Digital Tulip Warriors: The story of Turkey’s video game pioneers
An interview with Özgür Özol
Sadly, I can’t read Turkish. You, dear reader, probably can’t read it either. This means that we can’t properly play İstanbul Efsaneleri: Lale Savaşçıları — aka Legends of Istanbul: Tulip Warriors — a first-person dungeon crawler first released for the AMIGA in 1994. But what makes Tulip Warriors fascinating is not its gameplay, is everything else.
One of the first games developed in Turkey, Tulip Warriors is an RPG that takes players to modern-day Istanbul, where your party of workers, teachers, punks, prostitutes, intellectuals and government officers join forces to battle against a wave of ignorance & lies taking over the city.
Made by Turkish & for Turkish, it features very niche cultural references, such as how the game’s spells are nothing more than local slangs and insults. For example, “gel babana” (come to papa) works as a “Dominate” spell, being checked against the target’s “Superstition” stats.
It’s an extremely unique oddity: not only it’s an RPG set in the modern era, but it’s the direct result of local social, cultural and political anxieties. All made by a small team in a developing country, struggling with the lack of access to technology and information. As a Brazilian, I can relate to that.
Since there’s almost no information about this game in English, I reached out to its designer, Özgür Özol, who graciously replied to all my questions and told a fascinating tale.
I struggled at first, trying to edit this into a shorter and more streamlined read, but soon gave up. Mr. Özol is a great storyteller, and I would be doing readers a disservice. Thus, here’s the full interview:
Legends of Istanbul: Tulip Warriors first came out in 1994 and was one of Turkey’s first computer games. What were the challenges of developing a game in Turkey back then?
Özgür Özol: The development of Tulip Warriors was a two staged process. The first version was developed for AMIGA platform by our amateur group named Siliconworx — myself and Özgür Doğu Gürcan and the art and graphics were created by Tuncay Talayman. That version can be regarded as a “garage project”.
After about 1 year of its release (and by “release”, I mean us literally visiting game shops in Istanbul, with backpacks full of game boxes that were hand copied and assembled by us and our families) things got different. Turkey’s largest music production company back then was RAKS and they were entering the computer gaming market. Tulip Warriors was their choice of “local brand” for this new field. They really did not have that much choice of brands anyway, because it was a rare thing to develop computer games in Turkey.
Around the time this company offered us to produce the game for PC platform on CD (complete with movies and all sorts of shiny stuff), we were already on the way of developing a PC version, with the addition of new staff from another amateur group (Compuphiliacs): Gökhan San, Cengiz Günay, Aleks Pamir, while Emre Erdur was recruited to recreate the concept artwork. This also was an amateur, garage project until the company entered the scene.
The main challenge for the first period was us (18–20 year olds) trying to handle our lives, college and all the teenager stuff, while maintaining the development process. Almost every aspect of developing a computer game was a challenge: The market was tiny, people didn’t really play computer games, let alone developing them. We had no source of technical help — the internet was merely an experiment those days. We did not have any financial support besides our families, and had no real means of mass producing and distributing. So it was an amateur challenge, one which proved to be real creative and fun. All three of us, with the help of many friends, had to contribute to the script, rules, maps, concept art, coding and even marketing.
The challenges of the second version (RAKS, PC platform, 1995) were somewhat different. The team was larger and all the new recruits were talented, hardworking people. As the company handled the production and marketing aspects, the team (now 9 strong) concentrated on the artistic and technical stuff. We worked in RAKS studios and had some technical and financial support. The challenge of this period was to enhance the game to a level that could compete with the rapidly developing computer games of its time, while trying to cope up with concepts like “budget” or “deadlines” which were totally alien to the team. Besides the rules, every aspect of the game was recreated.
But though we had somewhat improved conditions, it should be noted that all the technologies we used were new and unknown to us. A perfect example on our confusion: The game would be printed on CD-ROMs but none of us in the team had a CD reader, let alone a CD writer. The CD reading routine had to be written blindly, depending solely on theory, without access to actual hardware and could only be tested months later, when we had access to actual CD readers. This can be said for most of the technological advances of the day (which were rapidly expanding) and we could not have instant access and support in Turkey for some time.
