Bracken Tor - Matt Clark interview
Breaking onto the adventure gaming scene four years ago with the popular indie title Barrow Hill, Matt Clark has made a name for himself amongst horror adventure enthusiasts already. At long last, his second game, Bracken Tor: The Time of Tooth and Claw, is now approaching release, and Adventure Gamers tracked Matt down for a chat about what's in store for players who dare enter the haunting Cornish countryside again in his newest endeavor.
Adventure Gamers: Let’s start out with something easy: Who is Matt Clark?
Matt Clark: Hello there! Yes, I am Matt Clark. I create games, under the studio name of Shadow Tor, from a studio perched on the cliff-tops of Cornwall. The games are inspired and set in the area, meaning I get to represent one of the most beautiful, and eerie, areas of England. Bracken Tor is my second game, following the 2006 archaeology adventure known as Barrow Hill - Curse of the Ancient Circle.
AG: What made you decide to start making adventure games? And why a horror game in particular?
Matt: Ha! I don't make horror games. I prefer to write 'supernatural adventures'. I associate the word horror with games like Dark Fall - Lost Souls, Silent Hill and Doom, where blood and monsters provide the chills and thrills. Instead, gamers should expect an eerie, mysterious puzzle-solver, with a strong story and plenty to interact with, and, of course, to explore!
AG: Did you experiment with game design at all prior to Barrow Hill, or did you jump straight into a full-fledged adventure as your first project?
Matt: Well, I did dabble a little before creating the first game. I created several mods, add-ons and levels for RPGs and FPS games, back in the 1990s. It was a fun excursion into games, but my aim was always to create some form of adventure title, as I am a huge fan of that genre. Working with other indie devs, in 2001, convinced me it was time to give a full blooded adventure a go, so I started thinking up what sort of world I wanted to create, and what kind of story I wanted to tell. I've always had a deep interest in archaeology, especially ancient stone circles and monoliths, which still fascinate today. With story and tone in place, it was time to get stuck in, and make my first full game.
AG: Barrow Hill seemed to be generally well received in the adventure community. Were you surprised at all by any of the reactions to the game, either publicly or critically?
Matt: Absolutely. It's always a nice surprise to find you've entertained other people. After the release I was especially pleased to learn how the game had inspired others to create their own adventure games. That's a great thing to know. It means that Barrow Hill was played, enjoyed, and discussed. This is probably down to the content and story of the game. Opinion about ancient sites is constantly evolving, with each new dig, discovery and theory. In writing a stone circle thriller, you have to imagine all sorts of new things, to help formulate your own theories and present them as truth. Quite a few gamers have written to me to discuss those ideas further. It has been especially interesting to hear from people from other countries, as they have wildly different interpretations about the Bronze Age landscape, its legacy and the role those places play to this day.
AG: What lessons did you learn from the first game that you’ve been able to apply to your new game, Bracken Tor?
Matt: To include more magic and mysticism, to really make the landscape feel alive, sentient and wise. The first game featured some definitely eerie places, which had to be discovered later in-game. They were puzzle locations, where unexplainable events took place, with no readily available explanation. But the second game has an atmosphere, an eerie atmosphere, right from the start. The moorland setting helped a great deal. The moorlands of the South West have featured in classic fiction, like The Hound of the Baskervilles, creating a moody, misty world in which time stands still. Pretty much every strange phenomenon, from ghosts and monsters through to UFOs and time travel, has been witnessed or experienced out there, in that great wilderness. Whether those sightings are genuine, or imagined, seems not to matter, as most would agree that the place 'feels' as if anything could happen. Capturing that mood, that sensation, was my great aim with Bracken Tor.
AG: This adventure deals with sightings of mythical beasts. What made you interested in making a game about that?
