Interview With The Darkstar Team
The Darkstar adventure has been looming over the horizon for as early as 1995. We were all fascinated when we heard about this exciting title boasting FMV (remember about that?), science fiction and most of the team from Mystery Science Theater 3000. It may be one of the longest running projects ever in the history of gaming as well, and for many years we thought that it wouldn’t make it. If you think about it, during the time that Darkstar was being conceived and developed, Duke Nukem Forever was announced and then cancelled over ten years later. Put into perspective that sounds insane. However, it looks like this mega-ambitious affair will soon meet with a happy ending against all odds, and I had the chance to chat with its mastermind – Jeffery Williams – for much needed details.
AGUSTÍN CORDES: The question that keeps pounding in our heads: just how did all of this happen? Darkstar looks like it’s one of the biggest FMV adventures ever in an era where realtime 3D rules the land and the genre is struggling. And with TV and movie celebrities no less! It’s almost unreal…
JEFFERY WILLIAMS: Darkstar was originally to be a short film or feature length offering that had a treatment developed and some pre-production design complete, but I was working on some interactive projects at the time and it gave me the idea to try something a bit different. I looked closely at what was being produced at the time (late 90’s) and didn’t see anything that really walked right up to the line that separates interactive entertainment and movies and built a foundation right on that precipice. So I decided to do that. It simplified how I could release the project, because getting an independent film screen time is an arduous task, and I was not interested in producing something that would never see the light of day. Putting out what in the end is basically a piece of software is not nearly as difficult as prying your way into theaters. So I disguised my film as a game. And I don’t need to rule the land—just have a great story to tell you, so pull up a chair here next to the fire and I’ll whittle you up one fresh while the corn pops.
AC: Sci-Fi (real Sci-Fi, that is) has been lacking in games recently. We’re all eager to hear about the story of your project some more.
JEFF: I couldn’t agree with you more referring to the state of modern “syfy”… gag. Harlan Ellison is probably laughing his cynical butt off while Forrest Ackerman rolls in his grave—well, I’m from that old-school Forrest Ackerman inducted Sci-Fi academy of dubious arts, and I love weird and I love “out there”. Like you, I even have a strange, unexplainable affection for the bad stuff—the giant bug movies, spaceships with strings showing, and terrible over-acting, and all this before being indoctrinated into the MSTK3 wonderful world of schlock & snark.
I’ve been making movies since 1970 at the age of ten with my grandparents 8mm film camera, the budget for each was $2.65—enough for film and developing, and it took a week for the US mail to return my creative love-spawn to me so I could feverishly load the projector to see the results of my adolescent labor. The name for my studio (Parallax) came from early frustrations I had shooting things stop-action very close up when they would always end up framed wrong. I’d get the film back, and my meticulously framed shot would be aimed at the @#$*&! feet of my clay characters instead of their heads— hours of shooting my three-minute opus completely wasted. I went to my grandfather and he said it was the “parallax effect”, and pointed out that the viewfinder of the camera was an inch above the lens. “What you see is not necessarily what you get” he said.
I always loved that concept, and adapted the theory to my storytelling as well. Twist endings and complex plots were not as common in those days, you had to search out the Rod Serlings and the Hitchcocks to get the sordid payoffs I yearned for, and the world of Sci-Fi offered so many opportunities for those sensibilities. I was hooked at a young age by these shows, movies, and my comics. And yes, basic cable, we’ve all agreed before you guys ever came along that we spell it SCI-FI. Not syfy. People in suits should not make decisions on our genre for us.
AC: Yeah, don’t get me started on that “sy-philis” thing. The genre has been going downhill for years, even more noticeably in books. But I digress — what were your sources of inspiration?
