Terminal Reality Horror Games
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Interview with Jeff Mills and Joe Wampole Jing
Let's start with exploring how both of you got into the game industry. I read Jeff originally had an education in film, which seems to make perfect sense when looking at Nocturne and especially Blair Witch vol. 1, but what brought you to developing games at your first employer 7th Level to begin with?
Jeff: Like a great majority of my peers, I saw Star Wars as a kid and had my mind set on making movies or doing special effects from that point on. I studied film at university for a year before switching to the Art Institute of Dallas to study at their brand new Computers and Multimedia course. I was in the second class to graduate with that degree. I expected to go into the special effects business, but at the time I graduated, there wasn't much of a film industry in Texas, at least none that required special effects. There was, however, a burgeoning videogame industry. Doom had just exploded onto the scene, and there was a sizable collection of studios like id in the immediate vicinity that were proving that games could become just as powerful a storytelling medium as movies. The art department at 7th Level consisted almost entirely of my classmates from the Art Institute. I'm still working with a lot of those guys to this day.
Joe: I was majoring in graphic design in college and surely would have shot myself in the face had I ended up doing logos for a living (was definitely not my thing). The year before graduation a guy came into the arts and crafts store I worked and saw me doodling in my sketchbook on a slow weeknight. He said he liked my art and that he worked at a video game company. He asked if I'd have any interest working on video games. Hell yeah. However, I didn't hear back. Some months later, I ended up on a field trip at the company with an Art for Video Game class I took as an elective. The tour guide was Drew Haworth, the same guy that met me before. He remembered me and we set up an interview for real. Got hired as an intern. Started drawing "concept art" of Nocturne characters that were already in game for press drops. Then one day Mark Randel came over to my desk and asked if I could design a level. I'd played games nearly my whole life, thought I knew what made them fun and interesting, so why not? That grew into more levels, story, gameplay, until I was essentially lead designer on Nocturne and made official on Blair Witch and BloodRayne. ...All while still doing a lot of concept, character, and animation work, so my career in the last decade+ has bounced between design and art.
Before Nocturne, Terminal Reality was known solely for flight action and racing games. Who originally came up with the concept of making a horror action-adventure? Did it take some convincing "the company" to leave accustomed paths and try out something different?
Jeff: Nocturne was the brainchild of studio president Mark Randel and first employee Drew Haworth. It didn't take much persuading. Mark had been hard at work on a graphics engine with powerful lighting technology, and the best way to show it off was via a game like Nocturne. Drew created the original cast of characters before I'd joined the team.
Nocturne draws inspiration not only from horror movies, but it is also a nod to the pulp magazine format, which was most successful around the 1930s. I guess it's no coincidence that the game is actually set during that time? The visual design for The Stranger is very reminiscent of heroes like The Shadow, with the trenchcoat & fedora combo and dual-wielding pistols. Asking as someone who isn't very familiar with the pulp novel medium, are there any more definite influences from series in that genre?
Jeff: Drew is a big fan of the genre. The initial vision was an extreme homage to the era. As the game developed, I pushed to have the dialog toned down to be not as much Sam Spade and Mike Hammer. But even with the dialog toned down, the pulp spirit remained strong and very distinct.
The game and manual of Nocturne make a point of the fact that nothing about The Stranger's past is known, not even his name. In the credits for the voice actors, however, he is listed as Joshua Stranger. Was that his "real" name? How did that name get in there?
Jeff: I guess that'll just have to remain a mystery. Drew, Joe and I have all shared ideas about what his history might have included. Had we made more Nocturne games, I'm sure more of his past would come to light, though the new facts would probably cast just as many shadows.
Joe: If I remember right, we talked about Stranger just making up "Joshua" to satisfy the beaurecratic procedure required by Spookhouse. ...but that it really was his real name. Dun dun dun!
I'm a sucker for learning about content removed from games during development, and it appears there's quite a lot of that for some of these games. The Spookhouse timeline in the Nocturne manual contains, besides Roosevelt, the names of three more agents that don't appear in the game. Gabriella Augustini is thought to be a planned alternative playable character and has an unfinished representation in the game files, Kariker Thompson only appears on the MIA/KIA board and Rogan Parthaswanu I couldn't find any more references to at all. Asking more specifically about Gabriella in the next question, but were there complete character designs associated with the other two names? If yes, what would they have been like?
