Game Description: Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix is the prequel to the critically acclaimed hit Fear Effect on the PlayStation game console. In this chapter, we delve into the colorful histories of the original cast of three mercenaries as well as the extraordinary circumstances that brought them together. Their adventure will take us to the chaotic alternate reality of Hong Kong, Hells Kitchen in New York City, the formidable Walled City of Xi—an, the lost tomb of the First Emperor of China and finally into the legendary mountain-island of the immortals—Penglai Shan. A variety of melee and range weapons, such as brass knuckles, pistols, and heavy assault weapons, will help you take out increasingly combative henchmen. The game allows you to play as any one member of the team: cover-girl assassins Hana Tsu-Vachel or Rain Qin, master operative Royce Glas, or greedy killer Jakob "Deke" Decourt. The game's variable ending changes with the disposition of certain in-game events, and other hidden features promise added replayability.
Why is it that the words "mature" and "videogame" seem to have such a hard time appearing in the same sentence? While videogames may have originally been conceived as simple point-based competitive affairs taking place on a video screen instead of on a board or in someone's yard, they have since evolved into something more—much more. To be fair, videogames haven't been around all that long in the big scheme of things, so I suppose it's understandable that the medium hasn't reached a stage where people expect as much from it as say, a novel or a film. In fact, a case could easily be made that videogames have come extraordinarily far in the relatively brief time since their inception, but I suppose I have high expectations having grown up with the things. Now that I'm older and more mature (as I hope some would say), I want them to grow up with me, and it's slightly frustrating to see that videogames aren't experiencing the same smooth transition into adulthood that I've had.
Now don't get me wrong—I love games of all sorts, whether they be pastel-hued puzzlers, happy day-glo platformers or games filled to the brim with harmlessly wholesome cartoon characters collecting icons of family virtue. However, I also like variety—a lot of it. In my opinion, a normal person can only be entertained for so long before wanting to explore and experience more diverse themes and ideas no matter what the medium. I'm not necessarily talking about exploring a dark side per se, but life isn't only made up of sunshine and happiness, and the sooner that people realize that videogames are capable of delivering more than a few hours of mindless entertainment, the sooner we'll all accept the validity of intellectual risktaking on a console.
While I wouldn't go so far as to say that Fear Effect 2 is the digital entertainment equivalent of a cutting-edge novel or soul-searching film, it certainly pushes the envelope of games by going boldly where almost no console titles have gone before in terms of what qualities they are expected to contain, and it manages to do it with panache. All Shatner jokes aside, this is a very welcome thing in my eyes, and by exploring new horizons (and boundaries) for gamers wanting a different type of experience, it succeeds in bringing the final frontier a little closer.
Fear Effect 2 is the latest release from the development team Kronos, who are somewhat infamous for the second-rate schlock games known as the "Trilogy of Terror" to fighting-game fans everywhere—Criticom, Dark Rift and Cardinal Syn. Putting aside their past transgressions and revisiting a different genre, Kronos has now firmly established themselves as the current leader of mature style and content on consoles with their second dose of Fear, and it's a position that's well-deserved.
Fear Effect 2 is a third-person action/adventure title using polygon characters over prerendered backgrounds. While that description may fit a dozen other games, Kronos' latest release has three special things going for it. Number one, Fear Effect 2's characters are visually striking, using the cartoon-like cel-shading technique which is currently all the rage with developers. (However, it should be noted that Kronos was the first to use the technique in the game's predecessor, Fear Effect. Mad props, Kronos.) Secondly, the backgrounds are heavily interspersed with full-motion video, which create a sense of active, dynamic environments in place of the lifeless, static ones found in most games of this sort. Third, and most significantly, is the distinctive tone and style.
When people think of the words "mature" or "adult" in the context of entertainment, the first images people usually have are of things which are sexually explicit. Those terms have also been used to describe Fear Effect 2, and I think that the connotations which are associated with them aren't entirely valid, contrary to what their advertisements portray. While I think it was a very poor decision on the publisher's part (Eidos) in terms of responsibility to the medium, their product panders to the lowest common denominator. I'm sure it did wonders for their sales. However, while Fear Effect 2 is indeed a very "mature" title, it's not due to any scenes of lesbianism or graphic sexual content as the print ads would lead one to believe.
Where Fear Effect 2 brings in true "adult" material are the dark, amoral characterizations of the game's killers for hire. The three "professionals"—Hana Tsu-Vachel, Royce Glas and Deke Decourt gather on a convoluted mission to collect vital genetic information and along the way get swept up into a spiral of Chinese mysticism and supernatural events revolving around the game's fourth playable character, Rain Qin. The treatment of the themes present are definitely attention-grabbing since the dialogue and scenes are written like something you'd expect from gritty noir films and stark crime dramas. These people are stone cold killers who have little concern for anything but the mission and their own skin. They take lives for a living, and they don't mind being indiscriminate about it. The game's cinemas don't pull any punches graphically in addition to the generous use of profanity, and it suits the level of sophistication well. This is not a kid's game, and it's utterly obvious that such content was not meant for a younger crowd. However, regardless of the moral implications of the situations and characters involved, I find it to be utterly refreshing to see a developer like Kronos take on such material, and come out with a mood and setting entirely fitting to be the subject of a Tarantino film.
