Interviewed by Edgar Wulf
Benjamin Widdowson is an experienced video game Concept Artist, and currently the Lead Designer at his own studio: Suzaku. His first project – Project Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story – was successfully funded on Kickstarter in June of 2018. It’s a narrative-driven adventure game inspired by horror and cyberpunk genre classics and currently slated for a Q1 2020 release. Benjamin kindly dedicated some of his time to share his passion for video games, inspirations behind Project Sense and his brief adventure in Hong Kong.
Project Sense is inspired by classic horror games like Clock Tower and Fatal Frame.
THE INSPIRATION FOR A CYBERPUNK GHOST STORY
Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story is inspired by classic horror games like Clock Tower and Fatal Frame. Could you name some of your personal favorite entries – ones which stood out to you the most and motivated to pursue your own project?
Of those franchises specifically, Clock Tower 1 and Fatal Frame 5 are my favorites. I’ve never gotten the chance to play Ghost Head, but I wasn’t particularly in to Clock Tower 2 on PS1, mainly because I felt like a lot of the atmosphere jumped from the creepy Argento vibe into camp and goofyness. Fatal Frame 3 is in my opinion the best overall game in the series, but 5 is my favorite because of the wider variety of locations, ghosts, and side-stories. That said Fatal Frame is my second favorite videogame franchise ever, right behind Dead or Alive, so I honestly love all of the games to date.
I’d say that as a whole the Fatal Frame games pushed me most, especially due to the absence of a new game in the series since 5. When I realized that I personally lack the skill sets to make a solid game in full 3D on my own, I made a conscious choice to take the things that worked in the original Clock Tower and try to meld them into the atmosphere and storytelling aspects of Fatal Frame.
Inspirations have also been drawn from true ghost stories, as well as books, comics (such as Junji Ito’s grotesque designs) and movies. But how did the idea to mix horror with cyberpunk come about?
Ghost in the Shell is the most important franchise to me as an artist, writer, and honestly person. Shirow’s writing and world building hooked me when I got the manga in the late 90s. Every panel and page oozed cool, sexy, and fun. On top of the visual flair he was also diving deep into some really interesting and important concepts. I actually think that Oshii handled those concepts poorly and while I recognize the greatness of his movie version of GitS, I felt like he had none of the heart and charm of Shirow’s much greater work. The more I dove into the philosophy that Shirow tried to present, I realized that cyberpunk as a genre is sometimes really narrow. In GitS, Shirow tells a story from the perspective of a hyper militarized police unit, but most cyberpunk fiction follows the detective, hacker, or hired gun routes. We rarely see anything from outside of those basic setups. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but I want to see more stories in these worlds about people who aren’t fighting the system or serving it.
When I started writing the universe I named “shirotech” after Shirow, of course, but due to the man in my world responsible for the technological leap, I wanted to stick to a key idea; “define MY cyberpunk world uniquely”. Something that always felt odd to me is that in sci-fi futures the paranormal is usually non-existent. Primarily because the advancements in science and ultra-consumerism do away with things like traditional spiritual religion and new, tech based cultures take over our old ones. If I believe in ghosts and spirits, truly believe, than why would any amount of cybernetic prosthesis or computer integration change that? Further, Shirow’s concept that the soul can be digitized should be opening doors to these ideas to be explored more often, and yet it’s kind of been relegated to “Sexbot or murder android has real human feelings” in the past. I personally believe that the things that make us human aren’t just our ability to feel complex emotions, but the traces we leave behind after we are gone. To me a ghost story is the most natural fit for a cyberpunk world, I may be the first to do it in this scale, but I really hope to start a trend with Sense.
BUILDING WORLDS IN VIDEO GAMES
The story takes place in the futuristic Neo Hong Kong of 2083. Crime, poverty, and contrasting neon lights; certain scenes could very well fit in Blade Runner.
Could you tell us more about the city, the inspirations behind its striking neon design, and some of the locations that we might visit, such as item shops?
Well the city is not at all what you’ve been led to believe based on titles. This was intentional, but I wrote a 300 year timeline of the universe starting in 1975. A key intersection happens at around 2005, so basically up to that point our worlds are the same with very minor differences. Then World War 3 happens and events shift the world in directions that I feel are relatively realistic and grounded. This means that Neo Hong Kong is not geographically Hong Kong, but a different city where the people migrated en mass and brought their culture with them. I will reveal that Old Hong Kong and the actual Kowloon Walled City still exist in the Sense timeline, and we will visit them in a future title. Neo Hong Kong has its original city’s culture present, but kind of painted over with Cantonese culture and decor. I paid a lot of attention to those details and my wife and studio co-founder is a native Hong Konger, so she made sure to get things as correct as possible.
