HOW COINCIDENTAL SIMILARITIES LED TO CHANGES TO SYPHON FILTER
despite having no way of knowing, a number of different aspects of Syphon Filter were so close to Metal Gear Solid’s that they were uncanny, forcing eidetic to make changes where it could to pre-emptively stamp out any accusations – however unfair – of plagiarism.
Though the names themselves weren’t similar, there was a familiarity to them. It was a “weird, funky name that makes no sense”, explains Richard Ham, “and so was Metal Gear’s”. Both had a relevance to the story – though MGS was stronger on that front – but Eidetic was too far along for a change by the time Konami announced the game.
THE ASIAN CO-STAR
The most peculiar coincidence is the chatty sidekick character that both studios had. Both would regularly interrupt gameplay to speak with the main character via an earpiece, but strangest of all is how Syphon Filter’s character was originally named Mei Xing, whereas Konami had named theirs Mei ling. The final name used in Eidetic’s game ended up as lian Xing.
THE GATLING GUN
There’s a boss fight halfway through Syphon Filter where logan must dash between pillars to avoid being set alight by a flamethrower. It’s one of the better boss fights in the game, which is lucky considering Girdeux – the character you encounter at this point – was originally equipped with a Gatling gun and played out in a fashion very similar to Vulcan Raven in Metal Gear Solid.
THE BUNKER MISSION
If Syphon Filter had opened with this mission then it would’ve been hard for anyone, having recently come off the back of MGS only a few months prior, to have not criticised Eidetic for copying. The feeling of the level – with the enemies draped in white and spotlights raising alarms should logan get caught in them – is all too familiar to the opening mission of Shadow Moses.
THE BOSS FIGHT
One aspect that simply couldn’t be changed ahead of launch was the helicopter boss battle atop a snow-covered rooftop. The flyby shootings of the chopper and even the overall visual appearance make it impossible to ignore comparisons. But Eidetic had already re-programmed one boss battle. It just had no more time to do the same for this one – it wasn’t as simple as swapping out one weapon for another this time… down to a videogame. It took Ham and the team discussing the project with a new producer at Sony, who brought to the table a love of anime – in particular a popular assassin-themed manga series known as Golgo 13, which would shift the gameplay towards playing as a hitman. “It still had that title [of Syphon Filter],” adds Ham, “but it didn’t really mean anything any more. That was just something that the accounting department at Sony had called it and so the name had to stick, and so they came to us with the idea and we said we could work with that.”
From this point on, Syphon Filter would come to be a merging point for a considerable number of personal interests for the direction of the project. From Ham’s side, he had been inspired by the Wachowski’s film Assassins with Antonio Banderas, and pushed hard for a change to the modern setting as a result. “There was a lot of pushback for that,” he adds, “and ultimately Sony said, ‘Okay, okay, we’ll give you the modern day, but we can’t possibly let the player be a full-on assassin in our game, players won’t accept that, players won’t want to be evil – they’ll want to be good.’ Now, this was back in the mid-nineties of course. It is unthinkable now, in our postgrand Theft Auto world, that there was a time when Sony thought no one would ever want to play as a bad guy.”
But then there was art director John Garvin’s obsession with The X-files, which ultimately led to the silliness of the concept being pushed out in favour of a more serious, shadowy, conspiracy-theorist style story. The final suggestion came from Connie Booth, a name that Sony fans ought to already know. The executive
producer of product development once had a keen interest in a career in the CIA, Ham tells us, and this passion ultimately led to her suggestion to move the game away from playing as a hitman and more towards a spy versus spy setting. It was here that these interests converged and Syphon Filter really began to take shape.
And yet it wasn’t only the story that was drawn from a hodgepodge of inspirations. The gameplay, too, was born from a love of so many other elements that came before it, both from videogames and film. “From a gameplay point of view, Tomb Raider and Goldeneye were my two big influences,” explains Ham, “I love the modern day setting, and I love that Goldeneye had this list of objectives and it wasn’t just, ‘Hey, collect the three coloured keys to open the doors,’ and instead there were story objectives that you had to do. That was brilliant. And I loved the thirdperson aiming combat system of Tomb Raider.”
