In 1994, the Wakefield-based developer and publisher Team17 revealed that it was working on a Legend of Zelda-style RPG called Witchwood. The game, which followed a young adventurer battling against an evil witch, appeared in various magazines throughout the decade, such as CU Amiga, Amiga Concept, and The Games Machine, and was being developed for PC, with other versions reportedly planned for Amiga, Playstation 1, Sega Saturn, and Atari Jaguar.
For Team17 fans, it was an exciting announcement, with players wondering what the company's take on the RPG formula might look like. But only a couple of years later, Team17 abandoned the game, offering no explanation as to what had led to this cancellation. For the longest time, information about Witchwood was rare to come by, with old screenshots and magazine articles pretty much all we had. Then, in 2012, a VHS trailer appeared online, followed by playable tech demo, and an informative video from the YouTuber Perifractic in 2019. Together these helped to give a deeper insight into what could have been but overlooked a somewhat key part of the story.
You see, contrary to popular belief, Team17 wasn't Witchwood's main developer. Instead, a much smaller company called Synergy Software (based in Fleet, Hampshire) was at the helm. Not much has been documented about this small software house in the past, but recently we were able to get in touch with two former developers, who were happy to speak to us about Witchwood and the story of its cancellation.
Like so many others in the past, we too had initially assumed that Team17 was the game's sole developer. That is until we came across a minor mention of another company named Synergy Software in PC Games magazine Issue 12. Curious to find out more about who this mysterious 'Synergy' was, we reached out to Team17 staff and searched online for information about the obscure company. This turned up a couple of names, including Colin Surridge, a programmer who worked at Synergy in the early 90s (now at Team17), and an artist named Martin Severn, who was one of its co-founders. Fortunately, both agreed to speak to us for this article.
According to Severn, he founded Synergy with his brother Andy back in 1991 after the developer Interceptor Micros closed its 8-bit budget label Players Software. This left a bunch of programmers and artists unemployed, so the idea was to form a brand-new studio to keep the team together and take on mostly work-for-hire projects from those who could afford to pay.
As Servern explains, "We formed Synergy to help the people from there. So it was my brother Andy Severn, [the artist] Pete Austin, a guy called 'Wiggs' who was there off and on, and another coder. We did a game called Mad Gadget for [The Daily Telegraph], and we also did a few other bits and bobs too."
After a few years of producing low-budget games and conversions for various publishers like Electronic Sound and Pictures and Fun Factory, Synergy eventually got the itch to take on something more ambitious. They had recently played and enjoyed The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past on the SNES and had the idea to produce a similar game for the PC in order to pitch to publishers.
There were different decision trees you could go down, so you didn't just have to push A all the time. You’d get options you could choose from. At the time, we were trying to be better than Zelda with the little things.
Surridge, who joined Synergy later, recalls, "They had released some stuff before I joined them, but I believe it was all work for others; it was that sort of company. [Witchwood], I think, might have been the first title they were actually doing themselves, that was actually based on their own idea."
The game was named after its central antagonist — a witch that had been transformed into a tree after being executed — and entered development in early '94. Among Synergy's hopes for the project was to fix some of the frustrations the team had with the console RPGs of the day. Issues like dumb AI that would constantly run into obstacles, repetitive NPCs who would spout the same line over and over, and a lack of permanence in the overworld.
Surridge explains, "[In Witchwood], there were different decision trees you could go down, so you didn't just have to push A all the time. You’d get options you could choose from. [...] At the time, we were trying to be better than Zelda with the little things. You know, the monsters would actually go around objects to get to you rather than just push against them, which is what most games did at the time. That was the sort of stuff I was writing."
As both Severn and Surridge seem to recall, Team17 initially became attached to the project during its first year of development. At a convention, the team pitched the project to Team17 co-founder Martyn Brown, who agreed to sign it. The publisher then made a bunch of announcements, with news of ports for the Amiga and other platforms subsequently being teased to the press. As both men claim, however, no work was ever done on these.
"This was definitely a PC-only game," says Surridge. "When I started it, it was only on a 286, which is why I had to basically take the sprites and convert them into code [...] because the 286 had no power at all."
Severn confirms, "We were just developing for PC at the time. I don’t even remember what our target platform was, or if it was going to be Amiga or not. It was just easy to make on the PC and then just port it across to Amiga or Atari ST or whatever we were going to go onto. So it was just done in there. We did quite a few games like that where we just developed it on the PC and then just converted it to other platforms."
A 'Very British' Legend of Zelda
While the team is extremely open about the influence The Legend of Zelda had on the project, Synergy didn't want to just copy everything outright. As a result, it planned to incorporate elements of British folklore and history into the story. According to Severn, the plot of the game would have seen a bitter witch taking her revenge on a small, provincial town after being executed by its narrow-minded villagers. Taking the form of a tree, she would come back to life to infect and mutate the land, turning the flora and fauna against the townsfolk and raising the dead.
You'd play as a hero named Pip, who would have to arm himself against these threats while venturing into the surrounding lands to drive back the witch's evil influence. Like in Dungeon Master, you'd have a classic RPG inventory to hold items, as well as shops and storefronts spread across the overworld for you to purchase new gear and upgrades. There was no design document made, but the general loop was that you'd need to travel to different sections of the overworld and then free it from the witch's curse.
