Shepherd and the cast of Host recently joined me on a Zoom call, which was more than a little eerie after rewatching Host the night before, to talk about making a game that you can only play at 10pm and the obscure Kojima game that inspired it.
Sure, it's a novel idea, resurrecting a bygone genre with a fresh gimmick and a sly wink to cult classics like Night Trap and Phantasmagoria, but when you consider Shepherd's background and ambitions, Ghosts makes a lot of sense. He's a massive horror buff, filmmaker, and genuinely passionate fan of '90s horror games, and he wants to find a new way to scare people senseless.
"Yeah, I'm just kind of treating it like a scary film," Shepherd says. "That's the main thing for me, to make it as scary as possible; to make it the scariest thing I possibly can. And to present it in a way that's good for gamers to experience as well, so that they don't just feel passive; they feel integrated within those experiences."
Unfortunately for the actors involved, which include Host's Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, and Caroline Ward, Shepherd isn't content with simply scaring his audience – he likes to keep his castmembers on their toes as well.
"We never know anything," Moore grumbles. "Jed never tells us anything. Even when we're filming; after filming, we know nothing, never."
"But that's the fun bit!" Shepherd argues, before Moore interjects with, "Is it, though?"
Throughout the conversation, it's obvious that despite his close friendship with the actors, Shepherd is running a tight ship. Bishop, as if tip-toeing through a minefield, elaborates on the intrigue from within the cast about what's going on in Ghosts.
"We've all only been told our own little bits about our own individual characters," she says. "We actually don't know anything about each other's characters, and what kind of special things are happening to each other throughout the game. And so I think there will be a lot of surprises that I'm just very curious about."
"There's a part of our character that each of us has... I don't want to give anything away, but they know each of us has a certain thing. And I'm very curious how each person's thing is going to come into play, because they're all very specific... it's so hard to say anything without giving it all away. I want to see how it'll play out inside the house when we actually have to confront The Long Lady and/or confront each other's little things."
"It's gonna be really exciting," Moore adds. "Like Haley said, there's stuff that we know, like all these different storylines that are going to tie over. Good luck, Jed," she teases. "I'm feeling overwhelmed, and I'm not even writing."
Like the FMV horror games of yesteryear, you get to choose whose perspective you follow throughout the duration of Ghosts; that way you have a darn good reason to continue tuning in night after night. "If you wanted to just follow Caroline, you can just see what she's doing the entire game. You have that option. Or you can pick another girl. I mean, there is kind of a primary throughout the game where you can see everything that happens for everyone, but I think it's quite hard to do that. I think it's replayable because you want to see everything. And the choices you make really do affect how the game ends up as well."
Don't be late
One hard and fast requirement is that you plant yourself in front of a screen precisely at 10pm local time, otherwise you'll miss out. Try to boot up the game anytime before that and you'll be met with a blank screen, signaling that the broadcast isn't live.
"You can't pause it. 10pm rolls around and that live TV show starts. You see the credits are here, the theme song, and then you're in the show. And then you have to make sure everything goes smoothly. You have to make sure certain things happen. You have to keep an eye out for The Long Lady. You have to keep an eye on these girls' heart rates, and you're witnessing just the craziest things you've ever seen in a video game, like ever," Shepherd says, adding, "And obviously, we've proved with Host how much we can scare people."
Asked how he came up with the 10pm element, Shepherd credits his unconventional background and, kind of endearingly, a 2003 Gameboy Advance game produced by Hideo Kojima. "So I just like to do things a little bit different," says Shepherd. "And because I don't come from a [game development] background, I don't have a set of rules."
"There's a game from the late '90s called Boktai: The Sun Is in Your Hand. It's a Hideo Kojima game, and you play a vampire hunter hunting vampires, and it has a solar panel on the back of the Gameboy cartridge. So it makes you go out into the sun and get the sun rays on your Gameboy to help you battle these vampires. And I'm just like, 'that's absolutely genius. What's the equivalent of that now?' And the equivalent is making people feel like they have a task to do, and it's life or death, because it is for these girls."
