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Silicon Knights (SK) is a "small" development house established around 1992, and although you may have never heard of them up until their latest game, Eternal Darkness, don't worry, you'll be hearing lots more from them soon.  Recently we got a chance to talk with SK President, Denis Dyack.  We get to explore a lot of ground regarding the development of Eternal Darkness, a variety of other videogame topics, and how things work at SK -- which could almost - almost - be termed a secret society.  And what about their Guild mentality?  What are they working on now?  Where'd the Insanity Effects come from?  Should videogames be awarded Academy Awards?  Why isn't Alex Roivas a centerfold model?  What could have Eternal Darkness done better?  All this and more -- just make sure you're comfy.

 

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Denis Dyack (Eternal Darkness) Interview

Conducted by Omni

 

First the introductions: who are you, what was your role in the development of Eternal Darkness, what do you do at Silicon Knights?

I’m the founder of Silicon Knights and was director of Eternal Darkness.  I think that mostly covers my role.  As a director, generally, it was my goal and my job to make sure the vision of the game was coordinated and hit what we wanted to hit by the time we were finished, which was a pretty difficult task with the size of the team and the length of development.

 

Silicon Knights was founded in 1992, but how long have you been involved in the gaming industry?

Silicon Knights was how we got into the industry.  We actually started making our first game back in 1990, probably, and we incorporated later.  Our first game was Cyber Empires for Atari, Amiga, PC, the ancient systems.  And we incorporated in ’92 once we got it published.

 

What changes did Eternal Darkness undergo in the transition from N64 to GameCube?

We made a tremendous amount of changes actually.  The first one was making it all completely real-time 3D.  On the N64 it was real-time 3D but we couldn’t keep the framerates up and it was mostly fixed cameras with some moving cameras, whereas [on GameCube] everything was free-flowing, the cameras were smooth, always moving.  We recreated all the backgrounds.  The gameplay was enhance dramatically, the art was pushed through the roof, the character models went from 700 polygons to 3,000 – 5,000 per character.  The only thing that really didn’t change was the story.

 

That was going to be my next question, the story didn’t undergo any changes?

Not substantially, no.  There were some tweaks, but that’s common as you go through and find stuff you don’t like and make some minor changes.  But overall the plot was cemented in at the beginning.  That’s generally how Silicon Knights creates a game.  We’ll think of a core gameplay concept and a core story concept and we’ll go from there.  During the first three or four months of development we lock all that stuff down and go from there.  We don’t believe in creating stories on the fly because you tend to get a disjointed story, tend not to get good symbolism, meaning or messages.

 

One of the big things that we do at Silicon Knights is push content.  We believe that technology is secondary to entertainment.  And I believe, and I think we all believe, that 10 or 20 years from now, when it’s not going to matter how many frames per second or how many polygons we’re pushing, it’s going to come down to, “Is the game fun?  Is there a good amount of content?  Is it entertaining?”  Looking at the game industry, we’re in a transition period very similar to the 1930s movie industry.  Once the camera became standardized, content became dominant.  Before then is was all special effects and wire tricks that were dominant.  So those people that are proficient at technology now are still getting the “oohs” and “aaahs” but after a while it breaks down to, “Is the game good?”  Eventually there will be a perceptual threshold where no one’s going to care about the technology – how much RAM or how much disk space or whatever – it’s going to come down to, “Is the game good?”  So that’s what we focus on all the time.

 

How much research was done for the various elements of Eternal Darkness, like the weapons, the clothing, the nature of Good and Evil?

There was a tremendous amount of research that went into the game.  Just on an historical level, we tried to make each weapon accurate.  We tried to make the gameplay at least resemble what the weapons would be like and how it would play.  Obviously, we had to make some modifications.  In real life, for example, it takes two minutes to load a musket – we didn’t want people waiting around for two minutes to load a musket.  And if you look at Eternal Darkness, there is a tremendous amount of historical facts that are left as lingering details that if people want to explore, they can.  As an example, every period or every chapter in ED a very significant event occurs for mankind.  The death of Charlemagne as an example.  It was really considered to be the beginning of the Dark Ages [in Europe].  He was bringing on the start of a renaissance thing and mysteriously died and the movement was over.  Another thing, people ask, “What were those pillars of flesh?” that were in the Forbidden City areas.  Have you ever heard of a conqueror named Tamburlaine?  

