Behind the scenes of Anachronox

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The minds behind Ion Storm Dallas take us through their most ambitious project, Anachronox. Unique, grand in scope and ahead of its time, it’s the best western RPG you’ve never played

In May 2001 Ion Storm Dallas closed its doors. Founded in 1995 by id Software giants John Romero and Tom A. Hall, the gaming world watched Ion Storm’s every move with great interest. After all, these were the guys who created Doom, Wolfenstein 3D and Commander Keen, so nothing short of a masterpiece was unfairly expected from them with each passing game. However, with hype reaching fever pitch during the development for Daikatana, culminating with that infamous magazine ad which read “John Romero’s about to make you his bitch”, the gaming world was shattered when Daikatana didn’t exactly turn out to be quite so revolutionary.

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After a lengthy development cycle and a PR campaign that almost painted it like the second coming of the First-Person Shooter genre itself, John Romero’s Daikatana was, in many respects, deemed a failure. Ion Storm Dallas has largely been remembered as the company that brought us Daikatana, but the other game that was in development in tandem with Romero’s time travel FPS was Anachronox, a game that was more ambitious and inventive than Daikatana could have ever dreamed of being.

When starting Ion Storm, Tom had the opportunity to make any game he wanted, as to did Romero, which led to Diakatana. So, with a deep love for the likes of the Final Fantasy series as well as Chrono Trigger, Tom’s aim was to create a “Western-translated” JRPG . Pepper in an additional appreciation for classic adventure games and you have Anachronox; Ion Storm Dallas’ most impressive outing. The name Anachronox came to Tom’s mind while, out of all places, he was in the bathroom.

As Tom, Project Lead on Anachronox, puts it, “It just appeared. I wrote it down, then I wondered what it was. It was sort of a combination of “noxious” and “anachronism”. So “poisonous” and “a thing out of its own time period” which I sort of smooshed into meaning “poison from the past”. So that was what the whole overall plot was, but also what was true for each character – they each had a poison from their past that they need to heal.”

Envisioned as “a rollicking, epic, fun-and-serious take on the multi-character RPG” by Tom, the game starts off on the artificial planet known as Anachronox. The planet, believed to have been created by an ancient alien race as a quarantine zone, is home to main protagonist Sylvester “Sly” Boots, a lowly private investigator who hasn’t had any business in quite some time. Boots soon crosses paths with Grumpos Matavastros, an eccentric scholar who is obsessed with MysTech. MysTech is essentially a stand in for magic in the world of Anachronox.

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After a powerful piece of MysTech falls into the hands of Detta, a feared gangster that has it out for Boots, both Boots and Grumpos set off on a mission to unlock the secrets behind MysTech and save the world, visiting various planets and building upon their team along the way. With a story that covers everything from humour, drama to action, Anachronox is an unusual beast of a game. Containing a number of explorable worlds, numerous different alien races to interact with and hints of an extended universe which may even dabble in the multi-verse, the game is impressively daring in scope.

Keeping Tom’s influences in mind, Anachronox is a third person adventure that focuses its gameplay on exploration, character and environmental interaction and, like any self respecting Western JRPG, battling enemies. The battle system of Anachronox plays out almost identically to Final Fantasy’s Active Time Battle system, as it allows each character on screen to take a turn one by one. From standard physical attacks, an array of MysTech attacks to a number of unique character moves called BattleSkills, battling is both familiar yet refreshing. This is mostly down to the fact that the player can freely move throughout the battlefield, though moving one step will use up a character‘s turn in battle.

This can be used in a number of strategic ways, but it truly comes into play during the boss battles strewn across the game. It’s during these battles in which navigating the battlefield isn’t just a way of dispatching your foes faster and avoiding attacks, but rather simply a means of survival. This is imperative during the final boss battle, as without moving around the battle field during that fight, the boss is otherwise unbeatable. Despite Anachronox blending together a slew of different genres and styles, it surprisingly appeals to both the hardcore and casual gamer. In speaking about this, Tom says, “Well, you could skate along the surface, or dive into the depth. With tons of extra things to find, mini-games to play, MysTech and character combos to optimise, there certainly is lots to do. But getting through is really the only thing you have to do. So either RPG Lite+Adventure game can be your experience, or min-maxing and finding every collectable can also be done.” It is this approach to the gameplay that, even today, seems to pull in gamers regardless of level of skill.