JEFF: Early on it was my comics, the ones your mother did not want you to have. I wasn’t even a Marvel or DC kinda kid, I was completely warped and needed the black and white visceral images from magazines like Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella, a lot of underground comics by Richard Corben like Fantagor, Slow Death… that kind of stuff. These comics sidestepped the comics code by leaping from the comic stand to the magazine racks where there was no regulation, and they could sit neatly between the gun magazines and Penthouse. As a kid I would walk from school to a medical center where my mom worked and would wait for her to get off work, there was a drug store downstairs with no comic stand—but there were the magazines. So in a way it’s my mom’s fault in the long run, I was forced to skip from Archie up to Vampirella. I often wonder if presenting that logic to her at the time would have kept her from burning them whenever she discovered my stash?
Later Heavy Metal came along and I ate that eye candy up like crazy with more Corben, Moebius, Wrightson, Frazetta… On TV I watched Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, Star Trek, Lost in Space, Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, I soaked in all that 60’s and 70’s stuff, even the crap. The Japanese monster films too. And I especially cleaved to every producer’s childhood bible, Famous Monsters of Filmland, and hung on every metaphor-laden word from our hero and fellow fan, Forry Ackerman. Then came Star Wars, and I was done. This was the apex of creative existence to me—one man had created a universe, and I would not rest until I had done the same! Roddenberry who?
AC: Watch out, you wouldn’t want to alienate the trekkies…
JEFF: You’re right, I resemble that comment. I am the biggest, stupidest spock-ear wearing trekkie (not trecker) that ever died horribly in a red jersey in his fondest fantasy… I’m just saying. Anyhoo…
AC: Yes, onto the next one. The team behind Darkstar is quite impressive, including famed comic artist Richard Corben. What kind of nasty monsters and strange aliens can we expect in the game?
JEFF: I met Rich several years before Darkstar, and he and I worked together on some commercial projects. I remember one was “Grass Gator”, one of those infomercial gigs, and Richard came up with a really cool Alligator character that we animated for the job. He did an album cover for me too. Rich is responsible for creating and building the animated people and monsters. There are several dead bodies discovered as you explore, some quite gory, and they had to be photo-realistic and visceral. Some have been dead for three hundred years, one is a fresh kill. He also built a model of actress Beez McKeever that lies sleeping in a cryo-chamber that had to look exactly like her in costume so you can navigate around it in 3D. Rich did many production drawings of the Alien Temple, and the final designs were based on those drawings. Many people don’t know that Rich is an adept animator, and works in the same programs that we do at Parallax—it was a serendipitous situation that our career arcs met the way they did at the exact time that Darkstar came to fruition. At the time he was working on this very cool Edgar Allen Poe feature animation, I wish he’d finish it.
My favorite contribution that Corb made was his monster, the one that lurks in the waters inside and around the alien sacrificial temple and altar. His original design was a tentacled horror that was very cool and scary, but we ended up opting to go with a kind of dinosaur shark with no eyes. In one sequence, Clive is attacked and dragged beneath the waves with the water churning red.
AC: Excellent! As you can imagine, I’m quite fond of creatures with tentacles. Any robots? We love robots in adventures.
JEFF: Me too, and my favorite characters (don’t tell Clive!) are our robots. There are two aboard the Westwick, one named SIMON and one named MAGS. SIMON (voiced by Frank Conniff of MST3K) is a sarcastic, thoroughly irritating assembly of plastic that enjoys messing with Captain O’Neil. His name stands for Semi-Intelligent Motorized Observation Network, and he hates the acronym. Throughout Darkstar he accosts you frequently, and introduces himself with an alternate acronym name each time, all of them funny. MAGS (voiced by Margaret Williams) was built by SIMON to keep him company during the 312 years that the crew hibernated in cryogenic stasis. Her name stands for Motorized Automated Girl for Simon. She is a bit muddled, but talks nearly constantly with a trademark of leaving few gaps in her diatribe in which you may reply.
AC: How come Frank never played a robot in the MST3K show and yet he gets the job in Darkstar?
FRANK CONNIFF: I was hired as a writer on MST3K, and then I was privileged to play TV’s Frank. The robot characters were all taken. And despite the fact that none of my cohorts played a robot on Darkstar, I never felt like saying, “na-na-na-na-na.”
