Taking a deeper look at Salem (and living to talk about it)

Salem demo

We recently sent San Francisco freelancer Emil Vazquez to a demo of Salem, the upcoming colonial-styled, permadeath MMO from Paradox Interactive. This is Emil's impressions of the game; the opinions might not reflect those of Massively as a whole.

I was mildly disappointed that I didn't get to personally play Salem at this demo session until I saw the complexity and depth that was par for the course in publisher Paradox Interactive's new crafting-based sandbox. Had I been put behind the wheel of my very own little gothic pilgrim, it would have looked a lot like a beginner's first few hours in EVE Online and been about as productive. Instead, game designer Bjorn Johannessen took me on a tour of Salem's Lovecraft-inspired re-imagining of 18th century America, complete with farms, smithies, and chthonic earthworms.

The game takes place during the first baby steps of the American colonies, with a heavy sprinkling of slightly surreal American gothic horror adding a little spice to an era commonly viewed as consisting of little more than pilgrims and starvation. You are one of those oh-so-unfortunate pilgrims, and you've got to strike out from the safe haven of Boston and start your own farm (or town, if you're feeling ambitious). The farther you get from Boston, the more dangerous it becomes, with rolling plains and orchards giving way to foreboding old-growth forests filled with Hide-Behinds and Squonks. And just because you might not know what a Hide-Behind is doesn't make it any less terrifying when you get jumped by one when your inventory is full. Think Creepers in Minecraft.

"If you kill another player (thus committing a crime by the game's reckoning), you leave behind a clue that other players can use to track you down and exact revenge"

Essentially, the game boils down to a deep and involved crafting system that manages to be reminiscent of Minecraft, Wurm Online, and EVE Online all at the same time. The game is a true sandbox in that everything outside of the lone safe haven of Boston is player-created. This also means that everything outside of Boston is fair game to be player-destroyed. Salem has already made headlines by including a fairly uncompromising take on permadeath in its core gameplay, but the MMO's complexity bleeds into that seemingly straightforward mechanic as well. If you kill another player (thus committing a crime by the game's reckoning), you leave behind a clue that other players can use to track you down and exact revenge on you (your victim won't be exacting revenge though because he or she is dead and certainly not coming back). It's also important to note that only players can cause permadeath; getting whacked by a wandering bear won't kill you forever, though you will lose your inventory and a few skill points after you respawn in Boston.

This segues into perhaps my favorite mechanic in the game, which might seem strange because it's so understated. In Salem, you can't see the names of other players. You can name them yourself by right clicking on them and typing in a name that only you can see (e.g., "guy who burned my pumpkin patch," or "this player will sell you iron ingots cheaply," or "kill him on sight, make sure to bring friends"), but you can only get their real names by adding them to your kinship network, which is essentially a friends list. For me, this adds a whole new layer of depth to a game that focuses heavily on player interaction, and the anonymity fits the game's eerie atmosphere well.

I could jump into an involved explanation of Salem's complex crafting system (Johannesson repeatedly said that his design ethos stemmed from the idea of "if it's in the real world, we want it to be in Salem"), but it's easy to get overwhelmed.

Some points certainly bear highlighting, though. First, the system hinges around Skills (largely similar to technologies in the Civilization series); you unlock them, and they give you the option to build a plethora of 18th century knick-knacks. Skills are insanely diverse in their spread, ranging from mundane smithing proficiencies to the fancifully named Lore of the Lumberwoods.

To unlock Skills, players must accrue proficiency points. This is where it gets interesting. In order to gain proficiency points, players must find and study Inspirationals -- unique items gained from crafting, combat, and exploration. Making bricks in your shiny new kiln? One of your crafted bricks might turn out to be a Brick of Fallen Babel. A player might be harvesting worms from her compost pile only to find a unique Earthworm Python among its mundane cousins (replete with flavor text: "Slithering, squirming, eater of worlds and of all things rancid and foul"). Studying either of these items would then garner the player certain proficiency points toward new, relevant Skills.

It should be clear by now that Salem is a game that's not afraid to take a few risks. It's set in colonial America, it's unabashedly crafting-centric, and it's more brutal than EVE when it comes to player mortality. Plus, it's got a cash shop; players can spend real money to get in-game currency that can be spent on crafting materials and gear. But as the game lacks any sort of themepark raiding focus or heavy PvP incentive, it's difficult to see the cash shop seriously affecting the game's innate balance, especially since some players might be loath to shell out cash for their town just to see their labor of love repossessed by a marauding group of pilgrims dressed as wicker-men.

Finally, there's something that Salem just nails, and that's atmosphere. From the pilgrim player character models that look like they haven't slept in weeks to the snippets of dark flavor text on almost everything to the folkloric monstrosities that could have come straight from Pan's Labyrinth, the game feels eerie, unsettling, and filled with possibility. For a sandbox, that's a pretty good start.

Designer Johannesson said that the main influences in creating Salem were Alice in Wonderland, the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and an odd little compendium titled Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, written over a century ago. Google that last title and you'll get a good idea of the sort of world that's waiting for you in Salem.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?