Jeff: Drew might have the full cast list in memory still. He created a very versatile cast that we weren't able to fully implement in the time we had. Joe and I created additional backstory elements, some of which were squeezed in here and there to add some extra grit and ambiance.
Joe: There was something we referred to as the Horucide that we had written up as backstory and potential for other missions as Nocturne's story didn't absolutely have to be sequential. I think the premise was there was a breach from hell that Spookhouse had to contend with and, if I'm not mistaken, I think Rogan bit it there. Demons.
Some of the few preview screenshots the female player character shows up in are taken from locations that are not in the final game, either. Was the plan for her to have her own chapters, or was she rather intended as a selectable alternative to Stranger in the same missions? Was there ever a concept for a 2-player mode?
Jeff: Game designers always plan for larger games than they can make. I think the primary intent of Gabrielle was to be a second playable character who might have had some unique missions of her own in addition to the regular game stories.
Joe: I think those specific shots were tech demo and proof of concept, not really tied to any story elements at that point, but like Mills said there were plans to play different Spookhouse agents in different missions, but not as co-op.
Unlike prior games that used the same approach to presentation, for example Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, Nocturne had very dynamic controls and since the whole game world existed as a raw 3D model, the game could as well have been played like an FPS if it wasn't for the limited visibility and battery of the night vision goggles. Was it ever on the table to make Nocturne a fully 3D game? How did the idea for the night vision come about?
Jeff: Mark's original engine for the game was real-time 3D, but that was in the era when hardware accelerated graphics cards were not the norm. The vision for the game was one of extreme detail and mood, so he focused on rendering characters real-time while interacting with environments that could take days to render out in their full detail.
Joe: After BW, and before BloodRayne, we experimented with a game pitch that was 1st person horror. Had a lot of potential to be creepy, but BR had a lot more mainstream appeal.
TRI also released the world creation tools for Nocturne, but I guess they were too hard to get into to cause much of a reaction. Did you ever hear of any fanmade Nocturne modules?
Jeff: The Nocturne engine was pretty robust, but it required 3D Studio Max to build the environments, a professional art tool that most consumers couldn't afford. The game's proprietary editor was powerful to begin with and has continued to evolve, eventually growing into the tools used by the Infernal Engine. While the toolset has been entirely upgraded through the years, much of the design philosophy developed from our real-world experience building games.
The three Blair Witch games, though developed at different studios, seem to respect each others continuity for the most part. Yet a meeting Doc Holliday has with the protagonist of Volume 3 through some kind of time-passage doesn't appear in the other game. Was that event supposed to have taken place merely in Holliday's mind, or is there another particular reason (use of Terminal Reality copyright characters?) that this event was ignored?
Jeff: The time frame for developing the Blair Witch games was brutally short. As stated before: designers plan massive games. None ship with every feature and story element from the original design. Time constraints prevent some elements from coming to fruition and gameplay testing proves that some elements should be cut. There were plans to integrate the three stories more, but alas, the schedule didn't allow it.
Was the idea of the actual evil in the Blair Witch franchise as an ancient native American demon something that existed in the notebooks of the franchise creators Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, or was that invented for the game?
Jeff: We met with the creators of the movie and shared ideas back and forth. They had a ton of background info that didn't make it into the movie or even the supplemental material they made available online. We didn't have to invent much that they hadn't already thought of, and they were enthusiastic about the way we chose to present the story.
Nocturne had a surprisingly casual attitude towards nudity, especially for an American-developed game, whereas BloodRayne, despite heavily playing on the "deadly and sexy" appeal of the heroine, is comparatively tame in that department. Is that a matter of having been part of Gathering of Developers vs. working with a corporate publisher? In general, did you feel your creative freedom was more compromised after the GoD days?
Jeff: GoD definitely weren't censors. It was a maverick spirit at the time. But the choice to not go overboard on the raw sexuality of BloodRayne was a conscious decision. We are game makers, not pornographers. We're more interested in creating an exciting play experience than arousing other interests. Rayne was blatantly sexual enough that pushing it further would have been crude and vulgar, an unnecessary distraction from the game itself.
