DARK FALL: LIGHTS OUT - AN INTERVIEW WITH DEVELOPER JONATHAN BOAKES
By Becky Waxman
Jonathan Boakes’s career is one that those of us at GameBoomers have been following with great interest over the years. Starting out as an independent developer -- and posting frequently on GameBoomers -- his wit and gentle charm impressed us all. Then we played his first game, Dark Fall: The Journal. It is difficult to describe the nuances of terror experienced by those who innocently played this game. How did he do it? Where within his gentle soul did all that darkness originate?
Fast forward to 2004, and Jonathan Boakes has a new game that has recently been released by The Adventure Company: Dark Fall: Lights Out.
We talked with Jonathan recently to try to get some insight into the way his mind worked as he designed the Dark Fall games. We hoped to catch a glimpse of the creative process as it unfolded after the release of Dark Fall: The Journal, and leading up to the launch of the Dark Fall: Lights Out.
There were some wild theories posted on the forums, a while back, that I was 'inviting darkness' into the structure of the Dark Fall games. If this is true, I have no idea how I accomplished it! Although, I must admit that the weird, demonic chanting, ritual sacrifices to the pagan gods and endless cups of tea may have contributed to any gothic ideas I have.
Seriously though, I would imagine the sound design is responsible for the extra spook factor. A huge cast of tonal rhythms, everyday sounds and ghostly whispers were employed to add layers of aural flesh to the imagery. I also re-employed the use of silence, as I did with the first game. These silent moments (in real-life they can be almost deafening) result in the player being more aware of the sounds around them, so even the quietest breeze or creak could result in the gamer wondering "was that the game, or is there something in the room with me?"
Stranger still, several
people reported their own television sets switching on while
reading the ghost story "The Mourning Bride of Bodmin Moor,” (which is
included within one of the spookier rooms in the lighthouse setting). I
wrote the story myself, but based the events on a Cornish folktale. So,
perhaps there is good reason to think there is more to the tale than just
myth. It is romantic to ponder whether the "Bride,” or her ghostly lover,
are trying to tell us something.
Interesting question. I wouldn't say that suspense can only be manifested by 'ordinary environments,’ definitely not. Great sci-fi films like "Alien" and games such as "System Shock 2" prove that fantastical places can be just as atmospheric/scary as a recognizable setting. Presenting a creepy environment in our time, and using almost everyday settings, does allow the players to imagine themselves inside the game-world, with greater ease.
What best prepares you for becoming a game designer/spooky-man -- your own personal experiences, or your imagination?
I call upon a lot of influences when writing and creating the games. These influences are a mixed bag, which include books like "A Warning to the Curious" to television like "Sapphire and Steel,” or The Stone Tape. Good, solid, works of fiction created before post-modernism became fashionable in popular culture. I have nothing against having fun with the genre, but a true scare can only be achieved when presented as seriously as possible. The above two links lead to pages I've created for the "Lights Out" website, and I talk a little about their influence.
Beyond those examples, I do have personal experience to draw upon. There have been a few scary occasions when I believe I may have encountered the supernatural firsthand. When managing a bar, in Central London, both the staff and me were harassed by an entity we named "George.” Clanking pipes, exploding lightbulbs, sudden power cuts and echoing voices were amongst the initial supernatural activities, but there were scarier times ahead. The month of November, 1998, saw people being locked in rooms with no door handle or locking mechanism, a plague of rats and myself being electrocuted by cooking equipment. The latter may not seem so strange, until that is, I mention that it wasn't connected to the main socket. A very strange business.
Unlike some other adventure game designers, you've played a lot of adventure games (there's a long list on the Dark Fall website). How have your gaming experiences influenced your decisions as a designer? Was one game in particular influential? Do you think it is possible to create a great adventure game if you've played only one or two of them?
Yes Of course, because it would depend which two you played! There have been some absolute stinkers, but mostly the genre has plenty to offer in terms of guidance and inspiration. Even the poorer titles can suggest how not to do things.
I've talked, before, about the Myst games triggering my love of adventures, and the independent titles suggesting that game production was a viable enterprise. It's great to see, in 2004, more independent titles in production than I care to remember. I have also noticed a change in the way the games are viewed by the industry, at large. Adventure games are finally being recognized as a healthy (if small) niche market, with some good press feedback and sympathetic reviews. Having said that, there are still a few small minded reviewers who are convinced that adventure games are made by delusional wannabes, with no market.
