When Darkness Falls! - Interview with Jonathan Boakes

Interview by Rosemary Young (January, 2003)
It was just last year when Jonathan Boakes crept up on us. That's when his first adventure game, Dark Fall, was released to very high acclaim.

And not only did Jonathan materialise suddenly out of the shadows with Dark Fall, he also delivered a remarkably creepy game. Set in an old, abandoned hotel and train station, it's guaranteed to set the spine a-tingling and have you looking over your shoulder when the lights go out. 

It's been one of the scariest adventures ever to be released. Its success is all the more creditable because it is an independently developed adventure, produced, published and distributed by Jonathan himself. It is soon to be re-published by The Adventure Company.

Of course we are all now looking forward to Dark Fall II: Lights Out, so in this interview I've tried to glean a little more information about it. (Below are some new screenshots provided by Jonathan for this interview.)

Dark Fall II: Lights Out Screenshots

We'll start with some general questions...
Rosemary: Jonathan, can you firstly tell us a little about your background and what lead up to you making Dark Fall?

Jonathan: Hello there, and thank you for the brilliant introduction.

The road to making adventure games has been of the 'twisting, turning' variety!

I originally studied photography (the most useful qualification I have) and graphic design. The plan was to work in journalism in some capacity, but something obviously changed, as I took up farming and forestry instead!

A move to London in 1994 resulted in access to a PC on a regular basis, (they were SO expensive back then!). Friends often had 'game nights' and I was able to see the extent of what was available to play and experience.

I became completely hooked on games shortly afterwards, and took up a whole host of bizarre jobs to fund my addiction (everything from cleaning pub toilets to making sushi, not at the same time obviously). Eventually, a kind soul donated an old IBM386 machine to my humble home as he had just upgraded to the very flash Win95! With the 386 came a copy of Beneath a Steel Sky. That was the first game I played alone, and loved it to bits.

It wasn't until I attended another game party, in a very posh flat in London's Docklands, that I got to see my first glimpse of Myst. That really turned everything around. It was the use of materials (the galvanized metals, polished woods) and the use of first person perspective that really amazed. In fact I got so excited I knocked over my glass of wine, and blew up the hosts computer. He never spoke to me again! But the deed was done, and I was hooked on first person graphic adventures. That put me on the road to making my own games, well, the desire to make my own games. It didn't happen overnight, it took 4 years of night classes and experimentation before I was even able to create a single interactive screen.

After the release of The Displacement (some details of which are available on the Dark Fall II site, under "creation") to friends and family I was bolstered into producing a full commercial title. Pre-production of Dark Fall began...

The Displacement Screenshots

Rosemary: What are some of the games you had previously played and enjoyed? Did any of them influence you?

Jonathan: Phew, there are loads! I'll try to keep it brief...

I've been playing adventure games for some time now, with my earliest experience being The Mystery of Arkham Manor on the SpectrumZX. 'Arkham' offered the player a supernatural story, with great locations and some lovely 'real life' simulations such as sleeping, and eating. Even using a 2 colour palette you really felt the environments and interaction. I played that for months (never finished it though), and rarely found anything as intriguing for that platform.

Myst, and Riven, are the big influence on the Dark Fall engine and interface, where I like to believe that 'less is more'. Both those games also boast free roaming movement and exploration (for slide-show games). I love to look at all the details in game worlds, even down to the ground you are standing on, so Riven was a real treat!

In terms of locations, Amber: Journeys Beyond and Zork: Nemesis are probably the most obvious influences. Although they both differ hugely in terms of story, there is an underlying logic to the locations, which makes it more intriguing to explore. They are environments in which you can not get lost. After playing for a few hours, you really begin to 'feel' the rooms, and know them as if they were part of your real world. This is something I tried very hard to do with the train station and hotel in Dark Fall. The whole location was drawn up architecturally, with room sizes and corridor lengths corresponding to each other. Too often in adventures you step through a door into an impossibly large room, or environment. Unless you are doing this for creative reasons it only succeeds in dragging the player out of the fiction.

