Origins of Ghost Master, Part One

Ghost Master 20 (1 of 3)

In 2023, the game I'm most proud of in my long and distinguished career as a game designer will be twenty years old. Although I've worked on several million-selling games, it is the more modest-selling Ghost Master that has garnered the greatest number of fans from any of my game designs - even Discworld Noir doesn't come close.

Why is this game so beloved? Firstly, and most importantly, because it is a work of collective genius - every member of the Sick Puppies development team was brilliant at what they did, and together we made something incredible. Unfortunately, the games industry being what it is, the game did not achieve commercial success - except in Poland where a then-unknown company called CD Projekt, imported the game and sold it to a young audience who grew up with an abiding love for it. Even today, nine out of ten Ghost Master fans are from Poland. But everyone who discovers this game can see it's something special, and back in the day even Wil Wright praised Ghost Master, which he thought came closest to tapping into what made The Sims great.

At the request of these fans, I'm going to attempt to tell the tale of the origins of each and every haunter in the core game over three instalments...

 

Ghostly Beginnings

Before I talk about the ghosts, I need to start with where this game began. It was born of the close working relationship that Gregg Barnett and I built working on Discworld Noir. He was my game design mentor, and I learned so much with him that when he left that company I really felt we'd failed to truly show what we could do together. But I was wrong - we had one more game together. The absolute crucial starting inspiration for Ghost Master lies in the 1980s, in just two movies: Ivan Reitman's Ghostbusters (1984) and Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988). Oh of course, there are dozens of other movies that influenced the ghosts and the hauntings in the game, but those two movies were what made this game possible. And it's all down to Gregg Barnett, frankly - he had the concept, and he handed it onto me to craft into a design. The big influence I added was - of all things! - Pokémon. I had fallen in love with the original Gameboy version of the game in 1999, and it seemed obvious to me that however Greg wanted the core gameplay to work (sim, puzzle, or RPG), we had to learn from Pokémon's incredible bestiary. Weird and wonderful things that are yours to play with - and collect. And that was baked into the design from the beginning. It's why there are so many haunters in the game - nearly fifty! You can see them all on this brilliant poster that came with the Special Edition.

Special Edition Poster

Oh, one more thing before we begin: you can always tell my film influences in a Ghost Master haunting by decoding the mortal names, which are nearly always the combination of an actor's forename or surname with their character's forename or surname. There's much to find here if you go digging!

So without further ado, let's meet some of the haunters of Ghost Master!

 

The Mission: Impossible Ghosts

I had always envisioned this game as having a Mission: Impossible style set up. No, nothing to do with Tom Cruise, everything to do with the classic 60s and 70s TV show. Every week, Peter Graves' Jim Phelps selects the files of various spies in order to decide who best to pull of the episode's implausible caper. This 'dossier scene' was part of the format of the show, and I loved it. I always wanted to get that experience into a game, and Ghost Master was the place to do it. But to make that work, you have to start with operatives to choose from - so the original team are the 'Act I Haunters', who are available on every haunting.

Boo

Boo Scooby Doo Sheet GhostThis was one of the first ghosts added to the design, and he was always pictured as one of those white sheet ghosts in Scooby Doo. Now the final design ended up more like the logo to Ghostbusters, and I put that down to Gregg's desire to develop Boo as out mascot, which grew organically out of the project. But from a design-perspective, the opening credits of Scooby Doo! Where Are You? is the origin of this little guy.

 

Cogjammer

Cogjammer Gremlin from Twilight Zone MovieMankeyIn no way was this originally intended to be an organ-grinder's monkey. Originally, the inspiration for Cogjammer was the gremlin from the Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", starring a young Bill Shatner. We actually had concept art for a monstrous version of Cogjammer based on the gremlin in the movie-version of the same story - but it was too scary. Gregg had committed to making our game a blend of cute and scary, and the concept art was too horrific. So it was recreated, and the bio for the haunter was rewritten to reflect the new look. Frankly, it ended up looking too much like Mankey from Pokémon, but that wasn't anything to do with me!

 

Ghastly

Ghastly.crop Pinhead and ButterballIf Boo grew into our mascot, Ghastly was the ghost that was supposed to be our mascot, and indeed appeared in a lot of the early promotional materials. I always thought that the inspiration for this haunter was obvious, but looking back at how he appears in the game, it might not be clear that Pinhead from Clive Barker's 1987 Hellraiser was where my head was at when I was drafting the early paperwork. Can't see the resemblance? That's because we actually ended up taking visual inspiration from another of the Cenobites in that story, Butterball. As you can see, that resemblance is much more apparent!

