Game changer: one Irish man's journey on gaming's cutting edge


Phil Campbell has had an impressive career, working on ‘Tomb Raider’ and ‘Heavy Rain’, and with collaborators such as David Bowie. Now, though, he’s chasing fairies in the garden

‘Things are never quite what they seem. We think we understand the world around us, but we really only see the outside – what it seems to be.” This is Lucas Kane’s opening monologue in Fahrenheit (marketed in the US as Indigo Prophecy). It plays as Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack sweeps us towards Doc’s Diner, where a drama that lies somewhere in the Venn diagram of Edgar Allan Poe, 24 and Edward Hopper gets under way. It could almost be a mission statement for Irish video game designer Phil Campbell’s career.

Fahrenheit was developed by French game designer David Cage’s Quantic Dreams. When Fahrenheit was sold to Atari after four years, it gave Cage the leverage to begin his masterpiece, 2010’s Heavy Rain.

This means that Campbell, who has worked with Cage from the start, helping to set up Quantic Dream’s office in San Francisco, has a bulky gaming CV and even bulkier ideas.

A chatty and enthusiastic former architect, gaming designer, writer and more, Campbell knows he has hooked up with one of the great minds of the gaming world. He describes Cage (born David De Gruttola) as “a genius” and “an auteur”. Now Campbell is tackling augmented reality (AR) in the unlikely guise of an app for children called Fairy Magic.

The company he has established to do this, Inlifesize, sees him partnering with his friend Greg Maguire, an animator who has worked on Avatar and Happy Feet.

We meet ahead of a talk he’s giving on how to be a one-man creative army at the Science Gallery in Dublin. It is hosting an exhibition called Game: The Future of Play, and the surrounding space is dotted with avant-garde interactive gaming exhibits, an appropriate setting for a man as progressive as Campbell, who says he learned a lot during his five years working on Tomb Raider.

Fairy Magic is a neat idea. Download the app, hold it up to a setting (it works best outside) and fairies dance around a garden or living room. It is easy to imagine how this “enchanted reality”, as Campbell calls it, captivates kids. It helps takes them out of the blinkered position created by tablet and phone technology use, and into their surroundings; they explore what is beyond the device, rather than what is in it. Fairy Magic feels like a new starting point for games.

Campbell describes himself as “a burst pipe” of ideas and they spray all over the place, from big prophecies about how AR can play a role in communities, to specific dissections of scenes and weapon packages in games.

But it’s not just ideas. In an increasingly sophisticated gaming world, storytelling itself is up for grabs.

Sophisticated stories with a golf metaphor

After working on Heavy Rain and the upcoming and much anticipated Beyond: Two Souls, Campbell knows a thing or two about how, by using more sophisticated devices, intricate stories can be told. “We could never get a good enough name for it, but I called them ‘bungee stories’. [Cage] called them ‘bending stories’ or ‘elastic stories’. The idea was that you treat your narrative like a golf hole – this is maybe my metaphor for this – and there’s a destiny: you can see the hole at the end . . .

“The player can see the restriction of the course. They know where they’re supposed to play. They know where out of bounds is. They know in a way what to ask for and what not to ask for. And along the way, you stretch out their story to these side paths [he motions with his hands as if unfolding a map] but they always snap back to the main story.

“So you can keep a narrative – and it does become more linear – but it basically becomes manageable.”

On Arkane Studios’ hit Dishonored

“It has the type of thing that’s my philosophy, which is make it like a golf hole and give the player a bag of clubs – his game mechanics. Let him decide how to play. So Dishonored is perfect in that respect.

“You can take your big knives and guns and wade through the game, or you can sneak around stealthily and not kill anyone and win the game. It’s designed for that. Every golf hole in a way is perfectly sculpted to allow for those experiences.”

On life after writing EA’s The Godfather

“I got a lot of gangster gigs after The Godfather because people didn’t know I was an Irish guy, they thought I could write Mafia. So I did Scarface for MTV Cribs. I wrote Tony Montana for his version of Cribs where he’s showing you through the mansion. It’s so funny, they must have thought I was some Italian guy. I should have changed my name.”

On the playability of Heavy Rain versus Assassin’s Creed

“I just found the level of control I got in that game empowered me to play, whereas in Assassin’s Creed, I’ll push the stick forward, I’ll run up a wall – it’s beautiful to watch – go over a roof, jump on somebody, stab them in the head, dive into a hay bale, come out and swim across a river, all with just doing that. And I’ll feel powerless, even though it’s all so beautifully smooth. It’s a weird thing.”

On working with David Bowie on Omikron: The Nomad Soul

“When we started working on Omikron that was really the first open world game, it just wasn’t half as good as when Grand Theft Auto 3 came out. It was an honourable failure. It was the game of the year in France and all the esoteric countries. Over in Britain, even with Bowie, Bowie wasn’t a draw then.”

David Bowie wrote music for Omikron and eventually ended up playing two characters in the game (“It was like, ‘Where can we put Bowie in?’” Campbell says, because he and Cage liked him so much.) He and Bowie spent two weeks in Paris, nine to five, working together, with Bowie bumming cigarettes from him and eventually stealing his lighter. Iman also ended up as a character in the game. Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, dropped in. “It was the best experience of my life. You start off in awe, but the barriers break down over time.”

On Tomb Raider

“Tomb Raider I’ll always be indebted to. Even for me, the first time I played the demo, her swimming under water. I couldn’t believe it . . .

“Tomb Raider was perfectly matched. That’s what made [Lara Croft] famous, not her assets, but the fact that she was so perfectly matched with her environment. You couldn’t go wrong when you were designing Tomb Raider, to be honest with you.”

On how AR can help the family play

“At the moment we’re working on the family, the family group, how that gets together and plays together . . . I’m always torn between where digital blocks us and where digital enhances us.

“What I don’t like is with my teenager daughter, the way the phone is always there constantly. It’s a barrier between communication in the family. It’s a barrier, I think, between their friends.

“You have someone over for a play date and they’re both [mimics looking in phone]. And they’re not necessarily sharing something. It’s okay if they’re sharing something.

“But on the other hand, it feels like the enhancement that’s being created through this [AR] is something that’s part of the physical environment. To me that feels okay.”