Rosemary: So what was the incentive to make a scary game? Do you have any personal experiences?

Jonathan: It is really interesting that you ask that question, as someone emailed me only the other day asking, not whether I had experienced anything, but when! They were convinced, after playing the game, that I must have had experience of the supernatural to have illustrated it in the way I have. That was very flattering.

The truth is, I have experienced several different types of phenomena and ghostly activity. From haunted pub cellars to visions of myself on alternate paths of fate. The latter was very spooky, as I wasn't the only witness. It wasn't something that happened once either, it continued for about a year. I am glad to say that I seem to have left my 'other self' behind.

I was also born near the village of Pluckley, in Kent, UK. The village boasts the largest number of regular supernatural characters, but the Ghost Club (UK organisation) would debate this. The BBC site has a good page about Kentish ghosts here, which also includes some information about Pluckley. I often visit the village for inspiration and atmosphere. It isn't a tourist trap, as it boasts an atmosphere some would find hard to stomach.

My family is a huge believer in the supernatural, so it has never been anything but normal to me. Everyone from my late Grandfather through to my nephews has a ghost story or personal experience.

Oh, I've just remembered. I had a 'strange' encounter near you, in Perth. I stayed at The Kings Hotel a couple of years ago, and someone or something joined me in the lift as I ascended to my room. On the second floor the lift stopped. The doors opened, but there was no one there, well, no living soul anyway. It was a proper Oz scorcher that day, so the temperature drop was very noticeable, as was the smell of stagnant beer. Very strange.

Rosemary: I thought Dark Fall succeeded as an unnerving adventure because of the subtlety. The way you used sound and darkness and fleeting images to imply danger. This is a departure from today's shock-horror, dripping blood trend, so can you comment on this change of emphasis. What scares you silly?

Jonathan: Guts and gore only disgust me (in a positive way), but I find they make games more comical than scary. I have been flattered in reviews when people say, of Dark Fall, "it is the things you don't see" that make it scary. I am a huge fan of the M.R.James ghost stories, and especially the 1970's television versions. A creeping shadow, or distant solitary figure are used to great effect. James really knew how to spook the reader, using very simple means.

If you were to encounter the supernatural, it is hugely unlikely that a blood soaked zombie would run at you from out of the bushes, or a creature 'from beyond' would invade your home via a wormhole. Obviously, both of those would be terrifying to experience first hand, but our rational and skeptical nature tells us these things do not exist. If they do not exist, then they can not scare us. Where as the drip of a tap, or the creak of a floorboard do exist in our world. Put those elements in the right location and you have effective creepy devices. The human imagination can conjure up the most frightful fiends, with little or no prompting.

As for what scares me....

Hmm, nothing much recently. Which is a shame. I really enjoy being scared, but there is little to spook me in London, apart from the threat of street crime. I am really looking forward to getting out of this town, as it has turned into a soulless cash cow. I am still able to write spooky stories, but there is little to feed the imagination. I am hoping to move to 'darker' depths in the near future... (if anyone knows of a lonely farm house, in a spooky village with history, let me know! Dowerton excluded, obviously!)

Now moving on to the Dark Fall era ...
Rosemary: Jonathan, Dark Fall is a fine game and was very well received among adventure game players. Did its reception exceed your expectations?

Jonathan: First of all, thank you for the compliment.

Has Dark Fall exceeded my expectations? Yes, it had to really, as I had no expectations as to how many people would play it, and what their experience would be. The last year has been amazing, and I am thrilled to see there is still a market for this type of game. I like to think of slide-show style adventures like digital 'pop-up books'.

Dark Fall: The Journal Screenshots

Rosemary: What was it like self-publishing and distributing? Frantic? Did you co-opt family members to help with the proceedings?

