Midnight Lords

Midnight Lords

The story of the ‘Lords of Midnight’ series is largely the story of one man, Mike Singleton. A teacher turned programmer with a deep-held love of fantasy, he was wrote the novel ‘The Eternal Empire’ whilst still a student and later went on to work on the ‘Midwinter’ series of first-person RPGs. Sadly Singleton passed away in 2012, however his legacy remains extremely strong thanks to mobile ports of the Lords of Midnight games, which he was working on prior to his death and carry a dedication to his memory.

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The man himself – Mike Singleton.

In March 1984 an issue of ‘Computer and Video Games’ magazine ran a full page advert that depicted nothing but the image of riders on horseback. A striking black and white image, it bore the tag-line “Who are the Lords of Midnight?” people were confused but interested non-the-less and in this early example of viral marketing the advert was altered in the next edition to include additional text. “The first Spectrum game to feature landscaping!” was added in April, then “Not an adventure” and finally “The world’s most EPIC game with 32,000 possible panoramic views.” Information on games still in development was impossible to find before the internet, and readers were drip-fed these claims as fuel to spark interest in the games launch. Enterprising readers checked the glossary of advertisers in the back of the magazine and found that the adverts were being run by a company called Beyond Software, a small publisher set up by Computer and Video Games magazine’s editor, Terry Pratt.

Beyond Software had released a number of titles for the Spectrum without attaining a great degree of success. The Lords of Midnight was their attempt to turn things around by staging an advertising campaign and pushing the limits of what the system could achieve. Mike Singleton was the man tasked with accomplishing this, having been recruited by Pratt after the editor noticed a number of smaller titles released by Singleton when the magazine had been launched. An incredibly creative mind, Singleton pitched the concept for the game with much of the systems and math already in place in his head. His ‘Landscaping’ technique was based on his experiences playing ‘The Hobbit’ a text adventure with limited graphics and Singleton was amazed at how long these took to render on-screen. Sure that he could better this process he developed a prototype that displayed an environment in “A finger snap”, and clever programming meant that this only took up two bits of memory, enabling him to feature not just one but thousands of locations. Just shy of 4,000 in reality, in each of these locations the player could rotate in 8 directions, forming the adverts 32,000 claim. The game also ran with a maximum of 32 playable characters, which were moved in turn, all crammed into the ZX Spectrum’s 48K of memory.

The Lords of Midnight is in fact a game that closely resembles Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, based around an initial party of four adventurers who set out individually from a location called the ‘Tower of the Moon’ and consists of Luxor (the Moon Prince), his son Morkin, the wizard Rorthron and a Fey warrior named Corleth. The games major threat, a man named Doomdark, possessed the Ice Crown and the aim of the game is to destroy this and kill him. The crown projects something called the ‘Ice Fear’, which Luxor is immune to thanks to a special ring and his son is a form of chosen one who can safely touch the crown without dying. The game is played on two fronts, one side being a strategic battle system where party members quest to explore the land and recruit warriors to their cause to repel Doomdark’s own troops, eventually pushing into his territory and destroying him. The second method of play is to take Morkin and stealth your way into his lands to steal and destroy the crown. Paralleling the story flow of the Lord of the Rings trilogy quite closely but with a stark winter setting that Singleton developed through a five chapter novel included with the game (or as a digital download free with the iOS version). The player can attempt both, with either victory winning the game, or choose to focus all his/her attention on one. The canon ending of the game sees both endings accomplished and Doomdark defeated. The game sees players travelling a set number of moves in the day per character before letting night fall, and having Doomdark’s troops take their actions. Players command their troops in person and engage with monsters and enemy armies on the map, which are hidden when out of your line of sight, essentially making this a first-person strategy game.

Lords of Midnight was a success and a sequel, ‘Doomdark’s Revenge’ was produced in 1985. This entry into the series sees Doomdark’s daughter ‘Shareth the Heartstealer’ return to bring ruin to her father’s killers. Stealing and enchanting Morkin on the eve of his wedding to Tarithel the Fey and forcing Luxor, Rorthron and Tarithel to rescue him. This time it is Tarithel who acts as the special character, able to break the enchantment placed on her love if she meets with him, but Morkin has been placed in charge of recruiting a powerful army to destroy his father and so the others must recruit their own to stop that from happening. Unlike the original title, Luxor starts with a small army in his possession to make up for no fourth character and the enemy starts in a weaker position, both nods to continuity and storytelling on Singleton’s part. A bigger world which is connected by dark underground tunnels is also featured and brings a dungeon crawling aspect that was missing from the first title. Like the original game, Doomdark’s Revenge was launched onto the ZX Spectrum before being ported to the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and IBM-PC. Later it would also see a desktop and mobile updated port.

