Back in the ‘90s, some companies were absolutely convinced FMV and “movies that you control” were the future. Unfortunately, the results of such efforts were deemed by the majority as below average at best and painful at worst. If capturing live actors in photo-realistic detail brought us anything, though, it delivered classic fighting games such as Mortal Kombat, which pushed the concept into the limelight in 1992. When you fast forward nearly 17 years later, though, many people might be surprised one arcade developer is giving the concept another go, even among the current explosion of 3-D rendered fighting games.
Located in the Chicago area, Galloping Ghost Studios has been long at work to bring arcades the title Dark Presence, which features footage of live actors fighting it out. Unlike the similar titles of yesteryear, however, the studio has the technology muscle of 2009 to back it up. The studio was actually formed back in 1994, when founder Doc Mack had ambitions to make a game in the same vein as Dark Presence, but the team felt the video quality and technology wasn’t up to par with what they wanted. Up front, the title will have eight playable characters, each stemming from live actors filmed at a 1080p (1920×1080) high-definition resolution. It took three years to film each actor, but that time will place 151,044 frames of animation in the game, giving each character more than 200 full animations, which includes attacks, reactions and finishing moves. The extra care to attention is the aim of the game, which has different animations for the characters’ left and right sides (removing the image flipping seen in similar games) and 437 strings of finishing moves that reflect the characters’ relations to each other – rivals will be more visceral with each other, but those with friendships and blood relations might be a little more hesitant to end one another’s life.
“While 3D and motion capture have made great strides, you can’t beat the level of realism provided with using actual actors instead of just textured 3D models,” commented Mack. “You can really see all the effort from the actors as they perform the attacks and reactions. For example with our fall animations, when our actors hit the ground you can clearly see the level of impact it has on them. Our actors were often covered in bruises from all the falls they had to film, which lent to realistic pained facial expressions. Honestly, it would have been a lot easier to just go the 3D route, but I’ve always like 2D fighting games better personally. With digitized characters, we are given a very unique look compared to anything else out there.”
The studio is also turning its attention to the backgrounds, which are developed using parallaxing. Each cabinet will have a GPS device that reads where the arcade is located, taking in account the current time of day and weather conditions. Mack is promising players that when it is night outside, the in-game environments will be seen at night; the GPS recognizes that it is raining outside, it will be raining in the game’s environments as well. Most impressively, this function is handled in real-time, so players in the middle of a match might notice the sky gradually darkening or rain could start up in the middle of a fight.
Mack also approached Dark Presence’s background by crafting a storyline that fills up more than 1,300 pages and counting. While the central plot line revolves around the character who has become to be known as the Mind Master and his quest of revenge, each character has a meticulous background story that allows players to understand why the characters are fighting should they choose to dig that far. The story also encompasses the in-game relationships of the characters and actions taken within the game will affect which of the multiple endings players will receive with their character. Mack is still plugging away at the game’s background, but it is also being written to transition into the events of a planned sequel for Dark Presence, entitled Conquering Light – a follow-up slated to have 18 characters (with only three returning from Dark Presence) and new features.
“I really tried to chronicle the entire lives of all the characters in Dark Presence and Conquering Light,” Mack noted on the storyline. “That is why the story is currently at over 1,300 pages, which makes it a little difficult to sum up quickly. You certainly don’t need to know the story to jump into playing the game and enjoy it, but for those who really want to know everything about the characters, the story is there. It’s basically a collection of short stories and really the order you read them in and what connecting stories you’ve read can really affect how you look at the characters. What I refer to as the Dark Presence story just follows the main eight playable characters and the one boss. However, several characters that appear in Conquering Light tie in with events that happen while or before Dark Presence happens.”
While there are no detailed accounts of how the gameplay will shape up, the still photos are looking great for the title, showing characters in combat and showing off a few of the brutal hits and resulting blood. The violence is there, but, according to Mack, it isn’t the focus of the game to just show off gratuitous blood and gore. Mack admitted while there is plenty of blood present that would naturally go hand-and-hand with brutal weapons-based combat and live actors, the team is putting most of its attention on the combat mechanics and the finishing moves were artistically implemented to convey the characters’ relationships to each other. Each character will have three fatalities to perform and Galloping Ghost has already stated each of the three fatalities can be linked into one execution move as players learn how to perform them. With the nature of moves depending on who the character is facing, the total fatality footage reel tallies in at an hour and a half of footage, ensuring those who enjoy messy fighters will be pleased with the results.
“We wanted to make our finishing moves a unique experience above and beyond just a vicious way to kill off your opponents,” said Mack. “Each character has three finishing moves that can be linked together. It took quite a bit of planning to come up with ways that they could all link. Everything was filmed from several different camera angles and then edited together, so it has more of a cinematic feel than finishing moves in other games. Since most of our actors filmed each finishing move with all the other actors, we were able to add variations. Sometimes it would allow us to show a greater connection story-wise for the characters. They are all pretty violent to say the least, but with how we filmed everything, we were given a lot of freedom to not just show an abundance of gore. Sometimes not focusing on the blood and centering the shot more on the characters and their facial expressions and such can make the scene have much more of an impact.”
Outside of the GPS tracking, Galloping Ghost also has a score of other plans for its Dark Presence cabinets. Through USB inputs, players will be able to keep track of personal stats, as well as participate in achievement challenges to earn in-game icons (there are 100 in total) that show how experienced the player is and players can also wager their icons against other players to win ones they do not have. A small touch screen panel will be implemented into the cabinet for players to set up these wagers, but the screen will also display special move commands as players discover them and allow arcade owners to display messages for tournaments, events and more.
The studio is anticipating a lot of customization options for arcade owners, allowing them to place 27 to 65-inch monitors in the cabinet, have prize drawer options and more. However, one of the more interesting optional features is the shock band – a wristband worn by players that generates a harmless jolt if they are hit by a fatality at the end of the match. Mack recalled the initial prototype bands had a little more juice to them, which the development team had a bit of fun with. On the other hand, the team also realized that having such a repercussion to the end of a fight made them fight more strategically and made matches more interesting, but Mack anticipates a lot of locations will opt out of the component and even for those who do not, players are not required to wear them to play the game.
“It was originally more of an inside joke to keep players from button mashing,” explained Mack. “Our programmer at the time made a prototype of the shock band and once we tested it out, we really noticed it was changing how we were playing the game. It added a whole new element of repercussions to having your character get hit and poor playing. The prototype shock band was pretty strong. It was a great motivator and elevated the strategy of gameplay quickly as you did not want to get shocked. We tested it well beyond anything that would be released to the public. It’s definitely not something everyone will want to experience but, it does really add a new level for the hardcore player.”
Currently, Dark Presence is set for a 2009 release with select arcade locations receiving test cabinets in the future.