Drama in the deep freeze – a Lost Planet 3 interview

Being on a planet covered entirely with ice does not mean it has to look boring, and some of Lost Planet 3’s harsh landscapes are downright gorgeous.About a year ago, I was at a previe event in Melbourne for upcoming THQ and Capcom titles. Darksiders II, DmC: Devil May Cry, Metro: Last Light, and Company of Heroes 2 were the stars of the show, and when I was told there was hands-on with the new Lost Planet game I was not interested at all.
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I had played the first two games in the series fairly briefly, getting a couple of hours into each of them before getting bored and moving on to other things. They were games that simply didn’t appeal to me, and I figured another sequel would be more of the same.

Nonetheless, while waiting for an interview for a different game, I picked up the controller to play a bit of Lost Planet 3 just to pass the time for a few minutes. In no time I was deeply engrossed, and didn’t want to put it down when I was called in for my interview.

It was immediately apparent that this was a very different type of game from its predecessors. Instead of the non-stop action of those titles, this was a game that was not afraid to take its time, built up atmosphere, and actually get quite scary. Twelve months later, I jumped at the chance to interview Andrew Szymanski of publisher Capcom, who has been working as producer on Lost Planet 3 since its inception over three years ago.

“Producer” is one of those nebulous terms where people aren’t sure of what you do, so I asked Szymanski to clarify what his actual job entailed on the project. “It’s kind of a broad role, but it’s mainly about making sure that the game is hitting the right notes that it needs to hit in terms of quality and scheduling and budgets,” he replied. “I’m also sort of like the voice of the consumer. So you’ve got the creative director who’s the creative leadership in terms of game content, and I kind of represent the viewpoint of what the consumer is going to think.”

I asked Szymanski about the upcoming game’s far tenser atmosphere, asking what inspired this new direction. “Mostly from classic sci-fi,” he said. “Our inspiration came from movies like The Thing or the first Alien; you’ve got groups of people who are trying to deal with an unknown in a very extreme situation, there’s an unknown threat, but there’s also the chance of a huge pay-off. Again, it’s like the multi-national crew, the crew being more down-to-earth and believable instead of the more antiseptic Star Trek kind of thing.”

He explained that this grew from the initial idea for the project, which in turn came from the original concept for the first game. “When the Capcom creative director in Osaka was making the first game he wanted to make something that was more exploration based, something where you were acting as a colonist and going out breaking new ground, discovering new areas, uncovering resources, and things like that,” he said. “The limitations of the hardware and the pressures of trying to get a game ready in the early months of the Xbox 360 meant he had to back away from that and make a more arcade-style beat-the-level-then-fight-the-boss, rinse and repeat kind of experience.”

“After number two he said he’d really like to go back to that initial concept, go back to this idea of how difficult it was for these colonists and all the things they had to do in order to survive. That’s really what kick-started the whole discussion that led to it being a prequel, being grittier, and with a bigger human element to it.”

This human element resulted in a massive allocation of development resources to creating believable, blue-collar characters and telling an intimate, human story. “We wanted a strong protagonist and a strong narrative for the cast and characters,” Szymanski recalled. “We wanted to show the history of Lost Planet and how humans came to colonise it, and the struggles that they went through. We felt that the best way to do that would be through the eyes of a strong protagonist who would be very relatable.”

“We tried to accomplish that with Jim, who is our main character. We made him an every-man type of guy: he’s a family man, a construction worker type, not your typical soldier or space marine stereotype. We hope that people will respond well to this idea of a multi-national group of colonists who are eking out an existence on this planet, and will become invested in that story. We want to make you feel like you’re part of this world, in one of those classic sci-fi movies. We’re trying to make these characters feel like actual people rather than cookie-cutter stereotypes.”

