Origins of Ghost Master, Part Two
Tuesday, 23 May 2023
Today is the twentieth anniversary of the release of Ghost Master. Of all my hundreds of game projects, this is still the title where I am most proud of the game design, the project where I beam with pride when I think of the incredible team and the contributions everyone made to make such a memorable and unique experience. Destiny was stacked against the game, but it did not pass unnoticed, and to this day I am forever discovering new fans who played - and loved - this extraordinary haunting simulator that entered our world on the 23rd May 2003.
In Origins of Ghost Master, Part One, I went through all the haunters from Act I of the game, what influenced them and where they came from. In this second part I will do the same for Act III, and then on Halloween this year I'll complete the series with the haunters for the final Act. These articles are my thank you to all the fans who kept the faith with this game over the two decades since it was released. It means a great deal to me that this very special game has burned in your hearts, and has lingered on in the memories of its players with a spooky afterlife.
At the start of Act II, the player is gifted three new haunters. Why? It's not that the player is short of fiends and familiars at this point, it's that we cut certain hauntings from the game, and as a result we ended up with some orphans who had nowhere to go. Rather than cut from the game entirely (which would have been silly since they were already animated!) I suggested to Gregg Barnett, who was in charge of development, we could just give them to the player at an Act boundary. And so it was!
Part of my original plan for the game was to have certain mortals who would appear alive in one haunting, then die and appear as a ghost later. However, this presented technical problems since it meant a different model for the mortal and for the haunter, which wasn't good for our pipeline. As a result, this whole idea fell out, and with it a trilogy of hauntings sent in an old mansion - "The Uninvited", "Where There's a Will..." and "The Butler Didn't Do It".
The key character of this was Old Man Carter, whose faithful bloodhound Buck was so loyal to him that he dies soon after Carter does. While I can put quite a bit of detail into how Carter comes about (and will do in the final part this Halloween), Buck himself was inspired by classic tales of the loyal dog who gives up the ghost (so to speak) to join their master in death. I think I might have been partly influenced by the US ghost story of the Blue Ghost Dog, about a blue tick hound belonging to Charles Thomas Sims. However, a large part of my motivation was to find another way of mounting the concept of a Horde (which attacks with a horde of specific creatures) and a flea-bitten dog really appealed to me for this.
Another refugee from "The Uninvited", the name 'Hypnos' comes straight from H.P. Lovecraft (and "The Univited"" is also a play on Lovecraft's "The Unnameable"). That story features a sculptor who is afraid to fall asleep because of the horror he might find there, where the Greek god of sleep appears as a mercurial being in dreams.
A little influence from Gaiman's comic The Sandman was going on in my mind here, and Hypnos was going to be stuck in an hourglass (playing on the sand theme, as indeed Gaiman does in the comics). However, our concept designer Nick Martinelli was given a free hand on this and came up with a design inspired by a 1781 paintings by Henry Fuseli called "The Nightmare". Honestly, I would have renamed this ghost 'Nightmare' if I'd been on the ball - or perhaps 'Hipnos' (to play on the prefix 'hippo-' meaning 'equine'). But regardless, she stayed as Hypnos.
Another refugee from "The Uninvited", Quiver's appearance was partly inspired by Casper The Friendly Ghost's uncle Fatso. For me, however, he came out of the idea of a boy who is scared of everything who then becomes a ghost - that he is afraid of. If I had an inspiration for that idea, I don't know what it is, but I wouldn't be surprised if I came across this somewhere!
The Unusual Suspects
Obviously the name is taken from The Usual Suspects, which is a film I rather dislike but that was so popular I couldn't resist borrowing the title for our first police station haunting. Actually, that's not strictly true - I wanted this haunting to be called "Hell Street Blues" after the Steven Bochco show Hill Street Blues, as I was a fan, or perhaps I'm misremembering and that was to be a second haunting in this location. Either way, the name 'Hell Street' did stick, and appears in the game as the precinct name. You'll find a great deal of the police officers are named for that show e.g. the police chief Frank Travanti mashes up actor Daniel J. Traventi and his character Frank Furillo, and Norman Franz combines Dennis Franz with his role of Lieutenant Norman Buntz. There are also some random extras - I particular like Ursula Kudrow, named for Lisa Kudrow's hopeless waitress character Ursula from Mad About You, who is perhaps better known today from later appearing in Friends.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that this character was inspired in part by the Scoleri Brothers in Ghostbusters II. I don't think I'd seen Wes Craven's Shocker at this point (the only film of his I'd seen at this point was The Serpent and the Rainbow), so this is unlikely to be the inspiration - and if it had, the mortal who gives rise to Electrospasm would have been called either Mitch Pinker or Horace Pileggi. But there's a mystery here as I went with the name 'Harold Smears', which I cannot link to anything! It's possible that my right-hand-man on the design team, Neil Bundy, knows where this name came from, but I suspect this story is lost to time.
