J. Allen Williams
First posted on 21 December 2010. Last updated on 10 March 2011.
|J. Allen Williams is founder of Parallax Studio and the creator of Darkstar.|
|Williams' studio is filled with memorabilia that showcase his passion for sci-fi films.|
Darkstar: The Interactive Movie
Developed by Parallax Studio, Darkstar is an interactive Full Motion Video game featuring the cast of MST3K (Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, Josh Weinstein, Peter Graves) and Clive Robertson. The game also showcases animations by comic book artist Richard Corben.
For more information, visit Darkstar: The Interactive Movie
To say that Darkstar (also known as Darkstar: The Interactive Movie) is merely a work of passion by a single indie game developer is a severe understatement. This is especially an odd proclamation given the fact that the game's creator, J. Allen Williams (or Jeff Williams), prefers to be called a filmmaker instead of a gamemaker. Originally conceived as a short animated film, Darkstar was turned into a dream project for Williams when he became inspired to develop a video game that would merge his passions for movie making and interactive entertainment. The fact that he, somehow, was able to recruit the entire cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) as well as British actor Clive Robertson (best known for his roles in Sunset Beach and Starhuner) to be the featured cast for the game was a testament to his dedication and tenacity to this project. Little did Williams know, however, that his dream project would eventually grow in size to become—what he himself described it—a "black hole" in his life. Williams had initially projected that the game would be completed within 3 years, but the production of the game was subsequently delayed (again and again) because of legal, financial, and logistic problems. Over this period, Williams frequently became the sole proprietor for the project, taking on the roles of director, producer, screenwriter, animator, editor, and even prop designer and artist. In November 2010, exactly 10 years since the project was first conceived and with nearly half a million dollars in production cost, Darkstar was finally released, largely through a grassroots effort.
We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview J. Allen Williams of Parallax Studio about Darkstar. In the interview, Williams speaks about his passion for filmmaking, his inspiration behind the Darkstar project, the triumphs and the challenges he has faced over the course of the project, his fond memories of interacting with the film cast and crew, the lessons he has learned as an indie game developer, and, finally, what gamers and fans of MST3K can expect from playing Darkstar.
Check out our exclusive gallery of previously unpublished candid photos taken on set with the cast and crew of Darkstar!
- What prior experience, if any, do you have in video game development? What experience from your current work has helped prepare you to face the challenges of being an indie game developer?
- This is my first interactive project that you would call a video game, anything I did before was in the realm of animated projects or interactive educational pieces. My main background has been in animation, music video and advertising. DARKSTAR began as a treatment for a feature film, but I slowly became intrigued with the idea of creating something that allowed for the movie presentation to be more of an environment and interactive experience. Short of arcade games you put quarters in during the 70's I'd not even participated in playing video games. I still have not. I remembered that Orson Welles once said before he had any experience whatsoever in filmmaking — "wouldn't it be fun to make a movie." And then he just did it.
- When was the original script written? Why had the original project never gone into production? Why did you choose to resurrect the script years later and adopt it for a game?
- It began as an animated short (one that I did indeed produce in the mid 90's), and we actually released it as a music video entitled HiFi SciFi featuring the guitar work of Bill Bruce (Shotgun Messiah, Hellion). The skeleton of the storyline had a lot more potential, so I fleshed out a treatment. I had some friends in Hollywood, but was smart enough to know that getting a film released from an unknown director (especially in the big budget scifi genre) was going to be an uphill battle.
At that time I was producing some animated interactive projects for a large pharmaceutical company designed to educate physicians that had a Myst-like vibe to them — although I'd never seen or heard of the game. A friend pointed this out to me and loaned me his copy of RIVEN. Not a gamer, I wanted to see all of the cut scenes and story, so I went to Barnes & Noble and bought the guide and went through it end to end in one sitting. I began to see a way to build my story in a way that might be a lot of fun to do, and I knew that getting this out as a game would be a lot more feasible that trying to find an audience as a feature film. But producing a game turned out to be a lot tougher than I thought.
