Saw II: Flesh & Blood - Interview with John Williamson, Producer/Designer, Zombie, Inc
Some films lend themselves to video games very well. Some do not. You won't see Piranha 3D: The Game anytime soon, where you dodged dismembered penises as they fly at your screen. (No matter how much Uncle Creepy would enjoy that.) Saw, however, was an obvious match. Puzzles, mysteries, gore, all the good things in gaming except rocket launchers.
When the first game was released last year, some of us enjoyed it (Saw: The Video Game (review here)) but I just didn't get into it. The combat drove me nuts. It felt like a good puzzle/adventure game had a survival horror melee combat engine slapped on top of it at the last minute. Then, word of a sequel hit. Would they learn from the past, or fall into the trap of so many games based on films and just churn out more of the same hoping the license sells copies?
When the opportunity to speak with Producer and Designer John Williamson from Zombie, Inc about the upcoming sequel, I was anxious to ask him about those flaws, and also what was to come from the fledgling game franchise. I have to admit, I liked what I heard.
DC: Give us the background on the new game. What's the story this time around?
JW: SAW II: Flesh and Blood takes place immediately after the first SAW game, still in between SAW 1 and 2 in the film franchise. The game is called "Flesh and Blood", both because there is flesh and blood, AKA gore, but also because you play the role of Detective Tapp's son, his own Flesh and Blood. Jigsaw has set out to help Tapp's estranged son find his way home, as it were. If you remember, Jigsaw's motivation came from his own flesh and blood...
DC: In the first game, you filled in some blanks left by the first film with Detective Tapp. Saw ended, and we never saw him again, only heard he was dead in a later film. You took him and wrapped an entire story around his fate. Is that the goal with the new Saw game, to flesh out something left behind by the films?
JW: I have always been fortunate in doing Licensed IP/Movie games. I've always been able to make games that expand on the franchise, not just replay the film. The SAW universe is very deep and very broad and we have been able expand on that. We wanted to take characters from the movies and tell more about them, add in our own characters and expand the franchise.
DC: How much contact do you have with the forces behind the films? Do you have to run your work past them to make sure you don't interfere with 'canon'? Do they influence your plot developments or add to the storytelling?
JW: On the first SAW game we spent a great deal of time with James (Wan) and Leigh (Whannell), both in Seattle and down in LA, and even in San Diego at Comicon. Tobin Bell also added his unique style to our script in both SAW games. He read over our lines, posed for our reference photos, even helped with re-writes. He was an amazing resource and always a joy to work with. Lionsgate made sure we stayed true to the franchise overall and specific aspects of the canon.
DC: Has anyone from the franchise been involved with Flesh and Blood? Is Tobin Bell back?
JW: Tobin Bell is back and bigger and badder than ever. Not only does he voice the Billy Puppet, but his likeness is on screen as well. (see attached photo). Tobin, once again, spent a great deal of time going over our script, offering suggestions and corrections to ensure that we kept the game as true to his character as all the movies have been. He was a consummate professional, always on time, always prepared, always open to re-takes. We spent a great deal of time talking not only about the game, but about our children, trading stories. As it turns out, we both coach our kid’s sports teams. He also gave me some insight, critiques and feedback on some other projects I am shopping down in LA.
And of course the folks at Lionsgate go over our game, our traps, and our script to make sure we stay true to their canon from the films. Konami also makes use of their years of successful horror franchise development, offering suggestions and tweaks.
DC: You used Unreal technology for the first game. Are you making changes to the technical side of the game engine for this outing?
JW: We are using the latest version of Unreal 3 this time around. The biggest difference will be in their new Lightmass technlogy. The lighting and shadows in SAW II: Flesh and Blood will supersede those in the first SAW game. Unreal Lightmass, a new global illumination solver, produces high-quality static lighting with next-generation effects, including soft shadows with accurate penumbrae; diffuse and specular interreflection and color bleeding. The result is higher quality lighting. Spookier shadows, more ominous pools of light leading you onward.
DC: The first game was focused on storytelling and puzzles, but had a combat component that felt a little less than complete to this writer and some others. What's the balance between puzzles and combat for this game, and have you made any changes to the combat mechanic this time around?
JW: We added to everything that people liked in the first game (story, puzzles) and we revised the things that people didn't care for so much (combat, replayability). In SAW II: Flesh and Blood, we again have a great story, one that intertwines characters from the SAW films, the first SAW game, and new characters. It starts with a bang and ends with a twist.