 

Shivers

Shivers.cropThis one is a lot less obvious! But the inspiration for this character comes from the 1990 Adrian Lyne movie Jacob's Ladder. In the film, Tim Robbin's Vietnam veteran keeps having visions of demonic entities. One of which, if I am recalling the scene correctly, is in a straight jacket, and has frenetic reality-warping convulsions. Now this may be a mix of what actually happens in the movie and my memories of it, but either way, I'm absolutely certain this is the film that inspired this ghost. It also inspired the Silent Hill franchise - and if that doesn't make it worth checking out, I don't know what would!

 

Whirlweird

WhirlweirdNo prizes for guessing that our resident Poltergeist was inspired by the 1982 Tobe Hooper movie Poltergeist that everyone mis-remembers as a Spielberg movie (he wrote the screenplay). I was struck by this film when I first saw it, and even more so (although it is a weaker film) by Brian Gibson's sequel - in fact, I'm genuinely shocked we don't have a deranged preacher haunter in Ghost Master!

 

Clatterclaws

Clatterclaws WickedCarnivalPierRThe Hordes were always one of my favourite ideas for the game! Now I never imagined them having a singular form, because they were always supposed to be, well, hordes! But pragmatically, it was easier to depict them as one thing, so this one ended up as a spider. The inspiration for Clatterclaws does come from a specific place, though, and that's Jack Clayton's 1983 film adapation of the Ray Bradbury story Something Wicked This Way Comes, starring Jonathan Pryce as the sinister Mr Dark. That story also inspired a carnival level in Ghost Master (pictured as a concept sketch, right), although it was eventually cut from the game as the geography was not ideal for our purposes.

 

Aether and Stonewall

Aether and StonewallThe Elementals were something else I was always excited about! I have loved the idea of elementals ever since reading Michael Moorcock's Elric novels as a kid (although they freaked me out). Moorcock's fantasy novels were also a key influence on Neil Gaiman, and the character of Elric of Melniboné inspired another sword-wielding albino sorcerer known as the White Wolf, Andrzej Sapkowski's Geralt of Rivia. Moorcock has been a huge influence on my career and my philosophy. Chaos Ethics is essentially a tribute to him, and the Heretic Kingdoms setting owes more to Moorcock than anyone else. I really had no visual idea how we were going to do elementals, though, I just wanted to have them!

 

Haunting 101

This was the first haunting mission in the game. I'm pretty sure I first came across the US concept of '101' as an introductory course in the Emmy-winning 1988 show TV 101. Obviously, you wouldn't think I'd need to explain such an obvious point of reference, but as a Brit, '101' is something we really don't use! There's one new haunter in this level...

Weatherwitch

Weatherwitch.crop CauldronFor some reason I want to link this ghost to the 1985 ZX Spectrum game Cauldron by Palace Software. That's probably because of all the time I spent flying around on a broom in it. But of course, the image of the witch's broomstick is pretty traditional - and I could not resist having this witch ghost trapped in a vacuum cleaner. It's the simple jokes that make me giggle.

 

Weird Séance

Obviously the name for this haunting comes from the 1985 John Hughes classic Weird Science, although the story for this haunting (about scaring off a fraternity) actually takes more inspiration from John Landis' 1978 Animal House - and I'm not sure either of those movies would get shown on TV today! Another influence here is Jeff Kanew's Revenge of the Nerds - the moral Ted Gable in this level is named for Ted McGinley's Stan Gable in that movie. There are three new haunters here...

Lucky

LuckyI have a feeling the idea for a cat Gremlin came from my co-designer Neil Bundy, who is a lifelong cat lover. That said, I've always associated cats with horror thanks to the Val Lewton-produced 1942 RKO movie Cat People, which also gave the name to the private investigator in Discworld Noir.

 

 

Wendel

Wendel-0I'm at a total loss as to why this ghost is called 'Wendel', I really am! The séance of the haunting's title, though, is between Gary Hall, Wyatt Mitchell-Smith, and Chett Paxton - which references three key characters in Weird Science, Anthony Michael Hall's Gary, Ilan Mitchell-Smith's Wyatt Donnelly, and Bill Paxton's Chet Donnelly (an actor perhaps best known as Hudson in 1986's Aliens). It's dimly possible this ghost's name is a reference to Wendell Borton in The Simpsons, but why I couldn't say. If anyone has any clue as to why we named this ghost Wendel do let me know!