- How did you recruit the entire original cast of MST3K to be involved in this project? And how did you recruit Clive Robertson (not part of the MST3K cast) to be involved as well?
- Trace lived in LA at the time shortly after leaving the show. I knew him through his comic book "Here Come The Big People" and told him about my idea. He said "sure, sounds like fun". He had just been hired at AFV as a writer by J. Elvis Weinstein (who was their head writer) while MST3K was entering its final season at SciFi Channel. Trace then brought in Beez because I needed help with props and wardrobe, he said she was really good. She soon asked about the lead female role of Paige Palmer which I already had cast, but with some moving of things was able to give it to her. Soon Frank Conniff, Joel Hodgson, Mary Jo Pehl, and Josh Weinstein joined the cast as well. This entire group would end up becoming Cinematic Titanic a few years later (in fact, we used the same soundstage in Laurel Canyon to shoot Joel, Josh and Frank as CT uses thanks to a heads-up from Joel).
Clive and Peter Graves were hired in the traditional way through their agent, William Morris of Beverly Hills. Peter was hand picked by me in 2000, he and Shatner were my top choices as I wanted a sort of campy, Rod Serlingesque delivery on the part he would be reading. The Narrator was much more than a voiceover, he was to be an important character all his own.
Clive was recommended by William Morris in 2004, I'd not heard of him prior to his casting, but I had heard of both shows he'd been on (Sunset Beach and StarHunter). I went out and bought the box set of SH and checked him out, plus he sent me a demo reel. He was perfect. We've since become best of friends, and we've worked on projects together for both he and his wife Caryn.
- When and where did the live action filming for DARKSTAR take place? How long was the shoot? What memorable anecdotes (particularly with Peter Graves) did you recall from filming and recording with the cast and crew on the set?
- First, I directed the VO with Peter in the summer of 2001 in Santa Monica at POP studios on the corner of 7th and Arizona. He arrived early and was a strapping 6 foot something holding his script and a bottle of mineral water. He laughed easily, and treated my material as if it were his most important role ever, and it was obvious to me then that he always did that — he was a true professional.
I told him I wanted syrupy-thick irony to drip from the words I'd written as Rod Serling might do, to which he said "You know, Rod was a neighbor of mine once, nice guy, but he's dead now", and we got to it. I remember mid session he exclaimed "man, this is meaty stuff, well written". When I got back to Missouri and was cutting the tracks together I saved that tiny clip of audio and played it over and over to myself, but no matter how many times I heard Peter Graves compliment my writing, it remained absolutely surreal to me.
I was completely blind-sided by the news of his death, as if it had been that of a 20 year-old. He seemed immortal to me, and indeed he was fielding new jobs that very week, nobody saw it coming. I was particularly sad he'd never see DARKSTAR finished, and we came so close. I've taken a lot of ribbing (Duke Nukem Forever references, etc.) because I've taken my time crafting this thing to be everything I wanted it to be. Losing Mr. Graves prior to completion was my only regret about all that. I really wanted him to see it. I wanted to hear him say just one more time, "Meaty stuff, Jeff. Meaty stuff."
We shot most of the principals between September 27th 2001 and sometime in early 2003. We had scheduled this first shoot to be done in Missouri with all the MST3K actors, but then 9-11 happened just two weeks prior to that and some did not want to fly, and I didn't blame them. Turned out that Trace, Beez and MJ still wanted to, so we kept on schedule and got them finished up. A month or two later I took my crew to Los Angeles and we picked up the shots needed with Joel, Frank and J. Elvis at that green screen soundstage Joel recommended. The other 40 plus actors were shot here and there out of sequence as needed between 2001 and 2004.
Clive's action was the final set of sequences because in the early days of production I saw DARKSTAR more first person throughout, but quickly realized it did not fit with my vision of what my definition of what an "Interactive Movie" should be. I wanted multiple camera angles in addition to the first person, so that's when I decided to bring in an actor.
