of Genres Past
with your HOST, Jed Shepherd
Andy Roberts explores the hotly-anticipated full-motion video game, Ghosts - the latest project from HOST co-creator, Jed Shepherd...
Twas not so long ago when a worldwide pandemic encroached upon the merry shores of Old Blighty, plunging us all into an uncertain future in lockdown, way back in April of 2020. With little to comfort us, not least the unravelling reports of COVID-19 and the premiere of hit Netflix documentary Tiger King (Eric Goode, Rebecca Chaiklin, 2020), no one really expected the ensuing global phenomenon that befell a low-budget, socially distanced British horror film debuting via the Shudder streaming platform. Filmed under the ongoing restrictions of a national UK lockdown and taking the form of a Zoom call gone terrifyingly wrong, HOST, from director Rob Savage, along with writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd, crafted a suspenseful cocktail of found footage tropes blended with the palatable fears and isolation anxiety of the pandemic’s effect on society. Now with a physical Blu-ray release of the film available, it seems that the stage is set for the next chapter in pandemic projects…
Enter Jed Shepherd, horror writer and video game enthusiast, who’s just unleashed news of his next exercise in fright: a new full-motion video game entitled Ghosts in which a production crew and the presenters of a paranormal-themed TV programme encounter sinister happenings in a South London borough as they investigate the urban myth of The Long Lady, a matriarch of malevolence whose morbid glare can cause instant death to those who dare to look upon her. With a Kickstarter announced on April 7th, the game is already well on the way to reaching its critical funding goal, with some of the choicest perks and tiers to ever grace a horror video game. With a tentative release date of 2022, let’s meet the man behind the curtain himself, Jed Shepherd.
Having a curiosity and fondness for film entertainment from an early age, Jed was allowed unfettered access to whatever he wanted to watch as a kid. He fell in love with genre films and low-budget horrors, such as the post-apocalyptic zombie comedy Night of the Comet (Thom Eberhardt, 1984), classic examples of British science fiction and horror fiction from writer Nigel Kneale (Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967, etc) and popular Hollywood franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984) and Friday the 13th (Sean Cunningham, 1980). An avid game-player, Jed was fascinated by the emerging Full-Motion Video (FMV) genre which was proliferating in the early 1990s and frequently played prominent Mega-CD (Sega-CD in North American regions) and PC examples such as Night Trap, Double Switch, Phantasmagoria and The 7th Guest. In his professional life, Jed has written for several impressive horror shorts, such as 2017’s Salt, starring Alice Lowe (of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004) and Prevenge (2016) fame), as well as Multiplex, an as-yet-unreleased short starring Emma Louise Webb. His best-known involvement with the genre thus far is, of course, 2020’s HOST, which became virally popular with audiences all over the world.
Now it seems that his new project Ghosts just might be able to ace his previous endeavour’s unbridled success. Jed is, however, incredibly humble and modest about his success, especially considering the hugely positive response that HOST had within the horror community and beyond. Due to the pandemic’s restrictions, though, Jed hasn’t had time to really consider his newfound fame and instead uses that enthusiasm to fuel an ever-growing list of future projects. That and occasional gaming sessions on his Switch, where he can be found joyfully playing award-winning walking simulator Gone Home, Friday the 13th The Game: Ultimate Slasher Edition (of course) and Taiwan-based horror Detention. He does however avoid Mario Kart… because his friend Emma is just too damn good! Before we delve into Ghosts, let’s have a brief crash course on just what exactly FMV games are.
FMV games rely heavily on pre-recorded video footage to make up the bulk of a game’s visual action and content. While games over time have integrated FMVs or pre-rendered cutscenes for narrative purposes, FMVs are distinct in that this storytelling style is almost exclusively through the use of footage, even during gameplay. While technically the genre had origins in the early 1980s, with arcade classics Dragon’s Lair and Astron Belt making use of Laserdisc technology to present high-quality filmed footage and animations, the limitations of gameplay and high maintenance costs led to the genre falling out of popularity relatively quickly.