 

Terroreyes

TerroreyesThe image of a brain in a jar is a long-standing one, and one that I associate most strongly with Carl Reiner's The Man with Two Brains. The 'eyes' part of this is to support the terrible pun entailed in his name (what Terry Pratchett, another mentor of mine, would have called a 'poon').

 

 

The Calamityville Horror

No prizes for guessing that this haunting was named after the classic Stuart Rosenberg film The Amityville Horror, from 1979. I had not seen this when we made the game, but Gregg had. That family is called 'Lutz' but I named this family 'Hutz' in tribute to the late great Phil Hartman's Lionel Hutz character on The Simpsons. Honestly, I think the sequel in this house was the main inspiration and we tracked backwards to this haunting because the location had to be reused. We get three new haunters...

Static

Static.crop Bill TownerI don't think this ghost had any specific inspiration, other than the idea of getting struck by lightning while up on the roof, which if it has an inspiration is probably from either Back to the Future or the 1996 BBC adaptation of Iain Bank's The Crow Road. But I note that the repairman who you call in is called Bill Ratzenberger, which is a reference to Ethan Wiley's 1987 horror movie House II, which features an amazing cameo by John Ratzenberger (Cliff in Cheers) as repairman and part-time adventurer Bill Towner. In some respects, this is the primary reason that Static exists!

Arclight

Arclight.cropJohn Carpenter's Halloween made the hockey mask scary, and I was looking for other masks that had every day origins. The welding mask seemed perfect! In the end, you mostly don't get to see the mask, but the fire powers were a lot of fun all the same!

 

 

Maxine Factor

Maxine Factor.cropThis is the single most obscure origin in the entirety of Ghost Master! The character is obviously named after a brand of make-up, but the character itself is a direct reference to the 1980s TV show thirtysomething, which as a fan of neurotic comedy-drama is actually one of my favourite TV shows of all time. There is a scene in the show between Melanie Mayron's Melissa and Poly Draper's Ellyn that takes place in a department store. They get ambushed by a pushy make-up sales woman who persuades them to have a makeover. They do, and it looks dreadful. They give each other a knowing look and then flee. The sales pitch they are given in that episode is nearly word for word the same as the one Maxine gives in Ghost Master.

 

Summoners Not Included

While the title draws upon the common phrase 'Batteries Not Included' (a reference I also used in Discworld Noir), this haunting is almost entirely inspired by Sam Raimi's 1981 low budget horror classic The Evil Dead. The characters in this haunting come directly from that film - 'Bruce Elm' breaks the usual mortal naming pattern in that I felt 'Ash' in any context was too obviously an Evil Dead reference, so I switched for another tree, but 'Bruce' is obviously after Bruce Campbell.

Raindancer and Whisperwind

Raindancer and WhisperwindAs I said above, the elementals were just a suite of spirits I wanted to get in, and mostly these haunters of the same type all look like one another.

 

 

 

Moonscream

Moonscream.crop The Cabinet of Dr CaligariThere really aren't any great movies or folklore tales about Banshees that I could use a source material, so Moonscream wasn't exactly directly inspired by anything. However, she is the wife of Dr Krauss, the insane professor of the occult who is trying to summon our big-bad future ally, the Darkling. Now this professor of the occult stuff is straight out of H.P. Lovecraft, so as I was trying to recall why Dr Krauss (Moonscream's husband and murderer) has the name he does, I assumed I'd borrowed something from the Cthulhu mythos. Only after quite a bit of digging did I finally realise that he is named after Werner Krauss who plays the sinister murderer Dr Caligari in the 1931 German silent horror movie, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari!

 

The Story Continues...

That's all the haunters in Act I of Ghost Master and the tales of their origin as far as I can tell. I'll continue with the Act II haunters next year on the twentieth anniversary of the game's first release, 23rd May 2023, and finish up with Act II next year at Halloween. Of course, I can only tell the story that I know, and I don't want to pretend that's these are the only tales... There are other stories that could be told by the studio director (Gregg Barnett), the concept artist (Nick Martinelli), the lead artists (James Ellis, Mike Philbin), the character designer (Mat Taylor), the artists (Matthew Nightingale, Jason White, Adam Ecos, and Gordon Snart), the lead animator (Darren Hatton), and the animators (Dan Zelcs, Sarah Scott, Arjun Gupte, and Simon Turner). I'd welcome anyone involved in this brilliant game, whether as a developer or even as a player, sharing their own tales about the Origins of Ghost Master in the comments here!

Happy Halloween to all Ghost Master fans, wherever you might be haunting!