Of the games I have played recently, I would say that 50% were 'classic' adventure games. So, apart from my continued love affair with Morrowind (lovely writing, and amazing realtime world to explore) I have been dipping into newer titles like Jack The Ripper, Mysterious Journey 2 and Crystal Key 2. "Jack" was good fun, and exhibited some lovely technical flourishes. I am afraid to admit that I gave up on Mysterious Journeys 2, after a short while. The worlds looked lovely, but I lost interest upon encountering Cabbage Cannons and glorified slider puzzles. It's a game that I would like to go back to, but it didn't grab me straight off. Crystal Key 2 was campy fun, and hoots of laughter were heard emanating from XXv Towers during certain scenes. A certain 'squirrel ride' will stay in memory for some time to come.
When you are creating ghostly beings, what remnant of a person are you trying to portray/reveal? Intelligence? Emotions? Personality?
All three. I don’t buy the idea of people turning evil, or spiteful, in death. So, my main aim is to portray the ghosts as disorientated souls, who try to offer advice, or clues the best way they can. Occasionally some will warn you to stop your meddling and turn back, if only to save you from the same fate. More often than not, I believe ghosts are attempting to relay some form of message, or warn of an impending crisis. Some continue their 'life' on earth, as they have something to prove, or to right a wrong. I find that quite poignant, and rather sad. Perhaps these souls are trapped in limbo until their deed is done, and they rely on the living to prove their case. So, it must be very frustrating to find that the living run away screaming each time they make the effort.
In the case of "Lights Out" I worked backwards. I knew what the ending would be, and then proceeded to fill in the back-story. A timeline was drawn up, and fleshed out using elements from known history. This timeline includes the first inhabitants of the Cornish Islands through to the not too distant future, taking in The Spanish Armada, the construction of first brick lighthouses and the Second World War. Once the timeline looked solid, I plucked out eras which appealed to me as a writer. I have always found "The Ballad of Flannan Isle" (By Wilfred Gibson) hugely enticing, with its missing lighthouse keepers and lonely lighthouse. As far as true stories go, this one is the biz! Great location, creepy event and a nice era in British history. So, it was hard to resist not including the story as the central premise behind the game. So, this is why the game begins in 1912, rather than 2004. Of course, that's not to say you stay in that era for long.
That's a tricky one. Some of the puzzles included in "Lights Out" are integrated in such a way as to not appear as classic puzzles. I wished to create a more organic experience, which involved solving important key moments naturally, rather than being conscious of problem solving. As well as these 'invisible' puzzles, I also included some good 'ole trial and error and combination puzzles. Getting the balance right was very difficult, but overall I believe the game offers something for puzzle lovers and explorers alike.
I wanted characters in "Lights Out" for dramatic purposes, and suggest chapter headings. I enjoy writing for characters, so it was great to bring them to life through visuals. It was quite important, for me, that you never saw the 'whole' character, so that they would retain some mystery.
The open environments were a construction nightmare. Each object, stone and cloud had to be created from scratch, so the production time rocketed. I enjoyed the newfound freedom of photography, but my work machine struggled to cope. I don’t think it has forgiven me, yet.
Why did you choose a more subtle color palette for Dark Fall: Lights Out than in the original Dark Fall?
The palette shifts throughout the second game, with each color mix suggesting a different era and mood. 1912 has a dusty, Edwardian feel, which was influenced by viewing hand-painted photographs from the time. It is a very distinctive look, which was accomplished by using a very strict color scheme.
2004 is very different, with purples and reds on display. A slightly plastic look was employed to present the 'tourist attraction' era. I'm not a huge fan of how history is presented commercially, as it tends to be sensationalist and over simplified. A colorful, sometimes garish, color scheme suggests the clumsy presentation of the Fetch Rock Lighthouse in 2004.
Shadows and reflections are often overlooked in 3D production, which is a shame. These visual elements can act as secret areas, beyond the more obvious structures. There is no rule that states all areas of an environment have to be lit, so dark corners can present form and substance. Reflective walls (like a lighthouse lamp gallery), present a kaleidoscope effect. There is a fragmented and splintered story line at work in "Lights" out, so this effect is a fitting visual metaphor.
Superstition suggests you can communicate with the dead via reflections, and the reflected world is explored in pagan mythology. Sacred tokens were offered to the waterways and lakes of Europe. The thought being that the reflected world is a real place, which exists alongside our own. The lighthouse of 1912 often fuses with the lighthouse of 2004, with the two environments sharing their secret history. So, both are a reflection of each other.
