"High atop the crag castle sits, bearing silent witness to the evil that has overcome the land. Beneath it, the village, bathed in darkness save for the faint glow of the flickering torches as they struggle to stay alight. In its shadows creeps evil in all its forms. Whilst overlooking it looms the castle. Its towers seem to reach up, struggling to escape the darkness that is all around.
Amongst them screams the wind, lashing its way from spire to spire, seemingly to draw the castles every walls crashing down. In a tower, which the wind seems even more intent on destroying, a window is illuminated by strange light. Within its walls he sits, alone, dying. His hands rests on a glowing orb, its eerie light throws his drawn features into high relief. His eyes focus and the interminable blackness as his mind escapes to happier times."

Darkmere was an idea for a game I had been carrying around since my days at Ocean. I'm a fan of isometric viewpoint games and while working on Rubicon for Hewson (later to become 21st Century Entertainment) I began designing the main character in my spare time. After Hewson went under I had to find a job rather quick, fortunately Space Hulk came along. I was involved in that game for about three months working on concepts for the interface, character design and wall textures. Mostly wall textures! Before then I had been shopping the idea around to a few companies but without more of a demo it was rather a hard sell.  

Eventually a company called Arcane Design was willing to take care of finding a publisher if I signed over the copyright right to them. This was not a wise decision, but the less said about that the better,  Arcane did however get Core Design to take it. I have nothing but good things to say about Core and wish them continuing success.(I first wrote this many years ago, since that time Core has been bought, renamed, and absorbed)   After Darkmere was finished I went to work with Core directly.  I was a "remote" employee" as they are based in Derby UK and I was at that time in Dorset, well beyond commuting distance. Nice bunch of guys, and the boss, Jeremy Smith, is cool too. 

 Above is the main character's Father. The back story to is appearance is thus. Years before he had rescue elf from forest. Fell in love, married. Had Ebryn, our hero. Disappeared. Land went to rack and ruin while dad looked for her. Dragon back, sends Ebryn to help. Fans of TSR will notice that I got my inspiration for this picture from Clyde Caldwells Dragon's of Destiny picture. Years later while at Bethesda I got to talk to him when he was preparing to paint the box cover art for The Elder Scrolls, Chapter Three. I never did mention that I had used his art as an inspiration years before. I really like his use of lighting in his paintings.

The lighting in the game was one of the things that I felt was the most important things to get right. I wanted to create a very atmospheric setting, through both graphics and the sound. I remember  talking on the phone to the sound guy and making all the sounds I wanted myself! I got rather good at a howling wind, and my cat was pretty impressive even if I do say so myself!

Tolkien was obviously a huge influence on me, and it's a fact that a did not deny. There's a couple of jokes in the game, the most obvious being the Inn's name!
If any of you old Amiga people out there actually got to play Darkmere you probably saw the image on the right fairly regularly. The death screen. As with all my artwork prior to joining Bethesda in 1994 it was all "pixel pushed" .For those of you who don't know that involves creating a limited palette, at that time typically 16 colours, and placing each pixel one at a time to create the final image.
Later on new software was released that allowed the artist to "massage" the pixels, blending them together, lightening them, darkening them, but that was never feasible until 256 colours became the norm. Darkmere was a 32 colour game, although the story screens were only 16 colours.

A typical screen from the game. Here Ebryn battles against an ogre that protects the entrance of the temple where villagers are sacrificed to the Orcen God, Enywas. Perhaps if you find a villager alive they might give you details helpful to your quest. I have to be honest here and say that this was inspired by Gandalf's fight with the Balrog. After seeing Peter Jackson's vision of the same scene in the cinematic adaptation mine looks pitiful indeed!

Malthar. Again inspired by TSR, this time Jeff Easley's "The Last Spell" picture, this is Malthar, the mage.A friend of your father's who has a secret. He features quite prominently in the game.
Again the use of light and shade was a big influence on me in this graphic. It, in its turn, inspired me years later to use it as a base for Bethesda first Web page intro screen. Check out the Gallery  for that one. With a limited palette of 16 colours this style works very well. The human eye fills in the dark areas so one has only to hint at the detail there. The remaining colours can then be used for those parts of the image in light. I've also used this graphic as a title for my journal section of this website. Hence the title which was not there in the original piece.  Johannes Vermeer is also a great influence on me with his wonderful use of colour and light.

Darkmere was the first game where I was solely responsible for the design. Up to that point I had been involved with most aspects of design but never all at once. Darkmere was my first attempt at designing the game, the graphics, the story and dialogue. In fact pretty much everything besides music and Programming, and those fantastic level loading screens from Richard Fox. For a time I handled most of the producer's role also until Arcane stepped in. This freed me up to concentrate on the game. Darkmere was quite well received within the Amiga community and was even voted as one of the top 100 Amiga games of all time. (it came in 85th in case you were wondering!)

