Durch The Lost Crown und die Dark-Fall-Reihe machte sich der Entwickler Jonathan Boakes auch über die Indie-Szene hinaus einen Namen. Boakes ist der Kopf des im britischen Cornwall beheimateten Studios Darkling Room, welches er im Alleingang betreibt.
A-T: In one of our last interviews indie developer Dave Gilbert talked about his fascination for the emotional impact that ghost stories can have, mentioning aspects like loss, second chances and finding closure. You´ve obviously dealt with ghost stories in games for quite a long time, yourself. Any idea, what it is that keeps you coming back to these worlds? And in relation to that: How did your interest in the paranormal emerge in the first place?
Jonathan: My fascination actually started with a ‘ghost of the living’! It was many years ago, in the woods around the village where I grew up…
…I was exploring the landscape, with my dog Jack, and thought nothing unusual about the day, or the things we had encountered. It was a perfectly ordinary afternoon, if a little ‘heavy’ from several long, hot days of sunshine. Just before setting off for home, I saw a figure in the landscape. They did not seem unusual, as such, but walked in circles in a curious way, which piqued my interest. I could see the top half of the figure, from the waist up, and could make out perfectly ordinary clothes, very much like the ones I, or any teenager, would buy in the shops. I watched for a while, until the figure stopped…very still…and then looked directly at me. The stare lasted for several seconds, and felt quite peculiar. The sun went in behind a cloud, and suddenly the landscape felt more threatening, and strange…almost timeless. Then, just as quickly as I had seen it, the figure walked off behind the trees and was never seen again. “They must have been looking for something”, I told myself, and walked over to the same spot…perhaps I would find what they were looking for? I searched around, but to no avail, and then realised what was happening. I was performing exactly the same as the figure I had seen. I looked back, across the landscape, to where I had been standing, and realised, with a chill, that I was staring at myself! Eventually, the sun came out, and the strange atmosphere was gone. It was a spooky encounter, which I cannot explain, but it kick-started my belief, and fascination with the paranormal.
Ghosts of the living are just as fascinating, and unnerving, as those of the dead. I’ve often use both in the games, feeling that some authors state ‘what ghosts are’ far too quickly and easily. Are they really the disembodied souls of the dead, drifting around looking for answers? Or, is something more frightening happening? I wonder if our existence on this world is as strong as we like to think, and need to think to make sense of our short lives and limited existence. If that sounds a bit ‘crazy’, then you are probably right. But, after that encounter in the woods, and having read tons of real life and fictional ghosts stories I have a strange perspective, and many crazy theories, about all sorts of mad esoteric phenomena. It helps the writing! I guess that’s why I often return to ghosts, in my stories, as I like the unknowable quality that ghosts have; I am not interested in ‘traditional’ ghosts as much as the newer, urban experiences, as they have been used so many times. I’m not saying ghosts are boring, only that some new interpretations would be healthy.
A-T: Your games use authentic elements of ghost-hunting. In fact, you´ve collected quite some experience in this field, yourself. If you don´t mind, give us a little crash course in real ghost-hunting and share some of your personal experiences and anecdotes.
Jonathan: Be objective, and be very aware of what you are thinking and feeling, during an investigation. Too many ghost hunters write rubbish about what they have seen and heard. For example, the classic ‘The door opened by itself’ as a piece of evidence. Opened to what degree? Did the door handle turn? Was there a door handle at all? Was it windy?
All too often these details are left out of reports, as the ghost hunter only really wanted to get scared, scream, and run from the building. I have to admit that I’ve done that too! But, my interest, now, is to help find out what ghosts are! What do they want? What are they trying to tell us? I think cool films like Paranormal Activity, and Blair Witch, have helped encourage others to experiment with technology, but we are still no closer to proving anything. If modern ghost-hunting has achieved anything, these last few years, it is to prove how gullible people can be, and how much we like to be scared out of our wits! It’s an entertainment vs science thing. But, you can enjoy both; just don’t think you are a ghost-hunter for hiding in graveyards all night, and using ouijaboards! That’s just for fun.
A-T: The obvious follow-up question: Do you consider yourself a “believer” or “non-believer” and in how far have your ghost-hunting experiences contributed to your attitude towards this topic?