Beyond Victory (Game Days 2022)

Game Days.blue text

International Hobo founder and chief consultant Chris Bateman is returning to the Game Days conference, with a keynote entitled "Beyond Victory" at 11 am on Saturday 5th November. The event takes place in the beautiful city of Košice in the Slovak Republic, and attracts game developers from all over Europe. Chris talk is described as follows:

Everybody likes to win, but not everybody is willing to endure frustration to get there. Discover ten different psychological motives that players seek - and learn how to satisfy them all.

Building on International Hobo's acclaimed '10 Player Motives' model, Chris' talk is a perfect introduction to thinking about how and why players engage with games - and what game developers can do in order to exceed the expectations of their players.

Tickets start at €20, and are available from the Game Days website.


The Beautiful Closed World of Shenmue III

This is a critique not a review. If you want my review of Shenmue III it would be 'play this game if you have ever enjoyed a Shenmue game or are interested in unusual approaches to game narrative'.

Screenshot 2022-02-26 11.59.26It takes me quite a while to get around to playing games these days, which helps insulate me from jumping to kneejerk conclusions about what I've been playing. I like to have the time to engage in a game in the way that it requires, which isn't something you can do under the time pressure inherent to reviews. Thus, earlier this year, I completed my playthrough of Ys Net's 2019 title Shenmue III. It's a remarkable achievement on many fronts, not least of which is that it managed to pick up a franchise after an absence of a decade and a half and provide a sequel that is entirely in keeping with the aesthetic achievements of its predecessors. Yet many people have complained about the time they spent with Shenmue III, in one extreme instance lamenting that "Shenmue 3 is a Terrible Game and I’ve Wasted My Life".

Gladly will I concede that, as a commercial proposition, Shenmue III has serious problems... but those problems are the ones it inherits from Shenmue itself, and as a game that was funded by a Kickstarter pledging to provide a true sequel to 2001's Shenmue II, objecting that it is too much like the games that preceded it might rather miss the point. Frankly, if the flaws in an artwork are that some people do not like it, this really isn't as knock-down an argument as it may seem. Rather, to appreciate Shenmue III we have to understand why it is the way it is, how it fulfils the promises made by its creators, and why its beautiful closed world has more to teach about game narrative than most of its critics are prepared to allow.

Yu Suzuki's Shenmue series is a work of flawed genius, and it is not for the reasons its creator claims that they stand out in the history of videogame narrative. It's originator gave the original game the clunky genre title FREE, standing for 'Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment', supposedly to show the interactivity and freedom the player would have. Well, interactivity maybe - you can indeed spend hours meaninglessly opening each compartment in every chest of drawers, for instance. But 'freedom' is precisely the opposite of what a Shenmue game is about, and it is all the better as an artwork precisely because it is really quite uninterested in the player's freedom.

Suzuki-san and his colleagues often try to paint this series of games as a precursor to the open world genre. Indeed, in the Kickstarter for Shenmue III, the text expressly tries to make this claim:

Shenmue defied all convention and created the genre that later came to be known as "open world." An unparalleled level of freedom let you chose how you wanted to play.

But this is neither true nor fair. Not only does 1999's Shenmue not foreshadow or influence the open world games of the early 21st century, what it actually does achieve is artistically far more interesting than this claim would suggest. The open world genre crystallises in the Grand Theft Auto franchise, especially after its transition into 3D models from its sprite-based roots. As I have written about before, it is the playground worlds of 1985 (which were never exported to Japan) that influenced GTA, most especially Elite, although I still suspect Paradroid has a part of this tale to tell. Suzuki-san was neither influenced by these titles nor went on to influence the open world lineage that followed.

But so what? The open world genre may have become a commercial powerhouse, and certainly contains a great many games that enjoyed both huge sales figures and critical acclaim. But the open world is a narrative dead end in many respects... brilliant, and still evolving, but also highly limiting and increasingly stagnant creatively. To get stories into open worlds, designers have to seed the huge landscapes with signposts that push to set piece encounters, a technique I have compared to 'plot origami'. From a game design perspective, this is often brilliant - both Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild have shown the immense appeal this can have when it is done well.

Yet the open world is a format that is fundamentally limited when it comes to characters. Precisely because the worlds are so large, characters either remain locked into a geographical slot they inhabit, or have to haunt the landscape as ghosts who can appear only when they need to miraculously reveal themselves to the player in order to advance the storyline. As a result, the open world's fevered desire to satisfy the player's desire to 'do anything' always risks becoming narratively flat... whatever interesting aspects of Breath of the Wild story I might have picked out in Zelda Facets, it cannot change the fact that the moment-to-moment activities the player pursues are basically a kind of bizarre subsistence hunter-gathering, collecting durians, horses, and weapons to fund the player's role as an itinerant trouble-maker.