AC: Actually, the star of the story is performed by Clive Robertson who I’m sure will be a familiar face to many, most notably perhaps from the Sunset Beach and Starhunter TV series. Clive, could you tell us what it was like to work as a videogame actor? Did your experience in Starhunter help in any way given it’s a similar setting?
CLIVE ROBERTSON: You have to remember it was some time ago that we shot this, years in fact, and my memory isn’t what it used to be! But it was a very enjoyable few days in Missouri. The shooting itself is green screen, which will challenge the best of us actors, as you are acting without the benefit of other actors to play off or a set to look at – so everything you’re doing you have to imagine. But aside from that, videogame acting is no different from other acting… its all about truth.
I had done a fair bit of green screen work on the set of Starhunter, so this was not unfamiliar territory. I’m sure I pulled on what I’d done as a captain of another starship, though I honestly can’t remember. I guess once you’ve seen one starship, you’ve seen them all!
AC: Would you do it again?
CLIVE: Jeff and I have become friends over the years and I would do it again just for the fun of it… last time we did it in 2 days, next time I’d go at a more leisurely pace!
AC: I couldn’t help noticing that Beez McKeever’s character looks strikingly similar to Barbarella. Beez, would you care to comment?
BEEZ MCKEEVER: As I recall it, I’d been asked to be the costume designer but when I looked at the project I saw this really great role to play, not knowing it was already cast. Now I should preface this by saying I am a HUGE Barbarella fan. When I saw the part of Paige Palmer I thought “This could be my Barbarella moment!”- kinda. Who wouldn’t want to play an intrepid space pilot on a daunting mission to save the Earth? So I asked Jeff if I could audition for the part. After a bit of thinking about it he got in touch with me to say, in so many words, “You’re in Kid!” I think this was one of those rare and wonderful times when the MST3K card came in handy. The gal who was originally cast in the role took on the role of my sister so hopefully karma isn’t out to get me. I didn’t know- I really didn’t- and from what I was told Valli was extremely cool about the whole thing. So that’s how that went!
AC: Well, I think your Barbarella moment will be amazing. As for Valli, I would love to have a private Q&A with her. Anyway, back to Jeff — the majority of the story seems to take place in a spaceship called the Westwick. Are there going to be other locations to explore?
JEFF: Yes. While unlocking and repairing the ship you will go outside in both a spacesuit and an EVM Pod. After you have completed those exploration tasks, you then travel down to the planet in one of the ships’ shuttles and discover an Alien Temple. Once you have made it through there, you find an enemy WASP (a utility helicopter) and it will take you to its mother ship, a Scythe Interceptor. The WASP will dock inside of it, and you explore this hostile territory, possibly to die. If not, you return to the Westwick and face the bad guy waiting for you. Hope this isn’t TMI in the realm of spoilers, but you asked!
AC: Not at all, I think it’s just ambiguous enough to get us very excited about what to expect. I was very sorry to learn about the recent death of Peter Graves of the original Mission: Impossible series fame but didn’t know until now however that he had a role in Darkstar. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
JEFF: Peter was a dear man, and an absolute joy to work with—I so wanted him to see this finished. We met in 2000 towards the beginning of the project. He narrates the story as you go through the many forks in the plot, his stylized dialogue purposely written in thick, wry prose reminiscent of Rod Serlings openings for the Twilight Zone. I specifically gave Peter that direction in-studio, and I recall him quipping something to the effect of “Rod was once a neighbor of mine, he’d like that. Well, he’s dead, so you’re stuck with what I give you here, Jeff!” It was a wonderful session, and he brought a lot to the read. Darkstar will be his final project released, and I’m very proud to have known him. He was nice to me even though he knew I was working with Trace and the other MST3K folks, a group he later referred to in an interview as “those idiots in front of the screen”. Evidently he didn’t enjoy their riffs on his earlier movies. Some mysties (MST fans) have railed him for dissing their favorite show, but I can tell you, Peter had a great sense of humor and had no trouble riffing on himself. Hey, fellow Mysties, put “Airplane” in your Netflix cue if you’ve forgotten that.
