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by John Szczepaniak - October 30, 2012; originally printed in Retro Gamer

Project Firestart - Commodore 64 (1989)

Tracing the origin of horror in videogames isn't easy, since it is both thematic (as in Splatterhouse) and the basis for gameplay, as in survival horrors like Resident Evil. So let's focus on survival horror as a mechanical description, whereupon players must survive a difficult horror scenario using limited resources. Haunted House (1982) and 3D Ant Attack (1983) are just about acceptable primal examples. War of the Dead (1987) and Sweet Home (1989) meanwhile are cited as the de facto evolutionary originators, before Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil cemented "survival horror" as a genre. Except War of the Dead and Sweet Home are more accurately RPGs, while the de jure originator of survival horror is the slightly obscure Project Firestart for the Commodore 64, developed by Dynamix and released in 1989.

Although perhaps overlooked, except by ardent C64 fans, Firestart takes obvious influence from Ridley Scott's Alien and acts a prototype System Shock, Dead Space, and every other "trapped in space" videogame. The two main people behind it were Dynamix co-founders Jeff Tunnell and Damon Slye. Unfortunately Tunnell seldom gives interviews on Firestart, citing it as the most difficult game he's ever worked on and even omitting it from his gameography. He also declined responding to emails and Tweets. Even so, in 2009 he spoke with IGN on the game's creation, referencing Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins who once asked if computers could make you cry. Tunnell explained that at Dynamix they thought this would be difficult, and instead wondered if computers could induce fear.

Fortunately I was able to contact Slye, who graciously answered my questions and elaborated on Tunnell's earlier explanation. "Our EA Producer, Joe Ybarra, was inspired by the game Karateka, and wanted to do something similar, but with a bigger scope. We were all inspired by the movie Alien, which is really a classic horror film, not Sci-Fi! Our goal was to make a game that was frightening. Of course that's difficult on an 8-bit computer because you can't serve up a lot of graphics easily."

Ybarra meanwhile was available for a telephone interview, and revealed the scope of EA, "Wow, it wasn't until you posed that question that I even remembered Firestart. Back in those days of EA, when we were building projects with Dynamix, we were on average working on about a dozen to fifteen titles at once. Some of those projects were fairly significant, for example Madden Football. I was deep in the heart of building the Bard's Tale series. We were still working on Starflight, which turned out great. So there was a lot on my plate." Even so, memories were rekindled and Ybarra did have creative influence on Firestart, explaining, "Damon is correct, because a lot of the work I did with Dynamix was collaborative - we would work together to determine what sort of content we wanted to produce, and what sort of technology we had."

Firestart's story takes place in 2061, with the player controlling government agent Jon Hawkins, sent to investigate The Prometheus, a genetics research vessel orbiting Saturn which has ceased communication. To prevent the experiment contaminating the solar system your task is to retrieve the science log and then self-destruct the vessel, otherwise your superiors will detonate it via remote control. Confirmation that the proverbial has hit the fan comes after docking, when you find a body and severed arm, the victim having written the word "danger" in his own blood. Soon you encounter the genetically modified creatures that caused all this and the fight is on to escape alive and see one of the multiple endings (preferably with the female love interest in tow). Although it may seem clichéd, there's actually a clever allegory beneath the surface, with some enlightened influences. As Slye explained, "Of course there was the influence of Frankenstein, which really goes back the perils of man's desire to seek knowledge at any cost, plus other things like Faust, and the Greek myth of Prometheus bringing fire, or knowledge, to mankind, hence the name Firestart - originally we were going to title it 'The Prometheus Encounter'. Oh and Adam and Eve in the garden with the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It's a universal theme."

"We found that the stripes made the animation work much better visually."

Despite its age, Project Firestart already includes pretty much all the important trappings of the survival horror genre: the protagonist gets the chance to defend himself with laser rifles, but they cannot be reloaded and are in short supply, so sometimes it's best to run away from the creatures. At one point the power goes out, leaving you alone in the dark - worryingly, a super evolved creature also turns up at this time. There's also a romantic twist in the horror tale, as you can rescue the lady (pictured) from her sleeping capsule and escort her to safety. The game doesn't have the cinematic fixed camera angles that became synonymous with the genre in the mid-1990s, but it does have several cutscenes, which were regularly quite gory, showing the effects of the rampant creatures on-board.