While I find that mature content handled seriously and with such strong impact is enough to honestly sing the praises of Fear Effect 2, I can't write this article in good faith without covering some of the downsides for those who are intrigued enough to experience it.
As I mentoned earlier, the actual gameplay isn't Fear Effect 2's strong point. It can best be summed up as "Dragon's Lair 2001," since you will find that many situations you encounter during the game have very specific requirements for your continued survival, and you will very seldom meet those requirements the first time. Hence, you will find yourself dying and restarting certain sections very frequently until you figure out what those requirements are. Fortunately, the developers have reduced the reload time to almost nil, and it's not nearly as frustrating as it was in the first game. However, the many "insta-deaths" and restarts do wear on a player after a while, so I'd say the game's relatively short length (roughly 10 hours, not counting restarts) is a good thing.
Another element which compounds the problem of frequent deaths is the lack of a menu to select a weapon or item. Rather than pausing the game and picking exactly what you want, the only option here is to scroll through your complete inventory one by one until you get to the thing you need while still playing the game actively. I suppose the idea was to keep the player involved and avoid the feeling of the game world "waiting" for you to re-equip and pick the big gun, but this idea falls pretty flat. In a game where painful, bloody death and dismemberment literally lurks around every corner, I found that this item system put me at a definite disadvantage when enemies entered the equation. Precious life would slip away like sand through my fingers while I was furiously smashing the triangle button trying to get to a particular gun. More often than not, I would die before getting to the weapon or item needed, and that's the type of cheap death I like to see games try and avoid.
Finally, while the overwhelming majority of the game's puzzles are far superior and more enjoyable than anything Capcom has ever created, there were a very small handful that seemed to come straight from Satan's personal toy chest. It was rare that any of the puzzles stumped me for very long, but those that did made the game come grinding to a frustrating, illogical halt and had me running to find a FAQ, which is something that I never enjoy doing. There was one puzzle in particular I was struggling with and had tried 30 or 40 times until I gave up in a raging fit of game impotence, only to find out that I didn't even have the correct idea on what the goal of the puzzle was. I had entered the seventh circle of game hell.
Despite these gripes, I still look upon Fear Effect 2 with a very affectionate eye and admire all of the positive things, which easily outshadow the negatives. It's a shame Eidos's rampaging ad department has chosen to portray Fear Effect 2 as a lurid, softcore game, especially in light of Congress's constant search for cultural scapegoats—a poor choice, in my opinion. The game also still harbors certain play elements which need to be re-examined for any future sequels, but overall the game's handling of characters and themes will be cherished by those mature gamers who want and expect something more than the accepted norm from videogames. Kronos firmly comes into its own as a developer that deserves much respect by continuing its bold, gonzo approach to adult gaming content, and I definitely look forward to their next offering.
In an industry that can't seem to distinguish the fine line between mature and immature, the sexist T & A ad campaign for Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix was very troublesome to me. By alienating women and targeting the more sexually depraved and adolescent minded part of the male population, Fear Effect 2 signals a dangerous trend that may eventually condemn videogames to the same narrow ghetto culture that plagues comic books.
In his review of Fear Effect 2, Brad appropriately cites Quentin Tarentino because this is a director who often deals with the same kind shocking and adolescent-appealing style of sex and violence. The only difference is that he does so with such knowledgeable craft and artistry that even high-minded critics couldnt ignore his contributions to the art of filmmaking. Story-driven and so-called "mature" videogames desperately need a groundbreaking work of such caliber to reach out to broader audiences and to achieve higher art.
The surprising thing about Fear Effect 2 is that the actual game isn't the cultural apocalyptic horseman that the ad campaign makes it out to be. As much as I wanted to punish this title right from the on set for the print ads and overused "dark" cliches in the introduction movie (spare me anymore scenes with femme fatales killing their targets after sex, suicidal loose cannons playing Russian roulette, and hookers with money thrown at them), I couldn't do so after prolonged play. Fear Effect 2 is, without a doubt, a title of intense style and quality substance. I don't think Fear Effect 2 is the title that will breakdown the walls of perception and revolutionize the way games are viewed upon by the mainstream public, but I'll be damned if it doesn't come oh so close.
With quite possibly the greatest voice-acting to ever grace a videogame, a surprisingly well conceived narrative, stunning art direction, witty script, and bits of risqué content, Fear Effect 2 is game that pushes all the right buttons and hardly takes a misstep. I was really taken aback by the visuals in particular. Its refreshing to see something that just doesn't aspire to be Blade Runner, but actually surpasses it. The combination of cel-shaded models with strong anime influences and lively scenery from the CG-rendered full-motion video backgrounds just blew me away and had me believing and admiring this whole other world that was put forth before me. I was never bothered by the graininess in the picture, either. In fact, the graininess to me added more character to the presentation and made the game seem all that much more unique. Frankly, I'm surprised other titles have not tried to incorporate such an effective technology.
