Behind the Classics: Amy Hennig Talks Soul Reaver Secrets

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Behind the Classics: Amy Hennig Talks Soul Reaver Secrets
Behind the Classics: Legacy of Kain - Soul Reaver

Raziel, the ‘hero’ of Soul Reaver

Ah, Soul Reaver. I remember it well! This gruesome little gem made quite the splash when it landed on PSone in 1999. As the wounded, ostracized vampire Raziel, your goal was to avenge yourself against the corrupt vampire lord Kain and restore balance to the decaying world of Nosgoth. I particularly remember the game’s inspired approach to combat; your vampiric foes couldn’t be killed by ordinary means, so after weakening them with hand-to-hand combat you had to hurl their broken bodies onto a sharp stake or into a patch of sunlight to finish them off. The level design was also a knockout, as Raziel was able to phase-shift into a spectral realm in order to bypass obstacles or solve puzzles.

But above all else, Soul Reaver is remembered for its story and characters. And we have the game’s director Amy Hennig to thank for that! As you’re probably well aware, Hennig later joined celebrated PlayStation developer Naughty Dog, serving as creative director and writer for Jak and Daxter and all three UNCHARTED titles.

Hennig graciously took the time to share her memories of Soul Reaver’s development, including some never-before-revealed insight into the game’s origins. Read on for the full story straight from Hennig, and be sure to leave your favorite Soul Reaver moments in the comments.

PlayStation Blog: What was the original concept for the game?

Amy Hennig, Director and Writer of Soul Reaver: I don’t know how many people know this, but initially, it wasn’t actually a sequel to Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain at all – our original proposal was a concept for a new IP we named “Shifter,” loosely inspired by Paradise Lost. The protagonist was essentially a fallen angel of death, a reaper of souls hunted by his former brethren, and now driven to expose and destroy the false god they all served.

The Shifter concept was the genesis of the game that would become Soul Reaver; the core ideas were all there. The hero was an undead creature, able to shift between the spectral and material realms, and glide on the tattered remains of his wing-like coattails. We conceived the spirit realm as a twisted, expressionistic version of the physical world. The hero was bent on revenge after being betrayed and cast down by his creator – like Raziel, he was a dark savior figure, chosen to restore balance to a blighted, dystopian world.

Behind the Classics: Legacy of Kain - Soul Reaver

When we were asked to adapt this concept into a sequel to Blood Omen, our challenge was to take all these ideas and merge them creatively into the Legacy of Kain mythos.

PSB: Did you know you were working on something special? What were your creative conditions as you worked on it – uncertainty, confidence, terror?

AH: You’re never really sure when you’re in the middle of a project. Because we were initially such a small team, we were able to work under the radar for a while, and this allowed us to tinker with some unusual ideas that might not have survived premature scrutiny or skepticism.

When we first shared the concept with our colleagues in the company, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the idea but also justifiable concern that we might be taking on an unrealistic number of technical risks. We pared back on some secondary features – we had originally planned to include shape-shifting (morphing) as well as plane-shifting, for instance – so we could focus on elements that were more critical to our core concept. By the time we unveiled the game to the press, we were starting to get the feeling that we might be onto something special.

As far as the creative conditions went – we were very invested in our original Shifter idea, so it naturally caused a bit of consternation when we were first asked to adapt the concept to be a Blood Omen sequel. But creative constraints can be inspiring and invigorating, and once we dug into the challenge, the concept evolved in all kinds of exciting ways.

We definitely had set ourselves a lot of ambitious technical goals, though – so, yes, there was a fair amount of uncertainty and terror about what we were undertaking!

PSB: Did you draw inspiration from anywhere in particular for the game’s thematic elements, characters, or dialog?

AH: There were so many different inspirations, it’s hard to just name a few…
As I mentioned earlier, the original idea was very loosely inspired by the rebellious angels of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The spiritual structure of the world was based on the philosophy of Gnosticism, the belief that the cosmos is ruled by a malevolent “pretender” god, that humans are prisoners in a spiritual lie, and that mankind’s struggle is a fight for free will in the face of seemingly insurmountable Fate.

We wanted to give Nosgoth’s dystopian future a decaying 19th-century industrial aesthetic, while the look of the spectral realm was inspired by the twisted architecture and disorienting angles of 1920s German Expressionist cinema.

Regarding the dialogue, we obviously took a cue from Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, with its florid language and ornate monologues. We wanted to carry a similar style into the sequels. I also drew inspiration from the dense, literate dialogue of historical dramas like A Man for All Seasons, Becket, and A Lion in Winter.

Behind the Classics: Legacy of Kain - Soul ReaverBehind the Classics: Legacy of Kain - Soul Reaver

PSB: It was an ambitious title for its time. What were the biggest challenges in realizing your original vision?