Matt: I wanted to create a world in which those sightings are a reality, and allow the gamer to get to the bottom of the mystery. Thousands of sightings are made each year on the Cornish moors. Everything from exotic big cats, like panthers and leopards, to creatures which defy identification. Strange creations such as dragons, basilisks, giant serpents and wild men! Seriously. As a skeptic, with a strong appreciation of archaeological fact, I thought it would be exciting to explore theories of what these creatures may actually be, or at least invent a scenario where they could be explained.
AG: What more can you tell us about Bracken Tor’s story?
Matt: The game opens upon the moor, the sun has set and dusk has fallen. It is the night of the Winter Solstice, an important night in the pagan calendar, and the longest night of the year. You play a journalist, sent out into the wilds of Cornwall to photograph the Beast of Barrow Moor. This legendary creature has been glimpsed many times, but has never been photographed. Your editor is convinced you are the right person for the job, and the Solstice is the night to see the 'things' that we dare not think of.
Pitching your tent near an ancient burial chamber, hidden beneath the Bracken Tor, you proceed to set up surveillance equipment across the darkening landscape. You won't have to wait long for your first sighting…which you'll hope is your last. For the Beast of Barrow Moor is no big cat, or half imagined nightmare. It is real, feral, hungry and desperate. Slipping back and forth between the now and the time of tooth and claw, you will discover the origins of the beast. Just make sure you make it back alive, and in one piece. History has a way of hiding the truth, especially in a place that hasn't changed for thousands of years.
AG: What sorts of research did you do to prepare for this game? Strictly academic or were there any overnights in the woods?
Matt: Yes! I spent a very spooky night on the edge of the moor, hidden amongst the pine trees with the guys and girls from the M.B.R.G (Mysterious Beasts Research Group). They got in touch, a year or so ago, after I made enquiries about 'sightings' in the local newspapers. Of course, I did expect to hear from a few 'eccentric' locals, but I could never have imagined a night of night-vision surveillance, animal tracking and strange phenomena. I've been camping before, many times, but never on the moor. It's a different experience altogether.
The place is weird; dark, damp and timeless, like something out of The Lord of the Rings. Yes, Fangorn Forest springs to mind. You really do understand how badly suited we are, as a race, to those environments. Squinting at fuzzy, distorted night-vision footage, transmitted from distant remote cameras really brings across just how little we know and can sense in that nocturnal world. I found myself, on many occasions, wondering what was watching back from the pitch blackness. What would happen if the scenario was changed, and we became the prey? There are lots of moments such as that in Bracken Tor. The research trips were spooky, but they really helped me create the mood I wanted for this game. Now gamers can experience that too!
AG: Will Bracken Tor use the same presentation as Barrow Hill, or will there be some changes this time?
Matt: It's tricky designing a sequel. Change too much and you'll alienate the existing fans, or change too little and you'll get bored during the creative process. I'm not really one of those studios that is happy to wheel out the same experience, year after year. So, I took a good break from Barrow Hill, and thought about what changes I would like to see.
For one, the game engine has been changed. I am now using the Wintermute Engine (used by Darkling Room for The Lost Crown, Lost Souls) which allows the creation of better, more fluid puzzles and interaction. It IS a game engine, after all, rather than a multimedia tool. It means I can style the game with greater ease, and provide more kinetic elements. There are no static scenes in this sequel; weather, light and magic have been included to bring the game-world to life.
And secondly, there are LOT more puzzles. I love puzzles. They are the reason I like adventure games, and the reason I make them. Bracken Tor is a first-person game, and I always associate puzzles with that presentation. You see the world through your own eyes, as you are playing the lead character. That means conversation puzzles are less vital, but some challenge must be included. Most of the puzzles in Bracken Tor are self-contained, meaning you will know when you've found one and the clues are nearby.
AG: This isn’t a sequel to Barrow Hill, but is Bracken Tor in any way related to the events of the first game, or does it stand completely alone?
Matt: It is a stand-alone experience, as you can get too bogged down in continuity and self-referential humor. I liked the idea of setting a game, and creating a scenario, that can sit alongside the events seen in Barrow Hill. Obviously, fans of the original game will spot some references, which will both amuse and enlighten, but for the most part it's all brand new, and exciting!