All that said, Sense isn’t an open world RPG or anything, it’s a relatively linear narrative “adventure” game. Most of the game takes place within one really large location, but I was very careful to give the player both glimpses of the world outside, and chances to see it up close. My focus was on telling a really good ghost story, true to Hong Kong and Cantonese culture, all wrapped in a sleek cyberpunk wrapper.
One of the early screenshots depicts a pink rabbit lying on a bunk bed. Dare we assume, a clear reference to Silent Hill 3?
Will there be many references like this in the game and could you, perhaps, allude to some of the other games they will pay tribute to?
I’m a huge dork, and I LOVE easter eggs and references when I find them in games, especially when it’s something super obscure that only a small number of people will get. Sense is full of references to horror games, movies, and even some real life people. Some of them like the rabbit are pretty blatant, but others will be things i’m pretty sure no one but me will get. Though, if you are big into 80’s Hong Kong cinema, you will find a lot to geek out over.
Mei has cybernetic eye implants to help her scan the surroundings. Considering the cyberpunk setting, will there be any other obtainable augmentations?
Not in this game no, the eyes serve as a narrative device more than a gameplay one. Eye upgrades are something I am currently exploring for the future though. If anyone out there likes ghost hunting TV shows, that’s a great starting point for you all to start thinking about.
She also acquires various costumes throughout her journey. And, according to an entry on Eastasiasoft, some of these will alter interactions with NPC’s.
Does this imply different ways of completing certain scenarios? Will it make certain sections easier or more difficult?
Well I’m not sure I’ve seen that entry or how it was written, so I should clarify a little. None of the costumes will altar any interactions in the game fundamentally, but a few of them will have things like unique animation variants. At least one of the costumes is only acquired via NPC interactions as well. But for the most part it’s cosmetic changes only.
The game has a few points where how you explore and move along the main gameplay chain is up to you, but there is a key path to follow.
As is customary to classic horror games, Sense will feature puzzles. How will the puzzles work? Will it be as straightforward as finding a specific item and then using it or will it require more brainstorming, such as combining several items to achieve the desired result?
I don’t personally consider core gameplay chains, “use Item A to open door B and get Item C”, to be puzzles. The majority of the gameplay is variations of complexity on that formula, some of which should be pretty easy like labeled door keys, while others will take some thinking. Sense does also have a fair number of complex puzzles and fun “mini games”. We unfortunately weren’t able to get some of the ones I wanted working well enough to include, specifically in-inventory item combining, but I found solid workarounds for them. I think the puzzles we were able to get in are a great match for the pace of the game over all. One specific logic chain I am pretty proud of and can’t wait to see people try.
GETTING A GAME OUT INTO THE WORLD
Back in November of 2018, there was concern that, due to more stringent policies from Sony, Project Sense could be censored on their platforms: PlayStation 4 and PS Vita.
We dislike censorship as much as the person next to us, but given Sony’s dominant position within the industry, missing out on these platforms would benefit no one.
Do you have any concrete news on this? Will the game provide an equal experience across all platforms?
Nothing bad to report at this time. Unfortunately the game has to be basically done to send it off to Sony for approval, so we won’t know for a bit longer. I’ve seen rumors that they may have eased up on these restrictions. I hope that’s the case, but I am not holding my breath in the least; that said, there is nothing in our game that should cause a problem.
We’ve stated before, but in the event that any kind of censorship is demanded by Sony we will comply strictly for their platforms. Customers who pre-ordered on Vita and PS4 will be given a free digital copy for PC so that they can experience the content cut out. Again, this isn’t happening yet, but we want to be able to make it right as best we can. We cannot pass up a chance on their market, and I’ve already given my word on a VITA release, so I would be heartbroken by the situation, but wouldn’t really have a choice.
Passion for horror, the oriental and the occult ultimately led you to move to Hong Kong during the game’s development – a region ripe with culture and inspiring horror tales. Are you ever afraid that a ghost might snatch you before Project Sense is released?
Well our time in HK was actually cut short and I think we forgot to tell anyone outside the team due to the insane work load. My wife and I found ourselves in a tight spot after getting married and wrapping up the Kickstarter, so we made the decision to move closer to my family here in the USA in order to better preserve the Kickstarter funds for as long as possible. Long story short, life happens. So maybe one of those ghosts did find us to throw some wrenches in the works, or maybe it was a good spirit keeping us safe here in the states. It’s been a difficult almost two years outside of development, but we truly love Hong Kong and we are looking forward to a future where we can have our studio there. The Hong Kong people are awesome, and there are so many talented artists with amazing stories to tell. If we are lucky we’ll get a haunted office building to make things as authentic as possible!
Let’s hope that Benjamin and his wife manage to find an inspiring space to realize future ideas! In the meantime, Project Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story is available for pre-orders across PC, PS4 and PS Vita, with a separate Switch version handled by Eastasiasoft. For anyone eager to find out more, a demo of the game is available for download via Steam.