The time she missed: how a circus shooting “mistake” led to a horror game without violence
Dene Waring spent his childhood in a New Zealand circus troupe. Now, he lives at the edge of an Australian rainforest. From this dramatic locale, he works to finish his first video game, Huntsman: The Orphanage, a horror game without blood, gore, or guns. Huntsman is a first-person title that has you rescuing orphans who have been trapped in an alternate dimension by a supernatural entity known as the Huntsman. The children are portrayed by real-life actors, and can only be seen through the screen on your cell phone. You can see a brief game play demo below:Jungle creatures cawed in the background as we discussed the game, and how Waring's family past, as well as New Zealand culture, have influenced its design.
Born into violence
Sophie Prell: You mentioned to me in the emails we sent setting this interview up your personal history with violence. It sounded really… I don't even know how to describe it. Can you talk about your personal history with violence?
Dene Waring: I was born into and spent my early childhood through to my mid-to-late teens in sideshows and then the circus. Of all things, my father came up with the idea of a sharpshooting act as a circus act that was gonna make us some real money, and it was very successful. It was a very polished and highly-skilled act. It took a couple years of solid practice. My mother would stand on another guy's feet when he's lying on his back with his legs straight in the air, and shoot into a heart box that my father would wear while he's standing on a revolving pedestal. She would fire shots into that heart box, which would spin him faster and faster on his pedestal because of the off-center position of the heart box.
It was a square box about two inches deep with no front face. It was made of heavy steel plate. The box is strapped onto your chest and positioned over your heart, and bullets are fired into that small steel box. It was the size of a packet of cigarettes. On the inside back face of that – so when you look inside the box – it had a heavy-duty, steel knife blade running vertically down the middle of the box. We would place a small birthday candle in the bottom of the box on each side of that blade and light them, and my father would stand onto a free-wheel pedestal holding onto two handles to stop himself from being knocked over by the impact of the bullets. My mother would stand on the feet of another acrobat who was lying upside down on the floor with his legs straight up in the air. She would climb up and stand on his feet, what we call a foot-to-foot. She would have her 15-shot Ruger semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle. She would fire the first shot into the box, which would split the bullet in half on the knife blade. Each half of the bullet would fly sideways, and nip the wick off the birthday candles, and extinguish their flames. That was how the public and audience could see that the first shot went into the heart box, because it split the two candles in half. That first shot would, because it's off-center on a human body, spin my father around on his pedestal and it would slowly almost come to a stop when he was facing the rifle again. A second shot would go in, and he would pick up a little more speed and come back around to the front again, and a third shot would go in and he'd pick up a little more speed, and the fourth, and fifth, and sixth, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen… he would spin faster and faster and faster, and a bullet had to go into that box each time he spun around and was face-on to the rifle again. As he picks up speed, he's only facing the rifle for a small fraction of a second. The last five or six shots are practically at semi-automatic speed, so the precision and judgment that would be required to know when to squeeze that trigger was quite exceptional. It was our show-stopper, our grand finale to the half-hour show. It was a show-stopper, it really was. We had been performing it for some years, it had taken 18 months of practice before it was even presented to the public. After several years, when I was 11, one particular performance, it was a national-scale performance at a very large show, we were on for maybe a 10-day contract and around day six or seven, my mother missed a shot into the heart box and my father was shot in the chest. He managed to get backstage, my mother and I took our bows and rushed backstage to see what was going on. When I came around the back of our big steel backdrop which catches the bullets so they don't go astray, there he was on the floor, propped up against that wall. Our satin, sort of Gypsy blouse shirts we wore, very loose and flowing, it was filled out like a pouch with very thick, dark brown blood that was pumping straight out of his chest. He was put on the back of a circus truck and driven to a hospital because the ambulances couldn't get through the crowds at this big, national show. They operated on him and removed a bullet that stopped one millimeter, actually less than that, of the wall of his heart. He was a very barrel-chested, athletic man. He was only 5'2” but he was built like a brick shithouse, built like a barrel, and the unusual depth of his chest, from years of trapeze work and so on actually saved his life. On any normal build person the bullet would have been inside his heart and that would've been the end of it. The truth of the matter is my father was a very violent man, and an alcoholic. And he was an abusive guy. Many, many years later, my mother is still alive at 82, and now that he's passed away several years ago, she can actually talk, and she says it wasn't an accident.
