- September 2000
- By John Davison, Joe Rybicki, Amy Hennig, Michael Bell, Kurt Harland, and Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine
Arguably one of the best-looking PlayStation games ever made, Soul Reaver has now sold over one million copies worldwide. A visual feast of gothic architecture, vampires, monsters and spectacular effects, the sequel, which will be appearing on PlayStation2 early in 2001, certainly has a hard act to follow. Has it really been worth the wait? Is it really worth upgrading to a PS2 just to be able to find out what happens? Is there really any excuse for that abrupt ending to the first game? Amy Hennig, director of the game, sets the record straight from her book-cluttered office at Crystal Dynamics' headquarters in Menlo Park, California. "Obviously, for reasons that seem to be infamous, that was not the originally intended ending for the first game," she sighs. This is clearly something she's explained many times. "I would've liked to have ended it more elegantly than we did. I really wanted to end the game with a final confrontation between Raziel and Kain. As I've said before in other interviews, the excised material was only the equivalent of one largish level. Basically we just ended up cutting elements because the game would've suffered if we didn't," she shrugs. "Because of the time constraints we were under, if we were to have put that material in, the levels and the encounters would've been much shorter than we wanted them to be. We would've lost some of the drama in the game's climax, and I felt it would have come across as overly rushed, so we ultimately decided to cut things down." Those of you who reached the climax of Soul Reaver will no doubt agree that while the "to be continued..." ending was somewhat abrupt, the experience leading to that point was by no means flawed. "Ultimately I think it turned out to be a very good thing for the series," Amy concludes. But enough of the first game...what happens next?
Time Travel Is ComplicatedEdit
The time travel concept is very much at the heart of the new game. While Soul Reaver 2 is a true sequel, all of the action actually takes place in the past. "It spans time periods well before Blood Omen, as well as just before, during, and just after," Amy explains. "The initial impetus for going back in time (as Raziel) is that you're pursuing Kain. It's not like Kain ran away at the end of Soul Reaver—he lured Kain into the portal. Kain has a purpose in mind which he needs Raziel to fulfill. Raziel, meanwhile, still believes that he's on this single-minded crusade." When pressed for more detail on this element of the story, Hennig won't be bullied. We assume Kain needs Raziel's soul-sucking abilities through that dainty little hole in his face, but we let her continue. "Silicon Knights' original title for Blood Omen was actually 'The Pillars of Nosgoth'—the Pillars were the main focus of that game, as they are in Soul Reaver 2. They're the mythological and geographical hub of the whole thing. They'll be visited in every time period—and you'll see them in each progressive state—pristine, crumbling, and completely destroyed—and their significance will begin to be revealed." Soul Reaver 2 will definitely open up the tapestry of the story, "I want to take people back to the characters and mythology from Blood Omen—to help make people familiar with the history of the previous game. Since Blood Omen came out back in 1996, we have to assume that there are a lot of people who haven't played it—the majority of players will probably come to the story only knowing about the events of Soul Reaver."For me, philosophically, the whole story must be wrapped around the idea (borrowed from Joseph Campbell) that the only way a hero can ever succeed is by following his own path. As long as he's following a path laid out by someone else, ultimately he's going to fail. He's not going to reach the 'grail', so to speak. That's one way I've chosen to interpret the first game. Kain, because of his decisions, was doomed to failure. Even if advertently, he was always carrying out other people's wishes and failed to forge his own path—even when he thought he was. This raises some interesting issues—particularly the question of destiny versus free will, which was so pivotal in the first game. Is it possible to escape preordained fate? And it's interesting to layer this question into a time travel story. This is really the whole crux of the time travel concept—can you change history or not? And if so, what does it mean to change history—in terms of being responsible for the repercussions? I did some research into time travel fiction, in preparation for Soul Reaver 2. For me, the most interesting approach in time travel stories is summed up with the statement: 'you can't go back in time and change history because you didn't.' That's my favorite way of looking at it. If you do go back—then you did go back. Which means that time travel is ultimately a journey of epiphanies, where the protagonist realizes the role that he already played in history. Of course, Blood Omen established that history can in fact be changed—and we'll be respecting this precedent in Soul Reaver 2."