So, in summary, the first challenge was to assemble a group of young people, crazy enough to develop a computer game with almost no formal training and technical support, in an environment that would certainly treat them as madmen. The second was to rapidly train and equip this team to the level that they could cope up with contemporary competition, while persuading the environment (Turkish market) that computer games were a thing and that we could even develop them. All of these were considerable challenges and we were glad and proud to be able to handle every one of them.
The game is a first-person dungeon-crawler with tactical combat, somewhat like Realms of Arkania. Which games inspired the team?
The inspiration came from varied sources, of course. The main problem about this inspiration was also the fact that Turkey was following the gaming world from behind. Supply and promotion of games was erratic, even random. Many of us gamers in Turkey bought and played a game, only to discover in surprise that it was in fact the expansion pack of the second episode of a quadrilogy. So, the games that inspired us followed a somewhat random pattern.
Realms of Arkania was absolutely one of the games we played. But as I recall, it was the third episode [NOTE: Shadows over Riva came out only in 1996, so it was probably the second game, 1994’s Star Trail]. I played the first episode, Blade of Destiny years later. Other games that inspired us followed a similar pattern. The SSI Dungeons & Dragons series had an absolute impact. In fact, Tulip Warriors has a quest (the quest in Sarıyer) of getting rid of the “old school” SSI game characters that emerged from a broken AMIGA. As I recall, Death Knights of Krynn, Legend of Darkmoon, Pools of Darkness and Shadows Over Riva had the most impact on us. As the computer gaming market developed rapidly in the country, we realized that every one of these games were part of a series but none were the first episode and we played all of these series from scratch.
Also, those were the days we discovered that somewhere in the world, people were playing a tabletop game called Dungeons & Dragons (yes, we discovered this about one year after playing the computer game versions). Up until this day, we all remember the first D&D product that we could get our hands on (Tales of the Lance boxed set). As always, we realized that this was not a stand alone game in itself but an expansion to a much larger game “after” we bought it. So the usual cycle of learning from scratch restarted. The PC version of Tulip Warriors was developed while we were frantically playing tabletop AD&D 2nd edition.
While most RPGs are set in fantasy or sci-fi settings, Legends of Istanbul is all about the city of Istanbul and its inhabitants, with characters like teenagers wearing Helloween T-shirts, teachers, government officials, etc. Why did the team choose this setting?
In fact, the setting is not entirely about the city of İstanbul, but rather is a reflection of most of Turkey at the time, melted in a fantasy land we called “İstanbul”.
The reason we chose İstanbul was because we were living in it. It is a huge metropolis, with millions of people rooted from very different cultures living together in a miraculous relative rapport. The city is a writer’s dream which contains many interesting stories by itself and never hesitates to spill out some of these to your face if you get close enough.
The main monsters (“dragons”) of the setting were social and economical problems of Turkey like “Inflation”, “Ignorance” and “Mismanagement”. These were not our inventions, it was already being called as the “inflation monster” by the media and everybody was used to many of these terms. We merely pulled them a little out of context and the humour was standing right in front of us.
The characters were also symbolic manifestations of sociocultural groups. The endurance capability of the overworked civil servant, the harsh attitude of the desperately underpaid teacher, the coarse and uncivilized manners of the man from the slums were not our inventions but merely reflections of what we experienced in everyday life.
In short, the setting in which we were living and the fact that this setting was actually working, was already “fantastic” enough that we probably did not need any other place to draw interesting ideas from.
Legends of Istanbul is a humorous, but also very political game. It talks about how the city has fallen to bigotry and fanaticism under the rule of the evil “Sheik Ignorance”. Please tell us a bit about the political climate at the time.
First of all, in the game, the city has not fallen to bigotry and fanaticism… Yet.
In fact, as the story opens, the city is just slightly different from its normal state, but is on the verge of falling under the influence of Ignorance if someone does not stop him, but nobody is aware of this imminent, insidious danger. His evil plan is convoluted but basically depends on some windmills blowing the “winds of ignorance” to the whole city. If this occurs, the agents of Ignorance will spread all kinds of lies and malarkey to the populace and everyone will believe any bullshit they are told. The heroes succeed in stopping this malignant plan, thus, save the city. So, the plot mainly carries a concerned, intervening theme.