But that wasn’t all, Ham’s biggest driving force behind Syphon Filter didn’t even come from videogames at all, but the classic gun-fu cinema of the likes of John Woo and Chow Yun Fat. “I wanted to create that kind of experience on a console, because that wasn’t something that – at the time – anyone had ever experienced. I really tried to push that right from the get-go.” This, in turn, came from a recognition of the frantic combat of not only Quake – which was the shooter to beat at the time – but of that game’s heritage in Doom and Wolfenstein. Ham explains that while he adored Quake’s 3D mouselook gameplay, he lamented the loss of going up against seemingly impossible odds. “I really missed that sense of panic in
It’s easy to say that while [Syphon Filter] borrows aspects from other games, it comes nowhere near close to feeling like any of them. It’s a game in its own right, straight and simple ign, 1999 KONAMI PUSHED US SO HARD WITHOUT EVEN KNOWING WE EXISTED, WE WERE JUST THIS PLUCKY GROUP OF A DOZEN OR SO DEVELOPERS IN OREGON
Doom when you open the door and there’s like 20 Cacodemons in there, so the other thing that I was really, really keen on was putting the player under pressure, to really make it feel like they were going up against an army. Which at the time in 3D – especially on the Playstation – was just not a viable thing to do.”
This was, in fact, one of the major constraints for Eidetic during the game’s development, as it was with so many developers dealing with full 3D gaming on the Playstation for the first time. There was just not enough computing power to allow for the hopes and dreams of designers, and Ham was one such designer trapped
between his grand ideas and the actual capabilities of Sony’s first console. The team had learnt from Bubsy 3D, at least, in that there was no shame in reducing the game’s resolution down from high definition to help them achieve better visuals, but this didn’t help much with the hardware restrictions. Memory, in particular, was a constant problem, and this meant implementing clever ways to allow for the scope of the project to retain its core while still working within technical limitations.
Of primary concern for Ham was the constraint on the number of enemies that could be on-screen at any one time, a number that he was never fully satisfied with due to his hopes of creating a constant threat of attack from enemies. “We didn’t really pull that off,” he admits, “because in the original Syphon Filter, at no time is there ever more than five guys attacking you. But, I still worked to make sure that you constantly felt under threat, so a big part of the design was how to respawn guys in a way that felt natural, they weren’t warping in or coming in through dimensional jumpgates or something like that because it was a modern world, we couldn’t do that, but I didn’t want them to just appear. And you know what, if you play the original Syphon Filter, you’ll notice that you’re always getting attacked from behind. It was awesome that they attacked from behind because it wouldn’t have occurred to the player to target lock on them and so the camera would instantly zip around and then you’ve got a full-view picture of your guy shooting over the shoulder as he runs away from guys, and you can get these really cool cinematic moments that fundamentally did not exist at the time in videogames.”
But this sense of cinematic gunplay wasn’t the only aspect to the game that players will remember, it was equally as popular for its stealth gameplay – a facet of design that was not nearly as prevalent in gaming as it is now. This wasn’t a need to compete with the likes of Metal Gear Solid – which would indirectly have a massive impact on the game in other ways – but instead a desire to expand on the small segments of stealth that were glimpsed in Goldeneye.
“The only reason we had stealth in our gameplay wasn’t because, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna reinvent how stealth works!’ because stealth didn’t really work at the time,” recalls Ham. “The reason we had those stealth elements goes back to Goldeneye. I still remember to this day, in the very first level, where it’s on the dam at the beginning of the movie and you have to infiltrate the place, you fight some guys, you find yourself in a heating duct and you go along and look down, and you shoot an unaware guard… that was a really revelatory moment in videogames. I think it was just about the only time there was any significant stealth in Goldeneye at all, but I thought that was such a cool moment that we should make a whole level like that. And then, ‘let’s make another level like that!’ and so on.”
