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How Halloween Influenced My Career In Game Development

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, even more so than Christmas. As a child I loved dressing up in costume and going trick-or-treating. It wasn’t so much the collecting candy that I enjoyed but going out at night and visiting unfamiliar houses, which were made even more foreboding with cobwebs, skeletons, and graveyards on the lawn. It felt like I was doing something dangerous, and trick-or-treating was about as dangerous a think that this straight-and-narrow kid during his middle-class, suburban childhood.

Since I couldn’t walk amongst vampires, werewolves, and mummies every day, I developed an interest in the Universal Monster horror film franchise and watched the ghoulish adventures of Frankenstein, Dracula, and my favorite, the Wolf Man.  I begged my mom to let me stay up past midnight on Saturday nights to watch a late night horror film show on a local television program, and that introduced me to zombies, demons and other supernatural creatures.  Later on, as a teenager, I’d go to the movie theater with friends to watch films coming out of the new slasher horror film genre: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare On Elmstreet.

Of course, it wasn’t enough to be a member of the audience, I had to be an active participant in the horror genre.  No, I didn’t become a serial killer, but I did buy myself a Ouija board for contacting the Other Side and tried to hold seances.  When no one from the Other Side showed up, I built haunted house attractions in my garage and charged them a quarter to pull them on a wagon through scenes of bubbling cauldrons and simulated horror.

Eventually I moved on to college and discovered how a computer could be used for a storytelling medium.  What a perfect way to tell a horror story, I thought!  A computer was able to create an environment that was both immersive and surprising, yet do it in a way that was completely safe.  What better way to lure in my unsuspecting victims?!

Unfortunately, fantasy and science fiction were the favored genres for video games, not horror.  When I joined The Walt Disney Company as a game producer, I wanted to produce a video game based on my favorite Disneyland ride, The Haunted Mansion.  However, it was a tough sell.  Instead of recreating the “frightfully funny” experience of the ride, I wanted to explore ways to make a computer game actually frightening, just as I had experimented with my earlier game The Prisoner in making players feel trapped and manipulated.  But Disney wasn’t willing to take such risks at that time — especially not with one of their more cherished attractions, and I was never able to get the project beyond the talking stage with developers.

I found a more receptive employer for my more macabre ideas when I joined Cyberdreams, a small game publisher specializing in game developed in collaboration with famous names from the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres.  One of my first projects was to produce a sequel to the award-winning horror game Dark Seed, based on the artwork of H.R. Giger.  I put together a Dream Team of horror writers: Raymond Benson, who had designed Stephen King’s The Mist for MicroProse; Keith Herber, who had written scenarios for the H.P. Lovecraft horror RPG Call of Cthulhu (which I played quite extensively while I was at Disney) to write dialog; and horror novelist John Shirley to critique the story, which chronicled protagonist Mike Dawson’s descent into madness as he crosses from our normal world to the Giger-inspired Dark World.  Alas, the game turned out to be less than the sum of its parts, and it received mediocre reviews.

Much more successful was another game that I produced at the same time, I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, based on Harlan Ellison’s classic short story about the last five people on Earth, kept alive and psychologically tortured by a malevolent, all-power computer.  We embellish the short story by telling the backstory of each of the characters, each about such horrific topics as cannibalism, physical abuse, rape, and the Holocaust.  This game was a mishmash of science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, but it all came together somehow and went on to win many awards.

I thought I would have similar luck when we signed a deal with Wes Craven, director of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and other horror films.  He provided us with a scenario about a house that came alive, but being a very busy person, allowed us to take the concept from there.  I got as far as producing a prototype of the game to show at the 1997 Game Developers Conference,  but even though it won About Games magazine’s Bronze Medal for Interactive Fiction, Craven’s agent was not impressed and she cancelled the project.

My greatest success in the horror genre came when I joined Activision, and I was assigned to produce the in-progress development of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.  The developer, Troika Games, was behind schedule since they were using Valve’s Source Engine, which was still in development.  I managed to get the game on track, but it was so overdue that we run out of funding when it still needed a couple more weeks of polishing.  Fortunately, the fans took over with mods to fix some of the problems after it was launched, and the horror game has since been recognized as one of the best computer RPG’s of all time.

Still, I haven’t felt I had a chance to fully experiment with how to best design a game to create a frightening experience, as all of the games I produced relied more on a horrifying premise for telling their story.  Perhaps some day I’ll be given a chance to develop game mechanics that create the sensation of fear.  After all, the night is still young.

 

 

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Getting A Bad Review Is No Fun

I feel sorry for the people who worked on Warner Bro’s DC Comics films.  Man of Steel got mixed reviews for its ho-hum take on Superman, while its sequel, Batman v Superman: Down of Justice got resoundingly panned for its muddled storyline.  From its trailers, Suicide Squad, looked like it might be a winner with both a critical and box office hit, but it too is taking a beating from the critics.  Now I know that Warner Bros. did just fine at the box office will these three films, but let me tell you from personal experience, it isn’t fun getting bad reviews.

In 1995 I produced two similarly themed adventure games for Cyberdreams: one received stellar reviews, while the other received awful reviews.

The former, I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, was a video game I developed in collaboration with author Harlan Ellison. It received excellent reviews, was named Best Adventure Game of the Year by Computer Gaming World, and received the award for Best Game Adapted From Linear Media at that year’s Game Developers Conference.

The latter, Dark Seed II, was a game I developed in collaboration with artist H.R. Giger. It received terrible reviews, and one reviewer privately told our marketing director that I should be fired.

And the odd thing was, as I was developing both games — which had similar scopes, interfaces, game mechanics and even storylines — I thought Dark Seed II was turning out to be the better game.

Well, obviously it feels great to receive rave reviews and awards, and it feels terrible to be panned by the critics. But all I could do was try to figure out what went wrong (I eventually decided that the main problem was that I cast the wrong actor to do the main character’s voice — he was much too depressing, and no one wants to play a depressing character), and do better next time.

Game development is fast-paced, and by the time you’ve launched one project, you’re busy starting up the next one. There’s no time for moping.

So, don’t spend too much time licking your wounds, Warner Bros. and DC Comics.  You’ve got a big slate of films to put out.  Just one thing: you better not screw up Wonder Woman!