Goodies vs. BaddiesEdit
The original Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain cast Kain as an anti-hero, whereas Soul Reaver definitely saw him evolve into a malevolent demi-god. "My personal perception of Kain himself has actually changed over the years," Amy ponders. "In some ways I find him an even more attractive and interesting character than Raziel because there's more complexity to him. Raziel, ironically, is more two-dimensional than Kain at this point—partly, I guess, because less of his back-story has been revealed. Raziel is flawed, too, though. He's going to make mistakes—and already has." Growing wings, pissing off his boss and being thrown into a vortex that burns all of his skin off being just a few of them. "There's villainy in Raziel, and there's heroism in Kain—and I hope that's fairly evident through the dialog in the first two games," Amy continues. "Kain is very much the focus of the series, though. If you remove the melodrama and just look at the human elements of his character, you can see that he's flawed. Depending on how you look at things you could call him a tragic hero or an anti-hero. In my opinion, characters painted as 'true villains' just aren't interesting. They're too two-dimensional; no one is ever really so uncomplicated. Everyone always has their motives for what they're doing—everybody believes they're doing the right thing within their belief system. Kain is basically screwed by his own character flaws—which is more interesting than the idealized hero figure." Kain's been a pretty nasty sonofabitch though hasn't he? "No bad guy ever thinks he's a bad guy," smiles Amy. "Basically Kain is just pissed off because he was wronged. He realizes that he was really screwed over again and again. Everything that happened to him was the result of someone else's machinations. That's why he's such a fatalist. That's why he believes there is no such thing as free will.""I've also been reading a lot of theology," she explains, pointing to a huge pile of books that are bending the shelves on a bookcase near her door. "There's a branch of pre- and early-Christian religious thought called 'Gnosticism' which has some bearing on the philosophy behind Soul Reaver. The fundamental idea is that the physical world is inherently corrupt, a tyranny of lies ruled by a false creator god." She pulls out a book, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, by Kurt Rudolph. "Gnostics viewed the endless wheel of fate, the cycle of death and rebirth, as an inescapable prison from which the 'divine spark' in man yearns to be liberated," she explains as the book hits the desk with a thump. "The word 'gnosis' means knowledge. To live in the material world and not perceive the lie is to live in ignorance, essentially in slavery. The divine spark is man's yearning for knowledge, which brings transcendence. This theological concept is percolating under the whole game. Redemption is inextricably linked with knowledge—that's the key. Raziel's redemption is ultimately dependent on learning the truth behind everything."
"Kain comes to the story from a position of knowledge and Raziel comes from a position of ignorance," she continues. "As in any conflict-driven story, the crisis that develops is that ultimately someone is going to have to change, to reach an epiphany. So we need to look at who is the steadfast character that's going to alter the protagonist's perception of reality. When you look at it this way—when you make the 'villain' the steadfast character and the 'hero' the character who has to have the epiphany, it exposes the inadequacy of these terms. Which is why I prefer 'protagonist' and 'antagonist'. It's going to be interesting to see how players interpret 'good' and 'evil' within the context of Soul Reaver 2's story."
Although still very early in development, the levels that the designers show us are breathtaking. The gothic architecture has a more solid, "real" feel to it. The environments feel larger and more substantial than those in the original and there's a much greater level of detail throughout. "Environmentally we can have four or five times the detail of Soul Reaver," Amy explains as we enthuse about a particularly impressive level filled with crumbling pillars and almost Mediterranean-looking architecture. When we see Raziel moving within the environment it's certainly pretty convincing—and there don't appear to be any problems with frame-rate or any of the graphical touches that are coming under fire from some areas of the PS2 development community. "I don't want to sound vicariously cocky, since I'm not a programmer, but we haven't had many problems with the PS2 hardware so far. Our guys are very clever."While it doesn't sound like very much, one of the biggest changes this time is that everything is rendered in its entirety this time. Dig out your old copy of Soul Reaver and check out any area where there's a door or a window. It always looks impressive on the outside doesn't it? But you can never see inside the buildings. Check out the entrance to a cave, and the tunnel always twists to the side so you can't see inside. These are all tricks the designers use to hide the limitations of the hardware. You won't see that kind of thing in Soul Reaver 2. Smash a window and you can see into the room beyond...peer into the mouth of a cavern and you can see into the depths. Everything's in plain sight. "Because of the new technology we, as developers, are losing all of our excuses for not providing the best experience possible," Amy laughs. Fog isn't used a way of obscuring your view either...the ugly pea-soupers that have obscured so much detail in so many PlayStation games, including Soul Reaver, are no longer necessary. "We just use fog as a way of creating an eerie atmosphere now," Amy explains. "We don't need to use it to hide inadequacies anymore. It's exciting to be able to create these environments with the level of detail that we always imagined."
