Behind the Classics: Syphon Filter

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Behind the Classics: Syphon Filter

Behind the Classics: Syphon Filter

It’s easy to forget that “tactical espionage action” is a relatively recent innovation in the videogame medium, with trailblazers like Metal Gear Solid and Syphon Filter emerging in the late ’90s to great acclaim and even greater influence. A more realistic, open-ended philosophy towards combat soon spread through the action genre, permanently impacting the development of artificial intelligence, level design, and narrative — ultimately paving the way for everything from Sly Cooper to Assassin’s Creed.

Syphon Filter veered closer to the action-adventure end of this spectrum, though it too left a distinct mark on the genre with its more realistic approach to combat. Enemies ducked for cover behind objects, an array of memorable gadgets gave players more combat choice, and headshots dropped most combatants instantly. Syphon Filter’s high-stakes story was also a sign of things to come in videogame design, merging contemporary themes (programmable viruses, shadowy terrorist networks) with a globe-trotting super spy in protagonist Gabe Logan.

As part of PlayStation.Blog’s ongoing Behind the Classics series, we reached out to Bend Studio Creative Director John Garvin to learn more about the inspirations for this PSone classic.

PlayStation.Blog: What was the original base concept for the game? Was it in any way a response to Metal Gear Solid, or did the idea develop in a relative vacuum?
John Garvin, Creative Director at Bend Studio: Metal Gear Solid actually had nothing to do with the genesis of Syphon Filter. We had been in development for quite a while before we had even heard of it. The idea originally came from a producer at Sony’s (then) 989 Studios who had written a one page synopsis that he called “Syphon Filter” which had zero meaning, i.e. there was no plot, no character, and no story, just an idea for settings, mechanics and gameplay. From the beginning it was to be a “stealth action” game (in the days before there was such a genre) that focused heavily on weapons, gadgets and stealth. Our goal was to make the player feel like a super spy. Our lead designer back then was pretty heavily influenced by Nintendo’s GoldenEye, which was probably the closest you could come to finding a game like Syphon in those days.

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

“Syphon Filter went through a few rough patches and came close to being canceled several times”

JG: Mostly terror. It was a hard project in terms of development, for a lot of reasons. There were no, or few, games that we could draw on for inspiration. Most of the team had zero experience making this kind of game: The guys at Eidetic had just made Bubsy 3D, so they had some experience with doing a third-person action game, but Bubsy was a cartoon platformer so it wasn’t much help; I was brought on after the first Syphon Filter prototype was underway (a simple shooting segment in a subway), but my experience to that point was directing strategy games like MissionForce: Cyberstorm and art directing games like Sega CD’s Bouncers. None of us knew anything about making realistic shooters set in a spy world.

The first Syphon Filter went through a few rough patches and came close to being canceled several times as we missed deadlines, revamped mechanics, swapped levels around, changed the story, and generally tried to figure out what the heck we were doing. Our producer at 989, Connie Booth, and her boss Kelly Flock, were great though showing great faith in this new “spy genre” game. Our team ended up working in crunch mode for about a year as we tried to get the game up to everyone’s standards.

We didn’t know we had something special until after we shipped and sales took off like crazy, surpassing everyone’s expectations. I think we sold over a million units that first year. It was amazing. Players seemed to really appreciate doing something new — sneaking around, fighting terrorists while dodging subway cars, shooting a taser halfway down a city block and making a terrorist burst into flame. Things players had never before experienced. This kind of thing may be common now, but back then it was still all pretty new.

Behind the Classics: Syphon Filter

PSB: Did you draw inspiration from anywhere in particular for the game’s look and feel?
JG: Mostly my own experience. A lot of games these days are going for a dark, gritty, monochromatic look, but the games I remember playing in the late 1990s were all pretty colorful and weren’t all that realistic. Look at screens from Unreal, Turok 2, or Rainbow Six, which were realistic but had a palette that seemed all over the place. I remember being really inspired by Saving Private Ryan – which came out in 1998 I think – and Half Life.

