Interview: From Host to GHOSTS – a new approach to (FMV) videogame horror (part 2)

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 2 of our interview, where we dive deeper into Ghosts and look at horror in videogames. You’ll find part 1 here.

How did the cast react to the idea of doing this?

There’s a level of trust that we have with each other now, so it’s normal for me to go “Hey, want to do this thing with death and monsters and all that?” and they just say okay. With a brand new person, I’d have to explain everything to them, but these girls know me so well that they know it’s going to be interesting and cool because they know I wouldn’t do it unless I was completely excited about it. And they know it’s going to be scary as well, because that’s what I do, so yeah, they’re so excited. And it’s something new for them as well. Jemma’s done voiceovers for games before, but this is the first time she’s acting properly in a game.

There’s no shortage of horror games out there – what are some of your influences?

There’s this Hideo Kojima game from the early 2000s that was released for Gameboy Advance called Boktai – The Sun is in Your Hands, and it’s a game with a solar panel on it where you play a vampire hunter. It encourages you to go outside in the sun and uses sunlight to kill the vampires. Those kinds of concepts in games interest me so much and is why I wanted to something a little bit different with Ghosts.

A recent horror game that I found really cool is Detention, which is set in a Japanese school where you wake up find that everyone in the school is gone. You can’t leave for some reason, and you’re told there are monsters in this school. The sound design is incredible, it’s spooky, and even for me as a seasoned horror fan it’s easy to get freaked out just walking down a dark corridor.

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I’m looking forward to Resident Evil Village, but it’s rare to find horror games that really mess me up. Some horror games that I play Friday the 13th – The Game, Outlast 1 and 2, Limited Run’s FMV games like Night Trap, and Gone Home – which was another influence on Ghosts. Me and the cast and the crew from Host also play Mario Kart 8 on the Switch a lot, which Emma is really good at. I also enjoy LEGO games like Marvel Super Heroes 2 and DC Villains, which are good palette cleansers.

I think VR is probably the future of gaming, and horror games specifically because the more immersed you are in the story, the more scared you can be. But I have watched so many VR games/films, and none of them are quite good to be honest – yet. It’s really hard to do it, and I think a lot of times it’s because they’re written by games companies, not writers. You don’t get satisfying storytelling in those games, and I think if more screenwriters get into writing games for VR you’ll have a better experience – especially with horror. A zombie jumping out of the room at you is kind of lazy, you need to earn that scare for it to work past the moment where you put down the game.

What are your feelings towards the first wave of FMV games in the 90s?

I liked a lot of them. I think the general consensus was that they were not very good, but for me I found interesting things in all of them and I’m actually a really big fan of Night Trap. There’s something about it that draws me into it and I think it was just way ahead of its time. I think the voyeurism of that game is really interesting and if you play it all the way through it’s a really fun ride. I also love Double Switch, with Corey Haim -it’s so bizarre and weird. He’s sitting in front of a bunch of screens telling you what to do, and I really like that fourth wall aspect of it. Phantasmagoria is one of my favorite games as well, because it’s spooky, fun and ingenious. 7th Guest is an absolute classic, and I can still play that now.

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More recently, the only full motion video game that really stuck with me is Her Story. I think it’s genius, and that was one of the reasons I’d love to explore FMV games now because it showed me it’s a great medium to tell stories and have it be a bit spooky as well. I love the idea of simultaneously making films and games and sometimes they cross over into each other. That’s my ultimate dream – to make a film and to make the game with the film and have it be the same team that worked on both.

How about more recent FMV games like The Complex, Erica and Late Shift?

I haven’t played many recent FMV games, because I don’t want them to cloud what I want to do. Because I don’t come from a game creating background, I want to come with my own set of rules and not follow those of others. One example is that I have the thing where you can only play the game at 10pm, where everyone told me “You can’t do that”, but I think it’s the coolest thing ever and when people play it they’ll realize it’s the most exciting, interesting thing ever. I want to make games an event and for this one you have to prepare and be ready. There’s no pauses and you can’t even put it down and go to the toilet unless you’re really quick, because you have a job to do as the producer of this TV show that’s live.

I’m always looking at interesting ways to tell stories and to have the horror be as authentic as possible. Putting people in the mindset that they’re in this horror scenario and not letting them leave is absolutely terrifying and you’ll genuinely think you’re in the game and these girls’ lives are in your hands.

Where is GHOSTS in its development cycle right now?

