Following up on our Martian Gothic article, we wanted to find out more about this underrated horror adventure and what better person to ask than Stephen Marley, the game’s script writer and designer?
Retroaction: Looking at a selection of your novels (the Chia Black Dragon series, Managra and Dread Dominion), your work mainly focuses on sci-fi and fantasy. Can you give us a little insight into your background and how you got interested in sci-fi and fantasy?
Stephen Marley: I was born in Derby but for the first seven or eight years of my life I was under the distinct impression that Galway was my birthplace as my mother kept taking me back to her hometown in the West of Ireland. In the 70s and early 80s I became, for my sins, an academic, lecturing in social anthropology. It wasn’t my style. All the time I was concocting stories in my head. In fact I’d been doing that since childhood.
Like a lot of people, my first exposure to SF was in comics. Later, when I graduated to straight prose, I guess my first strong influence was Ray Bradbury. Even now, I have to say that nobody, nobody can make prose sing like Bradbury. He writes like an archangel damaged by too much paradise. As for fantasy, the original spark would probably be the many versions of the Arthurian sagas, especially Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. And, of course, The Lord of the Rings.
Why SF and fantasy rather than other genres? Because they deal with the big ideas. Because they enlarge life rather than shrinking it. Other worlds can throw fresh light on the world we live in. The same can be true of historical novels. The past is so much bigger than the present. More room to breathe.
RA: Having written novels since the mid 1980s, what made you decide to get involved with the videogames industry in the 1990s?
SM: My literary agent was in contact with another agent who divided her interests between books and video games. That way I was introduced to Neil Dodwell and David Dew of Creative Reality. I was keen to get involved because the opportunities to explore alternative ways of storytelling in a new media were too great to resist. I came late to Dreamweb, Creative Reality’s tech-noir game set in a dystopian near-future. It was too late for me to add anything to the game itself but I was asked to produce a prequel in the form of a journal.
“Dreamweb is a DOS and Amiga parser-free cyberpunk top-down adventure game first released in 1992, then later released on CD in 1994, and developed by Creative Reality and published by Empire Interactive Entertainment.” – Wikipedia entry
RA: Dreamweb was very much an underrated game. What are your thoughts on the game?
SM: I thought much of it broke boundaries that needed breaking and overall the game was one I was happy to be associated with but I had a real problem with the casual way that Ryan, the main protagonist, blindly accepted a command from this red-robed dream world guy to kill a bunch of people just on his say-so that they were evil. The prequel was partly an attempt to address that problem. That said, I agree with you that Dreamweb was very underrated. I would love to be involved in a remake of it, so long as I can rewrite the story from the ground up and – oh yes – I definitely want to write the dialogue this time!
RA: The prequel story, Diary of a (Mad?) man, which was published with the game greatly enhanced the overall experience of the game. You don’t get that kind of packaging with games these days.
SM: It so happens I reread that story just a couple of months ago. I’d forgotten how damn dark it was. Also I was pleasantly surprised how well it held up after all this time. Given how quickly I wrote the tale I can look back on it as a job well done, all things considered. What I was looking for in the prequel was ambivalence: is Ryan homicidally insane or a regular guy who’s being used as a pawn by otherworldly powers? I made the decision that even I didn’t know which of those options was true, hence the question mark in the title.
“Warhammer: Dark Omen is a real-time tactical wargame and the sequel to Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat. It is a seminal exemplar of a game of the real-time tactics genre.” – Wikipedia entry
RA: For Warhammer: Dark Omen, you were involved as dialogue scriptwriter and voice acting direction. What can you tell us about your experience on the development of the game?
SM: First, I’ve got to say I rate Dark Omen sky-high. It would be in my top ten games regardless of whether I worked on it or not. I’d even place it higher than Age of Empires II: Age of Kings, and that’s saying something. Like Dreamweb, I came to the project late: most of the characters and the general storyline were already set in concrete. As for the dialogue script, I confess I couldn’t take the Warhammer world seriously: it was too obviously a rip-off of Tolkien, with all the mythic depth taken out (apologies to the Warhammer fans out there!) so I tried to inject some humour in compensation. Some of the spoof comedy didn’t make the cut, such as the Spectacles of Fortitude that a wizard puts on as part of a running gag. But leaving Warhammer to one side, Dark Omen, with its fully rotatable isometric 3D, is a seminal game that deserved far more success than it achieved. As for the voice direction, I had very little control. The actors were already chosen, as was the recording studio. In fact I wasn’t even credited as a voice director. The studio, Audio Interactive, took the full credit!
