How R.A. Salvatore Helped Bring Icewind Dale to Games Again for Dark Alliance

How R.A. Salvatore Helped Bring Icewind Dale to Games Again for Dark Alliance
Ancient powers lurk within Icewind Dale... (Image: Tuque Games)

Later this year, a familiar name to Dungeons & Dragons video game fans is finally making a return with the reboot of Dark Alliance, the beloved hack-n’-slash action RPG series. To do so, it’s bringing in some familiar D&D icons in the form of Drizzt Do’Urden and his legendary friends ” which also meant seeking the aid of a less-fictional D&D legend: R. A. Salvatore.

Salvatore has spent over three decades telling stories in the D&D universe, but he’ll be remembered most for his creation of Drizzt Do’Urden, the drow Fighter/Ranger that was, at first, just meant to be a supporting character in his Icewind Dale trilogy. The reaction to the books, and to Drizzt in particular, saw Salvatore suddenly birthing a legend he’s still talking about today.

Speaking alongside Deadly Alliance developer Jeff Hattem of Tuque Games in a live-streamed press conference recently, Salvatore reflected on the moment both he and TSR (Tactical Studies Rules, the publisher Gary Gygax and Don Kaye founded to release the original D&D) realised that the author’s work on the Icewind Dale books had left a mark.

“At the end of The Halfling’s Gem, the people at TSR said…you know, I left [the Icewind Dale trilogy] open-ended, but they were going to have to go back and take Mithral Hall,” Salvatore reminisced. “And [TSR] said, ‘We think people are tired of these characters. It’s, you know, three books now. We want you to tie everything up in the epilogue.’ So I had to come up with them taking Mithral Hall without the heroes even being there, just taking it back ” because the fourth book was supposed to be Mithral Hall.”

“But they didn’t want to do it because, they were going to do something else. And then immediately they were like ‘Um, no, we changed our minds. People kind of like this dark elf and they want to know where he came from. So go back to him!’ It’s been this incredible journey and here I am, still writing it, still loving it.”

One of the people also still loving Salvatore’s work in the years since has been Hattem himself. After Tuque released the top-down shooter Livelock in 2016, Hattem wanted his studio to turn their next project into something inspired by his youth. “Really early on after we shipped out our previous game, I wanted to do something more, in a fantasy setting,” Hattem said of how work on Dark Alliance began. “I had read the [Icewind Dale] books, like many people have, that Bob wrote when I was a little younger. I always felt like that those characters stuck with me, and I said, ‘Why not try and speak to Bob and see if he’s interested in talking to us about maybe having these characters showcased in this game?’”

Bringing on Salvatore turned out to be a simple task for Tuque " not just for his familiarity with the lore Dark Alliance deals in, but his familiarity with games themselves. “I realised that the cool thing was that Bob was a writer of these great, fantastic novels from when I was younger, but he also worked in games and he understood games,” Hattem said. “When we started talking about the game, it was clear that Bob got games, and it wasn't just about narrative, so that the relationship there was very easy for me. We spoke the same language.”

But that narrative was still part of why Salvatore got involved. “They got it because they understood the characters,” Salvatore noted. “Video games are very different than novels, but the storytelling is the main aspect that's different, and I wanted the characters [of Dark Alliance] to really capture what I tried to capture in books. And Jeff got it, he knew who they were.”

Wulfgar, Cattie-Brie, Bruenor, and Drizzt as briefly glimpsed in Dark Alliance's reveal trailer.  (Image: Tuque Games/Wizards of the Coast) Wulfgar, Cattie-Brie, Bruenor, and Drizzt as briefly glimpsed in Dark Alliance's reveal trailer. (Image: Tuque Games/Wizards of the Coast)

“Very early on Bob gave us a piece of advice that I took to heart, that was was that the books were already written. Those stories were already told,” Hattem said of bringing Drizzt and the Companions of the Hall " specifically human bowmaster Cattie-Brie, Dwarven warrior Bruenor Battlehammer, and Wulfgar the Barbarian " to life in Dark Alliance. “There was no point in trying to retell those stories in just a different medium. So we worked really hard to understand who the characters were, and then to take them off into new adventures, set in those time periods that players, as the agents of those characters, could basically role-play their own way into the game. It wasn't just about retelling [and] rehashing stuff that was already done. We wouldn't do it justice, because books are really good in a certain way, and games are good in a certain way at letting players express themselves as well. So there's that extra dynamic that's involved.”

That new time period Hattem mentioned is actually a very interesting one to fans of Salvatore's Icewind Dale trilogy: Dark Alliance is not set before the books, or after them, but during them. “It's basically set after the events of The Crystal Shard [the first novel in the trilogy],” Hattem explained. “The [titular] crystal shard is a very powerful and famous magical artefact that could actually sway wars in a certain direction if the right creature or character got ahold of it. Following the events of The Crystal Shard, this artefact is now known. So word spreads quickly when artifacts of this power become known. Monsters from all around the world descend upon Icewind Dale to claim the shard for themselves, and the four Companions are in the middle of it " they're fighting off this onslaught of different monsters that have come for the shard, that's where the game takes off.”