One interesting thing many don't know is that Doug Pitt (brother to Brad) was originally cast as the lead character John O'Neil. Both Brad and Doug grew up here in the Ozarks in the same town I'm based out of, and one of my sound guys was friends with Doug. Doug is not an actor by any means, indeed he owns a large technology store here. But the original O'Neil script was about 10% of the size then, very few lines, and mostly he just had to walk around and look pretty. And he did, he's a dead ringer for Brad, and some say he's more attractive. As it came closer to time to shoot, we got a call from Doug. He'd gotten an email from Brad who I guess had caught wind of it, and wrote to his brother "you don't act and I won't sell computers, please." I completely understood as there is a litany of low budget films or porn flicks that have recruited celebrity siblings and stuck them in front of a camera causing embarrassment for all.
So when I was forced to recast, I decided to go for a name actor, and approached William Morris again for suggestions. They presented possibilities like Emelio Esteves, Chris Lambert, and others. Some names were a little odd to me such as Erik Estrada and guitarist Chuck Berry. I asked them how they felt the 70+ year-old guitarist would be a good fit for the Captain of a lost starship, and their answer was "well, he does live in Missouri." After culling through about 60 actors and talking to several of them, Clive's name came up and I was very much taken by his Bond-like appearance (and indeed, he was being considered for the new post-Brosnan role), and his cocky British accent. I checked out his reel, his work, talked to him on the phone (he was in Australia at the time), and I knew I had my Captain O'Neil.
- When did the development of DARKSTAR begin in earnest as a game project?
- Pre-production began in 2000 right about the time I spoke to Trace about it. I visited him in LA several times and we mulled over storyboards and early CGI models, discussed the script writing process (originally he was to write the screenplay, but got too busy at AFV so I took over the task), and we also began the casting process. Remember the first five years of DARKSTAR was shooting a movie, the game authoring process didn't really begin until early 2006.
- What were the major legal, financial, and logistic challenges that the project had faced over the decade long development period?
- A lot of people now know that the band RUSH agreed to license a boat-load of their music to the project. In 2003 I had approval from the record label and the band to proceed, so we scored the cut scenes directly to the music. To make a long, sordid story short, turns out the label does not own the masters to any of the music, Universal does. For seven years I hammered these guys to hook us up with a contract and terms, but we didn't get in front of Universal's Nick Guarino until this year, just months from our release date. Mr. Nick proposed a price & back-end royalty schedule to myself, my co-producer Mark Walters, and my attorney Shawn Foust. We accepted the offer on the spot, and it was left that we would ink the deal within the week. I was in Hollywood preparing to go to dinner with Clive to celebrate when the email came.
Universal pulled their offer, multiplying the up-front money to 10x and the back-end royalty 3x. We counter-offered, and then the up-front price doubled. I told Universal to "F" themselves as I did not want DARKSTAR to cost $130 per copy in order to line the pockets of the "already rich", and was forced to cut the music that had been edited in place for seven years.
The challenge now was that we had to re-cut all of the sound effects as well because precious layered audio mixes were lost in a massive raid-drive crash in 2006, not to mention we had no music to replace the tracks with. I pulled together all my musician friends from the 80's (namely Bill Bruce and Jimmy Pitts) and we put together a 38-song progressive rock soundtrack on our own. It was a blessing in disguise, because the music turned out better for the project.
There were other licensing issues. We had product placement of an empty wine bottle from the COPPOLA Winery owned by well known director Francis Ford Coppola. My attorney was accustomed to negotiating situations where those owning the product would pay a game or movie for the placement. I told them up front I wanted no money for this. After dodging us for three months, Coppola's PR firm in NYC emailed us saying that the placement might imply Mr. Coppolla was endorsing our project, and he could not have that because he was a big-time Director in his own rite. They insisted we pull the product from our project, facilitating several weeks of re-rendering major areas of our starship with a generic labeled bottle instead. Unreadable on the newly animated generic label in the finished game and in tiny, tiny font is "Coppolla Sucks".