Shenmue III is not an open world. Nor should it have been, because neither of its predecessors are either. This is most obviously apparent in the fact that each game consists of two different 'village' locations, as opposed to having 'dungeons'. This split into village and dungeon dates all the way back to the tabletop and Dungeons & Dragons, and was picked up by Ultima and Wizardry, and so spread into videogames. There are no dungeons in a Shenmue game, only villages - and each episode is about two such villages (although the second episode foreshadows the village that will feature at the start of part three). If Shenmue III were an open world game, you would be able to return to Bailu village from Niaowu. But you cannot. Once you leave Bailu village, the story has moved on and you have moved on with it. Shenmue III is a closed world.

Being a closed world affords enormous advantages for narrative in games. Precisely because an open world game features a vast landscape, the depth of conversation you can have with characters is necessarily curtailed. Open world games often do a great job hiding how shallow its cardboard cut-out characters are with lively dialogue and quips, but fundamentally every open world game saves its interesting characters for those narrative 'ghosts' who the player cannot access on demand, and populates the rest of the world with convenient stereotypes. Yes, you can run over anyone you like in Liberty City or San Andreas, and you can kill a bokoblin all over Hyrule. What you cannot do is learn anything about these characters, because they are not really characters in the literary sense at all. They are props to make the playground seem lived in, like the woman in the princess costume at Disneyland.

Precisely because it is a closed world, Shenmue III can be about place in a way that no open world game can manage. That's because human places - villages, towns, cities - are about the people that live there, whereas videogame places - inns and shops, dungeons and secret bases - are about the loot the player can steal and the advantages the player can eke out of them. To be fair, there's a little of that in Shenmue III as well - it is still a videogame after all! - but by building these games around pairs of 'villages', each Shenmue game evokes a sense of place that is rooted in the people who live in these places, and complemented by the player's character, Ryo, who is much more than just a blank slate like, say, the Master Chief. On the contrary, how much you enjoy playing Ryo will depend upon how much you are willing to become Ryo.

Screenshot 2022-03-01 15.26.47Here we come to the biggest complaint levelled against Shenmue III by its detractors: the kung fu fighting isn't good enough. But this is paradoxically not a game about kung fu fighting at all. Indeed, when you fight in the major battles, you will not use any of the skills you have practiced up until that point, because victory in these set pieces is determined by QTEs i.e. Quick Time Events, which is to say preset button sequences. Shenmue did, alas, invent the QTE, although the 1983 arcade game Dragon's Lair had already pioneered the form (and for detractors such as myself, shown how tedious it could be). If I have warmed to them over the last forty years, it is only thanks to the efforts of Shenmue... and I am still quite frosty about them.

In so much as it is about kung fu at all, Shenmue III is a game about practicing kung fu. This is not about the freedom to go and beat the living daylights out of ten thousand cardboard cutout characters creating the illusion of a city, this series is partly-yet-significantly about Ryo's restless youth gradually coming to terms with the commitment and patience required to master a martial arts. Thus the player is asked and expected, in every game in the series, to spend a significant part of their time performing repetitive actions to master the individual moves, or the elements of their form. Thus in the original Shenmue I spent a part of every day repeating sweeps and kicks, because as a game-player I wanted the advantage of levelling up those moves.

By Shenmue III, while that carrot still dangles, my engagement with the training exercises such as Horse Stance and One Inch Punch is practically meditative. Yes, as a player I am conditioned to want to complete my bars and gain higher levels. But as a visitor to this world, I am choosing to train at the dojo high in the mountain so I can watch the clouds drift lazily across the mountains as I do so, immersed in the beauty of this world which is categorically not reducible to polygon counts. So effective is the game at getting the willing collaborator into this state that it is possible, as happened to me, to be sad when the training exercises are completed, and no more points can be earned. The game has made me into Ryo, and given me the slightest taste of his impatience along with a parallel yet opposite flavour of what it means to practice a real martial art (or, for that matter, any other art): patience and commitment.

In this regard, it is a design flaw of the combat system in Shenmue III that you can assign moves to controller shortcuts and therefore execute them effortlessly. Having spent hours mastering the control inputs during sparring, we really ought to be tasked with executing those moves ourselves, not handing them off to an automated surrogate. I imagine this was a design decision intended to support weaker players, but since all the moves power up, even a button-masher who persists can get by without being able to execute the stronger moves. Letting them be triggered by an all-too-convenient shortcut control undercuts the focus upon training that suffuses the player's experience. I am almost ashamed that I made use of this feature at all, and if I play the game again, I will certainly try to avoid doing so.