It was in the early 1990s when FMV would really become a popular subgenre, when PCs and other game consoles turned to the versatile CD-ROM to store games on, leading to a massive increase in memory capacity and graphical capabilities. While the budgets and resources were yet to rival those of their cinematic or television companions, FMV games began to create wholly original experiences for gamers who were more used to other contemporaneous trends. 1992’s Night Trap focused on the efforts of a special agent who is keeping a close watch on a group of teenage girls via surveillance cameras in a house, trapping and ejecting any vampiric monsters who gain access to the property. While the gameplay was limited and oftentimes very difficult, the B-movie acting and themes of rescuing helpless girls from monsters led the game into controversy from censorious politicians who believed the gameplay involved purposely killing women.
1993’s The 7th Guest also made waves with its surplus of pre-rendered graphics, filmed clips and a surprisingly mature story with adult themes. Released at the same time as the groundbreaking Myst, The 7th Guest popularised the integration of CD-ROMs within the gaming world. Similar to both games, 1995’s Phantasmagoria also caused controversy for its violent and sexualised content but has been subsequently lauded for its impressive technological achievements, released on seven CD-ROMs in total. As we ushered in the late ‘90s, FMV usage began to fizzle out, with notable examples including 1998’s The X-Files Game, featuring both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson from the TV show, as well as Hideo Kojima’s Policenauts, which used a great deal of traditional cel animation.
While the genre is generally considered ‘dead’ by today’s standards, certain British entities have published several notable examples in the past few years: writer Sam Barlow (of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories) released 2015’s Her Story, featuring the investigation of a woman’s disappearance by examining files and archive footage at the player’s behest in an attempt to solve the vanishing. A spiritual sequel, Telling Lies, followed in 2019, with all the action set on the player character’s desktop computer as they rifle through video interviews to determine which person is lying in an FBI investigation. Wales Interactive also frequently dabble in the genre with a series of interactive taught thrillers including Late Shift, The Bunker and Don’t Knock Twice, the latter of which integrates VR technology. Lastly, there is the experimental At Dead of Night, which integrates live-action sequences with 3D graphics to depict a terrifying exploration of a hotel with a ceaselessly homicidal owner. Jed Shepherd’s new project seems to be emerging at the most opportune time for the genre, with the potential to revitalise and even reinvent this time-honoured formula.
In the vein of his favourite entries in the FMV world, Jed explains that Ghosts is also likely to stir controversy with its revolutionary ‘real-time’ format, which locks players into only being able to play the game properly at 10pm local time. While this decision is divisive, to say the least, it also somewhat mimics the discomfort and uneasiness that players would have experienced when the FMV sensation started to emerge, wary of the new technology’s capability. In an era of instant streaming and digital television services, being locked into a specific time, much like the days of limited terrestrial TV, automatically puts the players in a precarious position. Jed hopes however that this move will pay off, simply because of how new and potentially groundbreaking the concept may be. Similar to the days of yore when the whole country was watching the same TV programme at the same time, Ghosts could indeed force a new type of gaming community who all tackle the challenge simultaneously and furiously regale each other with their failures and successes of the evening.
While he admits that his life is exponentially hectic but tons of fun at the same time, Jed explains that the biggest driving force behind Ghosts is to make the experience as genuinely terrifying as possible, hoping to achieve the accolade of ‘scariest game you will ever play.’ As much as his fondness for the past lies in examples like Night Trap and 7th Guest, he doesn’t consider those examples conventionally scary and hopes that with his new title, he may finally inject some proper horror and terror into proceedings.
When asked to break down what Ghosts is about, the gameplay essentially boils down to the player’s role as a TV producer, who’s looking after the backstage pyrotechnics, editing and machinations of a live supernatural-themed TV show. With a charismatic group of ghost-hunting presenters (played by Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Caroline Ward and Radina Drandova of HOST fame), the player assumes an unholy amount of responsibility: not only is there the main cast’s safety to prioritise but also managing the TV show, selecting and editing the footage to display to the audience, assembling a reel of adverts and film trailers during the commercial break, sending out people for help, interacting with neighbours, and ensuring as that you don’t die yourself in the reporting van outside.
