David Cox on rebooting Castlevania for a new generation

With Castlevania: Lords of Shadow only two weeks from launch, we spoke with producer David Cox about rebuilding the franchise for a modern audience. How did developer MercurySteam look to overcome the failures of past 3D iterations of the franchise? And what role did Kojima Productions play in the creation of this new Castlevania? Cox reveals how Kojima urged him to redesign a once "barbarian" Gabriel and how the game was nearly canceled a year into development in our conversation below.

Joystiq: How did poor critical reception of past 3D Castlevania games influence perceptions of this project? How did you pitch this game to senior Konami management?

David Cox: I think there was always a desire to make the game 3D. I think people thought that in order to attract a mainstream audience, it had to be a 3D game. I personally love 2D games, but the fact is the market for 2D games is tiny. Most people want to play a 3D action adventure game with impressive visuals, etc. etc.

I think for us, one of the things we found in hindsight is that the previous games tried to emulate the 2D games -- basically: turn the 2D games into 3D. We felt that wasn't the way to go. We felt the way to go was to boil down Castlevania to its core tenets, and create a 3D game from there. Sure, it's a brave decision, but we needed to be brave, and we needed to have the freedom to do what we wanted to make.

I think that was one of the things that worried Japan; that we wanted to keep our creative freedom, and we stuck to that throughout the pitching process. We didn't really want anyone looking over our shoulder telling us, "You can't do this" or whatever. We needed to brave and make decisions to do things slightly differently.

The great thing about Kojima Productions is that they gave us that freedom, and they helped advise us. But they really were clear that they weren't going to interfere with the development. I've known Kojima for many years and he said, "I'm going to help you and advise you. Kojima Productions will be there to assist you whenever you want." And that was amazing. Just having that backup. That really did help us, in many aspects -- many technical aspects, design aspects.

Is there a specific anecdote you can share about the collaboration with Kojima?

One thing that really stands out is Gabriel himself. I designed him very much as a barbarian, much like the original Castlevania character. I went to Tokyo and met with Kojima and he told me to look at Gabriel again. I told him that I'm really happy with the design. He told me, "No, you really need to rethink Gabriel."

He told me that "we designed Snake, and we were tweaking Snake right until the final submission. Little things: eyebrows, eye color, anything. You need to make sure that you're continuously looking at Gabriel as a main character. If you're trying to tell this tragic story of love, but you have this meathead character that nobody can identify with ... " So that made us go back and rethink Gabriel, and I'm so glad he did that. I don't think the game would be the game it is now if we didn't rethink Gabriel as a character. I think now he's far more appealing right now, far more nuanced -- he's not a one-dimensional action hero anymore. He's a real character, a real person.

"We didn't want to remake Castlevania." - David Cox, producer

Far more introverted than Kratos, for example.

Yeah, at no point in the game does he say, "I'm going to kick your ass" or anything like that. He's very much a real person. It's a sad story, and Robert's portrayal of Gabriel really helps bring that character alive.

Speaking of the voice of Gabriel, Lords of Shadow features some pretty high-profile actors. How was the casting done?

We knew we wanted to tell a story and do it in a way that was believable, in an emotional way. We knew that at the beginning that we wanted to have high-caliber voice actors to do the roles. Originally, we wanted Gerard Butler to be Gabriel, but he was very busy at the time so he couldn't do it. So someone suggested Robert Carlyle, and we approached Robert about the role and sent him the script.

We weren't sure whether he was going to go for it or not, but he was keen to get involved. He loved the script. He really enjoyed the story. He saw what we were trying to do, and it interested him as an actor. He never did a video game before, so that's another thing he wanted to do. All the actors were like that, even Patrick [Stewart] was quite difficult to nail down. We knew we wanted to do Patrick, we wanted someone of his caliber. We got the script to him, he read the script, and got back to us and said he's interested, and here we are.

It was really cool because we hadn't actually done any of the cutscenes at the time when we did the voice overs. There was a certain amount of freedom we could give the actors; something the actors probably weren't expecting. So they did change some lines, and they did things a slightly different way than we originally envisioned. But it brought a richness to a role that wouldn't have been there if we just did the cutscenes, and they just had to lip sync to it. You know, some things didn't work, so we had to get them back to do rewrites. But, I think if the actors are interested in doing a role, in a performance that's going to push them in doing something they haven't done before, then that's better than having someone that's just there for the money.

And who wrote the story? Since this is a Castlevania game, was the writer bound to the lore of the past games?

The only way we were bound was by what we wanted to see within a Castlevania game. There was a lot of creative freedom. The story was written by the main studio head at MercurySteam; but from that original concept, myself, Rick and two friends of mine that own a comic book company in London wrote the dialogue.

We wanted to have elements from previous Castlevania games appear in the game. But we didn't want to be bound by its 26-year history. We really wanted new players to not have to know about the characters or anything. But at the same time for fans, we wanted to tell the story of the Belmonts and why they're hunting the creatures of the night. Why are they special? How did it happen? We wanted to address that in the game, and we do, for sure.

But the only boundaries we had were our own. We wanted to stay true to Castlevania, but we wanted to take it to new directions. I think that's important. You look at Batman, for example -- it's had so many other people giving their vision and it really enriches the character and the world. I think Castlevania can have that. I don't just want to be on Castlevania for the rest of my life. I want to share with people our vision of Castlevania. This is a European vision; a Spanish developer's vision; my vision.

