Roger Kean (on loan from ZZAP!) pokes about into an enigmatic mystery at Hewson Consultants that involves a drunken reporter, a faithful waggy-tail dog, a beautiful girl and her uncle, a professor of ancient antiquities.
If ever you thought that writing a computer game today is a simple matter of getting out your compiler and squeezing some BASIC into a 42K pint pot of code, then a visit to Hewson Consultants might be salutory. For tucked away inside their (near to) Abingdon offices in Oxfordshire is a programmer by the name of Mark Goodall who is deeply engrossed in the mystery of the Sphinx. At least he is at the moment, for Sphinx is the working title of a forthcoming Hewson Consultants graphic adventure. By the time of its release — some six months away yet — its name will undoubtedly have changed, the reasons for which, Mark explains:
‘It was originally set in Egypt — we started off with this idea of Egypt being a fruitful inspirational area — but is now set in South America partly because Egypt has been done to death as far as mystery is concerned and with this game it’s the mystery that we were looking for.’
Another six months may seem like a long time, but Mark has already put hundreds of hours in, and what I was able to see was largely created as a demo in his purpose built graphics designer/editor. This amazing piece of software underlines Mark’s skills as a utilities designer, something he has been doing in-house for Andrew Hewson for a while now. Sphinx, however, is his first ever game program.
Andrew Hewson: ‘This project has been up in the air since Christmas when we kicked around a lot of ideas and gradually we pulled together what we were aiming for. Mark’s written a lot of background software, there’s been a great deal of talking, so once we get the idea right we’ll be able to turn out several games in a series quite quickly. This is the turning point now, where the actual format is worked out and we’ve got the utilities worked out and we’ve got everything worked out except the sound generator. The graphics are important because obviously it’s the graphics that have to transfer the impact of the game to the player.
‘What’s happening now is that we’re getting the storyline together. We’ve got somebody working on the script and he has a brief to write 10,000 words on it. He uses phases like ‘literary induction’ which we were very impressed with. It’s a tremendous script. He also provided us with the idea to have a separate motivation for each of the characters so for instance the reporter is there to make money to finance his drinking! It’s a multi-character game, something like Scooby Doo the cartoon, where four people in some sense work together to finish the job. The individual characters are important. The team consists of Daphne, the whimsical female who screams and runs away from everything. She’s very slim and elegant so she can nip into tight corners and she is the one whose family is cursed and it is the curse that they are trying to release. Then there is Legless O’Donnell, the drunken reporter who is fat, heavy and gets drunk. He’s the strong one but if you let him get drunk he becomes unmanageable, Trashman’s done that and it’s the same sort of philosophy. Spot is the dog and you can play his character too. He’s the one used for frightening away the nasty bones that come and get you. Finally, there’s the archaeologist who is an upright sort who can’t do anything useful except that when he sees a hieroglyphic he goes up and reads it.’
Mark Goodall takes up the story as he shows me not only the animated characters and their 3-dimensional environment, but also how the graphics editor works, scrolling pre-designed ‘building blocks’ through four selection windows, while a cursor allows him to drop them in the top display area wherever he chooses. ‘Obviously the characters can only do what comes most natural to them, as with the dog he is terribly good at digging, and by kicking great piles of sand around it’s possible to retrieve some important item like a chain or a bone — but he won’t be able to do anything with it. If it’s a question of using a key in a lock, when that’s needed you change control over to another character. Similarly, you can use the reporter to lift heavy objects up, the archaeologist to read inscriptions and so on. It’s partly fun, partly mystery and partly just watching the graphics.
‘We’ve tried to introduce a horror element to the graphics. The way they’ve turned out they tend to be ultra-realistic so the actual design of the game gives the possibility of horror inherent within the idea of realism. So, if we can make a player believe that they are that character then if we have some horrible thing emerging from a wall or a mummy suddenly shooting out, getting hold of somebody and ripping his arms off and throwing bits of body everywhere, then that is going to make more impact on the player.’
Mark’s relish at the thought of this kind of mayhem is mitigated somewhat by his obviously honest face, but Andrew hurries the subject on by telling me that the ‘key phrase’ to the game is ‘littered plain’. Each level in the game (there may be many) can in theory be virtually infinite in size. This would obviously make it unplayable, so Mark is aiming to have spacious open areas, and then claustrophobic spaces. Within the Egyptian/Aztec temple areas where the action will take place, they have literally littered the playing plain with buildings, walls, jars, and other appropriately archaeological artefacts. Among them statues which, since they are constructed along identical lines to the playing characters, can be brought to life in an instant, using the same animation routines as the main characters and therefore eating up no memory — a touch of Mark’s ‘horror’.
‘The system we’re using is so flexible it’s hopeful that we can proportion out these claustrophobic parts and open out some locations and then close them down again, so if you were going down wells or holes we perhaps could get lots of contrast.’
All of this is seen in 3D from a bird’s eye point of view, the problems of which Mark is presently coping with. ‘There’s so many ways of approaching the problem. For example here we’ve got a forty-five degree angle as a perspective angle for these objects. Now it turns out that the implications of that are rather awkward and I’ll have to change it to a twenty-two and a half degree angle of perspective and there are so many problems like this which need to be chewed over.’
As the characters move about, they pass behind objects and buildings, so all the moving graphics have to be masked correctly to make it appear as though they really are passing behind something, and there are quite a few moving characters, and on top of that, the screen scrolls about all over the place. ‘It’s actually quite difficult,’ says Mark. ‘We’ve finally solved the problems now but keeping the speed up is very difficult and requires some very peculiar bits of coding which I spent most of last week trying to sort out to make sure it is fast. Also you’re moving quite a large area of the screen here as well. The actual area of the screens is very large and with all this it’s obviously quite a challenge.’
Writing any computer game with this complexity of graphics and character interaction is a challenge, but as one of the new generation of Hewson programmers, Mark Goodall seems cheerful enough at the daunting prospect, and if, through the strains of work, he ever feels in need of some convivial drinking company, there’s always Legless O’Donnell...
Hewson Consultants’ Sphinx (or whatever it’s finished title will be) should be available round May to June — more detail when we have it.
ROGER (ON LOAN) KEAN