 

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That’s what he did.  He used to go through, conquer cities, and build pillars of flesh.  So we took those historical facts and made our own stories up with them and really hoped that people would learn things through osmosis.

 

And when it comes down to Good and Evil, that’s a very difficult question or theme to tackle if done properly.  Certainly, Eternal Darkness was not black and white.  By the 

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time you finish, you really have to wonder if Pious was really a pawn or was he in control, what choices did he really have?  We did what we could to make the player think about it and leave a dramatic impact once they finished the game.  Hopefully, when you played the game, you really thought this game did something different than most games.

 

Did being a Canadian developer prove to be an obstacle in getting Nintendo interested in Eternal Darkness and Silicon Kinghts?

No, not really.  I would like to think it’s an asset.  I think Canadians, in general, are very creative and very enthusiastic.  Certainly, we hooked up with the American side first – Nintendo of America – and that’s how we first met Nintendo.  The relationship has always been very strong, always very good.  And really I don’t think [being Canadian] made a difference.

 

So how much input did Nintendo actually have with Eternal Darkness?  Did they ever request changes to the final product or was it pretty much hands offs and they let you do what you wanted?

Well, I don’t think in any development you ever get to do what you always want to do.  Because that’s never the right way to do it.  That’s not saying Nintendo limited us in any way.  We worked together in a collaborative way.  We both looked at things over the development time and said, “We need to fix this, we need to change this.”  It was a group effort.  We worked extremely closely with Nintendo on the project.  The input they had was instrumental and it wouldn’t have been possible to complete Eternal Darkness without those guys.

 

Certainly, all the development was done at Silicon Knights but we were in constant daily contact with Nintendo.

 

But getting back to doing what you want to do, what I meant by that, is that you have to make gameplay decisions that are often hard to gauge – you think something’s really cool but when you test it, it’s not as fun as you thought.  What can we do to fix it?  That’s where outside eyes really help.  We had focus testing here and at Nintendo as well – in Japan and Europe as well – just to see how the audiences reacted to the game and we made adjustments from there.

 

How is the overseas translation proceeding?

They’re finished and being released next week in both Japan and Europe. (The week of October 28, 2002 – Omni)

 

Are there any hidden references to Canadiana in Eternal Darkness?  Like references to Mr. Dressup, Friendly Giant, anything obscure that most people wouldn’t get?

No, I don’t think so.  Well, besides the fact that Michael Edwards is a Canadian firefighter (in the last chapter).  But we say that bluntly, it’s not really hidden.  Besides that, uhm, I don’t think so.

 

No Don Cherry references?

No.

 

I can stop looking then.  The title itself, Eternal Darkness, what does it actually refer to or is it just a pessimistic world view?

It’s definitely not a pessimistic world view.  Most of the theme of Eternal Darkness is exploring the unknown.  So it’s like, what would it be like if we came into this world where everything was unknown?  And everything you thought you knew, wasn’t really like it was.  It’s very Lovecraft-ian, very Edgar Allan Poe, very classic highline horror – there’s this stuff out there that we can’t possibly comprehend.  So the title just sets the theme.

 

The most common connection people make with Eternal Darkness is to say, “It’s like Resident Evil.”  Do you get annoyed when people say this or is it more of a compliment?

Well, we knew Eternal Darkness was going to be compared to Resident Evil because we had zombies in the game.  But I think that people that actually sit down and play the game realize that it’s nothing like Resident Evil and probably closer to an action game.  Rather than survival horror, we call it psychological thriller because of the Insanity Effects.  Everyone that plays the game sees the difference and appreciates the difference on the control level, on the thematic level…  It will probably always be compared but the people that actually play, the people that review it, really see the difference quite clearly.  So those that say, “It’s just like Resident Evil” just haven’t played it yet.  The message to them is, “Give it a try and see what you think.”

 

The Insanity Effects, where did that idea come from?

This is funny.  For the longest time, videogames have been blamed, unrightly so, for influencing people to do bad things.  We’ve looked into this – there are a tremendous amount of studies – and there’s absolutely no evidence to support that at all.  So we thought, “Let’s make some things where we do actually affect the player and directly affect play.”  And that’s originally where this whole Insanity idea took off.  Right from the start of development that’s one of things we wanted to do.  We thought if videogames are being accused of this, let’s step right out and directly try to affect the player.

 

Well, they certainly got me.

Did you like the stuff?

 

Oh yeah, especially the one that basically said no video signal and went all black.  “What the hell is wrong with this stupid thing?” I shouted.

