Perfect Dark© Nintendo Life

How do you follow GoldenEye 007?

In the summer of 2000 – that's 20 years ago this month – Rare presented its answer: Perfect Dark, a sci-fi spy shooter centred around an alien conspiracy. It delivered a cool, competent heroine, a single-player campaign bursting with ambitious ideas, and the most comprehensive multiplayer experience on the Nintendo 64. To this day, it stands as Rare’s highest-rated game on Metacritic, achieving an average score of 97. So how did the team not only follow, but surpass GoldenEye 007? For Martin Hollis, the game’s director for the first half of development, the crucial decision was stepping away from Britain's most famous fictional secret agent.

“The first question was, ‘Did we want to do another Bond game?’ and Nintendo actually offered that option but that was very easily dispatched,” Hollis tells us. “I personally wasn’t interested in doing another game in that universe, we’d spent enough time – three years, essentially – in the Bond universe for my taste."

The first question was, ‘Did we want to do another Bond game?’ I personally wasn’t interested in doing another game in that universe, we’d spent enough time – three years, essentially – in the Bond universe for my taste

David Doak (yes, the scientist we all shot in Facility) adds: “We were pretty much Bonded-out. There’s only so much Soviet-era stuff you can endure. And at the time we were competing with things like Turok, and they all had carte blanche to do whatever they wanted with baddies and weapons and so on. If we made another Bond game, it’d be like the second album and people wouldn’t think we’ve really innovated.”

The team didn’t want to abandon everything it had accomplished with GoldenEye 007, of course. For most of them, the James Bond shooter was the first game they had ever made. They had developed a brand new engine, so it made sense to build upon that and create a new title in the same vein, with similar gameplay and the same “weapon centricity,” as Hollis put it.

From the very beginning, Perfect Dark was planned as a spiritual successor to GoldenEye, with the aim to have the game finished within just one year. In theory, the main effort would go into building new levels that ran on the previous game’s tech. But the team’s ambition expanded throughout the course of the project, and many of GoldenEye’s systems were improved and overhauled.

“Perfect Dark was like the semi-sequel to GoldenEye, and it’s always difficult making a sequel,” recalls Mark Edmonds, who led development by the end. “Can you make it better than the first one? That should be easy, but generally, it isn’t. So everyone was in the mindset of ‘What can we do to make this better than GoldenEye?’ There were a lot of ideas for new features and everyone had thoughts about what could have gone into that game but didn’t.”

Spy-fi

The team had been reading a lot of science fiction at the time, and posters from films such as Nikita graced the walls of their office. This inspired both the decision to make a sci-fi shooter, and one with a female protagonist. The team were keen to lean into the conspiracy theories that surrounded aliens, drawing inspiration from things like The X-Files, as well as other pillars of the genre such as Blade Runner.

But the game was to remain somewhat grounded. This was in part due to the near-future setting (the events of Perfect Dark are supposed to take place in 2023, just around the corner for us), but also stemmed from the GoldenEye tech running in the background. The James Bond game was built to be realistic and this could still be felt in Perfect Dark. That’s partly why the majority of guns still use bullets rather than lasers or other fantastical sci-fi tropes – with fairly obvious exceptions, such as the X-ray vision FarSight.

David Doak with Martin Hollis© David Doak
David Doak with Martin Hollis

GoldenEye also partly drove the decision to make Perfect Dark a spy shooter. While the team was finished with Bond and his universe, the gameplay possibilities afforded by being a secret agent were too tempting to ignore. “By the time we got to the end of GoldenEye, we’d built up a feature set of non-combat gameplay, like the sneaking and stealth stuff,” says Doak. “And we realised there was a lot of potential there, but there wasn’t time to go back and do more of it in GoldenEye. At the start of GoldenEye, sneaking wasn’t really one of the core gameplay mechanics – apart from the fact you might set off alarms. It just became a gameplay mechanic as we started to flesh out the level and found that it worked.”

There was also a lot of admiration for 1998’s Metal Gear Solid, which clearly indicated there was an appetite for a more covert shooter. Duncan Botwood, who helped shape the multiplayer for both GoldenEye and Perfect Dark, reveals the team wanted to do more with gadgets, a desire that would eventually lead to the Data Uplink, plus the CamSpy and its variants.

