After playing and reviewing Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix, I knew almost instantly that I wanted to interview its creators at Kronos Digital. The unique blend of Hollywood-esque production values, trendy anime cyber-punk, and eastern-style mysticism topped off with gratuitous doses of ultra-violence and candid sex appeal had me wondering just what kind of mind is able to process all these different sensibilities and produce a videogame of such artistic quality.
Anyone who reads through this interview will quickly notice that my line of questioning wasn’t geared toward helping the publishers sell a few more copies of the title (although I hope it does so we can get more great titles along the lines of Fear Effect 2). I wanted to get inside the head of one of the persons directly responsible and understand the creative vision behind the controversial title. Luckily, I got to probe the top dog of Kronos Digital, Stan Liu. I thank him in advance for allowing me to subject him to some tough questions and for being so open with his responses. Without further ado...
Let’s start the interview off by getting to know you a little better. Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself. Where do you originally hail from?
My name is Stan Liu. I’m the President/CEO of Kronos Digital Entertainment. I’m also the Writer/Director for the Fear Effect series.
I was born and raised in Hong Kong. My family moved to the United States 20 years ago when I was 16. I graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena with a B.S. degree in Transportation Design. I was immediately hired by Alias/Wavefront as their international design consultant. After three great years, I left the company and became a private consultant for various film and entertainment
What videogame(s) (if any) got you hooked? What are some of your all-time favorite titles?
The one game that started it all for me would be Nolan Bushnell’s infamous PONG!! I have so many favorite games through the years—all those hours I spent at the local arcade when I should’ve been in school! (Laughs) I played a lot of the classics like Asteroid, Missile Command, Star Castle, Defender, Sinistar, Robotron, Berserk, Tempest, Centipede, Street Fighter II, Samurai Showdown, Side Arms, R-type—the list is endless! I was never into Pac-Man or Joust for some reason.
What about home videogame systems?
I owned many consoles. I had all three Ataris, ColecoVision, VIC 20, all the Nintendos, all the Segas, NEC TurboGrafx-16 with the CD drive and the Neo Geo. But my all time favorite was the Commodore 64! I played many Ultimas, all the Bard’s Tales, the Might And Magics, Archon, Elite and so many other great games on it. I guess back then I was mostly into shooters and RPGs. I loved the Ys series on the TurboDuo, all the Final Fantasys (except I didn’t like 8 and 9 as much!) and the Phantasy Star series (I haven’t play Phantasy Star Online but would like to). I’ve been a diehard gamer all my life, and I was actually lucky enough to have married one as well. Nowadays, both my wife and I spend a lot of time playing online games. She’s quite an accomplished gamer. When we used to play Tribes together, most of her victims would
How did you get into the videogame business?
Kronos started out as an animation and CG effect house. As much as I was a hardcore gamer, it had never occurred to me that I can actually make my own game! When Sierra approached us to do the opening movie for King's Quest 6, we saw the opportunity to provide our high-end animation services to the booming videogame industry. For our next project, Sierra contracted Kronos to create the art asset for their seven CD game called Phantasmagoria. The game was a huge success and we began to staff up and attempt to create our first original title. We approached Sony to see if they had the need for our services. We were then introduced to the amazing PlayStation. To make a long story short, Sony had a license for a comic book character and we were asked to come up with some game concepts based on that license. We worked feverishly and came up with the idea of a fighting game (the rage back then), to which the characters can learn new moves, change physically and raise their attributes through time. Eventually, for political reasons (at least that’s what we were told), the local Sony division we were dealing with had to give up the license to one of their European subsidiaries. Since we already had a game design, we decided to create all new characters, revamp the concept and pitch it to various publishers. In April of 1995, Vic Tokai approached us and agreed to publish our first original title provided that we can have it out by Christmas that very same year. Needless to say, we were extremely excited, but we didn’t even have a single PlayStation development system as of yet! I repeatedly explained to our external producer from Vic Tokai that it was an impossible schedule, there was no possible way that we can create a game on a brand new platform in less then six-months time. We were then shown the actual contract and the check for the development, at that point, all our doubts instantly turned into desperation and greed! We needed and wanted so very badly to break into the game industry. We decided to take the chance and see if we truly had what it takes to make it happen, to be a "game developer." And so, we embarked on our maiden voyage to create the infamous "Trilogy of Terror" as Brad so eloquently put it in his review of Retro Helix! (Laughs) Yes, Criticom was not the best of games! However, to both Vic Tokai and Kronos, the game was a huge success. We’d managed to create a game from scratch on budget in less than six-months time. Since it was one of the earlier titles on PlayStation, it actually did respectable numbers as well. The down side is that we are still living up to the "from the maker of Criticom" comment after all these years. Furthermore, we got stuck doing fighting games for a while simply because we were one of the very few U.S. game developers that actually made a fighting game. Hence, Dark Rift and Cardinal Syn. Looking back, we did what we had to in order to survive and grow as a company. In many ways, without those titles, we would not have the chance to build up our technology and capability to create Fear Effect.