Screenshot 2022-02-23 16.44.07So much is Ryo's kung fu training foregrounded in the game, that one of my favourite characters turned out to be someone who has really quite a peripheral role in the story: Su Zixiong. This jocular, overweight tai chi (taijiquan) instructor is found at the village square on the edge of Bailu village every day, training the young children in their moves. When Ryo meets him, he declares himself preposterously to be the Lu Bu of Bailu village, referencing the unbeatable warrior of the legendary Three Kingdoms era of China. Pressed on the topic, he admits to being more of the Zhang Fei of Bailu village - another legendary figure from the Three Kingdoms, and one that is a slightly more honest fit to this character, for all that it maintains a self-aggrandisement that is both harmless and charming in its excess.

Every day, I went to spar with Su Zixiong (although I think his name ought to be Zixiong Su...), even though he is a deeply minor character in the plot. My primary motivation for acquiring new move scrolls was not to learn new moves (I didn't need a wide range of moves in any Shenmue game), but to have something new to practice while sparring with my friend in town, since he declines to spar if you have nothing to learn. That I was able to form a surprisingly robust relationship with such a peripheral character could be dismissed as merely a quirk of my personality. But I do not think so. It speaks to precisely why the closed world of Shenmue III works: it is full of interesting peripheral characters, so many that whoever the player bonds with really is up to them. No open world can claim this, because the major characters are 'ghosts' who appear only when the plot requires them. Shenmue III offers a greater sense of place than almost any other game you might choose to mention.

I adored my time in Bailu village, which is among the most beautiful villages in any videogame to date, and easily my favourite settlement of the six to feature across the Shenmue series. I was literally saddened to leave, and as the plot inexorably pushed me to the point of 'have you done everything you want to do here...?' I found myself wanting to tarry longer in Bailu, to spend more time fishing her streams and lakes, to continue my training in her mountains - even though I could not, because I had acquired all the available move scrolls, and maxed out the bars for my training exercises. The game conspires through its design to force you to co-operate with its plot voluntarily, an extremely clever trick that perhaps is difficult for most gamers to appreciate.

There was another reason I did not want to leave Bailu: Shenhua's house. It is your home in Bailu for the entirety of your stay, and I found myself becoming absurdly attached to it. Not as a mere building, as I had done with the house Link purchases in Breath of the Wild, but as a genuine home. For to my surprise, I wanted to talk to Shenhua when I came home every night, even though the conversations were pointless if judged in terms of game benefit or plot advancement. As someone who has to write videogame dialogue as part of my job, I have very little patience for the so-so conversations most games have to offer. Many a time do I find myself clicking impatiently through weak dialogue. This never happened with Shenhua. I wanted to talk to her - I wanted to learn not only about her, but about Ryo through her.

One remarkable moment in my nightly discussions with my host came when I was given another strictly meaningless choice about how to respond to something Shenhua had said about her quite literally unbelievable ability to speak with animals. I made my comment, and clearly caused offense with my (and Ryo's) down-to-earth scepticism. I wanted to take it back, but I did not, not least of all because reloading the game was pointless (this conversation did not have plot consequences) and would not in fact undo the choice I had made anyway. The very fact that I even considered reloading to undo a 'meaningless' choice reveals the depth of meaning these conversations had to me.

Screenshot 2022-02-27 14.45.36The game is rather less successful with its second area, Niaowu, which although enjoyable suffers from not being able to include quite enough passers by to really capture the sense of a busy market town in rural china. Don't get me wrong, there is a great deal of character to Niaowu, with its vast array of shops - and Shenmue's signature capsule machines ("I love those!") - giving the player many corners to poke and prod. But I enjoyed learning about the herbs and plants of Bailu far more, and although you can still find these in Niaowu they have lost a certain part of their resonance in the market town, where the shops and their shopkeepers are far more crucial to the spirit of the settlement.

There is so much more I could say about the closed world - or perhaps, closed worlds, Bailu and Niaowu being quite distinct - of Shenmue III but let me close this critique with a reflection of the role that time plays in the player's experience, and the tension it reveals with the expectations of gamers. A great many players complained that you could not skip ahead, just as I know many players bitched about being forced to work the forklifts in the original game. This could not be further from the spirit of Shenmue. Just as Ryo is asked to learn patience, so is the player. While as a commercial decision, skipping time would be justified, the entire issue is parallel to the way that the quick travel of Breath of the Wild guts the brilliant horse riding of its joy and wonder. It is precisely because you will frequently have time to spare that you will find yourself playing pachinko, or dropping coins into capsule machines, fishing, or working the docks. Not out of the love of money or the other game currency, XP, but for what that XP is named after: the experience.

