Flashback: 'Oni', Bungie's Cult Classic Inspired by 'Ghost in the Shell'

Flashback: 'Oni', Bungie's Cult Classic Inspired by 'Ghost in the Shell'

Bungie

Alex Okita, the anime-obsessed concept artist behind Bungie West's 'Oni,' looks back on his contribution to the world of cyberpunk video games

Alex Okita, the anime-obsessed concept artist behind Bungie West's 'Oni,' looks back on his contribution to the world of cyberpunk video games

At the turn of the millennium, the company that would go on to make the blockbuster shooters Halo and Destiny – then known as Bungie Software Products Corporation – was working on two games. Steve Jobs took the stage at the 1999 Macworld Expo to show the world one of them. That game was Halo, a Mac exclusive that later famously became the killer-app launch title for Microsoft's Xbox. Meanwhile, in San Jose, California, a satellite team called Bungie West was hard at work on the other: an anime-infused beat-'em-up called Oni.

Inspired by the seminal '95 anime film Ghost in the Shell, which led to the Wachowskis' cyberpunk extravaganza The Matrix as well as this week's live-action remake, Oni is emblematic of its time. The game stars purple-haired government agent Konoko, voiced by Neon Genesis Evangelion's Amanda Winn Lee, who went on to have a role in the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Halo fans will also recognize Konoko's boss, Griffin, as the voice of Pete Stacker, who played Captain Keyes; Marty O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori supply the score. Konoko is the same sort of archetypal badass woman as Shell's Major Motoko Kusanagi, or Trinity from The Matrix. In hindsight, it seems surprising she never received the kind of recognition afforded to her contemporaries, Joanna Dark and Lara Croft, though Oni has developed a modest cult following among Bungie aficionados and modders over the years.

In June 2000 Microsoft acquired the developer and the San Jose team was absorbed by the new Bungie Studios location in Redmond, Washington, while Oni and Bungie's other pre-Halo properties – Marathon and Myth among them – remained with previous publisher, Take-Two Interactive. Take-Two's Rockstar Canada developed a port of the title for Sony, and the game was ultimately released on Mac, PC, and PlayStation 2 the following year. The Mac and PC versions of Oni were met with near-universal acclaim (Maximum PC magazine called it an "early contender for game of the year"), while reviews for the PS2 edition were less kind.

Artist and engineer Alex Okita, who now works for San Francisco-based studio Occipital on various unannounced augmented-reality projects, was there from the start. "I was working at a company called R. Talsorian Games, for Mike Pondsmith," Okita says. "That was the Cyberpunk role-playing game series, which is coming back as a video game with CD Projekt Red." He'd been doing graphic design and layout work for tabletop-RPG publications like the Bubblegum Crisis sourcebook, among others, when he heard about the new Bungie expansion in San Jose. "I literally drove over to the Bungie West office and dropped off a portfolio and a VHS cassette and went, 'Hey, take a look at my stuff!' Then, you know, 'These are some of the books that I worked on,' and that kind of thing. And a couple days later, I got a call from – I think it was Brent Pease, actually." Pease, the original lead on the project, had been one of the first two Bungie West employees – along with Michael Evans, who was eventually credited as Oni's sole project lead after Pease left the company in December of '99.

"I did the initial designs for the different characters in the game – Konoko, which I thought was a hilarious name because it just meant 'this girl,' and Shinatama," says Okita. "I was hangin' out with a friend of mine, and he was helping me come up with character backgrounds and names and stuff like that, so we put together sort of a cast list, as it were, for the game. I was just sitting there designing a bunch of different character types, like the ninja, the striker, and all that. That was basically just several weeks of sketching away and drawing."

Okita isn't shy when it comes to talking about his inspirations; as a longtime anime obsessive, he has an infectious reverence toward pioneering manga artists like Kenichi Sonoda (Bubblegum Crisis) and Shirow Masamune (Ghost in the Shell). "They were the two main influences at the time," he says. "But there's a lot of other shows. Mospeada, with the motorcycles. What was it called over here? – Invid Invasion."