We also got a call from the attorney representing the estate of William Castle, famous for some campy BW movies from the 60's such as the "Tingler" starring Vincent Price. That movie was the one that caused a plethora of angry lawsuits as Mr. Castle placed electrical devices in select seats in theaters that would induce a mild shock to the asses of unsuspecting movie goers at various scary parts of the film. We had purchased some public domain movie trailers from the 50's for use in some campy ideas I had for the project, and indeed we aired one of the clips on youtube and facebook to our fans there. Mr. Castle appeared in one of them, and it turns out there is a little-known statute in CA regarding showing the likeness of a dead celebrity that has a proper trust situation set up — which Mr. Castle did. So, we had to pay a royalty to use that footage. It would have been easy to cut, but the attorney was really a very nice guy and only wanted $100, so I just sent it out to him. Of course the legal fees to draft up the agreement were ten times that, but hey, that'show biz.
The last one I can think of is where I instructed Trace to sing "Thanks for the Memory..." as he walked out of a room during a scene — four words from a popular old Bob Hope song. We called to find out what the license holders (Sony) would need for this eight seconds of audio, and they bid thousands of dollars. I offered $500, or I'd pull it and replace it with a parody "Thanks for forgetting me." They stuck to their position, so they got nothing and Trace had to resing it for me Weird Al Yankovic style.
So many of these "rights" issues ended with the other entity getting nothing at all opposed to something, and we had a lot of work to do in order to remove it. Lesson learned? Get permission first in writing — verbal agreements mean nothing because people lie a lot.
- How were you able to finance the project for so many years?
- With my own money — every penny of it. During the ten year period I worked on other more bite-sized animation projects and did some advertising work as well, so there was money coming in to the studio from that. I did several bank loans, paid them off, got them again, mortgaged property, etc. In the end it cost nearly half a million to produce, but that was spread out fairly evenly over the decade. The biggest costs were paying actors and my Canadian co-developers, Tribal Media.
There was a lot of waste at the end, all these legal issues over the music, improvements in the game that facilitated abandoning previous work that had been done, and other bonehead stuff siphoned off a lot of my resources. We also had a year and a half wasted over a tech issue that sent us back to the proverbial Monopoly "Go".
If I'd ever cared about the potential budget versus the guaranteed return, I'd never have produced DARKSTAR. Profit was never a consideration, but instead a hopeful and potential bonus. I just wanted to do this thing, and do it right at any cost. And the cost was substantial, not so much the money, but the personal cost — a big chunk of my life is missing. But I'd do it again.
- Looking back, what lessons have you learned about game development from this process? What of the game's development would you have done differently in hindsight?
- Hindsight, as they say, is indeed 20/20, and none of us can really take much advantage of that without a DeLoran and a good flux capacitor. I think I'd have needed clairvoyance to see most of the stuff that caused disaster and mayhem coming at me along the journey, and most of the lessons were not related as much to game development, but more related to doing business in Hollywood.
My Missouri upbringing ill-prepared me for the lack of integrity and honesty that is rampant in all areas of business out there, both in the film-making sector and the game publishing world. I hate to say it, but you have to look at every potential deal as if it were a bold-faced lie and angling to steal everything you have. And this is not from a pessimist, I've done million dollar deals on a handshake here in the Midwest for 30 years with nary a hitch, but it seems that nearly every deal contrived on west-coast soil has a landmine somewhere. And it seems that anything verbal never happened. There was a lot of dishonesty and disregard for being forthright and honest on the part of people that stood between me and my game seeing the light of day. Agreements are never shorter than twenty pages, and you can count on the fact that there is a group of four words somewhere in there that change the entire meaning.
My attorney Shawn Foust once said to me "Jeff, you are going to pay a huge dividend in this town for the level of honesty and integrity you employ during the course of business." I asked if I should change, and he said no — not that I would have, but I wanted to know the truth, and he was paid to tell me the truth. I always thought attorneys would be my most feared nemesis out there, turned out Shawn was one of the few that told me like it was. In all of his tenure at one of the largest entertainment law firms in LA (Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton), he said he'd never seen such terrible behavior by Hollywood in his entire career as what I experienced from the likes of Universal, agents and others.