If you thought Five Nights at Freddy’s was stressful, at least there the player only had to check a camera and flip one of two switches. Not only does the player in Ghosts have unprecedented freedom of control in the game, but there are consequences to almost every action (or inaction). Taking too long to make a decision can cost someone’s life, and conversely, taking little action or no action at all means the game can potentially cut the gameplay session short. Along with the fact that the entire experience is considered ‘live’, Jed aims to make Ghosts ‘the most realistic interactive game’ you can possibly play. The fact that this concept is untested and unknown only makes the game’s potential more exciting, with a chance to introduce a paradigm shift in the genre.
As a gamer myself, the premise of the game seems to incorporate some of the more novel ideas and concepts of survival horror games from the sixth generation of consoles onwards, such as the merciless antagonist of Slender: The Eight Pages, the heavy choice-driven panic of Michigan: Report From Hell, the TV crew getting in way too deep from Siren: Blood Curse and more recently, the frantic ghost-hunting collaborative gameplay of Phasmophobia. Jed himself takes inspiration from the aforementioned Nigel Kneale, a British writer of very high regard who was responsible for creating the Quatermass franchise, the TV adaptation of The Woman in Black, TV show Beasts and even the original script for Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Apart from his aforementioned FMV title, Jed also considers the rare Gameboy Advance title Boktai to be an odd tangential inspiration, mostly because of its interesting usage of a solar panel on the cartridge, which offers the player an advantage over the game’s antagonistic vampiric enemies during the daytime.
No doubt the ‘real-time’ idea is the result of this design choice, though some hardcore gamers need not be too disheartened at the rigid time restrictions, especially as Jed reveals that there is in fact some functionality before 10pm. He won’t reveal explicitly what this does, only that it is rewarded by experimenting and persistence. Another vital inspiration for the game is Stephen Volk‘s mockumentary horror Ghostwatch (Lesley Manning, 1992), which tricked many viewers on its first (and only) broadcast that a legitimate supernatural event was unfolding on live television, blending simulated effects and scripted scenes with real footage and live performance. Ghostwatch is one of Jed’s most treasured inspirations, as he continually likes to blur the lines between reality and fiction in all of his work thus far, leading his actors to use their real name in both HOST and Ghosts alike.
Apart from Jed, several high-profile professionals are also working on the game’s highly anticipated release, not the least of which is the publisher Limited Run Games, who specialise in porting digital-only games for limited-time physical releases with a whole host of collector’s editions, extras and goodies for discerning connoisseurs of physical media. Due to their handling of previous iterations of FMV titles, such as the aforementioned Night Trap and Double Switch (which starred child actor Corey Haim), Jed was eager to bring the company on board with the release – fortunately, he received a resounding, ‘Yes!’
While the game will release primarily in a digital format, those who contribute to the game’s Kickstarter can also net themselves a physical copy on either Nintendo Switch or PlayStation 4 by pledging at the appropriate tier level. In terms of his personal preference, Jed vouches for the Nintendo Switch as his preferred medium for experiencing Ghosts, due to its versatile handheld nature and his intention to provoke visceral reactions to the game’s sequences. Since it will likely be dark when players start the game at 10pm, Jed also hopes that some players will opt to play the game in bed, hoping to invade the sanctity and safety of bedsheets with carefully calculated scares. Compared to some modern FMV experiences, the ability to scare players is hampered by a lack of immersion, which Jed hopes to tackle with the new format that Ghosts will embrace and his talent as a dedicated horror writer as opposed to money-making game producers which dominate the AAA gaming market.
