Games Designer Phil Campbell Reimagines The Godfather

The games designer on new technology, reimagining The Godfather and the Ulster Festival of Arts

Whether designing buildings in the real world, or virtual architecture in video games, for Phil Campbell it has always been about 'environment telling a story'. And the designer has a story or two to tell, from his reanimation of Tony Montana to David Bowie stealing his cigarettes.

Now San Francisco-based, Campbell returns to Northern Ireland this month to give a talk at the Ulster Festival of Arts. He grew up in Portrush, where the allure of arcades sparked his lifelong passion for the mechanics of gaming. From pinball machines in Barry's Amusements through to his discovery of Space Invaders, Campbell was consumed with the creative process from an early age.

It was the design and structure of buildings that first caught his imagination, however, and led to him working for his father's firm, Dalzell and Campbell. Campbell's grandfather, uncle and even his wife are architects too. 'If we ever started a firm we'd be called Campbell, Campbell, Campbell, Campbell and Campbell!' he laughs.

Later taking up the position of Legoland's senior designer, Campbell realised how technology could bolster his design capabilities, as computerised 3D visualisations became prominent. 'It was the perfect architectural job for me,' he says fondly.

His liking for structural storytelling was more 'naturally suited to games', however, and, after moving away from architecture, by the mid-1990s Campbell had started to produce his own title, Infinexus. The game was never fully realized, but more luck was to be had with his next project, Blackwater, which caused him to 'fall into' the Tomb Raider franchise.

'The notion was that we would use the Tomb Raider engine, which hadn't even been launched yet, for Blackwater,' Campbell recalls. 'Then they realised what they had on their hands was potentially something really big, so they decided that only Tomb Raider games would be made on that engine. They sent me to Derby from San Francisco to work on Gold.'

With the technology available during the production of the Gold PC edition, Campbell admits it was 'hard to fail'. The subsequent success of Gold led to a dream collaboration: none other than David Bowie contributed the soundtrack and voice-overs on Campbell's Dreamcast platformer Omikron: The Nomad Soul.

'It was an architect's dream,' he says of the artistic alliance. 'David would come in at nine o'clock every morning, steal my cigarettes and we'd uncover his role within the game.' Bowie became so embroiled in the project that he even joked about leaving his stage persona in the game and coming out of it permanently as David Jones, his normal, everyday self.

In turn, Bowie's songwriting methods inspired Campbell's way of brainstorming ideas, by imagining a mental narrative unrelated to the task at hand, or reading books on either side of the shelf for an unpredictable influence on a project. These are the kind of techniques in creativity Campbell will examine during his talk in the University of Ulster's York Street Campus on Tuesday, June 7.

'What really makes creativity emerge is all of the constraints,' he says of his involvement with the video game adaptation of The Godfather. 'We approached it nervously, but if your respect for the material borders on awe the product will suffer.' Indeed the playable version of the Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece was made with the right intentions: not as a quick cash-in on a DVD re-release, but to expand the film experience.

Campbell laughs that his work on the classic Mafia saga made him the 'go-to guy' for gangster scripts, bizarrely leading to an MTV Cribs episode hosted by Al Pacino's digitised Scarface character, Tony Montana. With the landmark crime film's memorable mansion, set pieces recreated and animated to match the show's zany style, it was certainly an interesting project.

And, after subsequent involvement with Iron Man and the English adaptation of the award-winning Heavy Rain, what does the future hold for this designer? 'Consoles will continue to get better with each generation, but handheld phones are a stronger platform,' says Campbell. His next project is based around social media and interactive gaming. InLifeSize is a collaboration with Greg Maguire of the University of Ulster.

Using Maguire's background in film and his own in the gaming industry, Campbell hopes to integrate 'the visual fidelity of fixed media' so that it can be fun and useful to the user's immediate real world experiences. 'A six inch screen in front of your face is a window into your world,' Campbell explains, 'and since you're the nucleus of your own world let's bring the world to you.'

At the moment, however, Campbell has no specific details about what this concept could shape up into, whether a game or an application, something used with a touch screen or entirely motion controlled. But in incorporating so many exciting elements there is no question that it will be nothing short of innovative.

Phil Campbell will give a talk at the University of Ulster, Belfast on York Street at 7pm on Tuesday, June 7. Tickets are priced at £3-6.