Ghost Master Preview

It's like The Sims with ghosts. Read up on this interesting strategy game that involves killing the undead.

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On a shelf behind Gregg Barnett's desk, there's a small library of ghost-related materials. There are books about haunted houses and paranormal investigators. There are DVDs and videotapes, both documentaries about supposedly haunted places and films about ghosts and hauntings (including both Ghost and The Haunting). One DVD is particularly appropriate--a copy of Peter Jackson's The Frighteners, which is about a charlatan exorcist who has his ghostly friends haunt houses and then charges the homeowners for removing the ghosts.

Ghosts can draw upon a variety of powers, such as making a room colder.
Ghosts can draw upon a variety of powers, such as making a room colder.

Barnett is the creative director for Ghost Master, a strategy game that will take this concept one step further--imagine a hybrid of The Frighteners and The Sims. You control a team of ghosts, and you must send them into various locales to scare off the inhabitants or would-be interlopers. "We wanted to do a game that was the opposite of what people expect," Barnett explained. "There have been lots of games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill where you go in and get scared. We wanted to make a game where you choreograph the scares."

It's a clever premise, and it promises to be more than just a good idea. There's a good deal of variety both in what you can do and what you need to do, and each of your ghosts has special powers and abilities to help you achieve your goals. In the most basic scenarios, such as the sorority house that serves as the first level, you'll simply need to scare everybody away. This isn't just a matter of plunking down some specters and watching them work. There are different types of ghosts, and each one has very specific uses.

For instance, the gremlin can be placed only on mechanical objects. Once placed, the gremlin can cause the object to malfunction in ways that will unsettle the local humans. Headless horsemen can be placed only on roads. Others have more bizarre requirements. Sandmen can be placed near slumbering humans and go into their psyche to find out what scares them, while poltergeists can only bind to children. There will be 23 types of ghosts, and each one--from banshees to ghasts to trickster spirits--is based on the mythology and paranormal theories of different cultures.

Once placed, the ghosts can begin using their powers. There will be 150 powers in all. Ghosts can cause the temperature in rooms to drop to near freezing or cause blood to flow from the walls. They can cause hordes of insects to scurry across the floor or cause objects to fly about the room. One power--called "unnatural erection"--allows spirits to stack objects in little paranormal pillars. Your spirits can even trigger earthquakes.

There are other, more direct, powers as well.
There are other, more direct, powers as well.

Once you start scaring, you can watch as the humans react. "You can actually go into the point of view of the ghosts and the humans," Bartlett explained. "So once you set up the scares, you can actually go into the heads of the people and experience them firsthand, hear their hearts pounding."

Ghost Master will attempt to emulate some realistic human behavior, making it follow the recent trend seen in games like Black & White and The Sims and become yet another game that owes a debt of thanks to David Crane's nearly 20-year-old Little Computer People. The humans of Ghost Master will go about their business--watching television, doing their jobs, and talking with each other--until you come in and get to haunting. Then they'll react to your actions. Make a room cold, and they'll start a fire. Make a wall leak water, and they'll try to fix it. "We aren't going for realism," Barnett said. "More like pantomime realism. You might use a power where characters are set on fire, or at least they think they're on fire, and they'll go and jump in the shower or someone will grab an extinguisher."

Smells Like Teen Spirits

There are four sensations that will affect humans: temperature, sound, sight, and smell. Like the humans, your ghosts will act on their own. If you place a spirit and leave it alone, it will get to work scaring the nearby people. You will also be able to give your ghosts very specific orders, specifying when to use certain powers, and on whom.

You'll learn the ropes by terrifying some sorority girls.
You'll learn the ropes by terrifying some sorority girls.

As the humans become more and more frightened, you will gain ectoplasm, the "resource" in Ghost Master. You need ectoplasm to activate powers, so you'll need to do a fair amount of scaring to access the more significant powers. Eventually, the people affected by the ghosts will go insane or flee. Scaring everyone away, though, isn't always your goal.

Ghost Master's premise is a bit more complex than just terrorizing innocent civilians. What's most intriguing about Ghost Master is just how diverse each mission is. For every new location, you will need to use your powers to achieve very different goals--you won't just be facing braver humans or bigger houses. It's a somewhat risky mission structure, but if it works, then Ghost Master will be much better for it.