PSB: It was an ambitious title for its time. What were the biggest challenges in realizing your original vision?
JG: It wasn’t really about realizing our original vision, because we were making it up as we went. We knew we wanted a third-person action game, and we knew we wanted to deliver on the fantasy of being a super spy. For us that meant even if something was “janky,” we’d do it if it could help sell the fantasy. For example, our rendered movies were pretty low budget. We didn’t even have articulated fingers. All our characters had “box” hands, but that didn’t stop us from having rendered movies because we had a story we wanted to tell. Our motto was that “bad movies are better than no movies.” Same thing went for game play sequences. We had a set-up where Gabe, the super spy star of the game, had to wear a tuxedo and infiltrate a black-tie event to spy on someone. Today that whole sequence would be very expensive, requiring sets, extras, costumes, and lots of mocap and animation; back then we just palette swapped some of our NPCs and did some very low budget animation of them standing around drinking cocktails. Once the game started, the player could hear a looping sound of the party, but couldn’t actually go back to the room where the party was being held. This kind of thing probably wouldn’t fly today, but we did all sorts of shortcuts back then to increase the scope of the experience without worrying about how polished it was. It was all about the game.

PSB: How close to your original concept was the finished game?
JG: Syphon Filter just wasn’t developed that way. The original concept of the player becoming a super spy was adhered to pretty closely, but everything else was worked out as we developed. A crazy way to make a game, but a process we made work because our team was only about 13 people. Here’s some examples: the story for Syphon Filter when I was brought on board was all about a group of scientists who had been kidnapped and taken to a huge underground complex where they were being forced to build a time machine by an evil scientist / government. I was hired to be the art director, but I began to offer ways to improve the story to make it more current, more relevant (I had been the art director, writer and designer on my projects at Dynamix, my previous game company). The studio directors liked my ideas and midway through development I rewrote the entire thing, coming up with the idea that the phrase “Syphon Filter” actually was a code word for a deadly “programmable” virus. None of that stuff was new, science fiction and film had explored ideas like these for years, but it was new to games.

“Midway through development I rewrote the entire thing”

We were shuffling levels around as late as weeks before we shipped in order to help pacing and flow issues. We changed locations and concepts mid-stream: the Girdeux boss fight was originally going to happen in a parking lot near the par, but I remember thinking at the time how hard it was going to be to build all those cars, and the challenge of “fencing” the player’s movement in an open space like a parking lot…and, could our engine even pull it off? So I went home over the weekend and built the “memorial” room, including downloading and chopping up that huge mural that ringed the wall of the space. It was a pretty big hit and was something we could pull off.

It really wasn’t until the sequel that we had a vision for the game. The entire team was given a week off and the game’s co-creator, Richard Ham, and I were sent off to write up a script for Syphon Filter 2. I think I spent a weekend and wrote the entire screenplay. Rich and I got together and he helped revise the second half of the game, introducing all the Moscow stuff, making the end of the story more espionage-like and exciting. When the team came back, we spent the next year building exactly what we had written. That was the first time that we had a vision up front, which we followed until the end.

Behind the Classics: Syphon FilterBehind the Classics: Syphon Filter

PSB: Which element of the game are you most proud of?
JG: I’m personally most proud of the story elements. In those days you didn’t see video games dealing with a lot of current topics (bio weapons, terrorism, secret government agencies working outside the law). Remember this was all pre-9/11. And we were doing some things with characters that you didn’t see often in video games: Teresa Lipan, the brains of the agency, was an American Indian female… Lawrence Mujari, the biologist, was an African-American male, Lian Xing, a Chinese female, and so on. We were making a real effort to make the characters as diverse and un-stereotypical as possible. We were also attempting to inject a higher level of realism into the game than we’d seen before.

“Oh, and the taser. We all really loved the taser.”

