Most days, Joshua DeBonis sits at his desk for long hours working on Meriwether, the upcoming game from the New York City-based indie developer Sortasoft. He’s been working on this game for years, and while there are still issues to be fixed, DeBonis is hopeful that the end is in sight. His whirlwind of a Kickstarter campaign is just hours from being successfully funded, and, with the added pressure of expectant backers, he plans to have the game finished by the end of the year.
Flashback to 1806, and Captain Meriwether Lewis is hunkered down at Fort Clatsop, on the Pacific Coast, waiting for the weather to get warmer so he can make the 3,000+ mile trip back to St. Louis. He, too, has been working for years on his own project, and he is looking to be back home by the year’s end.
Today, the name Meriwether Lewis might not be easily recognized by many people, but when the pair of “Lewis and Clark” is mentioned, the recognition is there. Just like Lewis had William Clark as his co-captain, DeBonis is not alone in trying to make this RPG based on historic events. Published author and English professor Carlos Hernandez has partnered with DeBonis for Meriwether. “I knew early on that this would be a highly narrative project, and I needed a partner whose strength was in narrative, which is why I asked Carlos right from the start (he is an amazing writer!)”
In Meriwether, players take the role of Lewis, the leader of the Corps of Discovery, as he travels across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. The game features two different modes, Lewis and Travel, to represent different aspects of the expedition. Lewis mode will have predesigned levels where the player hunts, trades, interacts with Native Americans, and does other activities as part Lewis’s story. Travel mode will have procedurally generated levels, and players will try to move the entire Corps of Discovery through these levels while accomplishing certain goals. As the story progresses, players will have to make choices similar to the ones Lewis did. The character has the facets of Leader, Soldier, Diplomat, Scientist, and Melancholy, and decisions by the player will affect the skill level of that facet, allowing some customization of this historical character.
Remaining historically accurate is something DeBonis and Hernandez have worked hard to accomplish. They have consulted with a Lewis and Clark historian, and a tremendous amount of research has been done for the project. “I now have way more books about Lewis and Clark than I do about games! Amanda, my wife, just rolls her eyes when a package from Amazon shows up, because she knows it’s another Lewis and Clark book.”
Lewis never would have accomplished his journey on his own, and the importance of the help from everyone he met along the way cannot be overstated. Many people know about Sacagawea, but Lewis succeeded because he was able to form relationships with so many of the Native Americans he met. As part of his own research, DeBonis travelled to the Lewis and Clark trail, and on his trips he got the chance to make friends of his own. “I have met so many interesting people—all characters in their own right—that love this story and want to help us out any way they can.” DeBonis also tried to draw closer to Lewis’s original experience by trying some foods from the trail, including beaver tail.
When asked who his personal favorite character of the Lewis and Clark story is, DeBonis talks about the man who had the vision to find an all water route to the Pacific. “My favorite character is [Thomas] Jefferson,” he says. “He’s the unsung hero of this story. It could never have happened if not for him. Plus he is brilliant, creative, and interesting in so many ways. His conflicting relationship with the institution of slavery also makes him a complicated individual—he was one of the country’s leading advocates for freedom, yet he still owned many slaves. And let’s not forget his greatest contribution to our nation—he brought macaroni and cheese here from France!”
As part of the Kickstarter campaign, the Sortasoft team allowed backers to sponsor certain characters from the story, with Jefferson being just one of the options. With the campaign almost over, Jefferson, along with Lewis, Sacagawea, and Lewis’s dog, Seaman, have all been sponsored. In fact, every major character in this story has been backed, with the ironic exception of William Clark. When asked to speculate why this pivotal character has been left unsponsored by the backers, DeBonis points out that the title is Meriwether. “The game isn’t called William.”
By the time this article is published, the Meriwether Kickstarter campaign will have less than 48 hours left, and the project is now working towards its stretch goals. One of those goals includes doubling the number of scholarship copies of the game Sortasoft will donate to schools when the project is completed. DeBonis wants to be clear that Meriwether isn’t edutainment, but there are positive educational effects that can come from immersing students into a historically rich and accurate world. Backers can buy the game for $19, but with an added $6 donation a second copy of the game will be sent to an educational institution of the backer’s choice. If Meriwether can raise an additional $13,000 or so by the end of the weekend, Sortasoft will double the amount of scholarship copies it sends out.
“DeBonis and Hernandez” will likely never be the household names that “Lewis and Clark” are, but these two, along with the other members of the Meriwether team, aren’t looking for fame. They just want to make a great RPG that is rooted in historical accuracy, and they wouldn’t mind helping a lot people learn more about the incredible journey of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the entire Corps of Discovery.