with Jonathan Boakes
by Laura MacDonald
To gamers here in the US, Jonathan Boakes seemed to spring out of nowhere when the first news of Dark Fall hit the web. One of the most interesting things about this game is that its emergence, news and eventual sale were all handled exclusively through the internet. Not too surprising when you learn that its creator, began his career in multimedia as a digital artist and web designer. Jonathan founded the company XXv Productions to develop Dark Fall and other multimedia projects. The company web site was Dark Falls best promoter, as Jonathan was elusive regarding himself. This mysterious presence, enhanced the mystique of the project and generated a great deal of enthusiasm as the promised release date drew near. There were ghost watch cams and odd stories about the development site. Strange stories appeared on gaming sites about ghostly traces seen after watching those celebrated cams. Real? Fiction? Regardless, it had this writer enthralled! When the opportunity came to interview Jonathan, I began ferreting out what background material I could find. I was surprised at how little there was in hard copy. So, who was this man of mystery? After a chat that lasted nearly four hours - I leave it to you to decide. I think, you will be delighted to ramble through the interests and thoughts of Jonathan Boakes, an exciting and extremely gifted addition to our gaming world.
Creaaak, the door slowly opens, a dark shadow flickers along the wall, the lights dim, a haunting whisper trembles in our ears ..and here we have Jonathan Boakes.
Jonathan, I was reading some tidbits here and there about your background. I believe you are from Maidstone, England? If so, where is that and what kind of place is it?
Jonathan: Maidstone is in the heart of Kent, otherwise known as "The Garden of England". It was always known for growing fruit, and has a rolling hilly countryside. I nicked a few apples only last weekend...
Makes me hungry *grin* I notice that you also have a prior background in a digital art and related media. How did you end up being interested in the visual/digital/arts?
Jonathan: I started off, by studying photography and the history of art together. As the technology moved, I became interested in montages and then into creating images from scratch or purely digital work.
I liked your piece featured at the online NY Digital Salon. Did your work with this piece influence the style of Dark Fall?
Jonathan: Yes, that piece of work was actually a practice run for Dark Fall.
If you look at that art print you will notice that it shares the wallpaper with the upper bathroom in the game, as well as the door knob!
Aha, I will have to look more closely at that. I did see that you had a very interesting multi-media piece called Cortexa. When was that done chronologically?
Jonathan: It was about 4 years ago, and was one of my first pieces of interactive media. It involved plugging yourself into a machine, which then informed you how well your brain functioned. It was fictional, but you'd be surprised how many people believed it!
Any chance we might see it?
Jonathan: That is a possibility. It isn't copywrited with anyone, so I could include it as an extra on a future CD-Rom. I did play with what to include on the Dark Fall CD, as there was an extra 100 mgs of free space. I nearly did a concept album! The next game will most probably be on DVD. I know a lot of people don't have them, so a CD version will also be available. I am hoping to avoid the dreaded disk swapping!
Its good to hear that. Jonathan, I wanted to go back a bit and ask you about your transition from Cortexa and digital art to Dark Fall. Was it just the next logical step creatively? Or was it another project that suddenly just expanded? How did you get from A to B?
Jonathan: The transition was actually from playing adventures. I was doing web sites and interactive media for a large web company in London. Then, I suddenly found myself thinking, "couldn't I make a Myst type game using this technology? " So, I sat down to write a game. I started by creating a few small rooms, like the digital art print we talked about earlier. This was just to see how possible it was to create actual environments.
And when did you start to realize it could be more than a few rooms?
Jonathan: After the third room I created. I'd just finished playing "Inherent Evil" at the time. I was surprised at how easily it sucked me into the fiction, given that it was ancient by new game standards. Then, I started to wonder what was most important, innovation or story ?
So story won out, which I have to say, was great for us as gamers!
Jonathan: Yes it did.
About Cortexa, how would you summarize it's intent or perhaps plot lines?
Jonathan: It was a piece of fictional surgical/medical software. I like that sort of look, especially those that you see in slightly futuristic sci-fi dramas.
Ahhh, as in Sapphire and Steel/ The Avengers or perhaps The Prisoner?
Jonathan: Yes. Have you seen Sapphire and Steel?
I have seen some clips and I heard that a while back a German PC game was produced. AT least, I think it was a German company.
Jonathan: Really! I never knew that. I will have to look into it. It would make a such a great game. I think The Watchmaker touches on similar territory.
