After Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3 shuffled off the shelves and Daikatana collapsed under a pile of hype and dead frogs, Ion Storm Dallas managed to ship one last game before folding in on itself. Tom Hall's Anachronox seemed like a gritty cyberpunk adventure, but it soon turned into a hilarious send up of - and tribute to - the console RPG. Anachronox had everything RPG players clamor for: a compelling plot, a strange and new setting to explore, a fantastic soundtrack, a good, if older engine, and deep, interesting characters. Unfortunately, the game shipped early and buggy, and, with little marketing from Eidos and the demise of Ion Storm Dallas, it sank into cult-favorite-class obscurity, good for geeks and bad for business. The game community and former Ion Storm Dallas employees were left to piece the game's universe together via unofficial patches and even an acclaimed machinima movie.
Tom Hall himself followed John Romero to Monkeystone Games and Midway, before leaving to pursue independent projects and, eventually, winding up with hush-hush MMOG developer KingsIsle Entertainment. I caught up with him at KingsIsle, where he proved quite willing to talk about the birth of Anachronox and what went wrong along the way.
On the larger level, "games start in all sorts of ways. Some start with characters, some with worlds, some with ideas for new methods of control," he says. "When I come up with a game, usually the seed of the game is understood, and that spurs on new ideas, and once there's enough density of ideas and most undefined facets fall into place, suddenly the world of concept makes 'sense,' and then I write the whole thing down at once." From there, it's simply a matter of breaking the idea down to the level of what tasks need to be done and what assets are required.
As for Anachronox, it "can be seen as part Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, part [Commander] Keen, part Final Fantasy, part parody, and part epic, hard sci-fi." He admits that it was "hubris to take 15 people and say you're going to make a console-style RPG, but, well, that's what we did." Anachronox actually began its life in a very humble place, he says. "The name Anachronox came to me, as many ideas do, in the bathroom. Then, I had to figure out what that word meant. It seemed like the city they lived in, but I broke the word down to anachronism and noxious. One combination of these two things would be 'poison from the past' or 'poison from another time.' So, that became the basis for the history of [the] place, but also the basis for the characters. They were each healing a poison from their past." Robot sidekick PAL-18 was another bathroom idea, he says. "Luckily, I have a notepad in there. I can't fathom all the shower ideas I lost before putting a recorder in there."
Anachronox was caught in the slow-motion explosion of a drama bomb. Ion Storm Dallas was busy eating itself, a process chronicled everywhere from NPR to Gamespot to our own magazine, and Tom Hall was caught in the middle. "I had different roles at different times: Chief Creative Officer, President, etc. But, basically, I served as the Project Lead on Anachronox, and, where I could, as conscience of the company." He blames Ion's collapse on the company's lack of focus, or rather, their focus on things other than game development. "Once there was a re-focus on making games - boom, they got done."