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After 60 years, an albino swordsman is finally getting the video game treatment.
For the first time since the 1961 publication of Michael Moorcock’s novel Elric of Melniboné, the legendary dark fantasy series is going to be the basis for a video game, as Runatyr has acquired the rights to make a computer game based on the first six books of the Elric saga.
This is pretty exciting for me, as I read the Elric series decades ago as well as many of the titles in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series. And I had the same question all the other fans had. Why did it take so long?
Moorcock, 81, probably knows why. But I got to ask that question of Yasin Hillborg, creative director at Runatyr, who talked to me about his long dream to turn the series into a video game.
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Hillborg said he inquired about the rights to Elric a couple of years ago after a chance conversation triggered the idea. He was told at the time that the ancillary rights to the video game were tied up in a movie license that failed to come through. But a year ago, he was contacted again by Moorcock’s agent, who said the rights to a game were now available.
Over time, Elric has become a huge part of fantasy culture. The band Blue Oyster Cult made songs about Elric. The Finnish version of Dungeons in Dragons in the 1980s had Elric’s sword, Stormbringer, on its cover. Elric has also been drawn countless times. (Hillborg said he wasn’t yet ready to talk about the game’s art style, but he said the contributions of fans have been amazing.)
Stockholm, Sweden-based Runatyr will work with development collective Aurora Punks and United Kingdom-based studio Upstream Arcade on the project. The independent-focused companies hope to ship a narrative action computer game in 2024.
I love it because Moorcock’s series about Elric was just the jumping off point for a larger universe about the Eternal Champion and a “multiverse” of worlds where the doomed heroes journeyed in hopes of saving the world. This kind of multiverse, with its own Moorcock fantasy flavor, isn’t so far from the threads that shape the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the talk of the metaverse today.
Moorcock’s literary creations include Corum, the Dancers at the End of Time, Hawkmoon, Jerry Cornelius, Von Bek and Elric of Melniboné. In other words, it’s a really rich universe to mine for future video games.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: This is one of my favorite book series of all time from way back when. I was in high school when I was reading them. How did the license become available to you? Did they decide finally that video games might be a cool thing to do?
Yasin Hillborg: To my knowledge, Elric of Melnibone, the license has been tied up for years, for different film projects I’d say. The American Pie brothers, I forget their names, had a film project in 2007. Before that there was an animated project that couldn’t get the finances together or something. That was Wendy Pini, the artist who did the Elfquest comics back in the ‘80s.
This journey began in 2019. Of course it wasn’t a joke that we wanted to do Elric of Melnibone. There’s no cooler fantasy IP in my opinion. But I had, on a mood board, Elric and Stormbringer, a painting I put there as a reference for another project. And then I thought, “Wait, we should do an Elric game.” I said that kind of half-jokingly at the time. I didn’t have a clue as to who Michael Moorcock’s agent was or anything like that.
Trying to cut the story short, I managed to get hold of Mike’s agent. In 2019 there was a big press release for another movie project from New Republic Pictures, who did 1917. I don’t know what’s happened with that, but the thing was that the stars were aligning in the autumn of 2019, because Moorcock’s agent said, “Hey, I’ll be in Stockholm next week.” He was staying at a really fancy Art Deco, 1920s-style hotel in Stockholm. It was like Fort Knox. You had to have an appointment to even get in the front door. But we met Moorcock’s agent and it was a really pleasant meeting, very relaxed. I was quite nervous, of course. We ended up having beers in this fantastic bar at the hotel and spoke about all sorts of things. But at that point the rights were still tied up. A year later, though, he contacted us and said that the rights were available at that point.
GamesBeat: Did the rights were somehow covered in a previous agreement that expired? Or did they never really license the video game rights before?
Hillborg: The video games were tied up as ancillary rights in a movie deal. Then the option expired, I think. I couldn’t say what happened to that project. But the video game rights are now separate. Elric has been unjustly passed by in favor of so many other IPs. You see so many things with that flavor of dark fantasy, or the Chaos arrows, or a white-haired fantasy warrior. That’s almost become a staple in this day and age, sort of an archetype in the fantasy genre, the white-haired sword-wielding warrior.
The thing about Elric, though, what’s so appealing and exciting and intriguing is that he’s an anti-hero. That was Moorcock’s incentive from the start, to write the anti-Conan. That’s what I like about him. I’ve never been too keen on the Conan from the Arnold movies. I can appreciate it, but Elric is so much more exciting. He’s a rebel. He’s sort of the goth or the punk rocker of the fantasy genre. Those types of references–we’ve been talking more about Sergio Leone or Kurosawa than, say, the Witcher.