Yes, I think it does too. Is this affection for Sapphire and Steel purely as a fan or is there a connection beyond that?
Jonathan: Just a fan. I was only 8 at the time it was shown.
I have seen some of your site work associated with the show. I also saw where another S & S (Sapphire and Steel) site owner referred to you as "Mr. Poncy Site himself . *smile*
Jonathan: *laughter* Yes, that is true. The things you can find out on the internet! A fellow fan has a rival site. Mines nicer, but he'd argue that point.
He gave you tons of credit and thanks, so he obviously admires your work. Tell the truth - you guys are friends right? *smile*
Jonathan: We are currently working together on new sci-fi sites. All very naff, but laced with humour. These sites explore certain shows in minutia detail. Very "anorak" like. Which means basically sad and exposes the fact that we have far too much time on our hands! I do the sites, Richard Callahan writes the content.
About Sapphire & Steel, how much did this series influence your writing? I have to add, that in my opinion, your writing is one of Dark Falls greatest strengths.
Jonathan: Thank you! The writing, especially with characters like George, was quite exhausting. I found myself using words that I'd never even thought of. A touch of character possession? S&S did influence both my writing and my view of the world. They are existential beings and I think part of that rubbed off on me at that young age.
It just occurred to me, that perhaps the concepts of Cortexa are present as well. Is Dark Fall's story revealed much as a waking dream or memory, reconstructed from scant bits of conversations and fleeting images ?
Jonathan: Yes, It is a sort of no-mans land of existence. I was careful to make sure the setting was as much like a TV or stage set as possible. So, that it is a sort of faux reality. The game/stage idea is quite interesting. Both have a setting in which events take place and characters are introduced. The setting is always fixed too. So perhaps 'adventures' are interactive plays rather than film. I still see slide-show adventures like the next generation of "pop-up book".
I like that comparison. As I played Dark Fall, the fright factor was enhanced by the way the story seemed to logically mirror my own thinking processes. Or perhaps my thoughts started naturally following the logic of the game. Well wait, that's a scary admission isn't it? *laughter*
Jonathan: I feel like your shrink right now! Tell me about yours dreams.....
Better not, heh-heh. Back to the interview *grin*. This staged effect that you just mentioned, it does seem to give you a wide freedom for the interactive story line. I also thought the sound effects of Dark Fall were such a subtle master stroke. Any stories about how you came up with them?
Jonathan: Well, there are doors and wooden stairs, in my house, that have taken on a life of their own now. Almost famous. Well, all the sounds were recorded at home, either through props or via my mouth! The creepy Dark Fall scufflings and shrieks are not as scary when you know that I did them. So lets just say, I invited the neighborhood ghost in to do them for me! They signed the contract on the strength of my tea making skills!
Now that's a piece of ghost errata I was unaware of - So they adore tea hmmm
Jonathan: They were very fussy. Only Earl Grey would do, typical actors.
So maybe well see some possessed furniture or crockery in the next game. *grin*
Jonathan: Yes, or perhaps a whole building. I played with the idea of making a sequel to Dark Fall, where Pete Crowhurst's plans went ahead, and the new restaurant and club started to drag the place backwards in time. Given that the environment had such a period feel, like a time capsule, it would be very strange to see the same rooms transformed into "modern" decor. We would all recognize the rooms from Dark Fall, so would see through the additions in no time. Would be a strange experience!
That sounds wonderful.
Jonathan: I hope so.
*At this point we had to take a break from the interview for Jonathan to go on some unexpected errand*
PART TWO .
Nice to be chatting with you again. So what was this mysterious errand all about?
Jonathan: I had to meet with the girl who I used for the Matilda Fly and Edith Penfold voices. I needed to talk with her to find out if she was available for the next game. She is, so cool bananas! But, she is off round the world, so I'll record them first.
Ahhhh, then you are busy developing your next game. So how did you marshall your voice talent and the rest. Did you lasso school chums or friends, people at work or were they professional voice talent ?
Jonathan: No, I used two professional actors, who like the resident spook, settled for a cup of tea and experimenting with my vocals. It's amazing what you can do if you if you get into character. You still feel very silly though, until the 30th take.
Did you keep your job through all of this production?
Jonathan: No, I left the "big" web company. There are only so many false web gif banners you can make, until you realize that there is more to life. So, I worked as a chef for a Japanese Restaurant. Thats an obvious career move, not! Some of my notes for Dark Fall still have bits of sushi attached. *laughter* Carving whole Salmon was a good clinical exercise while dreaming up a ghost story, morbid, but true.
