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Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance may be a game that emphasizes action over role-playing, but anything project that includes Drizzt Do’Urden and the Companions of the Hall is going to end up adding to the lore of the Forgotten Realms.
And world-building and lore might just be the biggest strength of Tuque Games, the makers of Dark Alliance.
Tuque’s game launched to middling reviews in late June. I liked it more than most, and one of the reasons I enjoyed it is the lore. The studio takes the story from The Crystal Shard (the first Companions novel) and gives it what feels like a “lost chapter,” finishing off the evil artifact’s appearance in Icewind Dale. But best of all, Dark Alliance gave Tuque and its publisher, Wizards of the Coast, to give iconic humanoids such as goblins and duergar a chance to show off their personalities, in a manner that doesn’t always come through in adventures such as Lost Mine of Phandelver or Out of the Abyss.
It also helped Tuque find a way to get one of the most interesting archdevils into a video game: Levistus, the imprisoned lord of the icy layer of Stygia.
Shortly after launch, I interviewed Tuque Games head Jeff Hattem about the lore and world-building about Dark Alliance. This is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: The first question comes from my kids about goblin: What does bofa shuk mean?
Jeff Hattem: It’s a pejorative, and I don’t think we would want to translate it for your kids.
The goblin language is pretty cool. We did a lot of work early on with the language building for goblins. We worked with the folks at Wizards. There was a lot of goblin language that had been done in the world of Eberron. We kind of leaned in on that a bit. Obviously, our goblins are these tribes from Icewind Dale, so we took a few liberties there. But that’s the origins of where we got some of the language there.
GamesBeat: Why did the goblins get their language, but the verbeeg, frost giants, and duergar don’t?
Hattem: D&D is a community project that’s been developed for decades. Doing the full world building for all of the factions is a lot of work. We picked a few that were more prevalent. As you play the game, goblins are rampant in the Dale. They’re in a lot of missions. We felt like they deserved a bit more in the language than most. But there’s other stuff. The giants, even the cultists. We played with some of the language development that’s been done at Wizards in the past, extrapolated from there.
GamesBeat: What was the process like to get Wizards to sign off on telling a story in the Realms’ past, considering that all its stories nowadays take place in the present?
Hattem: We’re set about 100 years before the present, mainly because we wanted to set it around the characters in the Companions of the Hall and their timeline. Where we are is slightly after the events of the Crystal Shard. That’s why we decided to set it there. It also gave us a little bit of creative license to extrapolate into areas that we felt were interesting for players in our game.
GamesBeat: Was it difficult to convince Wizards that this was a good idea to go into the past?
Hattem: No, I wouldn’t say it was difficult. They asked us some questions about the intentionality of our creative choices for the lore and the story. I would say that they gave us the mandate to be very specific about what we were building. The tribes of goblins or the verbeeg or the frost giants or — whatever we would do for the game was about the characters for the game. It didn’t necessarily mean that all frost giants are like this. It’s these specific ones. That gave us the creative license to be creative and make them our own.
Crystal clear motivations
GamesBeat: What drew you and your team to Crenshinibon?
Hattem: We went more toward the Companions of the Hall. That was what sucked me in, and the team. We went to Drizzt. I had vivid memories of him being very gracious and quick and zippy. Amazing choreographed combat scenes in the books. That’s what we wanted to capture and bring to life. And then Crenshinibon, on the flip side, was just a great antagonist for Drizzt and the Companions. Without spoiling the books, although they’ve been out for decades, so I don’t think it’s considered a spoiler for so many years — Crenshinibon comes back and is ever-present in the world of “The Legend of Drizzt” books.
GamesBeat: What limits did Crenshinibon’s ultimate fate place on your development of the story?
Hattem: Crenshinibon gets defeated, but not destroyed, in the events of The Crystal Shard. As Crenshinibon tends to do, he waits and draws in more bearers to come in and claim — it’s debatable whether the wielder of Crenshinibon is really in charge, or if it’s Crenshinibon that’s in charge. Obviously I think we know the answer with Akar Kessell, who makes a comeback in the game, which we had fun doing. But we didn’t go too far in the timeline of Crenshinibon.
Crenshinibon comes back later. Events with the mind flayers and the red dragon, we’re before that timeline. So that didn’t place any limits.
GamesBeat: I’ve not been able to find references to the cult of Crenshinibon to any lore books or novels or articles. Was that your team’s creation?