I asked if there had been any concern regarding the game's gory nature, since along with severed arms there are decapitated heads and exploded torsos. "I don't recall specifics. I know there was some talk about one of the failure scenarios: if the player was too late, the creature would get into the sleeping chamber and there was a shot of a bloody corpse in one of the capsules. I'm sure you've seen the package - the back shows this violent scene. It looks like the EA marketing guys wanted to use violence to sell the game, since out of all the screenshots, they chose to have three out of five violent ones."

Another interesting source of inspiration concerns the creatures themselves. Kevin Ryan was a co-partner and programmer at Dynamix, and in 2007 published a personal account on Adventure Classic Gaming. He wrote: "We bought a big green monster toy from the Toys-R-Us store that was near our office and it became the basis of the monster in the game. Even with the limited number of colours available and small screen resolution you could still recognize the monster as coming from the toy. I last saw that toy in the kid's play room in one of Dynamix's later offices."

The story was backed up by Slye: "This was before the Internet and Google image searches. We did buy some toy monsters for inspiration, and they did end up in the play room. We wanted something that didn't look like a clone of [HR Geiger's] Alien." The toy was from the Inhumanoids range by Hasbro, based on the cartoon series. Ironically the monster in question, Tendril, was actually a plant-based creature. Firestart only featured this one variety of monster, initially in green, and then a difficult to kill evolved form in white. I asked Slye if he'd wanted to include more. "No, we just wanted the one. If we had a done a sequel, then that would have been good."

Creature photo provided by Ryan Davies, aka TwoHeadedBoy on the Retro Gamer forum.

An even more interesting though subtler influence was revealed by Ybarra. "There's another paradigm that this can take on as well, and that comes from the old board game years of Simulations Publications Inc (SPI). I'm an old-school wargamer, and because of that, one of the things that elements of Firestart could be drawn from was Wreck of the Pandora, a board game made by SPI in the early 1980s. That game was unusual in that it had a lot of really clever play mechanics and was essentially a survival horror, where you're on the Pandora, which is a spacecraft with a menagerie of [alien creatures], and these have broken out and are now a threat. Your job, as the player, is to get the ship up and running again, because there are parts that are broken. I do remember as we were contemplating Firestart's design, I don't recall bringing this up directly, but I do know that because I was familiar with this board game, and I knew what we were trying to build, that I could use some of the play techniques from the board game in the context of Firestart. Several projects that I worked on have their origins in board games."

Wreck of the B.S.M. Pandora

The Wreck of the B.S.M. Pandora board game by SPI was on Ybarra's mind during development of Firestart. As it turns out there was also an unreleased Apple version based on the board game, and although this had no influence on the project, it's still interesting to know. Ybarra revealed, "I have an Apple II version of the Wreck of Pandora game created by the original designers at SPI for publication by Apple Co. It was never released, as Apple decided not to publish games as part of their marketing strategy. Aside from the original creators of the game, I believe I have the only existing copy of it. Having said that, I don't recall using this material in any way during the development of Project Firestart. As I recall both Voyage and Wreck of the Pandora were intended to be solitaire board games, so they were ideal candidates for a computer game."

With the Prometheus ship having both gameplay-specific areas and superfluous rooms such as an arcade and baths, I asked Slye about balancing realism against fun. "It was organic. On things like this you come at it from both sides: you build something that seems plausible and realistic, but then as you design the game flow, you adapt the layout to meet the gameplay needs."

Of course the issue still to address is Tunnell's assertion that this was such a difficult project to complete. Ybarra agrees, citing how it pushed the C64 to its limits. "Now that you bring this up I do recall how arduous the test cycle was. Both bug testing and play testing. Jeff is right, it seemed like every time I was building a product on these 8-bit machines that I was always right on the frontier of breaking something, running out of memory or especially video capabilities, because back in those days you had to work against the screen refresh. Oh man, we did all kinds of amazing compression stuff to get every last byte of memory out of the machine."

