Interview with Silicon Knights

 SK Team
The Silicon Knights team

   The GIA was recently given a chance to visit Silicon Knights' studio in downtown St. Catharines. Not one to pass up an exclusive opportunity, we packed our equipment, ventured through unbearably light traffic, and found ourselves inside the development offices of a company hard at work preparing an RPG for display at E3. The atmosphere of excitement was almost palatable throughout the well-decorated, posh studio.

   The game, of course, is Too Human, a futuristic 3D adventure RPG by the company known for Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. We met with Denis Dyack, president of Silicon Knights and lead director of the Too Human project, who gave us a first hand look at the game within the company's comfortable "games room." All of the information gleamed on the game, including detailed impressions and exclusive renders, is available in our Too Human coverage. (In fact, you'll want to read through that before continuing further here.)

   With the showcase of the game all said and done, lunchtime was quickly approaching. Inviting several other members from the Too Human project -- Ken McCulloch, art director, Ted Traver, lead designer, James "Spike" O'Reilly, lead programmer, and Doug Tooley, chief programmer -- we headed out to lunch at a fantastic, cozy restaurant nearby which many employees often frequent after working long hours on projects. Between ordering lunch and discussing critical subjects (like Star Wars), we spoke with the team about the company and the development behind Too Human.

GIA: Most of our readers likely aren't familiar with Silicon Knights, the company. How did it all begin?

Denis: Silicon Knights was founded in 1992, when there were two of us at the time, Rick Goertz and myself. While we were doing our computer science degrees, we decided to make our first game, Cyber Empires. From there, we went from two to four people with Cyber Empires, to eight people with Dark Legions, to twenty-two people with Legacy of Kain, and now with the projects we're working on now -- Too Human and Eternal Darkness -- we're now up to forty-five. So that's sort of where it came from. The name Silicon Knights itself was created simply because we wanted people to have faith in our games. We want to be the knights in shining armor in the games industry. So when people see our games, we want to be associated with quality. Someone sees a Silicon Knights game, they say "Oh, I know this is going to be good." That's what we want.

GIA: What is the goal and philosophy behind Silicon Knights? What motivates you in the creation of a game like Too Human?

Denis: We want people to have the perfect aesthetic experience when they play a game. Our goal is to engross people, to have them feel and live in the environment that we've created. We want people to learn something, we want people to appreciate our artistic vision of what we're talking about. That's the goal of every game we make. In order to do that, you have to focus on gameplay, story, music, sound effects, graphics, and technology. Having all these factors is key to having a great game.

So we try to really position it in such a way that people can appreciate all aspects of it. We're very team focused -- there is no star at Silicon Knights. It's a group together. The days of two people creating a game are long gone. Quite frankly, we consider ourselves very much like a guild. We do very special things here, and together as a group the guild can accomplish more.

GIA: So, how would you describe Too Human, in your own words?

Denis: Too Human is a futuristic psychological thriller. It's a real-time adventure game that mixes elements of role-playing, like Kain, cinematography like Final Fantasy, and a solid storyline. Too Human is also very much like Metal Gear Solid where we give the player the option to explore things the way he wants to and be stealth if he wants to, or be action packed if he wants to. That's the best way I would describe it. We really think it's going to break the mold on a lot of games. We've never seen a single game that's similar to it out there, quite frankly. It's role-playing under the surface. Maybe some people would classify it as adventure. We classify it as...what would be a really neat experience in the future. What would it be like in the year 2450? Well, this is what we think it's like.

GIA: What kind of specific RPG elements are within the game? Can you talk with characters around the world, much like Kain with the Beguile form?

Denis: The level of interaction between the NPCs is not something we really focused on. There's definitely going to be communication between you and NPCs, no question there. But is that a major element of the game? No, not really. The major role-playing elements in the game are how you improve as you go through missions and use weapons more. Beyond the typical role-playing of using a weapons more and getting better, you can also cybernetically enhance yourself. So if you get an optical implant, your targeting will be faster, better, and more accurate. There's almost a two-way branch in which you can improve yourself through the role-playing. Beyond that, there's a very, very intricate story. And it's non-linear -- you affect the game as you play. That's what I think makes the role-playing aspect stand our apart from a lot of other games. I know at some level some games do a little bit of these, we've done them altogether. And, of course, the immersion factor of the environments, cinematics, voice over -- you really get to feel and hear how John Franks feels as he's going through the level.

GIA: Does he offer any commentary on his situation as he goes through the game?

(laughs around the table)

Denis: All the time...all the time. That's the main focus, actually. It's very much like a Blade Runner does he feel as he goes through the prison and sees the inmates in there? How does he feel when he's on the floating city? The players can expect the same level of detail in the voiceover as we had in Kain since the same people made it.

Ken: It has a little bit more.

Denis: People will not be disappointed in that area with Too Human -- a matter of fact, I think they'll be impressed because it's much better.

GIA: Was there any sort of inspiration in John Franks character, either in his appearance or personality?

Denis: I guess there were some inspirations -- many science fictions, many themes...

GIA: In a lot of games, you're starting a character with a pre-defined personality, but at the same time you're starting with a clean slate, and you follow through with the development of the character and take his role.