AH: Our biggest challenge, hands-down, was getting the data-streaming working, to allow us to have a seamless, interconnected world with no load events. I think we were one of the first developers to tackle this problem (along with Naughty Dog, on Crash Bandicoot). It proved to be way more difficult than we had initially anticipated – if I recall, we were still struggling to get the textures to dynamically pack correctly, just a couple months before release. We ultimately got it working by the skin of our teeth, but I wonder if we would’ve embarked on such an ambitious plan if we’d known how difficult it was going to be!

Our second challenge, of course, was figuring out how to store two sets of data for the spectral and material realms, and how to implement the real-time morph between the two environments. Our initial plan was over-ambitious, involving texture-morphing as well as geometry-morphing, but we realized pretty early on that our texture memory (and time) was too limited to achieve this. We came up with the idea of leveraging the 3DS Max animation timeline to attach spectral values to the vertices in the geometry – i.e., frame 0 was the material world, and frame 1 was the spectral realm (or vice versa; I can’t remember for sure). This way we could alter the x,y,z coordinates of each vertex, as well as its RGB lighting values, to create a twisted, more eerily lit version of the physical realm.

Our ultimate challenge, though, was schedule and scope. Conceived as an open-world, Zelda-esque 3D adventure game, Soul Reaver was incredibly ambitious. Crystal Dynamics’ Gex engine gave us a leg-up on the 3D technology, but in essence we were writing a game engine from scratch, while developing a new IP. These days, a developer wouldn’t think of attempting such a thing in less than three years (minimum), but Eidos wanted the game in less than two. In the end, we shipped Soul Reaver in under 2.5 years, but not without some unfortunate eleventh-hour cuts which still pain me today. The scope of the game was definitely too ambitious, but if we had shipped the game that Fall, instead of that Summer, I think we could have reduced the scope of the game more elegantly.

Behind the Classics: Legacy of Kain - Soul Reaver

PSB: How close to your original concept was the finished game?

AH: Pretty close, considering all the changes we went through over the course of development. We had to cut content, but the core concept of the game remained unchanged (even going back to the original Shifter proposal).

To hit the August ’99 release date, we had to cut the last few levels of the game, and end on a cliffhanger that set up Soul Reaver 2. Originally, Raziel was going to hunt down and destroy all of his former brothers as well as Kain – and then, using his newly-acquired abilities, he would’ve activated the long-dormant pipes of the Silenced Cathedral to wipe out the remaining vampires of Nosgoth with a sonic blast. Only then would he realize that he’d been the Elder God’s pawn all along, that the purging of the vampires had devastating consequences, and that the only way to set things right would be to use Moebius’ time-streaming device to go back in time and alter history (in the sequel).

So the story would have arrived at a similar place, just by a different route. In the end, as much as I hated its bluntness, Soul Reaver’s “To Be Continued” ending probably turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because I think it opened up more interesting story options for the sequels.

PSB: Which element of the game are you most proud of?

AH: I’m extremely proud of how our relatively small team managed to pull off all those groundbreaking technical challenges. And as a designer, I still take pride in the originality of Soul Reaver’s vision, and the unified way we were able to mesh the game mechanics with the fiction – e.g., devouring souls for sustenance, and the way the spectral plane was integrated into the health system; how the combat mechanics were designed around defeating immortal vampires; the ability to glide on broken wings; and the balance between Raziel’s mechanics in the spirit and material realms, especially the ability to use the morphing terrain to your advantage. In many ways, I think it’s still the most well-designed game I’ve worked on.

PSB: How would you like Soul Reaver to be remembered? What did it bring to the video game medium?

AH: Fondly, I hope! Even thirteen years later, I’m humbled and gratified to have fans and colleagues come up to me and say how memorable the game was for them, or how it influenced them as young game designers. The series still has an enthusiastic fan base, and is remembered affectionately in ways we couldn’t have foreseen all those years ago.

I hope it’s remembered as a well-constructed game with an original vision and an engaging story, and as groundbreaking in terms of what we were able to achieve on the PlayStation at the time. Our approach to voice acting and performance was also innovative for the time, the way we brought the actors in to record their dialogue together rather than in isolation. The performance capture process we use on Uncharted today – where we involve the actors as collaborators, and have them play the scenes together on the stage – owes its origins to the techniques we established for Soul Reaver fifteen years ago.

PSB: Which of the Soul Reaver characters is closest to your heart?

AH: It’s impossible for me to choose between Raziel and Kain – they’re two inseparable sides of the same coin (so to speak). As a character, I probably like Kain more. Although ostensibly a villain, he’s really a classic hero, fighting for free will in a world shackled by Fate. Raziel is a more tragic figure, a pawn, and that makes him sympathetic – but he’s also a deeply flawed character, blinded by self-righteousness and vengeance. I loved writing for both of them.

