Time is an aspect that passes throughout our minds even when we aren’t supposed to watch it. Speaking of time, I can’t remember how many video games I have played featuring ‘time travelling’, though I can tell you that seven times out of ten they seem to disappoint. But when we sat down with Aaron Schurman – CEO of Phantom EFX, the publishers of Darkest of Days, set for release on the PC and 360 – he gave us a new reason to believe.
GCO: Your game has recently gained some hype within the industry. Can you tell us about the setting for Darkest of Days and how it was originally conceived?
Aaron Schurman: Darkest of Days has been a dream in my head for about ten years now. Being such a huge gamer, I dreamt of a game that would allow me to visit different battles all within the same title. The game really started that simple. I wanted to visit various fantastic places, such as WWI, WWII, Little Big Horn etc. all in the same experience. Not only did I want to go to various places, I wanted to be in impossible situations: some of humanity’s darkest days in history. The places that immediately entered my mind were events like Little Big Horn, where no U.S. Cavalrymen survived the battle; places like Tannenburg where 80,000 Russians were lost; places like Antietam, the bloodiest day in American History. As I began to think of events like this, I realized there are hundreds of them from all over the world, in every culture, time, and place. Time travel was the evident way to make it happen, but knew it had to be pulled off 100% accurately. It had to make sense, it had to be engrossing, and it had to be realistic.
The exciting notion of Darkest of Days and the type of game it could become made it impossible to accomplish at that time. First of all, there was a severe lack of capital. The next biggest problem was that I envisioned a game where the events were incredibly realistic. If you are going to go back in time, I want the American Civil War to be chaotic, bloody, and terrible – not some vision where there were ten guys on the screen at once. For realism’s sake, there had to be hundreds and hundreds. This, again, made it impossible to even attempt at that time from a tech standpoint. Most importantly, I wanted to make the game myself and not sell the idea.
Years later, after we had established a working game company with great titles and a working knowledge of the development process, we set out to make our own engine, one that could support the lush, varying, detailed environments as well as the hundreds of soldiers. The engine also had to support both long-distance terrains as well as narrow cityscapes (to accurately pull off environments like Pompeii). After the amazingly talented folks at 8monkey Labs created the Marmoset engine, it was finally time to work on the most difficult era, the U.S. Civil War. We picked this area first since it was going to be the most complex to pull off; we wanted it as realistic as possible with so many men doing so many different things at the same time. Once we built it and pulled and pruned it to perfection, it was so harrowing that every time we played it everyone got goose bumps. There was no problem raising capital at that point.
GCO: With a story this interesting, who is the “bad” guy or guys within your title? Or is that a slowly uncovering fact of the game?
Schurman: You have picked up on one of the things readers of the story have been amazed by – the story itself! I have never played a game that has this engrossing or detailed a story. So many folks tout stories in their games, but in reality there is little there. This game will really get you thinking, and that’s what we set out to do.
Time travel is such an amazing thing, with so many possibilities. It’s really a fantasy place our minds like to go to. It’s been so poorly done so many times – it seemed that folks just begged for a story that was believable and “could come true,” as a lot of testers say.
The player gets a chance to “choose where they want to go” as they begin to save folks from history that were never meant to die. As they save these people, and begin to save history, the folks who screwed it up in the first place begin to take notice, and the fight is really on. Not only will people have to deal with being dropped into a fierce environment with death all around them, they will have to deal with other time travellers trying to fit in. It’s pretty wild! It’s awesome to watch how folks have to play that next level to see what happens. I honestly have not seen testers respond like this to a game, where they literally /had/ to get that next part done, or travel to that new time frame to see what happens. It really brings back the fantasy in games. It has been incredible to watch people’s reactions as the perceived “good” and “evil” forces battle.
GCO: I have played many games that have dealt with the time aspect. Can you tell me, since you play as a time traveller, if there are any powers within the game?
Schurman: One of the biggest “powers” a player can have is to possess a weapon in a time frame that does not belong there. You are quite powerful in 1865 with a fully automatic weapon. The tricky thing in developing the game was to give the player a roller-coaster ride of situations, and face them with different weapons. You fight with all the period weapons in all of the six times you travel to – however, in each era, you get your hands on things you shouldn’t.
There is also a matter of “clean up.” As you progress through the game and you begin to accomplish your objectives, there are always repercussions of your actions. As hard as you may try, you may accidentally kill someone that was supposed to have survived the battle, triggering some events. Or, you may be too accurate with your shoulder-mounted rocket launcher in an ancient battle, single-handedly changing the entire tide of the battle. You will need to correct some mistakes, and that always calls for heavy equipment.
GCO: How long have you guys been working Darkest of Days?
Schurman: We have been on the project for just about three years. The first half of that time was spent on building the Marmoset Engine while we wrote story, invented characters, and produced concepts of locations.
GCO: At what stage of development is the game now?
Schurman: The game is in the final stages of testing and is all but complete. NVIDIA has taken great appreciation of the PC version and has been working hard with us to add some pretty incredible special effects that will benefit users. The console version is in the final stages as well.