Interview with Jonathan Boakes - After Lights Out

Interview by Peter Rootham-Smith (September, 2004)
Peter attended the European Computer Trade Show (ECTS) in London earlier this month and was able to spend some time chatting with Jonathan Boakes and Matt Clark.

Peter: Jonathan, what's happening now that "Dark Fall: Lights Out" is released?

Jonathan: There's people on the forums playing and feedback is good. The regular fans who played the first "Dark Fall" have got their copies, and they're enjoying playing. I had forgotten the gut-wrenching feeling when you first hear people have got copies! I'm now looking forward to the reviews and walkthroughs appearing. That's always nice!

There was a push at the end for packaging and promotion before the Christmas market kicked in. I'm still reeling from that.

Peter: You had challenges to contend with like the lightning storm?

Jonathan: At the end there was one thing after another. We were working really hard to get it finished, and to polish the game off the best we could. Matt (Clark) was helping me out in places like testing, and working on the longer sound clips because they were quite demanding on my time. There were nights when my and Matt's eyes were bloodshot, and once his eyes began bleeding! We were thinking this project is going to kill us! (Laughs.)

Then there's this tropical storm that hits the centre of London with people being electrocuted in the parks. We saw lightning dancing off buildings, and I thought we have to switch these machines off! But also we have to back this game up as quickly as possible too! So we frantically watched this CD program burning all the data to disk, as the thunderstorm approached nearer and nearer on the horizon.

We thought we had done it, but the next afternoon we switched the machines back on to find my main work machine was frazzled. That meant going into town, finding a new suitable machine, going through all the CD backups, and re-compiling the game which we did in record time.

Peter: How did Dreamcatcher support you in all this?

Jonathan: They were very patient. What they said was that they needed certain things by a certain date. If you're going to have a problem getting it by that date then let them know, there's things they can do. They were great, they gave me the time I needed. They let me finish it, there was no give us what you've got attitude, the way some people believe developers are pressured into doing. I didn't see any of that. I was actually chilled out and sensible.

Peter: As an outsider to the commercial aspect how does the money work?

Jonathan: When I was first approached by publishers I went to a lot of sites like Gamasutra. This was to learn from other developers, to know what I should be expecting. What you tend to get is a fee for signing the contract, and after that there's largish lumps for each deliverable. So if you're doing localised versions you get a payment for each localised version. You have to make those amounts back up in sales for the publisher, and when you pass that point you begin to see some royalties yourself.

A lot of game industry sites point out that small projects are very unlikely to ever see royalties. The best thing is to get the initial payment and come in under budget, then move on to your next project. I was quite lucky with Dark Fall because I saw royalties reasonably quickly. Which was really very nice.

Peter: Can you speak about future projects at this point in time?

Jonathan: I can. There's been a project bubbling underneath the surface while we've been finishing off "Lights Out". I have already got started on it. It's at the moment going under the working title of "The Hatchling", and it's going to be a very different kind of game to what I've done so far. But it's something the fan-base will recognise, and I think they'll warm to.

It's a contemporary sit-tale? involving the energies people take with them when they move into new locations. These energies can actually awaken something else in the location that's been dormant for a long time.

I like this theme of people going to places, and their own energies awakening something that begins to cause trouble or disruption. This is interpreted initially as supernatural phenomenon, but actually turns out to be something else. Something much more emotionally or even technically based, rather than just being a bump in the night.

Peter: So what about "Dark Fall 3"?

Jonathan: I'm going to take break from Dark Fall games for a little while.

Peter: You've probably already been asked that.

Jonathan: I haven't been asked that yet, no. I was asked when I was working on Dark Fall 2 yes and I said that would be a pleasure. Now I'm going to take a break from the Dark Fall games and move onto something quite different. After that I'll go straight back into the "Dark Fall" games. It's a series I quite like producing.

Peter: "Dark Fall 3" would be the completion?

