Archive.png Interview: Soul Reaver's Amy Hennig at SegaWeb (by Craig Hansen and Amy Hennig)

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As time of Soul Reaver's DC release approaches, we sit down for a good, long chat with the game's director and designer.

This past fall, around the time the Dreamcast was released, Eidos and Crystal Dynamics unleashed the long-awaited PSX game, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, upon the gaming world. It was a huge sales hit, and has become something of a cultural phenomenon, joining Tomb Raider's Lara Croft in the Eidos stable of recognizable franchise characters.

Rumors of a Dreamcast version had been swirling almost from the time Sega announced it's next-gen platform, and mostly it was wishful thinking. Then, in early November, Eidos finally granted those wishes and confirmed Soul Reaver for Dreamcast.

Our man inside Eidos recently confirmed that the conversation team working on the Dreamcast port of Soul Reaver had finished their job and the adaptation was ready more than a month ahead of schedule. The expected release date of Soul Reaver for Dreamcast has now been moved up three weeks to the end of January.

So, we at Sega Web thought this would be an ideal time to snag an interview with one of the brilliant minds behind the game. Amy Hennig is the director and designer of the Kain/Soul Reaver franchise. Not only is she creative, but in the interview she proved to be thoughtful, intelligent, open, and candid.

We figured those who read about or played the PSX version of the game already knew the obvious: the game rocks, the ending was cut short to allow for Soul Reaver 2 to be released sooner---perhaps as soon as Fall 2000, and the plane shifting and no load times technologies are huge achievements. Rather than submit the same questions that had been asked everywhere else, we decided to focus on some less obvious topics. In response, Ms. Hennig provided some deep, thought-provoking answers.

If you think all developer interviews are alike, think again. Read on, and gain some real insight into Soul Reaver, the mindset of a developer, the challenges of working in a high-profile, highly-anticipated title, and much, much more.

Sega Web: Thanks for speaking with us. Let's start off with the basics. Blood Omen was a mildly successful PSX title, but certainly not a runaway hit. It's easy now to say that Soul Reaver is a slam-dunk, but what about early on, in the proposal stage? Was the idea of a Blood Omen sequel a hard sell?

Amy Hennig: No, not at all---in fact, it was the company that proposed the idea of a Blood Omen sequel to the team (rather than the other way around). While not a blockbuster by today's standards, Blood Omen sold remarkably well for its time, and inspired a significant fan following. So it was natural to start thinking about a sequel.

Like all games, Blood Omen had its share of technical shortcomings - what made it memorable (and what inspired such a loyal fan following) were its original storyline, complex characters, high-quality writing and voice acting, and its fresh approach to vampire mythology. These are the aspects we want to perpetuate as we carry the Kain franchise into the future.

Sega Web: Now, Blood Omen was more of an action RPG, whereas Soul Reaver is closer to a Tomb Raider-style adventure title, although Soul Reaver tells a deeper story than a typical Tomb Raider clone. Who came up with the idea to shift from an RPG to more of an adventure game, and how long did it take to sell the decision makers on the new approach?

Amy Hennig: We hear the Tomb Raider comparison a lot, and I guess I can see why---since both games use a third-person viewpoint in a 3D world, and involve lots of exploration and problem solving (including hitting switches and dragging blocks around). But beyond that, I think calling Soul Reaver a Tomb Raider clone is like calling Goldeneye a Doom clone. Soul Reaver definitely still shows its RPG roots, with elements like character development, ability acquisition, storyline and dialogue.

Still, having said all that---Soul Reaver obviously has fewer "traditional" RPG elements than Blood Omen did. We had so many technical challenges in front of us, with the development of the game engine alone, that we had to simplify some of the gameplay out of necessity. Now that our underlying technologies are more established, we hope to reintroduce more RPG elements into the sequels.

