Condemned may start out like an adaptation of David Fincher's Se7en, but soon enough it gets much more wild and throws some paranormal elements in the mix. It's an atmospheric game with great detective gameplay, inventive fighting mechanics and enemy AI made of nightmares. It’s an unjustly overlooked gem that not only preceded the later FPS horror craze but also outscared most of them.
“How I ended up working on Condemned, at the time, seemed both odd and sensible,” says Frank Rooke, the game’s lead designer and writer. What makes it odd is that right before Condemned, Rooke and his team worked on a “colourful and lighthearted shooter”, Tron 2.0.
“It didn't take itself too seriously and it was certainly something we could show our parents and not have them worry about where they went wrong [raising us],” Rooke says. Condemned was the polar opposite. As such, it may have seemed like a huge departure for the studio, but internally it made sense.
“Monolith moved to a new engine with this fabulous per pixel lighting. Suddenly, atmosphere was in our toolbox and it was just too tempting to not exploit," Rooke says. "Perhaps it single-handedly pushed Condemned and F.E.A.R. in the horror direction.”
The engine wasn’t the only commonality between F.E.A.R. and Condemned, two Monolith horror games released within a month of each other in the autumn of 2005. Rooke tells me that Condemned and F.E.A.R. worked from the same AI foundation that dates back to the year 2000 and No One Lives Forever.
But the two games took the technology in considerably different directions. Whereas F.E.A.R. used it to create unforgettable, cinematic shootouts with ever-flanking enemies, Condemned utilised it as one more tool in building the atmosphere.
“We wanted to create an organic environment where threats were both seen and unseen,” Rooke says. “You can think of seen threats as the more conventional enemy. They are the ones that rush the player or shoot from some known position. Unseen enemies were the ones that could be heard, or noticed out of the corner of the eye, but attacked when least expected.”
Whereas some other developers might have used cheap tricks to achieve that — like monster closets or enemies spawning behind the player — Monolith was adamant not to. “We managed this by devising a scheme that instructed enemies to hide then pounce, engage then disengage,” Rooke says.
And he believes that some of the system’s limitation added to the experience. “Yes, many times the player could see where the enemies were, but that only grounded the moments when they went unnoticed. Since most attacks were melee pouncing on the player from around the corner, it kept the combat intense and thrilling.”
The combat in Condemned was built around first person melee. “Not a common genre to hang your hat on,” Rooke admits. To make an unlikely arrangement work, he dove deep into the dynamics of martial arts.
“First there was an attack, then a block, then possibly a counter attack, then feigning, recoils, and lastly, looking for windows of opportunities to make the next move,” Rooke says. “We discovered that the most impactful element turned out to be recoiling.”
It all made perfect sense. “If you hit someone with a pipe you would expect that person to take a moment to recover from such a blow,” Rooke says. And that realisation was the breakthrough that Condemned’s fighting mechanics needed.
“This recoil, or recovering time, opened up a lot of possibilities that made the battle both dynamic and tactical. Since these recoil times were based on the type of blow and heaviness of the weapon used, the player could intentionally create windows of opportunity to exploit during the fight.”
And the game’s stellar AI and naturalistic animations did its part in making the enemy encounters unpredictable and exciting.
“To balance, we allowed the AI to periodically counter unexpectedly or come back with a feign and introduced some amount of unknowns,” Rooke says. “In the end, we had hundreds of recoil animations of different types, directions and exaggerations and we resisted the temptation to clean these animations up. The more natural and crazy the motion capture the better.”
A gory, scary, at times deranged horror with first person melee seems like a difficult pitch in the video game landscape of early 2000s. I ask Rooke about how the game even got off the ground.
“It wasn't difficult to pitch within the studio since the idea for the game was a joint effort among team and management,” Rooke says. What’s perhaps more surprising is that pitching it outside of Monolith wasn’t that difficult either.
“It was a very busy time since we reached out to a lot of people simultaneously. The reaction was always very positive but it eventually came down to best fit and that was with Sega.”
Rooke goes as far as saying that he enjoyed the process of pitching the game to various executives (not a common feeling among developers). It may seem unusual to enjoy stressful meetings with men in suits, but there’s a specific reason for his fond memories: Condemned gave Rooke a rare chance to catch the decision makers on the back foot.
“We had a fantastic demo that was moody, intense and scary — it was unlike anything else out there," says Rooke. "I would play the demo live after not saying much about it beforehand. I also insisted that the lights in the room be turned off."
"I learned how to play the demo really well and discovered that there was a moment I could frame that always got a good scare from the audience. And when I say scare I'm talking about a loud yelp! I got a small amount of joy making executives jump in their seats [and] getting them to cry out in surprise was the icing on the cake.”
One should never ask a magician about their secrets, but I ask Rooke about the less obvious tricks used in crafting Condemned’s atmosphere. He mentions light and sound being among the most foundational tools, slowly followed by “the process of introducing themes, or narrative touches, that are nurtured over time and brought to fruition just at the right moment.”
