9 Nov 2018

The Making of MediEvil: Chris Sorrell Interview

Last week I ushered in MediEvil's 20th anniversary by taking a look at how the game looks through a modern lens. After completing that, I got in touch with Chris Sorrell, director and producer on the original game, to learn more about the development process as well as hear his thoughts on the upcoming remaster being released by Sony in 2019.

Sorrell made his start in the games industry working as a designer, programmer and artist on the James Pond series of platformers, released by Millennium Interactive in the early 90s. His credits during that time also include doing graphics for several Amiga titles such as Spitting ImageDogs of War and Yolanda. Sorrell then joined Millennium and began crafting the concept for MediEvil, with full development beginning in 1995. Two years later, Millennium would be sold to Sony Computer Entertainment and rebranded as SCE Cambridge, which helped ease financial strain on the project. Despite these major structural changes, the original concept of "Ghosts 'n Goblins meets Tim Burton" did not change much.

"The Tim Burton inspiration was a guiding factor for the art team throughout and pretty apparent in the final game," Sorrell told me. "I remember being astonished to see some promo art for Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow movie where the locations looked so much like a hi-res version of MediEvil levels that I did a double-take. Similarly I think our audio team perfectly captured the Danny Elfman vibe in their amazing score. The Ghosts ’n Goblins reference was always a looser thing - I never set out to exactly mimic the exact mechanics or structure of it, more the general spooky vibe, and a few isolated things: the idea of a questing knight, power-ups hidden in chests, and visually, the principle of a game set completely at night with a dark yet still colorful aesthetic. In these regards the game also remained pretty true."
He then told me about how the tone of the game changed over time, with more arcade-style elements such as a score and a fixed camera being phased out. "I think this stemmed from seeing the world develop and getting excited by the feel of exploring this weird, creepy place! In fact the game initially had a totally path based camera which I fought tooth and nail to move away from in favour of a camera that allowed the player to explore a little more, to see things from all angles. Okay, so the final camera was far from perfect, but I feel vindicated in my belief that the world of Gallowmere was well worth exploring in a more immersive manner than that spline camera would have allowed."

Arguably the most memorable aspect of the series was the design of its skeletal protagonist, Sir Daniel Fortesque. I asked Sorrell about where exactly the inspiration for his unusual appearance came from: "From the beginning I had a very clear idea of many of Sir Dan’s most defining visual traits: his long gangly limbs, his crazy teeth, the missing eye and jaw-bone. Honestly, I’m not too sure what inspired these!? Perhaps Earthworm Jim in terms of the gangly limbs and armour at least? Jason helped in sketching out the first concepts - literally the first task in our collaboration - and we pretty much settled on the look for Dan right away. A further concept sketch by Mitch Phillips (the team’s animator) refined a few details, such as a slightly flatter skull and some tweaks to the armour, and from that point on - for the first game at least - Dan’s look was set."
"In those early days he was ‘just’ a knight - albeit a skeletal one - and didn’t really have too much depth or purpose beyond ‘defeat bad guys, move to the next level’. We reached a point where that didn’t feel enough, where it felt like to really care about this character and he needed to be more. We brought in a script doctor named Martin Pond and spent some time working with him, both to further develop Dan’s character and to write the script. It was Martin’s idea that Dan’s quest should be one of redemption - that he could be fighting not just to save the kingdom, but to make up for the failure he had been in life. This immediately felt like exactly what we had been missing so we took the idea and ran with it!"

Another part that made MediEvil's presentation extremely absorbing was how each level featured drastically different themes, enemies and mechanics. Within the first hour, you go from chasing zombies in a graveyard, to fighting a demon created from a stained glass window, to evading reanimated scarecrows on abandoned farmland. Altogether, the game feels incredibly diverse in how it establishes its identity, which works well with its classic fantasy and fairy tale inspirations.

"Most of the specific level design came from Jason Wilson [Lead Artist], although we worked together on the themes and mechanics. We were always striving for a rewarding mix of gameplay - exploration, puzzles, combat, even platforming. We were also always trying to push ourselves and our game-engine as much as we could. The engine itself was a constant challenge of course - it’s hard to imagine just how constrained we were - mostly by memory - in terms of how large our levels could be. We literally had a limit of about 7500 polygons for an entire level. That’s probably about on par with Nathan Drake’s big toe. As development progressed, and the size of the program code inevitably increased, we would find ourselves having to cull more and more polygons from the levels just to keep everything still running."
With a lot of games from the late nineties being often held back due to time, budget or technology restrictions, Sorrell acknowledged that the camera and platforming were two aspects that he wasn't completely happy with, but when I asked him what he would go back and change, he told me more about the game's initial concept: "We spent almost the entire development turning what had started as quite an arcade styled game into a more immersive, characterful adventure. If I could have, I would have loved to go even further down that path - building a full Zelda styled MediEvil game. I think we would have needed more than PlayStation 1 for that though - like I say that memory limit was brutal!"

After completing development on MediEvil 2, SCE Cambridge took a break from the series and developed Primal and Ghosthunter for the PlayStation 2. With a stronger platform and a series of successful games behind him, Sorrell wanted to return to the world of Gallowmere. "After working on Primal, I was quite keen to make a new MediEvil game. Along with a few others I explored a concept that I think would have been a lot of fun - it picked up Dan’s story after the time travel ending of MediEvil 2 which of course opens up a whole world of interesting possibilities. Sadly, although the idea was well liked, I don’t think management wanted to put too many eggs in the MediEvil basket (since its PSP remake was already in production at the studio). Instead my team ended up working on 24: The Game. In retrospect both MediEvil: Resurrection and 24 would probably both have benefited had our team assignments had been reversed." 

Despite the series going on a long hiatus after MediEvil: Resurrection, Sorrell remains hopeful that the story of MediEvil 3 will eventually be told. He left Sony in 2006 and has since worked at Radical Entertainment (Prototype, Prototype 2) and Hinterland Studio (The Long Dark) before co-founding SpoonSized Entertainment, a small studio focusing on game development for iOS and Android. Despite having not worked on a MediEvil game in fifteen years, Sorrell still loves the series and its fans.
"It’s been a great privilege of working on MediEvil that the game seems to have really touched quite a few peoples lives over the years. I’ve had many people contact me to say that the game meant so much to them in their youth, that they have fond memories of playing it with a parent, that it helped them through a tough time in their life, or that it inspired them to pursue their own passion in game development. I’ve seen pictures of a few fantastic tattoos that Sir Dan has inspired. These things have come from people all over the world. This is all amazing and super gratifying to see, and not something any of us could have imagined back when we were just a small team struggling to bring this thing together!"

The MediEvil remaster for the PlayStation 4 is being handled by Sony’s International Software Development team in partnership with Other Ocean Interactive, with a current release date of sometime in 2019. For the most part, the remake looks to be recreating the levels and characters as closely as possible, while also being built from the ground-up in a modern engine. Sorrell has some advice for the team handling the remake: "I hope they stay true to the original game and to Dan’s original character. I feel that MediEvil: Resurrection made subtle but significant changes to him that turned him from being equal parts heroic and goofy to 'mainly just goofy’ which isn’t something I liked. Otherwise I just hope it’s made by people who care about it and have fun making it to the degree that we did with the original."
Only time will tell how well the remaster is going to capture the same feeling as the original MediEvil did. With a modern engine, updated visuals and a classic feel to it, there's a lot ot look forward to. Chris Sorrell is eagerly anticipating the release as much as the franchise's fans are. If it is successful, it may even generate new interest in the games, and MediEvil 3 could become a reality.

If you haven't read my retrospective on the original game yet, you can read it here.

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