RA: Martian Gothic has a classic sci-fi horror theme running throughout the game. Where did the idea, particularly the location of Mars, come from?
SM: The concept of a haunted house on Mars started way back in the 1980s as a setting for an SF novel that never got off the ground. I’d pretty much forgotten it until I played the first Resident Evil and the thought occurred: what if Chris and co couldn’t leave the mansion because it was on another planet, with near-vacuum outside.
When the Martian Gothic game was in early development I wanted the Martian base to get away from the industrial look that prevailed in offworld movies and games since the 1970s and introduce oak-panelled interiors that would be at home in an English manor. After all, if you had to live in a planetary base for years wouldn’t you opt for country homes decor over some grim factory design? Of course, the main idea was to create the classic haunted mansion on the surface of Mars.
However, the base was modelled in an unavoidable rush and, besides being way too small, many areas were very much in the industrial mould.
RA: You have previously mentioned that the game was not intended to have the ‘Unification’ suffix. What was the reason for adding the ‘Unification’ tag?
SM: Oh yeah! A member of the development team (who shall go nameless) picked the name ‘Unification’ from one his favourite Star Trek episodes because it loosely fitted the theme of a point-and-click adventure the team was working on in conjunction with another company. I thought it was a terrible title but there’s this rule in game development that once a project is given a title, people soon adjust to it. It wasn’t my project so I didn’t make a big deal of what I thought of the title (as in bland and boring) but it did become an issue when the adventure game was dropped as impractical and we switched to survival horror action in which I was involved from the start. It was essentially a new game, but the ‘Unification’ tag was lodged in people’s minds. The compromise was that my name of ‘Martian Gothic’ would be suffixed with ‘Unification’.
RA: You also stated that “some of Unification’s item-based puzzle-solving elements were, unfortunately, carried over into the new game.” So was Martian Gothic intended as a completely different kind of game?
SM: I think most of the team regarded Martian Gothic as growing out of the older adventure game but, for me, who was never a fan of point-and-click adventures, it was a new game. The idea of having three playable characters who are separated until the end of the game was the main feature of Unification and this was carried over into Martian Gothic with some degree of success.
Unfortunately, the item-based elements were also carried over at the expense of action-based challenges. There were, for example, supposed to be a number of ‘lure’ challenges in which you use one character to lure out an enemy (chase me! chase me!) while another sneaks in where the enemy has just exited and opens a door or grabs the inevitable Useful Item. None of these really worked in the finished product, partly because of time constraints and the tiny, tiny size of our team. My one major regret is that I didn’t push harder to reduce the adventure elements in the game. Although the animator David Dew had a significant input into the design, I was the accredited designer and should have argued my corner much more vigorously. I take full responsibility for all mistakes! My bad, as they say in Buffy.
RA: Martian Gothic features a superb script and some fine voice dialogue. What was it like bringing these elements together to create a game like this?
SM: A big Aw shucks to that kind compliment! Looking back on the script, much of it is effective, occasionally it’s powerful, but sometimes it makes me wince. It can be tricky balancing story development with the freewheeling exploration that a player requires and I was too inexperienced at that time to always pull it off.
I was happy with the dialogue I wrote for the computer MOOD, played by Fenella Fielding, a truly great actress who is shamefully underrated. I also feel there were some pretty decent lines for Julie Peasgood, who played the base director, Harroway. Julie definitely did those lines more than justice. Two fine ladies! And it was an honour to voice direct them, not that they needed much direction.
All in all, I was very satisfied with the actors. I know some reviewers were down on Wataru Arai (Kenzo in the game), who isn’t a professional actor, but if there are criticisms they should be aimed solely at me as he played Kenzo exactly as I directed him: a zoned-out, emotionally flat loner bordering on sociopathic. I wanted strong contrasts between the three main characters: Kenzo; detached and impassive, Karne; passionate and assertive, Matlock; perky and quirky.
RA: There must be some interesting development trivia on the game that you can share with us? Any scenes or plots removed for time constraints?
