Overkill isn’t your typical House of the Dead game. “We watched a lot of nun exploitation movies… nunsploitation” says Headstrong Producer Neil McEwen. “’Killer Nun’ is still on my desk” adds Mark Slater, lead artist.
Tasked with creating an all new addition to the franchise, London developers Headstrong Games held a mirror to the campy characters, ridiculous storyline and unforgettable voice acting of the arcade series.
“When we started making the game, we were just doing another version of House of the Dead, similar sort of graphic style, slightly chunkified monsters” Mark begins, explaining the ambiguous proposition worked out between Headstrong and Sega. Neil adds “When Sega came to us and said they’d like to work with us, we talked about a number of games. I think Sega picked up on our passion to do House of the Dead. We were like ‘yeah yeah, we could do House of the Dead!’ and he mumbles ‘or Jet Set Radio’”.
“We did play around with different themes, like Steampunk, but Sega and Headstrong wanted to do something different, and over one weekend we all watched Planet Terror and thought ‘this is genius, we could totally do something with this!’” Planet Terror is part two of Grindhouse, a double presentation movie by legendary directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Paying homage to the exploitation genre of film that inundated American cinemas in the 20th century, Planet Terror intentionally presents a damaged visual style, a B-Movie styled plot and numerous other tropes and clichés.
“So SEGA totally came up with a whole marketing plan based on the exploitation style and the art team was like ‘yes, we would love to create it in this style’. We went from there really, and it was a really fun style to make. When the Americano thing came up it led to so much; locations, types of characters we have in the game, what the bosses would be like, the kind of music… the swearing. All of that stuff just fell into place”. The producer from Sega’s end, Gwilym Hughes, quips “the exploitation stuff writes itself”, and all eyes land on the game’s writer, Jonathan Burroughs, worried for his job.
The Grindhouse-esque look led to a veritable oasis of ideas, gags and spoofs. “It allowed us to be really creative as well. All those old movies are just ridiculous fun”, Mark hesitates “well, most are utter crap, but great as well”. “We watched a lot of shit” says Neil. “I went into HMV when we started talking about the Grindhouse theme, and I met a fanatic of them. He was awesome; he was listing them off like ‘you should watch this and read this’.” No such luck at the British Film Institute, “they were like ‘I dunno mate, I’ve got a film with Kate Winslet in it’”. Grindhouse Trailer Classics was another firm favourite, which is described online as “a rollercoaster ride through the sleazy world of 1970s exploitation trailers. Featuring 55 prime cuts from the most outrageous rape-revenge, blaxploitation, slasher, biker, zombie, sexploitation, kung fu and women-in-prison movies”.
“We had a lot of fun watching those movies, I liked ‘The New York Ripper’”, explains Neil. He goes on to explain how it’s about a serial murderer who would phone up the police and explain his actions in a Donald Duck voice, “It was hilarious, you’d have quick zooms on the Inspector going ‘Sounds like a duck!’” “It was funny talking about them” says Neil, as he explains how he brought the topic up to the team at Headstrong. “I’m going to show some exploitation thing that’s gonna have people being cut from their lady parts right up to their neck. Is this going to be ok?”
But while the team held marathon sessions of awful B-Movies and added the suffix “sploitation” to every word imaginable, the game play was still the highest priority. “We made sure it was fun shooting zombies, worked out how fast they should move and what they should look like when they move around and the types of zombies we wanted to do”. Sega’s previous titles were never far away, “we had House of the Dead 2 and 3 on the Wii; we were always constantly referencing that”. The near million copies sold of that Wii port is just a tiny number of diehard arcade fanatics, and alienating that core group could spell failure. Were the team worried? “A little bit, but we stayed true to what was fun about those games, the core mechanics. We’ve just been getting the review scores in and they’ve been mostly positive. We thought they’d be more polarising than that, it would be marmite and something you got and found amusing or something that offended you”.
“We went to the arcades a lot and played [House of the Dead] Three and Four a lot. We pumped like 250 quid into the machine”. When quizzed why SEGA didn’t provide a personal, in office House of the Dead 4 Arcade Machine, all eyes, this time, turned to SEGA Producer Gwilym. “We looked into it… it was a space issue. Their offices are tiny and the cabinets are absolutely huge”
“We went down to the arcade and filmed ourselves playing it”. As expected, they got kicked out. “We went to SEGA World and they wouldn’t let us film in there at all. Which was like ‘do you know who we are?’ But we went to Namco and they let us film; I gave them a copy of Battalion Wars 2 like ‘I’m really important’”.
It seems Producer Neil McEwen carries a copy of Battalion Wars 2, the previous title by then-called Kuju London wherever he goes (even though he didn’t work on it, as Mark was quick to point out). “We did a team photo in a butcher’s window. We went down to a local butcher shop and gave them a copy of Battalion Wars 2, and he looked at it puzzled and tried to bite it. He didn’t understand what was going on”. The butcher naturally enquired on the use of the photo, “Its best you don’t know”. “But he wouldn’t let me have the cleaver, which I really wanted”.
