The Long-Lost Game Company That Could’ve Defined Worldbuilding

You probably haven’t heard of Mindcraft. (No, not Minecraft, which is part of the problem.) In a world where it seems like every single classic game that’s not No One Lives Forever is supposed to available for purchase somewhere, anything that’s not stands a chance of falling down the memory hole. Such is the case for Mindcraft, a studio that was already rather niche in its time. But it’s a company whose legacy should be remembered, in large part for a commitment to worldbuilding, both creatively and in terms of intellectual property development.

Mindcraft’s most famous game was their first, The Magic Candle. Released in 1989, it quickly won acclaim as one of the best role-playing games around, winning awards like Computer Gaming World’s RPG of the Year. If it’s remembered at all still, it’s largely for being one of the best of the Ultima-inspired games of the era. Like the middle Ultima games, The Magic Candle had a huge open world, filled with characters to talk to and recruit, clues for where to go, and a focus on knowing how to do the right thing non-violently, rather than just killing a boss to finish the game.

The Magic Candle 1 is, well…it always played better than it looked.

What was neat about The Magic Candle at the time was the way it used its open world and storytelling to create a giant puzzle. You begin the game with a ruined copy of the ritual required to roll, and must both find out what each part of the ritual was, as well as collecting the items required to make it work. In practice, this meant you had a notebook (physical — this was 1989) of a dozen different things going on. Get a clue to travel to one village, and it might progress you down three different paths — or tell you the right question to ask way back at the first castle.

It could get overwhelming, especially without modern conveniences like “telling you what level you should be before you go into that dungeon.” But the whole process also attaches the player to the world. The island of Deruvia, the last bastion of the forces of good, is beset by monsters. When you kill those monsters, they actually stay dead (a rarity for RPGs of the era), making traversing the land have a solid sense of progress, reinforced by the storyline development found in most new places.

The Magic Candle is still relatively playable these days in interface terms — it’s built for keyboard only, but is clear how that works. The issues of difficulty and note-taking, while normal (if quirky) for the time, are a pretty major barrier to entry. But if you want to give it a try, the Internet Archive has you covered. (I’d make sure to check out the manual and maps out here.)

From back in the day when you got maps in boxes.

If all Mindcraft had done was release a great RPG, that would notable, but I wouldn’t be writing about it. What was interesting was what they did next: they fully committed to the world of The Magic Candle. Mindcraft’s next game, The Keys to Maramon, was a light, single-character RPG that you could import your Magic Candle to and from. But the real action came next.

First was The Magic Candle 2, a direct sequel in form and content. But what made The Magic Candle 2 so interesting to me, then and now, was that it was a perfectly premised video game. The island of Deruvia, setting of the first game, was the home of the “good” races of Humans, Dwaves, Elves, etc because they’d been driven off of the larger continent of Gurtex by a slow, tragic, Silmarillion-like invasion of demon-led Orcs and Goblins. With the victory at the end of the first Magic Candle, the king of Deruvia decides it’s time to attempt to retake Gurtex. So the game starts just after this process, in the new castle that is the foothold of the process. In short, it’s a perfect realization of the colonial dream of video games: you have all of the potential for exploration and mastery of a new realm, while being washed clean of the sins of stealing other people’s land, because, well, they stole it from you.

The Magic Candle 2. This was gorgeous, once upon a time.

In fact, you can totally feel in the right in The Magic Candle 2 because shortly after, Mindcraft released another game, Siege, which told the story of the fall of Gurtex. Siege was a real-time strategy game from the era when that didn’t immediately mean “game that’s like Starcraft.” In it, you controlled the attackers or defenders in sieges of Gurtex’s four great castles, which were, roughly, Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Evil.

There was no campaign mode to speak of, but each scenario was given a date and description to easily fill in the story. The forces of evil slowly began to invade, with escalating attacks on the Dwarves and Elves. Those early scenarios tended to be easier for the good guys, with lots of hero and elite units against hordes of trash goblins. But as time progresses, the enemies grow more powerful, so the good guys launch an attack on the evil castle, take it, but are eventually shoved out, and the latest few scenarios are desperate attempts by weak forces to defend their castles against increasingly powerful Orcs, Minotaurs, and evil wizards.

Siege’s story had lots of great little touches. In one that I still remember to this day, in the “final” mission, the defense of the final good castle against overwhelming evil forces, “a lone Dwarven survivor” joins the fight — a Dwarf Hero, arguably the best single unit in the game, shows up in this impossible battle.

1991’s Medieval Lords of Europe, which was a good game! But, well, look.

