Horror video games are much the same. Although the emergency exit is more often than not the power switch, once you've seen the scares, you rarely want to go back. Zombie Studios hopes to change that, with Daylight.
Daylight will be procedurally generated, meaning each playthrough will be different than the one before. The levels will change. The scares will be different. Stitching it all together is the writing. And stitching together the writing is former full-time on-camera personality Jessica Chobot.
Chobot is not a trained writer. In her opinion, working as a host didn't even make her a journalist. Yet Zombie believes in her. The team voted on her treatment for the game and elected to bring her vision to life, and team members say it wasn't for her name.
The fact is that the name recognition Chobot brings to the project is as much a liability for Zombie as it is a boon. Her past makes her an easy target for those same critics that used to be her colleagues. Publisher Atlus even had a long conversation with Zombie about whether to promote the fact she was working on Daylight at all.
But making a successful game could be Chobot's chance to shake loose her past. And her unique writing talent could be the X factor that makes Daylight more than a one-shot scare.
How the two came to this crossroads is a long story.
Her first interview with games website IGN was atypical for the day. It wasn't the tone that was out of place for the website, which at the time featured racy pictures along with its video game coverage. What was strange is that she was a subject at all.
Chobot says it all started in 2005, when IGN writer Chris Carle found her roaming the halls of E3 and asked to interview her not for a job, but for a story. Back when the biggest convention in the games industry was bloated with half-naked models and glitzy displays, there were only a handful of women simply there to visit the convention.
The piece reads like a telegram sent back from a National Geographic expedition, or the calls of a barker at a freak show.
"Gentlemen, she exists. A woman who loves to play videogames ... a woman who has no problem with booth babes ... plays WoW and Silent Hill and Final Fantasy. ... This woman is the holy grail, the dream girl of all gamers and otaku."
In the interview, Chobot seems to enjoy the attention. Just weeks before, she emerged from obscurity after an image of her licking a PSP appeared on the games website Kotaku. Carle is writing for readers who have become infatuated with the mysterious woman, and his two-part interview finally puts a name to the face.
Early on Carle tells his readers to "start saving for that engagement ring, because this is the woman you're going to want to marry."
Funny thing is, Chobot was already married and living with her husband not far from where she grew up in Novi, Mich. She had met him at the real estate company where she took a job as a secretary, fresh out of college with a degree in fine arts. Chobot says she got married in part because she was never able make her passion for painting pay off.
"I knew even then that I was making the wrong choice."
"I basically had what I call a 'quarter-life crisis' and completely lost my mind."
It wasn't a loveless marriage, but Chobot never felt like an equal partner.
"I was only ever made to feel special when other people were around," she says. "I guess the silver lining to the whole thing was, despite ... the fact that the marriage was a bad marriage, it wasn't a hurtful marriage. Nobody hated each other. We never really fought. Nobody was screaming at each other. It just kind of devolved into living with a roommate."
In addition to her failing marriage, Chobot was soon gutted by a simple bureaucratic quirk. She had enrolled in a part-time graduate program to become an art teacher. Halfway through her course of study, the state of Michigan changed the requirements for teacher certification. It tacked nearly eight more years onto her studies.
"I basically had what I call a 'quarter-life crisis' and completely lost my mind," Chobot says.
She didn't feel comfortable sharing a bedroom with her husband any longer, so she used their finished basement as an apartment. Then came a deep depression. Her health started to fail. She began to play World of Warcraft all night, every night. In late 2004, as the Detroit housing market began to show signs of trouble and her husband's business declined, she defiantly took a job at the local EB Games.
A few months later she took her entire savings and bought a ticket to Japan.
One constant in Chobot's life growing up, aside from video games, was a love of all things Japanese. Her aunt lived in Japan teaching English for eight years and would send back trinkets, toys and oddities. Long before it was possible to stream anime to your tablet or buy Gundam at the mall, Chobot had a collection to put any Japanophile to shame.
In 2005, as her marriage began to slide, she told her husband that she was leaving for a trip and booked a three-week solo vacation to Japan. The experience was transformative.
"I remember I was in Kyoto walking towards the [subway] station," she says. "It's so silly, but the crosswalks there for the big intersections, when you push the button and it's ready for you to walk, instead of just showing the little man like it does here they play music. Really cute music."
Chobot sobs as she tells the story.
"For some reason that hit me hard, and I thought, 'This is awesome! I can't believe I did it! I'm here! I made it here all by myself!' It's my second week in and I'm starting to make my way around, and I'm visiting all these cool places, and I'm hanging out by the side of the river, and I've got my stop-over cafe I hit up on my way to the Gion District. I'm seeing geisha walking around."
She realized, for the first time in her life, that she was in control of her future. Chobot says that she knew at that moment that she could be an independent adult, and that she didn't have to be married to feel important.