Jonathan: I did it all myself, at first, but had to employ my nephew (the voice of Tim Pike in the game) to help with burning CD's and packing up game units. After the first review things really got heated, with 3 trips to the post office a day! My local post master has never had it so good.

The most complicated part of the distribution was setting up online sales. My first customers will remember all too well that I was really let down by a UK credit card service, which almost resulted in me quitting the whole venture. Thankfully, through honesty, and my customer's good nature we were able to move on from a near disaster.

Taking all the orders myself, emailing receipts and offering full online email support was a challenge, but I like to think that I accomplished it very well. I can not stress enough how important it was to have direct communication with my gamers back then. It taught me an awful lot about how this industry works. I will miss that direct communication now that I am not publishing myself, but can keep in touch via the good adventure forums. J

Rosemary: What led up to you producing and publishing Dark Fall yourself? Did you consider finding a publisher or did you simply decide to go it alone?

Jonathan: I never considered approaching a publisher. The first game was a real experiment for me. Firstly, could I actually create one? Secondly, would anyone want to play it? I am not saying I didn't have confidence in the project, but I was very unsure as to its place in the larger gaming world. It was made as an homage to the adventures of the late 90's, so perhaps I didn't feel it had a niche of its own.

Two possible publishers approached me a month after the game's release. I turned both of those down. There are real sharks out there. Say no more.

Rosemary: Of course, we know that you now have a publishing deal for both Dark Fall and Dark Fall II with The Adventure Company. How did this come about?

Jonathan: The Adventure Company has a real love of the genre. They keep up to date about all the games being released, whether independent or not. A very early v1 version of the game was viewed back in June last year, and it was the arrival of the Dark Fall II site that prompted us to discuss possible commercial releases. Everyone loves an adventure series, so once I provided the goods (in terms of the Dark Fall II screenshots) we took it from there.

Rosemary: What advantages and disadvantages do you envisage for this new arrangement?

Jonathan: The advantages outweigh the disadvantages in leaps and bounds. The pressure is off me to provide all the online support and publicity, as well as packing and shipping the actual game units. It is going to be a very strange day when I see a copy on the shop shelf! Especially when it boasts new artwork and taglines!

Rosemary: I've noted that Dark Fall (the original) has now gained a subtitle "The Journal". Can you say why?

Jonathan: You've just hit the nail on the head by saying "Dark Fall (the original)". Soon there will be two Dark Fall games, so it really helps with the definition. I always planned to call the game either "Dark Fall : The Journal" or "Dark Fall : The journey begins". I dropped both, as it was presumptuous to expect people to expect a sequel.

A certain journal plays a big part in piecing the story together in the "original", so it seemed like a logical subtitle. "The Journey Begins" is a little too camp, even for me!

The third game is already titled : "Dark Fall : The Dowerton Experiment".

Rosemary: Well you must have had plenty of feedback by now, have you received any valuable suggestions to help with your next game?

Jonathan: Loads! It was great to read what people really liked and what they hated. I have a feeling that some still loathe me for creating the "alchemy" puzzle. Maybe I took the adventure 'homage' too far with that one. J

Also, I have now built up some great relationships with forums and adventure sites, such as your own. Through these mediums I have met people 'in the know' who offer me valuable advice and technical support. There are so many gamers out there who are dying to make their own adventures, so we now share our resources and knowledge base.

Rosemary: So do you have an idea of who is playing Dark Fall in terms of male or female and their ages?

Jonathan: I do. That was one of the advantages to selling the game myself.

It was wonderfully surprising to find out how many older people are playing adventures.

As for sex, it is split straight down the middle.

I got the impression that Dark Fall was a communal experience for many, with plenty of people emailing me to say that they played it with their spouse, children or grandchildren. That was nice. Especially given that I originally played adventures at the 'game parties' I mentioned above.

Rosemary: Did this tie in with your expectations? Who did you think would play Dark Fall?