Still, I think I'd do it all the same. Despite all the above, I did it, and I did it alone. Hollywood hates that. You don't come into their town and make something great without playing by their rules, it's just not done.
- You have described DARKSTAR to be more of an "interactive movie" than a "video game". To what extent does this labeling differ beyond a semantic divide?
- I assure you it's not semantics at all. I can go on and on as the developer and try to explain why this is more than a game and more than a film. You have to play it to see what I mean by that. I've seen the "ahah" moment hundreds of times as people who didn't quite get it moused around this thing. There are over 13 hours of cut footage in DARKSTAR, but you are NOT simply clicking to activate a programmed fork in video leading to a different plotline. There is a world there to navigate just like in the old-school adventure games that were so loved in the 90's. What's not old-school is the fact they could not offer this much pre-rendered content on the CD-Rom media of the era, and at the end of the day, a good filmed story is never old-school, just classic. Jeff Yapp at MTV once said to me that a great film is never out of date, Casablanca, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Dr. Strangelove — even if they are in black and white. By combining the two so equally I feel I've given DARKSTAR a much longer shelf-life.
- Many Full Motion Video (FMV) games, particularly those from the mid 1990s, failed commercially because of high production cost, limited interactivity, and poor video quality. In DARKSTAR, how did you address the inherent limitations of FMV as a medium meant to increase immersion in a game?
- Jeff Yapp and I talked about this at great length as well, and he brought it up to recent times with a game he produced for "X-Files". He said that I had succeeded where MTV failed to produce a true Interactive Movie. He said the words "you accomplished the impossible producing a PC game in this fashion, but you did it." And no game company will invest the time and money required to pull something like this off in LA. Only some idiot who absolutely loved the material, understood it, and was driven to achieve the goal against all odds and pitfalls. And that idiot is me.
What cost me half-a-mil for my small studio in Nixa, MO would have cost Hollywood ten times that, and that's THEM talking. I pitched this to Sony, Activision, EA, LucasArts, and every other major player and nearly all of them said basically, "Hell, we couldn't afford to market this thing, let alone produce it." They were referring to the fact you can't just pop my 2-DVD disk effort into a box with a pretty picture on it and expect to sell them, and even if you did, the product returns would not be substantial because button-mashers would be pissed at this completely different genre of adventure game if they expected a twitcher. I was told the ad campaign would be arduous and challenging because we're basically educating a market about what DARKSTAR is, and on top of that, trying to explain why this is NOT a regurgitation of a dead, point-and-click format, but something more. It's a tough sell, and I get it.
That's why we're implementing our release in layers, we're earning our respect one fan at a time without any pretention. It's just a fun game, period. Sure, it's not for every gamer, but no game is.
- What format and resolution was the live action cinema originally shot in and what technical compromises (such as video compression) had to be made when compositing the live action videos into pre-rendered computer graphics within the game?
- We shot on a digital SONY camera before hi-def was widely available. But that was fine, because hi-def resolutions would have been wasted due to the fact that we would eventually be compressing our final files down to a size that was deliverable, and besides, I liked the look we got with the footage and the lighting we used — it has a cinematic feel taking advantage of imperfections in the same way film grain makes movies shot on film feel substantial.
All our cut animated scenes (with the live action actors composited into place) were edited at 600x800 which is much larger than television resolution, and just short of hi-def, so it was a nice compromise. Our final edit weighed in at 44GB, so one more pass of compression was necessary to get us down to fit on two dual layered DVD's. But in the end, the final compression was not substantially more aggressive than what is used on consumer DVD movies, and we had a ridiculous amount of content to deliver. We came up with a very complex cocktail of an H264 compression with very specific settings to get a great result.
- How much of the film footage was left unused in the game?
