Someone is messing with how history was suppose to play out. In Darkest of Days, your job is to right the things that have been tampered with and to se the time line straight. It's a time traveling game that will take you to various periods in the past to experience many different eras in order to unravel the mystery and set things to how they should be. We talk with the CEO of Phantom EFX, Producer for the game, and Lead Engineer for Darkest of Days.
Could you introduce yourself and describe your role on the project? How did you get into the game industry?
Aaron Schurman (AS) Creator, CEO Phantom EFX. I have been making games for about 10 years. Designing, writing, and directing that entire time.
Bill Wadleigh,(BW) Producer for the game. I joined the team in September 07 and have been making videogames since the early 90’s for the PC, consoles and online.
Jeff Russell, (JR) Lead Engineer on the game and the Marmoset engine at 8monkey. I've been with the studio since its founding.
For those who haven't been to the website can you give us the high level overview of the game and the inspiration behind it? We've seen time travel games before, what differentiates Darkest of Days from other games on the market?
AS: In Darkest of Days, you are rescued seconds before your natural death in history and ‘stolen’ from time into the future. The folks who have taken you describe to you that time travel has just been invented, and as they go back in time to solve some of history’s mysteries, they are seeing someone has already been there. They know this as many folks are dying when they are not supposed to. For example, a supply Sergeant during Antietam (American Civil War) that was supposed to survive the battle, has been moved to a unit that gets decimated on the front lines. Your mission: Go through time and save some of history’s key people from some of human’s Darkest of Days.
You have never seen time travel like this. Being a huge gamer, I think any of us have dreamed about time travel as to what it would be like, what we could do, and if we could change things. It’s a gamer dream that has never really lived up to what our minds want it to be. That is partially why I created Darkest of Days: to present time travel in a believable light. Its crazy hearing comment after comment from testers and folks whom have seen the game like “I can actually see how this could happen!”. When you can make something believable, the experience can be memorable.
I have always dreamed about taking gamers to some of these deadly, incredible time frames such as Little Big Horn, Antietam . . .heck, even Pompeii. I knew if we could pull off the chaotic nature of these events . . . all the action, all the mini-events going on at the same time, and all the people, we would have a unique experience.
BW: In Darkest of Days the player experiences time travel not as a “re-winder” or a “tool” but rather it's used as the mechanism to start new missions or new parts of the game. Time is not always a constant in the game, player actions can cause some elements of time to slow or stop completely while others continue at normal speed. This is especially evident during the conflicts between the player and future agents that can occur in all time frames based upon player actions. While not completely under player control the ability to travel through time is enabled as circumstances and player actions dictate.
Why did you pick the historical eras that you did? Can you talk about some of the eras that you initially considered and then abandoned? How much of the game takes place in the future?
AS: Like I said before, I am a huge gamer, and I am tiring of futuristic settings. I think they are easy to pull off since no one has a clue what they look like, or how they should feel. I have always thought a real work of art is to re-create D-Day and have it be as realistic as possible. Knowing how WWII has been so over-done, I wanted to focus on some of Humans other dark periods.
The U.S. Civil War has always been a place of interest for many people, but never really done that well simply because there is so much chaos, so much going on at the same time. Our first challenge was to make the Civil War that horrifying level of fright and action that we all have in our minds. I can tell you this, its downright scary, it will raise the hair on your neck.
The entire game is not about the Civil War though, only a portion. We take the player to many other places such as Little Big Horn, Pompeii, WWI in the trenches, and others. All picked to re-create what we think was some of man’s scariest moments that would also be engaging for players.
I had numerous other time frames picked as well. The best thing about DoD is that you can pick about any even that is interesting and go back to it. One that we abandoned is the Hindenburg disaster as we felt it was not going to yield enough action from the player side. I also abandoned D-Day since it has been done too many times in most gamer’s eyes. There are many, many other interesting events that I still want to use, so can’t go too far with that.
How much research did you put into each level? Will we see historically accurate levels or are the levels inspired by the architecture and layout of the time?
BW: Great care has been taken to ensure the time periods are very correct in terms of level design and weaponry. For example the areas used in the Battle of Antietam created using real world maps including topographical reference for historical accuracy. The buildings and positioning of forces closely mimic the battles as possible, this is one of the areas where Darkest of Days shines. Our engine allows literally hundreds of NPC’s to be onscreen at a time, making battles much more realistic and feel more real than games using similar time periods.
Time travel is always tricky business, will what you do in one level impact the next? Will you be playing the levels in chronological order?