Much of the player's motivation throughout the first game was to help Raziel develop his abilities in order to performs certain tasks. Kicking ass inevitably helped Raziel's cause. This time though, the blue boy is pretty bad-ass right from the start. So, dah-ling...what's my motivation? "Rather than modifying Raziel's 'physical' abilities this time, we're building a lot of the mechanics around the Reaver itself," Amy explains. "The elemental Reaver enhancements are central to this game. There are seven elemental forges hidden throughout Nosgoth (dark, spirit, light, fire, earth, air and water), which provide a secondary, parallel quest. The story occupies Raziel's primary quest, but to progress you'll have to find all of the elemental forges," she enthuses. "Fictionally, the forges were purpose-built to test the bearer of the Reaver. You must discover the location of the forge and solve the central puzzle which activates it—once this is accomplished, you can 'baptize' the Reaver in the forge. The elementally enhanced Reaver provides new abilities which enable the player to access new areas of the game, and interact with the environment in new ways." So how does this work? "Say you forge the Reaver in the Light Forge—it will remain imbued with light, as long as Raziel stays in material and the Reaver remains active. Every time the Reaver is deactivated, it returns to its basic form—but once forged, the elemental potential of the Reaver remains. At the moment of forging, 'satellite' elemental fonts throughout the game are simultaneously activated. These fonts allow the player to re-imbue the Reaver with the associated element. This is hard to explain—the best analogy is in Mario 64, where you see all the inactive 'cap blocks' and you know you'll be able to return to that location later, with a new ability. These are like the inactive elemental fonts in Soul Reaver 2. Just as hitting the large 'cap switches' in Mario activates all the cap blocks of the same color, activating an elemental forge turns on all the related elemental fonts throughout the world. This replaces the whole glyph spell system from SR1. We've decided to eliminate the glyph spells this time, as they didn't really work the way we wanted them to in the last game. Because the glyphs only had offensive purpose, you didn't actually need them to get through the game, which was unfortunate. All the acquired mechanics in Soul Reaver 2 will be necessary to complete the game."In terms of gameplay mechanics, if there was one thing that the original pushed a little far it was the whole block-moving thing. Are the puzzles still going to be worked this way? "Blocks were our fall-back puzzle element and we ended up overusing them somewhat. For Soul Reaver 2 we've generalized the object-interaction system so that Raziel can contextually manipulate just about any object in the world—including being able to carry and place puzzle objects. The designers and animators can autonomously create any object-interaction scenario they can dream up. Which means that we're only limited now by our creativity and our schedule, because Raziel can interact with the environment in a basically infinite variety of ways. It's much more of a graphic adventure in that respect now."
Soul Reaver 3?Edit
A Brief History of NosgothEdit
TO BE ADDED
From Smurf to VampireEdit
"Soul Reaver is a class act," boasts Bell. "A professional director [Gordon Hunt, Mad About You] is a luxury, and the project fares better for the input."And how does it compare, we wnder, to animation work? "Acting for a video game brings with it a different set of rules. For all intents and purposes, an animated show is equivalent to performing for radio. Sometimes you work with a full cast and other times by yourself, but you always work in real time. By that I mean, you are performing as the character in a situation and at a speed not unlike that of an on-camera gig. With a video game script, you need to be clear enough that the players understand their roles in the action. You try not to go over the top. No room for the method here."
But while Crystal may be serious about Bell, Bell is far from serious himself, tossing out comments about how he "slept with everyone on Star Trek including the caterers...especially the caterers!" (We're pretty sure he's kidding.) And when we ask what he thinks of Soul Reaver, Bell's response is characteristically outlandish: "One evening, I decided to play Soul Reaver and only stopped when my wife announced that our daughter had graduated college. She was 12 when I sat down."
Finding the Perfect NoiseEdit
"This may not sound like much," says sound designer and composer Kurt Harland (pictured above; you may recognize him from the new wave band Information Society) as he plays a recording of a crunching Coke can, "but if we drop it a few octaves we get this." The unmistakable sound of a sliding stone block fills the studio. "It's a long, tedious process," says Harland, "but it's worth it."