There's no reason why we can't have other people's visions of Castlevania as well. Why can't it exist in different iterations? I think that's what makes comic books so much fun. I think there's something about this Castlevania -- if you keep an open mind, you can come to this and enjoy it for what it is, but you'll also get some new things, which I think is really cool.

So it doesn't fit into the existing time line at all?

No, that was a very early decision we made. We weren't going to try to fit into the time line in any shape or form. We were going to do our own thing, kind of like "Marvel Ultimates" -- outside of existing canon; something that stands alone if need be. To be perfectly honest, we haven't really looked past this game for sequels or whatever. We just looked at this and just said, "We want to tell this story within our Castlevania world." If we do another one, I don't know. That's a decision higher up the food chain.

People have compared the game's combat to that of the God of War series. The platforming is similar to Tomb Raider. Some of the boss fights are highly reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus. Are these reference points that were actively considered throughout development?

No, the phenomenon of games is ... In the movie business, people don't go up to Scorsese and say, "Hey, Goodfellas is a lot like Godfather." It's something I find a bit irritating, but I understand why people do it. I think people are inspired by other people's work. I think we should remember that Castlevania was doing many of these things that many of these games are doing 10, 15 years before they were.

We've certainly taken inspiration from the original Castlevania. We tried to create an action platformer that people, today's gamers, can understand. I don't think the comparisons are warranted. I think when people play the game properly, get into it, they're going to see they're very different games, hopefully.

"We're introducing a lot of new things that people haven't seen in a Castlevania game before."

During our recent preview of the game, one thing we noticed is that Gabriel always seems to be learning new skills or unlocking new items. Is there ever a point in the game where your character stops evolving?

No. The ultimate light magic and shadow magic you don't get until the final third of the game.

It's one of the issues we had, actually, at E3. You're constantly picking up skills. If you drop somebody into this game halfway through, they're just going to die all the time. It's a game that you need to play in order to enjoy it. That's why we did a more combat-oriented demo at E3, so people could pick up and play the game. If we dropped them in the Clock Tower stage, people would've said, "I've had enough of this." You need to learn how to play well. By the end of the game, most players have got all the skills -- they're sync blocking, they're using their light and shadow magic, they're dodging and rolling -- they're doing all the things we want them to do.

It also seems like the game isn't just a linear experience. From what we saw, players can go back and use their enhanced powers to discover secrets in earlier stages.

You can do that if you want to. You don't necessarily have to do that. We deliberately designed the game so that the player can play all the way through to the end without discovering every single secret. But there are a lot of players that want to go back; want to find everything in a stage and get 110%. For those players, we decided that there should be elements that players appreciate from the more "Metroidvania" style of games.

Some of the people who played the E3 demo -- which didn't contain those Metroivania elements -- expressed concern that Lords of Shadow wasn't enough like a Castlevania game. How do you respond to that criticism?

I think people's perception of what Castlevania is is different from people from my age -- who think: "action platformer; lone warrior battling supernatural creatures with a whip." But perhaps younger gamers who've grown up with the more Metroid-style games have a different perception of what Castlevania really is.

What we wanted to do with this game is go back to the roots and distill the core tenants of what the original Castlevania was all about, and then build a 3D game around that. So that meant dropping the Metroidvania style that more recent Castlevania fans are more familiar with. But that was a conscious decision. We didn't want to remake Castlevania.

We got to the point in the series where it turned really appealing to the hardcore fanbase, but we wanted to make it more mainstream and bring it to a wider audience. You can either carry on the way you are and have a diminishing audience, or you can wipe the slate clean and start again. And that's what we've done in this game. We did keep things in the game that are familiar to fans, but at the same time, we're introducing a lot of new things that people haven't seen in a Castlevania game before.

So was that the original pitch for the game -- essentially, "a distilled Castlevania experience in 3D?"

The original direction from Japan was, "We want to make the game more mainstream and appeal to Western audiences" -- come up with a pitch that would basically achieve that. Our pitch is very much what you see now: a darker, grittier, more realistic, adult kind of world. I think people were intrigued by it, but they didn't really understand it. So there was a kind of hesitation from the Japan side about whether or not this was the right approach to take.

"We needed to be brave."

We spent about a year trying to push this off the ground, pitching it and showing it to senior management. We got to the point where they basically said stop. They said there was no point; we're going to can the project. So I asked them to give me at least fifteen minutes and show them what we've done. We took it out there, showed them, and they said, "Okay, this looks pretty cool. Go make a prototype."

And so we did; took it to Japan, showed it to the senior management -- Kojima was at that meeting. That took us about a year at that point. When people actually saw the game, that changed a lot of people's minds and a lot of people came on board. Kojima came on board, and I think that really helped us a lot. It's quite a radical departure, and I think people were quite a bit afraid of the change. But I think once they saw what we were trying to do, it relieved a few fears.

And with Kojima on board, does that mean we're in for some notoriously lengthy cutscenes? Has he offered input on how your story should be told?

Not in that respect, no. We don't really have lengthy cutscenes. The longest cutscene is at the end, which is 14 minutes. I think if someone's played twenty hours of a game, they deserve a bloody good ending. But other than that, the cutscenes are fairly short.

What Kojima Productions helped us with was things like camera angles, and dramatizing the cutscenes and focusing it on characters. But generally, they've been hands-off. They're helping us with the Japanese voice actors at the moment which has been ... interesting. It's because Japanese voice actors do things very differently, they emote in a different way. But they're taking control on that, which has been a great help.