Nearly every single puzzle in the game is brand new. There are actually more of them and in greater diversity than in the first SAW game. We made sure to provide more feedback to each puzzle in terms of animation, audio and FX. Also, the puzzles grow in complexity without simply growing in size.
We have added more replayability. To see both endings, you can't just replay the last five minutes of the game. This time around, how you end the very first level of the game decides what ending you will see. So to see both endings, you will need to play through the game twice. But to make those play-throughs more worthwhile, we included far more collectibles this time around to keep you busy if you play through the game twice. There are more case files to fill in the back-story of the characters and the world, more audio tapes left by Jigsaw, puzzle pieces to find, and a Billy Puppet hidden in each level. To get each Billy Puppet, first you need to find the room, and then you need to solve the puzzle. Each of the puzzles fit within the Jigsaw paradigm, he gives you a clue, but you need to really pay attention to what he is really saying to solve it. Each of these Billy Puppets are not in the critical path of the game, so they aren't required, but they are the more challenging puzzles for those who wanted the game to be more difficulty. Even these don't require a visit to Wikipedia, they aren't obscure, they just require you to look at the problem differently. The team did an amazing job with these. Each one, when you solve it, you will go "aha! that's so obvious now!"
Combat has been completely revamped. We have a new animation team and a new tech set and it shows. There are two types of combat: Logic Based and Direct.
In logic based combat, you have to solve a puzzle to defeat your opponent. As it is SAW, Jigsaw will provide you with a clue or two on how to do this. In Logic Based combat, you cannot win by fighting. There are some enemies that you can’t defeat by beating them with a club/bat/axe. To get past those enemies you need to evade/run away or use the environment, or a combination of both. The team did an amazing job to add variety into these situations, but they are all clear to the user when you need to run and when you need to fight. You must use the environment if you are to progress to your next test.
Direct Combat is designed to be fast paced and visceral this time around. Built around quick time events, two men enter, one man leaves. You only get the QTE prompts when you can fight, and Jigsaw gives you some clues as well. In the Direct Combat, the only way to win is via the QTE's.
Of course we still have lots of Jigsaw traps for his test subjects....those remain the mini bosses of each level, if you will.
DC: Are there any elements of the films, be they characters or traps, that you haven't used so far that you'd like to get your hands on?
JW: Dr. Gordon is at the top of our lists to explore. He was actually in an early version of the first SAW game, but Lionsgate had plans for him of their own...
DC: The current word is that the upcoming 3D film will be the end of the series. Are you and your studio interested in taking the world of Saw beyond the films into new territory?
JW: Chris Harding and I have a story outline for a SAW 3 game, but it all comes down to sales. SAW 1 sold very well, so we had the opportunity to do Flesh & Blood. There are so many more stories to tell about Jigsaw and his subjects, we could go on for years. On the subject of 3D, we had SAW II running in 3D on the Nvidia 3D Vision system on the PC. It worked pretty well.
DC: My traditional last question: what's your favorite horror movie?
JW: I'm going to have to cheat and list three.
Jaws: for two reasons. 1. It shows that sometimes having limits put on us force us to be more creative. I don't think they movie would have been as scary if the robo shark had worked the way it was supposed to. The fact that it was so broken really forced the crew to tweak the story so that the shark was revealed in bits and pieces. I think every film maker can learn from that. 2. It scared the crap out of me! To this day, I can't be in a large body of water, whether I'm kayaking, sailing, swimming or SCUBA diving, and not think there's something down below me.
Aliens: Thanks to an amazing script and cast, that movie has the most fully realized ensemble cast with the fewest lines ever. Every Marine is a real, unique, different character with depth. I have never seen a movie before or since able to pull that off. And it, too, scared me to death.
Imaginary Friend: This is a movie I'm making with my 8 year old daughter. It is shot documentary style, sort of Paranormal Activity meets The Strangers. Things start to go wrong around our house, my daughter blames it on her imaginary friend, I set up cameras to try and prove to her that there is no such thing, ... and all hell breaks loose. Even if the only people who ever see it are our relatives, it is one of my all time favorite creative endeavors, we are having such a blast making it together.
Thanks to John for taking the time to speak with me, and for giving us a great deal of hope on the new Saw game, Flesh & Blood. Completely redone combat system? Emphasis on puzzles? More Jigsaw? I didn't expect to say this, but now I'm really looking forward to playing this one!
Saw II: Flesh & Blood will be released in North America, as will the seventh installment of the Saw film franchise in 3D, which is expected to hit theaters nationwide this Halloween. For more information about the game, please visit Konami online.
- Mr. Dark
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