Okay, that last year was pretty emotionally taxing, so let’s lighten things up!
1995’s Stonekeep is a delightful fantasy adventure that has everything you could ask for: thrilling dungeon-delving, excellent comedy writing, charming (if terrible) live action actors, a rich backstory and companion novella, and, uh… completely bizarre, rushed, and stupid design choices.
When you’re young, it doesn’t matter how good or bad a game is, how perfectly-balanced or completely broken. And Stonekeep is a broken-ass game. Three areas in the game use the same recolored visuals, even though those visuals don’t make sense in any of them. Enemies can’t walk through doors, but will run up to said doors if they see you on the other side; so you can stand there and throw shit through the threshold at them until they die — and they’ll just take it. And you can make 99% of the battles in the game significantly easier by simply standing in place and spinning around, which somehow confuses the monsters and makes them attack you way less frequently.
All that said, Stonekeep is a game I still love to play even today — certainly not for the gameplay, but for the sense of adventure and exploration in its strange and wonderful world. Crystalis and the Final Fantasy games may have given me stories to sink my teeth into, but Stonekeep gave me a world to live in. My love of fictional worlds and everything I know about building them began here.
On its surface, the world of Stonekeep is pretty by-the-numbers fantasy: swords and sorcery; elves, dwarves, goblins, fairies, and dragons; a pantheon of real, tangible gods whose dispute you find yourself caught in the middle of. But it’s also full of interesting twists on those tropes, it has personality, and most importantly, it’s a place I wanted to spend time in.
The idea of sprawling, interconnected caves and underground fortresses — entire kingdoms, essentially, under the earth — fascinated me to no end when I was young. There were mysteries down there in the dark, and horrors the sun had never shone upon. I was enthralled by the game, but also by the possibilities its setting afforded.
It was around this time that I began to think about and plan my own fantasy world — the setting for books I would write and did write, even if they were only about twenty pages and filled with pictures. It was a start, at least, and every iteration of that fantasy world has included a realm hidden beneath the surface: kingdoms and caverns like the underground domains of Stonekeep.
This broken, buggy, oft-forgotten RPG informed the way I see the fantasy genre more than anything else I’ve experienced, likely for the rest of my life. Here’s my dark secret: Every new fantasy world I venture into — I judge it compared to Stonekeep. And there will always, always be a little Stonekeep in every world I create… because there’s forever a little Stonekeep in me.