I asked Slye if he felt Firestart would have been better suited on other hardware and if they had to cut anything, "Yes, on the Amiga we could have done a lot more with graphics and sounds, but the C64 was the dominant computer at the time. EA saw the Amiga as the system to revolutionize gaming. However, after disappointing sales, I recall an email from Trip Hawkins to all the developers that said, 'If you know 6502, start coding!' EA did a 180, and pushed all of its efforts back to the C64. I don't regret building the game for the C64. It was a good challenge to make something fun and scary within its hardware limitations. Later on when the PC became powerful you can see games like Doom that were able to use better hardware to create a more immersive experience.

Despite the limitations of the C64, they still managed some impressive tricks to make the game look great, including rotoscoping, as Slye explained: "This was before motion capture, so to get a realistic animation, we decided to film a friend of mine running. We just filmed him with a handheld VCR Camcorder. We imported it to the computer (Amiga I believe), and then the artist painted the sprites over the video animation. It worked really well."

Damon Slye on games

I was never a fan of making movies on a computer. The medium is interactive, and not restricted to a linear narrative, so why design a game to copy a more limited medium like film? A lot of people envied Hollywood, and wanted to break into Hollywood, but for me I think that's disrespectful to our medium. At the time games were a small industry, but now it's much bigger than film. I love film personally, but if you're going to be a game developer, make games. I think the right approach is to look at films, and use the higher level concepts like immersion, use of sound, suspense, and so on ?these things work well on a computer. I remember suspense was something I learned about [through Firestart]. It sounds obvious, but how do you actually create suspense? Of course the trick is simple: create a situation that threatens the player with an outcome they don't want, and then delay the resolution of the situation. Literally, you are leaving the resolution suspended. A game has advantages over film or books because you can have the resolution dependent on the player's performance. This makes the player nervous, which stirs up emotions.

I also asked if there was anything more they had wanted to add: "I think we wanted to have more cut-scenes, but with the C64 the disk loads took too long. It would break the scary mood and slow down the experience, so we tried to require swaps only when it was really worth the burden. We used to joke the easiest way to scare the player [during disk loading] would have instead been to put up text saying 'Disk formatting...'"

Ask any Firestart fan and they'll recall the sometimes agonising disk swaps and loading waits it required, since it utilised four disk sides for specific ship areas. Ybarra himself remembers it well, since this also affected development. "If it's a multi-disk product, the 1541 drive on the C64 was an awful piece of hardware, and I personally destroyed at least five of them. We probably went through a drive every month, maybe two drives a month. We just hammered that floppy disk, which you could get away with on the Apple II, but boy you put that on a C64 and you killed drives, it was pretty ugly."

Slye on the game's ethnically diverse cast: "That's just what worked best with the C64's palette."

Although Firestart suffered from hardware limitations and perhaps didn't receive the attention it deserved, both fans and its creators recall it fondly. There was even a fan remake (screenshot taken from the creator's homepage) in first-person 3D in 2006. As Slye reveals, he's rather a fan: "I loved it, and loved that someone had liked the game enough to do a remake."

Finally, I ask what his enduring thoughts of the project are:"I'm proud of the game; there were many challenges for all of us. On a design level it went way beyond other games out there like Karateka. The non-linearity was a real challenge, and later games like the ones by Cinemaware were more limited in this aspect, though I also liked those games. Firestart was a very different type of game for us as a studio. We did some very fancy tricks to achieve compelling sets, like the nice shot in the windowed-walkway with outer space in the background. That involved using the same sprite in multiple locations on the screen at the same time - we would redefine the sprite on the interrupt, so effectively doubled the number of sprites the C64 had. When I say we, I refer to Paul Bowman, who was lead programmer, and who I am still working with today at Mad Otter. It is always a happy surprise when people remember some of the old games we worked on."

Damon Slye now heads up Mad Otter Games, with their most recent title being A Mystical Land.

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  • Jeffrey Tunnell
  • Damon Slye



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Project Firestart (remake)

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