Joe: There were frequent debates at how sexy some aspects of the game should be. In the end we were trying to make a good, fun game that had sex appeal and not come off too sensationalistic and exploitative. Personally I wanted to make a game about a cool character regardless of sex. I wanted Rayne to be empowering, and not saying we didn't appeal to some baser desires, but we had a lot of female fans.
Either way, the fans took care of that issue. I think BloodRayne 2 might be the game with the widest variety of nudity hacks out there, BloodRayne 1 had a few, as well. What's your personal view on fan modifications like that?
Jeff: We're glad that people found our heroine appealing. I have no beef with anyone playing with her more on their own time. What impressed us most was the fan-made hack of Doc Holliday model for Blair Witch: Vol 1. We included a bathtub scene in the spirit of the horror films we grew up with, but out of a sense of decency, we constructed black "censor" bars as actual geometry covering up the female form in the scene. Some clever hacker opened up the raw data files and figured out which verts in the model used the black.tga texture and reset all their coordinates to 0,0,0. This effectively deleted the censor bars, showing off our character artist's complete work.
Joe: The fans are awesome! As stated earlier we didn't want to go too far in game, but for the fans to take it in directions they want, that's great. Beyond the nude hacks, I also collected a lot of fan art and the occasional cosplay pics of people dressed as Rayne - still on my hard drive. Some of it is amazing, some is terrible, some is hilarious, and some is truly scary! But it's very satisfying to be a part of something that motivates others to take their own time to create art and/or modify how the game looks.
How exactly does BloodRayne relate to Nocturne? Joe's homepage has an early storyboard that still shows Svetlana Lupescu fighting the daemites in place of Rayne and calling to The Stranger for help in the end. How far did that concept of BloodRayne as a "Nocturne 2" go before Rayne and The Brimstone Society were introduced instead? Was there any particular reason for the change?
Jeff: The Gathering of Developers passed on Nocturne 2. They were in their final days by that point. Of course we wanted to continue the Nocturne story, but we didn't want to give the IP over to someone we didn't trust, so we developed BloodRayne as a somewhat parallel universe that would allow for cross-over if we connected with the right publisher.
Even in the final game there are some elements taken over from the Nocturne universe, like castle Gaustadt and the Daemites. In the intro to BloodRayne, Mince mentions a half sister of Rayne, which some people assumed being a subtle reference to Svetlana. After the reconception in its final form, are the games still supposed to take place in the same universe, or has BloodRayne to be viewed rather as retconning these elements into an independent new setting?
Joe: For IP reasons, the Nocturne and BloodRayne are separate entities/universes. But we wanted to give familar nods to the Nocturne fans that they can read into and come to their own conclusions :)
On an old version of the BloodRayne homepage in the Wayback Machine I found a sketch of child-like figures with grotesque faces/masks. Were those intended for the game or just something for the homepage?
Jeff: Early designs of the game had an eastern European village plagued by a dark and sinister circus troupe hosting a traveling carnelevale in the spirit of the original Grimm's Fairy Tales. Early on, it was apparent that this was yet another one of those cases where we had designed far more than we could produce. The littluns were some of the first characters to hit the cutting room floor in the development of BloodRayne.
Preview screenshots of BloodRayne 2 show the Dhampir sucking the blood of innocent(?) party guests at the Zerenski mansion. In the final game those are only seen very briefly in cutscenes. Executive meddling?
Jeff: Part technological limits, part time constraints. The initial party scene was originally designed to be interactive all the way through, but on the original Xbox, the power just wasn't there to populate an entire ballroom with characters. In the end, our time was better spent elsewhere.
Also in the preview material for BloodRayne 2 is the "Roach Queen", a woman wearing a dress made of living bugs. What's the story with her?
Jeff: Ah yes, the roach queen. This was the long-shelved remnants of a technology concept created by Fletcher Dunn and Mark Randel early in the development of Nocturne. It created a large population of simple roach characters that swarmed between the vertices of an invisible character model. The end result appeared to be a character made entirely of swarming insects. We would have loved to include this boss beast in the final product, but we chose to focus our efforts on the other bosses.