More Behind the Classics

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    • I have always loved this series and hope it returns one day. Kain would have to be one of my favorites. I actually use Kain as my online name as sort of a tribute to the series. Good to see this game brought to a new generation of gamers. Hopefully this can possibly lead to a reboot and the possible conclusion of a series that was left open in the end.

    • I still have this game in my collection. Classic title. The way the game morphes in game was such an awesome gameplay feature. I just played this on my PspGo last year too, so heres hoping we see another Raziel game in the future. I would luv to have 1 for my Vita…As always, Keep on Gaming.

    • I could never get into this series when it was originally on ps1. But i’m always interested in learning the history of games.

    • Does any one know if we can play this on my Vita? I never had the chance to try this game. And isn’t this a little out of left field?

    • We need a new game from this series soon :'(

    • @4..I own a Vita and Blood Omen is not compatable at the moment, Soul Reaver is portable to the Vita, but only via Ps3 to Vita download. You cannot directly transfer it from the PSN store to your Vita. Hope this helps.

    • If any series deserved the HD treatment, this would be it. I would love to see both a digital release and a physical disc at retail including the entirety of the Legacy series:

      Blood Omen
      Soul Reaver
      Soul Reaver 2
      Blood Omen 2

      All collected with bonus material, soundtrack collection featuring favorites from Henifin, Harland & Hedges, Theme collection, avatar collection….

      …we also need to immortalize the work of Tony Hedges as Mortanius the Necromancer!

    • I just hope that this motivates some kind of Soul Reaver HD Collection. Soul Reaver 2 and 3 were released on the PS2, and the original game, while released on the PS1, still had a DC version that used higher resolution textures.

    • One of my all time favorites and I started playing games at Atari era, so there are plenty of gaming, I remember this game mostly because of the great character and environment design, I really loved to shift in between realms it was a treat to explore too.

      I wonder how cool would be to have Legacy of Kain on this generation of consoles, with the PS3 graphics it would be an amazing game, given the treat design of current GoW or Uncharted, it could be a flag PS IP.

      Give it a thought Sony, you need those console sellers new IPs, specially on your handheld department.

    • Amy Hennig is a genius

    • Sigh… I really really really want another game in this series… you left it on a bloody cliffhanger again!!! Finish the story!

    • what 7 said :P

    • Hummm let’s forget about the past.

      Amy, what are you working on now? Uncharted 4? New franchise? Both? hehe

      No, but for real, is Amy Hennig working on the story in The Last of Us? If not, who is working on it?

    • This is too good a game series never to see the PS3! You really have to bring it back as HD collection. Also you should consider making a new one…
      This is by far one of the best classics, I loved the game, the acting and the breath taking cinematic.
      ”Free will is an illusion” and ”i know you raziel you are worthy” are two sentences that all true games love

    • Spike VGAs will have a Soul Reaver teaser. No platform. No release date. Just a teaser. It’ll be a launch title on the next generation of consoles. I’m calling that right now.

    • Funny this interview was posted a few days after I thought to myself, “Man, what happened to the Legacy of Kain/Soul Reaver series??” This franchise is ripe for a new installment!

    • I agree with #7 that we NEED an HD collection, or at least the PS2 games released as classics! Since Blood Omen and Soul Reaver are already in PSN form, Blood Omen 2, Soul Reaver 2, and Defiance NEED to be rereleased somehow. The entire series available digitally on one system would be amazing! Even better if it was ALL on one disc. I’d give anything to play Defiance again. Best. Storytelling. EVER.

    • Amazing game, but that “To Be Continued” was devastating as a teenager. So devastating, that I didn’t even care to play the following entries in the series. It was way too abrupt, and it was obvious to everyone who played that the final stages were cut (I remember going back to a certain tomb several times trying to figure out if I missed something). Shame.

      As for a new Soul Reaver/Legacy of Kain.. not happening anytime soon, as CD is busy with Tomb Raider. However, if it does happen sometime down the line, it won’t be nearly as good as the classics.. no Amy Hennig, no sale.

    • I would really like a new legacy of kain game loved defiance

    • This game was amazing. I was 20 when it released, and it blew me away. Still love it to this day, and it holds up surprisingly well.

    • im hoping that they will make new game or one of them will make it into PSASBR at least

    • my 2 favorite moments in soul reaver is the intro and the ending, just epic

      ” Tumbling, burning with white-hot fire. I plunged into the depths of the abyss.
      Unspeakable pain, relentless agony, time ceased to exist”

      that was just …. no words for that and in the ending

      “At last! I must say, I’m disappointed in your progress, I imagined you would
      be here sooner. Tell me, did it trouble you to murder your brothers?”