At its heart Anachronox puts much of its focus on its wonderfully rich cast. Featuring a cast of eight main characters, which includes the alcoholic failed superhero Paco, the wise cracking robot PAL-18 and Democratus, a character that is also a planet which can also be landed on and explored, Anachronox’s cast are a bizarre bunch to say the least. In crafting the main and extended cast of characters in the game, Tom says, “Well, the main characters I developed as the deeper, non-traditional people with something dark in their past, and not cookie-cutter checkboxes. Then we talked through characters in every locale, and Richard Gaubert wrote 800 pages of the funniest and/or deepest dialogue. I started and maintained the tone of the universe and the main characters, while Jake Hughes and Richard Gaubert breathed life into them and the whole hilarious coterie of minor characters.”

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Jake Hughes, Producer and Cinematic Director, echoes Tom’s comments regarding the lure of the cast‘s complicated pasts in saying, “It’s that we are all flawed. Anachronox literally means: poison from the past. All of our characters have some poison from their past. We can relate to that because we all have a poison from the past, and if you don’t, you are doing it wrong. We can relate to people who are messed up and dealing with emotional issues. The hope is that we can get over them. I’m still working out some of my own!”

One of Anachronx’s most appealing elements is its visuals, which gives its environments quite a varied and unique look. This desire for Anachronox’s different visuals came from the fact that the team did not want the game to look like it was made with the Quake II engine, and as Lee Perry, Lead Artist on Anachronox says, he directly avoided a “first person construction mindset”. 

According to Jake, Tom had the look of the world crystal clear in his mind prior to development. In talking about Anachronox’s starting environment, Jake comments, “Tom had such a clear idea of the Bricks, and Seneca Menard built it… which the team couldn’t believe the amount of work he did by himself. And we kind of forced the player to hang out there for about eight hours of gameplay. And mixing sound and music, NPCs walking about, the ships flying round, the voice from the sky announcing the shifting plates…. the atmosphere, you really got a sense of the Bricks, so by the time you got off the planet, you were so ready to explore the new worlds out there. I felt like the game had such a confidence. Trust us, come along with us for the ride!”.

In terms of designing and crafting the environments, the game boasted a number of worlds, with each one looking completely different than what came before it. From Anachronox itself that looks like a cross between the neon soaked streets of Blade Runner and a gritty back alley from Hong Kong in Deus Ex, to Whitendon on the planet of Democratus, that is clearly a Dickens inspired Victorian era location, Anachronox is brimming full of environmental diversity. Fresh off the heels from a stint at Squaresoft, Lee wanted to give the game “densely packed urban environments, and prepared battle stages”.

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In speaking about the challenge of breathing life into the world of Anachronox, Lee says, “It really came down to the individual people working on each area. The game was really large in scope (comically over-scoped in retrospect!), but there are advantages to that. We had so many environments and characters to create, there wasn’t a lot of time for hand holding people through the process. We would end up handing a whole section of the game to one or two people and giving them a lot of creative room to work in. This let each of the areas have a really different feel to them structurally, and people took a lot of pride making their areas feel as lived in as possible.”

However, Lee is keen to also credit the rest of the development team when it comes to Anachronox’s overall visual flair. As he says, “Many of the characters were textured by Lee Dotson, so even when we had areas being fleshed out by people, so much content ran through that one artist that it definitely helped to unify the style. Similarly, Seneca Menard was responsible for some impressive stretches of the game, building levels, characters, scripting, etc… so it was really clear which areas had people’s thumb-prints in them.” Ultimately, Lee and the team were massively successful, as one of Anachronox’s biggest takeaways was its tactile and lived in locations, that were successful as both explorable locations as well as battlefields to fight foes on.