Being an action-RPG like the Dark Alliance games that came before it, the new reboot wanted to capture a certain grim viscerality that reflected not just the martial skill of the four characters players will inhabit, but the region of Icewind Dale itself. “The monsters are very angry,” Hattem said. “They're very violent. It's a very harsh world in Icewind Dale and we wanted to really bring that to the forefront.”

That's something Salvatore, as a fan of action himself, really wanted to see in Dark Alliance as well. “Watching other people build off my work and let their own creativity fly is an amazing experience for me, and especially with the action part of it because, you know, I would think if I wasn't writing books, I'd want to be a choreographer for a Hollywood movie or something,” Salvatore joked. “One of things I always drove me crazy about the fantasy books I was reading is every time they get to a fight scene, they would just kind of gloss through it, tell you what happened afterwards, you know? I hated that! Or you'd be in a fight scene there going into these, like, eight paragraph detailed descriptions of what the character's thinking.”

“A fight? If you're thinking, you're dead. I really wanted to bring that in [to Dark Alliance],” Salvatore continued. “And I'm glad it was Canadian [game developers] too, because I think one of the reasons why I love writing fight scenes is because I'm a hockey player!”

Hattem agreed that that tone needed to come over from the books when players sat down to actually play Dark Alliance, rather than the more tactical approach they might be used to in D&D proper. “The books are very descriptive in the choreography of combat,” Hattem added. “I was actually listening to an interview with an MMA fighter the other day, and she described how this 16- second sequence in her mind is like five minutes because each little micro decision was super important.”

“The way that Bob describes the fight sequences in the books it feels, to me, very similar to that kind of thought process of what a pro combat sports athlete would go through,” Hattem continued. “I hope that we're doing that just as in the game, and that combat system in the game actually goes and gets that from players " where every little inch that you're trying to game with the monsters, you get those micro-decisions on a moment to moment basis.” 

A selection of concept art depicting the sinister monsters you'll be battling in

A selection of concept art depicting the sinister monsters you'll be battling in

A selection of concept art depicting the sinister monsters you'll be battling in

But above all coming into a new Dark Alliance, rather than having fun bashing the brains out of a zillion gnolls and what have you, Salvatore hopes what players take from the experience is something that enhances their own recollection of his work. Trying to find the balance between what worked to support the characters of the Icewind Dale trilogy and beyond, and what worked from a gaming standpoint, was vital to the author. “First of all, if you've read the books and you play the game, you'll probably get a more satisfying experience out of the game,” Salvatore said of whether or not diehard Icewind Dale fans will feel at home with these characters in the format of a hack-and-slash video game. “You'll know the characters better, right? But the game will bring more to the story than you've gotten from the books now.”

“If you're doing a video game, you're going to have to take some literary licence and maybe not stick completely with it,” Salvatore said. “For example, at the time period involved [in Dark Alliance], Cattie-Brie really wasn't an adventurer at that time, in the books. She was very young. She really hadn't found her role, what role she was gonna fill [in Drizzt's party]. But that wouldn't work in the video game. You want to play Cattie-Brie, and you want her to be Cattie-Brie from a little bit further on [in the books] when she became an integral part of the group that could lay down the damage.”

He continued, “Little things like that don't bother me at all when you're talking about a video game " because your job, when you're making the video game, first and foremost, is to make sure that players are having fun, and they're writing their own story. You're writing your own story with characters that I created. Great! That's fantastic!”

Ultimately for Salvatore, Dark Alliance represents the latest notch on a journey he's still surprised to be taking. “For me, it's just another amazing milestone for me in this whole journey I've been on for 33 years,” the author said. “When I first tried to get a book in the Forgotten Realms, when I did that audition, there was no Icewind Dale. I thought the Moonshae Islands were the Forgotten Realms... it's all just watching the evolution of where it's gone.”

And it's not just him and Tuque Games taking it, either: As we learned yesterday, D&D's Fifth Edition is bringing itself to Icewind Dale's frozen realms, albeit far into the future of Dark Alliance's story. But that only helped Salvatore appreciate how beloved his decades of work in the realm have become. 

“They're going into the future of Icewind Dale, and it's just it's amazing to me to have been a part of this for 33 years, and do this work, and now watch other incredibly talented people step in and just take it to even better places,” Salvatore concluded. “So, you know, I couldn't be happier. It's a real honour.”

Dungeons and Dragons: Dark Alliance is set to hit PC and console platforms this spring. To find out more about this year's D&D Live and how you can take part in its charitable efforts with Comic Relief, check out the official D&D website.