When she made it back to the States she had a new goal: to get a job in the games industry. Her first challenge was to get to E3, so she fabricated a manager's business card from scraps of EB Games letterhead and mailed it in. The scam worked, and a few weeks later she was sent credentials. In her lead-up to E3 she began "hustling," as she calls it, emailing anyone she could in marketing, business development and media for a position. Any position.
All the while she was doing small modeling jobs around Detroit for extra money. It's work that she's not proud of.
"There's no such thing as modeling in Michigan," Chobot says. "Occasionally I would get sent out to do some sort of rap video, some sort of advertising here or there — usually for the state — and basically then be sent out to be a booth babe for their big, big event which was the [Detroit] Auto Show."
By day Chobot was a clerk selling games, by night a high-level WoW addict clumsily networking over the internet and on weekends a model for extra money. Months passed, and around that time her pre-ordered PSP came in. She took it to a photo shoot later that same day, and the rest of the crew gathered around as she unboxed it.
That's when the fateful "PSP lick" picture was taken, an image captured by the photographer as a joke that saw her lingering seductively on the new handheld. And it was Chobot herself that forwarded it on to Kotaku.
She figured it would be her 15 minutes of fame.
Just a few weeks later, as she marveled at the booths at her first E3, she says people began to recognize her from that photo. She did an interview with the cable outlet G4, and later the interview with IGN's Carle. Her image had spread virally across the internet, and she leveraged that attention into freelance writing gigs for both IGN and short-lived games website Red Assed Baboon.
For better or for worse, licking that PSP launched her career. But it also gave her detractors an embarrassing trump card to play every time they wanted to attack her credibility.
Virtual sex scandal
In 2011, Chobot was approached by friends at developer BioWare to appear in Mass Effect 3 as an optional character, a reporter named Diana Allers. In January 2012, Chobot would host preview coverage of the game for G4.
That Chobot would preview a game that she also appeared in struck many as a conflict of interest. Chobot disagrees.
"I did run it by management," Chobot says. "We agreed that I wasn't going to review or talk about the game. So I said, 'OK.' And that's what happened. I never did. I think it got misinterpreted because I was full time at IGN when I first got asked [to be in the game]."
Of her time at IGN and G4, Chobot says that she never saw herself as a journalist.
"I saw myself as a host. I think 'game journalist' is used very loosely in this business.
"BioWare never asked me for any favors in regards to any kind of additional or good reviews. I've never gotten contacted by them at all for any of the stuff. And, I wasn't even reviewing the game in the first place. I don't give game reviews. I've never given a game review."
What disappointed her the most about the whole episode is that the people who were writing about her in the games press never asked for her side of the story.
Contributing to the controversy was the decision to make Allers a viable love interest for the main character, Commander Shepherd. Chobot says that it was actually her idea. To Chobot, that's part of the fun of that game franchise.
In practice, having a one-night stand with Allers ended up being a little strange for her.
"It's one thing to see yourself in digital form in a game. That's weird enough. It's neat but it's weird. And then to have the character that you've been playing through all the entire [Mass Effect] storyline start hitting on you and it's ... my mind exploded. My eyes shouldn't have seen that. It actually made me feel a little uncomfortable.
"But I got the achievement!"
It remains the first, and only, successful virtual conquest for Chobot's Shepherd.
Chobot feels like her life was plagued early on by bad decisions. For instance, before she married she could have taken the job she was offered teaching English in Japan. But she didn't. Years later, when she finally found her way to the island country, she could have used her vacation to find a job there. But she didn't.
Early the next year when IGN called her and offered her a full-time position writing reviews for mobile games, she could have said yes. But she didn't.
"This was before anybody knew that smartphones were right around the corner," Chobot says. "The only real mobile games that you had were Bejeweled and fancier versions of Snake. So I said no. 'No, thank you. I'm looking for something better.' Hung up, and immediately knew I was an idiot." She called back later that same day as to not look desperate, but it was too late. Someone else had snatched up the reviewer position.
"I could stay here and, no matter what, we're definitely getting a divorce. Or I can try to move out to California, see if I can make something of it."
All the while, she and her husband were missing mortgage payments on their house. They rarely spoke, and lived parallel lives sharing little more than the same front door.
IGN called again, this time to offer Chobot a position as the on-camera host on their new video team. It wasn't the editor job she had wanted, but it was a way out.
"I told my husband he had two options," Chobot says. "I could stay here and, no matter what, we're definitely getting a divorce. Or I can try to move out to California, see if I can make something of it, and see if I miss you. And if I miss you, then obviously something's still there and we can talk about you coming out here and living in California with me."
The day she landed in LA in 2006, the home Chobot and her husband shared was foreclosed on. But she says she never looked back. Chobot was where she wanted to be: independent, with an opportunity in front of her to make a success of herself.
The divorce process began four months later.