Of course, the trouble then was if it wasn’t bloody perfect by the time we finished it, we’d really set ourselves up for a fall

“With GoldenEye, we used the gadgets in a very perfunctory way because we were building something very quickly,” he says. “It was very ‘throw something onto the object and that’s it, objective completed’. We wanted to explore what other stuff we could do that wasn’t gun-related and could help us do other things. We were trying to broaden out the player’s repertoire, let them express themselves in ways that weren’t just shooting.

“There are games that could do this but don’t often do so, and I think they’re less because of it – although I still enjoy them. Shooting itself is good when you get it right, and so many games get it right. But if it’s all you do, longevity becomes an issue, and I don’t think it’s very helpful to the player to only ever do that. As a player, I’d rather be doing other things.”

The original working title was Covert Ops, but this evolved over time into Alien Intelligence and eventually Perfect Dark. Brett Jones, who built and animated the majority of the character models and led motion-capture efforts, says this was reached through a highly scientific process: the team wrote down a lot of descriptive words, a lot of nouns, and stuck them on the back of the door in different combinations. They tried hundreds until they found one that felt right. “Of course, the trouble then was if it wasn’t bloody perfect by the time we finished it, we’d really set ourselves up for a fall,” laughs Jones.

Introducing Joanna Dark

With Bond out of the picture, the team set about creating a new spy icon. Determined to have a female lead (but also conscious that a certain Ms Croft was still the standout example of a video game heroine), Doak says there was a real drive to design someone that “wasn’t a 'tits and arse' character.”

It’s been said in the past that Joanna Dark was modelled on historical figure Joan of Arc, but Doak confesses that’s not entirely true. “I think that’s the thing that just sounds good. I can’t remember whether Joanna Dark or Perfect Dark came first. I think Joanna came first, but as I recall, the Joan of Arc thing was a kind of retro-fit. Joanna Dark sounded like a nice name, and then, ‘Ooh, it sounds a bit like Joan of Arc. That’s quite good.’ As opposed to it fitting the other way around.”

Defining Joanna Dark was Jones’ first task on the project. In an effort to get away from female heroines with sex appeal central to their design, he aimed for something more utilitarian. “We’d all been enjoying Ghost In The Shell and the Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd film – a lot of influence from those,” he says. “We were heavily influenced by early anime stuff. Even Joanna’s costume is almost directly ripped from Ghost In The Shell. Also, the leather outfit was inspired by Mrs Peel from The Avengers, and the dragon dress actually used the dragon design from Killer Instinct.

Laurie Sage performing motion capture for Joanna Dark© Brett Jones
Laurie Sage performing motion capture for Joanna Dark

“For Joanna, we also got a female motion capture artist called Laurie Sage. She came in for one day and we did the majority of her stuff then. She was the proper size for Joanna Dark, quite short and petite, so we actually had a woman doing female motion capture, as opposed to Duncan Botwood prancing around [in high heels].” However, Joanna Dark was not modelled on Sage but on a far more famous face.

“She was completely based on Winona Ryder,” Jones admits. “I was collecting images of faces, had a massive collection of reference images and we just picked her. She had this great pixie haircut and fulfilled the look of what we wanted Joanna to look like.”

The game’s lead was not the only character modelled on a celebrity. Her boss Daniel Carrington was based on James Robinson Justice, known for movies ranging from The Guns of Navarone to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. NSA director and secondary villain Trent Easton was modelled on Titanic actor Billy Zane, while the mysterious Mr Blonde was based on Götz Otto, who played Tomorrow Never Dies henchman Mr Stamper. Finally, the president of the USA was modelled on Babylon 5 star Richard Biggs, who happens to be Jones’ friend.

There were more humble origins for other characters. The female bodyguards of main villain Cassandra De Vries were based on the promotional girls used in the game’s E3 announcement. Jones designed an appropriate costume for the show and later applied it to the game. Even the girls’ faces were used for the bodyguards. Jonathan, another Carrington Institute agent, was also sourced from E3: he was a man who gave Jones several Star Wars T-shirts as part of the team’s internal competition to see who could get the most merchandise from the show.