This, of course is about the political and social climate of those days. The country, and the the city was in a very similar state in the 90’s. While the general populace was not fully aware of the situation, the country was tumbling down into an under-education, under-awareness crisis.
In order to understand the transformation and its throes, one needs to study Turkish history deeply and it is a long story, indeed. In short words, a newly prospering and thriving wealthy class was emerging rapidly and they lacked the cultural tools to sustain and maintain the social and political direction of the country. Things were bound to change fast and any learned person could sense the potential dangers and traps lurking in this rapid change. The story of the game was meant as a warning to those probabilities.
Games with such strong political tone are rare, as companies don’t want to lose sales to offended customers. What was the main goal behind Legends of Istanbul? Sending a political message, starting a business or just having fun?
Well, it certainly was not starting a business, I can tell you this much. I don’t believe any of the team members considered what we were doing “business”. On the other hand, as we all invested so much time and effort (years, literally) to the project, “just having fun” wasn’t the main goal neither. In fact, I guess during the years we were involved in the project, total number of times that we had “fun” was much less and shorter than we had problems, fights, struggles and general distress.
So, I guess this leaves sending a message. And that message was simply: “Hi everybody, how about we all stop acting like dunderheads?” This was not a political message, because the political climate of Turkey in that time (last decade of the century) was not restricting nor inhibitive. The main problem we felt was not political but it was rather social and psychological. We were young and to be honest, we too were somewhat ignorant. So, with our limited knowledge and limitless courage, we dared to share that vague feeling of “something rotten cometh this way” in a humorous manner.
Time proved us right and in the following decades people saw that “thing rotten” was mainly the wayward and antagonistic postures of various social structures in Turkey. In the end, I feel every smart person in the country began to understand that the problem was not in one particular group, but rather in the minds of everyone who firmly believed they were “right”. This is the definition of ignorance in the game.
How was the reception to the game? Was there any problems with people being offended or threatening you?
To my personal astonishment, the game was received as a real marvel right off the start. This accelerated in the coming years and even after 25 years, it is still held in great regard and respect.
The idea of some young Turkish students coming up with something like that with so limited resources, excited even the mainstream media (there was little exclusive media on the computer gaming subject anyway). People appreciated the presentation of a valid social issue in creative humour. Totaling the release, second printing and bundling of the game, a total of 50.000 people (so large a number for its day) played it and nearly every one had positive feedback. After the dust settled, it came to pass as the “first and last humorous game made in Turkey, featuring many catchy characters and a visionary social message”.
In truth, I cannot say many people were offended or we were really threatened. Even after this many years, I still encounter people wishing to listen to the stories of the developers being threatened by “fundamental evil powers”, but saying that would be an exaggeration. Of course, as seen against all forms of criticizing humour, some minor and local “rigidity” arose in the early days but none were real, solid threats.
The reason of that reaction was generally the false notion that the game had a statement specifically against religion. But the game quickly proved itself that it was not religion that created the problem, but stupidity and ignorance. Throughout the story, our heroes had to struggle with the pompousness of highbrow types, as well as the ignorance of roughnecks and louts. So, those sensibilities calmed down quickly, as it became clear that the game was not against a specific political or social group, it was rather satirizing any and all kinds of ignorance and illiberality.
The game ends in a cliffhanger. Was there plans to make a Part 2?
Of course there was! The main storyline of Part 2: Time of the Tulip was already in discussion at the time of release of Part 1.
Tulips have been the symbolic flower of İstanbul for three centuries; since the so called “Tulip Era” (early 18th century) of the Ottoman Empire. It was a period in which scientific innovation and fine arts were being promoted as a government policy. A grueling effort to transform the elite into a European-like bourgeois, while keeping the moral values of the society mainly intact was underway. The social preservation aspect of the movement was unsuccessful and the elite was quickly alienated from the common people. This era ended in a fanatical uproar and the effort was delayed for almost two hundred years.
