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Interview: Castlevania producer David Cox

Thursday 25th July 2013 by J.C. Marquez

Last week during the insanity of the San Diego Comic-Con, I stopped by the Konami Gaming Suite and met with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow producer David Cox for a one-on-one interview.

GeeksScape: Before tackling the Lords of Shadow series, what other titles have you worked on?

David Cox: “I’ve done two other games; I’ve done International Track and Field on the Nintendo DS and GTI Club for Playstation Network as producer. I’ve worked at Konami for about 16-17 years now. I was product manager on Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, so that’s going back a few years.”

GeekScape: You and Castlevania go way back.

David Cox: “Absolutely. Yeah.”

GeekScape: What did it feel like for you, a gamer who grew up with Castlevania in the 80’s for the Nintendo Entertainment System, being approached by Konami and asked, “We’d like you to take over the Castlevania franchise.”

Dave Cox: “It was a bit daunting, but the thing is I sorta felt like I’ve come full circle because back in the 80’s, when Castlevania first came out, I bought that game, and that was the game that really made me want to work in the industry, and also, more than that, made me want to work for Konami. It was Konami that I really chased in terms of trying to get a job with them. When I joined Konami in 1997, the very first project I was given was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I was just a product manager on that particular title, and that almost felt like there was a connection there, and then now, sixteen/seventeen years later, I was given the chance to actually be the producer and be in charge of the series. That really felt like it meant–I don’t know.

David's first project as a Konami employee. Not too shabby.
David’s first project as a Konami employee. Not too shabby.

I’m a great believer in destiny. It was like destiny was calling. I know it sounds cheesy, but that’s how I saw it. You know, I was like, ‘This is my chance and this makes sense’ because it was Castlevania that got me here in the first place. On the one hand, you’re scared because you realize there’s a huge responsibility on your shoulders, but on the other hand, it was right because it felt like it was supposed to happen.”

GeekScape: Touching on that, were there any fears tackling the Lords of Shadow series that you didn’t experience during production of Symphony of the Night?

“The thing about Symphony of the Night was there was a lot of fear surrounding it because it was a very different departure from what was done before. I very much remember at the time that it was the Nintendo 64 game that ws going to be the next big Castlevania game because it was done by the original team Kobe. So that was going to be the big game and Symphony of the Night was more of a side-story because it was from another team. It was a quite different type of game, and there were a lot of people within Konami who felt people weren’t going to get into it.

You have to understand when Symphony of the Night came out, it wasn’t that successful. It wasn’t huge. It got good reviews, no doubt about it, but the reputation built up over several years, and it became a hit more afterwards than on day one. I think that taught me that doing something new within the mythology, doing something new with Castlevania, is risky but it’s also something that’s kept Castlevania alive over the years.

The first Lords of Shadow game went on to sell the most than any other Castlevania game ever released. It’s the biggest selling Castlevania game in history. Even I can’t believe it.”

GeekScape: Like many gamers, I’m a big proponent of storytelling. If the story is well written and it has unexpected twists, such as the Trevor and Simon Belmont story in Mirror of Fate,  then I find myself genuinely concerned about the characters. In the opening cinematic of the demo, Dracula is sitting on his throne awaiting the knights who are bursting through his chamber door. The scene immediately grabs you because it’s a boss fight, but your the boss. Once you dispose of the knights with your awesome abilities, giving players that feeling of power, the scene is flipped once Dracula steps foot outside, witnessing a giant Titan destroying his castle.

When approaching Lords of Shadow 2, were there any ideas your team weren’t able to build upon in the original Lords of Shadow game due to time that you are developing in Lords of Shadow 2?

David Cox: “Yeah. We had the story arc pretty much laid out during the development of the first game, so we had the beginning and the end, but we knew we couldn’t fit the whole thing into Lords of Shadow, so that’s why we did the epilogue. The epilogue is really just saying to people, ‘Look, if we get to do another one, if you like this enough, this is where we would take it.’ That paid off in the end. It was a bit of a risk because some people were saying, “Well, I don’t think people are going to like that. It’s a bit kind of out there–it’s a bit shocking.” We went with it, and I’m glad we did because it really made people go, ‘Woah! What the f***?! Wow!’ In a way, then it became rougher for us because, “Oh shit. Now we have finish this and do something in the modern day, and how are we going to do that?” It presented lots of different challenges, but I think with this particular game what we tried to do is like you said–‘flip everything on its head’. You’re the bad guy. You’re the guy you’d normally meet at the end of the game and fight.