Designs on the future

The lengths Jones went to in designing original characters is indicative of one of the biggest challenges the Perfect Dark team faced: creating a new universe. Unshackled from the licence restrictions of the Bond licence and bolstered by the trust earned from Rare’s management, the crew had complete creative freedom.

“It was huge and intimidating,” says Hollis. “Creating a new universe takes a lot of work. There’s a lot of material and detail to fill in. Authors say this – you end up creating a lot of background material for your characters and it doesn’t actually make it into the final cut. There was so much we made up that isn’t really visible in the game. We didn’t want long and elaborate cutscenes because it’s really about the action.”

There was so much we made up that isn’t really visible in the game. We didn’t want long and elaborate cutscenes because it’s really about the action

Jonathan was a prime example; he was originally Jonathan Dark, Joanna’s brother. Similarly, Velvet Dark – the second player’s character in co-op, essentially Joanna with a blonde wig – was also supposed to be developed further as a character but, as with Jonathan, this was left on the cutting room floor.

Even the aliens weren’t as fully fleshed-out in the game as they were behind the scenes. Botwood had given the evil Skedar a deeper backstory to make them sympathetic, explaining that their planet was collapsing – hence its ruined appearance in the final mission. Meanwhile, alien ally Elvis originally had even more quirks. “Elvis went through so many iterations because originally he was much more of an Elvis fan,” Jones explains. “I had him in blue suede shoes, and he was an anglophile so I have drawings of him in Union Jack waistcoats. But we were getting into all sorts of copyright issues, so we had to tone it down a bit.”

Some team members recognise that, in hindsight, perhaps they had too much freedom. The game expanded far beyond its original scope, which made it harder to compress into an N64 cartridge (more on that later). Chris Tilston, who became lead designer by the end, notes that unlike games today, Perfect Dark “didn't have a producer telling people when to stop.”

“Rare management was pretty hands-off, as they could see the progress the team was making and Tim [Stamper, Rare's co-founder] was super supportive,” he says. “I'm sure behind the scenes he was doing everything he could to shield the team from any external pressures. Mark Edmonds was probably the gateway to stop too much chaos. He'd say, 'Maybe we should finish this bit first', but even he joined in by the end when he designed and programmed all of the multiplayer challenges after we had our six-month extension. It was a highly collaborative, ego-free environment and when someone came up with a good idea it was pretty readily incorporated, which was what made the development environment unique.”

Botwood agrees: “It was a fairly organic process from there, and it was fairly democratic as well. There wasn’t one person saying, ‘I’m the creative director, we’re going to do this and that.’ The team structure was comparatively flat – Martin was definitely in charge, but everybody else was very skilled and had their own ideas. Both the GoldenEye and the early Perfect Dark teams are two of the most collaborative I have ever worked with.”

Rare was an odd place to work in some ways, they always seemed to be slightly weird about credits

Edmonds explains that this is part of the reason there were no job titles in the end credits (or, indeed, in this very feature). Since everyone chipped in with multiple aspects of the game, regardless of their specialisation, it was unfair to label them by such limited means. There was also another factor, an ongoing quirk of the studio.

“Rare was an odd place to work in some ways, they always seemed to be slightly weird about credits,” Edmonds says. “Maybe because they were worried if people had their names in credits under certain titles, suddenly recruitment agents would try to contact that person and steal them for another company. I don’t know if that was the real reason. But most of the games didn’t have credits that specified what people did. I know that was a problem on GoldenEye. You can almost work out from the names what people did, though.”

Jones, for example, was credited as ‘Bodybuilder’ since he literally built all the characters and creatures, and handled their animation. Chris Darling, who designed many of the guns, was listed as ‘Weapons Specialist.’

This did lead to problems for one member of the team. Beau Ner Chesluk, who actually programmed the credits, had to provide official identification to Nintendo to verify his name was legitimate – his job title of ‘Guns and Visual Orgasms’ combined with his first two names sounding like ‘boner’ aroused suspicions back in Japan. More interestingly, Chesluk reveals that the first collection of names in the credits always appear in a random order. This was a team consensus; since everyone played an equal part in designing the game, random would be more fair than alphabetical.