Jonathan: I did hope that older gamers (seasoned adventurers!) would be drawn to the story, with it's period setting and characters. Also, I tried very hard to avoid the groaning zombies and 'evil granny' ghosts that get flaunted all too often.

It sounds a little selfish, but I also made an adventure I would like to play. I like to think of myself as a 'well rounded' adventure player, but I really miss those old point and click games. Games like Shivers, Celtica and Riven. They really had something. There are a lot of really cool new style adventures too, don't get me wrong, it was just sad to see a very distinctive style disappear without trace. There is a place for all the styles and engines.

Rosemary: You must have been aware of some rumblings of discontent amongst some players (not me) over first-person, solitary exploration, point and click games, what convinced you that the audience for this style of game is still there?

Jonathan: Can't we have both? Does one have to die just because the other is more popular?

I can see that there is a huge appeal to playing a character on screen. You get to see them develop and learn as the story progresses (well, in the better 3rd person games). This also happens in 1st person too, it's just not as obvious because you haven't got someone stating at the end of play "my life was never the same after that summer" type dialogue. The experience is something you encounter first hand. Good 1st person adventures can be an amazing learning experience.

I personally like to take my time while exploring, and play with as many artifacts as possible. You don't tend to have that freedom in 3rd person (yet), your actions are dictated by the character you are playing. It can be very frustrating to see an intriguing object, which you want to play with, only to be told (in a very matter of fact manner) "I don't want to look at that". Well, I do! Would be my response.

It was very kind of you to say "first-person, solitary exploration, point and click games", as most people go with the all too easy "Myst Clone" blanket statement. If all point and click 1st person game are like Myst, then all 1st person shooters (FPS) are Doom clones. That isn't true, or accurate. Neither is the "Myst Clone" statement.

Rosemary: This leads on to asking about your thoughts on the adventure genre. At the moment it looks suspiciously to be making a come back. Any ideas?

Jonathan: Did it go away? We have been playing at least two good adventures per year. We might not have found them on the shop shelf, but we bought them none the less (The Sydney Mystery being a prime example). I think the genre has changed, for better or worse. It is up to the player what they want to buy and experience. I think people miss a good story right now, and intriguing (surprising) setups. I suspect a lot of people are really tired of the "crack military team member" or "crashed on an alien planet and fight for survival" type setups. I like FPS's, and action games in general, but if I have to fight one more Nazi squadron I'll scream.

I have been seeing quite a few negative comments about action creeping into the genre. Action is not a bad thing in itself, especially jumping and climbing to get over those darn crates! There are some really cool looking 3D games on the horizon, I for one will take great pleasure in leaping, crouching and climbing walls (PC Gymnastics!). Action isn't a bad thing, but the inclusion of guns might be. Some, developers mainly, would comment that we are "too soft" and need to move on. If we are too soft because we like to solve problems without shooting people, then so be it. A trigger happy world is not one I wish to explore, or live in for that matter. Ooh, touch of controversy there! Whoops!

Rosemary: After your experience of self-publishing do you have any advice for adventurers who might be considering taking the plunge?

Jonathan: Loads. I would end up repeating myself though. The Dark Fall II : Lights Out website has a basic, but honest, section devoted to game creation. I talk about free software, inspiration and the practical side of producing a title. I do have new information to offer though, especially since signing on the dotted line! The advice would be, very clearly, stick with it! Don't get paranoid. If you like your work, others will too. There were too many occasions when I nearly deleted all my Dark Fall files in a paranoid fit of self loathing. Obviously, I am glad that I didn't! Artistic integrity can be a right royal pain sometimes, but at the end of the day it is all you have. Trust it.