Likewise, those who complain that this should have been used to tie up the storyline and give players some closure are missing the point. Ys Net did not promise to conclude the story with this Kickstarter, they promised to make another Shenmue game. If this game had ended the story, they would have failed to have done so. This desire from players was in tension with the spirit of the Shenmue franchise, which is neither as swift nor as impatient as most players of games have become. On the contrary, in not only bringing back Shenmue II's delightful rogue Ren but in establishing both him and Shenhua as companions on Ryo's adventure, the game escapes the very real risk of being just a super-polite, gently paced version of Herge's intrepid boy adventurer Tintin. On the contrary, Ryo is so much more than just 'Japanese Tintin', precisely because he is Ryo.

Shenmue III invites us, once again, to become Ryo. How much you enjoy that experience depends to a great extent on how much you are willing to be Ryo, to endlessly train for fights you won't actually have, to talk and to listen to strangers who may yet become friends, and to obsessively drop coins into a capsule machine in the hope of that one rare drop. This is not, despite Suzuki-san's protestations, a game about the player's freedom, for you are not free, just as the world is not open. On the contrary, you are constrained throughout by the invitation to become Ryo, and if you accept that invitation you will find yourself in a beautiful closed world of surprisingly vivid characters who inhabit a place that transcends the usual limitation of videogame villages: the world is there for you to discover, and is not merely a pile of resources for you to loot and pillage. Ryo's adventure is not over, and even if there never will be another Shenmue game, it is inescapably appropriate that Shenmue III ends once again on 'tsuzuku' (to be continued) not 'owari' (the end). It is far more wonderful that the narrative tree that is Shenmue was given another chance to blossom.

For Jed.


Kult Post-mortem (3): From Tom Baker to Release

This originally ran in March 2014 on the website for Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms.

Tom Baker in the studio for Shadows Heretic KingdomsPreviously I told the story of the origin of the Heretic Kingdoms setting and of Kult: Heretic Kingdoms' hybrid design, which shared elements of both Western and Japanese RPGs. In this final part, I talk about one of the most fun parts of the production of this game: working with voice actor Tom Baker.

Who to Voice...

One of the consistent problems that Kult faced was how to get the most value out of its extremely modest budget, and there were distinct questions about what to do about voice recording. It wasn’t going to be possible to voice all the characters, but it was still an option to cast the main character and some of the other leading roles provided we stuck to just a few of the key conversations. But I began to think that our best chance of success was to pick one really good voice actor and have them record narration for the painted cut scenes that were our cost-effective way of advancing the narrative. Almost immediately, I wondered about the former Doctor Who, Tom Baker. He was doing voiceovers for a number of TV shows at the time (including Little Britain) and one of the people I knew who worked in voice recording was able to get a quote for the work we needed. It was, on the whole, extremely reasonable – and I knew that it would be a huge asset to the project to have Tom as narrator.

At the time, Tom was living in France but was over in London periodically to work on various projects, so we were able to book a slot with him one of the days he was in the UK. Both myself and the recording technician had to catch a train down from Manchester to London in order to get to the studio we’d booked in Soho. It was a four hour session, more than enough for the core narration of the game since it was only about 200 lines. I’d already had a fair amount of experience working with voice actors who had a background in TV and radio in Discworld Noir, which had talent like Rob Brydon, Nigel Planer, Robert Llewelyn, and the inestimable Kate Robbins, delivering lines from my script (the first one of mine to be recorded, actually).

In the Studio

Meeting Tom was a dream come true for me, but I tried to remain professional. He too was the consummate professional, and arrived with extremely insightful questions about the script and suggestions for how to get the most out of the material. I remember a discussion about the word ‘inculcated’ in the script that showed a really masterful understanding both of English as a language and also fantasy as a genre. I had absolutely no problem with him during the recording of the narration – except that periodically he would launch into an entirely random anecdote about an ex-wife, or some incident in his past, and we would have to wait patiently for him to finish. Frankly, these only added to the experience and I had neither the need nor the desire to hurry him along.

