My taste in videogames often pulls me toward two opposite ends of the publishing spectrum. There are the enormous, big-budget titles on one hand—your Uncharteds and Metal Gear Solids—and the smaller, self-released ones—Papers, Please or FTL: Faster Than Light—on the other. These two categories aren’t always neatly defined, considering that budgets can range drastically among both bigger and smaller games, but they serve as basic outlines for the binary that defines the majority of modern videogames. What’s often interesting to me, though, are those games that exist somewhere in the nebulous middle ground between productions that are either enormously well-funded or made on a shoestring budget.
I wouldn’t have tried to play Cyanide Studio and Spiders’ Of Orcs and Men if it wasn’t for the latter’s Game of Thrones role-playing game (which I reviewed for CGM back when it was released in 2012). It wasn’t a great game by any means—its mechanical design was clunky and the writing uneven—but it was a fascinating experience simply because it was an aberration from most of what I play. Cyanide Studio’s ambitions were clearly beyond what it was capable of delivering on what I can only assume was a fairly modest budget. The developer attempted to translate elements from many different areas of the Game of Thrones HBO series and George R.R. Martin’s novels, hoping to offer players a story full of political intrigue, an interesting cast of characters, and brutal, medieval-style combat scenarios in a single game. Cyanide tried to capture everything people love about the sprawling fiction of the source material in an interactive version. That would be an enormous task for even the most experienced and well-funded studio. For a smaller one like Cyanide Studio—a company best known for cycling simulators and a Wikipedia page reporting only 70 employees—executing on such an ambitious project seems almost impossible. Still, even with so many rough spots throughout it, there was an immense charm to Cyanide’s Game of Thrones. It was a game that evidenced the passion of a developer hungry to prove its ability to create great, story-driven RPGs to the rest of the industry. It was also just competent enough to be playable—at times even honestly enjoyable—from start to finish. There was something about the experience that stuck with me.
Cyanide went on to collaborate with fellow French development team Spiders for its next game, Of Orcs and Men. Borrowing many of the gameplay systems from Game of Thrones, Of Orcs and Men is an original story of a goblin and orc duo that sets out to assassinate the leaders of an oppressive human-led government. While this fairly interesting premise is marred by awful voice acting, what comes off as a terribly translated script, and poor combat design, Of Orcs and Men, like Game of Thrones, is still an incredibly ambitious game. At times it’s possible to see the game’s intent shining through some crummy design choices. The plot comes close to transcending the usual conventions of the fantasy genre at times; the characters are almost sketched well enough to become truly interesting; switching between the orc’s brutish melee attacks and the goblin’s stealth-focused backstabbing moves lends a neat tactical aspect to some combat encounters (when the AI isn’t bugging out). Of Orcs and Men is a game that, with a bit more polish, would have been something players loved. As it is, the game is a deeply flawed yet interesting experience. It’s lovable for its ambition and endearing for its many faults. It’s the videogame equivalent of a B-movie by a filmmaker with real promise and insufficient financial backing.
Spiders has continued on with the release of titles like Mars: War Logs and this year’s Bound by Flame. Cyanide recently completed Styx: Master of Shadows, an Of Orcs and Men spin-off that has seen the developer venture into the stealth-action genre. By all reports (I’ve only played a few minutes of War Logs), these games carry on in the tradition of Game of Thrones and Of Orcs and Men by blending unique ideas and lofty gameplay goals with technical shortcomings and messily voice acted scripts. These are not great games (at times they’re not even good ones), but they represent a valuable segment of the medium. Massive, blockbuster titles like the ones that dominate the industry at the end of each year are worked on by so many people—and for such a long amount of time—that the incredible amount of refinement that goes into their production often means the loss of any interesting quirks. The kind of “B-tier” games produced by Spiders and Cyanide Studio may not benefit from the same type of polish, but they also feel more personal as the result of the faults that aren’t addressed. I’m glad these titles exist. They add to the medium by increasing its diversity. They’re strange creations—often as unintentionally ridiculous as they are genuinely impressive—whose problems let players see more clearly that real people develop videogames, not perfect machines.