In terms of gameplay, Fear Effect 2 does seem to take a few steps back from the innovative content and visuals. Dealing with the same kinds of problems that the similar survival-horror genre has brandished for years, Fear Effect 2 at times manages to transcend some those limitations, while at other times it seems just as backward. For example, the controls I felt were much more interesting than that of the Resident Evil titles. I appreciated the "fear effect" meter, seamless item/weapon selection and the crouching /rolling evasive maneuvers. For puzzle and mission design, there's an undercover mission involving Hana and Rain collaborating to infiltrate a formal party that was simply brilliant, while another mission requiring Rain to confusingly backtrack to the exact same location where she was just forced to leave was just tired. And just as Brad mentioned, some puzzles just seemed totally over my head and left me scratching my head in frustration for hours on end.
As I alluded to earlier, Fear Effect 2 isn't exactly the Pulp-Fiction of videogames. It needs to delve deeper into the topics of violence, sex, and homosexuality in order for it to be so. At the same time, it still comes very close, and it is certainly so much more than what the lowbrow ad campaign makes it out to be (which ironically does the game a huge disservice be alienating female gamers that could have found the strong, fleshed-out characters of Hana and Rain appealing). Despite my earlier desire to expose this title for another adolescent-minded piece of exploitation trash, it still ended up winning me over in spades. Fear Effect 2 is more than just a step in the right direction. It's exciting game-making that deserves recognition for creativity and courage. It's titillation as art.
According to the ESRB, this game contains: Animated Blood & Gore, Animated Violence, Suggestive Themes
Parents—under no circumstances are you to buy this game for your children, no matter what they say or do to try and convince you. First of all, this game is too difficult for anyone who isn't old enough to buy his or her own games, and the multiple instant-deaths and restarts will probably frustrate most children who aren't prepared for it. More importantly, the themes and tone presented are extremely mature and not at all suitable for children. The game contains multiple scenes of graphic violence, featuring large amounts of blood, dismemberment and killing in cold blood. There are also a few healthy doses of sexual innuendo, as well as some undressing/underwear scenes and one instance towards the beginning of the game which appears to show a nonstandard type of "pleasuring device" in action. While I personally enjoyed the content of the game immensely, it's quite clear that it is inappropriate for children, plain and simple. Parents, now that you've been warned against buying this title, please stop writing and calling Joe Lieberman—there are adults out there who enjoy this type of game and don't want to see them driven off the market.
Gamers in general get a bit of a mixed bag. The gameplay present doesn't break any new ground or have much in the way of innovation. It's pretty much the same overused Resident Evil-style engine with a few twists—including some amazing FMV usage in the backgrounds—but its approach to intellectual content and character is one of the few that genuinely capture a darker, more mature and sophisticated feel. For this feature alone it comes recommended, but be warned that most of the enjoyment here is from the dialogue, characters and cinema scenes, rather than how the game actually plays.
Fans of the first Fear Effect should buy this game with no hesitation whatsoever. The same magnetic cast of guns-for-hire return, and newcomer Rain Qin proves herself to be a worthy addition. The gameplay is largely unchanged, though on the whole it struck me as slightly easier overall, which is not necessarily a bad thing. If you enjoyed Fear Effect, Fear Effect 2 is a second helping of the same sweet stuff. (As a side note, Eidos is offering Fear Effect FREE to people who buy Fear Effect 2, only charging for postage. How great is that?)
Fans of survival horror or third-person action fans will feel right at home in Fear Effect 2, and although it's technically not "survival horror," it's close enough to appeal to the same group of players. The control setup and game structure are basically the same, as there are plenty of puzzles and things to shoot. If you have a craving for this type of game, it's an excellent choice with a ton of style, to boot.
Hearing-impaired gamers aren't left out for a change since Kronos has added the option to have subtitles on or off during cinema scenes. This option should be in every game since little things like this make life easier and more enjoyable for everyone involved. Thank you, Kronos—the extra effort is definitely appreciated.
After playing and reviewing Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix, I knew almost instantly that I wanted to interview its creators at Kronos Digital. The unique blend of Hollywood-esque production values, trendy anime cyber-punk, and eastern-style mysticism topped off with gratuitous doses of ultra-violence and candid sex appeal had me wondering just what kind of mind is able to process all these different sensibilities and produce a videogame of such artistic quality.
Anyone who reads through this interview will quickly notice that my line of questioning wasn’t geared toward helping the publishers sell a few more copies of the title (although I hope it does so we can get more great titles along the lines of Fear Effect 2). I wanted to get inside the head of one of the persons directly responsible and understand the creative vision behind the controversial title. Luckily, I got to probe the top dog of Kronos Digital, Stan Liu. I thank him in advance for allowing me to subject him to some tough questions and for being so open with his responses. Without further ado...