- You know, as far as the live action footage goes, really very little. My script had to be meticulously accurate to delineate what I wanted because everything was shot completely out of sequence, which is always a challenge. But in our case it would sometimes mean uniting two actors that had never met and shot three years apart in a scene where they actually touched each other. That's where storyboards were crucial, attention to detail was critical, and also throw in some partially composed shots to be sure we were directing things properly. Lighting, camera angles, everything had to work in the end sequences, and a re-shoot would be very expensive, and often logistically impossible. Plus, it took me a decade to do the thing, people (including myself) were aging!
I must admit, however, that about a year into the animation process I became very critical of some of my first animation composites, and trashed about half of the back-story movie in lieu of newly created scenes. Some of the early work was not up to the quality level that I eventually evolved into as I did this thing trial by fire. But at a point I had to say enough, or I'd get sucked into a vortex of a psychotic Lucas special edition syndrome loop where I would perpetually redo scenes until the end of time.
- DARKSTAR was authored using iShell created by Tribal Media. Why did you choose to use iShell to produce the game? To what extent had changes made by Apple to the QuickTime platform over the years wreak havoc during the authoring process?
- As I eluded to earlier, a major shift in Quicktime during 2006 killed over a year's work and left us searching for an affordable, viable authoring solution. My IT guys searched far and wide and discovered five possible directions to go. Four of them fell to the wayside quickly with various technical deficiencies, and iShell was the only one left standing. The primary advantage to iShell was the fact that Tribal Media was willing to rewrite the code to the program to meet whatever unique needs we came up with. Also, we were able to build a hybrid product that would work on Mac and several different PC operating systems (W7/XP/Vista). Originally I had planned to license the software from them and author the thing all myself, but my time was better utilized elsewhere, so I contracted them for three years to sew all my parts together and build the finished game. During production, Quicktime threw us a few more curves, but nothing we couldn't handle. Plus we're prepared to create patches if they hurl any more double-decker busses at us.
- What other authoring tools did you use in the game's production?
- The bulk of DARKSTAR authoring tasks fell on my shoulders as I was the one who stitched together the thousands of linear movies (over 3000) with about a thousand QTVR panoramic nodes. I personally created all the hotspots, architecture, and actually built the ship one lego at a time. I used a now defunct software, VRWorx, to this end. It was a wickedly simple to use tool (authoring for idiots) and worked very well. The only downside to this method was that there was a limit to how big Quicktime VR would allow each multinode could be. So DARKSTAR ended up in about 75 separate pieces of data that needed to be sewn together. Also, VRWorx did not allow for the functionality needed to add logic (where you've been, what you've done, your inventory of objects), and wasn't super puzzle-friendly — although I did craft some of the puzzles using the software. Remember, I'd never done anything like this before, and am really a bit dull-witted about technically based work, but I'm also legendarily OCD which balances out my abilities and ultimately got me through.
For the CGI work I used 3D Studio Max, Maya, and took it all into Adobe After Effects to composite the many layers each scene required, some were over 200 deep. I used Final Cut Pro for some of the editing (particularly sound syncing), but honestly, tried to keep as much in AE as possible because of the incredible ability to control the image.
I had two main computers that I animated and edited on, one a custom-built PC and another was a maxed out G5 Macintosh, so I worked cross-platform through a network. I had a small rendering farm of six hopped up PC's that usually ripped through animations in pretty short order. However, in the earliest days I only had two, and with scenes that required 25-minute per frame rendering times it could get excruciating. It was not uncommon to wait two or three days for them to spit out a sequence, and often I'd have to re-render it all because a light was turned off, a shadow went wacky, or one object passed through another. Animation is not for the short of attention span. I spent many a night sleeping with the computers so I could wake up every few hours and monitor progress.
- What is the back-story for DARKSTAR?
- In a nutshell, it is the year 2185 and the President of the world is recording a desperate documentary with plans to send it into the past in a last ditch effort to change history and save humanity.
In the year 2118, over seventy years previous, Earth rids itself of all nuclear weapons and tools of war by launching them into space inside huge, unmanned cargo ships. During their journey into the depths of space, they encounter a large asteroid, and in a chain reaction explosion a rift is created, a swirling hole in space called DARKSTAR.