For the next six years she was the face of IGN, presenting on-camera at events all over the world. Later she would work for cable channel G4. It was a period of time Chobot calls the "Hollywood days" of games media. With the launch of the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, every publisher seemed to be hosting over-the-top parties and junkets, each trying to outdo the other. There were red carpet events attended by actors and musicians, as well as trips to exotic locations around the world. She was sent to Paris twice in one month, found herself riding a horse across the plains of Iceland, drinking cocktails in the Hollywood Cemetery with Paris Hilton. It was bizarre and amazing, and it was Chobot's job to tell the world about it.
"I was really young," she says. "I was free again, basically, and able to start this dream life that I did not think was ever going to be possible for me in a million years. And I just kinda jumped on board with it.
"I wouldn't change a thing."
During her time at G4, Chobot met and fell in love with another presenter, G4's Blair Herter. They were married in 2012, and their son, Emerson, was born less than a year later. Meanwhile, IGN and G4 restructured. Soon she and her new husband were both jobless but, thanks to well-negotiated contracts, far from broke.
Today, Herter takes the subway from the home they recently bought in the LA suburbs to his 9-to-5 job as a television producer. Chobot stays at home with Emerson. It's been quite a change from their globetrotting days.
But Chobot hasn't stopped hustling. For her, work had become empowering, and sitting at home with the baby felt like a kind of failure.
Opportunity came through a friendship with Jared Gerritzen, the studio director at Zombie Studios in Seattle. Whenever he and his wife would come down to LA, Herter and Chobot would take them out to dinner and catch up. One evening they were talking about the success of a psychological horror game called Slender. Gerritzen was surprised by how well Chobot knew the genre, and eventually convinced her to spend a month writing up an outline for a horror game of her own. After years standing outside the games industry and looking in, this was Chobot's chance to be part of it.
Daylight will be released in 2014. The game began as a self-funded, independent project within Zombie Studios. Chobot and five developers were planning on an episodic release on Steam, but Gerritzen saw an opportunity and pitched it as a potential PlayStation 4 title to publisher Atlus. It loved the idea, and with a boost in funding, the team grew larger.
Chobot with her four month old son, Emerson
"It's just these images that pop into my head, and I don't even have control over them."
Chobot is now working on a big game with a big, new Unreal engine. While she's pitched a few television shows, even helped to write a movie script, this will be her first game credit. It's about a young woman who wakes up deep inside an abandoned hospital who must make her way out of the darkness to safety. The plot will draw upon Chobot's lifetime spent playing horror games, and a childhood hobby of seeking out spooky, abandoned places around the small town in Michigan where she grew up.
Two or three days a week she puts her 4-month-old son in daycare and sits down with her laptop at a cafe to write.
"I just think about a place," Chobot says, "or I think about the storyline, or I think about the character and I just see things. And so I just write down how I see it. And that used to be how I'd paint. I'd see things and I'd paint ... It's just these images that pop into my head, and I don't even have control over them."
Her Mondays are spent teleconferencing with Gerritzen and other Zombie staff, expanding and refining the storyline to fit the much larger scope the game now has. That close collaboration is necessary because Daylight will be different every time it's played.
Chobot's responsible for the long list of in-game objects players will find, but also waypoints that players encounter, called story beats. These need to make sense even though the layout of the levels will change. Chobot won't simply be able to rely on scripted elements and jump-scares, because she can't always rely on where the player will be, and even small changes to those waypoints can create problems for the designers working in Seattle.
Bringing a new game to market is always risky. Production cycles are long and expensive. So much can go wrong. But Daylight carries with it an entirely different set of risks simply because Chobot is involved. The internet doesn't forget, and the image of Chobot licking her PSP is a liability for her and Zombie both.
Reaction to Chobot's involvement in the game has been mean-spirited at times. Commenters have been cruel, but the most painful attacks have come from people Chobot thought of as colleagues, even as friends.
"These are the people," Chobot says, "that come up and say, 'Hello,' or I'll go to a dinner and they seem nice to me ... and the next day I see this stuff crop up. Why am I your punching bag? Because I licked a PSP seven years ago? I didn't do anything in between those seven years to prove that I like really enjoy games and love this business? I mean, I didn't join up to this business so that I could use it as a launching pad and become an actress somewhere."
Daylight is Chobot's chance to prove herself. Even though she still takes freelance work hosting for Microsoft and media outlets, this game is her chance to get out from under the shadow of her past and emerge as a creative participant in the games industry, to be seen as more than an attractive observer. She is hustling like never before, working full time from home while taking care of a newborn. She feels pulled in two directions, trying to be an independent professional while at the same time being a mother and a wife.
"It's really hard to learn to not be selfish anymore," she says. "And I've got two people depending on me, and one of those literally depending on me for life. It's hard to not get frustrated when I want to work and knowing how important that is to me. That's how I get my sense of self. But I can't, because I'm raising a child."
Even after all the abuse she's taken online, games are still her passion. She's not going to let people's assumptions about her push her away from that. Instead, she wants to be more involved in the industry than she has ever been before.
"I'm still here because I love it," she says.
Images: Jessica Chobot, Jimmy Shelton, Tom Connors
Editing: Matt Leone, Russ Pitts
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan