The Monster Within
Mar. 19, 2006. 07:37 AM
Denis Dyack shifts from foot to foot, fidgeting, restless. Today's the day.
"This is our most precious project," says Dyack, a thickset, cheery 39-year-old with close-cropped hair, as he looks out on the half-filled theatre he just happens to own. "We've been working on it for so many years. I just hope you like what you see."
Up to now, Dyack's delivery a preliminary presentation of Too Human, the blockbuster-destined video game he's been working on, give or take, for the past decade has been snappy, rapid-fire, breezy and composed.
But now, looking out on the few dozen media from as far away as Belgium, France, Spain, Germany, Sweden and Japan that have come here, to his studio, for just this occasion, he slows, perhaps, to savour the moment.
After all, it's been a long time coming. Dyack's company Silicon Knights was born in 1992, when Dyack was a master's candidate in computer science at Guelph University.
The concept for Too Human, Dyack's pet project, emerged just a year later. And then, for 11 years, it waited, standing on the threshold between concept and reality.
In the process, it became a game world legend as potent as the Norse mythology that inspired it.
Which makes its ultimate arrival all the more sweet. Two years ago, MS, in the throes of development for its advanced Xbox 360 system, came looking for an anchor title for the new console something that would have impact and presence, a game that would push their ambitions for game world dominance forward.
Too Human was it, so much so that they committed not to just one game, but a trilogy.
This is no small deal, and nor is the intended impact. He wouldn't disclose budgets, but John Dongelmans, MS's product manager for games, left little doubt as to its role.
"This trilogy is super-important to us," Dongelmans explained last week at Silicon Knights. "It's a huge vision, and we're going to support it all the way."
What's more, the trilogy will be released as an exclusive, which means if Too Human breaks big, Sony Playstation gamers who outnumber Xbox owners four to one will have to buy an Xbox 360 just to play it.
"I can't talk about specifics, but we have a broadening strategy here," said Dongelmans, who flew in for the day from Seattle. "We really believe this will appeal to a broader demographic."
Dongelmans is talking about gaming's final frontier that vast constituency of the non-gaming public who still see the medium as fringe, juvenile or just plain strange. True mainstream appeal, on the scale of television or movies, has been a long-stated goal for the gaming industry, and with good reason.
"Sure, it's a holy grail a holy grail filled with cash," laughed Dave Kosak, the executive editor of Gamespy.com, a popular online gaming magazine.
It has to be. As games have become more complex, and the industry more intensely hit-driven, the stakes have climbed.
Just a few years ago, blockbuster games were reputed to cost up to $10 million to make. Today, Kosak says, the cost for a single next-generation title like Too Human runs between $80 and $100 million. Which means mass appeal is no longer just a goal, it's a necessity. But it is by no means easy. The game industry loves to tout the notion that its $10 billion-plus annual revenues have surpassed those of the movie industry. But what it hasn't done, Kosak says, is penetrate the mainstream consciousness.
"If you compare the type of game experiences you can get today, it's a lot deeper, a lot more emotionally involved, than even a few years ago," he said. "But I don't think the audience has really changed. It hasn't broken out there. That's where they're trying to go now."
No question, Too Human is geared to be a major hit. But it's a hit of a different kind. When asked if he feels the series is being positioned by MS to be its next Halo the wildly successful alien splatterfest Xbox exclusive that put the console on the map Dyack looks a little hurt, almost insulted.
"I'd hate for it to be described as the next Halo. We're a completely different game," he said. "What Halo did for first person shooters, we'd like to do for dramatic games. If it's taken to be The Lord of the Rings of the game world," a constant reference point for Dyack "that'd be awesome."
If anyone is a good bet to forge that kind of breakthrough, it's Dyack. Over the years, with Too Human lingering in the background, Silicon Knights forged ahead. Dyack's company designed a string of critically acclaimed hits as a second-party developer for Nintendo, the dominant game system in the mid-'90s.
