Interview with David Fox
“On the train from Venice to Cervignano del Friuli”
Recorded Friday, September 21st, 2018
Original airdate October 14, 2018
Transcribed by Sushi
(Annie): We’re here today to interview David Fox in honor of the 30th anniversary of his groundbreaking game Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders.
David would you like to do a sequel to Zak McKracken? Or do you think that the story is told? [user: @someone]
(David): I have been asked this question a few times. I like Zak, I like the premise and we find it to be involved in a sequel - having just done Thimbleweed Park, I know how much work it takes to do that- so… kind of a mix yes/no. I don’t feel the passion right now to justify diving into a three-year project, but if it were happening and someone licensed it, I would for sure want to be on board because I wouldn’t want someone else messing with my characters in the story.
Although there are all those fan-based sequels that were created that I never watched because in case there ever was a sequel, I don’t want to be influenced by those. I welcome those, but I probably won’t participate.
(Annie): OK, that was a really good answer. Another question here: Would you like to do a remake or a modern version of any of the “older” games that you’ve done like Rescue on Fractalus? [User: @someone]
(David): Well, in 2007 myself and some friends were trying to get the rights to do Rescue on Fractalus from Lucasarts and we were in negotiations and they said that yes, we could do it and we were just about ready to go into the legal part of it, when the president of Lucasarts who was pushing this and who really was supportive of the old titles, got… Well he got fired or he left the company, but there was a change in management and the new guy just wanted to focus on Star Wars. So it didn’t happen, but that would have been really fun to do that.
(Annie): It’s important to do fun things when you work, don’t you think? [laughs]
Okay, so here’s a question from a user who wants to know what we can expect next from you in the area of game development. Are you planning to develop a new game at this point? [user: @someone]
(David): I don’t have any plans right now. I am doing some work with Gary Winnick on a spec project that we’re experimenting with, that I don’t know if it’ll turn into something real and I am still really intrigued with doing something in the area of virtual reality or augmented reality but I’m not planning on starting my own project on that at this point. That could change. Or more likely, I would probably act as a consultant or a designer on a team with other people. I don’t know if I want to take a lead on a project right now.
(Annie): Okay, next question! I know that you love story and that’s an important part of any game. @someone wants to know if you can imagine doing another adventure game not based on any of your sequels or are you more interested in developing games in other genres?
(David): OK, well that kinda relates to the question I just answered. I am curious how an adventure game in virtual reality might look. Something that’s maybe equivalent to an escape room but were it was with a complete story, rather than just in one room and trying to escape, so it didn’t feel claustrophobic. And I’ve also done some stuff -it was like 10 years ago- through Disney, where we were doing designs for theme park overlay games and I did an augmented reality game in a theme park using the background of the theme park as the location. Imagine like Harry Potter World where you had some overlay games where you were wearing augmented reality so you could see things that none of the other people could see, magical things like spells and…
I don’t think we are there yet in terms of technology but that would be really fun to work on.
(Annie): I love this question: @someone wants to know how you came up with the story of Zak, especially this person is intrigued by the Caponians and the telephone hum.
(David): I don’t remember. I remember the brainstorming session with David Spangler where I was there for two days and David [Spangler] was the guy who was spiritualist, he knew a lot of stories over the years about New Age stuff. He’s the one who told me that 1997 would be the 50th anniversary of the first sighting of a UFO at Mt. Rainier, which is why Mt. Rainier is one of the locations in the game. So it’s probably why the game was put in the future, because the first sighting was in 1947, so we’ve made the game in 1988 and put it 10 years in the future: 1997.
I think I left with David with a bunch of location ideas, a bunch of concepts of things that we might be able to work into the game like mindlinking, teleportation, … But I went back and just dove into it for three months just to work out the design, the game and the story. So I was pretty much on my own without much support from anyone.
Maybe we talked about the bad aliens and I always disliked the hum noise. Whenever I hear a 60 Hertz, 60-cycle hum on sound, it always really irritated me, so I think that’s were the idea came that they were using that to drive people crazy and make them really stupid. So that came from experience, although I didn’t feel like I was becoming more stupid.
The idea of the good aliens probably came from the idea that there were good aliens on this planet thousands or hundreds of thousands years ago and they left things for us to discover. I like that feeling that we’re not here alone, that we have smarter, more advanced races that are kind of shepherding us towards enlightment, to better civilization on some level. So that all got kind of meshed into it.
(Time = 7:25)
(Annie): Can you tell us about a strange source of inspiration for one of your puzzles? And this comes from the user @tasse-tee.
(David): I don’t know if remember that either. I think there is often… When you’re doing a puzzle sequence, you know what the last part would be. For example -SPOILER ALERT- the puzzle with the bird and you’ve got to find a way to attract the bird, give the bird some breadcrumbs, that relate back to finding bread somewhere and turning them into crumbs. And so it’s kind of like a reverse idea like try to find something unique and for me the idea of using the garbage disposal, it wasn’t … I didn’t put it in the game [for that purpose]. I put it in the game before this idea that could have one… I know this is not common in Europe, but in the United States most people have garbage disposal in their kitchen sink to grind up stuff. So I did not know at the time I designed that that would be confusing to more people, but well… If I knew, I would have had Zak explain more about what it was, probably.
But I just like that puzzle, because it was like using something for a use that wasn’t intended for. So the idea of having essentially an ?creasonard?? built into your sink that turned really really hard bread that you couldn’t grind up any other way into crumbs.
