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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 To Work With A Maestro of Game Music

This weekend my wife and I went to the Hollywood Bowl outdoor amphitheater to watch John Williams conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic as they played some of William’s most famous film scores, particularly the ones to the Star Wars films. Of course, light sabers were a very popular souvenir item among the audience, and Star Wars fans waved their swords in time with the rhythm as Williams conducted The Imperial March (also known as Darth Vader’s Theme). The show, called “John Williams: Maestro of the Movies” also included film clips that accompanied some of the pieces Williams performed.

We had attended William’s other performances at the Bowl several times before, but this year fellow film composer David Newman opened the show by conducting the Philharmonic as they played the scores to a number of films, including The Godfather and North By Northwest. Between a couple of the pieces Newman stopped to emphasize how important that a score serve the film in which it plays, becoming an entirely new experience from what it was on the page once it is married to the imagery of the film.

As an example, Newman explained how score composer Bernard Herrmann drew his inspiration for the film’s classic crop duster sequence from a Spanish dance called the Fandango. Because North By Northwest is essentially a chase story, the score is composed with driving, dancing rhythms. And yet, when one watches the film, one thinks not of dancing, but of the protagonist being chased headlong through the music.

Now, this blog is about video games and not films, but some music composers are maestros of both movies and game music.  Michael Giacchino, who composes many of J.J. Abrams film scores, began as a game producer for Disney Interactive, thinking he could hire himself to write music for the games he produce.  He indeed composed music for the Sega Genesis game Gargoyles, the SNES game Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow and the various console versions of The Lion King. Another composer who has worked in both the game and film industries is John Ottman, who both scores and edits many of Bryan Singer’s films, composed the soundtrack for I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream for me.

One thing that I have learned about both film and game composers is that they are hired onto a project long before the visual part of the project reaches its finished form.  The film composer needs to have the music written by the time the final edit of the film is completed, and the composer will conduct the musicians in the recording session while watching the film play onscreen.  A game composer is likewise brought onto a project long months before the game is completed, but due to the interactive nature of video games, the game experience is different for each player, and so the composer doesn’t watch someone play the game while the music is recorded. So, even more than with film music, the game composer relies on having a clear understanding from the creative team about what the final experience needs to be like.

When I start working with a music composer, I already have formed at least a preliminary idea of how many musical pieces I will need from him or her.  Usually I will want a different musical piece for each of the game’s main mechanics: exploring, building, fighting, and so on.  These need to be looping pieces that play continuously through that mechanic’s core loop.  Often I will also want variations of each piece for different settings in the game: a desert, a jungle, a city, and so on.  As David Newman illustrated in his story about the North by Northwest score, a musical genre can be used in unexpected ways to create an entirely new experienced when paired with the visual element of a movie or game, and so I typically don’t tell my composer what music genre I’m interested in.  Instead, I will explain the emotion that the piece should convey: excitement, fear, suspense, and so on, as well as the pacing and context of the game sequence in which it appears.  Sometimes the choices the composer makes for the delivered piece surprises me, but when I play it in the game sequence, it usually works.

My job as a game director and designer is to decide the experience I want the player to have, but I leave it to the music experts to figure out how to convey that experience through their compositions.  And if our visions successfully synch up, we’ll hopefully have the players perform the mechanics in time with the rhythm.