Friday, September 3, 2010

The original story behind Secret of Evermore.

The Secret of Evermore was one of my favorite games as a kid. I play through it again every few years and it somehow always manages to immerse me in its universe. The gameplay is certainlyno better than other SNES RPGs, especially the multiplayer Secret of Mana, but the game has always had a certain allure for me that I didn't quite understand.

While it ended up receiving an unfairly poor reception, the game sticks out in a lot of ways: it was the first and only game developed by Square developers in North America. It has a very unique art style that was ahead of its time and still remains appealing today. It had an very vivid and memorable soundtrack that seemed to go far beyond the capabilities of typical SNES sound, with high quality ambient nature sound effects accompanying many of the game's songs. Most notably, it had a tremendous amount of dialogue and characters; the main character speaks very often, sometimes even when he is alone, seeming as if he is speaking almost directly to the player, and there are almost a dozen unique and named NPCs, each with their own personalities and back story.

The reason for all these traits was the creation of the Square USA development team. "The entire team was built from the ground up with new hires." said Brian Fehdrau, lead programmer behind the project. At the time, Square was making huge pushes towards reshaping the way its games were designed. The extreme popularity of games like Final Fantasy IV and the Mother series in Japan had Square execs wanting to put a lot more focus on the artistic side of videogames, most notably the sound, graphics and plot. A few people know that Secret of Evermore was famed videogame musician Jeremy Soule's first project.

Almost nobody knows of another person hired for the development team, a young 22 year old writer by the name of Ed Kann. Interestingly, he apparently won the job through a writing contest put on in search of new, young writers who could deliver the distinct 'American feel' that Square had been looking for when they formed Square USA.

This is where things get fuzzy. At some point before the game's release, Kann was no longer a member of the development team. Whether he was fired, let go for another reason or simply quit is unclear. What is clear is that he left sometime in July 1995, just a few months prior to the game's release. What is also clear is that his name does not appear anywhere in the game's credits.

Common sense dictates that for such a series of events to have occured, Kann must have been a dud. Perhaps after months of producing no useful content he was simply fired without fanfare well after other people had stepped in to pick up his slack. That he didn't fit in makes sense: Kann later gained temporary cult status for his disturbing short story The Noise Coming from Inside Children. Since Evermore was rated K-A and had a rather carefree story, the involvement from such a dark author was clearly out of place.

But was it? There are some indications that Kann was more heavily involved, spawning rumors ever since about the real reason for his departure. One thing about the game has always stuck out very clearly - other than the story, it appears to be a very dark game.

The title screen opens with deep, pounding music as the camera pans over a tremendous and terrible looking machine. Neither this machine nor this music is ever heard anywhere in the game. The monsters and settings, most notably from the concept art, all have a distinctly gritty feel. Almost the entire game is set in swamps, dungeons and sewers. The entire soundtrack is permeated by a haunting, high pitched leitmotif that certainly doesn't remind me of a game for children.

There are piles of creepy artwork like this, but almost none of it appears in the actual game.

Still, all of this is mere conjecture. Games will often have a gap between their story and content. I wanted to see if I could get past the rumors and hear any hard facts on the matter, so I did something pretty out of the ordinary and actually asked one of the original game's developers. I had seen old threads where this particular member of the team had discussed the game before and so, after finding a current e-mail, I sent him a greeting and let him know I was working on an article about the development of the game. He was very helpful, and before long I asked if he knew anything about Ed Kann.

Unfortunately, he told me that he was just a programmer and didn't often work with the art department, but said he remembered the name. When I asked about the 'art department', he had this to say:

That's actually an odd issue. They had this group of new hires, mostly young people, taking care of the creative side. They had a lot more control than you usually see over development. Occasionally we would get a note or request from them to change an aspect of the game, and we were asked to honor those requests if possible.
I asked if there was anything else notable about the art department. He had this to say.

One thing that bothered me and a lot of people on the team was the lack of communication across the board. They kind of seemed like their own club and we were never sure where things were going. One example is, and I'm not sure where this came from, but we were always talking about how this was a 'darker' kind of game, and how that was the feel we were going for etc. Now that I say that I'm really not sure where it came from or why we thought that but that was always just the feel of things, the impression we got from the lead writers/designers. Then we played the gold release for the first time just months before launch and its this kids game with quirky jokes and a lot of us were surprised.
He added that everyone involved was very talented, and eventually asked not to be named.