Often in game development (even today), you’ll hear “Who cares? It’s just a game!” That kind of thinking really bugged me. I wanted characters to have real motivations, level objectives to make sense and fit into a story arc, locations to feel real and have accurate details. And we did some crazy things story-wise that we might not be able to get away with now. For example (spoiler!), at one point in the game Gabe is rescuing and inoculating test subjects, only Gabe finds out later that he was actually killing them because the vaccine was really a poison. And scientists would run up to Gabe and surrender, and we sort of forced him to shoot unarmed men in the head (well, they were evil scientists after all). Having terrorists blow up a subway in Washington DC — think we could get away with that now? Again, this might all seem pretty tame by today’s standards, but in 1999 it was pretty startling to be doing this kind of stuff in a console game. Oh, and the taser. We all really loved the taser.

PSB: How would you like Syphon Filter to be remembered? What did it bring to the video game medium?
JG: For what it was: the first of its kind, a mix of stealth and action, using real-world, current story elements and settings, realistic weapons and gadgets, with edgy story elements. As anyone in game development knows it’s really hard to be original, to come up with new ideas, new mechanics and new ways of playing. Syphon did all that and spawned a genre; so many games came out after us and were variations on the theme. In many ways, we were there first.

PSB: Which of the Syphon Filter characters is closest to your heart?
JG: From the first Syphon Filter, it’s gotta be the man himself, Gabe Logan. The way John Chacon read his lines is, well, unique to say the least. Gabe sort of embodied the concept of the stoic action hero… with a heart. I like Mara Aramov, too. How can you not like that laugh (which was the last thing you heard in the first three games)? In the later games, I would have chosen Teresa Lipan or maybe Stone, but yeah, there’s no one like Gabe Logan.

More Behind the Classics

  • Behind the Classics – Jak & Daxter
  • Behind The Classics – Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee
  • Behind the Classics – MediEvil
  • Behind the Classics – Soul Reaver
  • Comments are closed.


    • Great interview

    • If Sony’ considers Syphon Filter a “Classic” which I do agree with them, why is Gabe Logan a character in PlayStation All Stars?

    • @2 Exaxtly
      We need a new one also!

    • @3 Agreed! I wish Sony would give us a new one. Heck I’d take an update of Syphon Filter :TOS in HD with Trophies and PSN play. It was one of my favorite games on the PS2. Would have bought it off the store but it doesn’t have network play which was my favorite part. I still have my PS2 card with my agent on it.

    • I’d love to see a new Syphon Filter, or even a series reboot, on the PS Vita! Make is happen SCEA and Sony Bend!

    • this collection bring back some fond memories :)

    • I want a new Syphon Filter ps3/psvita!!!! and why isnt Gabe Logan part of the playstation all stars battle royale characters? and please bring MediEvil psvita/ps3 too.

    • oh and please whatever you decide dont let Nihilistic handle the game, Sony Bend should develop the next Syphon Filter.

    • Give us another exclusive uncharted on the vita!

    • The two Syphon Filter games on PSP were among the best titles for that system, considering that they were able to adequately pull off a third-person shooter without a second analog stick. Having seen what an amazing job this studio did on UNCHARTED: Golden Abyss, I sure wish they would reboot the Syphon Filter series on the VITA.

    • at 10 exactly and dont forget Resistance Retribution sony bend did a superb job with that game too.

    • I loved Syphon Filter! I was really hoping to see a new one on PS3

    • More of the series would be nice.

    • See Sony? Do you see how players keep asking for Gabe Logan in PSASBR, and you keep neglecting the character?

      Since the firsts characters came being revealing for the game, i say this: Gabe Logan DESERVES to be in PSASBR, he is more important to PlayStation and infinitely more iconic than Parappa and Fat Princess, these two having just two games each, and Syphon Filter having three games on PS1, one on PS2 and two on PSP.

      It’s a shame seeing Sony calling Syphon Filter a classic, and not including even a stage of SF on PSASBR.


      Syphon Filter for PS3 to YESTARDAY!

      I really love this franchise, played all games on their systems, and i’ve been praying for a new Syphon Filter since 2007, with that cliffwanger end of Logan’s Shadow.