AG: A unique aspect of Barrow Hill, the BHR radio station, let players listen in on what was happening outside of their own circumstances. Will we have a radio signal transmitting to the moors as well? If not, will our radio “companion” from Barrow Hill, Emma Harry, be at all involved in Bracken Tor?
Matt: Yes, Emma Harry and Barrow Hill Radio are back. The brave and inquisitive late night DJ survived the last adventure, unlike her canine companion (sorry Wincey!), so she's up for another night of weirdness and wonder. I like to think that Emma's experience prompted her interest in the paranormal and bizarre. She is still broadcasting smooth tunes and slick jazz to a late night crowd, but also invites listeners to take part. Do they have any unexplainable and weird events to share? As you settle down for the night, in your flimsy tent upon the moor, you tune into Barrow Hill Radio. "Something terrible has happened" says Emma, in a frightened voice, "There's a body on the moor. Torn to shreds. Ripped apart." As the story progresses, Barrow Hill Radio will keep you up to date with events and news from the moor. Listen carefully, as Emma has many clues for you to pick up on. She's a goldmine of information, from the alignment of the winter sky, to how to deal with marsh gas! Barrow Hill Radio is very useful throughout the game. Plus, you might meet the kooky DJ herself!
AG: In Barrow Hill, players didn't get to see many characters face to face. Will there be more character interaction in Bracken Tor, or will we be alone in the woods? At least… alone in terms of people.
Matt: There are a few characters in Bracken Tor. The world only appears to be empty, lonely and isolated. Throughout the course of the game, you'll discover evidence of others, on both the moor and beyond. For such a huge, desolate place, it actually gets rather busy at times, with murdered hikers, eccentric archaeologists and enigmatic cult leaders. Some of these you'll converse with, whereas others seem to have only just left, or disappeared, moments before you enter. That's a tradition in first-person adventure games, so I'm more than happy to include some of those moments. At other times, you actually have a travelling companion. Agatha Dunn-Harker is the only person to attempt an excavation at Bracken Tor, back in 1965. She disappeared on a certain night, the Winter Solstice, never to be seen again…until now. As an academic and open minded archaeologist, her information is vital to your adventure. She knows what is happening at the Tor, but, unlike you, was powerless to stop it. With your help, Agatha Dunn-Harker may be able to put things right, and stop the savage attacks that have plagued the moor for decades.
AG: You’ve collaborated with fellow indie developer Jonathan Boakes at various times. How did that partnership come about, and what do you contribute to each other’s work?
Matt: I met Jonathan back in 2004, when he was making Lights Out, the sequel to Dark Fall. I think second games, like albums, are tricky things to get right. I think my involvement with Lights Out helped re-excite his interest in making games, after a period of doubt and inactivity. It was easy to understand why making games, alone, can be a stressful and complicated business. But having someone to bounce ideas around seemed to help, and reignite the project. Obviously, getting to work on a game (mostly programming on my part) was a fabulous experience, and one not everyone gets to try. I was working in London at the time, designing lighting events for the West End shows, so was able to bring some alternative ideas to the actual game scenes. There are a lot more moody scenes and reflections in Lights Out than its predecessor. I like to think I helped with that. Last year we went back to Lights Out, to make a 'Directors Cut'. It was obvious, upon replaying the game, that many of our ideas had been dropped due to time restrictions. It was great to go back and get those ideas reinstated.
Since then, I've been programming bits and bobs for the Darkling Room games. Particles (animated sprites, like the steam train smoke in Lost Crown) are my main thing. They are tricky things to get right, and can take a while to prefect. So, I handle most of that stuff so that Jonathan can get on with the task at hand; writing and creating marvelous adventure games!