Hattem: One-hundred percent. That was from our team, 100 percent. We felt like it would be a good addition to the lore and the world-building, to have cultists that would worship Crenshinibon. They’re human, but they get corrupted by the power of the Crystal Shard, which transforms their appearance into a semi-ghoulish figure with magical powers. They believe that the way to capture the essence of the Crystal Shard is to bring back the biggest bearer of the Crystal Shard, Akar Kessell, who would have the power to reclaim it. That’s why they — I don’t want to spoil it for people, but our game is an exercise in world building and being true to the world of D&D, as opposed to telling a beat-for-beat story. I guess we’re talking about lore, so I can talk about lore. That’s their motivation.
GamesBeat: One thing I liked about where the cult fit in, you’ll hear these comments about how maybe the cult made a mistake bringing back Kessell, or why are they wasting time with him? I paid a lot of attention to the stuff that would lead into combat, what the enemies were saying. Was it intentional to try to have all these different races and factions working together in some ways, but they’re still sniping at each other?
Hattem: Totally. That’s where we get our title from, the Dark Alliance. It’s this semi-formal agreement between all the monsters that are descending upon the Dale to claim the Crystal Shard. They forego their grievances so that the best monster can claim the Shard for themselves. They don’t trust each other. They’re always at each other’s throats. I’m glad you paid attention to the banter. There are tons and tons of lines of banter in the game. We decided that it was a better vehicle for our kind of game, for players such as yourself that want to get into the lore and hear what’s going on. If you pay attention you can hear a lot from the monsters that are bantering, as opposed to cutting the flow of the action mid-combat to tell the story. But if you want to do it, you can take your time and listen in on what’s going on.
GamesBeat: It seems like the duergar are the most skeptical. Is that just part of their personality, or was that more intentional as a world building decision?
Hattem: It’s a good question. I don’t know. I think that the duergar are a bit of a blank slate in the world building of D&D. We took some liberties with them, for sure. They’re pitted primarily against dwarves. We wanted to give them their own identity that is not always antagonistic to dwarves. They have this higher purpose. They’re all about business, right? They don’t have the flair that dwarves do. They’re not interested in ornate designs. It’s all industrial. It’s business. That’s why, in the mission that showcases them, they’re singing a song while they’re mining the crystals, but it’s not because they’re happy singing a song. They’re not festive. It’s a rhythmic chant so they keep up the pace.
GamesBeat: Why include Levistus, the archdevil lord of Stygia in the Nine Hells?
Hattem: Levistus was a passion of mine to — I wanted to weave, to bridge the gap between the Blood War, which is more current events in D&D than the past. One hundred years is nothing in the timeline of archdevils. He’s been imprisoned in his ice pyramid for such a long time. He’s been plotting and trying to figure out a way to break out of that and go up the ranks — to go down the ranks, rather, and get back at — maybe get into Nessus at some point. He sees the Crystal Shard, which has immense heat capabilities to incinerate anything in the Realms, and perhaps that is the key for him to break out of his ice prison.
GamesBeat: I like how you made that link, because the liches who created Crenshinibon had it powered by the sun as an insult to good creatures. Another link about Levistus that I didn’t quite understand was, is he the power behind the cult, or is he just taking advantage of them?
Hattem: He is definitely a higher power. The cultists are in his realm of influence, I would say.
GamesBeat: I’ve always found Levistus to be the most interesting of all the archdevils. Here he is in his iceberg prison, trying to plot. But the reasons why he’s there have nothing to do with a power grab like other archdevils, but more about cheating with different archdevils. What makes Levistus interesting to you? It sounds like this was a personal passion for you.
Hattem: Levistus is really cool. I don’t know if you’ve seen our DLC roadmap, but the last DLC that we have in our current set of DLCs planned is Echoes of the Blood War. If you’re familiar with the Blood War, the devils and the demons are in this never-ending stalemate. Only one simple artifact, a powerful artifact, could sway the tide of the Blood War. That’s what Levistus is after.
Why Levistus? I just think it’s a really cool — the infighting between all the archdevils and how they want to go down the ranks and layers of Hell is interesting to me. I gravitate toward the Blood War. But Levistus in particular, he’s kind of the patron — he’s like your “get out of jail free” card. If you make a deal with him — if you’re in a tough spot, you can make a deal with Levistus, and he’ll get you out of that jam, but you’ll pay for it somehow. I always thought short-term gain versus long-term gain — it’s always a short-term versus long-term thing.
I feel personally — I’m going outside D&D for a bit, but I think that in general, in our daily lives, we’re always confronted by short term gain-versus-long term gain. Sometimes, the obvious choice in the short term is not necessarily the best course of action for the long term. It’s always a struggle. In game development we’re making choices. We have dates and we have objectives. We’re making short term decisions sometimes, but how does that impact the long term? I’m going really meta right here, but it’s part of why I think he’s super-interesting.