How were you involved with the development of Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix?
I had the concept for the Fear Effect universe in my head for many years now. It was not until recently that we’ve managed to build up the perfect team to take on this monumental task! I served as the writer/director for Retro Helix. I was responsible for creating the original script, all dialogue and cinematic direction for the game. I was also an editor and animator on the project. However, all the credit should go to my tremendously talented and dedicated team who had sacrificed their personal lives and spent countless long hours working under extremely stressful conditions to make the vision of Retro Helix a reality. Not to mention how time and again they had to endure and work with my temperament. To them, they have my utmost respect and deepest appreciation. Without them, Retro Helix would just have been another pipedream.
The Fear Effect universe is an amazingly seamless blend of different styles and complex ideas. Talk in detail about the major inspirations that went into creating the series, and if there was anything in particular that served as the inspiration for the sequel, Retro Helix.
Due to my film and gaming background, I’ve always envisioned this perfect union of games and movies somewhere down the yellow brick road. I have played my fair share of cinematic adventure-type games in my youth. As I’ve grown older and hopefully a little wiser, I found most of these types of games increasingly uninspiring. I simply do not care for the illogical
Nowadays, we all know how extremely dangerous it is to put the two words "interactive" and "movie" together into one sentence, especially in the presence of a publisher. It’s basically a premature death sentence. When I set out to create Fear Effect, my inspiration was quite different than any other game we’ve made before. I ultimately wanted Fear Effect to provoke emotional responses from the player. I did not want a game about how many zombies I’ve killed in three hours or where to find my next weapon upgrade. Instead, I wanted to create a game that will make the player laugh, scream and cry! I wanted them to feel excited and enthralled. I wanted them to experience the game through being the characters on screen. In order to achieve that goal, I realized that the fundamental approach to create Fear Effect had to be drastically different than that of any traditional games. We basically took all the boundaries and limitations of what a game should be and threw it out the window. Instead of altering proven Hollywood formulas, we simply followed them precisely. We decided that it is OK to take control away from the player and seamlessly put them into story mode and vice versa. It is OK to dictate to the player which character’s role he will assume at any given time. It is perfectly OK not to have a life bar on screen. It is OK to tell the player where to use an item in their inventory without having them "pixel fishing" the entire screen. It is OK not to have an inventory system that pauses the game because it would break the suspension of disbelief, and in real lifetime would not stop just because you have to look into your inventory! (OK, maybe not) Most importantly, I strongly believe that content must take precedence above all else because at the end of the day when all the machines out there
We took many risks in making the original Fear Effect. We’ve learned that the majority of the fundamental concepts worked relatively well, yet some did not. We listened to all the comments and criticisms from the audiences and reviewers for the first game, and we’ve managed to come up with some relatively clever solutions to address those issues. Again, we solved many problems and at the same time created new ones for the prequel. The true inspiration behind Retro Helix is simple for us: to improve upon the original and create a better experience for the player. Retro Helix is still far from being that perfect game. However, we will continue to refine the game until it reaches its full potential.
Were there any particular films, art, music, novels or games that had a strong influence over you and your team during the development of both Fear Effect games?
There were so many. Visually, a lot of us were heavily influenced by the look and feel of films such as Blade Runner, Bubble Gum Crisis, Akira, Ghost In The Shell, The Matrix and all of John Woo’s movies. I drew heavily on the masterful photographic works of Ryuji Miyamoto’s Kowloon Walled City for moods, camera angles and lighting. Script wise, I like the sharp characters and engaging dialogues in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Also, From Dusk Til Dawn, the film in which he collaborated with Robert Rodriquez has a nice mix of reality meets fantasy—a lot of what we do in Fear Effect.
Hideo Kojima has often said that the Metal Gear series carries an anti-war message and the Sons Of Liberty sequel is about the effects of digitization on society. Does the Fear Effect series try to convey any messages, or is there any predominating theme?
My take on this subject is quite different. There are numerous "messages" within the Fear Effect series. Some are quite in-your-face obvious while others are more subtle. Regardless, the messages are not there to persuade the audience to see my point of view. Rather, I am merely bringing these issues to light so that people can talk about it and form their own opinions. There are many subjects that are considered taboo within our society. The biggest damage we can do to ourselves as a culture is to keep it bottled up or to simply ignore these issues and pretend everything is just peachy keen. In my opinion, there are no right or wrong views to the messages within Fear Effect because nothing is as simple as black and white. All that matters is that we don’t disregard these issues and hope that they will somehow magically disappear on their own because they never do!
Be a little more specific. What are some of these "taboo" issues that are brought to light?