Silicon Knights' reputation grew as a maker of narrative-driven games geared toward a mature audience, and as pioneers of a form. From their first series, Legacy of Kain, to Eternal Darkness to Metal Gear Solid series, the studio deftly manoeuvred between rote shoot-'em-ups and more story-driven content.
Too Human, though, was meant to be a step beyond. The game was complex and layered, deeply rooted in Norse mythology, where the Gods walked the earth and battled back the forces of Ragnarok the apocalypse with their otherworldly powers.
Too Human is designed to subsume those myths and project them to a faraway planet, where a Matrix/Terminator-esque scenario has unfolded: machines have turned against their creators and humanity's only hope is a class of warriors elevated to the status of Gods like Baldur, the principal hero by a raft of cybernetic enhancements.
As the game deepens, the hero is pressured to add mechanical parts to survive since he is "too human" to prevail.
"It's man versus machine everybody gets that," Dyack says. "But if you dig, it goes deep what makes us human? What defines the human soul?"
Silicon Knights made its first attempt at the game for Sony's Playstation One in the mid-'90s, and then again for Nintendo's GameCube. But it was heady stuff for a nascent medium, well beyond its technology and adolescent audience.
Dyack's vision was larger that that. To him, Too Human is not just a trio of games. It's a revolution.
"Video games aren't viewed, by and large, as an art form and we want to push it to where it is," he said. "We think we're in the middle of a paradigm shift right now. I truly believe gaming is really going to change culture, and we're trying to respond to that."
It doesn't seem an entirely vain hope. Dyack eschewed the popular `first-person' gaming camera position in favour of a more cinematic viewpoint that tracks and pans, giving it a cinematic presentation. It was also important that players be able to see the hero's facial expressions and emotion, he said.
Borrowing from cinema, the environments are visually rich and atmospheric, using lighting and music to set mood and tone. "If it doesn't look as good as The Lord of the Rings, we haven't done our job," he said.
Dyack office is a corner suite on the eighth floor of a squat, 10-storey concrete bunker-like building that counts as a skyscraper in St. Catharines' modest downtown.
Across the valley and plainly in view, is another similarly proportioned building Dyack's undergraduate alma mater, Brock University, where he started in Phys Ed before switching to computer science. "I was a varsity wrestler," he says with pride.
He's an eager conversationalist, speaking rapid-fire in full paragraphs, referencing anything from management guru Peter Drucker's Post-Capitalist Society to Greek philosophy to Nietzsche. (A Too Human poster features a quote from the German philosopher: "He who battles monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.")
For Dyack, game production isn't merely business, it's culture-making. "I'm a big fan of Aristotle's Poetics," Dyack says of the philosopher's text. "No one has written a Poetics for the video-game industry yet, and we need one."
Which, of course, is the goal for Too Human. In his years producing games for Nintendo, Dyack worked alongside that company's legendary founders, Miyamoto-san and Kojima-san.
"It was kind of like working with Socrates and Aristotle," he said. "When we moved on, we felt like, `okay, we've graduated from school, now we're ready to really do what we want,' which is make Too Human."
All the while, Too Human was in the background, gestating.
"Being able to think about it alongside making all these other games, we were able to be self-reflective what worked, and didn't work, about these other games. That's all focused into what has become Too Human. It's almost like having a child, in some ways. We've built the company from the ground up just to do this."
Yet, therein also lies a danger. The gaming industry is in the midst of a painful weeding out process, where developers and publishers are consolidating, or simply vanishing.
"Games are so expensive, nobody wants to take risks," said Gamespy.com's Kosak. "That's why we rarely see really creative, inventive stuff."
Dyack is keenly aware of the risks. On Too Human, he embraces them. "We've seen some high-profile developers turn out a couple of bad products and they're gone. You're only as good as your last game," he said. "But when you can think about something for 10 years, you can get a lot of things right. This is our defining moment. And we think it's going to be the start of something big bigger than we ever imagined."