Q&A: John Carpenter on his greatest F.E.A.R.

Maestro of movie horror talks about VU Games' new shooter, Showtime's <i>Masters of Horror</i> series, and his favorite games.

John Carpenter made his name as a horror and action film director with modern-day classics like The Thing, Halloween, and Escape from New York. He's obviously no stranger to horror, but he's no stranger to gaming, either.

Carpenter's currently working on the movie and game Psychopath with Titan Productions, and The Thing was adapted into a game in 2002. Most recently, he signed on to be the spokesman for VU Games' horror-fueled first-person PC shooter F.E.A.R. GameSpot had a chance to steal some time with the director to talk about his latest projects and his take on games as a whole.

GameSpot: How did you get involved with F.E.A.R.?

John Carpenter: I got involved with F.E.A.R. the easiest of possible ways. I was invited down to see the game being played. I had a presentation done for me, then I got to take it and play it myself. And I was immediately hooked. I said, "I want to be your spokesman."

GS: What was it about the game that appealed to you?

JC: The first thing that got me was the graphics. I always approach a game, mainly because of my background as a director, in terms of its graphic look. How does it look? Does it look real? Does it feel real to play? And I thought when I played F.E.A.R. and watched F.E.A.R., "This game has taken a giant step forward in terms of gaming." This is awesome. The freedom of movement, the character movement, the character development onscreen, the graphics, it's just a whole lot of fun.

I got excited about a game years ago called Metal Gear Solid. I thought that was terrific. The director of that game [Hideo Kojima] wrote me a letter and I praised it. Now this is the first game that's come along that I thought was better than that. This game is exceptional.

GS: Is it the cinematic quality of games like F.E.A.R. and Metal Gear Solid that appeals most to you?

JC: F.E.A.R. is as close as I've come to playing a movie. I love cartoon platform games, too. Don't get me wrong. I grew up as a gamer on that kind of stuff and still love playing those kinds of games. But this takes a step forward in terms of a first-person shooter, with an incredible horror element to it. If you've walked down that path before, this takes you there and more.

GS: What's the most important thing to take into account when you're trying to scare someone, whatever the medium?

JC: There are movie techniques. I'm coming from a background as a movie director. Making a film is a different proposition than making a game. We deal in a different language in film than in making a game. But one of the things a director always tries to do is to get their audience to suspend their disbelief and to invest in the movie emotionally. F.E.A.R. does that with a game. To do that, the graphics and the gameplay are the most important things. Their hyperrealism and their fluidity makes you forget about having to deal with the controller and allows you to just start projecting onto the screen. It's just immersive.

GS: You're also doing an episode for Showtime's Masters of Horror TV series. You haven't worked in TV very frequently in the past. What was the appeal of doing this one?

JC: Well, the "masters of horror," we're a bunch of bums who get together and have dinner and commiserate about the movie business. To hear Guillermo del Toro singing Christmas carols to a table nearby was just the height of surrealism and joy. So we kept getting together to talk and one of our members, Mick Garris, had the idea. "Why don't we do a series, guys? Let's put on a show!" So lo and behold, he hoodwinked us into it.

GS: What's the plot of your episode, "Cigarette Burns"?

JC: "Cigarette Burns" is about the search for a legendary film that was made back in the '70s. The title of the film was The Absolute End of the World. When you see this film, not only do you go crazy, you begin to kill people who were with you in the audience.

GS: Good film. What do you take into consideration when you're directing for TV instead of movies?

JC: A TV show has two things going for it. One is that the screen size is infinitely smaller. I shot Masters of Horror in a slightly wider version of a TV image. It's black banded just a little bit on the top and bottom. But it's still essentially a TV image. Things read well in close-up. You have to be aware of that visual limitation of TV. But the biggest aspect of working in television is that you shoot it in a very limited period of time. I had a total of 10 days to shoot my episode of Masters of Horror. That's a lot of work to get done.

GS: There are a lot of differences for the audience: the sound systems, the environments, the prospect of flipping channels. Do you take these things into account when you're directing for TV?

JC: No. What you do is you go ahead and tell the story and you try through the process of directing to get the audience and you carry that audience in your mind. It's an imaginary audience. You have to get the audience to identify and empathize with the characters.

GS: Is storytelling like that still one of the most important aspects to entertaining people in games?

JC: It's one aspect of it, but more than that, the game experience is immediate because you are controlling a character. In F.E.A.R., you are the character. You've already got the audience, the gamer, placed inside a world. So the more convincing the graphics and sound effects and the more fluid the gameplay, the more the immersion into the world takes place. So all of a sudden you're actually in that hallway with those things happening to you.

GS: There have been horror games before. What do you think hasn't quite been done right yet?

JC: Many have been done right completely. The first thing a game needs to be is fun and exciting in and of itself. It doesn't need to be any more than that. One of my favorite games of all time, or one of the most fun to play before F.E.A.R., was Doom 3. That's a lot of fun. I also direct your attention to the Silent Hill series. They did that right.

GS: Is there room to push the horror genre further into games?

JC: I think there's always room as long as you have a good idea. Nowadays it's called intellectual property, but in the old days, the old school used to call it ideas and stories. If that's good and sound, as far as the technology will let you go, that's where you go.

GS: You've dabbled with games for a while now between Vivendi Universal's The Thing game and you're working on Psychopath with Titan Productions. What got you into games in the first place?

JC: My son. When my son was very young, he and I started playing video games together. He was from a different generation and picked up the control aspects of it much more quickly than I did. As a member of the old school, I had to struggle a lot harder.

GS: What was the first game you got into?

JC: I remember the excitement and joy when I played the first Sonic game, Sonic the Hedgehog. I was totally immersed in that game.

GS: In your movies you've worked in a lot of different roles: director, composer, and you've thrown yourself into a few of them as an actor. With game development, are there any other roles you're looking to try your hand at?

JC: At the moment I'm just happy to be alive. It depends on the situation and my involvement in a project. I will never say "never."

GS: Psychopath is going to be both a game and a movie. Are you making the movie and turning it into a game or making the game and turning it into a movie?

JC: It's going to be a game first.

GS: What difficulties come up when you take a game and make a movie out of it?

JC: Really, it's just two different mediums. Once you're aware of that, you give each medium the love and attention that it needs. But there are different rules for each medium. They're vastly different. They are bound together by the fact that you're watching something on a screen, but other than that, they're very different. The form, the language, the approach... Movies are much different than games. Games are much different than movies. But each is an art form when it's done right.

GS: Do people generally understand how different movies and games are?

JC: Yes and no. They really don't. People assume that they're all the same, and you'd be surprised how many adults, at least at my age, have no idea how to play a game.

GS: Is it a mistake when people say about games, "We could make this into the movie industry," "We could be as big as movies," or "We could make this game more cinematic"?

JC: I don't think that's a mistake at all. I think that's a positive. It's like any art form; you borrow. You borrow concepts from each other. Movies have borrowed from painting. Cinematographers will tell you that except for real life, their inspiration has been a lot of old masters' paintings, how the light falls on something. It's all about visuals and how you perceive things. All the visual arts have that in common.

GS: Any chance of a They Live video game?

JC: I would love to do that. Wouldn't that be fun?

GS: Thanks for the time.

JC: Not a problem.

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