Were you also involved in the development of the cancelled Demonik? Was the game world in any way related to other Terminal Reality games, or was the setting entirely Clive Barker's baby? Demonik is shown in the film "Grandma's Boy", and there are also mockup scenes from a game called "Eternal Death Slayer 3", that partly used characters and stages from BloodRayne 2. How did that come to be? Did TR have any involvement whatsoever in how the games were presented in the movie (I'm asking because they play Demonik on an old XBox instead of the 360)? Were the multiplayer scenes real (as I think the press release never mentioned multiplayer modes)?
Jeff: I wasn't as involved with that process as was Drew, who did a lot of the face-work for the studio. I was just glad to see that it found some usefulness in the movie. It was a brilliant choice on their part to use an actual video game studio to create the visuals for the film. Until that movie, every movie featuring a video game used painfully awful pre-rendered animations without HUD or level design. To gamers, it was an insult to see someone mashing away on the buttons of a disconnected controller while a poorly-modeled and -textured character bent awkwardly through an amateur animation on-screen. Demonik looked like a real game because it was a real game, fully-functioning and playable. There was no multi-player originally, but it was easy to mock up.
The Eternal Death Slayer 3 scenes from Grandma's Boy show some alternate version of BloodRayne 2 characters (Voodoo Ferril, Foreman) as well as some new original ones. Were those created exclusively for the movie or part of another game concept?
Jeff: We spent a couple of weeks retrofitting BR2 levels and building alternate costumes for the characters and pulled some out of storage to make these videos for Sandler's studio. The fight sequences were crafted by hand in much the same way real fighting games are built, but the moves were strung together by an animator instead of at run-time by a person playing the game. Operating in-engine amplified the authenticity of the game.
Jeff, you've left Terminal Reality for Red Fly Games around 2006, right? From the outsidde it seems obvious that Red Fly maintains good relations with your former company (as Red Fly uses the Infernal Engine for some of their games and both companies developed different versions of roughly the same game with Ghostbusters)?
Jeff: Yes, TRI and Red Fly are still pretty chummy. Red Fly's co-founders (Dan, Kris and I) all worked on Nocturne together. They left when Nocturne was complete, but I stayed on and continued working with TRI's technology as it grew into the Infernal Engine. I love making games with this tool. I've had the opportunity to use various other engines, but Infernal will always have a special place in my heart. It's got the right balance of game-specific elements, crafted for each project, and an expansive scripting language. The core elements of each game can be hard-coded to run automatically with speed and ease, eliminating the need for scripters to toil away at systems that should be "under the hood." But if we need to implement a more comprehensive behavior or event, we have all the tools we need to dig in and make some pretty fundamental changes to the play experience.
Joe, for a couple of years you worked as the lead character artist on the dead-end road that Duke Nukem Forever used to be for a long time. Around that time, enemy designs became more monstrous than they had ever been before in the series. Was it your conscious aim to make the game feel more serious and horrifying, compared to the action hero caricature that was Duke Nukem 3D? How do you feel now as the game (which I trust you would have thought a lost case at some point, like pretty much everyone did) is finally nearing its release?
Joe: Personally, I loved the camp of Duke 3D - it made me a huge fan. Although, when I joined 3DR, Doom 3 had just released and George Broussard was pushing for a darker, scarier, and more serious DNF. Most of my art is dark and mostly serious so I didn't mind. As for the second part...what, DNF is nearing release? no way ;)
In 2008, you worked on a concept for another morbid game called Fairy Tale, which unfortunately was cancelled in preproduction. Can you tell a bit about the plans you had for that?
Joe: Damn, I was in love with that project; we had a lot of cool ideas. We wanted to take the Disney out and put the Grimm back in the fairy tales, while adding our own spin. All the princesses were the bad guys. Snow White was really the evil witch and liked to poison victims with her apples. Cinderella was a firestarter and could shape glass to her will by the heat generated (unfortunately she burned off most of her flesh when her powers first manifested, so she wears a wig and frosted glass mask). Beauty is the tragic villianess. She's good, but changes into the evil beast alter ego. The player would have choices in the game and one of those would be finding the magic rose and breaking the curse to save Beauty...or kill the beast, thereby also killing Beauty. I also had some cool ideas for the fighting/control scheme that we had only barely started tinkering with when Sierra and Activision merged and the project was canned.