It’s funny – we did some focus testing and even if there’s people in the room and the lights are all out, people get really creeped out but that kind of stuff.  Some people just started swearing – their controller’s not plugged in and just to see them turn around and say, “You got me!” that’s a rewarding experience.  We look forward to doing more of that in future games.

 

Most would describe when the game went gold as the high point of game development.  But what was Eternal Darkness’s high point?

I think it was when the cinematics and Insanity Effects really came together.  Before the game was released, when we were doing some focus testing, to see some of these cinematics, the story and the Insanity Effects all coming together, merged with the gameplay, to see if really affect people… For example, when Alex’s grandfather’s ghost keeps coming back over and over, we had one person, who was on the third one where it gets really creepy and you’re not quite sure what’s going on – I don’t want to spoil it for everyone – turn around and say, “You can’t do this.  This is wrong.”  We laughed so hard and by the time the fourth one came around he said, “Oh okay, I get it.  It’s okay now.”  When we showed some of the plot line when Alex’s great grandfather, great relative, Max goes around and shoots up some of the servants, some of the reactions that we got there – just these horrified looks.  It was just a great feeling.  And of course, getting Paul Luther’s ending cinematic in there – seeing the reactions for that – was pretty rewarding.  When you create content, if you can actually move people’s emotions as much as we saw during the focus tests, then you’ve definitely done something right.

 

Was development of Eternal Darkness done the traditional way with design documents, story boarding, etc?

It was and it wasn’t.  It’s not really a top down approach, it’s more of a…  Initially there’s core conceptual idea, which definitely comes from the top, and then from there you just start flushing out ideas.  Like a painting, you just start filling in as you need to.

 

So everybody has some input.

Absolutely.  There’s no question.  The way Silicon Knights works is that we have a guild mentality and you have your areas of responsibility – if you’re a programmer you have responsibility to get that code stuff done – but when we have meetings on content and story everyone is welcome and allowed to pitch their ideas.  If they’re good, they get in.  Hopefully we catch all the good ones… like a melting pot of ideas where all the good ones float to the top and all the bad ones sink to the bottom.

 

I read up on the Guild aspect last night and it almost sounds like a secret society.  Taking people that aren’t generally associated with the gaming industry and shaping them to what you need… Could the jump be made, is Silicon Knights a secret society, or are you just generally paranoid?

Our industry is very interesting in that it has a tremendous amount of trade secrets, so you can never tell anyone outside the company what you’re working on unless it has been announced to the public.  At the same time, I’ve got three degrees and I’m a big believer in the university system and secondary education, so in order for people to be fulfilled and grow, I looked at it and said, “What’s the best kind of structure we can have?”  As you might be able to tell from Eternal Darkness and our previous games, I’m a bit of a history buff and to answer that I looked back at the past.  And one of the interesting structures they used to have were guilds, where you would teach people how to do your craft and they could never leave the company or go outside the company.  So a guild is very much like a university but it’s not open-concept – it’s a closed-concept university.  Believe it or not, when people join the company we prefer, actually, that they don’t have game experience.  We just want to take creative people and we’ll teach them and give them the tools to create something the way we know how to create something, because generally we do it different than everyone else.  At the same time, we have university professors come in and lecture about the psychology of videogames – but again, that’s all closed.  Hopefully none of that is built on any kind of paranoia.

 

Has anyone ever left?  Is there a deprogramming thing that goes on?

People always leave companies.  Our turnover is extremely low compared to most companies in the game industry.  From that perspective I think we’re doing fairly well.  At the same time, however, our ideas can never leave here – that’s part of the contract.  But you’ll find that with any game company.

 

In general, do videogame push the envelope in terms of subject and content matter?  We have games like Grand Theft Auto III, BMX XXX… is new content being pushed or are old ideas still being played around with?

That’s a very interesting question.  I think that videogames have the potential to change everything.  We believe, as a company, that videogames are going become the dominant art form of [this] century.  They’re going to dominate movies, books, music, simply because they’re a non-linear format and melds all those genres into one.  You can have text, you can have movies in the videogames but it adds so much more.  Another trend, in my opinion, is that because there are so many movies based on videogames, it shows that there are a lot of creative people in the games industry, so it’s a very exciting industry to be in.  At the same time, unfortunately, I don’t think it’s being tapped to its full potential.  I think there’s a lot of work to do and we're just slowly beginning to understand what it takes to make a good videogame.  Hopefully, as our industry matures, we’ll start getting some very serious dramatic content where people will say we should have some kind of award for the content in this game or this game really stands out – and maybe we’ll start getting Hugos or Academy Awards.  But it’s just not generally recognized by the public yet – but when it becomes more mass market…

 

Do you see an extinction of the single-player game – moving to more massively multiplayer games?