Well, the most obvious one being the whole sexuality thing between Hana and Rain. It completely boggles my mind how the ad agency and the media had made such a huge deal out of that, when in the opening cinematic alone, we had genetic manipulation, artificial insemination, prostitution, drug abuse, alcoholism and cold-blooded murder. It kind of gives you a good sense on how deprived our society truly is!
Fear Effect 2 is not only one of the hottest games in the market right now, but also one of the most controversial due to the sexually risqué content. Did Kronos Digital consciously decide to "push the envelope" of sex and violence in videogames? Why not stick to more mainstream family-friendly fare?
(Laughs) Where I grew up in Hong Kong, this IS the "mainstream family friendly fare!" I was exposed to these kinds of subject matters on a daily basis ever since I was a child. Back then, no one really paid any attention to the rating systems in Hong Kong. I can pretty much walk into any theater and watch any film I wished to see. I think I saw The Story of O with a bunch of friends in the theater when I was 12 (hope my dad is not reading this). In the evening, my family would have dinner together and watch Chinese Kung Fu soap operas, which is full of violence and death. I used to come home from school in the afternoon and for hours sit and watch these extremely violent yet funny kid shows and animations from Japan. I remember them so vividly, Ultraman, Kikaida, and Rydeen to name a few. My favorite is the Kamen Rider series. Unlike the watered-down American animation and children shows, the Japanimation and action shows don’t hold back on anything. They’re full of awesome fight scenes and all kinds of interesting and violent death sequences. After I moved to the States, I used to watch G.I. Joe in the afternoons. I remember how I would laugh my ass off every time someone got shot down by a missile, because they would always insert that stupid parachute sequence afterwards to show that it’s all just make believe and no cartoon characters were hurt during the production. It was ludicrous.
As much as I was exposed to these subject matters deemed unsuitable by the Western culture in an early age, I guess the difference is that I was raised in a very traditional and straight environment. My parents to their best abilities taught me the basics of what’s right and wrong, what’s real and what’s not (although my dad’s belt and my mom’s slipper did a good job keeping me in check!). So when I saw the Masked Rider rip off this guy’s arm and jump off a 20-floor building, I didn’t go out and try to do the same thing!
I find it extremely amusing how Retro Helix became such a controversy. Every situation, every idea that I put into the game is within the context of the story. The story is about four hardened mercenaries. They do what they have to in order to survive. They live life to the fullest everyday because there may not be a tomorrow for them. They don’t care what people think of their actions, and they don’t make excuses for their choices. Is the game really that sexually risqué? Come on, The Little Mermaid is only wearing seashells and Bugs Bunny cross-dresses on a whim! Have you ever noticed where the cockpit is for the robot in Zone Of The Enders, the shape of it and what it does when he flies? Retro Helix is not for everyone because it was not made for everyone! I didn’t want to dilute the experience for the intended audience. I wanted to create a mature, intelligent and a little twisted game for adults and I was not willing to compromise that vision.
Who was responsible for the T&A lesbian chic ad campaign? Was the marketing an internal decision from Kronos Digital, or was it out of your control and entirely in the hands of the publisher, Eidos?
The original image of Rain straddling Hana was done in house for... inspiration purposes. Then the marketing department at Eidos got a hold of the image and ran with the idea. In general, Eidos is exclusively responsible for all marketing related to the Fear Effect series. Their ad agency comes up with the ideas, and we are responsible for generating the content they require.
I found it to be a little ironic that a game with such a witty script, incredible voice acting, and an intelligent narrative was targeted at such a lowbrow audience. Do you agree with that sentiment and are you happy with the way Fear Effect 2 was marketed?
Hmmm... a double-edged question! First, let me say that I am extremely happy we got any kind of marketing at all for a game that came out at the end of the PlayStation’s glorious lifespan (thank you Eidos). My opinion is that I didn’t mind the T&A ads in the beginning to stir up controversy or what not, I just wished that they would have followed up with ads that portray the actual game itself. Either way, I’m glad that we didn’t get another commercial which made us look like a Resident Evil clone.
How did you feel about the way the game was perceived by the media and public both before and after its release with respect to the goals you had for it?
I was pretty amazed by the amount of good press we got before the game was out, especially with the looming PS2 release. I thought for sure no one would care about a sequel game for the aging PlayStation. So far, except for David Smith’s childish, completely irresponsible and unprofessional so-called review at psx.ign.com, we’ve been getting exceptional high marks from both the media and public. I don’t mean to bag on David Smith, but it was extremely obvious from reading his review that he either did not play the game or he was simply unwilling to give us a fair and unbiased professional assessment. There were so many errors and false information in the original version of his review. After numerous complains from his readers citing his inaccuracies, his revised review was still extremely biased and misleading. Oh well, I guess you can’t win them all! (Smiles)