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Before Mundaun, There Was Agharta

Frederick Raynal once made a open world/survival horror for Sega’s Dreamcast

A concept artist friend of mine once told me they wanted to develop a Euro folk horror game. Something in the vein of Mundaun. I told them I intended to do just that through a comic book series so I legitimately felt their desire.

Mundaun exploded on the scene in 2017, thanks to its weird and beautiful aesthetics and its arcane story that certainly resembles folk tales but in a horrid way. It takes place in the Alps, where the main protagonist arrives in order to solve the mystery behind their grandfather’s passing. There is a surreal quality in setting horror pieces in the snowy, foggy mountains of Europe. Most of the time, whether European or Asian, game studios try and place their horror stories in a US environment. (Hi, Alan Wake, Silent Hill, Twin Mirror, Deadly Premonition!). Hence why I was happily surprised to discover that, circa 2000, a legendary game developer had tried his hands at making a survival horror set in Europe (well before either Resident Evil 4 or Amnesia: The Dark Descent).

In a previous life, Frederick Raynal was the father of the survival horror genre. Whether you like it or not, he’s the first one to have made a game in 3D, using pre-rendered camera shots and based around resolving puzzles in a horror environment. Thinking of Alone in the Dark game design, you could also say that it inspired Dark Souls but that’s for another time.

This being said, once he left Infogrames, Raynal first developed adventure games in the form of Little Big Adventure. As a matter of fact, part of the reason Raynal departed Infogrames was that he wanted to make adventure games not specifically horror ones. In order to achieve his goal, he founded Adeline Studios, but after a bunch of games, the company needed new investors to grow.

This is when Sega entered the picture. According to Raynal, a SEGA representative asserted they would buy Adeline Studio, if the French company was able to make and put out a game in time for the Dreamcast release. Raynal agreed and developed Toy Commander. Given enough time, circa 2000, Adeline, now baptized No Cliché after the acquisition, would release Toy Racer.

But behind closed doors something darker was brewing.

Raynal always saw himself as a developer able to push boundaries. Hence why for most of his games he built engines from the ground up. According to some recent interviews he still does. Nonetheless, at the time, Raynal was watching what happened on the other side of the Channel, towards a guy named Peter Molyneux who after having released classics like Populous and Dungeon Keeper was now making Black & White. A game in which the player could decide between good and evil. Despite what Raynal once stated, I have a hard time believing as a game developer, the French creat did not know what Molyneux was doing at the time. That said, I already wrote on how two ideas can come to be without creators talking to one another.

Drawing of an avalanche overtaking a small truck on a brick road.
Concept Art

This moral compass wasn’t the only direction Raynal wanted to go in. But it would shape a lot of the game. But first, the French developer had to ask permission from his parent's company, and Raynal says when he came to SEGA, asking to make his survival horror game, execs answered him with: “Of course but make it the worst horror game imaginable.”

Thanks to this support, work soon began on this new game which would be named Agharta.

The plot would revolve around a paranormal detective, named Kirk, having to investigate a landslide in the Romanian mountains which had opened a way to Hell. Although that’s what you’ll read on most websites, the few Infos taken from the disc sorta shows that it’s mostly centered around conspiracy myths, according to which the Earth is hollow and a part of our civilization has evolved there far from us. Anyway, a landslide has opened the connection between our world and Kirk has to make choices to either help the incoming “demons” or take sides with his fellow humans.

I’ve seen a few sources implying Agharta was seen as the French Shenmue, for the Dreamcast exclusive made big news at the time, and seeing the tidbits that were extracted from the copy it’s easy to see why. The town, in which the game takes place, appears full of NPCs. Raynal stated that demons could infest humans by turning them into blue goo vomiting zombies. From then on, there’s a tiny step towards wondering if Agharta wouldn’t have really resembled Shenmue but with a horror twist. Meaning the MC would inquire in a snowy town which would run in real-time, thanks to pod just like in the Japanese classic.

According to Raynal, it was the idea of giving the player moral choices that posed most problems. One of them is trying to maintain a coherent story. The team says they were able to do so by introducing an ex-partner of Kirk’s, who was neither good nor bad and acted as the red hearing through which the plot would evolve, despite the player choices or its consequences. Reading from the materials available online, there’s really no doubt said character is the chosen one whose sacrifice will decide the future of the Earth.

Another one may surprise you, while SEGA execs had told Raynal to make it the damnedest horror game in history, it appears they got cold feet when Raynal came back with his ideas. One can assume some must have been really “interesting” when we learn that, during an interview, Raynal stated that if you chose the path of evil, you had to sacrifice your own sister at some point. Other choices appear to have included the ability to torture fellow human beings.

Still, in 2001, SEGA would decide to cease all their operations in Europe, killing Agharta in the process. Since screenshots had already been released this started the rumors windmill. Some said the game would have network features, which was never true. Others that the game was cancelled although complete, or that it never existed except on paper.

Truth is more complicated. Before he liquidated all the funds of No Cliché, Raynal put together a demo version of the game, one which resurfaced in 2011 and started rumors all over again. In 2017, Laurent C, an avid collector was able to get his hands on a GD disc of the game and nowadays, people are extracting data from it, be it cinematics, sound design, environment.

This weird legacy is what enables us today to take a look at this French survival horror which was intended to rival Resident Evil: Code Veronica and Infogrames rival: Alone in the Dark: A New Nightmare and become THE survival horror of the Dreamcast.

Video game history preservation at its finest.



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Basile Lebret

Basile Lebret


I write about the history of artmaking, I don’t do reviews.