The conceptually fascinating lore was reinforced by the stunning, for 1992, graphics. This was a strategy game, a genre that was graphically barely past chits on an outlined map (check the screenshot of 1991’s Medieval Lords of Europe.) Siege, meanwhile, was all bright colors, clearly different units, gorgeous castles, and explosions. One of the best touches: corpses left on the battlefield in the fashion that they died, like a squished berserker hit by a catapult boulder, or a decapitated Orc who ran into some Dwarves. This helped each battle feel like a narrative, which again, invested you in the world.

Now, as much as I loved Siege, it’s hard to call it a classic. The key problem was that the simplicity of the victory objectives combined with a pathetic AI meant that most battles could be won simply by finding the spot the AI always attacked and guarding it with archers. The interface also has not aged well at all, especially compared to the modern real-time strategy conventions introduced primarily in Warcraft 2. For this I’ve long had Siege at the top of my “Most Wanted Remake” list. Like, for two decades now.

Goblins (blue) attacking Human engineers (green) in Siege. Note the squished engineer in the middle, and all the arrow-riddled Goblin corpses all around.

But that’s not necessarily the point. Consider how well this pairs with The Magic Candle 2. Not only does it give you the history of the Gurtex, but it also gives players the specific motivation: they’re there to get revenge for the Dwarves, Elves, and Humans who died in Siege. (Or who they killed, you could also play as the bad guys.) Meanwhile there were complications: Orcs trying to live peacefully, and long-lost secret villages of Elves. All these things are informed by the grand tragedy you could have played in Siege.

This is one of the most effective combinations of multi-game worldbuilding I’ve ever seen. If you think about tie-in games since then, it’s rare to have a game of a different genre not feel like a pale imitation of the main game. The initially cute, but eventually dismal Fallout Shelter, feels like little more than an advertisement for actual good Fallout games and may be the perfect example. But even Fallout Tactics, which was, to be honest, a pretty good game, felt like a major comedown from Fallout 1 & 2. And I’m still waiting for Mass Effect Tactics, god dammit — although the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer did do a good job of adding investment in the universe.

This picture should immediately make you feel disgust.

The lesson to be learned may be as simple as this: if you’re going to make multiple games of different genres in the same world, it can be a fantastic way to get players to buy into the world. But they need to build on making the player want to invest in that setting. Siege doesn’t excite because it directly fills in gap in the lore in The Magic Candle 2, but instead because it helps make the world seem more interesting and tragic, and that tragic tone makes the potential motivation of TMC2 feel even more justified.

Also the games have to not compete with one another: something like Fallout Tactics could have done as a single-character campaign, so it always felt like a poor version of a great idea. But Siege wouldn’t make sense as a traditional narrative RPG — you’re supposed to get the feeling of losing against impossible odds. These are the kinds of things that made it fit in the universe so well.

Mindcraft tried to repeat the trick the next Magic Candle game and an expansion for Siege, but neither of them went terribly well. The Magic Candle 3 was generally considered a major step back for the series, taking place in another new setting with no real emotional impact. That same issue hit the Dogs of War expansion for Siege, which introduced some fascinating new units and gorgeous new castles for Siege, but had no narrative or campaign stringing them together. (I remember using the scenario editor to try to create my own, but teenaged Rowan was, unfortunately, more interested in flooding the battles with huge amounts of troops than effective narrative generation.)

LOOK AT THIS NIGHTMARE INTERFACE

These weren’t the only experiments Mindcraft made with multiple games in the same shared universe. They also made Rules of Engagement, a space combat strategy game that was famous for creating a strategy/tactical whole by interlocking with the tactics game Breach 2. (I was always curious about how well this worked, but unfortunately, by the time I finally got to the play the games in the abandonware era, the interface was utterly impossibly for me to parse.)

Unfortunately, the decline in quality in their games, plus the dramatically shifting games business in the mid-1990s apparently devastated Mindcraft. After a few last games, including, interestingly, their lone real-world game Walls of Rome attempting to translate Siege to a new setting, the company shut down. Something nasty must have happened, because not only was the shutdown remarkably sudden, but the company’s games have never appeared for legitimate sale on Steam or GOG.

And that’s unfortunate, because these are a fascinating collection of games, both for their worldbuilding and for them as games themselves. I also certainly wouldn’t mind reboots or remakes, because they were, by far, most interesting for their ideas and not their interfaces. And while most of Mindcraft’s catalog is available from abandonware sites, that’s missing out on an audience that (inexplicably) only considers purchased games to be legit. Regardless, in a world where game tie-ins are still considered to be in their infancy and shared universes are the hottest thing in pop culture, it’s worth looking back at the people who managed to do it right…if only for a little while.