When The Stranger started to appear in Infernal Engine tech demos, many old time fans hoped for a long-awaited sequel, but so far, everything's been quiet. Not asking for any possible insider information you might not have, but do you think there is a future for the franchise and, if it ever happened, would Red Fly be ready to bring the Spookhouse to the Wii?
Jeff: Spookhouse has thankfully remained in the caring hands of Terminal Reality. They were wise to hold onto it as it has tremendous potential. I hope they get the chance to go back into that world and explore it more. Drew's original vision for the game certainly would allow a number of sequels.
Word has it there'll be a new BloodRayne for Nintendo's upcoming handheld, the 3DS. The game is associated with Majesco, no mention of Terminal Reality in the announcement. I take it this means that the rights for BloodRayne lie with Majesco? Do you know if anyone of the old TRI guys is involved at all with this sequel?
Jeff: I'm not aware of any details of such a game, but you're right to assume that Majesco owns the rights to BloodRayne and the Brimstone Society.
The BloodRayne movies, like pretty much all films made by Uwe Boll, met with some very harsh criticism. Have you seen any of them? What did you think?
Jeff: I saw the first in the theater the day it was released. I was unimpressed. I felt a glimmer of hope when they started the training montage. Kristanna Loken's combat moves with the double blades were clumsy and weak at the start of the sequence. For a few moments, I looked forward to seeing her skills improve until she became the lethal dhampir we'd brought to life in the games. But then the montage ended, and she was still clumsy and weak. It was a bit of a let-down.
Joe: I saw it a year later. I knew it would break my heart. Barely resembled what we created. Remember when Uwe put out a challenge to fight his detractors in a boxing ring? I contacted the email address and explained I was BR's lead designer and would be willing to fight for fun and also said I had limited Krav Maga training. I never heard back. In the end though, how many people can say something they did got made into a movie? ...and a sequel! Also not good :(
What's your opinion on the comic book series by Digital Webbing?
Jeff: I've enjoyed the artistry of those books. It's good that other's interest in the material is great enough to inspire them to create new aspects of the story.
Joe: I got all the issues and I dug it.
Which game of your career so far are you the most proud of, and why?
Jeff: That's a tough call. There have been very few games I've worked on that didn't make me proud. Nocturne probably ranks as my favorite, though. It was the first project I took a lead role in producing. But every game I've worked on has had highlights. We built Blair Witch: Vol. 1 with only a few weeks of programmer time, building, tweaking and hacking the original Nocturne engine to suit our needs. BloodRayne became a decent, respectable franchise. The seldom-mentioned Aeon Flux game had some lofty - albeit unsung - features that were ahead of its time, like the era-spanning vignette story structure and the concept of Action Stealth whereby enemies can be taken unaware as long as the player moved quickly enough. I've been very proud of everything we've done at Red Fly. Every game is a significant improvement over the last, and our first, Mushroom Men, was a pretty impressive first title to start with.
Back to Nocturne: That was a perfectly-scaled project for my temperament. It was made with a team small enough that we could all meet around a table over dinner and discuss the game in its entirety. I haven't worked on a project that compact and streamlined since. Teams and technology keep growing. Working on games these days, very few artists are aware of the systems being built into the games that don't directly affect their art. And programmers ship games without ever playing any level other than their test levels. All the aspects of each game are becoming more compartmentalized, and layers of management must filter information from department to department. A lot of innovation and great ideas are lost when teams are this large. Ha! Listen to me. I feel like an old man saying, "Back when I was your age..."
Joe: Probably BloodRayne. Though I crunched like a mofo for months, for the most part it was a fun game to make. We would get together and collaborate on what we thought was fun and cool and figure out how to get it in the game. It has a lot of recognition and for the size of the team and time we had I was really proud of the game.
Anything else our readers need to hear/read?
Jeff: Get off my lawn, young whippersnapper! You kids don't know how good you've got it! Back in my day, we had to build games one vertex at a time!
Joe: Yes, games are harder to make now. Thanks Mills, now I feel old.
Big thanks go to the interview partners, and to James Clarendon for helping us to get in touch. Some of the images on this here page appear courtesy of Joe Wampole Jing.