied voice of your advisor, and the gameplay was simple to learn, and difficult to master, making it accessible to both beginners and the more hardcore dungeon keeping overlord.

When you start the game (and after a beautiful pre-rendered cutscene showing an attack on a dungeon from the doomed Hero’s point of view) you’re presented with a map. Not a flat map like you might find in most strategy games. It was 3d, you could move it about to look at all the levels.

Click for a larger view

This was virgin land. It had in it’s history known only peace and love and caring. Disgusting. You would start at the bottom, and work your way up, so that the king in his ivory tower would watch, helpless and horrified as the black scourge of your influence inched closer and closer, deflowering his precious kingdom of joy.

This map was cut up in various segments of about 20 levels, each with a ‘lord of the land’ who would at some point attempt to break into your Dungeon, destroy its heart, and steal you vast riches. Bastard.

Each level starts you off with a dungeon heart- a big glowing orb that thumps like, well, a heart. (Or that headache you get after hearing one of those goddamn Vuvuzelas, blacking out, and waking up three days later covered in blood and asking what happened) This is the manifestation of your power and health. You’re also given a handful of ‘Imps’, basically retarded worker drones with pick axes, who do pretty much all the menial labour.

From here, you dig out a series of rooms, and start building your dungeon. You have a treasure room for storing the gold seams you find, a hatchery for breeding chickens to feed your many and various monsters, training rooms to train your monsters to limber up in, libraries to research new technology and magic, and train your warlocks, and so on with dozens of different rooms with different and distinct uses that each affect the way your dungeon works and which can attract new minions. Monsters need easy access to the treasure room, for instance, to get their wages on pay day, sort of like angry red civil servants (I would have said ‘evil’, but it saying ‘evil civil servant’ is something of a tautology) who have really big, pointy weapons. Lair rooms may need to split up to prevent certain monsters from fighting, like Spiders and Flies. This was more than just ‘build stuff, place it and get on with things’, this was managing a community of evil monsters and keeping them on your side while you worked towards your evil goals.

Of course, monsters aren’t your only means of interacting with stuff. You have magic, too. Spells like the ridiculously distracting ‘Possess’ which allowed you to take first person control of any monster you own, while the AI runs your dungeon for you (and even the amount of work the AI does can be toggled), basically turning them game into a high-fantasy first person hack n’ slash. It’s two games in one. Other magic included various ways to immolate and crisp anything that dared to be as stupid as to come near your property. And you pick monsters up with a giant floating hand (But only your own monsters, which you could also bitchslap with the aforesaid giant hand like a giant incorporeal pimp of doom, which Molyneux loves to put in all his games) and if you felt so inclined, drop them into one of the natural level hazards like, say, Lava.

Having constructed your festering hive and populated it with general scum and villainy, it’s time to deal with the so-called Heroes who’ve come knocking. and there are many ways you could deal with them. Drop an army of hungry spiders on them, knock them out with gas traps, imprison and torture them until they turned to your side, kill them and make them into ghosts or skeletons or vampires, or just keep them in a cell and occasionally beat them while you proceed to dig up every last bit of the game map, safe in the knowledge that the major threat is dealt with. Or is it?

See, you’re not the only one trying to blacken the world with your foul taint. There are other Dungeon Keepers, with dungeons and monsters of their own, competing for the gold, killing the heroes, and trying to lure your monsters to their side. There’s this whole theme of bureaucratic warfare running through the game, with the most effective strategy often being the least direct one. Yes, you could play like an angry child who’s having a temper tantrum because some just maliciously explained to you why your favourite TV show isn’t real, but the thinking tyrant would often come out on top.

There was a level of detail and thought that made Dungeon Keeper really stand out at a time when most people were play Quake and Tribes, and it had multiplayer, too. Dungeon keeper is one of those few games that gives me the same warm feeling I get when I kick a puppy into a lake of molten Magma. I feel evil, but I also feel good about it, because that puppy deserved it, gosh darn it, just like the inhabitants of this peaceful, quiet land deserve to be tortured, starved and annihilated for not having any national defence plans above ‘send the lord in with some wizards to deal with it’. It’s a public service.

Now for the sad part. You can’t play it. Well, you can, but it only exists for the PC. What’s more, it’ll only run on versions of windows older than Vista. Got Vista? Tough. They couldn’t be bothered with making old games compatible with their new system. There’s no patch, no support. The best you can do is download an emulator like DOSbox and run it through that, and even that isn’t guaranteed to produce good results. BUT, if you XP, 2000, 98 or even 95 still running on your rig, find this forgotten gem and play it.

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Posted in: Games, Retrospective