Origins of Ghost Master, Part One
Wednesday, 26 October 2022
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...
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.
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.
This 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.
In 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!
If 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!
This 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!
No 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!
The 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
The 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!
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...
For 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.
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...
I 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.
I'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!
The 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...
I 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!
John 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!
This 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
As 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.
There 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!
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