Other huge names involved in production are Graham Humphreys, the legendary graphic artist responsible for some of the horror world’s most iconic imagery, including the posters for Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead II (1987) and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street series to name a few. Humphreys will be working on the as-yet unrevealed artwork for the game’s physical release, though the placeholder poster is already infused with classic aesthetics by reusing the font for John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). The game’s ambiguous and enigmatic antagonist (the Long Lady) is being created by Canadian artist Trevor Henderson, the man responsible for birthing the ‘creepypasta’ phenomenon, Siren Head.
Finally, the Long Lady will be realised on film by the uber-talented world-famous Jim Henson Creature Shop, chosen by Jed for their stellar work on The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson, Frank Oz, 1982), Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986), The Witches (Nicholas Roeg, 1990) and many others. Jed’s philosophy in choosing these individuals was nothing more than pondering about who he considered the best in their field and simply asking them. He’s happy to report that their responses were both positive and enthusiastic about the project, only adding more excitement to an already highly-anticipated gaming release.
While the cast of HOST are returning, Jed surmises that it is in fact the game’s antagonist The Long Lady who will take centre stage in the game’s reaction, on par with that of Capcom’s Countess Dimitrescu from the upcoming game Resident Evil: Village. With the involvement of Trevor Henderson and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, Jed is incredibly eager to cement The Long Lady into the canon of memorable villains, alongside stalwarts like Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. When asked about The Long Lady’s story, he tells the tale of the urban legend of her, appearing in times of great tragedy and frequently spotted in a particular street in a South London borough. Her appearance is that of an extremely tall, emaciated and near-atrophied feminine humanoid, with a featureless smock and dishevelled, scraggy hair hiding a sinister face. Her height is such that her gaze aligns quite naturally with the upper windows of houses and almost like a malevolent BFG, she spends the night walking the streets and peering into windows to catch a glimpse of the occupants. The word on the street is that to look upon her gaze is to suffer instant death.
She takes inspiration from some Japanese fiction according to Jed, with clear influence from prominent works such as Sadako from Ring (Koji Suzuki, 1991), the works of Junji Ito and the Tecmo survival horror game franchise Project Zero (Fatal Frame in some regions). She also seems to be a perfect synergy of classic literary horror figures like Nosferatu, Dracula and Mircalla melded with contemporary urban folklore such as Slender Man and the WhatsApp menace MoMo. In an even more exciting venture, Jed wishes to take The Long Lady into other mediums that go beyond video games, so it seems that Ghosts may not be her only appearance. In addition, Jed wishes to continue with video games, though initially just wanted to break into the medium after receiving major offers from Blumhouse Productions and projects with Sam Raimi. While we both discussed our mutual ambivalence towards making IPs into a franchise, I teasingly asked whether The Long Lady would become part of a ‘Jed Shepherd Extended Universe’ along with Jack from HOST. A smiling Jed replies, ‘No comment.’
Making such an ambitious game project, though, requires a serious amount of money, hence the Kickstarter campaign which went live at the beginning of April. With an end date of May 7th, the Kickstarter aims to raise the required funds of £165,000 to greenlight the project for an eventual 2022 release date. As of the 20th of April however, they are already funded around £85,000 so progress is staggering considering the announcement was only around a week ago. While some of the pledge rewards are embargoed for the time being due to a desire to keep some surprises back, there is still a great deal of content up for grabs. Donors can expect to glean either digital copies of the game or an aforementioned physical copy on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and PC with further tiers granting Fright Rags T-Shirts; copies personally autographed by Jed Shepherd; a Collector’s Edition including an acrylic statuette of The Long Lady; an authentic Polaroid from the set production; retro VHS clamshells to keep the game in, and a special ‘making-of ‘Blu-ray.
Those backers with deeper pockets can unlock a wealth of amazing rewards at the higher tiers, including a personalised jumpsuit from the production; starring in the game as a voice and an image; a personalised Zoom call with Jed Shepherd, and a Zoom call with the stars of the shows (Jemma, Haley, Radina, Caroline and Emma). Now’s the time to get your hands on a copy of this highly-anticipated video game and support Jed and the team’s latest endeavour. To find out more and contribute to this unique new vision of FMV gaming, click the image below…