Jake directed the cut-scenes using a program created by Programmer Joey Liaw, and it proved to be a powerful and versatile tool. Jake describes one fan favourite cut-scene and how it was crafted in saying, “The drifting in space scene as an example: Tom had set up this great moment where we had the characters stuck together with no hope of rescue. We knew that this was the first time we could have a scene where we take a break from moving the story forward and just spend a little time with our characters. Now, I had the Cine editor at my machine at home and like many, many, many nights, Richard Gaubert would come over (as he lived in the apartment downstairs) and we would workshop scenes. I had the space shuttle level up on my machine, and we pulled off this gag where we moved the camera in sync with a rotating sky. The illusion made it seem like the shuttle was drifting in space, where in fact the shuttle wasn’t moving, and then the camera then moves right into the shuttle through the window to end up on Rho. The shot was a particular length to create the mood of the shuttle drifting, so Rich wrote dialogue to that shot and we timed it perfectly to the camera move. Then he came up with these little moments between the different characters. We made a lot of custom animations for this scene, which means we knew this scene was important. Part of the importance of that scene was to also make it funny. And this is where Rich and Tom’s influence is so strong. A lot of folks had said that the drifting in space scene was their favourite, and it was a learning lesson for me, as it showed that people weren’t just interested in plot, as they wanted to spend time with our characters. And to be honest, I think a lot of us on the team would like to spend more time with them.”

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Much like Diakatana, Anachronox’s development cycle was incredibly long, as when it hit the shelves in June 2001 (one month after Ion Storm Dallas shut down) it had been in development for four and a half years. The team as a whole feels indebted to Eidos for sticking alongside them for so long, but even after those four and a half years of development, Anachronox had to be essentially cut in half. There came a point during development where a realisation came over the team that Tom’s original story plan was far too vast for one game. Prior to development, Tom literally created a universe map to the world of Anachronox. As he describes, his original plan for Anachronox had “Dozens of star systems, planets, 400 creatures, and such. And the story I laid out was beyond epic. So at a certain point, Jake and Rich came to me and said this was too big to tell, and that made the stopping point heart-breakingly obvious (sorry folks)! But the concept of Anachronox was made (a riff of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway) so it could possibly grow into an MMO, which was a fairly new thing, Ultima Online having come out around the start of our development efforts. I wanted a universe that all sorts of games could live in.”

Furthermore, according to Lee, “We created a lot (and you don’t understand how much of an understatement that is!) of unused content”. This included the planet of Matrix 0, the homeworld of PAL-18, Boots’ plucky robo-sidekick. As Tom planned, on this mostly created but unused world, “the crew doesn’t have any of the planet’s currency, so they are essentially poor, and they get stuck in rectangular solids with their picture pasted on them!  They gradually earn the Matrix 0 currency, getting more polygons, some animations, attachment points, specular maps, and get on to meeting more important, more well-rendered people they need help from!”. This, on top of a pirate-themed world called Port Presence that was completely in black and white, was one of the many ideas and concepts that never made the final cut. Instead the game ends on what was originally planned to be the halfway point, which was a superb story twist that would shame M Night Shyamalan.

Ultimately with the closure of Ion Storm Dallas a continuation of Anachronox never materialised. However, with the rise of websites like Kickstarter, there’s an ever growing movement of fans that want to see what is next in store for Boots and his gang. On whether a sequel could happen, Tom remarks, “Well, really, it cost millions and just had five ads in magazines at the time. So many people have come up to me and said, “Where was this? I didn’t know about it, and it’s so awesome!” But since it is a cult classic, it might be difficult to fund a proper sequel. Although, yes, if that were possible, I’d love to do it of course! I would definitely want to be in control of the sequel. And yes, I have mapped out exactly what happens next and how this arc of the story will end. But there are so many to tell in this universe.”

Whether a continuation happens or not, the team that created Anachronox still remain close to this day, as every year at GDC they still meet up for dinner. While Ion Storm Austin was a little more financially successful, which was kicked off by the legendary Deus Ex under the gaze of Warren Spector, Ion Storm Dallas never really gets the credit it deserves. With Diakatana’s development, PR and release overshadowing the company as a whole, Anachronox was released to a lukewarm financial response. However, looking back Anachronox may not only be Ion Storm Dallas’ best outing, but it’s also one that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Deus Ex in terms of innovation, daring and, above all else, genuine passion on the part of its incredible development team. We may never see what’s beyond that gate at the climax of the game, but we’ll always have the unforgettable adventure that began with its hero being brutalised by a comically short suited thug, getting hurled out of a pane glass window, tumbling through the air, landing hard on the metal ground, only to pull up a stool at the local bar a mere five paces away, look at the bartender and say ”Hit me”. Unforgettable indeed.

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Behind the scenes of Anachronox