The most difficult aspect of making games independently (in all senses of the word) is the loneliness. You only have yourself to judge whether or not it is worthy. That feeling was my worst enemy. I didn't have the guts to ask for help, or advice, so the process was hard going. An element of schizophrenia begins to creep in, and you doubt your own worth. So, approach the "seasoned adventurers" on forums and technical sites. They will be very flattered that you want their advice. I'm still a newbie, but I am more than happy to share what I have learnt and know so far. At the end of the day, it could result in me playing new adventures, so it's a good deal!

There is too much secrecy in the industry.

Finally on to Dark Fall II...
Rosemary: Jonathan, when did you start thinking about it? Before or after you finished the first game?

Jonathan: I had already started work on another game when I started selling DF, Splinter : a time travel adventure set across the globe. Explore and solve enigmas in 1940's France, prehistoric Australia and 'down town' New York.... Blah, blah, blah...

I passed that game on to a friend, who owns a web production company in London. They were looking to branch out into 'other avenues' (or revenues is more likely) and saw it as a good opportunity. Sadly, I don't think they knew what they were getting themselves into, and it has disappeared without trace (maybe the dark fall got them...)

I was more than happy to become an employee, and work on the game with a team. It would have been great for me to be in a 'team', after the traumas and loneliness that DF had provided. It just wasn't to be....

So, what was the best thing to do? Dark Fall was getting good reviews, people wanted more. It was obvious that it was my starting block.... so, why not make a second game!

I knew straight away that I didn't want to return to 'Dowerton' so soon. I think I'll let the characters 'rest in peace' for a while. They deserve it. So, I started brainstorming what sort of adventure I'd like to move onto next.

Dark Fall II: Lights Out Screenshots

Rosemary: What valuable lessons did you learn from your first experience?

Jonathan: Apart from battling with my creative demons, which I mentioned before, I would say that I've learnt to 'talk' in several different ways. Talking in an interview is not like talking to your publisher. People are employed to serve a particular function within a company. I did it at my web design job, the sushi job, the farming job etc etc. With the DF games I have to do everything. So, several voices and personalities have been created to serve their purpose, and keep things ticking along. This was SO much easier to do after DF. I had to provide all of the adult male voices (and the dark fall sounds themselves) for the first game, so it wasn't too much of a jump!

Rosemary: Will there be any changes in terms of the gameplay, and what about the game engine?

Jonathan: Bigger, better, clearer.

The interface will remain pretty much the same, with a few adjustments. It's pretty much invisible anyway (thanks Riven!), so it's 'behind the scenes' stuff that I am working on.

Graphically, the games are miles apart. I'm still sticking with 2D point'n'click at 640x480 (I love it), but the quality of the 3D models is very noticeable. It is an obvious evolution for me as an artist. What took a day to do in DF will only take 5 minutes in DFII, which means I can add more objects, more detail, and full screen animations (or, as I like to think of it: everyday physics).

Some commented that I must have "upped the engine" after seeing DFII screens on the website and the adventure webzines. It's not true, but I am flattered they think I can afford it! It is the same software, the brilliant Strata3D, and a truck load of imagination.

Rosemary: Because Dark Fall was so widely appreciated, are there more pressures on you for this next game?

Jonathan: I could lie. But won't...

Yes, it's LOADS!

I don't have anybody 'on my back' asking for better, except myself.

There were a couple of odd reviews, of the first game (The Journal) that really hurt my feelings. Before looking at the actual game, they were picking at the technical details. I would understand if these 'details' really affected the gameplay. But they didn't. I now know they were being pointlessly destructive and negative. But it hurt at the time.

I will be making sure that those people don't get the same chance again.

Apart from that, I am looking to improve and move on. My ideas for DFII and DFIII are very definite. I'll cross each bridge as I find it. Too much time was spent, while producing DF, wondering about perception.

Rosemary: One of the central locations is a Lighthouse! Now this has really grabbed my attention, especially reading that you were inspired by the Dr Who episode, The Horror of Fang Rock. One of my favourite shows and one of my favourite episodes. Should I be looking out for a long, woolly scarf melting somewhere into the scenery?