There will be 20 missions in all, and Ghost Master will present you and your squad of darkness with a wide variety of challenges. Many of the missions specifically reference popular culture, and even your goals will reflect the source. For instance, one mission is a direct reference to Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead. Set in a remote cabin, the mission's goal will be to help three researchers find the Book of the Dead. There's even a witch's ghost in the basement.

This massive building is part mental asylum, part hospital.
This massive building is part mental asylum, part hospital.

Other missions are just as specific in their parody. Field of Nightmares will require you to convince a farmer to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield in order to lay the local spirits to rest. And others just reference cultural icons in name--such as The Unusual Suspects, which takes place in a haunted police station, and Deadfellas, which will require you to haunt a Mafia yacht, complete with ghostly reporters and specters outfitted with cement shoes. Other missions will reference films as diverse as The House on Haunted Hill and Harvey. Explaining a mission that takes place in a mental asylum inhabited by a mad scientist experimenting on ghosts, Bartlett laughed: "It starts getting really weird and B-movie-like as you go along."

Most locations are already haunted, and missions will often require you to drive the local spirits away or help to lay them to rest. You can, and sometimes must, find ways to set the local spirits free. In the first mission, you'll encounter a ghost whose remains are trapped in a vacuum cleaner. Place a gremlin on the vacuum cleaner and have him break it, and the local spirit will be laid to rest. As you progress, the puzzles for laying local spirits to rest will become more complicated. You must use your powers to cause the humans to do what you want, whether you need them to open a wall, call the police, or simply run into another room.

Who You Gonna Call?

One mission is set in a suburban house that was formerly home to a serial killer, and as such it has all manner of tormented souls trapped in its nooks and crannies. One soul is trapped in a wall, Cask of Amontillado style, while another is trapped in the chimney like a ghostly St. Nick. There are many different ways to set them free, and your course of action will depend on the ghosts and the powers you've chosen to use.

Some of the ghosts are goofy-looking.
Some of the ghosts are goofy-looking.

Laying spirits to rest will often allow you to employ them in later levels. And Ghost Master will reward players who go beyond the basic mission goals. Completing the secondary goals and freeing the optional local spirits will give you both new ghosts and money, and you can use that money to train your spirits between levels, giving them new powers to terrify with.

If it isn't already obvious from the mission descriptions, Ghost Master promises to be somewhat lighthearted despite its morbid subject matter. The music is comically foreboding, more like a Bugs Bunny cartoon than the theme from Halloween. The graphics are equally cartoonish, with ghosts who are mostly goofy looking. In a good way. There's a ghostly cheerleader, as well as a fat blob named Boo who was obviously inspired by Ghostbusters.

There are, however, a few spirits who are fairly creepy, as well as some genuinely disturbing situations. The humorous and gruesome elements may seem incongruous, but judging from our lengthy demo, the blend seems to work nicely, and the game was never too serious or too goofy, instead striking a healthy balance between the two.

The game is also shaping up to look very nice, and some of the locations are really impressive. Many of the buildings are huge, taking up several spacious floors that you can zoom through and around at will. One particularly striking building is a massive Gothic hospital that is part medical, part mental. The lower floors are dominated by clean, white-tiled walls, and they starkly contrast the dingy, frightening interiors on the upper floors. It's not the kind of place you'd want to be alone in.

But for now, you'll have to be content playing Ghost Master alone. While there are plans for a multiplayer expansion in the future, it won't be available when the game is released later in the year. According to Barnett, coming up with a viable multiplayer component for Ghost Master is difficult. "There are design issues with multiplayer," he explained. "You're fighting over resources, which are the scares. Instead of attracting people toward you, you're pushing them away. And you don't want to push them to the other player. So the multiplayer issues are interesting."

Others are much more gruesome.
Others are much more gruesome.

Still, the game should have room to grow. There are plans to make new ghosts and powers available regularly, and the mission structure is tailor-made for expansions, which could be both plentiful and entertaining as long as the designers don't run out of pop-culture parodies.

Ghost Master will undoubtedly draw comparisons to The Sims. It looks similar, and the characters even talk in a gibberish language. But the comparisons are mostly superficial--Ghost Master is much more goal-oriented, and it promises to be much more strategic. If the missions turn out well, Ghost Master could be a great blend of "pantomime realism" and nontraditional strategy. We'll see if it's as good as it looks when it's released in the fall.

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