Denis: One of the things that's going on that may not be apparent through the cinematics, at the beginning of the game, you're going in undercover into Aesir. You're an undercover police officer infiltrating a corporation into their security forces to investigate another corporation.

There's a lot under the surface going on. So you've got to report back to your police lieutenant. We talk about crime, and what law enforcement would be like in the future. So all those aspects as well make it multi-dimensional. There are a lot of levels there. As well, there's flashes of strange creatures all around, and it all makes sense. There are no loose ends, it's all tied together.

Another thing about Too Human as well is that it si founded on principles of hard science. We discuss orbital strings, and many other technologies. We're not going for a "space opera," we are going for science fiction that is grounded in true science. So there are a lot of things to learn. It's going to be interesting. We're not saying that space opera is bad -- obviously, Star Wars is a good example of a space opera. It's just that's not the direction we chose to go in.

Ken: Personally, on my part, anyway, it's an attempt to get away from the Star Trek attitude where sciences are invented in order to support a plot gimmick, used to support one episode, and one episode only. The advantage in Too Human...the technology and world of Too Human are rather minimal compared to what we have today. But, basically, the advances have been spread through every possible layer. For example, portable fusion devices supply unlimited power. So, basically, what you're seeing in Too Human is super-powered jets that can stay aloft for years without ever having to land. Most of the technology is based around that. We do not ever say that some weird soliton wave, or something, it's sort of based on principles we know about today. It's very speculative.

GIA: Do you think human society could eventually reach the horrific, technological scenario behind Too Human?

Denis: Absolutely -- we're almost there.

GIA: So why wait until 2450?

Ken: There are reasons for why things are in 2450, reasons why Too Human doesn't take place next year, or next century.

SK Offices
SK's offices in downtown St. Catharines

Denis: There's a history built up. One of the things that we've put into Too Human that's not in a lot of games is a digital archive. It's a detailed history readout of the game itself. If you want to find out what happened between now and 2450, you can look it up in the history records.

GIA: The majority of games, role-playing or otherwise, are created in Japan, or are heavily influenced by Japanese artistry. Are there any such elements in Too Human?

(more laughs around table)

Denis: Without question. We truly want to make a game that appeals worldwide to everyone. There are definitely oriental elements -- Japanese elements specifically -- in Too Human. You'll see that in the intro cinematic. And these guys are laughing because there's just a ton. There's lots.

Ted: Wasn't really that much laughing...

Denis: What's that?

Ted: More like grinning.

Denis: Oh, grinning? Oh, okay. Ted gets happy when he thinks about it. (grins)

GIA: So there must have been quite a bit of development and planning of the actual storyline and the world before other aspects of the game were fleshed out?

Denis: Absolutely. If you think about the fact that we developed the actual content before Kain, we've had a lot of time to think about it. And it's those kind of things that I think create great content. We're not a company that suddenly creates an idea and then throws it together in a month, saying "Okay, here's the game we're doing." We've got a lot of concepts that are always continually going that go on that we work on for years before we come out with them. And I think that's the way it has to be because you can't create good content any other way. It has to be well thought out, and everyone has to have a passion for it. The fact that you're going to have a team that's going to work on a project for as long as we have, the team has to be behind it; has to be passionate. Otherwise it's going to die. You've heard of all the nightmares that have gone on for six years, have had seven teams, yada yada yada, we're not like that. Some places have a problem keeping a visionary on a team. We have several visionaries on all our projects. There's not a single visionary on Too Human -- there's several, same with Eternal Darkness. Keeping that vision is what's important, knowing what direction we'd like to go on.

GIA: So how did the storyline of Too Human come about? Where did it all begin?

Denis: It was really sort of a thought on technology. One of the things that people worry about, especially today, with technology replacing everything we have in society, a lot of people are worried about being phased out because of the computer. We really address that issue in Too Human. If technology gets really, really advanced, will we be replaced?

A lot of people are frightened by technology...a lot of people look at computer games like a technological industry. It's really not. We're a creative industry. Regardless of how much money we spend on our machines...fifty thousand dollars, a hundred thousand dollars...they're just pencils. Without the people behind that, it's meaningless. Without the talent, without the people, we're nothing.

That being the case, we thought about all this issue and said, "We really need to explore this, we really need to talk about that in a computer game." That's not the only issue we explore, though. We also thought that we really haven't seen a really good cyberpunk role-playing game, and we thought we should be the ones to do it. Take an approach from Final Fantasy, and all the games that have really inspired us -- what can we do to make a great game? That's sort of where it came from.

GIA: 486s and Pentium 90s were used extensively in the development of Kain. How far have things come from then?

Denis: Yeah, we have dual processor machines. As you can hopefully see from our cinematics, we've improved that massively. We're all PC based, though, and we used 3D Studio Max primarily, as well as World Construction Set for a lot of fractal backgrounds, so that's why the terrain looks so realistic. Great program.

GIA: How much voice acting is planned? Any hard number?

Ken: It's probably at about...two and a half hours.

Ted: We've got a lot.