I have a feeling there's a part of her story that I have forgotten, since her epitaph namechecks both Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, but all I can really say about her is that her name is a play on the phrase 'to scream blue murder' and that movie-wise this character was inspired in part by the 1990 Kathryn Bigelow movie Blue Steel, starring Jamie Lee Curtis.
This one is just a straight up pun between the Japanese word 'Bonsai', meaning miniature ornamental tree, and 'Banzai' meaning '10 thousand years of life!' (a battle cry a bit like 'God save the King!' in English). We needed more elementals, and so I came up with a punny-name. That's really all there is to this one!
No prizes for linking up this haunting with the 1990 Martin Scorsese mob flick GoodFellas, which was the first mafia movie I was taken with (I had not - and still have not! - seen any of the Godfather films for reasons I simply cannot fathom). Okay, but why does it take place on a boat...? Well, funny you should ask...
Once we knew we had a mobster story, it was all but inevitable that we'd end up with someone who got the ol' 'concrete boots'. Enter Fingers, the pianist who originally would have been at the bottom of the ocean. Indeed, that was the reason for having this haunting set on a boat - so we could have underwater ghosts. But this turned out to be a colossal nightmare in practice, not least of all because of the panning between the sea bottom and the boat, which were a fair distance apart. It had to be changed, so we tethered Fingers to his old Piano instead. (We also lost another ghost this way - Thorne, a pirate, and he didn't make it into the game, although the Ghost Master Complete team have rescued him with creative modding!).
The name is an obvious pun on the early sci-fi superhero Flash Gordon, but the inspiration here was Jennifer Jason Leigh's fast-talking reporter Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy. I think both for the Coen Brothers and for me, there may also be some influence from Rosalind Russel's brilliant performance as Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday. If she looks completely anachronistic in the game it's precisely because all the influences are from movies from the mid-twentieth century. And who doesn't love a flashbulb!
A bit disappointed for the name for this undine, to be honest... it's lacking. I definitely feel like I could have dug a little deeper on this Water Elemental, but never mind. What I do love is the epitaph: "The multitudious lifeforms that crawl and proliferate upon land are mere echoes of the legacy of Wavemaster's kind." There's an H.P. Lovecraft vibe here, the suggestion of a time before life on the land when the undines were the masters of this planet. If only the name synched up with this I'd have been satisfied.
No, nothing to do with a certain echidna I assure you! Rather this is 'Knuckles Malone' in reference to Alan Parker's 1976 debut movie, Bugsy Malone, which really was the first place I ever saw a tommy gun. I think this all might have been Neil's idea, but regardless of where it comes from Knuckles is the name of the enforcer in that movie (so called because he cracks his knuckles). It's the tommy gun that I love here - such an iconic weapon!
Facepacks & Broomsticks
Bringing back the sorority witches from Haunting 101 we needed a name... where else do we have witches, I thought? Why not the 1971 adaptation of Mary Norton's charming tales of witchery, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, starring Angela Lansbury as a witch-in-training! Facepacks is pure sorority cliché, but throwing it in made for a great interstitial title page!
I loved the idea of a Fetch the moment I discovered it during the research for this game. Mirrors are wonderfully spooky plot devices in a number of movies, and I was delighted that we got two for the game. Tricia was the first. I think at one point she was going to be a cheerleader in Haunting 101 and would die, and then be a ghost in this haunting. However, as I noted above, this idea fell out of the game (as did the cheerleaders!) so this was a way to rescue that model. I'm not sure about the name (this may be one of Neil's...), but for some reason she brings to mind the 1995 Amy Heckerling movie Clueless, which I thought was a brilliant interpretation of Jane Auten's novel Emma.
Once upon a time there were plans for a haunting set in a drive-in theatre, and I was planning to do something time-loopy in reference to the 1993 Harold Ramis movie, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. This groundhog-themed ghost is the only survivor of that plan - and boy doesn't it look like Nick took inspiration from Pikachu in the concept art!
I love Firetail, the impish salamander who is annoyed with the witches for not dismissing him properly (pagans take note - always close down your rituals!). The visual inspiration is a newt, and I have an especial love of newts, while the name is just an obvious portmanteau, although one that I like. It would be wrong to say that Charmander was an influence here, rather both Pokémon and Ghost Master take influence from the fact 'salamander' was a word for a fire spirit before it was a name for a type of brightly coloured newt.