Can’t help myself
GamesBeat: The goblins are kind of silly, but what I see is not so much the silliness, but the fact that they can’t create anything that’s not a mockery. I look at the tower that they were making. Was that your take? It wasn’t so much comedic, but more that they just can’t help themselves from corrupting what they’re doing?
Hattem: That’s totally it. They just can’t help themselves. They have always these grand designs, grand plans, but they always just seem to come up short. They get far, but they just don’t have what it takes to cross that hump. They have booyahg booyahg booyahgs [goblin mages]. They’re just a fun group of monsters to bring to life.
GamesBeat: At the same time, you really put some effort into their dialogue going into fights.
Hattem: For sure. Goblins tend to be fodder monsters in a lot of games. Just making straight-up bad monsters versus good heroes, that’s not super-interesting from a lore-building standpoint. There are different motivations that fall in this big gray area between bad and good. That’s the area where we wanted to explore what all of the monsters believe and how we showcase them. We wanted to paint a picture for these monsters having rituals and different customs. That was a big emphasis for us. The goblins are so prevalent in the game that we felt like we needed to give them some extra love. They get a bad rap in most games. They’re more multidimensional here.
GamesBeat: Going over to the duergar, did the beholder use magic to dominate them, or did it use his power, his influence, to coax the duergar to its side?
Hattem: It’s a combination of the chardalyn crystals they’re mining and the beholder. The crystals have their own corrupting powers, and so mining them — it’s like mining asbestos. It gets the better of you after a certain amount of time. That weakens them to a point where the beholder can have such a strong influence on them.
GamesBeat: How difficult was it to make the verbeeg feel like something different than just a smaller hill giant?
Hattem: Super-difficult, because they’re a little bit related to hill giants. You can look at the different editions of D&D and sometimes the verbeeg aren’t there anymore, and then you have hill giants instead. You see the evolution between verbeeg and hill giants. But our verbeeg are different — our tribe of verbeeg, at least, they’re more hardened than the hill giants. If you notice, their skin is kind of scruffed up. It’s got these grayish tones in it. We were inspired by the skin of a walrus, to make their skins impermeable to the frosts of the north in Icewind Dale. They’re all about dwarves, all about dwarves. They love eating those tasty dwarves.
GamesBeat: One thing I thought was interesting about them, again, was the combat barks and dialogue. In this case they’re very focused, but they’re also very funny. Was that intentional?
Hattem: Yeah, totally. Goblins and verbeeg were more of the comic relief in the makeup of the monsters. When we chose which monsters to showcase for the game, we wanted a good variety of different types of personalities. The levity that you’ll get with goblins is a stark contrast to the darker cultists. I guess you could say they have darker undertones. But yeah, totally intentional.
GamesBeat: Whose idea was it to marry encounters with cultists with the verbeeg? Because those are hard.
Hattem: Those are hard, yeah. It was one of our level designers. They are hard. The cultists have a lot of [area of effect] abilities. Generally the verbeeg are one or two, sometimes three verbeeg, in a scrum. They have a lot of unblockable attacks, like the red outlined attacks they have. They have the harpoon spear, a whole bunch of stuff they can do. But yeah, they are tough.
True to Drizzt?
GamesBeat: Moving on to Drizzt, where are his normal introspective moments?
Hattem: Yeah, the introspection — that’s a great question, really. That topic is one that we struggled with earlier on in the project. It came down to understanding what kind of game we were making. This game is not a Legend of Drizzt game. It’s a game that features the Companions of the Hall in an action setting. If it was a Legend of Drizzt game, then definitely, that would be a very strong point that we would need to develop.
We do have the introductions for each of the missions where Drizzt does his monologues. It’s not as introspective as the different parts of the books where, at certain moments, he has those introspective scenes. I share that point with you. Those moments are very strong in the books and give you insight into the character. Probably some of the bits that make Drizzt such a popular character today were those introspective moments where he’s talking about his hunter persona, trying to push back his inner drow and stay true to what he believes are his principles. One of those moments is when he talks about the Companions of the Hall, that he would be nothing without them. That was one of the parts where we took inspiration for this game, when he’s talking about Bruenor and Wulfgar and Catti-Brie and he describes them in great detail. I forget what book that was in, but that part where he describes them — he’s great, and he has all these accomplishments as the ranger that we know, but he wouldn’t have done that without his companions. That was part of the inspiration for the game.
