Do you know the story of the Golem? Of course you do, whether you realize it or not. The story first found legs in medieval Prague as a tale about a clay giant designed to protect the city’s Jewish quarter. But as Moonbot Studios co-founder William Joyce recently told me, "everyone has their own version." The Golem has popped up in stories as disparate as Prometheus and Frankenstein, always as a half-human creature hellbent on protecting his maker and finding his own human soul.
This year, Joyce and his team will reinvent the Golem once more, turning the archetypal story into a video game set in 16th-century Prague. And unsurprisingly, Moonbot is doing things a bit differently to get The Golem made, funding the project through a Kickstarter campaign that ends in March. $15 will get you the game (due out in spring of 2015) and access to their production blog, where backers will get to contribute thoughts and ideas about the game design as it progresses. It’s an intentional move—the Shreveport, Lousiana-based Moonbot has always kept its distance from Hollywood. "We could go to a big studio," says Joyce, "but we’d rather stay independent."
So, what does the Golem look like in the hands of a studio that’s repeatedly described using words like "magical," "inventive," and "genius"? To reimagine the age-old tale, the team flew to Prague and immersed themselves in the city, led by a local Rabbi based in the Jewish quarter. Prague’s Golem, you see, was allegedly built by one Rabbi Loew to protect his community from Cesare Borgia’s invading Papal armies. "We just got deeper and deeper into this story," remembers co-founder Brandon Oldenburg. "You walk around Prague, and it’s all about the Golem. Everyone acts as though it’s real." They shot tons of film, took books of notes, and made reference sketches, which give the game demo an incredible visual authenticity. "It’s sort of similar to what Walt Disney would do, go to Europe and find these stories, then adapt them for his audience," Oldenburg says.
In Moonbot’s version of the story, you take the perspective of the creature Golem. Your goal is to learn to control your unwieldy body and emotions. "The controls will evolve as the Golem evolves," explains the studio. "Despite your incredible potential for destruction, mastering the Golem will be about mastering control of yourself so that you can protect and not destroy the great city that created you." Ultimately, though, you’re searching for your soul—the one thing that Prague’s five guilds didn’t build for you. The game will be built using the popular game engine Unity, and you’ll be able to play on a dual-stick controller or on a keyboard and mouse.
A fascinating historical footnote to the Golem story gave Moonbot the creative source they needed to transform the folktale into an action RPG game. It turns out that the ruthless Borgia hired Leonardo da Vinci in 1502 to engineer war machines for his armies, which ostensibly were used in his invasion of Prague. So the Golem (suspend your disbelief here) would’ve been up against da Vinci’s genius designs for early helicopters and other contraptions. That tidbit was like the final puzzle piece falling into place for the Moonbot team—it gave them a way to translate a 15th-century tale into modern gaming parlance. "The mechanics of the game will be so familiar," says Oldenburg. "But the machines will be da Vinci’s."
Lest you worry that the meaning of Golem’s story be lost in a video game, fear not. Joyce and Oldenburg stopped by Co.Design headquarters on a recent trip to New York, and we got to hear them tell the story of the Golem in their own words. Without sounding twee, I felt like I was a little kid again, rapt with suspense, even though I already knew the ending. They might be changing their medium, but great storytelling is still Moonbot’s message.
Head over to Kickstarter to check out (and back!) The Golem.