Shepherd, James (Ghosthunter)
One of the best memories of this year’s E3 for me was getting to meet and chat with James Shepherd of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, the lead designer of Ghosthunter. A brief conversation about the game turned into a lengthy discussion of all things horror and gaming. Thanks to the fine folks at Namco, I was able to arrange a continuance of that conversation for all of you to enjoy.
Mr. Dark: Tell us a little bit about Ghosthunter and how the project got started?
James Shepherd: Ghosthunter started 31/2 years ago with the simple statement: "Let’s do a dark, adult, horror version of Ghostbusters." We wanted to do something different in the survival horror genre, to infuse it with some of the dynamism, action, and atmospherics of our previous games, and really scare and unnerve the player.
From that initial concept I sat down with my lead artist, (Jason Wilson) and lead programmer (Julian Rex) and began to put some meat on the bones.
We are all massive horror fans so we raided a lot of horror films and books for inspiration. Now the game is finally finished I think we have come up with something truly unique that every horror fan is going to enjoy playing.
MD: You're a UK team, what lead you to set the game in Detroit? Surely there are plenty of haunted places in the British Isles that could use a good cleaning?
JS: Our previous game had been set in Victorian London, and we’d used a lot of classic gothic novels as inspiration, so we had our fill of England after that. So we kind of moved from Dracula to Freddy and Jason, so the move to America was a natural one for us. America is the home of modern horror in my eyes.
MD: Some elements of the game hearken back to Ghostbusters, but in a much more horrific way. What other cinematic or literary horror influences went into the game?
JS: Too many to go through one by one, but if you are a horror fan you will get an extra level of enjoyment spotting all the references. We always try to either take something well known and give it a twist, or bring something quite overlooked to a wider audience. The Rednecks in the haunted swamps are an example of the former just maybe they are not what they seem. (I don’t want to give too much away at this stage!) The HP Lovecraft elements in the haunted ship level an example of the latter.
MD: You set the game in a variety of classic haunted locales such as a haunted school and a haunted ship. What was the design process behind choosing those locations and setting the right tone for the game?
JS: We tried to fuse a number of elements from our favorite movies and books into a coherent whole in each level. For example, the swamps: We took the Rednecks from Deliverance threw in some Texas Chainsaw Massacre elements and then added in a bit of Pyscho. These may seem like disparate elements at first but all three have the underlying theme of civilized man out of his depth in a mad or primitive world. So under closer inspection they actually tie in very well and when combined give the player something coherent and new but with interesting horror heritage.
Three of the five realms follow these rules of construction and the remaining two were born more organically out of the needs of the story and game-play. You reach a point in a product’s development when it begins to take on a life of its own, developing its own themes and tone.
MD: How important was the horror element to you? It's an action-based game, but how important was it to you to scare the daylights out of the player?
JS: We decided early on that we didn’t merely want to gross people out. Other survival horror games already do this well and if a game lasts 15-20 hours it can get tiresome. We are always trying to push things forward so we wanted to engage the player in a more sophisticated way, to generate atmospherics where the player was genuinely unnerved, not sure what is around the next corner, and emotionally involved with the whole story.
We also wanted to be quite ambitious and elicit a number of different emotional responses from the player. The game has more in common with a TV series than a film. A good example that interested us was the stronger seasons of “The X-Files.” They would have an ongoing, and pretty dark, plot thread through the whole series, but they would still give themselves the freedom to explore different themes and tones in one-off episodes, some would even be comedic. That’s the type of structure that Ghosthunter emulates in some of the areas in the game with comedic moments as light relief to make the more horrible sections seem even darker.
Finally, structurally, horror is one of the simplest narrative genres; if there’s one thing that much horror shares it’s the protagonist’s denial of their eventual quest. (Sorry if this sounds pretentious!)
"There’s a shark eating everyone."
"No there isn’t."
"Yes there is! Look at this mangled corpse."
"No there isn’t!"