Denis: We've been to the studio twice now...we flew down to LA, did the voice acting there. We might go to the studio one more time, we're not sure yet. It's dictated by two things: how much we think we need it, and how much disc space we have left. We're running out fast.

GIA: Even with four discs?

Denis: Yes...we are concerned at all times about disc space because going over four discs would be relatively insane, and we don't want to do that. If we had a DVD, it'd be less of a problem. Who knows, maybe we will be the first game company to have a multiple DVD game when it's time?

GIA: Have there been any major technological challenges in the development of Too Human?

Denis: There's always problems, and I'll let Spike and Doug, as being our chief and lead programmer, address some of these problems, but I think we've pushed the PlayStation further than anyone else has, as far as we can see.

James:'s cutting edge technology. We've approached the problem of a three dimensional environment differently, I think, than just about anyone has in the past. It has such a difference...significantly better immersion for the player.

Doug: The way that the environments can be assembled by the designers really tends to surprise us. When we're doing the programming, we put it together one way, and then the designs come in and use the tools that we've created in ways that just astound us.

Denis: One of the interesting things about the technology, and the way we looked at the media with the technology -- which is really the same thing, in many ways -- there's no limit to the size of levels we have. We can literally create a level that goes on forever. The player would never notice...we just load what we need, and then you just keep going. Mind you, we don't do that, but we have the ability to.

GIA: When Final Fantasy VIII was released in Japan, a lot of people were surprised that it had pushed things up to four discs, thinking there might even be a lot of disc swapping. How will Too Human handle that?

Denis: We definitely will not have a lot of disc swap. We want to avoid that. Our goal is to have it so once you swap out a disc, you never have to go back to it.

GIA: Is that a little bit more difficult since Too Human is less linear, and you're not forced down one specific path?

Denis: It will be technically challenging. We should be able to do it, I think. We're still very positive on it. We're not final yet; we're not even at alpha yet. What you've seen is even before alpha.

GIA: So when did you actually get down to work on Too Human? Immediately after Kain?

Denis: (pauses) I guess so, yes. It goes back a long way.

GIA: All the way back in 1996?

Ken: We had time to think about it, because the proposal for Too Human was worked on and started before the proposal for Kain. Basically, it's been in the back of our minds for a long time. As soon as Kain stopped, Too Human kind of took off. Concepts were going back until 1993, as well. And then the long hard road until where we are now started.

GIA: And now, the absolute, most important question: when do you expect a release for Too Human?

Denis: That's not set yet. We need to set that, we know everyone wants to know. We don't want to sound arrogant, but it'll be ready when it's ready. But it won't too long. We're not going to say it'll be out soon, and then not come out a year later. It's coming, we haven't announced a date yet -- we need more time to think about when we want to launch it.

GIA: And, of course, there's still quite a bit of leeway because the PlayStation 2's release date is still more a year off, especially here in North America.

Denis: Yeah. Put it this way: if we wanted to make this Christmas, we certainly can. It's whether we want to do that. That decision is currently on the plate right now.

GIA: How complicated and in-depth will the interaction between characters be in Too Human?

Denis: It depends on what level you mean. Certainly, within the plot, there's a lot of plot lines going on at the same time. Will you be able to communicate with individuals in the levels, and the enemies? Yes, definitely. Will you be able to use that communication to your advantage? Yes, definitely. That's probably all I should say about it right now.

GIA: And character development will take place beyond simply John Franks, I'd imagine.

Denis: Oh yes, definitely. (laughs) People won't be disappointed by that aspect. Even as you can see the flight sequence to the prison, all the character interaction that's going on there, every character in there develops on their own. Every character. A lot of that will happen in ways people will not be able to predict.

GIA: And you'll be able to go through a second, third, fourth time and find nuances and elements you missed earlier?

Denis: Oh, definitely. Actually, our guess is that the way we designed the game, people will want to play it more than once. Once people get to the end, they'll say "Oh, I get it," and then they'll want to play it again -- and which is very much the result in Metal Gear Solid and a lot of other games where you really get...what the point was and you really want to revisit it again. It's kind of like the movie The Usual Suspects. You sit there, you watch it, and you want to watch it again immediately afterwards. We're happy with it.

GIA: And the multiple endings will play a large role in that?

Denis: Yes, we let the player do what they want. From that perspective, Too Human is really a game of choice. We leave the choice up to the individual. By the time you finish the game, you'll understand the choices you have made. There are some that are inherent, and there are some that aren't. Some are above the surface, while there are some that are subliminal.

GIA: Are there any inside jokes being put into the game?

(laughs around table)

Denis: Yes...there always are, at some level. One example of some of the inside jokes that go on between the pilots and John Franks is actually a lot of the dialog that happens here at the office, so in that regard it's pretty funny. So a lot of the things that people say are saying we say around the office all the time. There's always tons more. There's probably some than I don't know about, some that Ken doesn't know about. In some way, people put their own in and don't realize it.

   With conversation on Too Human trailing off to make way for serious Star Wars chatter and other discussions, the recorder was shut off. We're excited about giving Too Human a try from the E3 floor -- expect full impressions during the show.

Interview by Brian Glick, GIA
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