For me, Dracula was always this sort of one-dimensional character. He was just ‘there’ at the end of the game, and it wasn’t really explained why I am fighting him. ‘Why is it the Belmonts, and why do they have to fight Dracula?’ That’s what we tried to do with our story arc–is to explain the relationship between Dracula and the Belmonts. It’s their shame. It’s the blood feud because he’s their ancestor, essentially. Alucard is his son, the same son from previous canon, but it’s his son that he killed! He killed his own son and tried to bring him back, and is making him into a creature like him, and it’s kind of a tragedy that he killed his own son. How would you feel about that? Finding out that you murdered your own son? It’s quite desperate. So I think to present Dracula as not just as a one-dimensional character–that was the core thing about the series that we wanted to do.

dracprofile

With [Lords of Shadow 2], we want to end and tell the whole story. We’ve got a story to tell, and we want to tell it, and then we want to move on. We need to give players a satisfying conclusion, and I think we need to surprise people as well; that’s something we really enjoy doing.”

GeekScape: The Nintendo 3DS game Mirror of Fate focuses more on Simon and Trevor Belmont whereas the Lords of Shadow series focuses primarily on Dracula himself. Did you and your team have a lot of fun creating the history between Dracula and the entire Belmont clan?

David Cox: “Yeah! I mean, we loved working on Mirror of Fate. It was such a different project from such a big console game like [Lords of Shadow 2].  We really enjoyed it. It’s a story that makes us interested in the game. It’s one of the things that really drives the team–it’s the story. Mercury Steam likes to tell stories; that’s what they’re good at. From the story, the game play comes. From the story, the other elements come. So I think that’s really one of the core things about [Lords of Shadow 2] is when people play this game, and they get the story and the shocks and the twists and the turns and the unexpected stuff that we want to show them, I think, hopefully, they’ll look back on it think, ‘Wow. They really did something unique in the [Castlevania] universe.'”

GeekScape: Was there anything you wanted to address in Lords of Shadow 2 that you saw in the first game and said, “I want this to be priority number one when we work on the sequel.”

David Cox: “There was a lot of things! We got a lot of feedback from fans regarding things that they really loved;  they really loved the combat, but they wanted more exploration. They wanted more peril in platforming. They wanted more freedom of movement in terms of being able to find secrets and hidden items and things like that, so that’s something we really wanted to improve in [Lords of Shadow 2]. Obviously, the fixed camera is not friendly to exploration. You can’t move. I mean, you’ve got a great vista, but you can’t really look around and really explore.

We sat down in the design meeting and asked how we are going to do the next game rather than do a cheap knock-off, basically. We thought ‘let’s start again and rip up the rule book, and then really do what we wanted to do in the first place’ in terms of free camera, more open world environments, more items to find, more exploration, more peril in platforming, and make the Titans more interesting.

Seige Titan

The thing about the Titans in the first game, I mean, they’re visually spectacular but they were quite staged; you had to follow a route, break the runes, and move on. We thought we could really improve that, and with [Lords of Shadow 2], you can see that you’re fighting on the Titan. You’re climbing on the Titan, but you’re being attacked at the same time. There’s peril, combat, exploration, multiple pathways up the Titans–some of the other Titans are quite bigger. We wanted to give players more variety.”

GeekScape: On that note, I wanted to mention how much I loved the sequences when you’re actually climbing up the Titan, because it gives you that sense of scale and depth. You can see the gears and pistons working and how they’re connected so the Titan isn’t just a character model. It makes it far more tangible.

David Cox: “That’s right. It looks and feels like a real moving machine.”

GeekScape: You have this bad-ass character in Dracula, the final boss in almost every Castlevania game. He is an extremely powerful entity. Other than sunlight, garlic, and wooden stakes, there’s very little that can hurt him. How difficult was it for you and your team to create characters and obstacles which would be a legitimate threat to Dracula?

David Cox: “He is a bad-ass character, but I guess he’s like Superman or any superhero–you have to give him adversaries that are going to challenge his abilities. Adversaries who are on, or about, the same level as [Dracula]. In [Lords of Shadow 2], we have a lot of really interesting boss fights and characters that he’s going to meet. Satan is coming back to earth, and Satan is the only one who’s been defeated by Gabriel, and obviously Satan wants to settle that score. So, you know, it’s going to be challenging, and the other thing you need to remember is that this demo takes place in the past, but after this demo you wake up in the future, and you have no powers and no abilities. You’re back to square one. You’ve got to get your powers and abilities back over time. You’re not as powerful as you are here, until the end of the game, of course.”