"We wanted to make a Zelda game, but that was more kind of made from western eyes," Severn explains. "We wanted to pull a lot from English mythologies. So using a lot of that as the basis for a lot of the creations and the witch being a very English thing and how she worked, and the story behind her.
"You’d have to go around and kill the [boss] of each area affected by the roots to reclaim that part of the map. And as you’d slowly kill all the roots, the story would develop and you’d find out more about the witch and why she was killed, which I’m still not entirely sure why. I just remember there was a big boss fight at the end. That was super, kind of high-level, but it was all going to be based around this crazy roots system where whatever they touched it would mutate and affect things."
As revealed in leaked dialogue scripts, accessed via Beta Archive, the British influence wasn't just reserved for the central story. NPCs like the barmaid, for example, were modelled after the stereotypical "busty wench" from the Hammer Horror films with a dash of Barbara Windsor thrown in, while the voice of the baker was going to be based on the narrator of the old Mr. Kipling adverts as well as the BBC cricket commentator Richie Benaud.
At one point, to try and bring its vision of a British Zelda game to life, Synergy even hired a professional story writer to help pen the game's script, but it didn't work out as, in Surridge's words, "the guy was trying to get Pogs and things like that into it, which were relevant for the youth at that time, but not particularly relevant at all for that genre of game."
Development on Witchwood continued throughout 1994, but soon Team17 grew concerned with what it saw as a lack of progress and so it was decided in early '95 that Synergy would move into Team17's Wakefield offices to work more closely with the publisher. It was at this point, Team17 became a lot more hands-on with the project, assigning some of its own staff to help out with additional cutscenes and music.
Bjørn Lynne, a demoscene musician known as "Dr. Awesome", was one of the Team17 employees who was tasked with helping out on Witchwood. Lynne's music was primarily electronic up until this point, but according to an interview with the Norweigian magazine Tekno, he embraced working on the folk-like soundtrack, taking inspiration from a bunch of Norwegian influences, as well as a diverse set of artists that included Mike Oldfield and Clannad. Together with the prog rock guitarist Ken Senior, he produced an album's worth of material for the game, combining electric guitar and synths with acoustic instruments like the flute and recorder.
The Axe Drops
Unfortunately, Team17's assistance did little to speed up the game's production though, with feature creep and a lack of careful planning causing the development to drag. The team had built an impressive tech demo showing off a few areas including a town with a remarkable number of interiors, a huge church (modelled after Church Crookham), and some surrounding woods and farmland, but the specifics of the story and the content of the game still eluded the developers. This, combined with the sudden success of Worms, led Team17 to consider its options.
As Team17's owner Debbie Bestwick told MCV in 2015, "[...] overnight nothing mattered but Worms. We really thought we were superstars and everything we touched would turn to gold, but the reality was that a lot of money was wasted on games that were never released. These included Rollcage, Allegiance, Witchwood, P.I.G, and so many more I won’t mention."
Team17 co-founder Martyn Brown described the game with the following in a blog post from 2007, "A promising fantasy RPG that rolled on and on before it was clear that the team was never going to finish it. [...] Like a cluster of projects around that time, all suffered since Worms got all the real focus - and looking back, it's fair to see why."
You might expect the Synergy team to be heartbroken over the cancellation of the project, but those we spoke to seem to understand the problems that it was facing and the publisher's perspective.
As Surridge argues, "They had to be sensible about their resources and the project was going on and on and on. There didn’t seem to be an endpoint for [Witchwood]. It would have been very hard for us to say, ‘We’ll have it finished by this date.’ So they’ve got a choice: they can take a gamble that we will eventually finish it (and they've already brought us into the office because it was taking too long) or they can focus on the stuff that they know is going to do well and they have a lot of faith in. So I think that’s probably why they went with Worms. I even went to the managers and said, ‘This is going on a bit, you need to think hard about this’, figuring if they cancel it, then that’s me back to Basingstoke."
Severn adds, "As long as the money kept on coming in, we could have carried on making it. We didn’t have a plan; we just wanted to make a Zelda game, because we liked Zelda and you know, base it on English mythologies. We could have gone on until someone said stop, or the money ran out, then we knew we had to finish it."
Team17 dropped the axe on the project in the latter part of 1995, leading Synergy's staff to pursue other opportunities elsewhere. The coder Surridge took a full-time job at Team17, whereas Martin had already made the move to Microprose, and Andy — his brother — went on to join Codemasters. Witchwood continued to appear in magazines, including Play and PlayStation Plus throughout the early part of 1996, but behind the scenes, the game was already cancelled.
Later that same year, Team17 published another "Zelda-inspired" action RPG called The Speris Legacy for Amiga and Amiga CD32, but this had nothing to do with Witchwood's cancellation and was purely coincidental.
Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of Perifractic and Jason Scott of the Internet Archive, it's easier than ever to play Synergy's tech demo of the game for yourself. You can do so over at archive.org. We also recommend checking out Perifractic's own video for details on the cutscenes that were being developed for the game.