The finished photograph featured the decapitated heads of the Headstrong employees, scattered around a butcher’s front desk. The image, coupled with the announcement that Headstrong would be making a game for one of SEGA’s franchises, sparked excitement from fans, and some rather puzzling speculation. “We put that photo out a month before the game was announced at Leipzig and everyone was saying we were doing Jet Set Radio, which was really odd”.
Traditionally a Japanese franchise, Headstrong had obvious worries about the cultural barriers and the very Western-centric humour of the game. “Sega were really good, we were worried that culturally Japan wouldn’t get what we were doing and think ‘oh god, what have you done to our baby’, but Sega came back to us and said they liked it and just wanted us to run with it.” On the top of Headstrong’s worries, though? “Definitely the “G Thing”. It wasn’t the prolific swearing, the busting cleavages or the excessive blood that was getting Neil sweating, but the fact that G from House of the Dead is a playable character in Overkill. “He’s the main link, so that was more contentious” adds Gwilym, “that and the origins of formulas, things like that”. “We were amazed when the box art went out and all the fans were talking about the game and were like ‘I can’t believe G is on the box!’ Yeah we flew him in, I know him; he’s a really nice guy”.
It became obvious that Headstrong were extremely invested in the game’s main characters. “We spent a lot of time creating our characters, creating that universe. We know where they came from and where these characters go. What their fathers and mothers did, we really worked out this family tree and we’ve worked out where they go”.
“Washington is cosmetically based on Common”, an American rapper and actor, known for over-the-top action flicks such as Wanted and Smoking Aces, while G is a mish-mash of straight up, enigmatic and professional agents; “Keanu Reaves from Point Break” is one of his influences. Varla Guns is based on Parisian model Vikki Blows and “Papa Caesar is Burt Reynolds”. The in jokes and references don’t stop at the main cast; a random decapitated head rolls down a flight of stairs on the first level, “that’s the level designer”. The first boss you come in contact with is a boy in a wheelchair with round glasses and a dodgy haircut. Neil explains that Harry Potter was the last game he worked on with EA, and wanted to give something back. Harry’s Overkill counterpart, Jasper, eventually turns into a mutant before being gunned down by G and Washington.
Varla Guns, a stripper in the game, “changed quite a lot. I wanted her to be a kind of Kate Moss, with a slight figure. I don’t know what happened to her, but her boobs gradually grew.” Mark, the artist, interjected “you told me to make her like a boy”, to which Neil replies “I wanted her to have that figure where you don’t know if she’s walking away or coming towards you”. As the final product shows, with her breasts almost bursting out from her skimpy top, Neil’s androgynous look didn’t stick. Sega producer Gwilym says “with the whole sexploitation thing, the change was needed”.
“We did the voice recording in New York for that authentic Americano vibe. We read through the scripts and filmed ourselves doing it; we honed in it until we thought it was in a pretty good state. We sent it out to the states and we were getting really good feedback from them; they found it funny, and we weren’t sure because it was the first time an American had read it. Apparently they were in character the whole day”.
“The wheelchair kind of became an icon”. A red, empty wheelchair is plastered over promotional material, appears twice on the box and is the sole image on the collector’s edition sleeve. “Jasper Guns, the first boss of the game, is wheelchair bound, but it really became quite iconic, and it felt a bit naughty as well. The more you put it places, the more people ask ‘what’s with the wheelchair?’ It’s something Sega picked up on, we had the character in a wheelchair, and suddenly it’s on all the promotional materials. Little did they realise worse was yet to come”.
Sega Producer Gwilym explains the Hand Cannon, a Wii Remote holder that is fashioned after the AMS pistol, and complimented the game’s release. “It was a company called Big Ben who approached us and said they wanted to do something and tie it in with Overkill, but then we worked closely with Headstrong from there”. Neil explains his side of the deal. “They asked us which gun we should do and what shape it should mock”. Artist Mark explains “all the other guns”, referring to a slew of pistol shaped peripherals intended to hold the Wii Remote, “were standard 9mm pistols, so it was nice to have a big hand cannon. We actually bought loads of the gun peripherals to try them all out; we got some shockers. We went to San Francisco and brought back a shotgun one, and it was awful, just a long bit of plastic and a long tube”.
During the interview, it was plain to see the team’s enthusiasm and passion for design, and how proud they were for their first game under the studio’s new name. “I joined Headstrong about a year ago, and I went there to do House of the Dead with the team, who absolutely love that game”, explains Neil McEwen, “You could see that they wanted to do something special. I had the best year of my career; it was just great fun making that game, we didn’t want it to end”.
Special thanks to Neil McEwen, Jonathan Burroughs and Mark Slater of Headstrong Games, Gwilym Hughes of SEGA Europe, as well as Mike Mason of Cubed3 and Ashley Jones of N-Europe who contributed questions to, and attended, the interview.