Monolith’s Dave Matthews, the Primary Art Lead for F.E.A.R 2: Project Origin, is an enthusiastic man. He has been talking shop to journalists for the past 7 hours, and despite the daunting prospect of having to do it all over again the following day in France, is showing no signs of weariness. Animated, engaging and passionate about his work, Matthews is clearly excited about F.E.A.R 2’s release.
He has a right to be. The sequel to 2005’s critically and commercially successful F.E.A.R. is one of the year’s most anticipated shooters. Promising to improve on every aspect of the original is no small task, but it’s something that Matthews and the rest of the team at Monolith may just have pulled off. We sat down with him to discuss some of the decisions behind the game, its influences and some strange stuff about dead birds…
That VideoGame Blog’s Lee Bradley (TVGB): F.E.A.R was a big success, what aspects of the original were you keen to build on in the sequel?
Dave Matthews (DM): We really went back and looked at F.E.A.R to see where we could improve, what we could change to make the experience better. That manifested itself in so many different ways. One was, we want to expand some of the environments. As soon as we started to do that, we realized that the pacing and the flow of combat changed and it raised questions. As far as having a lot more area to traverse, what does it do for the player?
So that’s why we decided to let you create your own cover, letting you shape your own environment and change how combat is resolved. I can’t say that everything is interactive, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s interactive that all feels contextually right for the space. So if you’re running down the street and there are cars, you can pull open the doors and use them as cover. If you want to you can open up both of them and create a fire channel and use it as a barricade.
TVGB: How do you balance a more open environment with the delivery of the story?
DM: It’s a very tough challenge. As soon as you start to broaden the space that you can explore and adventure in, you have to figure out ways to deliver the story still. And we realized there is a really cool mechanic in just regular combat. In combat you can create choke points – areas you can funnel people through or you can force a heavy amount of activity in a confined space. Even though the space can be large, the way that the combat space is set up you can have a very intense spot. So we can create great moments where there are intense vocal points and we use those as leverage to deliver story.
TVGB: What other improvements have you made to the F.E.A.R experience?
DM: There were a lot of changes we wanted to make to F.E.A.R 2. One of the things we wanted to address was the geography, the form of the landscape. Another thing was the community were saying the first game was very monochromatic. We wanted to make sure we addressed that. So we leveraged a lot of film techniques.
In film they create a color story and basically its various scenes throughout the movie, and they ascribe a color to it. There’s nothing in the scene yet but you just understand through these colors you can start to create very specific emotional responses, we took that same idea and now in the construction of all of our missions we start to move through certain hues. So you are going to see different colors as you move through different spaces, and that will start to trigger very specific responses.
TVGB: You mention film influences; F.E.A.R was highly influenced by Japanese horror, does F.E.A.R. 2 build on that?
DM: We looked at a lot of influences from Eastern Europe, for example Daywatch and Nightwatch. We also got some great stuff outta High Tension. Some of the American influences were say Saw or Hostel. We looked at them and we cherry picked a lot of stuff. We took some really cool pieces out of all these things, looked at what worked and tried to augment it and make it better.
With Saw, it wasn’t the gore aspect of the movie. It’s about the emotional trigger that occurs in you when the character wakes up, and you have thirty seconds to do something or something horrific is going to happen. We wanted to create that kind of emotional response. There’s a Japanese influence too, but we’re trying to broaden that palette, it’s going to feel a little different.
TVGB: F.E.A.R is renowned for its A.I. Tell us about the differences we’ll see in this game.
DM: We are pretty proud of our A.I. I don’t want to say we’re cocky but… well maybe a little bit cocky! That being said, we couldn’t sit on our laurels. We couldn’t deliver the exact same A.I. So as soon as we started to alter the volume of the combat space, we realized we had so many new opportunities. Because nothing is scripted, we constantly had to add new education to our A.I. So we let them be aware of fire and other environmental hazards – they are aware of potential combat opportunities.
Basically, what was great about the A.I in the first game is that they looked at the environment and looked at how to exploit it. In this game, we wanted the player to do all that too and as you start to play you’ll notice, when you make a very specific action, they will have a very appropriate reaction. How the A.I responds has turned out to be really really fun.
TVGB: You’ve spoken about taking the community’s input on board. Where do you draw the line between your vision and theirs?
DM: Ultimately, it comes back to the experience of the team. You have this huge pot of fabulous ideas, and you start to see what’s going to work well with what we’ve established and our goals and if this dovetails really nicely, let’s see if we can start to get it in. It doesn’t matter where it came from. If it works well with what our systems are and what our ideology is it goes in.
The Elite Power Armour literally came out of that. So there was a huge interest in the first F.E.A.R, to operate the powered armor. The first response was that’s awesome, that’s a great idea. So we did exactly that during production. Ultimately it didn’t feel very good because it didn’t do anything to really accentuate what F.E.A.R was about. So we decided to ratchet it up and by doing that, by creating the Elite Power Armour, you can deal so much damage, so much devastation. You can rip apart the environment, and all of a sudden we realized we’re onto something.
The way that combat in F.E.A.R. works is; the A.I. own the space. As you come into the space, outside of the E.P.A., you are constantly trying to whittle down their ownership of that space. In the E.P.A., you’re taking that same mechanic and completely turning it around. So now you own the space and the A.I. respond to you in a very aggressive way. Secondly, it feels awesome to be a badass every so often, we recognize that too. Tearing shit up is a lot of fun.