It's interesting, though---all the technological advances we're seeing with the hardware and game engines really require us, as game developers, to reexamine our traditional perceptions of genre. So many of our preconceptions of what defines a game genre are based on things like camera viewpoint, 2D vs. 3D, text vs. voice---i.e., they're rigidly defined according to the previous limitations of hardware and game engines.

The arrival of these next-generation game systems---and most importantly, the transition from 2D to 3D---demands a reassessment of the medium. Zelda64 and Mario64, for example, are very different games from their predecessors. I think we're seeing a trend where many games are converging into an amorphous "adventure" category---loosely defined as free roaming, 3D, character-based games providing an immersive, cinematic experience.

Sega Web: Soul Reaver's been lurking around in development for a long time. I think it was first shown a couple of E3's ago. I'm sure you've heard the complaint that it's one of the most-delayed games of recent years. Gamers and the gaming media always complain about delays in development, but with Soul Reaver, it's apparent that the wait was worth it...the final product is very impressive, especially what you were able to wring out of the aging PSX platform. Did you and your team ever feel pressured to finish up sooner than you wanted to?

Amy Hennig: Actually, Soul Reaver wasn't in development that long (considering the genre and technical challenges)---it was about 2.5 years from concept to shelf, with only a year and a half of full production. (By way of comparison, Blood Omen was in development for about 3.5 years, and Zelda64 for something like 4.5). The real problem, I think, is that we previewed the game to the press too early, which created premature pressure (both internally and externally) to set a release date. When you're working with brand new technology (in our case, for example, the data-streaming and morphing elements of our game engine), it's almost impossible to forecast reliable dates until all the risks and unknowns are resolved. Until then, it's all educated guesswork.

Sega Web: This opens up another topic. Do you think it's good that publishers preview games to the media and the public so early in the development process? Are you in favor of this, or do you wish publishers would wait until development is closer to completion?

Amy Hennig: You can probably tell from my response to the previous question! After our experience on Soul Reaver, I'd probably say no, it's not a good idea. It's a double-edged sword, though---on the one hand, it's invigorating for team-members to see enthusiasm for their work, it's great to get early feedback from the gaming press, and all the media attention builds anticipation for the product. On the other hand, early previews create premature pressure---not only for release dates, but for spec sheets, demos, interviews, asset-creation for articles, etc. All of which intrude into the team's concentration, and divert our attention from the production tasks at hand. So all in all, I'd say it's better for a company to keep a title under wraps until it's near completion.

Sega Web: Now, midway through development of Soul Reaver, Crystal Dynamics was acquired by Eidos. How did that change your job and work environment day-to-day? Was there more or less pressure to get the title out the door?

Amy Hennig: Surprisingly, our day-to-day reality didn't change much at all---it was just about the smoothest transition you could hope for. Eidos has been incredibly supportive of Crystal's development teams; they understand and encourage the creative process.

Sega Web: I think everyone is aware, by now, of the plane shifting and the lack of loading times, which are really huge technological accomplishments. What else are you proud of on Soul Reaver?

Amy Hennig: We're really proud of the voice work in the game---I think the writing is intelligent, and the voice acting and direction are top-notch. We didn't cut any corners in this regard---we hired a voice director and casting director with years of professional experience, and classically-trained actors for the major roles.

I think the overall art direction of the game is impressive---the fluid animation, the cinematic events, the architectural design, the painting and lighting of the environments. All of these things are made possible through close collaboration between the artists who push the envelope, and the programmers who enable them to do so.

Sega Web: I invited a friend over recently and showed him the PSX version of the game. I was only going to show him the first few minutes, but he kept insisting I continue playing. I finally stopped over an hour later, after finishing off the first of Raziel's "brothers." He was disappointed I stopped because, he said, "It's like a movie, I want to know what happens next." Is that the effect you were going for?

Amy Hennig: Absolutely---creating that sense of cinematic immersion was always our #1 goal. To achieve this, the experience has to be seamless and convincing---no elements can break the player's willing suspension of disbelief. So, just like a film, the environments (the "sets" and lighting) must be realistic and believable; the writing, acting and voice direction must be compelling; the soundtrack should provide the appropriate ambience; the special effects have to be credible. This goal was probably the main catalyst for establishing the data-streaming technology---nothing breaks the mood more than a "loading" message.

