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'Kickending' Spellirium, an adventure game 'for hardcore word nerds'

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Spellirium is a game inspired by, of all things, a video game review.

Penny Arcade's Jerry Holkins gave effusive praise to PopCap Games' Bookworm Adventures in a December 2006 post titled "Hookworm Adventures," describing the role-playing/puzzle game as "linguaphile crack." Ryan Henson Creighton, the one-man team behind Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure co-developer Untold Entertainment, told Polygon in a recent phone interview that based on Holkins' glowing review, he bought Bookworm Adventures "sight unseen" and was somewhat underwhelmed.

The review put an idea in Creighton's head that the game didn't live up to. But the idea stuck with him.

"I thought, 'Man, I really want to play that game that [Holkins] described,'" said Creighton. "And that game that he described is Spellirium."

This week, Untold Entertainment launched what Creighton half-jokingly calls a "kickender" campaign for Spellirium, which is to say, he's not asking for money to get the project off the ground; the game is close to finished. (Creighton also pointed out that Kickstarter is only open to U.S. and U.K. residents, whereas he lives in Toronto.)

Interested parties can pitch in to pre-order the full version of the game, and they'll immediately receive a playable alpha version. It's the Minecraft model, with Creighton looking for pre-order contributions in order to finish up the game. The Spellirium alpha contains the first two acts of the game; the third and final act is missing, as is audio: voice-overs, sound and music. Untold would spend funds from the campaign on those elements, as well as on balancing difficulty, fixing bugs and polishing the game.

"The budget is elastic," Creighton explained. "The amount of support that we get really does determine the quality with which we can finish the game." Funding will also affect how quickly Untold can deliver version 1.0 of Spellirium; Creighton said he's hoping to raise $50,000, which would allow him and his team of freelance contributors to finish the game in approximately four months.

Creighton began working on the game five years ago, although he said the bulk of development took place over the last two years and the total development time, if compressed, would fill about eight months. Obtaining funding has been the major difficulty for Untold, and many of the hurdles were presented by a body that's typically perceived as fostering game development: the government of Ontario, Canada.

Although he was quick to point out that funds contributed by Ontario made Spellirium possible, Creighton recounted a long series of back-and-forth discussions about available funding and what Untold could do to obtain it. Only on the studio's third attempt to secure government funds, and its second try for a grant from the Ontario Media Development Corporation's Interactive Digital Media Fund, was its request granted — two years after development on Spellirium began.

Ontario ended up pitching in $50,000 of Untold's $103,000 planned budget. But due to a misunderstanding of the government's stipulations, "some things that went terribly, terribly wrong" and Creighton being an "inexperienced manager," Untold spent the money but didn't make the game. Of course, the studio was still on the hook for the money and the game; if they didn't finish it, Ontario would pull $50,000 out of the company — money "which wasn't there," said Creighton.

"And that is the very beginning of the story of developing Spellirium," Creighton added. "And then three years elapsed." Untold also had trouble with its backup plan, which was to continue taking contract work — the studio functions as a service company, making small games primarily for Canadian kids television shows — and saving up profit from those jobs to put into Spellirium. But when Steve Jobs, then-CEO of Apple, decreed that HTML5 instead of Flash was the way of the future, it "kind of ruined a lot of careers for people," said Creighton.

"We were just taking contracts just to stay afloat, and there really wasn't this big, large amount of cash that we were shoring up to reinvest in Spellirium," he explained.

Ultimately, Creighton didn't want to dwell on the game's difficult development process — "everyone's got a sob story," he pointed out — so he began telling us about Spellirium itself. Just like Infinite Interactive's Puzzle Quest combined a Bejeweled-esque match-three game with a role-playing title, Spellirium is a hybrid of a point-and-click adventure title and a Boggle-like word game. And like some of the best graphic adventure games, said Creighton, it's very funny.

Creighton said his favorite part of Puzzle Quest was the feeling that "there's this broader, overarching experience that I'm part of," and he wanted to expand on that with his game. Spellirium's setting and story are designed to create a cohesive world; Creighton spent a lot of time coming up with story conceits that would legitimize the gameplay mechanics, and ensuring that everything was consistent with the world's internal logic.

Spellirium takes place in a future where the world as we know it has been buried as a result of a catastrophic event, and the powers that be have made literacy illegal. The society survives by digging up remnants of civilization, known as "findage," and using it as building material. But people found in possession of materials with words on them are eventually kidnapped and killed by monsters.

You play as Todd, a Runekeeper apprentice. The Runekeepers are four old men who pretend to be tailors, but in secret, maintain a hidden library of findage and keep literacy alive. One day you recover an artifact, a curious electronic device that can affect the environment when words are spelled out on it. That seven-by-seven grid with colored tiles, the Spellcaster, is the basis of Spellirium, but the game gets very creative with that simple square.

you spell synonyms of "cut," and the sheep's hair comes off

In Spellirium's prologue, you're tasked with getting wool from a sheep. So you spell synonyms of "cut" — "shear," "trim," "denude" — and the animal's hair comes off. Then you have to dye the wool, so you can only use red tiles to spell words. Next you must spin a loom to use the wool, so you have to spell words in different directions.

Three other characters will eventually join you: Lorms, a big blue monster of the tunk species; the Hunter, who teams up with you because she's on a revenge quest; and the Bard, whom Creighton described as "obnoxious and useless." Still, all three give you special abilities in battle, which you'll be spending a lot of your time in — as you make your way through the world, you'll have to deal with monsters in random encounters.

Continuing the Pokémon analogy, a word is added to your dictionary when you spell it. You buy items with words, items that can be crafted with the use of spells; spells are earned by unlocking achievements, which are known as "cheevs" in Spellirium. That comes in handy during battle, when you can cast spells to combine items and unleash power-ups that can give you a score multiplier, change the colors of tiles, provide high-value letters and more.

Creighton made sure to note that the entire game is turn-based, and is dependent solely upon your skill as a wordsmith, not typical video game talents like hand-eye coordination or timing. In fact, he said, Spellirium is entirely "no-fail" right now — even if you can't figure out a puzzle, you'll be able to keep going.

"I really don't want a game where ... your lack of skill limits you"

"[In] so many games, I'd love to see all the content that [the developers] put in there, but I can't, because my skill isn't great enough. So I thought, 'Man, I really don't want a game where ... your lack of skill limits you," Creighton explained. "We have a lot of content that I really want players to experience, so you can't fail. If you drain all that energy spinning your gears and not figuring out how the challenge works, hooray, you win anyway, and you're able to forward yourself through the story. Because I've played too many games where — you know, I'd love to see the end of Planescape: Torment, but I can't defeat that stupid witch."

Even so, Creighton acknowledged that Spellirium isn't a game with tremendously wide appeal.

"It's not a game for everyone; I've never pretended it is. It's a game for hardcore word nerds," he said. "If you love word games, and if you love graphic adventure games, I thought that there would be enough crossover between those two genres that certain people would go gangbusters."

Head to Spellirium's website to see Untold's pitch and the digital backer rewards. The game will be available on Windows and Mac, although Creighton didn't rule out doing a mobile version in the future.