Dark Fall: Lights Out - Interview with Jonathan Boakes

Interview by Peter Rootham-Smith (April, 2004)

Jonathan Boakes With "Lights Out" to be released in the next few months Jonathan Boakes talks to Peter Rootham-Smith about the trials and tribulations of writing and publishing a second game; and about game development in general, and "Lights Out" in particular.

Peter: Hello Jonathan, you've got one highly praised game under your belt, a respected Adventure game publisher behind you, and many people eagerly awaiting "Lights Out". Must be very different to when you were doing "Dark Fall: The Journal"?

Jonathan: I wasn't conscious of an audience when I was writing Dark Fall, which both helped and hindered. I had just quit University and fancied the idea of reassembling the point and click adventure as a personal project. It grew, and developed, into Dark Fall. The forums found the small website I had built, and the game found an audience (which continues to grow around the world). Quite a bizarre experience, but amazing all the same. So, I am definitely approaching the new title in a different way. I thought I would be become quite cynical, but haven't. The sequel/prequel is highly taxing, just as personal and emotionally draining, but I am aware of the process. I've learnt from the first game, and developed as a writer and artist.

Peter: Your web pages (darkfall2) mention influences on "Lights Out" (as did an earlier interview with Quandary.) Was Sapphire and Steel's Assignment 1 an influence? It has disappearances in an isolated house by the sea?

Jonathan: No, not this time round. There are elements in the gameplay which Sapphire and Steel fans will be familiar with, but I'm saving haunted nursery rhymes for another game. In this life or the next. The series exposed many of my fears when I saw it as a child, and created new ones. I need to get those things out of my head and onto paper, and make my fears my own property. It was interesting to hear that Michel Gondry utilizes his childhood demons to influence his work. Though, I must say, it is a tightrope walk through your own personal psychology.

Peter: Has feedback from players of your first game influenced "Lights Out" at all? Did some of the feedback surprise you?

Jonathan: When it comes to technical information, I read all of my emails, and often email back for more details. So, the functionality of the game has definitely been influenced (the boring but essential bit). The actual story has not been influenced by player feedback. I do feel as if the DF fans trust me, which is nice.

Peter: We are expecting another suspenseful game with "Lights Out" where what scares you is what you don't see. Is the soundtrack almost more important than the visuals?

Jonathan: I would say that atmosphere is 45% audio and 10% visual. The other 45% is made up by the player's imagination. Anything you can include to suggest a mental picture is always going to help build tension. Sound succeeds visuals as it leaves the player to their own fears, and demons. If I included a terrifying zombie it would only be my interpretation of a zombie, so it can never convince.

Peter: In "Lights Out" will we be taking copious notes again to unravel an involved mystery as in "The Journal"? Do we need to get pen and paper ready?

Jonathan: Yes. A small forest in Highbury has just been planted in preparation. When playing the classic adventures, taking notes was one of my favourite aspects, and continues with the RPG's. I keep all my notes, and often refer to them when helping someone out with a tricky puzzle. A quirky bonus is finding a dusty scrap tucked down behind your desk and wondering when, in your life, you needed to mix Bone Meal, Alit Hide and Scuttle. First thing I thought was "I hope the police don't get hold of this", and then realization dawns. It's a clue! Adventure games offer the opportunity to involve you with the fiction, and bring some of that writing into our own space. That can never be a bad thing. In-game journals are ok, for text, but there is nothing more fun than trying to sketch a spiraling Mayan pictograph at 3am in the morning, surrounded by unimpressed friends. It does add interaction, and role-play, to the play time.

There is a laziness creeping into gaming, which I find quite revolting. Often, you are given information, which you have no need to remember. What's the point? If this is part of the "realism" and "ease of use" which is being touted, then I have to ask 'what next'? An ease of use masterpiece, which doesn't require you to do anything, except hold down the mouse button?

Peter: Now that you've finished, or nearly finished, two commercial games what do you think is the most enjoyable element for you. Writing the story or designing the puzzles or doing the graphics or music? Which is the most difficult?

Jonathan: I haven't thought about that too much. I am afraid of what I'd find out. I know what I prefer doing, and what continues to be painful. I think I'll get DFII out in the world before I reassess the situation. I have uncovered many wonderful opportunities producing these games, some of which will be embraced wholeheartedly.

Basically, (whispers): I hate programming. It's a science, and a passion for those that enjoy it. I want to write strange stories and let my mind ponder on the scary nature of darkened doorways. I have more fun writing my shopping list than writing a single game function. I do, though, take my hat off to those that have flair and talent with code. It's bricks and mortar in a game.

Peter: With The Adventure Company handling publicity and distribution for "Lights Out" has that been a load off your mind?