GamesBeat: So you don’t feel like you’re betraying the character by leaving that out.
Hattem: No, I don’t think we’re betraying Drizzt. I think we brought to life his dexterity and his combat flair. D&D, the books of R.A. Salvatore, they’re their own mediums, and they do what they do very well. As a video game we have different advantages and disadvantages compared to those mediums. Having introspective moments with Drizzt is something I don’t think you could get well in a movie or a TV show. You can get that the best in a book, like the books of R.A. Salvatore. In the game it’s a different focus. But I think that the interstitials between missions, if you listen to them from that angle, they’ll give you some insights into what he thinks is important. But I hear what you’re saying.
GamesBeat: Why choose the deep gnome Kartik as the merchant?
Jeff Hattem: I like the storyline of Drizzt with Belwar Dissengulp, that kind of storyline. It’s a bit of an homage to Belwar to have Kartik there in the base camp. We’re set after the events of The Crystal Shard, and it’s not a literal representation of what happens in the books, but we do want to pay some homage to different elements that are before or after the timeline. For example, Catti-Brie has the Seaspray cosmetic set she can get, and that’s a reference to events that happen afterward. That’s the reason.
GamesBeat: Player feedback on the absence of Regis — are folks sad about that? Or have people just glossed over it?
Jeff Hattem: Folks at the studio are sad about it. I’m sad about it. I would have loved to bring Regis to life. Where we set the game, after the events of The Crystal Shard — it moved around a bit in the timeline. When we started building the game it was where Regis is off and doing his own thing. He’s not always around. He’ll leave and come back. When we started building the game, where we set it, he was off. We wanted to pay homage to him with dialogue you get with the merchant. Regis is his idol and he always talks about Regis. He’s always asking the Companions, hey, have you seen Regis?
GameBeat: Did I see this right, that the duergar cannoneers have pipes in their mouths?
Jeff Hattem: They do, yeah. They do have pipes, and they use them to light their bombs, the duergar bombers. Good eye there.
GamesBeat: Another thing I thought was interesting was that all the monsters are either humanoids or giants, with the exception of the beholder. You have no remorhaz or other creatures that live in the Dale. Was that intentional?
Jeff Hattem: It’s not intentional to omit them. We’re limited a bit by the — D&D is so big. There’s hundreds of monsters in the Monster Manual. We can’t bring in everything to the game. We had to make some choices. Remorhazes are obviously a staple of the Dale, and other creatures as well. But who knows? In a future update we may bring out some more iconic monsters.
GamesBeat: So it wasn’t just a choice of limiting yourself to beings with minds, because of the Crystal Shard?
Jeff Hattem: No, no. The events in the story guide where it would make sense to put conflict and which kind of monsters would want to descend and claim the Shard. We do have native monsters of Icewind Dale that wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to the Shard, like the remorhaz. But that could be interesting. If you think about it, Icewind, the white dragon, is not driven by the Crystal Shard, but he features as an antagonist in the game as well, because that’s her Dale. It’s her namesake.
GamesBeat: The lore about Kelvin’s Cairn being where the frost giants rest, and the dungeon, the city, and crystals there, was that all Tuque, or was that developed by someone else at Wizards and you built on it?
Jeff Hattem: It wasn’t all me, myself. We had our narrative designer, Ryan Galleta, that was his baby, the whole Kelvin’s Cairn story, how it was flipped upside down, the thread with Utar in the lineage of Kelvin the Great himself, trying to reclaim his power. That was super fun to develop as well.
GamesBeat: I liked that for the frost giants, who D&D mostly portrays as reavers, now have a motivation that goes beyond just trying to get more powerful by fighting.
Jeff Hattem: Yeah, I think the Ordning is a lot of infighting between giants, trying to go up and down the ranks, but the frost giants are a very proud group. They’re honorable. They’re not just power hungry mindless giants. It’s like that with most monster factions. We tried to bring that to the forefront in the interstitials. Frost giants were super fun. Kelvin the Great, we go inside Kelvin’s Cairn, which is kind of the upside down flipped mountain, that was super cool to build.
GamesBeat: Of the narrative choices you had to cut, what’s something that you left out from the story that you wish you could have gotten in?
Jeff Hattem: We did have the storyline that furthered — I don’t want to spoil stuff that’s coming up. But we did have a storyline that we needed to remove earlier on in development, when we wanted to focus on other monsters. It went deeper into the layers of Hell. That’s something that was kind of disappointing to not be able to get into the game. We were inventing a new character that was sort of serving Levistus in a lieutenant way that was really cool. Maybe in a future update we’ll get there.
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