It’s easy to forget that “tactical espionage action” is a relatively recent innovation in the videogame medium, with trailblazers like Metal Gear Solid and Syphon Filter emerging in the late ’90s to great acclaim and even greater influence.
A more realistic, open-ended philosophy towards combat soon spread through the action genre, permanently impacting the development of artificial intelligence, level design, and narrative – ultimately paving the way for everything from Sly Cooper to Assassin’s Creed.
Syphon Filter veered closer to the action-adventure end of this spectrum, though it too left a distinct mark on the genre with its more realistic approach to combat. Enemies ducked for cover behind objects, an array of memorable gadgets gave players more combat choice, and headshots dropped most combatants instantly.
Syphon Filter’s high-stakes story was also a sign of things to come in videogame design, merging contemporary themes (programmable viruses, shadowy terrorist networks) with a globe-trotting super spy in protagonist Gabe Logan.
What was the original base concept for the game? Was it in any way a response to Metal Gear Solid, or did the idea develop in a relative vacuum?
John Garvin: Metal Gear Solid actually had nothing to do with the genesis of Syphon Filter. We had been in development for quite a while before we had even heard of it. The idea originally came from a producer at Sony’s [then] 989 Studios who had written a one page synopsis that he called “Syphon Filter” which had zero meaning, i.e. there was no plot, no character, and no story, just an idea for settings, mechanics and gameplay.
From the beginning it was to be a “stealth action” game – in the days before there was such a genre – that focused heavily on weapons, gadgets and stealth. Our goal was to make the player feel like a super spy. Our lead designer back then was pretty heavily influenced by Nintendo’s GoldenEye, which was probably the closest you could come to finding a game like Syphon in those days.
Did you know you were working on something special? What were your creative conditions as you worked on it – uncertainty, confidence, terror?
John Garvin: Mostly terror. It was a hard project in terms of development, for a lot of reasons. There were no, or few, games that we could draw on for inspiration. Most of the team had zero experience making this kind of game. The guys at Eidetic had just made Bubsy 3D, so they had some experience with doing a third-person action game, but Bubsy was a cartoon platformer so it wasn’t much help.
I was brought on after the first Syphon Filter prototype was underway (a simple shooting segment in a subway), but my experience to that point was directing strategy games like MissionForce: Cyberstorm and art directing games like Sega CD’s Bouncers. None of us knew anything about making realistic shooters set in a spy world.
The first Syphon Filter went through a few rough patches and came close to being cancelled several times as we missed deadlines, revamped mechanics, swapped levels around, changed the story and generally tried to figure out what the heck we were doing. Our producer at 989, Connie Booth, and her boss Kelly Flock, were great though, showing real faith in this new “spy genre” game. Our team ended up working in crunch mode for about a year as we tried to get the game up to everyone’s standards.
We didn’t know we had something special until after we shipped and sales took off like crazy, surpassing everyone’s expectations. I think we sold over a million units that first year. It was amazing. Player’s seemed to really appreciate doing something new – sneaking around, fighting terrorists while dodging subway cars, shooting a taser halfway down a city block and making a terrorist burst into flame. Things players had never before experienced. This kind of thing may be common now, but back then it was still all pretty new.
Did you draw inspiration from anywhere in particular for the game’s look and feel?
John Garvin: Mostly my own experience. A lot of games these days are going for a dark, gritty, monochromatic look, but the games I remember playing in the late 1990s were all pretty colorful and weren’t all that realistic. Look at screens from Unreal, Turok 2, or Rainbow Six, which were realistic but had a palette that seemed all over the place. I remember being really inspired by Saving Private Ryan – which came out in 1998 I think – and Half Life.
It was an ambitious title for its time. What were the biggest challenges in realising your original vision?
John Garvin: It wasn’t really about realising our original vision, because we were making it up as we went. We knew we wanted a third person action game, and we knew we wanted to deliver on the fantasy of being a super spy. For us that meant even if something was “janky,” we’d do it if it could help sell the fantasy.
For example, our rendered movies were pretty low budget. We didn’t even have articulated fingers. All our characters had “box” hands, but that didn’t stop us from having rendered movies because we had a story we wanted to tell. Our motto was that “bad movies are better than no movies.” Same thing went for gameplay sequences.
We had a set-up where Gabe, the super spy star of the game, had to wear a tuxedo and infiltrate a black-tie event to spy on someone. Today that whole sequence would be very expensive, requiring sets, extras, costumes, and lots of mocap and animation. Back then we just palette-swapped some of our NPCs and did some very low budget animation of them standing around drinking cocktails.