(Annie): You have mentioned in the past how difficult it was to make the airplane scene in Zak McKracken. Could you please share what problems you encountered? And this comes from a user called @nihilquest.
(David): I was trying to remember what you might mean by “airplane scene being difficult” or what I was saying if I actually said that. I remember really enjoying doing the whole sequence with the stewardess or the flight attendant becuase I’ve had in the past some really negative experiences with them when they were really abrupt, so this was my revenge on all unkind flight attendants in the universe.
What I do remember is talking about… well, I usually give an example of a sequence that was hard to implement, [which] was the whole interaction with the bus in San Francisco and having to pay for it with the CashCard. It sounds pretty straightforward but I tried to make it very realistic and pretty much for the entire project bugs kept on coming up for things I hadn’t thought about, some combinations. Like if you are out of money, what happens if Annie pay for you/ for Zak, or Zak pays for Annie or if both want to get on the bus at the same time, or if someone pays but they don’t get on the bus in time,… just, way overly complicated. If I were to have done that with today’s knowledge, I would have made it much simpler. Very similar in Thimbleweed Park, I think the equivalent was the elevator where I knew at the time I was implementing the first version of it that this was going to be endlessly troubling… and it turned out to be correct! I tried to make it too close to the real thing and I’m sure that software for real elevators take years to develop and are huge and complicated to make them work really well.
(Time = 11:35)
(Annie): Do you consider the fangame “Zak McKracken: Between Time and Space” as canon? Why or why not? And this came from the user @Sushi
(David): Well, the truth is I have not played any of the fanmade sequels of Zak. Partly because… technically I didn’t have a Windows machine, but also I didn’t want to actually do it because if there ever were to be an official Zak sequel that I were involved in, I didn’t ever want to be accused of plagiarism to someone else’s version of the game. I wanted to be open and have fresh ideas and not have to worry about “Oh no, someone already did that in that fan sequel”. As far as “canon”, since I didn’t play I really can’t say it but… probably not. I mean nothing that didn’t come from me would be canon even if everything were true. It’s someone’s version of that same universe but because it didn’t come from me or from Matthew Kane, then no, I don’t think it would be [canon].
Unless very coincidentally it turned out to be perfect, I don’t know.
(Annie): How many takes did you have to do for your voice lines in Thimbleweed Park? And this comes from the user @Guga.
(David): Well, we didn’t do the voice recordings the three of us in the studio, we did it the same way we did our podcasts, which meant that technically they weren’t that clean. I have a good microphone, I think Ron’s is OK or maybe his is pretty good too. Gary did not have a good microphone, and we all had some background noise in our offices, so there was that issue. But we are not actors and it just took… I don’t know, I think we did it… maybe a dozen times, six to twelve times for each line until we got ones that Ron was somewhat happy with. Then I actually took those and tried to clean the audio myself and chose the best one of a group and still in the game I cringe when I hear any of us speaking those lines, as we know how to play ourselves in real life, but sure we don’t know how to do it in a game, we sound very stiff.
(Time = 14:05)
(Annie): Here’s a question from user… @someone! Zak has many dead ends - and some of them are obvious like running out of money. How was the testing process of a game at that time and Zak in particular? Did developers and players accept such dead ends (the Sierra games had them too) or were they an issue back then?
(David): Dead ends were a game design feature in the same way that mazes were. The assumption is that if you picture the entire game as a maze, then if you were to walk down a maze and find out that you took the wrong path you’d have to start over and go back and do it again, which extends playtime and we assumed that a user would have… maybe 30 to 40 hours was kind of the goal in terms of playing time.
We don’t want to do it with unnecessary deaths, that was something we weren’t doing in the game. And if it was telegraphic - you jump out of an airplane without a parachute… you probably deserve to die.
Erm… [Annie laughs]
So we figured if someone was actually doing that in a game, then they should expect you… they probably do it to see what would happen. They’re curious about it and they wouldn’t be surprised. Likewise if you jump out of the airplane with a parachute but you don’t have all the things you need, then you’re probably gonna die that way too.
So there are dead ends that we didn’t expect. It would have been nice for the game to be aware that you were in a dead end and give you the option of starting over again rather than giving up because… you know, for example if you were in the water and didn’t have a kazoo or you didn’t know how to mindlink yet, I don’t think there’s any other way… Oh! there were a couple of ways to escape from that 1 but it would have been good to have a check in each dead end to know that you were in a dead end so you have the option of quitting and restarting or go to a saved game. That’s one thing I would have wished. In today’s games, when we did Thimbleweed Park, we made sure they’re were no dead ends and made sure the testers would playtest specifically for that. In Zak we weren’t testing for that as much, we were more testing for crash bugs or things that were not acting as they should be.
So short answer: dead ends were good back then but I wish we were more aware of whether you were in one or not.
(Annie): Okay, last question here, and this is from a user named @milanfahrnholz. What is your current stance on New Age topics?
(David): Current stance: they’re good! [laughs] I’m not actively doing a whole lot in that area. I feel like everything I believed thirty years ago I still believe, it just has been integrated in my life to the point where I don’t think about it much more than I think about breathing. It’s just part of me, part of my life with my wife and kids, it’s the way I view the universe and the world and I am all for it. I am not doing any specific practices - like I don’t do a lot of meditation or anything formally.
So if you want to check it out, feel free, I think there’s some really good information there and something that affected the way that I view the world and my life.
(Zak): OK, thank you very much for this interview! Bye bye!
(Annie): Bye bye!
(Arto): Bye bye!