A third game was planned to cap the trilogy, titled ‘The Eye of the Moon’ which would have seen the games location shift from the ‘Blood March’ to the ‘valahar’ a mountain range lying west of Midnight. A concept document was produced by Singleton which included pages of a novel that would accompany the game. Set 40 years after Doomdark’s Revenge it would have seen Morkin quest to find an artefact for his dying father so that Luxor could see the future of Midnight and pass on knowing that he had brought a lasting peace to the land. Though the game was never made, many of its concepts were later used in ‘The Citadel’ instead, and in 2011 Singleton and Chris Wild attempted to revive the project for modern devices, adding a magic system and revised strategic elements. Work with Wild also established the development of remakes for the first two titles in the series for iOS and sadly the project halted when Singleton passed away himself. Wild stated “As Mike wasn’t able to transcribe all his ideas and story to paper, it means that we only really have a skeleton of a game design and I don’t think I can justify taking the game any further forward.” He also added that “People have been waiting 30 years for Mike Singleton’s The Eye of the Moon and don’t really want to play Chris Wild’s interpretation of it.”

A third title was released however, this time on the IBM-PC in 1995. Released by Maelstrom Games and designed by Singleton, ‘Lords of Midnight: The Citadel’ saw an older Luxor discover that the Eye of the Moon had been found in a region called ‘Coromand’ and investigating. On route through the Blood March his party is ambushed by Boroth the Wolfheart who kills the son of the ‘Lord of Blood’ and kidnaps the Moon Prince himself, taking him to the Dark Citadel of the games title. Corleth, the son of Morkin and Tarithel (named for the character in Lords of Midnight) travels to rescue him whilst Rothron the Wise sets out to find Anderlane of Arkai, who is rumoured to be the child of Shareth and Morkin. Morkin himself also sets out to the Blood March to investigate what is happening. The game adds the ability to take ships and fly dragons across distances and a more involved combat system, but uses a clunkier interface and voxel based terrain generation that looks extremely dated by today’s standards. Due to the new publisher’s uncertainty as to whether players would connect this title to the previous entries in the series they labelled the game as ‘Lords of Midnight’ on the cover, leaving ‘The Citadel’ as an in-game and on manual tagline. This has led to many sites labelling it incorrectly as a remake of the original game rather than a later addition to the continuity. The game featured clipping issues and slowdown when outdoors, which coupled with the interface had it review poorly. The engine would only be used once more to create ‘Ring Cycle’ based on Wagner’s operas, which are similarly panned.

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Online strategy games rarely come this complex.

In 2004, programmer Jean-Yves Rouffiac attempted to recreate the original Lords of Midnight game in-browser and two years later launched instead a multiplayer title called ‘Midnight/MU’ which took the series into an unofficial online direction. A small but dedicated team took over from Youffiac and added a great deal of additional content from later titles in the series including maps from both sequels and boat/dragon mechanics. The game remains online today and has a dedicated online community, though matches can take whole days to complete given the more complex turn-based first-person mechanics of the systems in Lords of Midnight. A game titled ‘Legions of Ashworld’ was developed for desktops in 2014 and heavily parallels the mechanics of the Midnight series whilst shifting the setting from a winter land to an Arabic desert environment.

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Spiritually, Ashworld is a ‘Midnight’ title.

In the time since Mike Singleton’s death interest in the series has only increased. Chris Wild faithfully completed the world on their remakes of the first two instalments into the series and released them onto iOS with a dedication to his friend’s memory. Selling extremely well, Wild hopes to reproduce The Citadel in a similar 2D style to complete the existing trilogy, stating that he feels players would respond better to the third instalment in this manner. Ever meek concerning his involvement in the series, Wild states of the recent attention; “I feel very flattered, although it’s the games themselves which are the real focus of interest. It’s great to know that something I’ve done has brought so much enjoyment and inspiration to so many people.”