I can imagine, heh-heh So, you were slogging through great salmon carcasses and creating creepy sounds and intimidating tales the rest of the time?
Jonathan: Yes, the restaurant was an old building, 1836, and I had to lock up. So, I listened to hear what an old building had to say.
I love the sound of that. Any whisperings in the dead of night?
Jonathan: Well playing with a Halloween Ouija board was a mistake! The place hummed with the other side. But it was very educational, and great for the game. And, of course, the Sake was flowing!
I love it! The ouija board in the game was a fun touch. I suppose you have had a great deal of feedback about Dark Fall?
Jonathan: Yes, loads, which is wonderful. People email and tell me their favorite and least favorite bits. I like that. It's not just one of those ,tick the box feedback forms, you get with games, much more personal.
Anything that you considered for the next game or was the advice too generic to use?
Jonathan: A few have pointed out really obvious pitfalls and I am in regular contact with them. So, I am now working to add those suggestions to the next venture. Or maybe that should be "adventure!
Ok, Give us some teasers about your next adventure!
Jonathan: Well, the concept and script for Splinter was finished, and has been bought by a fellow London based games developer. Which freed me up for my current project... ..... Dark Fall II: Lights Out .
Oh cool! I already feel nervous. I still can't believe how timid I was about going back under the garage and some other places in your first game!
Jonathan: Those caves are odd. I really found them strange to create. The rest of the environments, although in period, are something that we can relate to. Caves are another matter. I visited some in Wales (Dan'yr Ogoff). You really touch base when you go to somewhere that primal, and full of unstated history. We know so little about them, and what on earth went on in them.
I found the caves to be the most alarming places in the game. Well that and the dark hallway with the lights.
Jonathan: Sorry about that. Couldn't resist the darkened hall. The caves, well, they threw themselves at me when I was creating the game. So, caves it was. I left you a Lantern though!!!!
Caves would seem the natural repository for "Dark" things, and ancient rituals. As for the lantern, I was so absorbed in the game I became totally dense. I forgot all about it at first. *laughs*
Jonathan: Well, caves are closer to the Mother Earth or the very fiber of our being.
Is that a clue as to the origin of the Dark Fall essence?
Jonathan: Maybe, I left the origin as unstated. I think everyone has a theory about positive and negative forces in the world. For example, X Files fans might think that the Dark Fall is extra-terrestrial.
Among gamers, there was also a great deal of speculation about the fate of the two researchers and the rest of the unwilling hotel guests. Was there a time reversal?
Jonathan: Yes, totally. The oldest recorded disappearance was Tom Oliver. His "Ballad" and woodcut vanish from the wall when you finish. So perhaps, they were all saved.
That was what I thought - but who knows for sure till we heard it from you. So, how are you doing with the business of game creation now? Are you able to devote all your efforts to it or do you still have other activities?
Jonathan: I'm busy with about 70% new adventures, and 30% web site designing. I still love doing silly web sites about nothing at all or nothing that the powers that be would think of as 'worthy'. I like those books you find in a charity shop, that have no worth and no real meaning. But, they entertain and show that people can still write about the things they care about.
Have any favorite sports?
Jonathan: Ha-ha, favorite sports? Does Ornithology count?
Depends on the breed of birds I suppose.
Jonathan: The feathered kind, not including Flamingoes. Any more Dark Fall, or Dark Fall II questions, or shall we just expose my Flamingo Shocker!!
*laugh* Well first, who is Jonathan Boakes? You know - do you like movies, do you shoot pool, did you win the spelling contest in school which led you into the sordid business of game production
Jonathan: Ok then. Here goes..... uhmmmm
You are a tough cookie you game developer dude you.
Jonathan: I am a sucker for horror, anything from the 50's shockers to horror chic like "Resident Evil", and beyond... "The Others" was a piece of genius.
So, Lovecraft was a fave then?
Jonathan: Lovecraft: I love the idea of the ancient evil beneath the surface, it is a metaphor for Victorian values. Everyone has a dark side, (use the Force Luke!!!)
Jonathan: On that subject, I have something to say about ghosts....I get slightly annoyed about the representation of ghosts in modern media, where the granny we knew in life suddenly becomes all evil in death, very silly. The dead should have as much respect in death, as they had in life.
Oh I agree, I think it is an odd notion that spirits are automatically evil.