Jonathan: Well, I joined a group of ‘ghost hunters’ as research for The Lost Crown, and went on many investigations with them. There are case files to look at on the website but I have yet to see a proper, full manifestation. Basically, ‘no’, I have never seen a proper old fashioned ‘ghost’…but, I have seen, and heard many strange things. I like to include technology in my ghost-hunting games, as I believe technology will reveal what ‘ghosts’ actually are. Lots of people want to think, or believe, that ghosts are the spirits of our loved ones, still present in the world as a guiding soul. I don’t believe that. I wish I did, as it would mean there is life after death, and we are not just flesh and thought. But, I think it’s more likely that paranormal phenomena will find an explanation in science. That doesn’t make ghosts any less interesting. In fact, if entities from other times, or other places, are visiting our world, my first question would be ‘why’? Why do they come here, what do they want? Perhaps the dead do live on, somewhere else, but they are jealous of our status, on earth, and want it for themselves. Could ghosts be some form of invasion force, constantly trying to break into our world! Mad ideas, but they make fun games.
A-T: You live in a region which is full of history and old stories and obviously these elements play an important role in your games. Please talk about your process of travelling the region, studying local history and myths on the search for inspiration.
Jonathan: Cornwall, on England’s South West coast has a long, detailed history, which many visitors do not feel, on a quick tourist visit. The area is very popular in summer, as there are many beaches and areas of outstanding natural beauty, so that is not so surprising. But, a longer stay will reveal all sorts of wonderful things, which I can only hint at in the games. Cornwall’s oldest history dates back to the ancients, who built the strange stone circles, and landmarks, which hide in the landscape. It is an on-going puzzle, to both visitors and academics, as to why these sites were constructed, and what purpose they once served. Those places are a great source of inspiration to me, as I wander the landscape, thinking up scenes for future games.
I do a lot of research into the myths and legends, both online, and in the county archives, so I sometimes feel as if I am in a game myself; looking for that all important lead, or waiting for a clue to surface.
For an example of a recent experience, I think I’ll talk about one of the locations I am using in the next game; The Last Crown – Haunting of Hallowed Isle. As many of you may know, the ‘Crown’ games feature photographs of real places, from over here in Cornwall, and have 3D characters exploring the scenes. It’s an unusual method of making games, and a lot more difficult than some might think, but it gives the game an unusual, and unique feeling. It also means I get to find real haunted locations, and show the rest of the world! Just recently I discovered the ruined church at Buckfastleigh, which has found itself the center of occult activity and ghost-hunting in this area. It’s an isolated church, well worth looking up on Google, which is built on several miles of partly unexplored caves.
The church and its history was inspiration to Arthur Conan Doyle, when writing the Hound of the Baskervilles. If you visit the place, you will learn why. There is a dark atmosphere to the place, which is hard to explain. There is plenty to absorb and inspire, like the Tomb of Lord Richard Cabell, a character from history who practiced all sorts of devil worship and satanic ritual. Local children still visit the church, on dark nights, to dare each other to enter the tomb! What is equally strange, and fascinating, is the fact that Cabell’s Tomb is built directly above one of the larger caves, where a figure is slowly forming from natural calcites; it’s forming a terrifying looking stone figure. I can’t wait to get that location into the next game, and explore some theories as to what might be going on!
A-T: Aside of this “live” search for inspiration: What movies and books, recent and non-recent, do you consider as an influence on your own writing?
Jonathan: Lots of films and television; I love ghost-stories, horror, sci-fi and deep movies. I am not so keen on romance and family movies, as I find myself drifting away into the imagination. I do watch ‘non fantasy’ movies, but I don’t engage as much without that extra level of the unexplained. Films which allow interpretation, like Blair Witch or Reel 9, are favourites as I like to create my own thoughts about what may have happened. What exactly did the three characters encounter in those woods, in Blair Witch? Ghosts? Who knows!
I like that open-ended quality, and hope that some of my stories allow gamers to form their own opinions. Some people hate that, and wish I would state exactly what has happened, as they feel they have no conclusions; but, life is often not as easy to explain as a straight forward story, with a beginning, middle and end, so it is healthy to leave enough for people to think about. When it comes to ghosts, I have always avoided the Hell vs. Heaven scenarios you often see in Hollywood films. It is a simplistic view, which requires a fixed religious stance.
I am not sure I would ever want to state my religious views in a fictional story, as it could insult some people, while adding substance to existing religious doctrine. If the modern ghost story succeeds on any level it is that it rarely blames ‘evil’ or demonic forces for what has taken place. I enjoy films, and literature, which allow for personal belief and interpretation, rather than state anything, which cannot be proven.
A-T: Matt Clark from Shadow Tor Studios and yourself are close friends. You´ve been involved in Barrow Hill and Matt helped out on your work. Will we see this collaboration happening again in Matt´s newest project Bracken Tor? If you´re able to, please give our readers an idea of what expects them in Bracken Tor and in how far the game will differ from Barrow Hill (without making Matt mad at you for spoiling too much, of course).