SM: A few spring to mind. I was adamant (as were all the team) that the main characters, all of different ethnicity, should be played by ethnic actors. Matlock was white and British, no problem there as we were recording in England. Kenzo was Japanese – we eventually found a Japanese guy willing to work at our miserable rates. Then there was Karne, an African-American. We recorded at three studios, and the one where we arranged to tape Karne assured me, guaranteed me, that the actor they had lined up was black. I remember making a point of it on the phone, as in ‘When I say black, I don’t mean some hypothetical black voice. I mean an actor who is actually black.’ Anyway, when I arrived at the studio, which was all fully booked and paid for (emptying what was left of our recording budget) I found, yes – you’ve guessed it – that the actor was white. I don’t blame the actor, who put everything he had into his performance. But the studio, who knew I couldn’t pull out of the contract, I would merrily consign to the ninth circle of hell.
Under the name of Michael McGann, I played a number of the characters on the game’s microcorders – five, I think. I also played most of the Undead (just another word for zombies). On one occasion, I was woken from my bed by the sound guy, Jez Taylor, after about two hours’ sleep and, literally within a minute, completely knackered, I looked at the microphone shoved in my face and mindlessly recited the words I’d written for Matthew Tierney. I remember thinking, Tierney’s American, think Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. That should do. When I later listened to Tierney in the game, I visibly shrank to about one foot tall. Definitely not one of my finest performances.
The Undead were originally intended to be ghosts, to fit in with the ‘haunted house on Mars’ leitmotif. However, we simply didn’t have the expertise and animation scope to do that convincingly, which was a great pity as ghosts would have given the Martian base a genuinely spooky atmosphere.
As for scenes and plots missing in the game, many, many scenes were excluded due to time constraints. Most of them were edited out by me at an early stage because I knew there was no chance of getting it all in. The graveyard on the Martian surface, for example, was originally conceived as a large, sprawling area where all manner of Lovecraftian horrors emerged. Damn all of that was left in the game. The Big Bad at the end of the game was pretty much neutered because we ran out of time. The Big Fight with the Big Bad never materialised. Also Karne was intended to battle past a score of supercharged Undead at the very end. That didn’t happen either. Karne didn’t even get to use the alarm clock as a timer for the detonator – under pressure of time these things slip by.
The plots were generally intact, although some were underdeveloped simply because of the memory limitations of the original Playstation.
RA: Considering the development process, are you happy with the final game?
SM: Short answer – no. Long answer – how long have you got? Okay, here’s a short long answer:
Way too many item puzzles: find this and this and that and that and use this with this and that with that. Pain in the neck. There were also a number of clues and hints that were recorded for the Ben Gunn character to aid the player solve puzzles, many of which mysteriously went missing in the last frenetic week before the final milestone. Without those optional clues, some puzzles are well nigh impossible. The idea was that gaming geniuses would probably go ahead without the clues while ordinary mortals would use a few increasingly strong hints to proceed further. As it stands, the game is murderously difficult.
Also, on reflection, we took on a herculean task for such a small team: just seven core members, only five of which were present from start to finish. Despite Martian Gothic’s relatively small world map, it was a hell of a job cramming the game into one CD. We often said that we were trying to squeeze a PS2 game into the original console. True, it also came out on PC but we were commanded from above that the Playstation and PC versions had to be virtually identical.
For me, Martian Gothic had the elements of an engaging game but the small size of the team and the punishing time schedule sold it well short. Most of what was in my mind at the beginning never made it to the screen. For me, it’s one of those might-have-beens.
RA: The game was left open ended with the possibility of a sequel. Was this ever considered?
SM: We always had a sequel in mind. In fact a second base is referenced in the game. I had it planned out, along with a prequel, which covers the events described in the microcorders and a lot more besides. I was intrigued with the notion of a narrative that portrays how a place becomes haunted. The PS2 would have given us the power to do a Martian Gothic game justice.
RA: Are you going to be involved in any future videogame endeavours?
SM: Since Creative Reality broke up and the main members are now employees of other companies, it’s all gone very quiet. I would love to be involved in video games again – I’ve got a whole bagful of game ideas. But, nobody’s even interested enough to look at them. Maybe it’s because everything is in-house these days – the freelance designer/scriptwriter is a dinosaur. Still, the future is yet to be written…