Jonathan: We can only guess by experimentation that some ghosts are violent, as they have a real reason to get them noticed. Once they have "said their bit", they depart. Don't we do exactly the same as we "the living". Take Matilda Fly from Dark Fall. She had bad reviews, left London in a rage and was taken by the "Darkness". She was the most arrogant of all the ghosts.
In Dark Fall, which of the characters did you most personally identify with?
Jonathan: George Crabtree. His scattered notes became like a metaphor for the production. It was like I was leaving notes for you all to read, but only George could talk of the "work" and the "beyond" which we both sought.
Ahh makes sense. So, have you ever had any ghostly encounters?
Jonathan: Yes, I have. But mostly heard them. Full conversations in fact. I just didn't know it at the time!!!! I also think that wars, for example, seem to be ripe for hauntings. Which was something explored in Sapphire and Steel. Although, you'll notice that Arthur didn't appear as a ghost in Dark Fall, though he was killed in a war. My experiences were always in, or converted to, domestic environments. Maybe the new conflicts with the old, almost like a trigger for an appearance.
Ahh that stands to reason. So, if you had the chance, would you want to be a ghost and stick around?
Jonathan: No, not if it was for a bad reason.
Well assuming you had a normal passing, so to speak.
Jonathan: If I was helping someone close to me or even someone that needed me, I would stick around in limbo till the cows come home.
I like that idea. I was wondering about your family and friends response to the publishing of Dark Fall. Was it a happy surprise or more of a we knew you would do it all along kind of response?
Jonathan: Well, I've done quite a few "big things" to impress family. They are quite an impressive bunch anyway. Especially my Mother, who was a Shakespearean actress in the UK. So, in her opinion I am still somewhat playing with toys. *grin*
Oh well - Shakespeare is rather hard to top. So she was an actress - stage or screen?
Jonathan: Stage, and "retired" now. She does love her adventures though and thought "Titanic : Adventure out of time" a joy. For myself, I suppose there was always a push, early in life, to "do something". I hope I've started on that. Of course, there are certain aspects that will never be taken seriously. My family is a VERY mixed bunch.
Your family sounds great! I saw your web piece about Fassett square. It seems you are somewhat of a local historian then?
Jonathan: I am interested in history wherever I find it. The family is from Scunthorpe, Wales and Cornwall. The family followed the mining industry across the country. It killed most of the male members, so thankfully I can work in something slightly less terminal. Though, I do call upon their history and work to include in new fiction. I also have a good qualification in Critical Studies in Art and Design, so my teachers can pat themselves on the back. A lot I did from memory, and I picked up some of my notes along the way.
Dark Fall did have that internal authenticity to it. Lets get back to Dark Fall 2: Lights Out. Will we see any old familiar characters in the sequel? I can call it a sequel can't I?
Jonathan: Yes, it is definitely a sequel, but in a new setting, with new characters. There are three Edwardian characters, in a lonely outpost, which was a life saver for those at sea......Thats a big clue!
Oh cool a light house -
Jonathan: No comment...heh-heh Theres also time travel, history, a good story, an ancient evil, and oodles of atmosphere!!!!
So, do we have some human greed or frailty causing the opening of a doorway into the nether regions of time and space that should never have been opened?
Jonathan: Maybe just technology itself.
Ahhh, the truly modern evil, well, according to Tolkein.
Jonathan: Very true. Tolkein is my bible.
I do hope you are planning a new medley of sound effects to have us leaping for the light switches.
Jonathan: Of course. I'll have to find some new stairs, doors and clanks to record!
Any people sending you sound effect samples or suggesting them?
Jonathan: How flattering!!!! Not.
So, I should tell folks - Don't send Jonathan weird sounds!
Jonathan: Well, they can if they like, but I might be alarmed. Heh-heh
Any parting advice for others who might think of developing their own game?
Jonathan: Keep with it. It is a hard process, with many twists and turns. Stick with your original idea, and don't let others tell you that "it would be more popular if", it wouldn't be your own game anymore, it would be a McAdventuregame.
Any kisses for the readers/gamers out there?
Jonathan: Yeah!!!!!!!!!!! Loads!!!!!
Thank you, Jonathan! This has been a fun and very interesting journey through the mind and creative ideas of Jonathan Boakes. Now I will just wait in happy anticipation with the rest of you and see what surprises and chills Jonathan has planned for us in Dark Fall II: Lights Out!
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