Jonathan has also helped with my games, in different ways. He has created some of the scenes featured in Bracken Tor, most notably the contemporary locations. I was impressed with the modern day scenes in Lost Souls, as they had a realistic texture and feel. Very moody too. I wanted some of those qualities in present day Barrow Moor, so let Jonathan get stuck in!
AG: There never seems to be a shortage of promising new independent horror (sorry, make that “supernatural”) adventures on the horizon. Why do you think these games do so well in this genre?
Matt: Everyone likes to tell a story, and the adventure genre is perfect for that. A good adventure is like a well-loved book from childhood. It draws you into the scenario, through setting and character, and then allows you to imagine just the right amount to make it 'your world'. Other genres do that too, sometimes, but there's always an emphasis on appearance and action. This sometimes means there's a lack of substance to really get your teeth into. I like nothing more than really diving into a story, allowing it to consume my evenings and weekends. With a good, well told and well presented adventure (or RPG) you can really lose yourself, until the last credits have passed.
I also think that the production of adventure games lend themselves to small studios, or the 'one-man-band'. The motivation to tell a story seems to be the overriding reason for the games’ conception and creation. Basically, they are (mostly) made with love and care, rather than a strict need to be hugely commercial. Money is nice, of course, but I think making a game to the best of my ability, and enjoying the production, is more important to me.
AG: Do you have something else planned once you finish Bracken Tor, or is that looking too far ahead?
Matt: I'm always planning what comes next. It's time that is the issue. I've got lots of plans, including some DLC [downloadable content] for Bracken Tor, but I can't confirm anything just yet. Beyond this year, I know I am going to be working on The Last Crown - Haunting of Hallowed Isle for Darkling Room. That'll be quite exciting. As I said above, sequels can be tricky things, but the ghostly world of Saxton is somewhere I can't wait to get back to.
AG: And one last softball question. Legendary beasts in the woods: remotely real or entirely imagined?
Matt: Ha ha! Imagined…I think.
But, some of these people really do swear by what they've seen. I can't deny the existence of mutations in nature, which throw up all sorts of weird and wonderful beasts, but I have yet to see anything spectacular and unexplainable. I'm not cynical, but I am skeptical. I want to believe in such things, but I will need a bit of proof. At least a photo, or video. Something which shows scale and movement. It's all too easy to fake these things (not mentioning any names) for fun and entertainment, but I will need convincing.
Oh, wait, I've just remembered something. Just after moving to Cornwall I saw a goblin! Ha ha! No joke. It was on the coast path between Polperro and Talland, on a bright, hot summer day. There's a point where the land drops away to crashing waves below, about 3 miles from 'civilization'.
The old hillside was covered in thick gorse bushes; evergreen prickly things with dense, dark warrens throughout. Trekking through the gorse, I caught a sudden movement, some 200 yards away. A small, child sized being, in brown and green, appeared from inside the bush. I can tell you, no normal person would ever be able to orientate those bushes. They are lethal. You'd be torn to shreds. But, out it popped, this funny little thing, and sat down on the cliff-top grass. There was something about it, something uncanny and strange. Suddenly the afternoon felt very peculiar; too hot, too still, too quiet.
There was no-one else around, so the chances of the little man being a child were quite remote. So, I took out my camera, and that's when he/it saw me. It shrieked (again, no joke) and dashed back inside the bushes, with no worries about the briar-like thorns. I didn't get a photo (no surprise), and have never seen anything like it since. Was it a feral child? Or how about 'wild person of limited height'? Who knows. But it is interesting to add that I always find mutilated and dead sheep around that area on recent visits. Ripped to shreds, torn apart, just as the Barrow Hill Radio tells us, in Bracken Tor.
AG: Interesting! Though something tells me the moorland beast(s) of Bracken Tor won’t seem quite so harmless to us. Thanks very much for joining us today, Matt. Good luck with the final stages of the game. We look forward to playing it!
Matt: Great! Not long now. It's going to be great to get some feedback, after all the hard work. I hope gamers enjoy their night on the moor, and survive the adventure!