GamesBeat: I’m trying to remember how much of it I read now. The six books are–did Stormbringer come out first?
Hillborg: Stormbringer was the first novel published, but of course it’s where Elric gets killed, so it’s the end of the saga. Everything is sort of prequels after that. The chronology of the saga and the order of when the stories were published, that’s quite complicated.
GamesBeat: But there are six primary books involved, then.
Hillborg: Right, right.
GamesBeat: I always thought this would be an awesome series to do as a game, but also the larger Eternal Champion story, including Hawkmoon and Corum and all the other characters. There’s so much lore there.
Hillborg: There’s really a lot to tell. At this point, though, we’re looking at how we’re going to tell the first six books, sort of the epic saga of Elric and his life story. Of course it would be fantastic to explore the multiverse and the Eternal Champion concepts.
For my part, I’ve been a fan since–I grew up in Sweden in the ‘80s. That’s when role-playing games, Dungeons and Dragons, those were big. You were probably 10 years ahead of us in the United States on that front. In Sweden, 1983 or 1984, we had a game called Drakar och Demoner, Dragons and Demons, which was sort of the Swedish equivalent to D&D of course. On the cover of the second edition of that first game was Stormbringer. All of us growing up in the ‘80s into RPGs and computer games, that’s where we came in contact with Elric.
Then I saw Stormbringer at a game store that had RPGs and figures and things. I couldn’t get my head around it. I just thought it was some crazy-looking warrior that they’d painted for that box cover. But then there was this book. I bought it. I was 13 or something. I didn’t have the English vocabulary to get the whole story, but I was intrigued. I did my best to soak it all in.
What’s interesting about Elric, and Michael Moorcock in general, there’s so much in popular culture where he’s had some sort of influence. Of course he was friends with the band Hawkwind. He was pals with Lemmy from Motorhead. Hawkwind had songs about Elric. They did an entire Elric album. Blue Oyster Cult had the song “Black Blade” about Stormbringer, and “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” that was about the Eternal Champion. That was recently covered by Metallica. You had the Tygers of Pan Tang and Diamond Head. All those bands.
GamesBeat: There was a very enthusiastic culture around all of it.
Hillborg: There’s some kind of pop culture influence there. I don’t know if it’s a fact, but you had David Bowe’s “Thin White Duke” period, where he was something you could imagine as a living Elric, slender and pale and constantly smoking. He was almost fluorescent in that period. But I’m not sure if that’s confirmed. And the way Elric was presented in so many paintings was part of Frazetta, high fantasy, all that sort of–in the best sense of the word, those pulp pocket books with really evocative and strong visual aesthetics on the covers. It draws you to them, which was the case for myself and many others.
GamesBeat: Is this considered a certain kind of fantasy? Anti-heroic fantasy, dark fantasy?
Hillborg: “Dark fantasy,” that’s generally how the Elric saga is described, an originating or perhaps the originating dark fantasy story.
GamesBeat: Is Moorcock still writing, or is he retired?
Hillborg: Yeah, he’s actually just finished or is finishing the final Elric story. There was an interview with him that’s supposed to be published today at Screen Rant. He’ll be a part of our game, which is fantastic. He’s the expert, the architect of the whole saga. It’s fantastic that we’re actually making Michael Moorcock’s Elric game. It’s funny, because when we gave him our pitch for the project, his agent came back and said, “Mike likes the narrative you presented.” But it’s his narrative.
GamesBeat: Nobody has ever published another Elric game before, right?
Hillborg: There have been a few games in the making. I’ve heard that there was another developer working on a project in the early stages, a Swedish developer actually, maybe 10 years ago or so. I’m not quite sure, but I think the case may be that the rights were always tied up in these big movie projects. The ancillary rights for video games never came to fruition because the film projects never did.
GamesBeat: Is there any activity on the film side that’s happening in parallel to what you’re doing?
Hillborg: Not that I know of. The only recent project I know of is the New Republic project. But what’s happened there I couldn’t say.
GamesBeat: The idea of the sword that has this lust for blood, that’s a being unto itself eating souls, is that a historical or mythological reference? Or is Moorcock really the one who thought of that in the first place?
Hillborg: There’s a sentient sword in Nordic mythology, the story of Tyrfing. I’m not sure that sword has the soul-sucking ability, but it has a will of its own. The sword has a soul. That’s one part of it, where he drew the inspiration. And then there’s also, in Finnish mythology, the story of Kullervo, which is also a tragedy. It’s funny, because Kullervo kind of looks like a Finnish Elric, a skinny pale guy. And there are some other novels that Moorcock usually refers to, like Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson, from the early ‘60s. There are a lot of different inspirations, pools of inspiration that he drew from to create the Elric saga.