Let’s start the interview off by getting to know you a little better. Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself. Where do you originally hail from?
My name is Stan Liu. I’m the President/CEO of Kronos Digital Entertainment. I’m also the Writer/Director for the Fear Effect series.
I was born and raised in Hong Kong. My family moved to the United States 20 years ago when I was 16. I graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena with a B.S. degree in Transportation Design. I was immediately hired by Alias/Wavefront as their international design consultant. After three great years, I left the company and became a private consultant for various film and entertainment
What videogame(s) (if any) got you hooked? What are some of your all-time favorite titles?
The one game that started it all for me would be Nolan Bushnell’s infamous PONG!! I have so many favorite games through the years—all those hours I spent at the local arcade when I should’ve been in school! (Laughs) I played a lot of the classics like Asteroid, Missile Command, Star Castle, Defender, Sinistar, Robotron, Berserk, Tempest, Centipede, Street Fighter II, Samurai Showdown, Side Arms, R-type—the list is endless! I was never into Pac-Man or Joust for some reason.
What about home videogame systems?
I owned many consoles. I had all three Ataris, ColecoVision, VIC 20, all the Nintendos, all the Segas, NEC TurboGrafx-16 with the CD drive and the Neo Geo. But my all time favorite was the Commodore 64! I played many Ultimas, all the Bard’s Tales, the Might And Magics, Archon, Elite and so many other great games on it. I guess back then I was mostly into shooters and RPGs. I loved the Ys series on the TurboDuo, all the Final Fantasys (except I didn’t like 8 and 9 as much!) and the Phantasy Star series (I haven’t play Phantasy Star Online but would like to). I’ve been a diehard gamer all my life, and I was actually lucky enough to have married one as well. Nowadays, both my wife and I spend a lot of time playing online games. She’s quite an accomplished gamer. When we used to play Tribes together, most of her victims would
How did you get into the videogame business?
Kronos started out as an animation and CG effect house. As much as I was a hardcore gamer, it had never occurred to me that I can actually make my own game! When Sierra approached us to do the opening movie for King's Quest 6, we saw the opportunity to provide our high-end animation services to the booming videogame industry. For our next project, Sierra contracted Kronos to create the art asset for their seven CD game called Phantasmagoria. The game was a huge success and we began to staff up and attempt to create our first original title. We approached Sony to see if they had the need for our services. We were then introduced to the amazing PlayStation. To make a long story short, Sony had a license for a comic book character and we were asked to come up with some game concepts based on that license. We worked feverishly and came up with the idea of a fighting game (the rage back then), to which the characters can learn new moves, change physically and raise their attributes through time. Eventually, for political reasons (at least that’s what we were told), the local Sony division we were dealing with had to give up the license to one of their European subsidiaries. Since we already had a game design, we decided to create all new characters, revamp the concept and pitch it to various publishers. In April of 1995, Vic Tokai approached us and agreed to publish our first original title provided that we can have it out by Christmas that very same year. Needless to say, we were extremely excited, but we didn’t even have a single PlayStation development system as of yet! I repeatedly explained to our external producer from Vic Tokai that it was an impossible schedule, there was no possible way that we can create a game on a brand new platform in less then six-months time. We were then shown the actual contract and the check for the development, at that point, all our doubts instantly turned into desperation and greed! We needed and wanted so very badly to break into the game industry. We decided to take the chance and see if we truly had what it takes to make it happen, to be a "game developer." And so, we embarked on our maiden voyage to create the infamous "Trilogy of Terror" as Brad so eloquently put it in his review of Retro Helix! (Laughs) Yes, Criticom was not the best of games! However, to both Vic Tokai and Kronos, the game was a huge success. We’d managed to create a game from scratch on budget in less than six-months time. Since it was one of the earlier titles on PlayStation, it actually did respectable numbers as well. The down side is that we are still living up to the "from the maker of Criticom" comment after all these years. Furthermore, we got stuck doing fighting games for a while simply because we were one of the very few U.S. game developers that actually made a fighting game. Hence, Dark Rift and Cardinal Syn. Looking back, we did what we had to in order to survive and grow as a company. In many ways, without those titles, we would not have the chance to build up our technology and capability to create Fear Effect.
How were you involved with the development of Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix?
I had the concept for the Fear Effect universe in my head for many years now. It was not until recently that we’ve managed to build up the perfect team to take on this monumental task! I served as the writer/director for Retro Helix. I was responsible for creating the original script, all dialogue and cinematic direction for the game. I was also an editor and animator on the project. However, all the credit should go to my tremendously talented and dedicated team who had sacrificed their personal lives and spent countless long hours working under extremely stressful conditions to make the vision of Retro Helix a reality. Not to mention how time and again they had to endure and work with my temperament. To them, they have my utmost respect and deepest appreciation. Without them, Retro Helix would just have been another pipedream.
The Fear Effect universe is an amazingly seamless blend of different styles and complex ideas. Talk in detail about the major inspirations that went into creating the series, and if there was anything in particular that served as the inspiration for the sequel, Retro Helix.
