Fifteen years later, Jurassic Park: Trespasser still seems to bring out the dreamer in game developers.
It's largely forgotten today, but there was a time when the 1998 first-person shooter published by Electronic Arts aspired to be the ultimate technical achievement. Developer Seamus Blackley dreamt of a perfectly seamless, immersive world with intelligent dinosaurs – an idea that still has the power to spark the imagination with its insane technical ambition. Despite assurances prior to release that the game would revolutionize PC gaming, Trespasser was critically panned and commercially ignored.
Today, the dream of that revolutionary title lives on through a group of dedicated fans unwilling to let to die. The architect of that effort is Larry Ellis – an Australian working part time at a local distribution company, with the rest of his hours devoted to the long forgotten licensed game. Utilizing Crytek's powerful CryEngine, he recently captivated the internet with a series of gorgeous updates to the original Trespasser jungle environments.
Ellis' ambitions, however, are far greater than a simple remake. The part-time designer has grand ambitions with plans to recreate the game's entire world – Isla Sorna – and within it, inject new missions, objectives and more. Utilizing technology that lies at the bleeding edge, Ellis aims to make use of both Oculus Rift and the Razer Hydra to live up to the game's original vision for a unique control scheme.
Ellis' project seems almost crazy in scope - a one-man attempt to make good on assurances made by a company he has no affiliation with nearly two decades ago. Perhaps it's an impossible dream, but it's hard not to cheer for an underdog with so much passion.
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Ellis began working on his Trespasser remake in 2007, but oddly enough, the PC wasn't the original platform – it was the Nintendo DS.
"I was involved in the NDS Homebrew community and I thought a DS port of Trespasser would be awesome, so I started working on some concepts for touch interfaces and whatnot," he explains. "The concept outgrew the DS though, so I moved onto the idea of a Trespasser game for PC and started working on a Trespasser 'inspired' project to avoid any copyright issues, which were pretty common back in those days."
After ditching the Nintendo DS concept, Ellis began experimenting with a number of engines before finally landing on CryEngine 2, but work on the game went nowhere until the end of 2011. It was around that time that the project began to evolve into its current form, going from spiritual sequel to full-blown remake. Ellis eventually hit on the idea of using CryEngine while brewing up a demo level to sell it as a base for updated host engine: "I ended up really liking what I had done, and because it was a really raw recreation of the original game, it immediately had this charm that my Crysis-based work never had. The speed that I was getting it made was really encouraging too, so I decided at that point that a change of direction was needed for a number of reasons."
The project has since been broken down into three stages. Ellis is at pains to make it clear that the project is really still in its formative stages: "The work I'm doing now is really just laying down the foundation for the real work in later stages. It's a blueprint for the construction of the real work. An island so big with so many objects, trees, items, etc, takes a lot of work, and I need placeholder assets to use as a reference for the correct placement of trees, roads, decals, rocks etc. I'm using the original game assets for this, but will later be updating everything with all new very high quality content."
After Stage One is complete, the next step will be to replace all of the assets with real Trespasser models. Stage Three will bring with it new areas, updates to the existing levels, and original missions, "basically making it the project I set out to make," Ellis says.
Ellis recently attracted a programmer by the name of Seb to the project, and the two have begun work on a tech demo utilizing the latest version of CryEngine that is "nicer than anything I made with [CryEngine 2]." At some point, he plans to move on from CryEngine entirely, which due to memory limitations has forced him to work with an island that is 20 percent smaller than the one in the original game. For all the work he's doing, Ellis wants to make sure he gets this right. Anything less than 100 percent accuracy is unacceptable.
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The Trespasser faithful, like Ellis, are intimately familiar with the game's troubled development history and the features left festering on the cutting room floor. The original game was conceived as a seamless world with real-time physics, sophisticated artificial intelligence, and a unique control system that would allow players to manipulate objects with one hand while shooting with the other. All this in the late 1990s – arguably the dawn of the 3D era.
Overcome with predictable technical issues, Trespasser was delayed more than a year. When it finally launched in October 1998, its original vision was unrecognizable. The development team at DreamWorks Interactive was unable to make both arms work, so the protagonist Anne was left with just one arm, which would flop and twist like a wet noodle when interacting with objects. The dinosaurs did indeed have dynamic AI, but the Raptors wouldn't follow players into buildings, making it easy to peek out of doorways and dispatch the clueless dinos. Most of the gameplay was limited to rather boring physics buzzles involving boxes. The press eviscerated it.
Years later, Trespasser creator Seamus Blackley would lament in an interview with fansite TresCom that what he really needed was a strict producer: "I wanted to make this beautiful vision that I had for this amazing island become real, and I was too young and stupid to realize that less is more."