AC: My goodness, I can imagine the backlash — MSTK3 is like a religion… at least the one I often practice second to Cthulhuism. There has been some speculation whether Darkstar will be a traditional adventure game, for instance with puzzles and inventory, or something entirely different. How would you describe its basic gameplay?
JEFF: Good or bad, there is nothing traditional about Darkstar. Yes, it does have some puzzles and an inventory of objects you collect and will need from time to time. And there is also a world to explore, executed in a vaguely similar way as you’d see in some of the later Myst series with pre-rendered walks from place to place and full 360 degree up and down panoramas when you stop. That’s where the similarity ends.
The entire “tour” is peppered with cinema, so when you encounter certain objects or plot points, the “game” breaks into “film” mode for brief story enhancements. My idea from the start is that somebody watching you play Darkstar might wonder whether they are watching a game unfold, or if they are watching a movie. Also, there is a “back-story” that is nearly an hour long that is broken into ten chapters plus a prologue. Ten “bioloks” correspond to each chapter, and as you find them the chapters are unlocked so that you may view them, giving more insight from the past as to what is going on right now in the present. The bioloks can be opened in different order depending on the routes you take in the ship and in the story, but they open the story chapters in order 1-10. The prologue is available immediately for free, and any of the flicks may be viewed at any time after they are unlocked. After combining this footage with in-game cinema, you’re looking at over four hours of cinema. And any of it may be clicked past if you wish to just explore.
AC: Sounds like a very rich experience alright. Recently Heavy Rain was released into the wild and posed itself as an “interactive drama videogame”. It was hailed as revolutionary for allowing players to make important decisions for their characters and determine the outcome of the story. Can we expect a similar philosophy in your project or you’re not even concerned with any of this?
JEFF: Will Phillips at SouthPeak told me about this one, but I’ve not seen it. In fact, I’ve kept myself antiseptic to any games at all since 2000 so that I would not be influenced. I do not consider myself a game developer, more a filmmaker/storyteller that made one game.
Based on your descriptive above, yes, there are decisions that can lead you to about 29 forks in the plot—all of them deaths. These deaths would be the alternate endings, and they are elaborate and fun to watch. In the end, there is ONE goal, to get through Darkstar, a rip in time that takes you back to the year 2118 where you can warn mankind of an imminent and avoidable Armageddon.
AC: In other words, you will have to decide carefully. Judging from the screenshots and trailer Darkstar looks like it will be very dynamic and some scenes are pretty daring. What kind of technology did you use?
JEFF: Thanks for saying that. Rich and I both used 3D Studio Max to animate the scenes. I then brought our filmed footage of the actors along with the layers rendered in Max into Adobe After Effects to composite the scenes. Sometimes I’d use Final Cut Pro to edit, but generally I preferred to stay in After Effects as long as possible because there is so much you can do there with camera effects, lens flares, that sort of thing. Also it offered more sophisticated compression options. Final Cut was good for adding the basic sound effects, but I’d have to send my files off to my buddy Bill Bruce at Appleton Studios who’d turn it into 5:1 Dolby Surround. Technically we’re THX too, but aren’t going to pay them the $20K for the license to show the logo. But we’re using THX rated sound equipment.
As far as daring, I don’t know about that, but I will cop to the idea that it’s all very stylized, and that’s what makes it work. If you look at Sin City, you have to admire the stylized look, and because it’s done that way you can’t really compare it with anything. If I produced Darkstar traditionally, like Star Wars, Star Trek, or other classic Sci-Fi movies were made, we’d be held to that standard—and frankly we didn’t have $250M for special effects. But I wanted it to be it’s own thing, and the best it could be. Creating a very stylized atmosphere with my own formula and way of doing things made it work. I’m stunned at the kudos we continue to get for the visuals, I didn’t expect it to tell you the truth, and I’m too close to it to judge myself. My litmus test is that it needs to suspend your disbelief to the level required to keep an effects sequence from getting in the way of the story.
AC: The project has been well under production for at least ten years. Hats off for hanging on this much! What difficulties did you meet throughout this period?