Jonathan: Ha ha! It is difficult to talk about Bracken Tor as it is not my game, and Matt is working very hard to create something personal to himself. I can say, though, that there are a lot more ‘real’ locations; from ancient Celtic sites to lesser-known megalithic monuments. Matt is employed by the Cornish Archaeology Group to map real sites, for future preservation and understanding, which entails scanning the location and rebuilding the monument in 3D. I can honestly say that Bracken Tor’s locations are some of the most realistic I have seen. If Barrow Hill was Matt’s ‘Myst’, I can say that Bracken Tor will be his ‘Riven’…just with lots and lots of snow and ice! It’s quite a magical, enchanted feeling game. It’s been wonderful to work on someone else’s project, especially something like Bracken Tor, as I needed a healthy break after the filth and nastiness of Lost Souls.
A-T: It´s probably too early to talk about the sequel to the Lost Crown in detail right now, so let us just try to get some basic knowledge of Nigel’s and Lucy’s return in the Last Crown - Haunting of Hallowed Isle. You´ve been very busy with Dark Fall III until late 2009, which indicates that The Haunting of Hollowed Isle still has quite a way to go. At what stage of the creation are you right now and what is a realistic date for you to have the game done?
Jonathan: I’m still writing the screenplay, for The Last Crown, but have a solid main plot worked out, which follows on directly from the first game. Right now, I am in the ‘Game Document’ phase. That’s the first and longest part of the production. Unlike Lost Souls, there are lots of characters to write for, and invent, so it takes a lot longer. I have always seen the ‘Crown’ games as a series, rather than a standalone experience (like the Dark Fall games). So, gamers should expect to re-visit some locations, learning new layers of mystery, and also bump into some of the existing characters (who will be thrilled to see you back in Saxton).
I am giving all the characters more depth and detail, so that gamers feel time has passed, and they have a familiarity with them. The Game Document has to be finished, or as close to finished as possible, before starting production. Otherwise, I would loose my way, with all the many details, and twists, and puzzles. That leads to confusion, and stress, and the project can suffer. The last game, Lost Souls, had a lovely simple Game Document, due to good planning, and the game was a pleasure to produce. Otherwise, it is chaos!
To the readers, the Game Document would probably look like a mix of a screenplay, and a game walkthrough. A bit like this:
Player is now in the Old Station.
Turn right. Click ‘Old Ticket Machine’.
TAKE: Old Handle
GET ITEM: Old Handle
Go forward. Click the door.
FILM: Zoom in on the lock, slowly, hear clicking noises.
Leave door. Go to station telephone.
PUZZLE: Dial the phone number based on paper scraps in Inventory.
I tend to get the document as right as possible, first time round, but there are always things that will be changed, for budget reasons, or timing…or, I just come up with a better idea. It’s not a final document, but it does help keep track of everything that will happen, in-game, and avoid confusion. Obviously, with a very large non-linear game, or an RPG, the document would have to be very complicated, and written in ‘parts’ rather than as a whole. That’s the stage that I am at; the game must appear on paper, before a single scene is created.
A-T: Anything you can tell us about the Last Crown plot and what new gameplay features you´re planning to implement?
Jonathan: I can say, that the sequel is going to be more similar to an RPG, rather than a classic ‘linear’ adventure, as the tasks will be quest based, and characters can be leveled up, to approach situations differently. The town’s people will all be part of different factions, like ‘guilds’, but in a very English style! Trainspotters, Satanists, Bird Watchers, UFOlogogists and the like. You’ll have to join up to these groups, or infiltrate them, to gain their trust and take on tasks, or quests. I think that will give the town of Saxton a wonderful feeling of complexity and realism.
As for the main characters, you will play both Nigel and Lucy, who will accomplish missions differently, and have very different ways of solving problems. Maybe not as obviously as you might think, too; Nigel is a less aggressive, more logical puzzle solver, whereas Lucy is a more head strong, bullish, violent (!!) and action orientated. I have several older sisters, who are all very independent, so I think I am basing that character upon experience, rather than some form of exploitation. We shall see.
A-T: The Lost Crown left a lot of room for individual interpretation on a variety of events and might even have caused some people quite a headache, trying to figure out the “truth” after they finished the game. You will surely not reveal the answer to every single question in The Last Crown (or another sequel), but you´ll probably illuminate quite some of them. There´ve been plenty theories and interpretations on various message boards, and i´m quite sure that you had a closer look at them. Do you see a certain risk that some people might be very disappointed, because they´ve come up with their own explanation to a lot of the mysterious events in The Lost Crown, and now you might “destroy” their whole interpretation of the game?