Due to my film and gaming background, I’ve always envisioned this perfect union of games and movies somewhere down the yellow brick road. I have played my fair share of cinematic adventure-type games in my youth. As I’ve grown older and hopefully a little wiser, I found most of these types of games increasingly uninspiring. I simply do not care for the illogical
Nowadays, we all know how extremely dangerous it is to put the two words "interactive" and "movie" together into one sentence, especially in the presence of a publisher. It’s basically a premature death sentence. When I set out to create Fear Effect, my inspiration was quite different than any other game we’ve made before. I ultimately wanted Fear Effect to provoke emotional responses from the player. I did not want a game about how many zombies I’ve killed in three hours or where to find my next weapon upgrade. Instead, I wanted to create a game that will make the player laugh, scream and cry! I wanted them to feel excited and enthralled. I wanted them to experience the game through being the characters on screen. In order to achieve that goal, I realized that the fundamental approach to create Fear Effect had to be drastically different than that of any traditional games. We basically took all the boundaries and limitations of what a game should be and threw it out the window. Instead of altering proven Hollywood formulas, we simply followed them precisely. We decided that it is OK to take control away from the player and seamlessly put them into story mode and vice versa. It is OK to dictate to the player which character’s role he will assume at any given time. It is perfectly OK not to have a life bar on screen. It is OK to tell the player where to use an item in their inventory without having them "pixel fishing" the entire screen. It is OK not to have an inventory system that pauses the game because it would break the suspension of disbelief, and in real lifetime would not stop just because you have to look into your inventory! (OK, maybe not) Most importantly, I strongly believe that content must take precedence above all else because at the end of the day when all the machines out there
We took many risks in making the original Fear Effect. We’ve learned that the majority of the fundamental concepts worked relatively well, yet some did not. We listened to all the comments and criticisms from the audiences and reviewers for the first game, and we’ve managed to come up with some relatively clever solutions to address those issues. Again, we solved many problems and at the same time created new ones for the prequel. The true inspiration behind Retro Helix is simple for us: to improve upon the original and create a better experience for the player. Retro Helix is still far from being that perfect game. However, we will continue to refine the game until it reaches its full potential.
Were there any particular films, art, music, novels or games that had a strong influence over you and your team during the development of both Fear Effect games?
There were so many. Visually, a lot of us were heavily influenced by the look and feel of films such as Blade Runner, Bubble Gum Crisis, Akira, Ghost In The Shell, The Matrix and all of John Woo’s movies. I drew heavily on the masterful photographic works of Ryuji Miyamoto’s Kowloon Walled City for moods, camera angles and lighting. Script wise, I like the sharp characters and engaging dialogues in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Also, From Dusk Til Dawn, the film in which he collaborated with Robert Rodriquez has a nice mix of reality meets fantasy—a lot of what we do in Fear Effect.
Hideo Kojima has often said that the Metal Gear series carries an anti-war message and the Sons Of Liberty sequel is about the effects of digitization on society. Does the Fear Effect series try to convey any messages, or is there any predominating theme?
My take on this subject is quite different. There are numerous "messages" within the Fear Effect series. Some are quite in-your-face obvious while others are more subtle. Regardless, the messages are not there to persuade the audience to see my point of view. Rather, I am merely bringing these issues to light so that people can talk about it and form their own opinions. There are many subjects that are considered taboo within our society. The biggest damage we can do to ourselves as a culture is to keep it bottled up or to simply ignore these issues and pretend everything is just peachy keen. In my opinion, there are no right or wrong views to the messages within Fear Effect because nothing is as simple as black and white. All that matters is that we don’t disregard these issues and hope that they will somehow magically disappear on their own because they never do!
Be a little more specific. What are some of these "taboo" issues that are brought to light?
Well, the most obvious one being the whole sexuality thing between Hana and Rain. It completely boggles my mind how the ad agency and the media had made such a huge deal out of that, when in the opening cinematic alone, we had genetic manipulation, artificial insemination, prostitution, drug abuse, alcoholism and cold-blooded murder. It kind of gives you a good sense on how deprived our society truly is!
Fear Effect 2 is not only one of the hottest games in the market right now, but also one of the most controversial due to the sexually risqué content. Did Kronos Digital consciously decide to "push the envelope" of sex and violence in videogames? Why not stick to more mainstream family-friendly fare?
(Laughs) Where I grew up in Hong Kong, this IS the "mainstream family friendly fare!" I was exposed to these kinds of subject matters on a daily basis ever since I was a child. Back then, no one really paid any attention to the rating systems in Hong Kong. I can pretty much walk into any theater and watch any film I wished to see. I think I saw The Story of O with a bunch of friends in the theater when I was 12 (hope my dad is not reading this). In the evening, my family would have dinner together and watch Chinese Kung Fu soap operas, which is full of violence and death. I used to come home from school in the afternoon and for hours sit and watch these extremely violent yet funny kid shows and animations from Japan. I remember them so vividly, Ultraman, Kikaida, and Rydeen to name a few. My favorite is the Kamen Rider series. Unlike the watered-down American animation and children shows, the Japanimation and action shows don’t hold back on anything. They’re full of awesome fight scenes and all kinds of interesting and violent death sequences. After I moved to the States, I used to watch G.I. Joe in the afternoons. I remember how I would laugh my ass off every time someone got shot down by a missile, because they would always insert that stupid parachute sequence afterwards to show that it’s all just make believe and no cartoon characters were hurt during the production. It was ludicrous.