A few years later, a ship is sent to explore the anomaly, gets sucked inside, and emerges back at the inception point, the year 2118. So it is surmised that DARKSTAR is a frozen place in time — no matter when you enter, you will emerge in the year 2118.
Meanwhile, in keeping with their aggressive peace campaign, a network of prison facilities dubbed New Australia are built on Mars. All "undesirables" are sent there — criminals, enemies of the state, and those who oppose the new movement. Eventually there is a revolt on Mars, and the "inmates" form their own government and military. The people of Earth are enjoying their utopian peace, and assume that the Mars colonies will die out without supplies from Earth. They are sadly mistaken.
Soon, Earth is served notice that the Mars warships and tankers are on their way to rob earth of most of its water, then destroy the dried husk of the planet. They have six months until the Armada arrives. Earth has few defenses, but musters up a paltry effort by pulling antique fighters out of retirement. But the President knows there is no hope, they cannot repel the marauders and the Earth is doomed.
So a secret mission is put into motion. Four identical starships will attempt to reach DARKSTAR with one common piece of cargo — a documentary actually showing the destruction of the Earth at the hands of the invaders from New Australia. The Westwick is one of the four ships, and it is captained by John O'Neil. But the mission goes all wrong — the other three ships are overtaken and destroyed, and eventually, the Armada catches up with the Westwick long before they can reach Darkstar. And that's where the story begins.
- What is the core gameplay in DARKSTAR? How long is the game?
- There is an opening sequence and intro credits with Peter Graves commenting on the state of things. Earth is shown being devastated in the first minute of DARKSTAR footage. A three decade passage of time is eluded to, all the while flashbacks and glimpses into the tragic past flicker before you as you sleep in a cryogenic coma.
Then you suddenly emerge from the sleep chamber (and the intro movie) into the interactive world. There is no shift in quality of graphics. My customers have choked down 13GB of data onto their hard drive, now for the benefits of that. Everything is pre-rendered at the same quality throughout. The player may now explore the ship real time.
It's floating dead in an orbit around a strange, alien planet named Theta Alpha III. You (O'Neil) have no memory; the excessive time in cryo has robbed you of that. There are three cryo-chambers near yours. The first encases a beautiful girl, Pilot Paige Palmer (Beez McKeever), under glass. The next lies open and empty, the inhabitant (Trace Beaulieu) is missing — and so is one of the Starship's two Shuttles. And in the last compartment lies a mummified corpse (Frank Conniff), his left hand severed and missing, the glass of the chamber shattered.
You may now go anywhere in the ship you like at any time, but you must fix things along the way, power up the ship a layer at a time, and figure out what has happened, both in the big picture (destruction of Earth) and in the small, immediate one (the mystery of the mission and what has gone so terribly wrong).
As you unlock parts of the ship, your are rewarded with the back-story chapters one at a time that slowly paint a dark picture of the apocalypse and end of humanity. You become aware there is a traitor to the mission, and you know it is imperative you discover who it is. Along the way you are both assisted and irritated by a robot named SIMON (voiced by Frank Conniff) who has slowly gone insane while the crew slept.
I've heard different reports of gameplay time, but a common report is at least 20 hours. Most of it is spent aboard the Westwick uncovering her mysteries, but a trip down to the planet is required to acquire water for the starships' damaged and bone-dry cooling tanks. While there you'll encounter an Alien Temple, an enemy space ship, and your nemesis. There is a lot of real estate to cover, and it's all fun to explore.
After surviving over two-dozen forks in the plot ending in your death, you return to the Westwick and face the mastermind behind the mutinous plot. Hopefully the decisions you've made up to this point are all good ones, or you will be ill-equipped to defeat this enemy. And even if you are prepared, your intelligence, wits, and resourcefulness will dictate whether or not you live or die, and if the mission will be finally fulfilled.
- To what extent had it been a challenge to maintain press and community interests on the Darkstar project over the years?