Once the game started, the player could hear a looping sound of the party, but couldn’t actually go back to the room where the party was being held. This kind of thing probably wouldn’t fly today, but we did all sorts of short cuts back then to increase the scope of the experience without worrying about how polished it was. It was all about the game.
How close to your original concept was the finished game?
John Garvin: Again, Syphon Filter just wasn’t developed that way. The original concept of the player becoming a super spy was adhered to pretty closely, but everything else was worked out as we developed. A crazy way to make a game, but a process we made work because our team was only about 13 people.
Here are some examples: when I was brought on board the story for Syphon Filter was all about a group of scientists who had been kidnapped and taken to a huge underground complex where they were being forced to build a time machine by an evil scientist / government. I was hired to be the art director, but I began to offer ways to improve the story to make it more current, more relevant.
The studio directors liked my ideas and midway through development I rewrote the entire thing, coming up with the idea that the word Syphon Filter actually was a code word for a deadly “programmable” virus. None of that stuff was new – science fiction and film had explored ideas like these for years – but it was new to games.
We were shuffling levels around as late as weeks before we shipped in order to help pacing and flow issues. We changed locations and concepts mid-stream: the Girdeux boss fight was originally going to happen in a parking lot near the par, but I remember thinking at the time how hard it was going to be to build all those cars, and the challenge of “fencing” the player’s movement in an open space like a parking lot…and, could our engine even pull it off?
So I went home over the weekend and built the “memorial” room, including downloading and chopping up that huge mural that ringed the wall of the space. It was a pretty big hit and was something we could pull off.
It really wasn’t until the sequel that we had a vision for the game. The entire team was given a week off and the game’s co-creator, Richard Ham, and I were sent off to write up a script for Syphon Filter 2. I think I spent a weekend and wrote the entire screenplay. Rich and I got together and he helped revise the second half of the game, introducing all the Moscow stuff, making the end of the story more espionage-like and exciting. When the team came back, we spent the next year building exactly what we had written. That was the first time that we had a vision up front, which we followed until the end.
Which element of the game are you most proud of?
John Garvin: I’m personally most proud of the story elements. In those days you didn’t see video games dealing with a lot of current topics – bio weapons, terrorism, secret government agencies working outside the law.
Remember this was all pre-9/11. And we were doing some things with characters that you didn’t see often in video games: Teresa Lipan, the brains of the agency, was an American Indian female… Lawrence Mujari, the biologist, was an African American male, Lian Xing, a Chinese female, and so on… we were making a real effort to make the characters as diverse and unsterotypical as possible. We were also attempting to inject a higher level of realism into the game than we’d seen before.
Often in game development – even today – you’ll hear “Who cares? It’s just a game!” That kind of thinking really bugged me. I wanted characters to have real motivations, level objectives to make sense and fit into a story arc, locations to feel real and have accurate details.
And we did some crazy things story wise that we might not be able to get away with now. For example, at one point in the game Gabe is rescuing and inoculating test subjects, only Gabe finds out later that he was actually killing them because the vaccine was really a poison; and scientists would run up to Gabe and surrender and we sort of forced him to shoot unarmed men in the head – well, they were evil scientists after all.
Having terrorists blow up a subway in Washington DC – think we could get away with that now? Again, this might all seem pretty tame by today’s standards, but in 1999 it was pretty startling to be doing this kind of stuff in a console game. Oh, and the taser. We all really loved the taser.
How would you like Syphon Filter to be remembered? What did it bring to the video game medium?
John Garvin: For what it was – the first of its kind, a mix of stealth and action, using real-world, current story elements and settings, realistic weapons and gadgets, with edgy story elements. As anyone in game development knows, it’s really hard to be original, to come up with new ideas, new mechanics and new ways of playing. Syphon did all that and spawned a genre; so many games came out after us and were variations on the theme. In many ways, we were there first.
Which of the Syphon Filter characters is closest to your heart?
John Garvin: From the first Syphon Filter, it’s got to be the man himself, Gabe Logan. The way John Chacon read his lines is, well, unique to say the least. Gabe sort of embodied the concept of the stoic action hero… with a heart. I like Mara Aramov too… how can you not like that laugh? In the later games, I would have chosen Teresa Lipan or maybe Stone, but yeah, there’s no one like Gabe Logan.