As much as I was exposed to these subject matters deemed unsuitable by the Western culture in an early age, I guess the difference is that I was raised in a very traditional and straight environment. My parents to their best abilities taught me the basics of what’s right and wrong, what’s real and what’s not (although my dad’s belt and my mom’s slipper did a good job keeping me in check!). So when I saw the Masked Rider rip off this guy’s arm and jump off a 20-floor building, I didn’t go out and try to do the same thing!
I find it extremely amusing how Retro Helix became such a controversy. Every situation, every idea that I put into the game is within the context of the story. The story is about four hardened mercenaries. They do what they have to in order to survive. They live life to the fullest everyday because there may not be a tomorrow for them. They don’t care what people think of their actions, and they don’t make excuses for their choices. Is the game really that sexually risqué? Come on, The Little Mermaid is only wearing seashells and Bugs Bunny cross-dresses on a whim! Have you ever noticed where the cockpit is for the robot in Zone Of The Enders, the shape of it and what it does when he flies? Retro Helix is not for everyone because it was not made for everyone! I didn’t want to dilute the experience for the intended audience. I wanted to create a mature, intelligent and a little twisted game for adults and I was not willing to compromise that vision.
Who was responsible for the T&A lesbian chic ad campaign? Was the marketing an internal decision from Kronos Digital, or was it out of your control and entirely in the hands of the publisher, Eidos?
The original image of Rain straddling Hana was done in house for... inspiration purposes. Then the marketing department at Eidos got a hold of the image and ran with the idea. In general, Eidos is exclusively responsible for all marketing related to the Fear Effect series. Their ad agency comes up with the ideas, and we are responsible for generating the content they require.
I found it to be a little ironic that a game with such a witty script, incredible voice acting, and an intelligent narrative was targeted at such a lowbrow audience. Do you agree with that sentiment and are you happy with the way Fear Effect 2 was marketed?
Hmmm... a double-edged question! First, let me say that I am extremely happy we got any kind of marketing at all for a game that came out at the end of the PlayStation’s glorious lifespan (thank you Eidos). My opinion is that I didn’t mind the T&A ads in the beginning to stir up controversy or what not, I just wished that they would have followed up with ads that portray the actual game itself. Either way, I’m glad that we didn’t get another commercial which made us look like a Resident Evil clone.
How did you feel about the way the game was perceived by the media and public both before and after its release with respect to the goals you had for it?
I was pretty amazed by the amount of good press we got before the game was out, especially with the looming PS2 release. I thought for sure no one would care about a sequel game for the aging PlayStation. So far, except for David Smith’s childish, completely irresponsible and unprofessional so-called review at psx.ign.com, we’ve been getting exceptional high marks from both the media and public. I don’t mean to bag on David Smith, but it was extremely obvious from reading his review that he either did not play the game or he was simply unwilling to give us a fair and unbiased professional assessment. There were so many errors and false information in the original version of his review. After numerous complains from his readers citing his inaccuracies, his revised review was still extremely biased and misleading. Oh well, I guess you can’t win them all! (Smiles)
In my review of Fear Effect 2, I noted that this is a game that could have easily appealed to women gamers (who make up close to half the game playing population according to IDSA) due to the strong and believable relationship between Hana and Rain. With a little tweaking (possibly less cleavage, tone down the lesbo action, etc.) this could have easily been the Thelma & Louise of videogames. Was this something you considered, and how do you feel about potentially alienating women gamers?
I don’t think I was thinking about Thelma & Louise when I created Hana and Rain. I think it was closer to Xena and Gabrielle instead. Regardless, the relationship between Hana and Rain was not my main focus when I wrote the story for Retro Helix. I think it just got blown out of proportion due to the ads and the media coverage. I find it funny how everyone made such a big deal out of the alleged lesbianism within the game. Once and for all, let me set the record straight. "HANA IS NOT A LESBIAN!" She likes men... and she likes women. Who she chooses to go to bed with at the end of the day IS NOT A BIG DEAL! We are living in the 21st century, this kind of thing happens all the time! Get over it people!! The only reason I wanted Hana to have a female companion this time around is because it gives me the ability to create an extremely interesting love triangle further down the road.
Ah, interesting. Can you give us any more details on the love triangle?