Part 2 was to be set in that time of İstanbul, right in the middle of the social uprising. After transforming into the Ignorance Monster, the defeated Sheik Ignorance enters a portal he creates and of course the heroes follow him. They enter an İstanbul of the 1700’s and try to make their way back, while constantly battling against the problems set by this brutal uprising.
This project was abandoned because of two reasons: First, the team was dispersing, mainly going to colleges abroad. Second, despite the obvious fun that being in an İstanbul of 300 years ago would bring, we felt the message of the series should be expanded, not shrunk. So, in the coming years, another project was formed gradually. Legends of İstanbul Part 3 was a vivid subject for many years among the team, which was then scattered all around the world. It had the motto: “ignorance never dies, it merely transforms” and the main plot was about to find out what the heck happened to Part 2.
This is the last known position and vision of the project and is still valid as a distant dream. So, I should not give away too much information, I guess. But I can safely say that the approach is a less localized, more global approach to the concept of ignorance in the 21th century. Of course, the city of İstanbul is still at the heart of all things.
Do you feel that Legends of Istanbul is still relevant in today’s Turkey?
Legends of İstanbul is not all about İstanbul, nor Turkey per se. It is about the concept of ignorance and ignorance has many faces. The social, economical and cultural problems of Turkey at the end of the century has transformed, so has all the world. In my opinion, even if Turkey (and Middle East in general) suffered in the decades following the release of the game from the problems we pointed out, nowadays ignorance in another form has rooted more firmly in the Western cultures, especially after the spread of social media.
The Turkish people and government has suffered from the effects of the dangerous blind acceptance that we were trying to point out, in the last 30 years. They are gradually realizing the errors of that way and struggling to find means of reversing them. Meanwhile, for example in the USA and Britain, people are not even beginning to consider the destructive effects of the ignorance their cultures are tumbling down in the guise of security and stability. So, maybe we should try to warn them, like we tried here 30 years ago, that the problem is not all about religion or fundamentalism as they are taught to believe, but it is in the feeling of “righteousness”.
My definition of ignorance is: “not knowing that you do not know”. It is a dangerous condition and is often accompanied by a sense of pride, comfort, security and uniformity.
So in summary, today’s Turkey may still be suffering from the aftershocks of these symptoms but I believe it is on the verge of recovery, while the common people of many “developed” countries are only just beginning to enter an era of not knowing that they actually do not know. Given the political and military might of these countries, I am sincerely hoping for the whole world, that I am a bit over-pessimistic.
What are you working on today? Did you make any other games?
Tulip Warriors was in fact the second computer game I made. The first one was Fields of Hope (in Turkish: Umut Tarlaları) which was published in 1993. It was a strategy game about farming which was inspired from corporation running games of the day, like Oil Imperium and Ports of Call. It is still considered to be one of the first “real” games made in Turkey.
After the release of Tulip Warriors, I started on Fields of Hope 2: Revenge of the Farmer, with some members of the team. This project was abandoned right after the research phase, because we decided to start up the first gaming cafe of Turkey in İstanbul.
It was called “Sihir Kafe” (magic cafe) and became the rallying point of gamers from all around the city. First started as a club of tabletop roleplayers, it quickly evolved into a gaming center, filled with RPG, boardgame, miniature wargaming, LARP and computer gaming fans. It lasted for 7 years (1997–2004) and during that period, I developed many board games, as well as RPGs but these were not published, rather distributed among the patrons of the club.
After that, I started developing a fantasy world named ILGANA. The setting is based on nomadic Turkish culture and Ancient Anatolian history. The first product of the setting was a novel that I wrote, was published in 2010. We gradually formed a core team composed of a historian (me), a linguist, and two concept designers. Besides the novel, we developed an RPG tabletop game two years ago but we were not satisfied with the result and abandoned it.
Nowadays, I am starting to work on a sequel novel, as well as another tabletop game that has much simpler rules and is more compatible with the setting itself. Maybe one day, when our over-perfectionist team finally decides it is ready, we will make a computer game out of it.
Thank you very much for your time, and for this amazing story. *I would also like to thank Yamaç Kurtulus for the help and passion in researching about this game.
Originally published in 2018 at https://www.gamasutra.com.