Jonathan: Many gamers have written to me, personally, to say how much they enjoyed the game, and what they thought was ‘really’ happening. They are often very different. I really like that. It backs up what I was saying, above, about the need to leave enough subject matter for people to digest, and come up with interpretations. I have to be quite careful not to spoil that, as some would be very disappointed by conflicting theories, but, in all honestly, I do have to write the story myself, rather than be influenced by popular theory.
Having said that, a lot of the clues are already there, in the first game, so it will be fascinating to hear from people saying ‘ahh, I see that now!’. The ‘Crown’ games are unusual stories, with an even more unusual presentation, but I enjoy making them, and I believe people like playing them. So, fingers crossed, I will create a sequel that is just as popular, if not more so!
Being an ‘independent’ means I can experiment a little more, as I do not have financial backers demanding that the game be a plain, easy seller for the mass market. I’d love to do a big game like that, one day, but the ‘Crown’ games are quite personal, and small scale. Having some freedom means I can be more unusual with the storytelling, and create scenarios that need some imagination and commitment from the gamer; perhaps that is why so many people have enjoyed The Lost Crown, because they felt they had to work at it, and make a personal investment? I know that I enjoy unusual games, especially ‘adventure games’, which take risks, and offer up something a bit more challenging (mentally) than your average ‘hidden object game’ or Nancy Drew. I like those games, as they are great to play with others and do relax me, but I also like to confuse myself, and make illogical decisions. A good example of a ‘strange adventure game’ was Outcry. Sadly, I couldn’t finish the game without a walkthrough (which seemed impossible), but I did love the unusual graphics and presentation. The Path was another good example or ‘alternative gaming’; that game seemed to be set somewhere in someone’s psychology, rather than in a recognisable place or memory. The same goes for Drawn: The Painted Tower, which I really liked. That game was very commercial, but still managed to feel arty, surreal and unique.
I guess if I am stating anything; it would be to expect the unexpected. As a fan of broken narrative and surrealism, I want to continue to write the ‘Crown’ games as unusual, rather than commercial.
A-T: The Lost Crown and the Dark Fall series contain some references to each other (Nigel Danvers for example). Is there maybe a deeper connection between these two series than some people might expect, and they´re both part of a bigger picture?
Jonathan: Only that the games are all set in the same world. Nigel Danvers ‘appeared’ in my first game, Dark Fall, back in 2000. He was conducting an experiment, a paranormal investigation, in the old Station Hotel. He was accompanied by fellow ghost-hunter ‘Polly White’ who turned up in ‘Lights Out’, the sequel to Dark Fall, set in a spooky old lighthouse. They are the same characters, and Nigel is the same Nigel as you see in The Lost Crown…but, his life took a different path after the first Dark Fall.
Polly and Nigel never did get to see any ghosts, in the hotel, as the player successfully stopped the supernatural events in that location. But, ghost-hunting must suit Nigel, and Polly, as they both continued their adventures in other games. Polly seems to have been replaced, by the much more spunky ‘Lucy Reubans’, but Polly might still pop back up again, as a rival ghost-hunter! I guess it can seem strange, to some, to use familiar elements from one story to another, but you have to understand that I am very close to my characters, and they often pop into my mind, to request inclusion in the new story!
Originally, The Lost Crown was going to feature a guy called Kai Hunter…which I thought sounded very heroic, and ‘game-like’ (at the time!!), but he soon perished once Nigel popped into my head. Nigel is not a natural hero, and can seem very ‘normal’ to some people, but he knows he has hidden depths, and quickly got rid of poor Kai Hunter, and his silly name! In many ways, I could say that the games are haunted, or possessed by these fictional characters, and I merely tell their story, but that would be pretentious, and wrong; instead, I just like to use some elements again, and again, and again…to see where destiny takes them. In Nigel’s case, his destiny has already been seen, by all, in the first scene on The Lost Crown…but, I will not say, here and now, as you’ll have to find out for yourself!
A-T: Can you tell us something about the future plans of Darkling Room after your work on The Last Crown is finished?
Jonathan: Well, it was very interesting to talk about the previous games, and the new one ‘Lost Souls’, so I think I should keep quiet about the future plans. I have a busy year, ahead of me, with The Last Crown and Bracken Tor to look forward to.
I will say that the next game is already planned. It’s not a sequel, a prequel or anything of that ilk. It will need a larger team, including animators, texture painters and actors, and is looking to be very exciting. I’ve never worked on a ‘big’ game before, so this one will be a first for me! Wish me luck, and I hope you’ll all enjoy the next games.
A-T: Thanks for doing this, Jonathan! All the best with the creation of the Last Crown and other activites aside of that!