Visual material was needed for the tourist attraction information boards, and TV sets, so I had fun photographing the Cornish coast and surrounding area. As well as the illustrative material, there was also the daunting task of photographing enough 'textures' to bring a 3D world to life. A texture is a photograph applied to a 3D model, or 'mesh,’ which suggests texture and form. These textures can be created artificially, but the best results are achieved through using real surfaces. The rocks, woods and metals featured in "Lights Out" are (more often than not) real surfaces from the coastline where the game is set. This is an aspect I find very exciting. Long after a metal has rusted, or a wood had rotten to dust, the game will present the objects as they once were. There is something very surreal about preserving items as 3D objects, frozen as bytes and unable to degrade.
I always draw up a character sheet for each actor, which goes into detail regarding what sort of person I am asking them to play. So, details could include their favorite food or holiday destination, or favorite ghost-hunting locale! It helps the actor visualize who this person is, and what their voice should sound like.
I also like to have fun when recording the vocals. Game design, and acting, are stressful tasks, which can be made easier with the application of a little humor. I don’t use professional actors (yet), so rely on the generosity of friends and family. It is important to make sure people feel comfortable with the dialogue, and understand what emotion they are portraying. I am open to actors changing the script to suit their own vocabulary, which also puts people at ease.
What do you think about subtitles in games? Do they take away from the immersive aspect of a game that's supposed to tantalize and terrify?
Yes, subtitles do distract the player. I've noticed, while playing, that I read on-screen subtitles regardless of whether I can understand the dialogue or not. So, if possible, they are always switched off during my play sessions. Obviously, those who have trouble hearing need subtitles to play a game with dialogue, so that option would normally be left open.
Would I make games outside of point and click? Yes, I would. The 'classic' interface and mechanics suited the Dark Fall games (where I was suggesting an unease of turning around), but I would move onto realtime 3D, should the story suggest it. I've built a couple of levels for Unreal Tournament 2004, and have started experimenting with The Elder Scrolls Construction Set. I would love to use that engine sometime in the future, but the material would have to reflect the change of pace that realtime engines provide. There is something very leisurely about trusting a developer to provide the views of a game world for you, and this in turns reflects the pace at which the gamer explores. Realtime, more often than not, suggests urgency of exploration. Maybe I get this feeling from playing FPSs, so this feeling may not be shared by those who have avoided them.
Could you give an example of very helpful fan feedback?
It depends what you mean by 'fan.’ Some fans are also reviewers, and they often email with extra comments, which have not been included in the official review. I always find that information valuable, as it is constructive criticism. A good example would be a criticism that the strict 90 degree camera movement featured in Dark Fall 1 resulted in the rooms feeling a little samey. So, when I approached "Lights Out" I used the camera to suggest more about the environments, through the use of angles, depth of field and perspective.
Has the role of Independent Developers changed since you self-published the original Dark Fall? How important are adventure gaming sites like GameBoomers to the success of Indie games?
Absolutely vital. It was the support and dedication of the players and moderators that helped Dark Fall spread from a fan project, and ascend to commercial success. Word of mouth meant that the game found new avenues and interest across the globe. You have to remember that I was making a game for fun, almost personal reasons. I never envisaged an audience or fanbase, or made any efforts to find one. As far as I was concerned, point and click was a dead genre, as no new games had been released in the UK for an age. I was unaware of DreamCatcher, or the many titles they had on offer. A dedicated, and charming, gamer/moderator (MacDee) approached me via email and asked if I wanted to join the GameBoomers Adventure Forum. At the time, I had never bought a game from the US, let alone sold one! So, a very fast, and wonderful journey began. I discovered a true cornucopia of new games, and have met some wonderful people. In turn, I was able to promote the game via the forum and offer technical support and feedback. I truly believe that without that opportunity the Dark Fall games would still be sitting on my PC, and not on shelves across the globe.
Yes, but not for a little
while. I feel a little guilty about leaving the spooks alone, but I am
sure they will use the time constructively, building devious puzzles and
playing havoc with the décor. I am sure Andrew Verney has drained the bar
of all possible alcoholic substances, Betty Penfold has moved on from the
trumpet, George Crabtree has found another dark sinister secret and Edith
has cooked up a foul smelling brew made with pigs trotters. Beyond the
regular inhabitants, Slyfox is still robbing the banks of Old London Town,
and Matilda Fly has reappeared on the well-trodden boards of Theatre Land.
The characters still have stories to tell, and I am rather looking forward
to illustrating them.
As well as expanding upon the theory, in the next game, I would like to explore the possibility that it is our own personal energies that trigger the replay. Many people often feel as if they have been to a location, even though it is impossible. Perhaps they are drawing upon the energy of those who once existed there, or are encountering some form of past life regression. It is romantic, and personal, to believe that the world around us stores our actions, and we can tap into that in future incarnations. We could, effectively, learn from our past mistakes.
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