It was obvious to me why rumors about the game's original writer/script had been around for so long. A fairly high profile writer with creative control, fired just before release? A developer saying the designers were leaning for a 'dark' feel, only to create a game for kids? Most compelling of all is the game itself, with soundtrack and art that still gives me chills.

All of this seems to point to the same direction, but sadly the trail ended there. There was simply no evidence that Kann had actually worked on Evermore. Any work he did was gone forever. If there was some scandal or secret, it surely would have come out in the 15 years since the game's release.

This, originally, was where my article ended. Honestly I felt it was pretty mediocre, and the more research I did into the issue the less I believed that anything was there. Thinking the article was baseless and kind of stupid, I saved a draft and mostly forgot about it for almost a year.

Then, almost completely by chance, I found a picture of a copy of the game next to a preview article in a gaming magazine.

The picture made me smile and I saved it. For some reason I barely looked at it. A couple of days passed. I had almost entirely forgot about this article, but seeing that picture had brought it up again in the back of my head. It seemed like a sillier idea than ever, and I very nearly dropped the issue entirely.

Then, suddenly, it struck me. I was at dinner with friends, but the picture popped back into my head. I immediately knew that something was very off about it.

If you've looked at the enlarged photo you've probably already noticed, especially if you played the game. The article itself is fairly uninteresting and barely visible. One of the screenshots, though, is almost disturbing. The dialogue in the rightmost screencap reads: "How can you live with what you've done? Those poor children..."

This line seemed very out of place to me. The context is even stranger; the boy on the left is the main character, and the girl is one of the friendly characters you meet who helps you through the game. Who is saying the line? What part of the plot are they referring to? There are children in the game but they are all unnamed NPCs never referred to at all, let alone as an entity.

I barely felt I needed to check, but I did anyway. I played through the entire game, talking to Fire Eyes (the girl character) after every possible trigger event. Maybe the line was the punchline of a joke, and made much more sense in context.

The line appeared nowhere in the game. Now, it isn't entirely uncommon for the preview copies that developers send out to be slightly different than the final release. It's entirely possible that the line was simply changed. Maybe it was the punchline of some joke, removed for compression purposes or for some other reason.

Still, the line seems out of place. In fact, it is downright bizarre, and baffling me. In the context of everything else already discussed...well, there must be something to this.

I leave you with only one last piece of evidence. The previously mentioned Brian Fehdrau, lead programmer behind the game, has repeatedly mentioned something I found interesting.

"I had a lot of fun setting up and tweaking the language, its encoding, the interpreter, the text compressor, etc. We spent a lot of time on data compression. The game was probably more like 50-70mbits, uncompressed, maybe more. We had different ways of compressing nearly everything: maps, map tiles, sprite tiles, scripts, dialogue, etc. Some of them had to be decompressed very, very quickly, every frame.

We actually had to do a lot of work on text compression towards the end. There was a huge amount of work that had to be done in that area for various reasons. I think in those final months some guys did more work on text than they had done throughout its development *laughs*."

Could it be possible that large parts of the game's story were cut or somehow modified in the final days? Was Kann actually involved, and was the direction he took the game simply too inappropriate, or too dark and disturbing?

On my latest playthrough, one particular portion of the game made me think. There is a scene where Queen Bluegarden, fed up with your foiling of her plans, hurls herself off of a balcony to try and crush you. She misses, crashing into the floor. Of course, it is explained that she was merely an evil robot. But without the dialogue, there is no indication that she is a robot, or even that she is aiming for your character. Without the text it is just a woman hurling herself to her death.

Some music from the game:

Edit: Already some doubters claiming the text in the image is illegible. Here's a much larger version that should make things clear:

Edit 2: IXCE linked me this great article that clearly shows a lot of the final changes that took place.

Here is some more stuff from the game that indicates an original plot with disturbing themes:

Video of a fight with Mungola, a mysterious being that controls puppets and people. You can see the king rocking back and forth in a fetal position during the fight. Directly after this fight, Queen Bluegarden on the left jumps off the balcony and kills herself.

Secret of evermore original commercial. Judging by its quality, made well before the game's launch. Does this seem like the depiction of a game for kids, starring a wacky main character with a penchant for B movies?