Killer Instincts

The Aesthetics of Gore

Good games are as much about atmosphere as adventure. The spooky video game Shadow Man, from Acclaim Studios Teeside (released on PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and PC), is steeped in a dark voodoo mojo that can be hard to shake. The game stars Mike LeRoi, a "voodoo hero" and "dead man." Fortunately for LeRoi, the game doesn't end with death— you just flip over to the "dark side,' where you battle zombies, human-faced rottweilers, and hordes of serial killers who have been called together by Legion, the meanest MF in the underworld.

But in a game where killing is art, what goes into the aesthetics of making it happen? What are we talking about when we talk about game gore? Guy Miller, the lead designer for Shadow Man, talked about the making of the mood.

Were you worried about the Mature rating on the game? We weren't at all worried by the rating. We never intended to make Shadow Man as a kids' game. We wanted to break the perception of video games as being a childish, childlike medium and create something that adults would enjoy. The standards differ according to each country. For example, certain characters in the game are naked and in Germany this wasn't a problem, but in the U.S. it was, so for the U.S. we clothed those characters. Shadow Man has a "mature" rating worldwide, which is right, because there's stuff in it I wouldn't want my kids to see.

When zombies get hit in the game, they explode into bloody pulp and their life force escapes. How much is too much pulp? We actually had an in-built regulator for the pulping— the industry term for which is "gibbing." This regulator was based on the virtual mass of an in-game character; therefore, a really big character would make more of a bloody pulp than a not so big character. I don't feel that the gibbing in Shadow Man is over the top. I feel that the exploding bodies have more of a grotesque— yet strangely satisfying— cartoony effect to them than a realistic effect.

Shadow Man uses a shotgun, an MP-909, and a .9-SMG. Why so detailed on the kinds of guns he's got?

The MP-909 and .9-SMG do not exist. We made them up, even though they do look and sound like they're real weapons. So we've never really "shot" either of these weapons— and even if they'd been available, I wouldn't care to pull the trigger. I don't like real guns. I prefer the unreal guns, like those seen in video games— the ones that don't hurt anybody.

How did you come up with all the different beings that Shadow Man must kill? Coming up with the different enemies is the best part of making a video game! Myself and Simon Phipps, the game's senior designer, sit down with the artists and "talk monsters" for a couple of weeks (and get paid for it!) until we get the monsters we're looking for. The zombies that appear in the Deadside region of the game are based on autopsy bodies— we wanted them to look like they'd just got right up off the slab and wandered off into Deadside. The Surgeon characters in the Asylum are based on adherents of s&m, all dressed up in their bondage gear. The Sisters of Blood in the Temple areas are a sort of cross between Masai warriors and Amazons.

Many current games add some of their most clever touches in the kinds of weapons that the main character can carry. Here, in Shadow Man, you've got the Violator— "spinning razor death." Me and Simon wanted the Violator to look like the sort of weapon a serial killer would invent. In the game, Shadow Man manages to steal this weapon from a bunch of dead serial killers and uses it against them as a sort of just deserts.

How did you come up with that? The voices in our heads told us to do it.

And how did you sketch out how it would work? Were you at all worried that its violent effects might get out of hand? Simon made some initial sketches, handed them over to a 3-D artist, and he made the thing. It was the addition of sound that really made the Violator, though— a sort of steam-driven shrieking thrum that you'll only hear in nightmares. I don't have any problem with violent effects getting out of hand when those violent effects are affecting dead serial killers in a horror-fantasy world, in a video game.

Pretty much every game has a giant monster at the end. In this game, you have the evil honcho roping in serial killers to help him, and the game ends in an orgy of violence. What specific considerations have to go into designing the end of the game? Shadow Man wouldn't be a video game if you didn't get to fight the "boss" at the end. As for an "orgy of violence"— if you've been through the adventure, been set upon by Legion and his evil minions through 20-plus levels, and then, right at the end, he pulls this trick on you, tells you you're a bloody joke— well, it's highly cathartic to beat the living daylights out of the bad man.

 
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