      Think about Sony. Think about it.

    • I can’t believe you guys are talking about Syphon Filter here…damn thats probably the best game on PS1…I played that game to death…Syphon Filter 1,2 and 3…they’re all great games…I remember that me and my cousins we used to play a lot of the multiplayer(of course split-screen)but that was beyond fun.I still have the PS1 discs of the 3 games and I have them in my HDD from the Store as well.For real who didn’t played missed an great series.On PS2 the series were ruined and lost all its atmosphere and gameplay.Syphon Filter is for sure a Classic PS1 game.

    • Cross Play Syphon Filter Reboot please.

    • Oh and you guys are not doing very well promoting PlayStation Mobile here. Since the store has once again been updated, but you would never know unless you happen to check for some reason. And with no clear date for the updates, why would we check often?

    • Dear Bend studio can you reboot Siphon Filter for the PS3/PS4, and make a sequel to Resistance Retribution for the PSVITA?? PLEASE!!!!

    • DAMNIT! i saw the image and i thought they were bringing back Syphon Filter, only to click on it and find out it was about the series. Bring it back, we need the Gabe love

    • I’m a huge fan of the series; it’s really what made a shooter fan out of me. I really grew to love seeing that “HEAD SHOT” indicator appear, as well as the perverse delight of tasing guys until they burst into flames. For me, I think SF2 was the pinnacle of the series, pretty much a perfect PS1 rendition of the action movies of its time, with one “just in time” leap to escape an explosion after another.

      While I’ve never been over invested in the characters (the gameplay has always been king in SF for me) the cliffhanger in Logan’s Shadow for PSP could really use resolving ;)

    • I would love to play a new game in this series either on the PS3 or Vita!

    • Ah man I remember the level where you had to take out the helicopter seems funny because I think you only had a SMG on the roof.

    • I really hope they make a new one.

    • Great intwerview (just read some parts of it).

      Syphon Filter series is one of my favorite franchies on the PS1.
      I wish we had a new (excellent) episode on the PS3/Vita :D

    • @2 They left out Gabe Logan and put in Sypher Filton instead.

    • “From the beginning it was to be a “stealth action” game (in the days before there was such a genre)”

      Bull…Metal Gear 1987 and Metal Gear: Solid Snake 1990 Stealth Action game for MSX. You may not have taken direct inspiration from MGS (1998) but don’t tell me you weren’t influenced at all by MG or I will laugh in your face. Actually, I will laugh in your face anyway, ahahahahahaahahaha!

    • Syphon Fiter 4 on PS3 or GTFO.

      Yes, there’s only 3 main SF, SF OS did not exist and the PSP games are spin offs.

    • So where’s Gabe Logan for PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale?

    • Those guys at sony bend are damn good. Is it anything these guys cant do.? The rumor you guys are sony secrect weapon team of devs in one group is that true.This is very impressive by all standards on impression

      vp-psn legionairee group

    • @27 why ps4.. lol.. if know the rumor mill going around , Id it expect sooner than that. . .

      vp-psn legionairre group

    • I thoroughly enjoyed both SF: Dark Mirror & SF: Logan’s Shadow on my PSP!!!!

      I especially enjoyed the underwater combat in SF: Logan’s Shadow & I’d like to see more underwater combat in a future SF game.

      Will there be a new SF game coming to the PS3 and/or PS Vita?

    • I guess I’m the only one that thought this game was absolute garbage. It just had a low quality feel and look to it, even back then when most games had a low budget feel to it. And Gabe Logan has got to be one of the worst names for a game character, ever.

    • Hi Sid, longtime fan of your posts here. i was just wondering if you plan to feature SOCOM in one of these posts? It was the game that made me buy my first ps2 and helped to make my love for all things sony. Also, considering you have brought all these other games to the ps3, why not Socom… A great many of your customers and loyal fans would love to see socom 2 or 3 come to the ps3 with online multiplayer. Thanks for the hard work you have continuously done over the years.