Everything’s sorted, we just need to shoot the main part of it. The actual game mechanics have mostly been done, so how the game works with the different tangents you can go off into has all been tested. Now I just have to shoot it and then give it to the games company to put it into the game and then I have to make all these trailers and adverts. The concept is that this show Ghosts is on a failing cable channel, and you as a producer have to pick and slot them into the relevant times. So I’ll be doing that throughout the year and it’s going to be fun because they’re not going to be just adverts, they’re going to be intertwined into the plot as well.

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You’re working with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop – what’s that like?

It is literally a dream come true. When I first came up with this idea I just thought I wanted the best people in the world working on this, and even though I didn’t know how I was going to do it I managed it. I’m the biggest Jim Henson fan you can possibly imagine and honestly watch Labyrinth every other day. It’s my film that I put on the background when I’m working and I know it so well that I could recite it from start to finish. I know everything about it, have watched every behind the scenes thing and have read every book about Labyrinth.

So they were the only ones I wanted to go to, because I wanted creatures that were memorable and not only scary and well fabricated but also have personality as well. They’re the only ones who can give creatures personalities, so that’s why I went to them. They’ve never done anything like this before, but luckily they liked me and my ideas so I managed to sell them on it.

The same with Trevor Henderson, who created Sirenhead, a viral creature about which they also put out a game. I got him to design the Long Lady for me, who is the antagonist in Ghosts, and then Jim Henson’s making her. The game artwork is being done by Graham Humphreys, who’s just about the most famous poster maker in the world. He made the Nightmare on Elm Street Poster, Evil Dead, all these classic horror posters – I feel we have an absolute dream team. It’s weird when everything you want kind of happens , and doing it with my friends as well makes it so much better.

Will Ghosts be about the length of a feature movie? Can people solve the mystery together?

It’s longer than feature length, because it’s real time and the premise of the show is that they have to survive the night. I don’t want to say too much, but it’s longer than a film.

Because you play as one producer, it really is a single player game, but if there are two people in the same room, each playing their own game on the Switch, you could have completely different journeys and could share information with each other that could help. So there’s a co-op element to it, but it’s more like a real life co-op, not one within the game. There’s also an element of ARG in it, where stuff in the real world may affect how you play this game, but that’s for people to discover. The legend of the Long Lady will live outside of the game, that’s what I can say.

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An early look at artwork for the game

Will GHOSTS allow for alternate paths on future playthroughs?

Yes, because there’s so much going on. For instance, you can just follow the journey of one of the girls if you wanted to. You wouldn’t get the best experience, but you could just follow what Caroline is doing the whole time, or Emma, or Jemma, that’s up to you. I would play through it five or six times at least, so you know and see what’s happening, and you can try and prevent things from happening as well. So yeah – it’s very replayable. You can go outside of the van and speak to the neighbors, you can interact with the host of the show and there’s stuff weird happening around the producer’s van as well.

During all that, you’ve also got the Long Lady to find out about and keep an eye out for and you’ve got audio files and documents from investigations into the Long Lady from throughout the years. So you’re not just watching the girls and looking after them – you’ve got so much to do, including a TV cable channel where you need to make sure the ratings are up. You’ve got live calls coming in and you’ll probably miss stuff because you have to put the adverts or trailers on since the channel needs money. While that’s playing, stuff could be happening in the house!

It’s going to be a new way of storytelling, especially because of the real time aspect of it, which is something that’s really unusual for people. I want it to be as immersive as possible, where you can do what you want rather than follow pre-determined choices.

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Why did you go with Kickstarter?

I think it’s a good way to gauge the interest level, and also with Kickstarter you get more eyes on it. And again, I don’t have a gaming background and I don’t have an endless supply of money so I need to gauge how interested people are in a brand new FMV game from a guy from outside the games industry. So yeah, it’s my way gauge the interest. We’re projected to do very well, so I’m excited.

What else can we look forward to?

There is a lot, although I can’t give too much away. There’s a Discord element to the Kickstarter though, and you’ll find there’s a lot going on there, including people dissecting the trailer frame by frame. Also, if you’re looking at the social media of everyone involved with it, then that’s going to tie into things as well. It’s going to be a very 4D type of game where there are a lot of factors in play. The game world’s bigger than the game, and from now until February, there’ll be all kinds of stuff. Things you’ve never seen for games before, and I believe some of the stuff we’re going to do near the end of the year will blow people’s minds in terms of the crossover between games, real life and movies.

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