TVGB: With such destructive capabilities, one concern is that the horror aspect of the game may suffer. How do you balance the two elements?
DM: Good question. If you look back across our demos – we demoed at E3 and GDC we actually had a regenerative health system. Because we were playing with ideas about how to best maximize vulnerability, best maximize tension. And we experimented with all sorts of stuff in gameplay and ultimately we came back to a medikit system.
We realized that if you are re-genning, you can come into a spot and you could hold up, back up and you could sit and wait. That can be tension filed, but it puts too much control back in player’s hands to define their fate. And one of the ways that you can create great tension is to remove some of that power, so as soon as you start to feel powerless, you’ve got tension.
So ultimately, that is some of the defining factors of our philosophy. It’s a really delicate formula, we had to take a look at fear and see exactly what it is that makes tension in a game.
TVGB: Did you use your own engine?
DM: Yes, this is Monolith proprietary technology and it’s very different from what F.E.A.R. was shipped on. So we have made advances in the bag of tricks we get to use. We have full HDR, ambient light occlusion, fast volume rendering. We have in-camera effects like depth of field, motion blur and we’ve improved our physics tremendously. All that translates to more visuals and more activity on screen.
So I think you will probably notice if you go back and play F.E.A.R. and then see what you saw today you’ll see a lot more activity, that chaos of combat, you are gonna see that stuff heightened. It’s a huge step; I think we made significant advancements with what people experienced in the first game to what they see in F.E.A.R. 2.
TVGB: Sound design is incredibly important to create tension, what can you tell us about the sound in the game?
DM: Our sound department are really top notch. We have a composer and he plays the game, he analyzes it and he scores to it. Then we go on location shoots. This is something we have done at Monolith for generations of games now.
We go to locations and we want to go to a school, we want to go to anywhere we can find like a ruined city, all that kind of stuff. And we’ll hire a location scout, to find those places for us. We’ll go out there with artists, level designers, and audio guys. Ultimately, we’ll examine the space and some of the things we can get out of it are awesome.
Anecdotally; we were out at one site and there was this dead bird and it was kind of stiff and mummified, it had been dead for so long. And we were looking at it like ‘this is fricken cool’ and we were taking pictures and stuff but no-one wants to touch it. We were like don’t touch this, it’s bad mojo, don’t disrupt it it’s been there for a long time.
But then somebody kicked it. And as soon as he kicked it, it was like game on.
So the audio guy has his mics next to it and they’re like stepping on the bird, crushing its bones and pulling on it and stuff – so ultimately you are gonna hear a lot of those sounds in the game. It’s awesome because it speaks of all the craziness that we’ll go to, to create the best experience.
TVGB: The game is out in February. Was it a deliberate move to avoid a crowded holiday season?
DM: Ultimately, there were certain things that we really wanted to have in F.E.A.R. 2 that we wanted to make sure were in the game right. So we didn’t want to ship half-assed. We wanted to take the extra time as we wanted to make sure this stuff is right on. And again, because Warner has a lot of trust in us, they agreed.
I mean, we still come out around other stuff; Resident Evil 5’s coming out around us and Killzone 2. It’s not that we were afraid of the competition; it’s that we wanted to make the game we intended to make.
TVGB: The shooter market is pretty saturated right now, what sets F.E.A.R. 2 apart?
DM: To me I think competition is always a concern, but it’s healthy because you get to see how other people approach the same mechanics, and you can learn from it. It’s great. Great mechanics – it’s fabulous to learn from. If it’s bad mechanics – it’s fabulous to learn from. So to take all that and add to what you already know is a good formula.
I think another thing that really sets us apart is that there are a lot of shooter games out there that don’t have a secondary aspect of – I won’t say horror, you could insert something else into it – but in an FPS one of the big challenges is you have this high intensity of combat, but if you do that too long it kind of numbs you.
So you have to create specific lulls and if you have those lulls in a straight up FPS, what do you put in that space? Having a horror aspect to it, it creates a great clearing and now we can get a nice ebb and flow between combat and horror. So we never really have dead spaces.
TVGB: And DLC plans?
DM: I’m not allowed to talk about DLC, all I can say that is that we recognize its importance (smiles).
TVGB: Has Monolith being part of Warner Bros. changed the way you‘ve thought about the game’s development?
DM: It really hasn’t. It’s awesome. They gave us so much autonomy, we never feel like they are trying to constrict us. They understand we have a really good history of making quality games and because of that they understand we have a good method, a good formula. And they just want to keep nurturing that so they’ve never really come in and said it has to be this way or that way. They really trust us to do the right thing which is great.
TVGB: So do Monolith see F.E.A.R as a trilogy, maybe even more?
DM: We have a tremendous amount of story that we would love to tell about Alma and about the universe. I think there is so much story that there is left to tell. We have dry marker boards full of story, so there is definitely a lot of story that we could tell. If the fans are into it, we’re into it.
TVGB: Can you see Warner making a F.E.A.R. movie perhaps?
DM: It would be awesome! The universe is so rich we have tons and tons of back story and we try and hint at it a little bit in F.E.A.R. and it created a lot of questions that we left unanswered. So in F.E.A.R. 2, we swept back through a lot of those questions and made very specific actions to answer a lot of those and then pose a few new ones because… as with every good horror or action film, we’ve got to leave a few lingering.
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