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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.



How Stage Magic Influenced My Career

On Saturday night, we attended a taping of the CW television show Masters of Illusion. They tape the show five nights in a row, and then edit it all into 12 episodes that will appear in the summer. After we arrived and sat down, one of the ushers decided to relocate our party to the front row, where the cameramen did close-up shots of us to use as audience reaction shots throughout the season. Then the host, Dean Cain, who I best know as Superman in Lois And Clark, taped all twelve of his openings and closings. Later, we were surprised and excited to see our friend magician David Blatter of David and Leeman happened to be on stage that night doing their always-wonderful magic act. Toward the end of the evening, magician Naathan Phan invited me onstage to strap him into a straightjacket that he soon escaped from while singing. All in all, a magical night!

I’ve been interested in magic since childhood, when I read a biography of the magician Houdini, famous for his escapes from handcuffs, safes, and straightjackets — just like in the magic act I participated in this weekend.  At the age of ten, I took a magic class taught on weekends at the local park, and soon I was buying Harry Blackstone, Jr. and Marshall Brodien magic kits at the toy store so that I could do magic on my own.  I eventually started reading magic books and magazines so that I could construct my own apparatus, and when I saved up enough of my allowance, traveled down to Bert Wheeler’s Magic Shop in Hollywood to buy professional quality equipment.  On weekends I would put on magic shows for the neighborhood kids, accompanied by music I had recorded on a tape recorder.  My signature trick was pouring milk, flour, and the contents of an egg into an empty paper bag, and when I tore the bag open, there were cookies inside!

My interest in performing magic waned when I went into college and discovered another type of magical device — the computer — which transported me into the realm of video game development.  However, I carried forward much of what I learned about performing magic into my work as a video game designer.

Magic routines are all based around trickery — sleight of hand, hidden doors, and other forms of deception — to convince the audience that they are perceiving something other than what they are actually seeing.  This requires the magician to call the audience’s attention away from the reality of the trick and focus elsewhere so that the illusion can occur.  However, to truly engage the audience and get them to fully suspend their disbelief, the magician must also be a good storyteller — employing what magicians call “patter” — to keep the experience interesting, entertaining, and move the plot of the magic trick along.

This is something we need to do in games a well.  Games also require a willing suspension of disbelief from the player, since game designers want players to become immersed in the game, believing that the characters they are portraying and the situations they are in are real.  However, as realistic as computer graphics are becoming, there is always some trickery involved in creating that virtual reality, and game designers need to divert the player’s attention away from the flaws that break the illusion.  Good storytelling can play a part in that, focusing attention on a part of the part of the experience that is important for the players to remember, or more importantly, to perceive.

When creating a game, I am mindful of that fact that I am creating an illusion, and an imperfect one at that.  Therefore, I must use whatever tricks are at my disposal — story, dialog, music, visual effects and interaction — to convince my players that they are experiencing something more than what they are actually seeing.

Writing about this, I’m tempted to take up my magic act again. I never lost my interest in magic, and magicians always have been a part of my life.  One of the customers at the computer store I worked in was close-up magic expert Al Goshman. When When my wife and I were dating, we took a magic course together, the final class of which was held at The Magic Castle, the famous club for magicians in Hollywood.   I’ve been lucky enough to see Harry Blackstone, Jr., David Copperfield, and Penn and Teller perform live.  In fact, I once had a phone call with Penn about possibly doing a game project together when I was a producer at Disney Computer Software, but unfortunately the talks never went anywhere.  I did do a game project with filmmaker Jeff Blyth, who is also  an amateur magician, and he was kind enough to invite us one evening to the Magic Castle, where he is a member.  Now, one of my wife’s fellow high school teachers is David Blatter, who as I mentioned above, is also a member of David and Leeman, a magic team that has appeared on America’s Got Talent as well as the Masters of Illusion show we saw taped.

After posting on Facebook that I saw him perform on Saturday, David wrote back that it’s never too late for me to return to magic myself.  Perhaps I will.  Now that I’m a teacher myself at The Los Angeles Film School, maybe I can also figure out a way to incorporate magic into my classroom.  If I can get all my students to stay awake during my Game Production lectures, that would really be a trick!