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Interview with Jeff Williams on Darkstar

Developer:Parallax Studio
Release Date:December 2006

Imagine waking up in a cryogenic sleep chamber inside a highly technologically advanced spaceship. You cannot remember anything of your past life. You feel dizzy and disoriented. The shipís computer soon informs you that you have been asleep for over three hundred years. The systems have not been designed to sustain passengers for such a daunting amount of time. The very fact that you are alive at all is a miracle. Despite the loss of your memories, you feel a distant sense of purpose. There is something you must do. Something extremely important. Lingering in the endless ocean of space, you are on your own to find and fulfill your destiny.
This is the experience Parallax Studios is preparing to deliver with their ambitious project Darkstar. Adventure Lanternís March issue had featured a preview article on the game. As the production of Darkstar nears completion, we interviewed project leader Jeff Williams to obtain detailed information about this highly promising game.

[Adventure Lantern]: How would you describe Darkstar? What sets it apart from other adventure games?
[Jeff Williams]: Darkstar blends cinematics with first person adventure in an Interactive Motion Picture. There are literally hours of cinematics with first notch, movie quality animation and special effects, over 40 live actors, a music track supplied by the Canadian rock legends RUSH, and a world to explore. Think of Riven or Myst with 360-degree panoramics at each stopping point tied together with fully animated walk-betweens. There are puzzles and things to be solved before you can proceed, and unlike the Cyan games, you can die if you do something wrong. Darkstar is very difficult to describe because there is very little to compare it to. One thing it is not is a first person shooter.

[AL]: What was the inspiration behind the story?
[JW]: I've always been fascinated amnesia based storylines. Your character has an opportunity to completely rediscover his reality, made more interesting when done under duress and outside pressures. I also am fascinated by time travel related themes, they open a lot of doors from a plot-related standpoint. I don't think any ONE thing inspired the storyline, but instead a conglomeration of books like Arthur C. Clarke's "Rama" series, Bradbury's short story "The Sound of Thunder", and Kubrick's 1969 film "2001: A Space Odyssey". Darkstar originally formed in my head as a screenplay, but the interactive element seemed a whole new thing to do, so I adapted the script more in that direction.

[AL]: When did you first start working on the story? How much of it was completed before you began production on the game? Has the story evolved during production?
[JW]: The story began in my head in 1992 with a treatment, but I didn't actually begin writing the screenplay in earnest until 2000. The script was complete prior to any actual production as were detailed storyboards. The character detail evolved somewhat after production began as I expanded the screen-time and presence of the actor who plays the "player", Clive Robertson (Starhunter and Aaron Spelling's Sunset Beach). Originally I had intended to see the actor very little on screen in lieu of the game-like, first-person approach. As I looked closer at the script's blocking direction and some of the early interactive models and sequences I began to see an opportunity to integrate the "movie" side of the project with the "gaming" side even more intricately. This basically means that as the player walks about our world, the camera view (like in a movie) will change from time to time to show the "player" as actor Clive Robertson doing as you do. Then returning to first person so that you may continue. In the end, the whole idea is that both the game and the movie are basically storytelling tools.

[AL]: Darkstar portrays quite a bleak future for humanity. What can you tell us about the historical background of the game's universe?
[JW]: Earth is destroyed in the first 30 seconds of Darkstar during the opening credits that begin just like any other movie would. Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible/Airplane/A&E's Biography) narrates obliquely, setting the stage for our hero to wake up after 312 years of cryogenic sleep. There are 11 chapters of back story movie that explain what happened to humanity, and ultimately disclosing what the Darkstar mission is to the lead character. To see all 11 chapters, the player must progress through the spaceship and unlock each, one by one. The whole idea is that if the player is successful in his mission, none of the tragic events will ever occur to begin with.