I think we were mostly successful in maintaining this sense of immersion, though we could have done better in some aspects. The quality of the cinematic experience continues to be our primary goal, so Soul Reaver 2 should be even better in this regard than its predecessor.

Sega Web: Was there anything out there that served as inspiration? Certainly the WB's Buffy the Vampire Slayer's popularity has made it a good time to bring out a vampire game...

Amy Hennig: Sure, we drew from all kinds of sources for inspiration---but less from the popular media, and more from traditional resources. We familiarized ourselves with all the contemporary vampire references---novels, films and other vampire-related games---so that we would have the information necessary to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the pack, and not accidentally replicate something that had already been done.

We relied more on mythology and theology for inspiration---things like Joseph Campbell's books, biblical lore, ancient vampire mythology, eastern myth and mysticism. I think the best games (and books, movies, etc.) strike a chord with their audience because there are ancient and familiar themes being replayed in a contemporary context.

Sega Web: I have to ask this or our readership will kill me: Is there any chance of Crystal Dynamics doing a Buffy the Vampire Slayer videogame? And, how do you think Buffy and Raziel would react to each other, if they met. (It's cheesy, I know.)

Amy Hennig: There are no plans at this point for Crystal or Eidos to do a Buffy game. I imagine Buffy would be pretty confounded by Raziel if they bumped into each other---I don't think she's ever had to deal with a soul-sucking ex-vampire who won't stay dead.

Sega Web: Soul Reaver is really taking off! In addition to the Dreamcast port, I understand that through the Eidos/Top Cow connection, Raziel now has his own comic book. It took Lara Croft three videogames to achieve that! Will you or any of your team be involved in that?

Amy Hennig: With all the advance work done by Core, Eidos and Top Cow, producing a Soul Reaver comic is no great feat! The development of the Tomb Raider comics has really paved the way for future licenses to follow in their footsteps. The Soul Reaver comic that debuted last October is a one-shot deal---but if interest in the game continues to be strong, it's not unreasonable to think that there may be more comics in the series. If so, the team and I would definitely love to collaborate with Top Cow on any future developments.

Sega Web: Is there any talk of a Soul Reaver movie? If one was made, who would you like to see write in it, star in it, and direct it, ideally?

Amy Hennig: There are currently no plans to do a Soul Reaver film, but if the franchise continues to be strong, who knows? Adapting Soul Reaver for the screen would be really difficult, though---the characters, effects and architecture would almost demand a full CGI treatment (where are you going to find a jawless, wasp-waisted actor to play Raziel)? If it was economically feasible to do a full CGI movie, I'd want to see the same voice actors that we used in the game reprise their roles for the film---I think they all did a brilliant job. As far as directors go, I'd love to see an interpretation by someone like Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, or David Lynch---they're all so adept at creating an atmosphere that's simultaneously surreal and completely convincing (plus they're my heroes).

Sega Web: Obviously, there's already talk of Soul Reaver 2. Where does the series go from here? Will Raziel become an annual tradition, like Lara Croft?

Amy Hennig: That's the hope---we're discussing development strategies to be able to produce sequels in a roughly annual cycle. As gamers ourselves, we know how hard it is to wait years for the next installment of your favorite game to come out!

It's a tricky thing, though---these days (with advances in technology and increased consumer expectations) doing any genre of game on an annual cycle is nearly impossible. And trying to build an epic, story-based action/adventure title in that period of time is even more difficult (which is why it takes years to develop each installment in a series like Zelda).

Sega Web: What would you like to fit in to the next title, that you didn't do this time out?

Amy Hennig: So many things come to mind... Soul Reaver 2 (and its sequels) should be far more story-driven than SR1, with more dialogue and character interaction. There will be a greater variety of acquirable mechanics (including spells and weapon power-ups) that will be required to progress throughout the game (rather than being optional subquests). And the importance of the spectral plane will be blown out even more---we weren't able to take as much advantage of it in SR1 as we had hoped.