The appeal of having everyone play at the same time is more than a novelty to the makers of Ghosts. Ward likens the experience to waiting for new episodes of your favorite TV series, which I'll remind my younger viewers, used to premiere at set times *shakes cane*.
"The way the world is now, everything's just on demand. And you can watch, you can binge, a whole series, you can watch anything you want at any time," she prefaces. "You've got the freedom to do that. But you've also kind of lost that little magic of the anticipation of waiting for something. Like, waiting a week to watch the next episode of your favorite show. You've never really had that with games, unless your Game Boy battery ran out."
A new nightmare
Throughout our conversation, the looming specter of the fabled Long Lady hung in the air, just waiting to emerge. The spirit haunting the characters in Ghosts is an especially sensitive subject to Shepherd, who's careful not to spill much beyond what we already know: she's been known to peek through the windows of houses in times of tragedy, and if you look her straight in the face, you're donezo.
With instruction from Shepherd, The Long Lady is being designed by Trevor Henderson, known for creating the urban legend SirenHead, while the legendary Jim Henson's Creature Shop (Labyrinth / The Dark Crystal) is handling the fabrication. Shepherd wants this manifestation to last, long after the credits have rolled. "My aim is for the legend of the Long Lady to expand outside of the game, with people in school playgrounds, just kids going 'yeah, have you heard about the Long Lady?' That's what I want. And watch, it's gonna happen. People are gonna be talking about the Long Lady," Shepherd assures me.
Then, he reveals that he hopes to bring the Long Lady to film after Ghosts is released. "And yeah, I want to expand and then, not to get too ahead of ourselves, but I want Ghosts and the Long Lady to be outside of games as well. I want there to be a film version of this as well. Making the full-motion video game is a really good way of seeing if a film version would work without the game element."
We've yet to see whether Ghosts can successfully revitalize the live-action video game genre, but there's no denying the achievements of Host, which currently holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes despite being filmed entirely within the health guidelines from the pandemic. It was like catching lightning in a bottle, Shepherd explains, and understandably he hopes "the bottle's big enough for another bolt of lightning."
I asked for the recipe for lightning in a bottle, and Shepherd immediately pointed to the actors sharing the screen with him. "If I was gonna put it down to, like, 'what made Host special?' It's these five girls here."
Nodding my head, I offered up that Host was effective at scaring me mostly because it seemed so real, which is largely a result of the acting and the tangible real-life friendship between the cast. The fact that, despite existing in completely separate universes, Ghosts is bringing back the same group of actors is a good sign that it'll be scary for the same reason as Host: you don't want bad things to happen to such chill, relatable, and believable characters.
"The more comfortable you are, and the more fun you're having while you're making something, the more natural it's going to come across in any format, if that's a film or a game or whatever," Webb says. "The more comfortable you are, the more real it seems, and that makes it more scary ... and I think we've got this unique thing where we can just play off each other."
Drandova also touches on the close relationship she enjoys with her fellow cast members as well as the folks behind the scenes, and how that benefits the material. "I learned that I have really cool friends," Drandova tells me, adding, "And they're also really talented filmmakers and actors ... There's definitely a level of trust within the whole team that I've never experienced anywhere else. So I'm super excited to have that again on Ghosts, because I'm sure that that will be there."
Even more encouraging is that while the cast of Host undoubtedly channeled their real-life friendship in their performances, they were limited to online communication, such is the conceit of the movie. Meanwhile, with vaccines now paving the way for in-person gatherings, there's potential for an even more potent group performance.
"When we shot the teaser, it was the first time we'd seen each other in a really long time. And you could just feel the electricity, and as actors being able to then physically play off of each other versus, you know... it is such a different medium trying to connect with someone over zoom. But what we like as actors is being in-person with each other and being able to experience the emotion and react to someone else's emotion, that's what gives us a real high," Bishop explains.
Ghosts is currently scheduled to launch on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC on February 22, 2022. You can back the project via the official campaign here.