One of the downsides of being a game developer is the relatively high chance of seeing your hard work get cancelled or go unsigned. There are so many forces acting against a game being funded – and then more again against it being completed – that it’s a miracle that any games get published at all.
Most developers I know have their fair share of stories about games that should have made it, and, of course, I’m no different. So, in the interest of letting you, the reader, in on my particular part of this murky world of could-have-beens, and in order to vent some of my frustration at my hard work being forever lost, I present Deadlight.
Conceived during the final 18 months of now-defunct independent UK developer, Blue52, the concept for Deadlight sprang out of the desire to reuse the tech we’d created for our shadowy stealth game, Stolen, in a game which actually suited it. The engine was pretty advanced for PS2, with some sophisticated lighting and shadowing effects, the now oft-used bloom, bump mapping and specular highlighting.
With the Doom 3 demos being shown at E3 a year or so before, we thought that our engine was essentially as close to id’s Tech4 as you could get on PS2, and so the kernel of an idea was formed. The FPS market was massively under-represented on the platform, and after all that sneaking around in Stolen (failing to combine non-lethal stealth with fun), I personally wanted to make something where the primary activity was the proven mechanic of shooting things really dead.
Of course, every game needs a hook, and the inspiration again came from the desire to do the exact opposite of Stolen; in that game you moved around the shadows, waiting (boringly) for your opportunity to strike or pass (boringly) unseen.
The high concept for Deadlight was for the player to avoid the shadows and stay in the light, and to aggressively protect themselves against the threat that dwelled in the dark. This simple premise, combined with the desire to harness existing technology, pretty much forced the concept to shape itself. And so, a first-person survival horror game was born.
Quite early on it was decided that we’d need the game to be set in a closed, controlled location. Since the head of the New Projects Group at Blue just fucking loved massive ships, we settled on an ocean liner, the SS Hyperion. The cruise liner allowed us to showcase a variety of locations within one setting; from elegant ballrooms, luxurious casinos and passengers’ cabins, to the crew’s confined quarters, the industrial engine and engineering areas, and open deck.
Even the ocean and the hull of the ship would provide compelling settings for set pieces when combined with a genuine fear of the dark. For the purposes of our fiction, once our vessel was located north of the Arctic Circle, it would be subject to weeks of extended night. Perfect.
The setting necessitated that the creatures be born of the sea, so the ocean soon came to permeate all areas of the design. Real-life monsters of the deep proved excellent visual reference for a survival horror aesthetic; with spiky teeth, hideous dead-looking eyes, cadaverous skin and undeniably alien forms.
Bioluminescence also provided a signature creature ability. Many creatures that live at great depth use light for various means, whether communicating their intent/mood or luring in potential pray. It was our intention to use bioluminescence to portray unsettling patterns in the darkness, indicating where there may be a creature threat, but not always which creature it was or which shape it took.
The colours and patterns would change depending on what the creatures were doing, allowing us to communicate to the player whether they would, for example, move to attack, had not seen you, or were otherwise engaged.
The deep sea inspiration also strengthened our main light mechanic. The original concept was for light to be painful to the enemy creatures, and for the player to use it to keep them at bay. It would be a resource to manage and control, from collecting torch batteries and shooting out blackened windows, to the genre clichés of restoring power to areas and lighting flaming rags. It was also a very economic way of radically changing the gameplay of an environment by altering nothing but a few of our engine’s light values.
Our research into the deep provided us with a very interesting enhancement to this mechanic. Most of the visible spectrum is absorbed within 10 meters of the surface of the ocean, and almost none of it makes it past 150 meters. Blue light, with its shorter wavelength, penetrates further than red light, which is at the other end of the spectrum. The side effect of this is that many creatures of the deep have not evolved the ability to see red light, because it can’t be seen at distance. However, most can see blue light, and this is why it is used largely in bioluminescence as a lure for prey.
We stole this science wholesale for our light mechanics. Red light would be used to illuminate an area without alerting creatures, which could not see it, and blue light would be used to attract creatures, much like the angler fish. While totally non-scientific, we kept white light as painful to the creatures since we liked what it brought to the gameplay. Here are a couple of the target renders we did in order to communicate the mechanics to the team and to publishers.
Aside from the bioluminescence and susceptibility to light, we were also keen on the concept of an ecology having formed on the SS Hyperion. This would mean a hierarchy, essentially a food chain, of different species hunting or hiding from each other.
The strategy for the player would be to learn which species formed which part of the food chain and exploit it. As an example, while being pursued by one species, you could use blue light to attract the attention of one of its predators, or alert its presence to something that it might find tastier. While we never had time to fully explore this system, it certainly sounded intriguing.
We eventually got the chance to turn the Deadlight concept into reality when Stolen was cancelled by SCEE. It had been with them for about 2 years at that point, but had always been a troubled title and no one was really surprised when it happened.
Still, a new home needed to be found for it, and while that was happening, the company split into two teams in order to work on two separate concepts; Deadlight and a classic Wild West movie license that we had the opportunity to pitch about. We had a couple of months with which to create a playable demo for each concept in order to provide valuable selling tools for the future of the company.
Despite the threat of company closure looming over us, it was quite a fertile and fun time for some of us. We had weekly show-and-tells where each team would showcase their progress that week, and a winner was decided. It quickly became very competitive (especially when we lost the first week), but it proved quite a productive period.
Here, then, is a video playthrough of the end result on PS2. Amazingly, this took 13 people only six weeks, starting totally from scratch. While it wasn’t 100% successful at demonstrating our mechanics, we had created a compelling, playable demonstration of what Deadlight could be.
After six weeks of working on the Deadlight prototype, Stolen was signed by Hip Entertainment, and Blue continued on with that. I formed part of a team that would continue to develop Deadlight and pitch it about, although did eventually move back on to Stolen to see it through to ship. While there was always a lot of interest from publishers, Deadlight was never to be.
Because Blue52 had had two games cancelled – although through no fault of their own (one because a publisher closed a subsidiary, and another that was a new IP platform game in a green light meeting against two other established franchises, where only two could get green lit) – it meant that the company hadn’t shipped a game for nearly four years, and were deemed to be a high risk investment. With the death of Blue52, we tried to reposition Deadlight on PSP with the newly formed Curve Studios.
We got extremely close with one publisher, even getting as far as flying to the US to sign an agreement, only for them to change their mind while we were en route! And so that brings me back to my opening paragraph. While a solid title for 2004, it was just the wrong time for Deadlight. New IPs were becoming riskier bets for publishers as the then-current generation of consoles came to a close, and so it was probably always destined for failure.
It’s good to see Alan Wake continue some of the themes and mechanics that we were pursuing in Deadlight, although their treatment of white light looks way better realised than ours was. Still, with more development, maybe we would have ended up with a similar treatment to Remedy’s. I guess we’ll never know, since Curve don’t make games as big as Deadlight any more (it would be even bigger now in the HD era!). That’s fine by me though; our small is pretty beautiful.