Acclaim Studios Teesside
Project Management and Design (Sony PlayStation, Nintendo 64, SEGA Dreamcast, PC)
Voices: Jack the Ripper/Avery Marx
Motion Capture Performance: Jack the Ripper/Avery Marx/Marco Cruz
After completing College Slam with the team at Teesside it seemed that everyone was itching to have a go at an original title, so, after having come up with a number of proposals for a variety of action games we were asked by Acclaim’s head office in New York to come up with a 3D action horror adventure – ‘something along the lines of Capcom’s Resident Evil but in full 3D’, they said
A small team of us got together and created a proposal for a horror adventure featuring an original character: Thomas Deacon, an ex-NYPD cop turned Demon Hunter. This was greeted with enthusiasm but not taken up (although Deacon would appear as a major character in Shadow Man: 2econd Coming a number of years later). Instead, we were then sent a group of Acclaim’s range of Valiant comics and asked if we could put together a proposal for one of them. The comics: Ninjak (the story of a teenager who turns into ‘Ninjak’ a video game character that fights crime), Magnus, Robot Fighter (his name is Magnus, he fights robots), Bloodshot (like the terminator but made of nanotechnology), Trinity Angels (a very tongue in cheek trio of superheroic ladies – Russ Meyer-meets-Charlie’s Angels-meets-the Justice League, if you will) and Shadow Man.
Shadow Man, penned by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Ashley Wood, was the story of Mike LeRoi a college student who becomes the slave of Nettie, a voodoo priestess who implants the Mask of Shadows into his chest. With the Mask burning within his ribcage, Mike becomes the Shadow Man – a zombie assassin with the power to take souls and travel to Deadside – the place where everyone without exception goes when they die.
With a set-up like that and a character that looked unbelievably cool we jumped at the chance and began developing the story. The comic book had only been running for about 5 issues and so it was very easy for us to slot into the timeline and expand the world of the Deadside, especially since for the first year of the comic’s run (first under Garth Ennis’ direction and then that of Jamie Delano) most of the action took place in our world. The premise we worked under was simply, that if there is no Heaven or Hell and everyone who dies goes to Deadside then what happens when the really bad people get organised and decide that they want to come back?
The result? Well, a storyline that began in 1888 with Jack the Ripper, having committed his final appalling act being approached by the demonic ‘Legion’ to cross over into Deadside and begin building a gigantic citadel for others of his kind. Jack commits suicide to join his master in Deadside and then cut to the modern day and Nettie ordering the Shadow Man to investigate what is going on in Deadside – forces are massing over there and a number of ritualistic murders in our world seem to indicate that they’re trying to get through.
Well, the project was a tough one for all involved – the team did a fantastic job though – not only in creating the game but coping with the expansion of the studio (we went from about 15 people to nearly 70 during the course of the project) and developing skills and technology for what was for all of us our first 3D action adventure.
On the design front, laying out the storyline and outline of the adventure was not so tricky but figuring out a way to design the levels themselves was anything but straightforward, especially since the game required the player to be able to revisit earlier levels with the weapons and abilities that they had obtained from later on in the adventure. This meant that the levels took considerable planning. Having experimented with various ways of mapping the game out in 3D packages we discovered that the easiest and quickest method was to first sketch out the level as an architect’s plan on paper and then pass that over to the world modellers to build it out in 3D, then texture and light it.
The comic books only ever drew Deadside as a shadowy void without any forms of landmarks whatsoever but the job of visualising the place was made easier by having a team of exceptionally talented art guys who were always eager to contribute. The guys produced reams and reams of sketches – the majority of which were drawn in their spare time, while on the train to work or simply jotted down in the breaks between doing other tasks. This wealth of ideas made creating maps much, much easier – a doodle of a giant windmill made of flesh and bone became a significant element in one part of Deadside, a scribble of a cavernous mechanical interior became another. Fortunately, (unlike lots of this kind of pre-production art on other projects) a great deal of this work made it into the final game – in the form of the Book of Shadows – an object that could be recovered from the later stages of the adventure, its pages filled with sketches from the team of the various locations, props and characters.
In addition to the many levels set in Deadside and the killers’ citadel ‘The Asylum (which itself was inspired by the Bruegel painting of the Tower of Babel)’, the game featured a number of locations in the real world – the Louisiana Swamps, a brownstone in New York, the Gardelle County Penitentiary (where a zombie prison riot was in full swing, masterminded by the evil Doctor Victor Batrachian – our favourite Hannibal-Lecter-alike) and a disused London Underground station. As a part of our research for the game, myself and co-designer Guy Miller received an invitation from London Transport to visit Down Street Station – an Underground station that was last used during World War II. Standing in the pitch blackness of a deserted platform not used for 50 years as a train of unsuspecting commuters hurtles past you is a unique experience, to say the least…
Over the course of the two years, it took to create Shadow Man it seemed that I ended up getting involved in almost every aspect of it in some way. While working on the voice script with Guy I did a read-through using my best (or is that worst?) Bob Hoskins voice – anyway something must have worked – I ended up being cast as the voice of Jack the Ripper. And the part of albino serial killer Avery Marx (who has a voice so high and whiny that it is the vocal equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard) went to me also after another read-through.
In addition to the voice acting, I did some physical stuff too – our motion capture actors – all martial artists were great at kicks and punches but we struggled for performance in some of the cut-scenes. Two days dressed in a figure-hugging Lycra suit in a freezing a motion capture studio in Croydon were my punishment for swaggering around apparently all too convincingly during another read-through of the script.
And finally, well, I got to draw all the graphics for our special effects. With our art teams overloaded it was a call to all hands to help out, so loading up Photoshop I worked along with programmer Rob Kedward in producing the game’s many varied and unusual effects.
As it turned out we got some great reviews – particularly for the Nintendo-64 version for which Shadow Man appeared just at the right time – an alternative to the cuteness of many titles on the system. My favourite quote from Jes Bickham in N64 Magazine was that we were ‘Zelda’s Evil Twin’. And to be considered by some to be the gore-spattered mutant sibling of one of the world’s greatest games is compliment indeed.
The PC version also hit the mark for us, storming the charts in Germany of all places. This was probably due to it being the only horror title up to that point not to be banned or restricted for sale by Germany’s strict censorship laws on violence. The reason? Well, all the enemies in the game were not human. Even the ones that appeared to be human were monsters that masqueraded as humans and Germany’s censors to their credit, understood that and allowed the game to be sold.
Not every version faired so well, though – sadly, due to the pressures of release dates, the PlayStation version just had to be released early. It was complete in all aspects except for the fact that its 3D engine required more optimisation than our engine guys had time allowed. As a result, this version, intended for our biggest market at the time just failed to cut it with its slow frame rates – a bitter disappointment to all who had worked so hard to squeeze such a big and complex game into the PlayStation.
That apart, the enduring memory of the years we spent on this project are good ones – from the moment we opened the package containing the range of comic books right through to attending the ridiculously over-the-top launch party that took place in some disused railway tunnels in the East End of London and saw Guy delivering a speech in full zombie makeup before being set on fire…