JEFF: I had originally projected a three to four year production schedule, but the project kept evolving and getting larger, and Parallax is a very small studio—I did nearly all the work myself. During production we were a bit worried that the length of time it took me to produce might put us behind the technical 8-ball, so to speak, but actually as new technologies became available we were able to adapt and utilize them. As I said, I began with a screenplay—exactly as you would a feature film. The first task was to shoot all the actors, and there are over 40. Everybody was shot on green screen and the animated world would be added later in post. After all of this work was complete, the modeling of a huge, multi-leveled spaceship, a planet, an alien temple, and an enemy ship had to be done—and it all had to be photo realistic to match the live action people. Then I began to add entire areas not addressed in the script as ideas to enhance the story presented themselves. This activity alone added years to production, and since I had no publisher to be beholding to, it was okay to do that. But eventually I made a decision to stop enlarging the thing, and finally finish the damned thing.
One major roadblock to the production was a change in Quicktime technology that killed our original build of the project. Apple ceased to support a software we used that was key to the infrastructure, so we lost two years there, and were forced to start all over and find another way to build Darkstar. We partnered with Canadian developers “Tribal Media”, and they began anew with my assets to build what is now the final product. Since we’re in the C++ data domain now, there is no danger of being derailed in that way again.
We’ve been dealing with publishers, lawyers and rights management now for over a year trying to get this thing out there, a totally soul-sucking process, but necessary—and we’re almost through all that. Hopefully I can announce a release date in the next month or so. I refuse to walk through another self-imposed deadline, so I won’t announce anything until I’m sure, and that means ink from three entities right now.
AC: Yes, it can be tough to work with Apple’s tools in that regard. You are always forced to make use of their very latest technologies. Any rough estimations about the length of the game?
JEFF: As I stated before, there is probably at least 4 hours of live action video, I’ve not actually sat down and timed it all, but that is a conservative estimate. Gameplay time really will depend on the person, but when I do testing myself (and I know all the secrets and solutions) I have at least ten hours ahead of me to get through it to see everything—and that’s not including the back-story cinema. And I’m rushing through, so it should keep you entertained for quite some time. And one thing about DS is that it is actually fun to watch somebody else play—because then, you actually ARE simply watching a movie! The player is the Assistant Director! How cool is that? Ever want to direct a film? Buy Darkstar.
AC: Hey, that’s a brilliant selling point… you might want to use it! Given the involvement of the MST3K team, one has to wonder about the mood of Darkstar. Would you say it’s serious Sci-Fi or a bit of comedy has slipped into the script?
JEFF: Darkstar has a very unique mood to it and has an eclectic mix of Sci-Fi, horror, drama, adventure, and a strong seasoning of dark, bizarre humor. There are numerous pop culture references throughout that normally would have no place in such a story, but it works and is actually expected considering the pool of snarky talent we’ve brought together. The comedy element is an important part of the entertainment element here, and it is blatant and strategically placed. SIMON is an important part of that, and Frank Conniff really brought a lot to the robot character. Without spoiling anything, Joel Hodgson’s character is funny in a very odd, dark way—especially if you are an MST3K fan, those folks will be surprised and amused at his (and our) execution of the character he plays. There’s a pun there you will only get after you’ve played Darkstar.
One important note on some of the humorous elements is that due to the interactive “real-time” nature of Darkstar, if you don’t do everything you are supposed to do, you might miss them completely. For example, you must discover SIMON and agree to talk to him, otherwise the rest of your journey will be devoid of his input. Likewise, the encounter with Joel is optional and might be missed if you don’t look hard enough for elements that lead to that particular encounter.
AC: Sounds great! It’s fantastic to hear that players will have those sort of options. Now, RUSH feels like a peculiar choice for a soundtrack. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for progressive rock and the better if it’s from such a respectable band, but what was the motivation behind this decision? Did the band write any new songs for the project?
JEFF: Music brings an additional layer of atmosphere to the environment of a storytelling tool like this, something that I noticed in the 80’s cult classic Heavy Metal (another of Rich’s projects). As long as I’ve known that I would produce something like this, I’ve known it MUST have distinctive, rock music.