Despite a flawed product born out of those ideas, Blackley's vision remains captivating, especially to the game's contingent of loyalists. TresCom co-founder Paul Piper argues forcibly for its accomplishments, which he refers to as a milestone in game development. He happily points out that Gabe Newell recently cited Trespasser as an inspiration for the physics cannon in Half-Life 2, adding: "Now how cool is that?"
"It was one of the first to successfully implement a physics engine and features a rich environment that is hardly matched even today. It also remains one of the few games that puts you on a deserted island with dinosaurs," Piper adds.
The game has also been celebrated by John Carmack as an inspiration for Doom 3's audio logs and the open-world nature of the original Far Cry by developer Crytek.
Ellis stands by many of Trespasser's creative choices. Talking about Anne's infamously glitch arm, he argues: "People who have never played Trespasser are quick to judge the entire game based on their first attempt at controlling it, or even just watching a video of someone else playing it. What many people don't understand is that Trespasser was originally designed to have a lot more intricate puzzles that required finer control over your arm for interacting with items and objects."
Another decision Ellis staunchly defends is one of Trespasser's more controversial components – its health system. Rather than render a meter in the game, Anne's health bar is represented as a heart-shaped tattoo on her, rather ample, bustline. To check your health status, players must stare down at Anne's cleavage. Ellis' remake will maintain this element, but his approach to the meter follows an interesting fan-fiction-esque interpretation of the protagonist's personality.
"I just don't think Anne's the type of girl to have a tattoo of a heart wrapped in barbed wire on her breast," he says. "If anything I think she would maybe have a little bluebird or perhaps a tasteful tribal piece, being the traveling gal she is. The tattoo system is a brilliant idea, and again way ahead of its time, but this time there is a more fitting solution that is also tied into one of the new story elements I've added. You will be looking down to check your health, but its not a tattoo."
Among the TresCom community, choices like these made in the original game are routinely celebrated as being forward-thinking; it's just the execution that's left wanting. Nevertheless, there's a sense around the community that Trespasser is a hidden gem that deserves credit for its accomplishment, and not the flop or failure it's made out to be. There's a palpable desire to share the object of their affection with the world – to make others understand what they're missing. Ellis' passion project is a reflection of that desire.
Wanting to thrust Trespasser in the spotlight has led the community to support numerous projects like Ellis' remake, and they've been remarkably successful over the years, developing a large number of powerful modding tools and patches to enhance the game. Piper boasts that the custom levels created by community are "really close to a Trespasser 2." The community has even managed to get hold of the original source code, which they've set to work modifying. Ellis' project isn't even the only remake in the works, with another group having recently released a prototype powered by the Unity Engine.
But Ellis' remake is the site's crown jewel – a modernization of the original game and a sequel all-in-one. In many ways, it's the culmination of a decade's worth of work by dozens of hardworking fans – all believers in the promise of EA's Trespasser.
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The Road Back to Isla Sorna
Ellis seems confident the project can be completed: "If you were to take what Trespasser is now and fix everything that is wrong or unfinished, you would be left with a pretty darn nice game. There is a lot of what they were trying to achieve hidden in the source code. Its just been either disabled or is unfinished. Take all those things and add them back into the game, then combine it with the advantages of what a modern engine has to offer, and it really doesn't take much to make it that much better. A lot of what they were doing was for the first time too, so what took them weeks of design and development can now be done instantly with a script or is just an option to check in a properties box."
"Combine all the levels into one large open world. Create a more realistic environment with an emphasis on a simulated ecosystem rather than a series of battles with scripted enemies. A coherent look to the environment and the relationship between objects will ensure the world feels very real and is something you want to spend a long time exploring or just messing about in. I want people to feel more like they are part of a living world, than to be just a character in a series of levels setup for you to navigate through. I would like it if people could play through the whole game without shooting a single dinosaur, or to never pick up a gun," Ellis says, as if checking off a laundry list of simple items to attend to.
"I'm now just focused on delivering Stage One as fast as possible while still making it something enjoyable for people to explore, despite its simplicity," he says.
A tech demo utilizing the latest version of CryEngine should be out soon, at which point people can get a taste for what Ellis is planning for the final version. There will be no dinosaurs, but it will give players an idea of the project's scope. The real game will come much later.
It remains to be seen whether all of Ellis' big ideas will eventually pan out – he has even't chosen an engine for the final version yet – but his passion is real and infectious. He is a true believer in a game that, is generally remembered for being a disaster. The goal for Ellis and the TresCom community is to complete the project, and deliver to the rest of the world the classic experience they've celebrated all along.
You can follow the remake's development on Ellis' personal site.
[Original Trespasser Images: Dreamworks, EA]
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.