For me, it’s the difference between a team sport and a single player sport.  A sports analogy.  When I was doing a lot of athletics, I really liked wrestling and that’s really an individual sport.  You were there alone.  At the same time I loved baseball, volleyball, and other team sports.  And I think that’s what it breaks down to.  I think the massively multiplayer market has potential to do things but I don’t think that it will ever replace the single-player market in any way, shape or form.  At the end of the day, you don’t read a fantasy novel with your friends.  Coordinating groups and getting people together is very difficult – and it’s not always what you want to do.  At other times, it’s the best thing to do. I like a lot of massively multiplayer games but I just don’t think they’re the end all, be all of the videogame industry.

 

Some believe that developers are their own worst critics, what aspects do you believe could have been made better if you had more time – although, I suppose the development process in the case Eternal Darkness was pretty long.

It was long, but it was short for GameCube, let me tell you!  We didn’t have a lot of time to bring it over to the new system.  What would I change?  We had a lot creatures in Eternal Darkness, I think a total of 20+ different enemies.  But for some reason people didn’t notice that.  They thought, because they all had similar attributes, even though we tried to make them play as differently as possible, people saw them as only 5 to 6 different enemies.  We would definitely spend more time on differentiating that… we would probably punch the characters more, make some of them more exciting.  One of the things we tried to do in Eternal Darkness that very much does stand-out, but it’s not clear if people noticed it that much, was that [the characters] were just regular people.  Alex Roivas wasn’t a perfect centerfold model woman, she was an ordinary-looking girl.  And we had some characters that were portly, rather than muscle-bound.

 

I wondered about that actually because the paradigm for videogame females ( big breasts, small waist) wasn’t followed – you had regular people.

We wanted to make a statement, saying we don’t have to have these super models in every game.  We don’t have to stereotype women in that way.  From one standpoint, people that noticed it, really appreciated it; but from another standpoint, you’ve got to wonder how many people really noticed.  Hardly anyone comments on that.  I don’t think we’d ever do a beach volleyball game or something like that.

 

[Regular people], I think that’s where’d we start if we ever decided to move forward and do a sequel.  We’ve learned so much from Eternal Darkness that it would be a very different experience and we’d be very excited to do something like that, but time will tell if we will.

 

Why do most psychological thriller and survival horror games take place at night when most real-life terror happens during the day?  I mean recently, you’ve got September 11, the sniper attacks and further back Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  For the most part these events took place during the day.  Is it because the dark just amplifies the fear or the day just isn’t scary?

Certainly, darkness is symbolic for the unknown.  So when it’s night, it’s dark, you can’t see as much as during the day, it certainly increases the atmosphere.  In Eternal Darkness we tried not to do everything at night.  When Anthony is turning into a zombie you can hear birds chirping just outside the window.  We tried to juxtaposition things like that and sort of make that point as well – it doesn’t have to be at night all the time.  But I think most do it because it adds dramatic effect on some level.  I mean, a creepy thunder storm [at night] really does add to the atmosphere.

 

Obviously, your next project is not going to be a beach volleyball game.

Yes.

 

Can you give any vague, ambiguous hints on what you next project is?

I can’t really say too much but…

 

Is it for GameCube?

Oh, everything we do will be with Nintendo.

 

That brings up some more questions.  What is Nintendo’s controlling interest in Silicon Knights?

That’s one of the questions I cannot answer.  Our relationship has been very good, it’s permanent.  We haven’t disclosed any of that to the public.  Basically we’re working together with Nintendo on GameCube and all future platforms they create.  Sorry, I can’t answer that one specifically.

 

You are working on something else though.  Can you say that much?

Yes.

 

When do you think it might hit the shelves?

I can’t talk about that either.  I’m sure announcements are coming some time soon.

 

So by E3 we’ll hear something?

Oh, definitely by then.  Probably sooner.  But time will tell and I’ll it up to the press people to decide the right time for the announcement.  We’ll be busy for the next… for quite a while.<laughs>  But we hope people will be jazzed about what we’re doing next.

 

Thanks for your time, Denis!

 

(October 31, 2002)

 

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