How to Steal Like a Pro

Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us “there is nothing new under the sun.” If you’re a creator of things, you’ve probably felt the sting of this statement.

Have you ever created something – poured your heart and soul into it – only to have someone say “Oh yeah! i saw that same thing done in The Maltese Falcon!” or “that’s exactly like this Vonnegut book i read once!” or “Simpsons did it!”? Sometimes you rip stuff off without ever knowing it. Other times, to your horror, you realize you’ve ripped something off and you’ve seen/read/heard/played the source material. You were subconsciously ripping it off. And other times, you just plain rip stuff off because it’s awesome, and you want your thing to be as awesome as that other awesome thing, with all its awesomeness.


Good! Now Rastafarianize him 10%.

This is a very honestly true story, for realz: when i was in college, a few whole years before Futurama came out, i was planning a graphic adventure buddy comedy game that took place in outer space called Orbit. One of the two main characters was named Bender. i composed the main title theme myself, and i played it with bells – the very same instrument used to play the Futurama theme. No joke. i’ve got a million stories like this one. i’m a very firm believer in the collective unconscious.


That, or Matt Groening and Danny Elfman broke into my apartment in college to steal secrets.

i’m very easily influenced by the media i consume, and i consume a LOT of it. i even know a lot about movies, teevee shows, comic books and video games i’ve never even consumed. i can answer entire trivia rounds about stuff i’ve never personally experienced. And now, i’m writing a video game called Spellirium. The game will show my cultural roots – i can’t help that. And instead of waiting until it’s released for everyone to say “Seen that somewhere before!” or “Simpsons did it!”, i’m writing this article to pre-empt you.

This is a list of all the great stuff i’m planning to liberally borrow from, pay homage to, or downright rip off as i build Spellirium.


Brian Moriarty’s awesomazing graphic adventure game did something super-cool: it looked like it took place in the Dark Ages, but it was actually set in the distant future in the year 8021. i wanted Spellirium to be high-fantasy and quasi-medieval (in the same way A Knight’s Tale was quasi-historical), but it’s a word game, so you’re going to be spelling things like “radio” and “rocket”. It would be kinda dumb to spell words that described things that didn’t exist in the game world.


Prithee, what dost thou mean by “vaccine”?

So i’ve decided to pull a LOOM. Spellirium will be post-apocalyptic, set a few hundred years after a mysterious cataclysmic event that busted humankind back down to medieval city states. The key difference here, though, is that the people have access to plastics and technology by scavenging through the landfills. Everything they have, from their clothes to their houses, is made from found objects. Call it “trashpunk”.

The Chronicles of Prydain

You may know that Disney released a total Tim Burton-directed bomb in the 80’s called The Black Cauldron. You may NOT know that the movie was based on a series of children’s books by Lloyd Alexander that completely kick ass. Alexander himself ripped a lot of his stuff off from Welsh mythology, and a number of familiar archetypes pop up: three prophetic witches, evil zombies, a foundling, winged minions, etc etc. There’s a lot of Tolkien in Alexander, and there’s a lot of other stuff in Tolkien.

The Prydain Chronicles

Behold, the fixations of my youth.

Alexander begins the Prydain chronicles with a young man stuck doing menial tasks in a tranquil cottage estate called Caer Dallben. He’s overseen and instructed by Dallben, a kindly old man with mystical powers. Re-read this paragraph again, because you’re going to see all of those archetypes repeated in Spellirium.

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords

When i go to describe Spellirium to people, i have to bring up Puzzle Quest. i loved the idea for that game: take a fun, replayable casual mechanic, and wrap it in RPG/story elements. In Puzzle Quest’s case, it was a Bejewelled/match-3 mechanic; in Spellirium, it’s a word puzzle game.

Puzzle Quest

My one-word review for Puzzle Quest: glacial.

i didn’t particularly enjoy the execution of Puzzle Quest, though. i made it halfway through the game before quitting out of sheer boredom. i decided that if Spellirium was going to keep people playing, it had to mix up the formula a bit. And believe me, it mixes up the formula a LOT. More on that point of difference in another post!

Super Mario Galaxy

A great many Mario games have done a great many things very well, but Super Mario Galaxy was pitch-perfect when it came to flaking gameplay off into tight little digestible chunks, while throwing enough variety at the player to keep him from feeling like he’s stuck doing specific challenges in a certain order.

Super Mario Galaxy

Note: you can’t actually beat the game in one fell swoop like this.

One way they did this was with the comet. The comet travels randomly to different galaxies (collections of challenges). The comet itself has a few different modes to it: beat the challenge with one hit-point, race a ghost of yourself to the finish line, or complete the challenge with all of the enemies moving at twice the speed. When you thought you were long-finished with a given galaxy, the comet would show up and bring you back in to face a remixed challenge.