Without giving away too much, Earth's government (now one global entity) unites humanity against anything they deem unacceptable or "evil". All nuclear weapons, waste, guns, explosives and tools of war are loaded up on unmanned freighters and shot into empty space. Years later, they cross the path of a massive asteroid composed of unknown materials, collide, and create a huge, swirling rift in space later dubbed Darkstar. All undesirable people are likewise banned from the Earth, sent to a prison colony on Mars called New Australia. An exploratory ship to Darkstar reveals its primary disposition, which is a frozen place in time and space. In other words, if an object or person passes into the hole they come out the other side at the exact moment the cloud was created by the collision. So it is a portal to the year 2118. Years later, there is a revolt on Mars at the prison colony, and the inmates take over, and after 80ish years of preparation, they return to Earth for revenge. Earth's military has long been dissolved, and they are completely unprepared to defend themselves. So in the six months they wait for the arrival of a deadly armada from Mars, they come up with a plan, and a way to utilize the strange properties of a purple, swirling storm in space they call Darkstar.

[AL]: Can you describe how you envision John O'Neil would feel upon waking up from his cryogenic sleep? Realizing his memories are irrevocably lost, and even his personality traits are diminished, what are his initial thoughts and feelings?
[JW]: That is exactly the exercise I wish to force upon the player. The changing camera views allow us to see John O'Neil cinematically respond to countless situations and objects he finds on the ship. I did not let the amnesia-induced opportunity slip by to spring a bizarre twist ending that I'm pretty sure no one will see coming. Keeping it under wraps will be the toughest thing I have to successfully do in this long production. I have written a few alternate endings that will not be used, so very few know the outcome.

[AL]: What can you tell us about John O'Neil's character? How will he evolve going through the adventure?
[JW]: I love the nature of your questions being so story based...it means someone out there gets it! John learns about mankind's past, as well as his own, as he explores his broken starship. He also learns about the other three crewmembers, and slowly realizes that there is someone or some thing that are bent on him not making it to Darkstar.

[AL]: What about the other key characters in the game? What kind of a role will they play in John's adventure?
[JW]: Three "Mystery Science Theater 3000" actors round out the rest of the crew. Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Forrester/Crow T. Robot) plays First Officer Perryman who is one of John's best friends. Beez McKeever (Behind the scenes "prop diva" and onscreen extra on several episodes of MST-3K) plays pilot Paige Palmer who is a potential past love interest of O'Neils back when he still had his memory. And last is Frank Conniff (TV's Frank on MST) who is the murdered Navigator. You get to know him through his log entries, and see his gnarly corpse in the broken sleep chamber. Frank also voices a quirky robot named SIMON whom O'Neil has several interactions with onboard the Westwick.

[AL]: What is the "Darkstar" that gave the game its name?
[JW]: Darkstar is the stormy space anomaly created by a man-made explosion in deep space. It turns out to be a time hole to the year 2118, the year it was created.

[AL]: The game starts on the spaceship Westwick. What can you tell us about the spacecraft?
[JW]: Westwick is one of four ships sent to reach Darkstar. The sister ships have all been destroyed. It is an unusually large ship for one manned by only four crewmembers. It is completely locked down after an outside attack, and it is damaged. There are many levels, secret doorways, mechanisms to be figured out, and lots of things to see. The ship has four cabins (one each for the crew), a large bridge section that can be separated from the rest of the ship, recreation areas, shuttle bays, a shuttle that the player takes down to the planet, an EVM pod needed to repair the coolant tank outside the ship, and much more.

[AL]: The Darkstar Web site indicates the game will feature locations outside the spaceship. Can you provide some more information about these locations?
[JW]: The player must go down to the planet to get something to fix the ship. There is an alien sacrificial temple that houses a dangerous being. There is a landed Mars ship that is seemingly deserted that has followed you across the galaxy which you may enter.