There was also simply the incentive to write the anti-Conan. The idea of Elric being sickly and frail. He’s an outsider because he’s an albino. He’s questioning his cruel and evil empire of Melnibone, its ways and traditions. They’ve dominated the Young Kingdoms for 10,000 years, this island kingdom, which is of course a metaphor for the United Kingdom and colonialism and all that. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but in a sense–it’s sort of a product of its time in the 20th century, postwar England, postwar Europe. There are a lot of psychedelic aspects to the stories and Elric’s experiences, too. It’s no surprise that Michael Moorcock was linked to the counterculture of the ‘60s, the music scene in London and so on.
GamesBeat: I always liked how he threaded so many ideas and characters across the stories, the way they would make appearances here and there. It’s a little like the Marvel universe, this deliberate attempt to create a multi-threaded story.
Hillborg: Moorcock deserves all the credit he can get. It’s so creative. You’re entering his mind while reading the stories. Anything can happen. They’re very unpredictable. They can be quite out there sometimes, in a good way. It’s very evocative and fantastic. You’re traveling into his mind when reading his stories. There are no limitations, really.
GamesBeat: How do you begin to think about how to turn this all into a game, then?
Hillborg: It’s a big project, of course, and quite a daunting project if you look at the entirety of the saga. There’s a plethora of characters. There are different settings and so on. We’re in the early stages, but we’re working on a prototype at this point. We’ve gone through all of the saga and made an inventory, so to speak, of everything from settings to characters to plot points to props and so on. It’s just a question of beginning. Even though it’s a big task, you just have to begin with it and be pragmatic. You have to put everything in the right place. We can’t do everything at once, though, so at some point we have to leave that inventory for a while and then just focus on whatever part, whatever, scene, whatever setting and what gameplay, what storytelling needs to go into that.
It’s a big task. It’s a very wide and broad IP. But you have to start somewhere, and we’ve gotten our start. We have our inventory. We can always ask Michael questions if we’re lost somewhere. I feel inspired and confident, if a little scared as well. You need to have a respect for the saga and task ahead to do it justice.
GamesBeat: Do you have an idea of the art style you want to use as yet?
Hillborg: As far as references go, it’s translating what we take as inspiration, be it from mythology, from history, from what we’ve read and watched in film and novels and so on. The mission ahead is to translate all those inspirations and find the right references for what we want to convey in Melnibone or the Weeping Wastes or Stormbringer itself or the dragons of Imrryr. I really liked the approach when Peter Jackson did Lord of the Rings, where he said to his team, “From now on I’d like you to see the books as something from history, like archaeologists who are studying this as history and trying to re-create it.” I thought that was an approach that makes what you’re doing real. Showing it the respect it deserves, using things like weapons or clothing from history and trying to merge that into the lore and the aesthetics of the saga.
GamesBeat: I imagine fans have created a lot of fiction and art around the stories over the years.
Hillborg: That’s a great source of inspiration and knowledge as well. You can go looking for pictures of Elric and find hundreds if not thousands of depictions, and some of them are just fantastic. It’s kind of crazy to think that it’s been 60 years now and there’s still never been a video game or a movie, any audiovisual adaptation.
GamesBeat: There’s a curse you have to escape.
Hillborg: There you go, the curse of Arioch, the curse of Stormbringer. What’s interesting about the situation with the Elric saga, though, is you have all this fan-created material, everything from paintings to sculptures. You have people who’ve made their own versions of Stormbringer, actual weapons. You could say there’s a cult following, all over the internet. But that being said, it goes to show the strength and the resilience of the character and the stories, of Moorcock’s concepts, the evocativeness of his multiverse.
GamesBeat: It’s a big responsibility.
Hillborg: It is. It feels amazing that we’re at this stage. When I first saw the book, I realized there was something more to it. There was a story behind that cover. It wasn’t just a piece of fantasy art. It’s been a 35-year love affair. I’m really excited.
GamesBeat: When it comes to scale, I don’t know a lot about your company in this respect, but do you have to raise money for this? Do you have the kind of scope that’s really focusing on a triple-A experience?
Hillborg: There’s definitely one thing we can talk about in that respect so far. Upstream Arcade, the developer that did West of Dead, is working on the prototype. The scope of the game will be much bigger than anything they’ve done before this, and they’re already working on another project with a very well-known IP from films that’s much bigger than West of Dead. We can’t necessarily talk in precise numbers about the scope, but this is going to be very big. Double-A-ish, rather than indie, if not full-on triple-A that costs $100 million.