As i bite my nails through the final season, i’m starting to pay very close attention to the way the writers of LOST parcel out the show’s secrets. There are many secrets and revelations in Spellirium which, when handled improperly, will fall flat and fail to excite the player. But i think what they’ve done with LOST is they’ve cooked up a big batch of secrets and surprising moments, and have picked the perfect moments to do their big reveals to drive the story forward.

LOST statue

The Black Rock smashed the statue before we could get a good look at it?? You sons of bitches!!

If i do this incorrectly, i’ll have a long-ass boring block of text trying to establish the story and the world of Spellirium off the title screen. If i take a page from the LOST scripts, i’ll keep the player plowing through those levels and challenges, dying to see what happens next.

Home Movies

If i have my wish, the dialogue in Spellirium will be reminiscent of Home Movies. The voice actors sound like they’re improvising (indeed, in the first season, they were!). They step on each other’s lines. A lot of what they say is understated, thrown away, or muttered under their breath. It makes for some very funny stuff, and it’s an unadorned, wry style i don’t think i’ve ever seen in a video game.

Terry Gilliam

i think i’m specifically referring to Twelve Monkeys and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen here. And while they’re not Gilliam movies, i’ll throw The Princess Bride, The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen into the mix. These movies all start with well-realized worlds with some very somber events happening in them, and they just spackle humor and imagination on top of that. And if there’s one game that did this very, very well, it’s my favourite game of all time: The Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge.

Monkey Island 2

Looks like a laugh-a-minute, doesn’t it?

The first two Monkey Island games, like the movies i listed, are very very dark. MI2 is extremely dark in theme as well as in setting. The game has you robbing graves, building voodoo dolls, and coming face to face with the earthly remains of your own parents. Dark dark dark! But then, on top of that, Monkey Island 2 is completely ridiculous. There’s not a serious bone in its body. It’s still one of the only games that has made me laugh hysterically out loud. You wouldn’t think that a game about extortion, torture, shipping embargoes and subjugation of island nations could do that.

Spellirium will present its world just as seriously. There are very dark things afoot in the game world, and you’ll have to make some tough choices as you progress through the game. And then? Fart jokes.

You’re Insane

Maybe you’re thinking “this is the craziest word game i’ve ever heard of.” You’d be right. i LOVE word puzzle video games, but none of them have ever held my interest long enough (no, not even that wretched Bookworm Adventures mess) because none of them have ever told a story, or challenged me to do more than one thing with my monstrous vocabulary. i’ve heard from many game portal owners that word games aren’t top-sellers. Play through some of the word games on our own portal, and you’ll see why: some of them have great little game mechanics, but there’s nothing to hold the interest of a traditional gamer.

Word Game World

You might say that word games are a niche genre, and that they’ll only hit with a small segment of the gaming population. You might have said that about sci-fi in 1976 … and the next year, Star Wars came out. Now let me be clear: Spellirium may not do for word games what Star Wars did for sci-fi movies. But now that i think about Star Wars, there are a few things in there that i might want to “pay homage” to …

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10 thoughts on “How to Steal Like a Pro

  1. Joseph Cassano

    I have to admit, when you first announced Spellirium, I was a tad “meh” about the whole thing. A word game? Oh, I guess that’s cool. Good luck.

    But now you mention a story and a world? NOW you have my interest. I’m a sucker for a good yarn. Spin me a tale with some fun gameplay and I’ll be all up ons.

    Hope this all works out like you plan.

    1. Ryan

      FBIndie – i’ve been playing Sword and Poker all week, and they’ve done a good job, but the game is NOTHING like what i’m planning to do.

      That game, like Bookworm Adventures, mixes mythology, which kinda drives me nuts. You’re fighting giant spiders and vampire bats and mandrake roots, and … oh – why not? MINOTAURS. Sure. One is very very Greek, and the others are whatever. There’s no consistency.

      And the main character has no name. There’s no story to speak of other than “get the magic whatever back from the evil Lord Who Cares.” Typically, there’s no explanation for why some schmo would want to risk life and limb to get the magic tchotchke back, other than “she’s a heroine”. It’s lip-service to story, not actual story. Player has no personal investment … i’m not dying to find out what happens. i just want to fiddle with the fun little poker mechanic and get gold.

      That said, the game is pretty fun so far. Great balance of risk vs. reward, and it’s not too punishing when you lose (yet). Try it out!

      – Ryan

    1. Ryan

      Joe – (don’t worry – i took care of you. i’ll try to remember to look around for some “preview comment” plugins)

  2. Scarybug

    If you can pull off home-movies style dialogue. You’ve got my vote. And also the vote of my killing machine, who is also my favorite kitty: Mister Pants.

  3. Pingback: Spellirium is a 10 letter word for adventure! [interview] | WP Plain

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