What I find really strange is that, so far, all the comments and concerns I’ve heard about alienating women gamers come from male reviewers. Shelby at Moxxi.com (a site hosted exclusive by female gamers) gave Retro Helix a 4.5 out of 5. She said, and I quote: "There is a real quality to this series that I hope will make its way to the gamers out there who are looking for something that doesn't insult their intelligence." Now, I am not saying she is right or she represents the majority of female gamers’ opinions. All I’m saying is that so far, her’s is the only female gamer voice that I’ve heard publicly, and it seemed like she enjoyed the game based on her in-depth review. When I created the story for Retro Helix, I really wasn’t thinking about making this a game for male or female players. All I wanted to do is to create an engaging story and a fun experience for anyone interested. Sometimes I wonder if the content of the game is actually alienating female gamer or is the hype from the press that is doing the alienating for us.
By the way, my wife is also the lead character artist in Retro Helix and the original Fear Effect. After the production designer came up with the basic concept of each character, she was responsible for creating the look and applying the anime textures for all the 3-D models in the entire game. She had complete freedom to create the ideal Hana and Rain in anime form. So, in many ways, Hana and Rain are the perfect women from a woman’s point of view (again, not that my wife’s point of view represents all women’s point of view).
Speaking of "alienating" women, what’s up with bug-like contraption that was straddling Rain? I’ve heard the scene described anywhere from rape to mechanical cunnilingus. It’s obvious that the scene was left intentionally ambiguous. Set the record straight. What’s the story behind that sexually charged scene?
Again, if I’m not mistaken, those descriptions are mostly from male gamers and reviewers. It would be very interesting for me to hear from the female gamers or reviewers point of view regarding that scene. To set the record straight, the story behind that scene is whatever you wanted it to be. This is precisely one of those "messages" in the game that I wanted people to talk about and form their own opinion. My personal takes on that scene? Well, it’s... personal!
Let’s talk about "adult gaming." First, what are your thoughts on the current ESRB rating system, and do you think Fear Effect 2 was rated fairly?
Yes, Retro Helix was rated fairly. It is a game meant for mature audiences only, therefore it deserved the "M" rating. However, in my humble opinion, any rating system whether good or bad, is just a bunch of words on pieces of paper. Unfortunately, at this day and age, even the best, most arduous rating system in the world is not going to prevent unsuitable material from reaching minors. Any child can get on a computer that is linked to the Internet and potentially gain access to an infinite amount of undesirable material. It is my belief that simply banning access to any material deemed unsuitable for children is not the answer. Having a proper rating system for games or any other medium is a good start. Ultimately, parents need to
Do you take into consideration or pander to society’s perception of videogames when creating them or does artistic vision come first above all else?
I think it should be pretty obvious by now what my answer to that question would be. Artistic vision must come first above all else!
Is there a broader future for "mature" videogames that goes beyond sex and violence, or are videogames doomed to become a narrow niche sub-culture targeted at adolescent male teens like comic books?
(Laughing out loud) There are still some good comic books out there... I’m 37 years old, and I still read them... occasionally. The entire Superman: Kingdom Come series by Mark Waid and Alex Ross of DC comics had both an extremely intelligent, engaging story and exquisite artwork. Wait... sorry! They’re not comic books, they are "graphic novels!"
No doubt. No doubt. That was just a generalization on my part. I happen to be a huge fan myself. I think the Golgo 13, Battle Angel Alita (Gunmu), and Gon mangas are just brilliant pieces of storytelling and art. But regardless of what you and I think, comics in the United States don’t have a broad appeal and have been overly stigmatized and commercialized (as noted in M. Night Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable). Could videogames fall into the same trap and is there hope?
Wow... your Japanese comic book knowledge is indeed impressive! Based on your comment, I can see that you are a man of substance and good taste! (Smiles)
I truly believe (and God, please don’t let it be otherwise) that there is a much broader and brighter future for "mature" videogames that goes beyond sex and violence. With the advent of PlayStation2 and the Xbox, these mature home entertainment systems (or DVD players) will certainly help blur the gaps between videogames and traditional forms of entertainment. I consider MGS2 a mature game that is not about sex and violence. In my opinion, it has great production values and a tremendously broad entertainment appeal. One day, some kid is going to play that game on the PS2, then daddy is going to walk by and ended up watching, and he’ll say "Hey, that’s cool, can I try it?" The rest will be "interactive entertainment" history. As we speak, there are many adults (both male and female) out there that are religiously playing online games such as EverQuest and Ultima Online. They will be the first to tell you that they are not playing some childish videogame but a mature interactive experience.
By the way, is that what you think of Retro Helix, Chi? Just sex and violence?
No. Personally, I feel there’s much more going on with Retro Helix. I wasn’t trying to peg Retro Helix with my earlier question. It was again, a generalization on most of today’s "mature" titles. When we say "mature" videogames, you don’t think about a serious drama or complex relationships. It usually means blood and guts or lots of jiggling female body parts. Do you agree? What do you think?
Well, it is most unfortunate, but I would have to agree with you a 100 percent in that sense. I think in many ways, game developers in general are to be blamed for that. It is hard not to think of "mature" games that way because so far, they are all about "blood and guts or lots of jiggling female body parts." However, I do believe that once someone sets the new standard of what "mature" games should be, the rest will usually follow. So hopefully, with the new machines and new medium, more developers will cease the opportunity and take a chance to creating a different kind of mature gaming experience.