"Yes there is. It’s behind you!"
"Bloody hell your right!"
"LET’S KILL IT!"
"There’s a maniac killing everyone."
"No there isn’t."
"Yes there is! Look at this mangled corpse".
"No there isn’t!"
"Yes there is. He’s behind you!"
"Bloody hell your right!"
"LET’S KILL HIM!"
This structure doesn’t work so well in a game. In a game the player by default is a novice and has to learn the rules of the world they find themselves in. Then they have to embark on a series of challenges gradually increasing in skill as they progress. This innate structure is more aligned with the classic quest narrative than the simpler, (but appealing) horror narrative.
So Ghosthunter contains horror themes in an adventure structure. (Can you tell I am quite interested in this stuff?)
MD: Obviously with a name like Ghosthunter, there are probably quite a few nasty spirits in the game. Tell us about some of your favorite ghosts in the game and where their designs came from.
JS: The Ghost children in the Swamps are some of my favorite monsters in the game. We were trying to think about how a ghostly child would act and started looking at how children project personality into their toys. This seemed to be a good starting point so we thought maybe a ghost child would project so much personality into their toys that the toy would take over and become the monster.
So we came up with the idea that the ghost children run around clutching a toy teddy. When they feel threatened the toy grows into a teddy monster and the girl becomes a rag doll in his hands that he tries to “whack” you with.
It’s one of my favorite monster types as the psychology, design, and visuals inform how the monster behaves and should be tackled by the player.
Other favorites include the Scrap-Yard boss, the poltergeists, and the revenants, but I don’t want to give too much away at this stage.
MD: The official website has some nice little "webisodes," live-action video clips featuring encounters with some of the ghosts from the game. Where did the idea for those come from? Tell us a little about how those came about and who made them. Isn't that your voice, James, in the one with the little boy and the football?
JS: I guess they were inspired by things like Blair Witch. Originally we did a promo piece with blue spooks interacting with a live audience for an internal SONY conference. We had a fake news report with ghosts in the game interacting against live footage. Marketing liked the idea so we revised them and put them out on the web for everyone to enjoy.
Is it my voice? I’m afraid not, the standard of my acting is not as good!
MD: The plot of the game sounds like a good fit for a film. Has there been any interest in making a film based on the game? If there eventually is, give us your dream setup: director, screenwriter, lead actors, etc.
JS: I can neither confirm nor deny that scurrilous rumor. (Wink!)
My dream director would be David Fincher or Sam Raimi; I think Raimi would be my first choice as he has been scaring me since I was a kid. He has a great comic touch and a can handle scares and action in equal measure. Lazarus played by Sean Penn, (one of the best actors in America) and Astral by Jennifer Connolly. I’d script it, purely so I got to rehearse the lines with Jennifer in her trailer!
MD: Without giving away where the protagonist winds up at the end of this one, are there any thoughts of a sequel to Ghosthunter?
JS: Who knows, after nearly four years you really want to do something different in the immediate future. Also, it’s really down to you guys, the audience, if it proves to be popular, then maybe I or someone else will take up the baton and continue the story from where this one ends.
MD: Now for the important question: what are your favorite horror movies?
JS: That’s a difficult one there’s so many:
The Exorcist scared me most when I was a kid.
Evil Dead, and Blair Witch are brilliant low budget masterpieces.
In recent times the original version of The Ring and Dark Water are the only films that have made me want to hide behind the sofa again.
But my all time favorites are probably, The Thing and Halloween by John Carpenter, because both of them are master classes in immersive film direction.
Thanks to James for taking time out to chat with us about Ghosthunter. It’s always great to see people who have a deep knowledge and respect for the horror genre making games. Ghosthunter hit the U.S. on August 17th (get it here!) and you can read my review of the finished product right here. Before you get the game yourself, you should marinate in the atmosphere of the official website and dream of being surprised by a huge spook, turning to your buddy and shouting, "LET’S KILL IT!"
- Mr. Dark