    • Yes great interview. I always liked Gabe himself and the taser as well. But please give us more syphon filter on PS3 and/or Vita. Re-boot, remaster, anything. Dark mirror and Logan’s Shadow would make a nice HD collection. Heck, I’d even take Omega Strain. Or a next-gen syphon filter would be nice. Might have to make it a prequal though, because of what happenns to Gabe at the end of Logan’s shadow.

    • i have a vedio tv show i own from ps3 and it says i cant view it on my ps vita and im getting cant connect to the server time out when im trying to messge a friend

    • Really good interview I had no idea how rough the development was for this game, it makes me appreciate it a little bit more. I remember way back over 10 years ago playing this on my PS1 and always getting stuck at the beginning of the museum level. Now fast forward and in 2011 I finally beat the game on my PSP :D Now I’ll probably go check out the 2nd, 3rd, and PSP ones.

    • So my question is this with the behind the classics articles is Sony just going down memory lane. Or is there going to be something big in store for Ps Vita?

    • In terms of gameplay Syphon Filter > Metal Gear Solid all the way. Give Bend a chance to make a new PS4 launch game or even a Vita game. The Syphon Filter games on PSP were great and with the Vita’s power and superior control scheme nothing will hold it back.

    • If you guys can’t grab snake on all stars. WHY CANT YOU GRAB GABE LOGAN? HE’S A FIRST PARTY CHARACTER!

    • It’s freakin’ insane that Gabe Logan isn’t in Playstation All-Stars. Gabe Logan is Playstation!!!

    • The lack of a PS3 Syphon Filter makes me sad.

      It’s such a great series, with so much potential, I’m surprised it hasn’t been brought back.

    • I agree we do need a Syphon Filter for PS3.

      We also need a post like this for Suikoden.

      Don’t forget to ask them when we’ll get Suikoden II on PSN.

    • I was thinking abou this just the other day with the way the guy said 989 studio. I was also thinking about the other games simialr to Twisted metal like Rouge Trip and Vigilante 8 wondering what ever happened to those games and why aren’t those on ps one classic or newer versions. I wanted to see a new Syphon Filter as well.
      Too bad there is no ps3 Syphon Filter. The Omega Strain was nice it was the last Syphon Filter I enjoyed thanks to Co Op.

      ALSO Too bad the classic ps2 digital download on psn doesn’t have online support.
      .You see how the game looks now, almost hard to play cause of the graphics lol. Wonder how it’d look on ps3
      I just pre ordered Syphon Filter 4 can’t……..seriously I’m kidding

    • Nice read, thanks.

      Hopefully we will see the series get a reboot next gen.

    • Nice read! I remember Being 11-teen (which is what i told my mom when she said i was to young for the games i played) and I had just beaten MGS1 and wanted MGS2 {on PS1} for my birthday and I got Syphon Filter 2…

      I was furious but after a week I tried it and it was a GREAT!! game. later in life the first PSP Syphone Filter became my favorite game on that system.

      to make a long story short thank you kindly for the series!

    • Syphon Filter rules! Thanks for this blog entry covering the early development of the series. God bless John Garvin and everyone at Sony Bend.

      I’m really looking forward to the next game on Vita, PS3, or PS4.

      Where’s the Opposition Effect? Where’s Cobra? Where’s Gina Hunter?

      Bring it Sony – I’m ready!!! (And so is my money)

    • I want Syphon Filter on PS3 now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • love Syphon Filter 2 :D

    • Sid, isn’t this kind of a silly choice for a “behind the classics” seeing how this franchise has no representation whatsoever in PSA:BR?

      I thought the point of this series of articles is to remind people of the origins of franchises participating in that game…

    • Thanks for the article, I’ve always been a fan of the Syphon Filter series. It mixed action, stealth, and espionage like no one else. They always did a great job of being fun and cool and mature and the same time.

      I’d love another one, and hopefully that is in the works (fingers crossed) :)

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