Sega Web: So far, your publicity campaign had been closely intertwined with Sony. Will you be able to use the same commercials to promote the Dreamcast version, or will there be a new campaign?

Amy Hennig: I'm actually not sure what sort of marketing campaign is planned for the Dreamcast version---that's handled independently by the Eidos marketing group.

Sega Web: As long as Dreamcast sales remain strong, do you foresee supporting the platform? What platforms do you plan to put Soul Reaver 2 on?

Amy Hennig: Crystal and Eidos will absolutely continue to develop for the Dreamcast, and any other platforms that have strong consumer support. Soul Reaver 2 will most likely be simultaneously developed for the Playstation and Dreamcast consoles, and probably PC.

Sega Web: What can our viewers expect from the Dreamcast version of Soul Reaver that will distinguish it from the Playstation and PC versions? It is just graphic improvements, or will you make some use of the VMU and the like?

Amy Hennig: Our main focus in developing the Dreamcast version was to do all the graphic enhancements we could (within schedule limitations). The main characters (and some of the enemies) have been remodeled to show much more detail---we pretty much doubled the polygon count on Raziel and Kain, for instance. And all the game's characters have been updated with higher-resolution textures. The Dreamcast hardware also allowed us to push the fogging way out, so the environments are more detailed and less claustrophobic.

Mostly we just took advantage of the Dreamcast hardware's strengths to improve the look and feel of the game---the improved resolution and filtered textures make the entire game look sharper and more realistic. And the DC's increased horsepower means the game runs at an amazingly fluid 60 frames-per-second.

Sega Web: There's a real move toward online gaming in the console market. Sega's really leading the way in that regard, with Sony trying to follow suit and such. Do you see a game like Soul Reaver working as an online multiplayer environment? What would have to change to make it work? What kind of games do you see as being the best fit for network gaming?

Amy Hennig: Honestly, I don't ever see a game like Soul Reaver (or Zelda, or Tomb Raider for that matter) being developed for the online multiplayer market. A lone-hero-based adventure game just doesn't lend itself to a multiplayer environment---the experience of the hero's journey would be compromised or diluted by trying to shoehorn multiplayer elements into the design. I think the online possibilities are still exciting, though---like enabling players to download updates and enhancements, access FAQs and strategy guides, communicate with other fans, etc.

The best candidates for networked multiplayer gaming are still going to be arena-style competitions and party-based adventure games. Adventure/RPG games like Baldur's Gate, where a group of online gamers can cooperate in a quest, are a more natural fit than something like Soul Reaver.

Sega Web: So are Soul Reaver games now your future? What other kinds of games would you like to try your hand at? Any spicy licenses you'd like to get hold of, if you could have anything you wished for?

Amy Hennig: For the next project or two, at least, the team and I are completely dedicated to the Legacy of Kain / Soul Reaver franchise. We're excited about taking the characters and game world onto the next-generation hardware, and feel that there's a lot more in the franchise to explore---in terms of technology, game design, plot and character development.

Story-based action/adventure games are my favorite genre, both to play and to develop---I could quite happy spend my entire career developing a series of cinematic adventure games. Long-term, I'd like the opportunity to explore some different worlds, mythologies and characters---for now, though, Raziel and the Soul Reaver franchise are the focus.

Although we all have some licenses and properties we lust after, it's really much more fulfilling (and less restrictive) to develop original material. The benefit of a license is that it's easier to get a project green-lighted---it's a known quantity, so a company is much more likely to invest their faith in it. The downside, from a development standpoint, is that any license is bound to be creatively confining, since the characters and mythos are predefined.