Jonathan: Yes, I was going to return the player to Dowerton in the setting for the first game, the train station and the hotel. The player's actions in the first game meant the evil was suppressed, and the renovation of the building went ahead. Renovated by the architect who you were the sibling of in the first game.

His plans go ahead, the hotel is converted into a very modern environment, leisure complex, bar place. You're there as part of a live TV ghost hunting broadcast. Which at the stroke of midnight goes horribly wrong. And the hotel and places begin to be dragged back into the past.

Something I will probably do is to take the original guests, and explore their lives and the places that they knew a little more. For example there was Gloria Grable who was secretly this female bank robber, and Matilda Fly this failed actress from the London theatres. So you'll be able to branch out of Dowerton as a location, and actually jump to the places still in their psyche as a supernatural entity.

Peter: Sounds a little like "Morpheus"?

Jonathan: I love those kinds of games where you can jump into people's dreams and ideas. The way they saw the places they existed in is always interesting. You show someone's impression of a place, and inside that game world impression you have to abide by the way they would have done things.

Peter: Like "Sanitarium" where you play as different creatures in the dream segments?

Jonathan: There's an element of that in "Zork Nemesis" which I think is pretty much my favourite Adventure game of all time still. You had all these crazy alchemist people, and you could jump into their slightly lunatic worlds which were all a contrast to each other, a reflection of their own personalities. I think that's really interesting. Better than having fragmented worlds which are joined for no apparent reason.

Peter: "Zork Nemesis" is dark unlike the other "Zork" games.

Jonathan: It's dark, but also incredibly funny. People tend to overlook there?s a lot of humour in that game. You've got the psychotic electrocuting nurse. There's a lot of humour going on at the conservatory with the records. The castle out in the sands had a lot of humour. It's dark and gothic humour, and when people think back it's not the thing that immediately strikes them. They remember the dark cathedral, and all the gothic stuff which was going on. They forget the wry, slightly perverted humour to the whole game.

Peter: What did you think of current Adventure games?

Jonathan: One thing I find annoying is people setting games somewhere that's going to make a great sound bite. But it's made by people who've never visited the location, or drawn any energy from it. This becomes cynical - let's put it here and it'll look great on the box. Everyone will buy it because it's connected to a legend. Then it's instantly disappointing because they haven't gone back to the original legend or characters or location.

It would be more fun if they looked at a legend in their town where they're actually living or producing. They can actually call upon and find influences on themselves from what they're basing their games. Rather than constantly set games in haunted castles in the UK.

Peter: Or Egypt?

Jonathan: Yes like playing scrabble in Egyptian temples. It never really makes any sense. Without that realism you're constantly aware you're playing someone's idea of a game. You're not making any connection with the actual location itself. I think that is rather a bit of a waste of time.

Peter: Games can offer you the chance to travel to different places

Jonathan: Virtual holidays. A lot of the games that are being made at the moment, particularly Adventure games, are coming out of Eastern Europe. The thing I would ask is whether you set your game around something you're familiar with, rather than setting them in Welsh castles and such-like. What is it with England? I don't quite get that. Just to get on the box "Ye Olde England" and they hope that will make it sell.

People are trying to make it as flashy as possible but not including any emotion in there. I think the last emotional game that I played was "Syberia 2". I made the connection with it emotionally as well as being swept along with what it was doing. It was a really moving game. I don't think I've played anything moving since.

Peter: "Dark Fall 2" is emotionally moving?

Jonathan: It is after the very important halfway point in the game. It starts off in Hammer Horror territory, quite fun creepiness, but then it becomes more engaging with the characters.

There's people who have been 'taken' which you learn about. Then there's something very important you find about yourself as the player halfway through the piece. I won't give away that now. It asks what the history books would write about you in the future. But what if you were able to jump into the future and see what people write about you in the history books? Would you be surprised and shocked? There's elements of that in "Lights Out" definitely.

I had fun offering the player's character many different ways of playing through the game, and seeing the consequences of their actions.

Peter: Like "Titanic: Adventure out of Time"?