The technology being used to make these characters a reality is full performance-capture suite, reminiscent of what was used to create James Cameron’s mega-hit Avatar and 2011’s popular PlayStation 3 game LA Noire. “The actors performing the voices are also performing the facial animations and body animations, and we actually scanned the faces of the actors themselves,” Szymanski said. “When you see the face of a character in a cinematic, that is that actor’s face, giving the performance that he did on set.”

“Traditional voiceover work and motion capture work in video games, the actors are doing it all independently. They come in, get given a script, and they read off the script with nothing to interact with. When we shoot a scene in Lost Planet 3 with three characters, those three actors are all on set at the same time, like a stage play. So we track their eye movements, who they’re looking at, and it makes you feel like those people are actually in there. Then we use that virtual camera system to take that capture and put it in that environment and have the animator come in and hold a virtual camera so he can shoot the right angles, just like it was live action.”

In addition to the huge amount of work and technology invested in the characters and storytelling, the game world is also realised in great detail, and a surprising level of beauty. One moment in the hands-on demo stuck with me, when the big mining robot you are piloting comes over the crest of a hill with the sunset behind you, and you see its shadow stretching far out in front of you on the glistening ice.

“One of the questions I often get in interviews is ‘How can you make a game look interesting when it’s all snow and ice?'” Szymanski told me. “There are so many things that you can do with snow and ice, using light, using shadow, using all these different forms of expression. They made something like fifteen or twenty shader textures just for ice alone – transparent ice, opaque ice, smooth, rough, occlusions, different minerals that create colours. They did a huge amount of real world research, and the art team went to a Canadian glacier to find all the different shades and textures.”

“We didn’t want to take the superficial way out by setting it on an ice planet and then shoving you in corridors for most of the game. We really wanted to push the envelope by putting you outside as much as we possibly could, and I’d say a good 70 to 80% of the game takes place either outside or in naturally-formed ice caves. There was also the idea of ice as a material, because if you’re on a world that’s so cold that the ice never melts, how does wind erosion affect the shapes? That said, Lost Planet 3 isn’t all ice – you’ll see other things later on like magma fields with a red, blue, and orange colour palette.”

With all of these changes to Lost Planet 3’s atmosphere, visuals, and storytelling, existing fans of the franchise could be forgiving for wondering if they are going to be catered to, but Szymanski assured me that they will be pleased with the finished product. “It’s very different, but it still retains a lot of that Lost planet feel,” he said. “There were definitely elements that we made sure to keep intact, so it would feel like it belongs to this cohesive franchise. If we’re going to call it Lost Planet 3 is obvious has to fit into the franchise, even if it does have a slightly different execution.”

He explained that even though the game has a thriller-like atmosphere, the core gameplay is still Lost Planet at heart. “We want to keep the fundamentals of the franchise as an action game intact, but when you’re dealing with these themes of isolation and being alone out in the wilderness, of course there’s going to be trepidation and your character is going to be scared,” he said. “I mean, he’s walking into a cave that has a nest full of these creatures so obviously that’s part of the equation. It’s an action game, but the atmosphere changes depending on the area you’re in.”

With its engineering-oriented crew, mining hardware in place of weapons, and consistently tense atmosphere, I had to ask Szymanski if the creative team took any inspiration from that other blue-collar sci-fi horror franchise, Dead Space. “I think the main inspiration we got from Dead Space was the UI design. We saw the first Dead Space and how the UI was placed into the world, and we thought that was something that was going to be the new standard, so we incorporated that,” he explained.

Even so, Szymanski emphasised that this is not a horror game, but an action game with a tense, occasionally frightening atmosphere. “One of our main goals was to make a game that has a foreboding and scary atmosphere without including all the trappings that go along with horror games,” he said. “We’re not going to have the jump scares, and we’re not going to put you in a situation without weapons or ammunition.”

Overall, it sounds like the team has found a healthy middle ground between remaining true to the franchise whilst also making a more emotionally engaging experience. Considering I have never liked the franchise, it feels strange to feel eager anticipation for a Lost Planet game, but after this interview I am even more eager than before.

– James “DexX” Dominguez

DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.