“Spooky atmosphere has little impact unless the player or viewer has been primed — aware that something unknown and mysterious could exist in this atmosphere. It doesn't have to be overt, but just enough to introduce a shred of doubt about how in control they are.”
Another important element came by way of a decision made early in the development.
“In the very beginning we toyed with the idea that the protagonist would have supernatural powers, but we scrapped that early on as it eroded away the horror atmosphere,” Rooke says. “The enemy could have weird unexplainable stuff but grounding the protagonist helped the game maintain its immersion.”
And then there’s all the media that left its mark on Condemned.
“Everyone on the team devoured hundreds of horror movies — good and bad,” Rooke says. “From my perspective, I saw Condemned as Se7en meets 28 Days Later meets The Shining. When the fast zombies of 28 Days Later hit the scene it was a real eye opener and became the foundation of our enemies. The Shining, in my book, is probably the best horror movie ever made and in a lot of ways more disturbing than Se7en, which says a lot!”
But the research wasn't just movies.
“I remember drawing inspiration from the author Dan Brown, especially his pre-mega fame novels. He tended to end every chapter on a cliff-hanger,” Rooke says, and he absorbed the idea of keeping the player on the edge of their seat. As well as this, all the in-game fiction was supplemented by details from real-life murder stories.
“A lot of research went into forensics, detective work and serial killers,” Rooke says. “We were certainly not trying to create a accurate crime game but the methodology and basic tenets of crime scenes and serial killers needed to be understood to not come across as completely ignorant. Believability within the fiction of the universe was our goal.”
And Condemned achieved this. The game had some very intense scenes of violence and enough of them that it got banned in Germany. I ask Rooke if any ideas proved too violent, sick or deranged to remain in the game.
“The ideas that didn't make it into the game were discarded, not because of how deranged they were, but because they didn't strengthen the game,” Rooke says. “The way we worked, many of the moments came from the level designers. They worked hard to craft their intended experience carefully. If it felt right, they knew it, and ran with the idea.”
Condemned pre-dated games like Penumbra: Overture and Amnesia: The Dark Descent by a few years, even though the latter kickstarted the boom for first person horror games. Does Rooke see the echoes of Condemned in games that followed it?
“I do see the echoes of Condemned in other games but I'm not sure whether it was directly from Condemned or just the natural evolution of genre mechanics,” Rooke says. There seems to be no bad blood about the game's imitators, but Rooke goes on to explain a more general sadness he has about the horror genre.
“What I find interesting, and I am perhaps even saddened by, is that FPS horror seems to be popular with gamers but is still a niche genre when it comes to sales. There are excellent horror games out there and it seems that at least one horror level shows up in almost every shooter but the genre rarely reaches mainstream. It's a lot like horror movies. Many people love watching them but they are often straight to Netflix movies.”
After his time at Monolith came to an end, Rooke moved to Stockholm to help Avalanche on Mad Max. When it came time again to look for new challenges, he chose to stay in Sweden and joined the mobile powerhouse King as Senior Creative Director.
“The making of Condemned helped me quite a bit throughout my career,” he says. “So many elements in the game were about the player experience, or more specifically, the pacing and delivery of the experience. For example, the power of suggestion, false direction, surprise, and most importantly, timing, have all become important hallmarks that I draw upon every day. In my mind, the most mundane thing can become engaging and immersive if delivered to the audience properly.”
Another educative experience of his career was no doubt the sequel to Condemned. The game was subtitled Bloodshot and while it scored favourable reviews (Metacritic ratings of 80 Xbox 360 and 82 on PlayStation 3), it disappointed many fans of the original.
“It was a strange case of the parts being technically better in the sequel — improved combat, improved forensics, improved visuals — but the game as a whole not moving the meter by much,” Rooke says.
“The first game was a very focused effort. We were hell bent on shipping on time as a launch title [for Xbox 360] — we realised that this kind of opportunity doesn't come along very often. I think that clarity kept the game lean and mean. The sequel was perhaps not as focused, and the general theme was more, more, more. So turning everything up to 11 and packing every little nook and cranny with content doesn't always lead to a well-crafted experience.”
“Hindsight and feedback are powerful learning tools to be applied to future endeavours,” Rooke says sagely. “With that said, the game is in my opinion top notch as it is, and I'm super proud of the team.”
Still, equipped with the power of hindsight, 2018's Frank Rooke would make an altogether different sequel to Condemned.
“I think if I were to work on the sequel again I would approach it from a different angle. Keep the game simple but perfectly honed — stripped, raw and intense. Keep the access to guns down to a minimum, same as it was in the first game,” he says.
“I would abandon the story completely and create a narrative around the character's alcohol problem and his struggles coming to terms with why he has hit rock bottom. Lastly, the pacing of the game was relentless. I even get exhausted playing it. I love our big moments, but these could have been even more impactful if the rest of the game had more moments of peace.”
If you’d like to play that sequel, you’re not alone. To this day, he often gets asked about when the third game in the series will be released. “I wish I knew," laughs Rooke. "I would love to play it!”
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.