Interview: From Host to GHOSTS – a new approach to (FMV) videogame horror (part 1)

Jed Shepherd, co-writer of the runaway 2020 horror sensation HOST, is dipping his toes into videogames. Bringing live action video to a real time horror concept, he’s looking to change the way we think about Full Motion Video (FMV) games while also helping us sleep a little less at night. Ghosts is currently on Kickstarter and set to come out on all major platforms through Limited Run Games early next year. It will star all five girls from Host, with a stellar supporting crew attached as well. We spoke to Jed about the creation of Host, transitioning to videogaming and his views on horror films and videogames. Here’s part 1 of our interview, looking back at Host and the first steps towards making a new kind of FMV game with Ghosts. You can also find Part 2 here.

Host felt like the right horror movie at the right time. How did it come about?

When the lockdown started in the UK back in March of 2020, me and Host director Rob Savage were about to do a movie with Sam Raimi. Things got stopped because of lockdown, so we were a little frustrated and in a little bit of a rut about what to do…

About six weeks into the UK lockdown, Rob had an idea to prank our friends with this two minute prank video he did. I was in on it, and he called all of our friends into a Zoom call. He pretended there was something in his attic, and went up there. Something jumps out, he falls down the ladder and he “dies”. Everyone believed it in our friendship group, and on that Zoom call were the five girls from Host, me, and a few other people.

Once we put that out there, weirdly, it got 17 million views in a couple of days, and we were thinking “Wow, this is crazy”. So we had people asking us “Where’s the feature?” and “Are you going to make a feature of this?”. So ultimately we said “Yes, of course, we planned this the whole time” and then we had to quickly think up how to make a feature length version of this Zoom call. So Rob calls me and says “Do you have any ideas?” and I said “No, but let me sleep on it”. I didn’t sleep on it, because I was up until 4.30 in the morning and then it just came to me in a moment of revelation when I texted him two words, and those two words were “Zoom seance”.

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So I fall asleep, and when I woke up five hours later Rob was like “That’s the one, I’m going to pitch us around right now”. He pitched it to a bunch of people, and everyone wanted it, but the streaming service Shudder were the only ones who could really see it for what it was – that it needed to be released within lockdown. We knew we had 12 weeks until lockdown ended on August 1st according to what Boris Johnson said, so we knew we had to be out July 30th. And we just set about making it from that point on.

For a movie born out of circumstance to do so well must have been quite the experience…..

I’m still coming to terms with it, to be honest. It doesn’t feel real to me yet, because we’ve all been indoors and haven’t been to any of the usual networking meetings where you speak to people. All the praise we’ve gotten has been virtual, so it’s been difficult to gauge how big it is. It’s interesting when we get comments from people in Russia and Latin America, because it was released in cinemas worldwide after it was on Shudder and on Netflix in some countries as well. Forbes magazine called it the “genre phenomenon of 2020” but it’s hard for me to digest it and to understand what we made.

Moving away from HOST for a moment – what are some of your personal all-time favorite horror movies?

I wake up every day and my first thought is horror and what horror movies I’m gonna watch. I’m beyond obsessed with horror movies and I have been since I was a kid. My favorite horror movie of all time – in fact my favorite movie of all time – is a 1984 film called Night of the Comet. A lot of people haven’t seen it, but it is great. It’s about these two sisters in a situation where the world’s basically ended. A comet passed over and killed everybody, and these two girls do what everybody would do in a situation like that. They go to the mall, they steal things, and they dance around to “Girls just wanna have fun”. And I always thought that’s what I would do in a post-apocalyptic situation. I wouldn’t go out there searching for zombies and fighting them, I would go straight to the mall, steal stuff and dance around. So when I first saw that movie, I thought, “This is my aesthetic”.

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A bit scarier, I love Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg and Quatermass and the Pit by Niger Kneale, and I love all the gory, shlucky 1980s movies. Nightmare on Elm Street for example, specifically the first and third one. Sam Raimi’s my hero and favorite director, so obviously the Evil Dead movies are a big influence on me too, especially Evil Dead 2. So there’s lots of horror films that have influenced me, and you can kind of see that in Host as well. I’d also love to do a comedy horror with VFX and lots of gory stuff – I’d absolutely love to.

When did you start working on the story concept for GHOSTS?

As soon as I came up with the decision to do a videogame, I started writing it, and the story’s always evolving as well. We’re shooting the majority of it in June, and then little bits throughout the rest of the year. The story’s done, the mythology is all sorted, but what I’m most excited for is letting the cast play around and improv slightly on their characters as well, like we did with Host. It feels more authentic when the words coming out of their mouths are from their own brain as well, and I’m a big fan of letting the actors work things out together and have real interactions rather than forced ones.

Any other links between GHOSTS and HOST beyond the similarity in the title and the cast/crew?

I know it’s got the word ‘Host’ in it, but the title is a complete coincidence. I actually worked with all five girls before Host as well on a short called Multiplex that hardly anyone’s seen because I haven’t put it online, but it’s been at festivals. So this is the third time I’m working with them, but no, there’s absolutely no connection to Host whatsoever. It’s a completely separate world, even though the cast is using their own names again – but that’s just something I like to do. They’re going to be doing things a lot different than they did in Host, and the tone of this is very different from Host as well. I know a lot of people just want us to do Host 2, but that’s never going to happen. It’ll never be the same, so this is just completely separate.

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For many outside Visible Games, this will be the first videogame you’re working on. How different is that process?

It’s not that different at the moment, because I’m not the one who’s going to be programming all the gaming elements – Visible Games is going to be gamifying it. The process for me is just getting the girls onto the set, them following the script, shooting it, editing it, doing all of that, and then I have to give that footage to Visible to put it into the structure of the game. At the moment it’s very similar and I’m treating it like a film, but it’s almost like I’m doing eight films at once because of all the different tangents and things you have to think about and film. It’s fun and exciting and I’m treating it like a new experience and to me with something I’ve not done before.

What’s fun is that when you write anything, there’s always points in the story where you think “Shall the characters do this, this or this?” and when it’s a film you pick one of those options, whereas here I can do all those options. It’s a really fun way to explore all the different ideas you have for a particular story. It’s a bit like those Fighting Fantasy stories where you could choose your own adventure, for which there were some horror ones that I loved.

And just getting to do this with my friend is so much fun. I don’t think a lot of people get to work with their friends as much as I do, so I’m trying to keep it going for as long as possible, because why break up the dream team? Limited Run Games is putting it out on all formats, and I’ve got a good team together. And the crew is pretty much the exact same team that worked on Host. I want to keep making games after this as well, now that I’ve worked out the infrastructure.

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