Jonathan: No, not really. Anyone's interpretation, and promotion, of your own work is going to be traumatic. I was prepared for what to expect, having worked in film. The Adventure Company surprised me. The packaging and presentation was pleasing, and glossy, and featured artwork which I had rendered specially.

As for DFII, I can not say at this point. The cover has already been designed, and looks fabulous. I had a strong impression of what I wanted, so worked with the design team daily via FTP. It was cool.

The Strategy Guide was an added bonus. You have to remember that DF was a geeky experiment for me, having enjoyed so many other games. I remember having to bicycle into the West End Virgin Megastore (4 miles through tourists) to flick through the 7th Guest hint book back in 1997 (it was very well read). Then cycle back again, and try that furniture puzzle yet again. It's interaction beyond the game world, like I mentioned before. So, to have my own little strategy guide is quite freaky. A game that once existed in my head now has a book, which I didn't have to write! That's weird. It's got diddy little illustrations too. Cute.

Peter: This time have you presumably been working to a deadline that you didn't have with the first game? If so, has that made a lot of difference?

Jonathan: There was a deadline with the first game. Nothing has changed on that front. Once the forums were interested in DF I had to give a date. I didn't stick to it, as writing is a craft that can not be dictated to by time. I also work better when I have the delicious kick of stress within the mix. Some people didn't understand that making games on your own is unpredictable and unstable. I would often get really vile emails from bitter consumers along the lines of "YOU said the 1st! Not the 13th! !!!!!".

Actually, I still get emails like that. They are read, thought about, and deleted.

Peter: Is there any likelihood of a Mac release of the "Dark Fall" games?

Jonathan: Ouch. I really want Mac versions. I also know that I've disappointed people by not backing up my original desire. Mac users are very "in the know" when it comes to software (well, in my experience), and the DF engine can work on Macs. They know this. So, why no Mac version, they ask? Well, I would need a Mac for a start (ok, that's just about affordable), but a Mac version of the software? It's expensive. If I could, I would.

Peter: With your involvement in game development are you more aware of other independent game developers trying their hand? As "Myst" inspired more games I'm wondering if your "Dark Fall: The Journal" inspired others?

Jonathan: I don't know, you would have to ask them. I am in touch with some of these "developers" you mention, but have no idea whether they thought about DF when shuffling through pre-production. I would hope that the whole "one man game" thing is encouraging to some, and my presence and interviews are useful. Beyond that, I can only observe that independents have a much higher profile than they did 2 years ago.

Peter: What are the key abilities people need if they want to do an Adventure game themselves?

Jonathan: Passion. Simple as that. Sleepless nights, self-questioning, self-loathing, carbohydrate abuse and possible catatonia are on the horizon. The only thing you have is blind faith. If you think it is good, and include some aspects of yourself, the player will pick up on that, and enjoy exploring your creation.

Peter: Would you describe "Dark Fall" as essentially English in nature? Do you feel that different Adventure games have different national characteristics?

Jonathan: Totally. The DF games have 'Britflick' written all over them. It's the Hammer Horror tradition extended to the interactive realm. I can quite honestly admit that I make the Dark Fall games because of my childhood, the TV I watched and the landscape I grew up in. I don't feel qualified to write games about other countries (yet), and cultures. Obviously, I could be lazy and watch a few Discovery docos, but in no way would I want to write material set in a particular country just to increase potential sales. What is it with the UK anyway? People are still making games set in "England", as if it carries some almighty resonance. Surely the environment they know best would be a better location, for a first title. We, as gamers, would benefit too. I'd rather explore a realistic and honest recreation of a personal world than traipse around a clumsy "London" recreation yet again.

Peter: Would you feel action sequences out of place in "Dark Fall"? There seems to be a renewal of the trend to add action to adventure games. What do you think about this?

Jonathan: No action is planned for this game, or the next. It's not a scary "pure" attitude to adventures; I just don't see any place for it in these stories. I actually like "cross over" material, as I have an allergic reaction to classification. It's the poisonous desire of marketing people to simplify.

A good mix of challenges can elevate a game, but, if by "action" the game offers clumsy jumps, reloads and crate pushing then I stick with the real "action" games, and the sinister sounding "pure adventures".

Peter: What about your other artistic endeavours? You've done some work on an independent film "Midnight Gone" haven't you?

Jonathan: Yes, and still working. That's a "weekend job", which is looking very promising indeed. UK horror is back on the scene (with Dog Soldiers and 28 Days Later paving the way), so we have high hopes!

Peter: Jonathan, thank you and good luck with "Lights Out"

Copyright © Peter Rootham-Smith 2004. All rights reserved.