At GameCritics.com, we all feel that both Fear Effect games are of incredible craftsmanship and are easily comparable to some of the industry’s most popular franchises. Yet neither Stan Liu or Kronos Digital have achieved the same kind of notoriety as some of today’s top developers like Shinji Mikami with Resident Evil and Hideo Kojima with Metal Gear Solid. Why isn’t anyone at Kronos Digital connected similarly with the Fear Effect series? Do you guys feel like the Rodney Dangerfields of the business?
Man, now that you’ve put it that way, I feel like I need to dig a hole in the ground and stick my head in it! I liked the awesome comment in the beginning of this question about how Fear Effect rocks and all. Can we just focus on that and omit the no respect part? (Laughs)
All joking aside, I am just glad that people and our publisher were willing to give the original Fear Effect a chance! After all, it was a strange and unusual concept. I still clearly remember the initial pitch of Fear Effect to then Eidos’ CEO Charles Cornwall. After what I thought was a flawless presentation, Charles turned to me, looked me straight in the eyes and said, "Just exactly how much of this is only cool in your head, Stan?" To actually have the players like the Fear Effect series and get all these great reviews at the same time is truly more recognition than I ever hoped for. Both Fear Effect and Retro Helix were not released in Japan. So we are missing a huge portion of market saturation.
WHAT? Fear Effect was never released in Japan. Why?
There were many reasons, and I would rather not get into it.
Kronos is also a small developer compared to the big guys. We don’t have the luxury of a marketing department to push our products and our staff to the public. On top of that, we are still living up to the "Trilogy of Terror" wrap. As far as we have grown as a game developer, Retro Helix still has its faults and is far from being that perfect game. Until that grand moment, I guess I’ll just have to find that hole that I dug and hide my head in it. (Smiles) Meanwhile, can you please do me a huge personal favor and ask Brad not to bring up the "T.O.T." in his next review of our upcoming game? Tell him I’m willing to pay for his silence. (Laughs)
Similarly on the whole "getting no respect" issue, "cel-shading" techniques in games are now all the rage. Was Fear Effect one of the first, if not THE first console game to use the style? Who should get credit for coming up with it?
Somehow, my self-esteem is dwindling will each new question. (Laughs) I really don’t think Fear Effect is the first console game to use cel shading. Many classic 2-D games had cel-shaded characters. However, the two people most directly responsible for creating the cel-shaded characters for our game would be John Platten, the director for the original Fear Effect. He came up with the concept. Then Joan Igawa, the lead character artist, came up with the final look for all the characters in the game.
When all is said and done, how would you like the history of videogames to remember Fear Effect and Kronos Digital?
I know how we would like not to be remembered – "The Trilogy of Terror!" (Sorry Brad, I’ll get over it someday) Seriously, I would like history to remember the Fear Effect series as the first true "interactive movie" that didn’t suck and Kronos to be the one developer dumb and naive enough to even take on the attempt in the first place.
What’s next on the agenda for Kronos Digital? Do you plan to continue the Fear Effect series? Any projects slated for release on any of the next-generation systems like Xbox, PS2, or GameCube?
We are currently working on two titles for the next-generation systems. I don’t know. Do people really want to endure another one of our Fear Effect games with all the sex and violence?
I for one would certainly love to play more. As I indicated in my review for Retro Helix, there’s nothing wrong with sex and violence if its done right. Hopefully Kronos and Retro Helix will prove to be guiding light for genuinely "mature" videogames of the future. Can you give us any more details about the two next-generation titles in-development? Is Kronos planning anything special for this year’s E3?
Contractually, I’m not allowed to elaborate on the projects we are currently working on. However, you know what they say about being careful what you wish for, you just might get another one of these mature games. Personally, I would also like to explore the online multiplayer experience for the console market. I think it would be a fun project to do because it is the kind of game I like to play myself.
E3 is going to be pretty quiet for us this year. It is too early for us to show our progress with the games we are working on. However, there are some other exciting things going on. We may have an announcement by E3 if all goes well.
Are there any closing thoughts you would like to share with our readers regarding Fear Effect 2?
First of all, I would like to thank GameCritics.com for this enjoyable interview. Retro Helix is our second attempt at creating a fun and unique experience for adult gamers. I felt that we have managed to improve upon the original experience; yet, there are still plenty of issues left to be resolved in regards to gameplay and content. My personal goal is to create the ultimate, perfect mature game for all the grown up gamers out there regardless of genders. The only way that I can achieve this goal is to get constant direct feedback from the intended audience. We have set up a "Feedback" link on our Web page at http://www.kronosdigital.com/ for just this occasion. I welcome any constructive criticism and look forward to any response from all you mature gamers out there. Your voices will be heard. Finally, I would like to thank all the fans of Fear Effect out there for their support.
Special thanks to Stan Liu, Kronos Digital and Eidos Interactive.