Despite the fact that stealth was not such an important aspect of the game, there was an obvious association that could be drawn between Metal Gear Solid and Syphon Filter, and despite the two only releasing a handful of months apart, the announcement of Kojima’s landmark title gave birth to a growing fear in the team that the former was ready to decimate the latter. “I still remember the first time I saw MGS at E3 on the jumbotron,” says Ham, “and we were all just in the crowd, staring up at this. Somehow the gods – the 3D, real-world, action adventure gods – had decided to step down to Earth and show us, ‘This is how you do it.’ And we were like, ‘Oh my god, we’re gonna die! This is going to be Bubsy 3D all over again! We got destroyed
The execution could have been better accomplished, Eidetic [introduced] a few ideas of its own, and these go a long way towards providing the game with its own identity edge, 1999
by Mario 64, now we’re going to get destroyed by Metal Gear.’ And those last few months, they were a death march. Because as more and more information came out about Metal Gear, it was stunning to us.”
This was in large part because of the uncanny resemblances, from the similarities of their unusual names that explained very little of the product to various aspects of both games that were, frankly, too close for comfort. “We had a plucky, female Asian sidekick that talks to you on the radio all the time. They had one! We had a big boss fight with a gigantic big guy with a Gatling gun who you chase. They had a boss fight like that!” The similarities were numerous, and yet all Eidetic could do was make a handful of changes where it was possible to, and just hope that Syphon Filter could stand on its own, away from these glaring similarities.
With only a handful of months left in development, there wasn’t much more that could be done about it, the saving grace being that at least Syphon Filter favoured gun action over stealth – basically the opposite of Metal Gear Solid. It drove everyone on the team to do what they could to make their game be the best it could be, even if they each felt they were working towards inevitable destruction. “[Konami] pushed us so hard without even knowing we existed, because we were just this plucky, little group of a dozen or so developers in Oregon, and they were just this monolithic, mega-developer – they had like 50 or 60 people!”
But what stood out the most about Eidetic’s game was not its similarities with any other game – or its inspirations – but instead its smooth amalgamation of existing concepts. The team brought together so many ideas that the sum of its parts felt completely new. Syphon Filter even skipped the traditional must-hit holiday season before Christmas and still managed to become a huge success for Sony and the PS1. “Metal Gear Solid launched in time for Christmas 1998, we launched in February of the following year,” says Ham. “We were going to bed that night knowing that the reviews that were gonna come out were just gonna completely destroy us, and they didn’t. They said, ‘This is something really cool,
THIS IS GOING TO BE BUBSY 3D ALL OVER AGAIN! WE GOT DESTROYED BY MARIO 64, NOW WE’RE GOING TO GET DESTROYED BY METAL GEAR
this is a fusion of all these cool things. You might think it’s a Metal Gear clone but it’s not! It’s stands on its own.’ And that was absolutely amazing. All that hard work actually paid off.” Eidetic had assumed it would be history repeating itself, that the ghost of Bubsy 3D was to curse them forever, to always find themselves one step behind others. But in fact quite the opposite happened, and the team was rewarded.
Eidetic lives on today, with many of the original creators of Syphon Filter still working at the same company, now under the name of Sony Bend and working on Days Gone. It’s incredible to think of the upcoming zombie survival shooter, and consider that if not for Syphon Filter and the “constant panic of development” – as Ham puts it – the developer perhaps wouldn’t be here now, especially after its misstep with Bubsy 3D. And while the franchise of Syphon Filter may not have stood the test of time, the heroic determination that went into the creation of the original has, at least, helped the spirit of Eidetic to live on.
the later syphon Filter games, eclipsed by the likes of splinter cell, struggled. they fared much better, however, on PSP.
designed as multiplayer, but made single player late in development, the first Ps2 syphon Filter game did not turn out well.
there was enough variety to the pace of the game that each level felt distinct. the option to play most stages stealthily or gung ho was not common in game design at this point.
the taser didn’t have too significant a role in the game, but it still managed to capture gamers’ attention as they found great humour in electrifying an enemy to the point that they set alight.
A combination of dramatic and explosive cinematics were paired with Fmvs of characters talking at ‘the Agency’, the latter being a cheap solution to moving the story along on a budget.
Syphon Filter really was a sum of its parts. For as much as combat was the core element, there were sections where tomb Raider-style platforming was necessary, too.