    • I still remember the first time I played Soul Reaver’s demo on PSone lol, I love this series to death and I hope maybe one day a remake,reboot or even hd collection happens, perhaps continue the story :D Anyways glad to know that many people still remembers the legacy of Kain series. Raziel and Kain FTW!

    • I believe Square Enix owns the rights to this franchise right now as they purchased Crystal Dynamics and Eidos. I really would love a new installment or an HD remake of the.series but I will not get my hopes up. No matter what happens with the series in the future, I would like to tip my hat to you, Amy Henning. Here’s to one of the greatest games i have ever played.

    • I’m a huge fan of this game; a few years ago, I was at the launch event for Uncharted 2 here in SF and saw Ms. Hennig sitting quietly in the movie theater where it was going on and breathlessly informed her how much I loved Soul Reaver. That was probably not what she was most eager to hear on the eve of the Uncharted 2 launch, but she was totally gracious about it.

      Between Soul Reaver and Uncharted, she does definitely seem to have a knack for pushing teams beyond what most people would think possible, or at least “safe.”

    • Soul Reaver Uncut HD Edition


    • I would never forget this game it was the 1st game I ever got when I 1st bought my ps1 when I was a little kid

    • *cough*playstation allstars battle royale character*cough*

    • I actually played the sequel on the PS2 and it was great… simply put the theme and atmosphere alone was amazing. You always felt alone until you morphed into the other dimension…. the puzzles were amazing in there own way. Here’s hoping the series finds a new entry… HOPING FOR THE PS VITA!!!! MAKE IT HAPPEN PLAYSTATIOn!!!

    • this is my fav franchise, but i couldnt find Blood Omen 2 or Defiance so i never played them and hoped they would be offered up on the PSN. would love a HD collection of the complete series and a new game as well.

    • It’s so nice to see other people hoping that this series would get an HD remake/collection. Most ideally with every game done so far, not just the PS2 games.

    • I would definitely buy these in a HD remake for PS3/Vita! Played all of them in their original versions, would love a remake!

    • can we at least get Legacy of Kain Defiance on PSN :P

      hope Square Enix does something about the IP.

    • I would love to see a new game in this series. Likely a day 1 buy for me if it came to be. Even a HD rerelease as a set with trophies would get my attention.

    • Yeah man i hope we see more from this series. I think SE owns it now. So we may see something later on but the writting has to be right. Amy Henning did a great job, wish we got a real ending though, lol. I knew that Uncharted was going to be epic since she was working on it. Maybe someday we could see HD remake of the originals.

    • This game still ranks among my favorite from that era. Loved playing it on the Dreamcast. I’m glad you guys managed to grab Hennig for a second, the interview was great. :)

    • man i was and still am obsessed with the kain series i really wish crystal dynamics would release another and finish the series. the ending for defiance was epic

    • It’s a shame Amy Henning does not own the right so SR – I’d love to see what her and the Naughty Dog team could do on a new SR reboot for PS3.

    • *own the rights to SR

    • Man i loved these games they bring back some memorys.. I vote for and HD collection or even a new addition to the series.

    • The Dreamcast version looked stunning connect with the VGA adapter to a computer monitor!

    • i love this Soul Reaver, one of my favorietes on psx. i want to see a hd remake =)

    • I feel in love with Soul Reaver by the time the opening finished.

      I really hope the 3 PS2 games get a HD treatment. I’ll take them off PS2 classics but these games I think can pull HD off very well imo.

    • It was one of my favorite platform title back then, hopefully PS vita get’s a treat if ever Soul Reaver is getting a new entry or reboot :D

    • I just love this series from the PS1 all the way to the PS2. Defiance’s ending just blew me away at that time which no other game has done until inFamous. It’s heartbreaking that the series went into a vampiric slumber.

    • how about a collection hmmmmm?

    • Soul Reaver was the first game that I bought and played when I got a PC.

      It was one of that magazines in Brazil that comes with a PC game, and I bought it because I liked the cover picture. Never thought it would be that awesome when I played.

      I hope that this post is somehow intended to set the stage to an upcoming announcement on the Legacy of Kain series :)

    • The Legacy of Kain series is still my favourite game series ever. Would love to see more of it. Sequels, Reboots or HD Remakes. My preferred option would be a new game with Kain as the lead role, but it’s been nearly a decade, so I’d probably take whatever :P

    • It would be fantastic to see a reboot for the next Playstation top box with Amy at the helm to carry the vision on. I remember buying this game at my local game store back in 1999. Wow.

      I really wish to see this world and its characters on tomorrow’s tech.

      Want to make this a huge post and just rant about how this game is awesome and its reasons and how it should be remade, and all that without nostalgia glasses ;), but I won’t.

      Do it! :D

    • This was a great article. I liked reading Amy’s insight on the game. It sounds like she remembers the series as fondly as I do. I would love to see some new content for LoK and Soul Reaver!

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