It would be close to impossible to develop an Elric game without real resources. You need to have the resources that allow you to convey it. It’s a big story to tell.
GamesBeat: Can you tell us more about your core team?
Hillborg: We have some big fans of the saga on the team. At the same we have younger people, maybe in their early 30s, who aren’t as familiar with Elric. But when you mention that Michael Moorcock actually designed the eight-arrow Chaos symbol that you constantly see in Warhammer and things like that, they’re really impressed. If they weren’t fans when they started on the project, they’ve become fans now.
Another one to mention, our lead programmer from Upstream Arcade in the United Kingdom, he enjoys full-contact broadsword combat with full body armor. We have the perfect programmer for swordplay.
GamesBeat: Were there any other key topics you wanted to bring up?
Hillborg: The Elric saga calls for an epic, immersive game experience. The key words behind Elric, I’d say, are dynamics and polar opposites. The dynamics are key in conveying the saga. There’s the beauty of his love for Cymoril, and then there’s the horror the warping inflicted by Chaos. It’s a world that’s beginning to crumble, and yet you have the scenes of tranquility in Melnibone at the beginning. There’s the violence and the gore and the horror. Elric is on a journey to restore the universe to balance, but at the same time he’s on a kind of soul-searching journey. He carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he’s frail and sickly. And then you have this soul-sucking sword that just wreaks havoc and tragedy everywhere around Elric. It’s a tragedy in the end, it’s quite grim, but at the same time inspiring and fantastic.
It’s interesting, because when we spoke with Michael Moorcock, he explained that Elric was himself as a young man. There was this weltschmerz, a questioning of one’s culture or one’s identity or what have you. He was only 21 years old when he wrote the first story. I think that’s maybe the reason one can, at least to an extent, identify with Elric. I can identify with Elric much more than I can with Conan or Geralt or that kind of macho hero. In a sense he’s every nerd’s fantasy. He’s identifiable because he’s not really so tough. He’s rebellious. Like I said, he’s the goth or the punk of his world.
GamesBeat: You said there was a story to be told about Michael Moorcock visiting Sweden.
Hillborg: I’ve been playing music most of my life, a big music lover, listening to quite extreme stuff. Tape trading was a part of that for me in the ‘80s. So I could really relate to this story Moorcock told us from back in the ‘60s. He had a Swedish pen pal, and they were both big fans of fantasy stories. This would have been in 1965 or so, long before the internet of course. His Swedish friend came to visit him in London and they hung out for a while. Then when he went back Michael tagged along and stayed with him in Uppsala, which is a college town north of Stockholm, the oldest town in Sweden if I’m not mistaken. There are a lot of runestones around that area, and Michael was going around seeing all the sights around Uppsala.
He was taking part in the student life in Uppsala, and he talked about playing blues guitar in a nightclub for an audience of completely baffled drunks in 1965 Sweden. It might not have quite been culture shock for them, but it must have been quite interesting. They went up north and went trekking without any equipment and almost got killed getting lost on a glacier. He mentioned going to Finland and almost accidentally strolling into Russia, which would have been an exciting adventure in the ‘60s.
The other exciting thing when we met him, when we first spoke he started speaking Swedish with me. He said that he may have coined the expression, “Tack för ingenting” in Swedish, “thanks for nothing.” He’s a lovely and funny man. He very much has that dry British sense of humor. And he has all kinds of stories.
GamesBeat: Do you think you feel a particular attachment because the Elric lore draws so much from Nordic mythology?
Hillborg: He appreciated the Kalevala quite a bit, which is the compilation of Finnish epic stories. I assume he read a lot of the other Nordic stories and sagas as well. I think it’s very interesting that you can draw inspiration from such old lore and mythologies. You can look at Marvel’s take on Thor and Loki even now. For my part, I’m interested in Nordic mythology of course, but I was really more of a film buff as a kid. I liked the parallel between Western movies and samurai movies, like where you had the Western versions of Yojimbo and Seven Samurai.
GamesBeat: Which is where you get Star Wars eventually.
Hillborg: You’re right, exactly. Actually, I was thinking recently about how prior to Star Wars, I’d never seen the concept of lightsabers. But then you look at the sentient aspect of Stormbringer, with the runes that are glowing and the black aura around the blade. I wonder if there was an inspiration there. I haven’t got a clue of course. But that sort of cross-pollination and flow of inspiration and stories and mythologies is really exciting. Stories and storytelling are what drives me to write and create.