[AL]: The Darkstar universe features some fascinating technology. Can you describe some of the technological advancements you envisioned taking place since the 21st century?
[JW]: Actually most conspicuous is a technology I did NOT include. One is faster than light capability. I thought it more interesting (and realistic) that Earth had six months to sweat out the imminent attack from Mars, and that it takes a long time to travel in space, facilitating my crygenic units that go wrong and lead to the loss of O'Neil's memory. I prefer Kubrick's technology which is just a skip and a jump beyond today's NASA...though I did cheat and provide for artificial gravity. The technology to create gravity by centrifuge or centrufigal force made for a butt-ugly spaceship, and I wanted something sleek and semi-aerodynamic for aesthetic purposes. This all despite the fact a ship needs no aerodynamics whatsoever to operate in the vacuum of space. One excuse is that the bridge section is capable of flight in an atmosphere. Another cheat is that there is no sound in space in reality, but my stellar background is populated by engine noise, explosions...and oh yeah, loud RUSH music.

[AL]: Can you describe the actual game play mechanics? How will the players explore the world of Darkstar?
[JW]: Point and click. You pull the view around using mouse or controller to look around in full panoramic view. Even straight up or down. Click where you want to go and you animate there. If you want to press a button, pull a lever, or pick something up, you click on it. If there is a hotspot, the cursor changes, so you can feel around for items of interest.

[AL]: What kind of challenges can players expect to find?
[JW]: The puzzles are not too awfully hard. Most people get through an hour or two of Riven and they are hopelessly stuck. I didn't want puzzles to bog down the story too much, but I didn't want it to be a cake walk either. Really, it's all common sense. You just explore everywhere. Experiment. Risk death...actually the death sequences are some of the coolest. so I recommend dying in every way possible so you can see those movies. I can't really say too much without giving too much away.

[AL]: The videos available from the game depict a considerable amount of space combat. Will this factor into game play?
[JW]: NO. All of the combat scenes are from the back-story movie. There is only one confrontation between O'Neil and an unidentified nemesis at the end of the game where a gun is involved. The player must make the correct choice in how to deal with the enemy, and will have to have picked up the correct items along the way or he's toast.

[AL]: Darkstar has a sizable cast and a considerable amount of video footage. Can you tell us a little about the filming experience?
[JW]: Greenscreen is always challenging to shoot. I storyboarded each scene so that the actors could see exactly what, where and who they were playing against. Many scenes were shot with actors interacting in a scene with another actor that they never met. Like most film productions we leased our own soundstage for the duration of production. We also leased studios in Los Angeles when needed. Directing a project with multiple endings and forks in the plot is very challenging...continuity becomes an issue at every turn. My biggest fear was to paint myself into a plot corner by shooting something wrong or by not thinking of every contingency. So far this has not happened. A lot of care had to be taken when writing, blocking out and shooting Darkstar so that I was not forced to shoot several parallel versions of the story based on minor details that could force that. An example is John's costume. The entire costume includes a blue jacket that is the formal uniform that John awakens in. I realized that at some point I wanted him to shed it so that he could move more freely...but where can he take it off without leaving it to the player, and forcing me to shoot tons of the same thing with and without jacket. I had him take the damn thing off the second he got out of the cryo unit.

[AL]: Can you tell us about the game's soundtrack?
[JW]: Four letters. R-U-S-H. The legendary band has given us open reign on their HUGE discography and we chose 24 of their greatest songs as the score for much of DS. It is scary how well the music edited into the action, and how Geddy's voice singing Neil's lyrics matched the story so well. Rush music is cinematic WITHOUT benefit of a secondary story or special effects. In addition to the RUSH tracks, we produced over 30 pieces of music that adds ambience to the lions share of the interactive section of DS, whereas the fab three's music is mostly in the backstory cinema and the grand finale.