AS: Bill has answered the majority of this. However, to answer the first part of your question – it is tricky! We know folks want to see the impact of their previous actions, and we do that a lot in the game. As the game unfolds, you see many areas that have been affected by you, and you actually will have to fix some of them as you go, depending on what the outcome was of your actions.
BW: It was important to us to make a game that was not simply a straight line from one point to another and another etc… Player action dictates their path through the game. If a player wants to experience more elements of a particular time period they may before moving to another time period. Players are not forced to play levels in chronological order. Each time period has multiple goals and multiple opportunities and situations to complete them, so players won’t become bored with one era; in all parts of the game multiple time periods are available.Please tell us what unique functions of the Marmoset engine set it apart from other existing game engines. Were there any special considerations you had to make when adapting the game for the Xbox 360? Why did you decide to build your own engine instead of licensing one?
The short answer is we developed our own engine because that's what we're good at. Having our own technology base for building games puts us in a more flexible position to do whatever we want, however we want. Marmoset engine excels at large battlefields with large character counts, which was an important design point for DoD. The AI, Rendering, Scripting, Tools, and Game systems are all designed with this in mind, rather than being repurposed tech from a 3rd party.
The Xbox 360 version has gone well - that platform actually affords us quite a bit of speed. The real technical hurdle there, as many developers will tell you, is memory. On consoles you get only a fraction of the memory you can expect in a PC and so fitting everything can be difficult. Our guys have risen to the challenge though and the console version is looking good.
Collectibles are starting to creep into every type of game, from puzzle to first person shooters. Are we going to find scraps of actual historical documents during our journey through the Darkest of Days?
BW: There are no collectible items per say however you do meet and interact with some significant historical figures.
What was the hardest part of developing the game? Can you talk about a feature or two that didn’t make it into the final game?
BW: Making any game there is always a balance between time, features and product. As with any game there were some features that were adjusted to better fit the evolution of the game.
One area where major modifications were made was the “aura” system. At one point there were to be several different “auras” each having it's own meaning but this became too complex and was simplified to be the means for showing forces that are meant to survive the battle.
Is there any message about war that you’re trying to convey with settings in Darkest of Days or are you hoping that the wars as you portray them will speak for themselves?
AS: War is Hell. Everyone knows that. Many games can make battle seem less fierce than what it is, or even glorify it. We set out to make it gritty, and horrifying. Our Civil War levels best portrait that, especially in levels where your entire army smashes into the enemies. The scream’s of men is something that will put goose bumps on the most hardened veteran’s arms. When you have a Confederate firing line tossing a wall of lead towards your marching formation, there is plenty of horror. There is no message meant in the game, other than the simple message that war is terrible, and we should all thank the Lord we did not have to fight the way these men did.
I've got to know. How am I going to find ammo for my automatic machine gun while I'm stuck in the past? How do you handle the balance of future weapons in these historical eras?
AS: We handle automatic weapons in various ways. The game is balanced between authentic weapons, weapons you take back into history that are augmented to be stronger while looking authentic, and sometimes you have the all-out weapon that does not belong at that time in history. Ammo conservation is important in some missions using futuristic weapons, and in other cases, you run across another time agent helping you that has some extra ‘gifts’ for you.
Speaking of weapons, what weapons are your favorite and why? Are we going to see any melee combat or is it all going to be guns and ranged weapons?
AS: Our BFG weapon is pretty awesome I have to say. Lighting anything up . . . . wait, I am not supposed to talk about that one :) Its for the players to see. Lets just say its unique, and POWERFUL!
BW: Melee battles have an important role in the game. If your trying to sneak in somewhere it's best to use the melee attacks or your challenge will become very difficult. At other times melee can be effective during battles where there are longer reload times and large number of forces.
In Antietam for example, players will find melee is a good alternate attack when engaged with lots of close in opponents due to the reload time of the Springfield rifle. Lastly melee was very popular with the development team and there was a sense of pride with finally making it though some situations using melee alone.
Any chance we'll see some multiplayer action in the game or is Darkest of Days strictly a solo experience?
BW: The first iteration of the game is single player, but I would not say it's a solo experience.
While not a multiplayer game there are cooperative NPC’s that work with you to help you accomplish your goals.
What was your approach to coming up with achievements? Any chance we’ll see a demo ahead of time?
AS: We have a whole host of movies set to release that will be landing on the Darkest of Days from now over the next few months. They are all made with actual in-game footage. I don’t think there will be the need for a demo after those movies :) Seriously, this game is so unique feeling, I really don’t want to ruin player’s ‘first experience’. This will be the first time a game has made you feel that way, and I want you to experience it in the full game.
We'd like to thank Aaron, Bill, and Jeff for taking the time to answer our questions as well as Jerry who helped coordinate the interview.