GeekScape: And the end of the previous title, we see that Dracula is still alive and wakes up in a modern city. Was there any discussion of having a game set in a non-medieval setting?

David Cox: “I don’t know. Our intention with the present day was to do something that fit the universe. Coming from Europe, most of the modern European cities are built on old ruins or old castles. You can walk in Madrid, for example, and you can be surrounded by modern skyscrapers, and then walk down a road and you’re in the middle of a courtyard with minarets, stained-glass windows, gargoyles, and statues. [The city Dracula wakes up in] is a modern city, but it’s an imagined modern city; it feels like it belongs in the Castlevania universe. We didn’t just want to put Dracula in Times Square, for example. That wouldn’t have worked.”

GeekScape: That would feel a bit like Dracula 2000.

David Cox:Yeah. Dracula 2000 A.D.; that really crappy film. We wanted to give Dracula an environment that felt like it fit the Castlevania universe. That was key. It’s an imagined city, but it’s a city that could exist in Europe, so that’s essentially where we wanted to take it.

When we finish this game, I mean, this is our last game. We are going to pass the torch on to another team. What they do with Castlevania–really, that’s really up to them. We’ve got our story to tell, and there’s nothing worse than telling a story then keep coming back when there’s nothing to say. We’ve got something to say, and we’re going to say it, and then we’re done with [Castlevania].”

GeekScape: When Lords of Shadow 2 is finally done, providing the final chapter in the Castlevania story you and your team worked on for the past several years, what in particular do you feel you will look back on and be especially proud of?

David Cox: “I think for me, one of the things I’m most proud of, at the end of Mirror of Fate–did you finish it?”

GeekScape: Absolutely–

David Cox: “–is showing Dracula as a tragedy, especially with his dead son, Alucard. When Robert Carlyle did that scene where he realizes he has killed his son, Robert was proper crying when he did that scene. I mean, that was really powerful. I’ll never forget it. When I play that game, I was there when Robert did that line when he was crying in the recording studio. That, even now, chokes me up.

I think that’s something people should remember about Dracula. Yeah, he’s a bad-ass. He is a character that can do amazing things. He’s ‘evil’, but he’s a character that has more to him than just black and white. I think people will see that in Lord of Shadows 2.”

GeekScape: Without giving anything away, is there a moment in the game you can’t wait for gamers to reach for it has your favorite ‘oh my god!’ moment?

David Cox: “People can expect a lot of that. There’s one fight in particular that people didn’t get any satisfaction in [Lords of Shadow], which was Dracula versus Zobeck. That’s coming.” (grins)

GeekScape: Any final words for the fans anxiously awaiting Lords of Shadows 2?

“Yeah! Absolutely. I think when the game comes out, I hope they’ll be surprised and pleased with the direction we’ve taken the story. One thing about the epilogue, it left a lot of people going, ‘What the f***?!’, and I think there’s going to be a lot of that in Lords of Shadow 2. A lot of surprises, and keep an open mind because we’re not going to go in the direction I think a lot of people are expecting.”

After the interview, David Cox revealed that due to his demanding schedule, he hasn’t played many video games at all, but would love to get his hands on The Last of Us, going on to say, “Those guys at Naughty Dog can do no wrong.” Smiling, he added that he is scared to play Animal Crossing: New Leaf, for his daughter has been playing it and is afraid he’d be addicted to it as well.

We also talked about our shared hate for the flying Medusa heads in the original game, and the Lords of Shadow producer confirmed that the snake-haired monster will be returning to make your life a living hell in Lords of Shadow 2.

Source: GeekScape Interview on Friday, July 19 2013

 

 

 

 

 

J.C. Marquez

J.C. has been in love with video games since he walked into a living room full of his older cousins huddled around a T.V. playing Metroid on a brand new Nintendo Entertainment System. With Zelda tattoos covering the better part of his left arm, J.C. spends his time his wife and baby daughter, playing on his 3DS and Wii U systems, as well as teaching English and running a Smash Bros. Club. He is an avid fan of comics, Japanese wrestling, horror movies, and art. Considers Pee Wee's Big Adventure to be the greatest film ever made.

  • Derek Kraneveldt

    Fuckin’ Medusa heads got me so many times. Awesome interview JC!