It was released when the Amiga's popularity had begun to wain. Once Dragonstone, Darkmere's semi-sequel, was released, the Amiga's days were numbered.

Here, in the forest that surrounds the village, you are attacked by a Small dragonling. The forest is rumoured to be haunted by the ghosts of the old elven race.

Production of the graphics was quite lengthy. Mostly because I would revisit graphics over and over again. I would take long walks in the New Forest  which was about a 30 minute drive away.  The forest sections of the game were primarily produced over the winter and were a way for me to chase the winter "blahs" way.

Inside the Dwarven mines, now home to orcs who have returned after the coming of the Darkmere. And perhaps, deep inside the caverns perhaps something far more evil lurks.

Inside a typical room of the houses that make up The Village. The Village is where you start your adventure. I've blown the image up here to show it closer to each original presentation on the Amiga.

Everything in the game was created as tiles, each one created by placing each pixel at a time.  In only 16 colours. To give the impression of more colours I used the stippling technique shown here.

An example of Ebryn's animation. Originally it was intended to give him far more frames of animation than he eventually had. Due to the Amiga's limited memory  we had to drop some of the animations.

A dark street from the village level. Your quest starts here. After the coming of the darkmere all good people have left or been taken by the orcs. It has become a hotbed of villainy and evil.

A typical house layout. The further a player explores inside the quieter the storm outside sounds. My attention was to have some movement on every screen. Be that a flickering candle, or a rippling stream. So in this house for example I tried to give a sense of life to each room.

It looks kind of cosy. Except for that skeleton in the bed room.

The small arrows at the edge of the screen point to non-obvious exits from your current screen.

More tolkien influence here. The elves have retreated to the tree tops. There's in fact only one remaining. A dying unicorn. Years before Harry Potter met one! There were many graphics and animations that never made the final game. I'm including many here for those wondering what was missing.
Deep in the woods you discover a village high in the treetops..Deep in the woods you discover a village high in the treetops..Deep in the woods you discover a village high in the treetops..

Deep in the woods you discover a village high in the treetops..

The waterfall deep in the forest. Here you are to meet the water nymph.

The entrance to the Orcen lair.

A dying unicorn. Years before Harry Potter met one! There were many graphics and animations that never made the final game. I'm including many here for those wondering what was missing.

The ending was quite reduced from the original idea for example. In the coming weeks I'll add more details.

A close up of Ebryn, seen here in the introduction to Darkmere.

The Finale
Due to memory constraints the ending had to be severely reduced. Originally the player would battle through bubbling lava pools, where flames erupted from the ground,. Then the remaining eggs would hatch and then they would need to be destroyed. Finally the Dragon Queen would launch herself off her 'nest' and start to attack you. Breathing fireballs until at last you defeated her.

What we ended up with was a single frame of the Dragon on her nest. No animation, no dragonlings, No breaking eggs and no bubbling lava. The queen dragon had to be crammed into a 100x100 pixel sprite which admittedly was large compared to the 320x256 pixel resolution of the Amiga, but I wanted to have something looking like the dragon at the beginning of the story that flew. What I ended up with was a Porky Pterodactyl who never made it off the ground.

I don't believe the animation of the Queen Dragon has ever been seen, so I've included it here for those fans of Darkmere who felt a little cheated by the ending. We'd been at the game for years. I personally spent over 3 years on the game! Looking back It may well have been better to use a ground based dragon, and I have to admit that part of my desire for a sequel was to fix that dragon. The dragons in Dragonstone (originally Darkstone) would have been a better fit I think. What do you think?

The Dragon defeated and the remaining villagers freed, Ebryn begins the long journey home. Their queen dead, the orcs try to flee. Most are cut down by the villagers and the remaining are hunted out and killed. Slowly the air clears as the mist that hung over the land slowly dissipates.

In the days that follow Ebryn is tormented by the memory of his mother's last words. How would he tell his father the truth? By the time the villagers reach the village most of the scum that were there have fled, or have been killed by the remaining peasants. Returning to the castle and his father Ebryn is surprised to see malthar standing by his Father's throne. Gildorn sits, awaiting his son's return.

"Thank you my son. You have saved our land and for that the people are indebted to you. See, even now the sun begins to shine once more. I fear my time is near, soon I will travel the road my fore-father's have trod. Malthar here will look after you. You will find him a wise counsel and good friend. I thank you my son for what you have done, for now I can rest in peace."

Graphics Mark Jones
Code: Paul Hodgson, Andrew Buchanan and Stewart Gilray
Music: Martin Iveson
Design: Mark K. Jones

© Core Design Ltd.1994