It was the only way out of a violent relationship, and she took a gamble. It was a very extreme way out of a very intense situation. It was a pressure cooker; we were living in a 1931 schoolbus, only 16-feet long and 7-feet wide, and we were living that way for a decade. So a very intense environment. I guess she took the path that was open to her. So guns as a solution, violence as solution, I've had some perspective and plenty of time now to be able to consider the perspectives. And it's… I have six kids myself, two of them are still at home, they're 17 and 12, they love their video games. They play them all the time. When I look over their shoulders, and I look at the game mechanics and the mode of operation, what many games seem to fall back on… I look at them and I go, 'It just seems like it's the same old.' Don't get me wrong, I'm not out there crusading. I'm not advocating burning games, which is a topical subject at the moment, but I do keep seeing the same old mechanic. It just seems there aren't many alternatives. There seems to be basically one way: gore, violence, ultra-violence, and shooting. Surely there must be alternatives. And if there aren't alternatives, why not make one? This game is a personal experiment to see how we can get those creepy feelings without using violence.
Is that why you went the route of using real actors and real video?
That one is actually more a case of me trying to work out a methodology that was going to enable me to pull the project off. The project started with zero funding and no other people involved apart from my own family. At that point I thought, to create the range of characters that I want in this game, in this story… to have a dozen orphans, a caretaker, a cook and so on, that's a lot of CG. And then I see bad CG characters and I've lost my immersion. I don't feel immersed anymore because I'm so conscious of the clunky graphics. Therefore they need to be bloody good… like, really world-class, or don't go there. So I had a dilemma, because I didn't have funds, I didn't have CG experience, I didn't have a team to build the game. I thought, 'Well, I can shoot video. I can edit video, I can use after-effects, maybe the way to do this is to use live actors, and find a method to integrate them into the environment which I could build in 3D, and I'd have live actors in a 3D environment, but not just copy and pasted on top. They're from another dimension; thread of time and space, I like to say. You can only see them through your phone's screen. You can't see them standing in the environment. These orphans, that are lost, they're focusing, they're using all their energy to communicate with you. They're struggling through this veil of time and space to try and reach you, to plead for your help. That plot device enables me to use video in a CG environment and hopefully have it add to the story rather than detract. So there were pragmatic reasons, and then I started thinking about it, and I thought, 'You know what? This actually helps the whole storyline. There's a logic that allows this to happen in the story.'
So if they're trapped in another dimension and not of this plane anymore, it would make sense… You know, when you place actors into a scene and surround them with CG, there's something off about it. It seems like you've turned that into your advantage?
There's a very pioneering attitude in New Zealand. Being that most of the colonists came from England… once you're dumped on the shores of New Zealand as one of the first settlers, there's no 'Gee, I forgot the milk' and ducking back to the corner shop. You want supplies, you're gonna have to wait maybe a couple years, and they might never come. So everybody got used to making do, and looking at the resources they have, and seeing how they could think laterally to exploit those resources to create some tool, function, or solution to a problem. We call it 'Number 8 fencing wire,' 'A bit of Number 8.' When you say in New Zealand, 'That's a Number 8 solution' or 'a Number 8 fencing wire solution,' that's a reference to 8-gauge fencing wire, which farmers used for just about everything. When their tractor falls apart, you know, the back axle falls off when they go over a pot hole, they'll wire it back on with Number 8 fencing wire. It's become the in-joke in our country that you can fix anything with a bit of fencing wire, you just have to sit down and look at it and think. When I sat there going, 'I don't have the resources to be able to create 13 totally convincing, beautifully-animated human beings in a first attempt indie game, so I have to think about how I'm gonna do this.' That's where the video solution came out, and then it was, as you said, a matter of turning it around to being an advantage instead of a disadvantage. It's a cultural approach. Instead of saying, 'I must raise money so I can hire the best CG artists in the world,' you just go, 'What can I do with what I've got?'
Using Number 8 fencing wire.
Yeah! Yeah, basically.
How has the reaction been from Greenlight?
That was the test, the litmus test, for us. We woke up one day and checked our Greenlight and Valve was publishing the placement figures. All of a sudden there was a little stat box and it showed us sitting at 32 out of 860 games at that time. You could've knocked me over with a feather. Thirty-two? I thought we'd be 860, 832, 800. We didn't think this concept would get to where it is. They all know there's no guns, there's no blood, there's no violence, there's no corpses, there's no guts, there's no gore. And yet, they still want to see what the game's gonna be like when it comes out, so that spurs us on. You can check out the Huntsman's Greenlight page and vote for the game's inclusion on Steam. The images in this story were scanned from Waring's personal collection, and he also shared a newspaper clipping describing the shooting incident.