Jonathan: It's a great piece of story telling in the Victorian horror novel style. It gradually (and effortlessly) develops into a sci-fi story.

I just did a quick search online to find out whether a DVD is in the offing, and found nothing. Shame (the VHS is still available though). It's brilliant. I did find this though:

""Horror of Fang Rock" is a wonderful example of what can be achieved on a shoestring budget"

That's quite funny, it's exactly how I feel about the DF games!

I am not using any elements from the Horror of Fang Rock, hear that BBC? (They won the court case against Scotland Yard over copyright of the Police Box. Powerful, scary organisation! I'm sure even Tom Baker's scarf is 'protected' by now).

So, no. No direct influences!

"Fetch Rock" was based on the 'Flannan Isle' mystery. Three lighthouse keepers vanished without trace during Christmas/New Year of 1900. The full story and existing documents are available online, through various means. Solve Parker's puzzle on the 'Dark Fall II : Lights Out' website and the links are there for you to enjoy! It's a puzzle I built into the site. See the "new" section... it's a wonderful legend.

Wilfred Gibson wrote the immortal poem to illustrate the spooky story :

"Aye: though we hunted high and low,
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men's fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place,
But a door ajar, and an untouched meal,
And an overtoppled chair."

We are back to dripping taps and creaking floorboards again! Great stuff!

Apart from some historical 'grounding' and spookiness, I really love lighthouses! I know someone at The Adventure Company who loves lighthouses too, which broke the ice somewhat. You can't go wrong with certain environments. If you stay true to what they are, they will tell the story for you. Perhaps that makes me a medium, rather than a story teller.

Rosemary: By the way, did you hear about the recent British survey asking which TV Series viewers would like to have back? Why, Dr Who, of course, it was top of the yearning list? Did you happen to have your say?

Jonathan: No, I didn't. It's pointless taking part in those surveys, as the BBC have a crusade to make the viewing public as dumb as possible, with endless 'reality' shows and 'makeover' tack. As for Dr.Who, the BBC is milking the series for all it's worth. It ended in 1988, and won't be coming back.

The BBC TV's mantra is "franchise, franchise, franchise". At the end of the day, nothing new or original gets made by them anymore. Listen to BBC Radio 4 instead. You can get it online. A new play is transmitted everyday, at 2:15gmt. Fresh, original and surprising.

Hmmm, I've become all bitter and twisted answering your question. Moving on....

Rosemary: Dark Fall II, sounds like a sequel. Do we need to have played the first game to get the most out of Lights Out? If not how does it relate to the first game?

Jonathan: It's a completely new story, basically a 'breath' before you have to go back to Dowerton. Certain names, and characters will seem familiar. One character might have a problem with the player, she is wondering why the 'spooks' didn't finally appear in Dowerton.... Say no more.

Apart from that, no. It's a 'stand alone' story.

Rosemary: Final question, what can you tell us about Dark Fall II: Lights Out? Just a few teasers, please, to whet our appetite ...

Jonathan: The ideas are flowing thick and fast on this one, with additions being made to the plot, locations and concept each day.

The locations are going to really surprise fans of "The Journal", they are so much more detailed and expansive. No where will be off limits, even if it plays no part in the main story. There are several sub-stories and plot threads to follow, which include their own puzzles and consequences.

As for the spookiness ... be afraid! I have a few new tricks up my sleeve, which I am very excited about. Fetch Rock Lighthouse is going to give the player nightmares. The winding stairs shrouded in shadow, the distant rumble of the sea heard through thick walls, the lonely lamp gallery with no light, the old lighthouse door that keeps the thick fog at bay.... something is very wrong at Fetch Rock. This time the Dark Fall knows more than just your name....

Rosemary: Thank you so much Jonathan. As yet another confessed Lighthouse fan I'm looking forward to Lights Out J.

Copyright © Rosemary Young 2003. All rights reserved.