[AL]: What is it like to lead a project like Darkstar? How would you describe a typical day working on the project?
[JW]: I began Darkstar at the same time Pixar began working on CARS, a movie that just hit theaters last month. They have 300 animators. I have two. I personally have animated 99% of Darkstar, the rest is done by my childhood idol, animator and artist Richard Corben (Heavy Metal). My support staff changes as the production moves from stage to stage. In preproduction I needed other writers to help punch up the script, costume designers, modelmakers, and the whole plethora needed to create everything necessary prior to saying roll 'em. During production I needed the actors, several camera operators, lighting folks, continuity people...the big list. During the shoot period of DS, which went on for nearly 2 and a half years, I employed the largest amount of hired guns to do the countless tasks required. This was also the most tightly scheduled period in order to get everybody together, pulling in folks from Minneapolis, MN, New York City, Los Angeles, CA, Arizona, Canada, and even Wales in the UK to get some VO tracks. When DS moved into post production, it became a much smaller, core, intimate group. Sound studios, mastering studios, musicians, and voice talents went to work right away doing a myriad of tasks ranging from sound effects to cleaning up audio. We also began compositing our shot footage over the animated world we'd created prior to shooting, editing the scenes together, and mixing in 5:1 Dolby Digital audio. During this period we attended two E3 Conventions, the second of which we were guests of George Lucas' THX studio, in order to get a glimpse of what the gaming industry's cutting edge had to offer. Basically we learned that NOBODY was doing anything like what we were doing. Our conclusion? This is going to flop or be absolutely HUGE. So far, industry insiders have assured us the latter is true, but warn us that marketing it to the right players will be crucial. So now it's down to a lot of animation and panoramics for the gaming part, more sound effects, and the genius of a guy named David Ferrell (Coder for the Star Trek Starfleet Command Games) who is sewing all this stuff together into one cohesive product.

[AL]: Based on the information available on the official Darkstar site, Parallax operates somewhat differently from a typical company. Can you tell us a little about Parallax and the rest of your team?
[JW]: Parallax is a small, intimate group of artist types. Some musicians, some animators, some artists, some computer geeks, all drawn together out of sheer boredom derived from doing decades of advertising related products, the only kind of regular production work available in the midwest mainstream market. We'd all made a great living at it for a very long time, and we all decided at about the same time to do our dream projects. We all have them, Darkstar happens to be mine.

[AL]: Are there any other projects you are working on that you can share with us at this time?
[JW]: I've always got other animated projects going on. I just finished a very elaborate medical production financed by Glaxo Smith Klein that will educate doctors on how to treat migraine. I've also done animation for some pretty cool websites (check out www.ggandv.com), and produced a few music videos and TV commercials. Probably none of this have you (or will you) see where you sit, but that's fine...it's not sexy stuff. I've done projects for Coca-Cola, Lucasfilm, and French's (the Mustard company)...again, nothing very sexy, but good paying jobs.

[AL]: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
[JW]: I wish that I could sit down with each and every one of them and watch them Beta test what we have so far...I'd give a million dollars to hear what they like and don't. Unfortunately that would be a hot check, as everything is wrapped up in this project! I would love to hear what your readers think of the ideas, the concept, and the graphics they can see at www.darkstar.gs. I hope to hear mostly supportive reinforcement, and that this is something that they'd like, because here in these post production days there is little I can do to change the course of this Leviathan...I hope you love it. I promise it will be like nothing you have seen, and it will be stunning to look at.

Adventure Lantern thanks Jeff Williams for providing us detailed information about his upcoming project Darkstar. As the release of Darkstar draws ever closer, the game looks quite promising. Jeff Williams seems to have crafted quite an intriguing storyline for the game full of interesting characters and unexpected twists. Exploring the spaceship Westwick to discover humanityís bleak future and the true nature of OíNeilís mission should hopefully make for an interesting experience. Given its considerable scale and interesting premise, Darkstar certainly seems to be worth putting on the radar. Science-fiction and FMV adventure fans in particular might be in for a real treat.

For additional information on Darkstar, more screenshots, and trailers, visit the official Darkstar Web site at www.darkstar.gs.