Hardly a surprise that this haunting is inspired by the 1982 movie Poltergeist. I loved this film, and also its sequel, and as I've said before I remain surprised that we don't have a ghostly preacher anywhere in Ghost Master!
The problem with the poltergeists was how to tell them apart. I mean, we used up every poltergeist cliché with Whirlweird, so what's left? Puns to the rescue! Once the haunting was nicknamed 'Poultrygeist' we just needed a chicken-themed haunter to go with it, and it amused us to take Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel Saunders and make him into the arch enemy of our vengeful hen gestalt. In the movie, it's an ancient Indian burial ground - in this haunting, it's a hen graveyard. Some small influence here from Sapphire and Steel Assignment Three. Hard Boiled' is, of course, simply a reference to eggs. I feel like we missed a pun here somewhere, but I'm not sure what it would have been!
Phantom of the Operating Room
If there was one thing I learned above all else from working with Terry Pratchett, it was never to back down from a terrible pun. We had a hospital, we needed a name... this one leapt out at me and grabbed me by the church organ.
Originally she was just 'Zombie Bride' - I'm pretty sure Gregg wanted us to have a ghost in the style of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, forever caught in her wedding dress. She had a lot of names on the way, including 'Beryl' and just 'The Bride'. But in the end I'm pretty sure I picked the name 'Brigit' in reference to the Celtic Goddess with that name. However, I can find no good reason for this connection now, and I wonder if it is simply a lazy keeping of the first three letters the same from 'bride'! However, there is definitely not a connection to Helen Fielding's novel Bridget Jones' Diary, as some have suggested - if it had been, I would have taken that spelling. I suspect the help/interference of some pagan friends living in Knoxville, TN for this one...
Nothing at all to do with Lola Bunny from 1996's Space Jam I'm afraid, this one is a straight up clash of influences working its way out in an unexpected way. I learned about the pookah from the unbelievably brilliant 1950 movie Harvey, starting James Stewart as a man who best friend is a spirit of this kind who appears to him as a six-foot tall invisible rabbit named Harvey. There's your first three letters in the name right there. However, Gregg was a huge fan of the 1988 Robert Zemeckis film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and if we were having a rabbit he wanted to take inspiration from Jessica Rabbit. Who, as you may be aware, is not a rabbit. Nonetheless, between these two films, Harriet came to life.
Our second and final Sandman, Daydreamer was bounced around between hauntings and ended up here as we had nowhere else for him to go. Unlike Hypnos, he has the look I had imagined for these disturbances in the first place - a spirit made of sand. Once I knew he was going to end up in the hospital, the backstory of him being an anaesthesiologist fell into place. This is another name that feels wrong to me in retrospect, but then he's completely messed up however you think about it. I mean look at him - he's clearly dressed in a uniform from the American Civil War! I have a feeling this is tied to the scenario he was originally intended for "The Abysmal", which took place on a shipwreck, but it's hard to be sure.
The Blair Wisp Project
No prizes for guessing the reference here. It's not that I liked the movie, which I felt was rather weak for all that it had a great high concept. It's rather that I felt obligated to chew up and spit out every pop culture ghost movie I could lay my hands on. This is also the haunting I'm least happy with, as it uses the weather powers extensively and the game never trains the player in how they work. A real shame, as that game system is really interesting, but it's rather cruel to expect players to work it all out with nothing to go on.
Sparkle, another Fire Elemental, who is not as charming as Firetail, alas, and has more plain name. But still, flaming newt - what's not to like!
...and lastly for Act II of the game we have the title ghost for this haunting. The will-o'-the-wisp is such an iconic ghostly entity that I wanted to work it into the game somewhere, and the pun with The Blair Witch Project gave an opening. Honestly, I'm not happy with the Wisps, which are the most fussy and awkward of the haunters (except perhaps the Headless Horsemen, which at least have the benefit of looking cool!). But I like the design of a disembodied skull and the upper part of a spine at least!
After Two Decades...
That's everyone in Act II of the game! This Halloween I'll complete the origin stories for all our ghosts with the final part, which includes some of the most visually striking members of our rogue's gallery. It just remains to thank every fan of Ghost Master for keeping the game alive in their hearts for twenty years. Of all the many games I've worked on, there is none that is quite as dear to me as this spectral simulator that reminds us all just how much fun it is to scare the pants off someone!
Happy anniversary to every Ghost Master fan, wherever you may be fettered!