Originally, I intended to use various artists, but as I continued to discuss the project with RUSH management (Pegi Cecconi at Anthem Records, Canada) we began to entertain the idea of a RUSH soundtrack. We never discussed the band doing original music for the project because it would be very time consuming and expensive to do that, and honestly, their classics from the 70’s to their newest stuff was what I was hearing in my head.
Once you see the footage with the music in context, you will absolutely understand why I chose to include it.
AC: Thanks for that clarification. It’s rumored that the game will be shipped in 8 dual-layer DVDs (yikes!). Does this still hold true? How are you planning to manage with distribution?
JEFF: The rumor is slightly wrong. It’s six dual-layer plus one single-layered DVD, and that’s for the full version of the game. With this version you can do a full install that will take about 44GB of drive space, or opt to a partial install of only 6GB, but you will have to shift disks occasionally, but not very often. If you remember, MYST’s RIVEN came on five CDRoms in the days that a 250MB hard drive was a big deal—a 1G hard drive unheard of. Darkstar will also be available in a three-part trilogy series. Part One is on three disks (22G), Part Two is on two disks (14G), and Part Three is on two disks (10G). You must have the previous chapters to play the latter ones.
The reason for the large real estate is that everything is pre-rendered at high quality 800×600 resolution (just between TV resolution and hi-def), with no game engine. Our game will probably cost less than any of the big games coming out on only one disk, so the value is certainly there, not to mention the quality and quantity of adventure you get in Darkstar.
AC: I was glad to hear the game will be available on Macs in addition to PCs. Have you considered other platforms as well such as consoles? It seems like Darkstar would look terrific on a TV but it could also be a nice fit for the iPad (if something can be done about the size, that is).
JEFF: My favorite way to play Darkstar personally is to buy a little VGA cable for my laptop at Best Buy and hook it to my big screen TV. It looks and plays great. Our publisher in Canada who will offer DS as a downloadable (potentially on Steam and others) has talked about some technology that would allow players to stream live to their TV and play using their remote—I hate to even bring that one up because I haven’t been fully briefed on it, but it’s in the offing. I don’t know much about the iPad, but if it gets huge like it looks like it’s going to, we’ll look into it. We are working on a cute little iPhone app that we’ll be releasing soon as a freebie download that will be fun.
The “game” itself will work on both PC and Mac. On PC it will work with XP/Vista/7. On Mac it will work on the most current OSX—it actually will work going back to the G5, but we’ve found a few audio distortions due to Quicktimes interactions with the older OSX that unfortunately we can’t do anything about due to Apple’s design, so it’s best if you have the newer OS and machine. Mine is over a year old and it does great. System requirements are pretty basic—if you can play movies or any kind of game on your computer, you’re probably fine.
We’ll perhaps visit the consoles early next year. We’ve not settled on a publishing partner to port this over to any of the game consoles yet, and we want to get Darkstar out there this year. If the interest is there and we find a good sized audience with this release, consoles will surely follow if the hard-core gamers want it there.
AC: And finally, one for the MST3K team: which is the one movie that you regret not riffing in the show?
BEEZ: After MST3K I would have said “Maximum Overdrive” because that’s THE worst movie I’ve seen in a movie theater. I’m relieved that Riff Trax went after it with a clown hammer at some point. It was SO asking for it. I can’t think of any other movies off the top of my head but if either camp decided to riff a TV show there’s a Japanese show from the 70’s called “Spectreman” which seems ripe for the riffing.
FRANK: “The Oscar” is my favorite bad movie, but there is no way we ever could have gotten the rights to it.
JOSH: “Life Is Beautiful”.
TRACE: The one movie I regret not riffing on the show was “MST3K The movie”. Take that us!
AC: Thank you, guys. Now I have plenty of new material to watch over the weekend. I would like to thank Jeff as well and all who participated in this mega-interview. I wish you the very best luck for the imminent release of Darkstar which is easily one of the greatest adventure productions ever. I can’t wait to get my slimy tentacles all over it!