Jonathan: Yes. "Titanic's one of my favourite games. It's campy, and quite trashy, but really good fun. It's one of the games I play every year just for some of the dialogue. The feeling and sets are great, and it has got alternative endings. There's a huge non-linearity to the second half of the story. The ending's enjoyable but timed though. If you're on a sinking ship you can't sit on there forever pondering your next move! (Laughs)

Peter: Many games need an element of suspension of disbelief.

Jonathan: It's easier to suspend your disbelief if there's that emotional connection with something rather than constantly marvelling at the stunning 3D animation. That's distracting from what you ought to be doing, and that's being swept along by the story, being drawn into the game.

I can't help feeling a lot of people online on the forums have stopped being gamers and have become industry people. I wouldn't like to be an industry person. I don't want people just focussing on how the technology's moving on in games. That's taking me away from just sitting down and just enjoying a game.

Peter: Would you move to designing games and leave someone else to implement them?

Jonathan: No not really. That doesn't interest me at all. I like working with the game myself. Otherwise it would be kind of pointless. I could go back to cutting sushi (laughs.)

Peter: You're an artist.

Jonathan: I'd like to think of myself as an artist because of the different things in game production. You've got the obvious things like the graphical work. The sound design which a lot of people picked up with the first game. They will with the second too, as there's a much larger effort on the sound on my part. The sound takes a lot of artistry as well. I like the hands on connection of all that work - it gives it a consistency.

Peter: How's the moving to Cornwall going?

Jonathan: At the moment it's tricky, it's 50-50 between here (London) and Cornwall. I hate being back here in London. I think I'm beginning to realise it's literally one of the worse places in the world. There's no support for artists in the town. There's no individual units within the council which you can go to, and say "I've got this project can you help me out?" "What grants are available?" There's no support like that.

The town is the most dysfunctional town I've ever seen. Going out at eleven o'clock at night and trying to find something to eat is just an impossibility. it's either fast food or nothing at all.

It's very depressing. I sat on the Tube (the London underground) for the first time in a couple of weeks, and thought what am I doing here? I want to get back to Cornwall as fast as possible! Down in Cornwall I just walk everywhere it's great.

I'm missing out on things I had here but over time I'm just going to forget those things ever existed. There's actually human interaction down in Cornwall. In London it's lock yourself in your apartment as quickly as possible and seal the rest of the world out. That's not how anyone should live. That's living in a box!

Peter: Seeing many films at the moment?

Jonathan: Pretty much horrendous just recently. Went to "The Village" which was one of those films with many pregnant pauses. You were waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. The payoff wasn't enough.

And then there's other trashy stuff I like to go and see like . . . something which has completely gone from memory (laughs) it was so trashy.

I'm more of a DVDs person. I like to wait and then be a bit more selective than just going to see whatever I can at the cinema. At the moment everything seems a little disjointed.

Peter: Do you have hopes for the new Dr Who?

Jonathan: Yes very high hopes! I think it's going to be excellent! I'm still reeling from the idea of Dr Who coming back.

I had been thinking it was too late. They can never do it. When it was first announced it might be coming back I just thought it's going to be horrendous.

But the news is getting better and better over the last few months. I like the writers. I like the director. I like the people working on the special effects and behind the scenes. I like where they've chosen to film. I've tried to avoid the spoilers online but I know the Autons are back for the first story. So that's going to be really fun I think!

I think they're bringing out the first story at Christmas which is quite cool as well.

Peter: I was amazed that Dr Who was coming back.

Jonathan: It's good casting as well. They chose a really good Doctor. I like what they've chosen for his outfit rather than go down the road of he has to be freaky like the last couple of doctors were. You've got this normal but alien Doctor in the form of Christopher Eccleston. I think it's going to be great.

Not too sure about the companion. I will wait and see that one. I'm an optimist.

Peter: As a final question what's the dumbest question you've been asked?

Jonathan: Someone asked me if I was interested in the paranormal as I had made two games about ghosts. I would have to be a huge sadomasochist otherwise.

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