When I bring up the subject of the new live-action Ghost in the Shell adaptation, Okita takes a glass-half-full stance toward the film, which has been dogged by whitewashing claims over the casting of Scarlett Johansson. "It's funny to see work that was done 30 years ago by one manga artist being revived in so many different ways, and the futuristic designs that he had still hold," he says. "This is a guy who in the Eighties was basically living off the little Lipovitan Ds – the Japanese version of Red Bull – just drinking those things and drawing nonstop. He's still getting tributes to his work, so that's a huge testament to not only his talent but his vision. It's decades old, and it still looks modern."

Arguably, the same can't quite be said for Oni – it's PS2-era graphics look bare-bones today but fan mods like the Anniversary Edition for Mac and Windows have done an admirable job of keeping the game optimized for current hardware. During the time of Oni's development – and the earliest iterations of Halo: Combat Evolved – Bungie struggled to craft games that could run on Apple's iMac G3, which severely limited the amount of complexity and texture they could put into Oni. According to Okita, it was an endless series of compromises. "All the technical difficulties we ran into, specifically because of the style that we were going for, really changed the look of the game, " he says. "Because we had one thing in mind when we were going into it, thinking that video cards would catch up. But then halfway through, Apple hands us this iMac, and our bar just sort of dropped on top of us," he says. "We're trying to figure out how we're going to get anything to run on it. They had this, I don't know – eight-megabyte video card or something? It was pretty miserable."

It's easy to see why Bungie jumped at the chance to develop for the Xbox when Microsoft came knocking. "[Former Xbox head] Ed Fries comes along and says, 'Yeah, we have this huge dedicated, crazy console, and we want you to help us decide what's gonna be in it, hardware-wise. And [Bungie cofounder] Jason Jones was like, 'Yeah, that sounds cool. I'll do that,' " Okita tells me. "Jones really wanted to work on an Xbox!" The upside to this was that Halo's development budget grew to Microsoft-sized proportions; the downside was that Oni would be handed over to Rockstar Canada to be ported to the PS2, and Bungie West would never make a second game.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs didn't take kindly to Bungie's new deal at Xbox, which effectively stripped the Mac of one of its premier game studios – a rare beast at the time. "Two o'clock in the morning," says Okita, "Ed Fries got a call from Bill Gates. And Bill Gates was like, 'Steve just called me – he's freaking out about this company called Bungie or something like that. I don't even know what's going on. Do you know anything about this? He's really pissed off.' So, yeah, Jobs called Bill Gates in the middle of the freakin' night, like screaming and yelling at him. 'How could you do this to me?' "

The transition was a hectic time for everyone at Bungie, especially for the employees at Bungie West, who were scrambling to ship Oni for Take-Two. Near the end of the project, Okita remembers, people were falling asleep on their keyboards. Then-CEO Alex Seropian helped out the team at the last minute by manually placing lens flares throughout the environments – "on anything that was a light emitter. You had to hand-place a little locator over, like, a streetlight, or a blinking taillight of a car – anything that was static. So we had our CEO doing super menial, intern-style jobs, helping us finish the game."

Despite the often chaotic atmosphere of those final months, Okita looks back on his time in San Jose fondly. He also has a dream, he says, of one day returning to the anime-cyberpunk aesthetic. Action-adventure titles like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Bulletstorm, and Mirror's Edge have kept Oni's spirit alive, in more recent years, by combining creative hand-to-hand combat with gunplay in fun and interesting ways – though Okita still misses the innovative keyboard-and-mouse controls Bungie West devised for Oni. The game featured a number of special melee-combo abilities, and was notable for the way it incorporated the left and right mouse buttons; if you sidestepped to the right and right-clicked, Konoko would actually kick with her right leg. "It was pretty amazing, and I have yet to see that duplicated. Street Fighter meets Counter-Strike would be pretty damn cool. But I haven't seen it yet. Oni was the first and last with that control scheme," he says.

"The world of high-end game development really deserves an Oni with all the bits and pieces of her suit, jointed and articulated," says Okita. "Having the opportunity to do what we imagined Konoko to be 20 years ago, just like Ghost in the Shell – we could totally do that now. No problem."