Sega Web: Raziel is basically a Crystal Dynamics/Eidos creation, which means you have total freedom with your characters. Lots of gamers and the gaming press always salivate over licensed properties, but the games are almost always disappointing. The only exception of late that comes to mind is Goldeneye. Do licensed properties have to suck as videogames? What are the roadblocks that prevent them from being great? Can you imagine a scenario in which you (or someone else) could take a licensed property and make a kickin' videogame?

Amy Hennig: No, games based on licensed properties aren't always destined to suck. But unfortunately, a license generally brings a lot of baggage with it that can impede the quality of a game's development. I think that poor game engines and unqualified development teams sometimes get green-lighted, solely on the merit of an attached license. Companies will continue to fund poorly-conceived game designs because they have faith in the license---and sometimes games that should be killed aren't, because a company already has too much invested in a license they've purchased.

Even when a talented, experienced team is developing a licensed product, external influences can influence or dilute the game design. Because the publisher and the company controlling the license have so much invested in it, games often fall victim to the design-by-committee problem---the creative team has to defer to the licensor, or they're hindered because supporting materials for the license are delayed or unavailable (for bureaucratic or other reasons). Finally, timeliness is so critical with licensed products that developers are often forced to rush games that really aren't ready to be released.

Sega Web: Character design is so often overlooked, but it's apparent that with Raziel, you took a great deal of care in how he looks. He's a striking, memorable figure. Who worked on Raziel? Was he an internal creation, or did you bring in a big name storyboarder or comic book artist, like some companies now tend to do?

Amy Hennig: Raziel evolved through a close internal collaboration between me, Seth Carus (a fellow designer), and Arnold Ayala (the concept artist). We went through many, many iterations of character design before we were able to collectively stand back and say, "yep, that's him." Mythological associations determined some of his features (like his blue skin, borrowed from Vishnu; and his broken, "fallen angel" wings)---and his backstory established others (his missing jaw and cadaverous appearance, for instance).

Sega Web: We're at the edge of the next generation with Dreamcast, PS2, Dolphin, X-Box, whatever. Look five years ahead as this new generation is running down and the next next-generation is on the horizon. Where do you think videogames will be by then? Who will still be around and who will be either gone, or a minor player? What would you like to see THOSE consoles offer that Dreamcast, PS2, and Dolphin can't do?

Amy Hennig: As the hardware becomes more and more capable of supporting a cinematic experience, I think that the lines between interactive and "passive" media are going to blur. And I think we'll see a blurring of the distinctions between game categories, so that the consoles will be more about providing an immersive, interactive experience within a genre (i.e., horror, science fiction, sports sim, etc.), rather than some rigidly-defined set of categories. We can already see how the old jargon is becoming less and less useful---what does it mean anymore to be a platform game, or even an RPG for that matter? Which is why I think folks have resorted to calling games Doom or Tomb Raider clones---the comparisons are rarely valid, but we lack any more useful terminology.

I think the foreseeable hardware advances are going to be more about improving the quality of the virtual experience, so that games can become more and more a simulacrum of reality. The changes are more likely to be evolutionary at this point (e.g., higher resolution, amazing framerate, increased memory and storage, improved real-time routines for things like particle effects, reflection mapping, etc.) than revolutionary---the jump from 2D to 3D was really the big revolutionary step for the medium.

Sega Web: In that same time frame---five years from now---where would you like to see the Soul Reaver franchise, Crystal Dynamics, Eidos, and yourself personally?

Amy Hennig: I would hope that the Soul Reaver / Kain franchise is still going strong, with epic titles to rival games like Final Fantasy and Zelda. I'd like to see Crystal and Eidos having successfully made the leap to the next-generation hardware, with games that offer a jaw-droppingly cinematic experience. And I'd like to see myself still here in the trenches, still working with the same awesome team, tackling the daily challenge together of being pioneers in this infant medium.

Sega Web: Thanks again for your time. I'll let you get back to work!
―Craig Hansen and Amy Hennig[1]

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  1. Archive.png Interview: Soul Reaver's Amy Hennig at SegaWeb (by Craig Hansen and Amy Hennig)

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