We actually completed the narrator script in good time, and so I went on to have Tom begin to record the history books for the game. This was probably a mistake... we didn’t specifically need them, and it transpired there wasn’t actually enough time to complete recording all of them anyway. It proved rather taxing on Tom to get all the awkward names and sentences in place for the history books, and in the end I cancelled this part of the recording session and called it a day. Quite a day! It’s not that often you get to work with someone you admire and see just how good at his job he really is. Listening back to the sound files afterwards was extremely satisfying, and it was clear from the reviews that going with Tom had been a great choice for the project. In fact, one reviewer made a point of praising “the voice actors” – he hadn’t even noticed that we only had one voice for the entire game! That’s the value that a really great voice actor can add to a project.

The Home Straight

All the way through, Kult had been short on time and money, and in the end we were definitely not going to be able to complete everything to the standard we would have liked. A decision was made at some point that we would focus on getting the game balance right for the main body of the game, and not worry too much about the ending. The result was that the final battles are actually really quite easy – but anyone who was hooked into the game mechanics and the story were thoroughly into the game at that point and they didn’t need a knock-you-flat end of game boss to come away having had an enjoyable experience. I’m sure other game designers would have felt it necessary to work on making the final boss a mountain to climb – but it’s not really my style. I’d rather give an interesting game experience than a vicious challenge any day of the week, although I have great respect for the difficulty involved in making a satisfying challenge. Honestly, though, there’s no shortage of challenges in videogames – but interesting experiences are a little harder to come by.

One casualty of the rush to finish was the difficulty settings: we really only balanced the game for the normal difficulty (and even then, only the first three quarters of the game). All the other difficulty levels were effectively an afterthought, and I really don’t know how satisfying they were to play – although I’m doubtful they came out well under the circumstances. Still, I figure it’s better to have the option to adjust the difficulty (even a badly balanced option) than to not have it at all, especially since it was in essence just a few changes to the parameters of the core combat mechanics.

When the game came out, I didn’t know what to expect from the reviews but in the end I was thrilled by how it was received. Of course, there were reviewers who couldn’t get past the game’s technical limitations or who didn’t see anything new in the design for whatever reason, but there were a wealth of reviews praising both the story and the attunement system. Worth Playing gave it 90% and were particularly impressed by the depth of the skill system, while Boomtown, Game Chronicles, and Gamer’s Hell gave it 80% and considered both the game mechanics and the story to be innovative. Four Fat Chicks also gave it 80% and said it was “fun, fun, fun and destined to be a sleeper hit” – which is an extremely gratifying thing to read about a game you worked on. Game Over Online and My Gamer both gave it a 78%, the former saying that it “does more new things in one game than I’ve seen in the last dozen games I’ve played combined” while the latter suggested that it “proves that innovation is alive and well”.

I’ve worked on over forty videogames at this point in my career [more like eighty now!], but there’ll always be a special place in my heart for this little EuroRPG that gave International Hobo and 3D People (now Games Farm) a chance to show that even when you don’t have a mega-budget, you can still make a game which offers an engaging experience and a memorable story if you’re just willing to take a few chances, put in the legwork, and keep believing that if you make a game with something to offer, the smart gamers will eventually find it.

Kult: Heretic Kingdoms (Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition in the US) was released in April 2005.


Park Beyond Takes the Rollercoaster to Infinity… and then Some!

PB_KA_WIP_SIMPLELAYER_1772Why put a limit on imagination? International Hobo Ltd is proud to announce the release later in 2022 of Park Beyond, a revolutionary new theme park sim game published by BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment and developed by our friends at Limbic Entertainment.

"From the very beginning, this was a special game," says Chris Bateman, ihobo's founder and chief consultant. "Limbic had a vision to create something that broke through the limitations of the traditional theme park sim, and it was a huge honour to work with them on the narrative design and the script."

François Reinold, Executive Producer for Park Beyond at Limbic, was delighted by International Hobo's involvement on the game's ambitious narrative: "Chris and his team have a real instinct for how to get the most out of videogame stories. They're also extremely responsive to the challenges of game development – from fleshing out the concept, to recording the voice talent, ihobo have been there to support us."

Limbic Entertainment develops high-quality entertainment software for the global videogame market, with highly skilled and experienced teams in game and level design, programming, and art. They focus on PC and next-generation console games developed with Unreal.

International Hobo Ltd is the award-winning creative consultancy that coined the term 'narrative design', and has a strong history of commercial success with its client's projects. In 2019, their chief consultant, Chris Bateman, was selected to be the first writer to contribute to Bloomsbury's prestigious Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. Bloomsbury also publish the second edition of the seminal textbook, Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, edited by Chris, and featuring contributions by some of the major names in games narrative.