Ever dreamed of escaping your daily life routine and being a superhero? For Peter Grey, this dream became a reality when Flashpoint Productions and EA transported him into an alternate reality back in 1994, taking players along for the ride. A long time has passed since then, but the gruesome city of Noctropolis hasn’t lost any of its sinister appeal in the meantime. In fact, it's recently gained even more. With a remastered version of the game now released on Steam, we decided it was time to get hold of Noctropolis co-creator Brent Erickson and have a closer look at one of the most atmospheric adventure games from the 1990s. Needless to say, we also used this opportunity to discuss Brent’s projects at Access Software, including the earliest Tex Murphy games. So fasten your seatbelts and join us on another trip down memory lane.
Ingmar Böke: Brent, it is my pleasure to welcome you to Adventure Gamers. For those who might not recognize your name, please introduce yourself and give us an idea of what you’re doing these days.
Brent Erickson, caricature-style!
Brent Erickson: Sure. My name is Brent Erickson. I was lucky enough to be around at the birth of the computer gaming industry. From there I was involved with producing more than 30 titles for Access Software, starting with Beach-Head II. After Access, I founded my own game development studio [Flashpoint Productions] and did projects for EA and SEGA, among others. Flashpoint was sold to Bethesda Softworks and I spent another five years working with Bethesda. I left Bethesda and spent some time working on a new company developing automotive simulations, which was sold in 2002. I am currently the Senior Software Engineering Manager for Harman International, a large producer of audio products with brands such as JBL Speakers, Crown Amplifiers, AKG microphones and headphones, and Lexicon and dbx signal processors. It might seem a bit odd that I would end up doing audio software but there is actually a surprising amount of crossover between my gaming background and professional audio. I do actually keep my hand in games through some personal projects. I just can’t keep away.
Ingmar: It would be great if you’d guide us through the development of the original version of Noctropolis. How did the idea for this game come about, and how did you turn it into reality?
Brent: Noctropolis was really the brainchild of Shaun Mitchell. I actually knew Shaun from High School and knew he was an incredible artist. When Access was looking to hire an artist, I tracked Shaun down and ended up hiring him. We started to talk about story concepts and Noctropolis was one that fell out as interesting enough to pursue. In 1992, Shaun and I decided to leave Access and pursue creating the game on our own. We spent several months developing the story, play mechanics and game engine to make it happen. Once we had a reasonable game design document and demo, I contacted a few of my connections in the industry, which happened to include Trip Hawkins and Richard Hilleman from EA. I flew down to the EA offices and presented the game concept and design. At the time, EA happened to be pursuing the “story games” market and was developing some titles of their own such as the The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes. Noctropolis was interesting and different, and they agreed to provide some funding and distribute the game.
From there it was a lot of hard work. The story was written and re-written several times. The backgrounds in the game are all individually hand-painted. I’m not talking about painting on a computer; these were old school airbrush, paintbrush, acrylic and oil. These were beautiful works of art. We scanned them in and then created the various layers and boundary parameters that allowed the player to interact with the environment. It was a very unique look but was very labor intensive.
The conversation system was also quite complex at the time. There are many paths through the dialog and they each had to be tied, branching and looping in logical ways. Each bit of dialog also had to be scripted just like a movie script, but with the added complexity of having multiple paths. This was one of the first games to shoot video in Hollywood and it was a challenge to get agents and the talent to understand what we were actually doing. At the time there was not even a category for this type of work. We spent a ton of time shooting and editing video. Keep in mind that at this time there was no fancy video capture software. Every tool we used was written from scratch, by myself or my team, right down to video capture and chroma-keying.
When we signed the deal with EA, Noctropolis was supposed to be released on multiple 3.5” floppy disks. Resources were very limited and we worked hard to make it all fit. At some point, EA decided that CD technology had reached an adequate enough adoption rate that we could switch to CD distribution. This opened the project up to some higher quality video and more of it, as well as including more audio and the in-game comic book.
The soundtrack was another area that received a lot of attention and I still occasionally get people asking if there is a way to get the soundtrack in a “modern” format. Over the years I had become friends with a musician and composer, Ron Saltmarsh, who was working at the Osmond Studios at the time. I told him about our project and he became interested enough that we eventually became partners in creating a gaming sound and music studio called Symphonix. Ron eventually left the company after Bethesda Softworks acquired us, but he went on to work on Grammy-winning albums in Nashville and is now a Professor at Brigham Young University. Noctropolis was one of the first games I know of that used fully mastered CD soundtracks during gameplay. It could also do MIDI-based music.
Ingmar: Please describe the story and setting to readers who have not played the original game.
Brent: Noctropolis is a story about a character named Peter Grey whose life in the “real” world is not so great. He ends up being transported into an alternate reality inspired by his favorite comic book. In this new world he assumes the role of a dark hero and must solve a series of puzzles through interactions with the environments and full motion video characters. The environments are dark and moody and the characters are quirky.
Ingmar: Noctropolis introduced us to several colorful heroes and villains. Which ones are your personal favorites?
Brandy Snow as Top Hat
Brent: That’s a hard question because my memories of the characters are a mix of the personalities we created and the personalities of the actors that played them. I think Stilleto was an interesting character and Hope Marie Carlton (the actress who played her) was fantastic to work with – very smart and professional, but also fun, in addition to being beautiful. I also thought Top Hat was an interesting character – kind of a female version of the Joker from Batman. An actress named Brandy Snow, who was a hoot to work with, played her. I actually randomly ran into Brandy not long ago on a flight from San Francisco and we ended up reminiscing about the project. There were so many characters, ranging from Hollywood talent to our own employees.
Ingmar: There was some controversy accompanying the original release of Noctropolis. Please tell us a little more about that. How much did that controversy impact sales and marketing?
Brent: Well, Noctropolis was one of the first games, that I know of, to actually have a topless scene in one of the video sequences of Stilletto. I’m sure it was the first that EA had produced. At that time the industry had just started to push a rating system forward. The rating system was voluntary and Noctropolis was rated “M” by EA. Some may say there were actually two topless scenes but the scene with the Succubus character is actually strategically cropped. We were definitely pushing the limits and it was a tough choice to cross that boundary. It was met with mixed reviews. Some called it a cheap publicity stunt, others praised us for pushing the limits.Continued on the next page...