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Interview: Martin Hollis

Darran Jones

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This broke all the rules. It would be as if ‘you' were a woman

Published on Mar 29, 2010

Martin Hollis worked at Rare between 1993 and 1998: he directed GoldenEye and was the original Director of Perfect Dark until he left halfway through to go and work for Nintendo America. He’s currently Managing Director of Zoonami, a Cambridge-based development house that he set up in 2000. It’s been hard at work on upcoming music game Funkydilla but has a number of top-secret projects on the go. We caught up with him to get the real story of Perfect Dark’s development.

Female leads had a strong presence in the nineties with Lara Croft leading the way. What were your main reasons for having a female lead?

We thought that it would be cool to have a heroine in a FPS, behind the camera. This broke all the rules. It would be as if ‘you’ were a woman. I have fond memories of Kim Kimberly (legendary secret agent and space navigator). She featured in Level 9’s interactive fiction trilogy, and Snowball, where you, the player, experienced the shock of discovering that you were a woman, fairly late in the game if I remember. But there are other examples of female spies, which I have always found particularly fascinating – [such as] Dietrich’s Agent X-27 in Josef von Sternberg’s Dishonored.

Also I felt and feel there should be more games centred on women. Having just made a game starring a man it seemed logical to create one around a woman. We also wanted her to be quite normal, not with supermodel looks, perhaps a little androgynous.

What films /TV/books inspired the setting and plot of Perfect Dark?
Firstly characters. The suggestion “how about a woman?” was inspired by Kim Kimberly as mentioned. The character Jo Dark owes something to Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, and both strongly reference Jeanne d’Arc. Jo is iconic, heroic, independent, vulnerable and very damaged. Second to Nikita/Jeanne d’Arc, I think Dana Scully in The X-Files also had her influence. We decided against ginger, though. I note with interest that the new Jo has hair dyed incandescent orange, Leeloo style. The concept work is truly exceptionally beautiful But I can’t imagine why she would wear the orange. It’s uncharacteristic. Quite apart from the practical problem of being a beacon for bullets – Secret Agents don’t wear orange for good reason.

For setting we picked a range of locations we thought would be impressive and architectural, on the model of GoldenEye but Sci-Fi dystopias. Dave Doak and I went through a Philip K. Dick phase at the time devouring everything PKD. The settings came first; the plot was then constructed by Dave to sew them together.

Dave coined “dataDyne” in a nod to Pynchon’s Yoyodyne in the Crying Of Lot 49. There are certain plot similarities with the Yoyodyne of Buckaroo Banzai too.

One last enormous influence in terms of inspiration for character, setting and plot was Ghost In The Shell.

Why Dark? Is that just her surname, or is there a cryptic reason for her choice of name?

We liked the name. As to ‘why’ we liked it, each of us might give a different answer, but here’s mine. Firstly I had a hope the gameplay would heavily involve darkness, a unique feature. Secondly the core activity was killing, making the game essentially nihilistic or destructive. ‘Dark’ communicates this bleakness of vision. (As does Zero, a suitable addition to the name.) Thirdly, black is my favourite colour, which is why I always wear it. Fourthly, Jeanne d’Arc is a strong female icon in history, vulnerable, feminine and yet capable of killing multitudes. Lastly, I think Perfect Dark was a game developer’s game, which is why everything about it suits a game developer personality. You can see this echoed in Criterion Software’s naming of Black. Game developers just like black, nihilism, dystopian futures, the number zero, infinity, spheres, perfection – all that kind of stuff.

As for the name of the game, the bad grammar ‘Perfect Dark’ appeals to me as interesting – perhaps it is my affection for the way the Japanese use English words in their own games and products. Also, it alludes to the possibility that Jo has no heart and is at sea without moral anchor or compass, much like the player of the game albeit within their virtual world.

At the design stage of Perfect Dark, what was the main focus of making sure it was different enough from GoldenEye to not be perceived as an unofficial sequel?

Certainly we wanted Perfect Dark to be different from GoldenEye, but mainly that was creative feeling not logic. Three years day-in day-out living with James Bond was enough for me. Even though I was and remain a huge fan of the films, three years was enough. I think we were all pretty sick of the Bond universe by the time we were finished, which is why we turned down the GoldenEye sequel without hesitation.

Looking back at Perfect Dark, what features did you have planned that didn’t get into the end product?

I should say first that I was only involved for the first 14 months of Perfect Dark. The project lasted three years overall. My impression on playing the game once it was released was: what a vast array of features I never planned. This shouldn’t be a surprise given the iterative development, which was natural, intuitive and accepted at Rare. But I admit I was surprised at the comprehensive range of multi-player options that made the cut.

In the beginning I had a hope that something really significant could be achieved with light and dark from a gameplay perspective. This is reflected in the name of the game. It was my hope that darkness could have been a pervasive gameplay feature.

But we quickly discovered we were challenging the N64 hardware. For example, Steve Ellis implemented a torch light but it didn’t work well because of interaction between texture projection and perspective correction. First you have to have the right technology, then the gameplay becomes possible.

Frankly, I think this hope of mine was overambitious for that time. Even today, you can see game developers struggle to make light and dark foundational from a gameplay perspective. I suspect it will take a few years before significant and pervasive gameplay innovation occurs here. There are many problems to solve.

What was your favourite feature in the N64 original?
From a player’s perspective, King of the Hill multi-player. As game developers we were very proud of the hover physics, and the visuals on some of the levels.

 

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