- Many thought that the gestation period would cause people to give up and abandon caring about DARKSTAR, even some of the people close to me. Indeed we fought a few internet rumors that the game was simply an elaborate hoax, vaporware.
The exact opposite has turned out to be true. We shocked the unfaithful by actually accomplishing the impossible — finishing the thing and doing it outside the system during a recession. I have learned that the adventure gaming community consists of a load of really tolerant folks who have been longing for some of the old-school sensibilities to come back, they are sick of the re-skinning of worn out game engines, and want more story, mystery, and eye candy, not just another sequel. I have received thousands of emails through the years asking questions, cheering us on, and letting us know they'd be there when we were ready to release. And I replied to every single one.
Indeed, in the first month during phase one of our layered release schedule we've sold games to nearly all 50 states in the US and to over 20 countries overseas solely out of our online store. Our demographic includes a surprising amount of female players which tells me our appeal is wider than that of a lot of video games out there.
- Once the game was released, how difficult was the marketing effort? What are the future plans, if any, for the Darkstar project?
- Our marketing effort began in a very methodical, grass-roots way. We've cultivated a loyal following on social networking sites, and we've done a good job of teasing the world for a decade on the internet. Some want to finally see the game simply out of morbid curiosity just to see what all the talk has been about, and whether or not we were worth the wait. Three weeks into the release, our main trailers on youtube jumped from just over 1000 views to 45,000 in one week, some surprising viral growth. I can honestly say that at this point, the public is doing all the work, not us.
Bloggers are raving about the game, and skepticism about this novice out of Missouri daring to single-handedly publish a PC game without Hollywood's permission seems to be fading. Still there are a lot of mean-spirited gamers that say the most vile crap and haven't played the game, most of it seems to be posturing against the FMV and adventure game genre as a whole.
So far reviews are good, but honestly, a bad review would never bother me. Gamers sensibilities and their spectrum of expectations are so vastly polarized that it is indeed inevitable — I never expected in the years I toiled over this thing to EVER get a single good review. The Millers were viciously lambasted in the gaming press, and cried all the way to the bank with over 8M in sales from Myst alone while holding the #1 position for years until The Sims finally passed them up. Any negative comments I've culled from critics have been pretty constructive so far, and in most cases I completely agree with them.
Our second phase was our downloadable release at Strategy First. I don't have numbers on that, but in only two weeks I have personally issued hundreds of 20% off coupons that SFI was kind enough to offer our fans during the rollout leading to Christmas.
Our third phase is a partnership with Shout! Factory, the company that distributes all Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVDs. This is an important relationship because it's turned out that our product appeals directly to this market due to the cast Trace and I assembled. They have sold over $100M in MST3K product in less than a decade, so we are thrilled to be involved with such a hip, savvy distributor. They are right now doing a DARKSTAR promotion related to, and in tandem with, the MST3K Special Edition Box Set Volume XIX where they are giving away some very special, one of a kind DARKSTAR items. DARKSTAR has a very MST3K vibe throughout it with a lot of dark humor and some tongue in cheek self deprecation — it doesn't take itself too seriously.
And our fourth phase going on right now as I speak to you begins with my signing a major distribution deal with a very respected British company that will exploit our popularity into the European countries, and help us localize our content to appeal directly to the legions of hard core adventure gamers. We plan to release an International Platinum Edition of the game in at least four languages through this distributor with expanded gameplay, the walkthrough guide included, and many other extras.
There are other future phases mapped out we plan to pursue, but right now we need to earn the respect and following we are building up to make DARKSTAR the hit we think it deserves to be. Our ads won't tell the story, the players will.
- Who will most enjoy playing Darkstar?
- Hopefully you will. As my co-producer Mark Walters is fond of saying, "It's not a button mashing, sword flinging, gun blasting, blood-spattering gore-set-on-ten first person shooter." We feel that what it's not is as much a positioning, goal line stand as anything. What it is? "It's a psychedelic, back-stabbing, time-travelling, camp-comedy, horror, instant-cult-classic science fiction adventure".