Dangerous Heaven
Image: Microids

Since the beginning, all we ever needed to play a game was a screen and a controller. Naturally, you would also need a system to play with – and this would lead to a proliferation of different consoles. In order for games to work on a different platform, you would need to convert them. Today a game can be ported, with the necessary downgrades (or upgrades) to several different platforms, but back in the day, you’d have to reprogram it from ground zero.

So what if you could play the very same game on multiple platforms: on your TV, on your computer and on your console? What if that game didn't need any converting or downgrades to be experienced on different platforms and consoles? That was the idea behind the briefly lived 'Digital Video Game' project, created by two young Italian developers. The origins of their little project came from a desire to work on a personal story based on the Bible and conspiracy theories called Dangerous Heaven: The Legend of the Ark.

The game began as a project between classmates Andrea Gasparo and Mauro Baldissera. Baldissera remembers finishing school and working as a VFX editor for music videos, then he tried to get his start in gaming. The two mention getting the idea to write a game between 2003 and 2004, but wanting to make something very different from a simple console or PC title. The 'DVG' was supposed to be an entirely new format: a game that could be played on anything capable of running a video DVD. "It was possible to play both on a PC and a PlayStation or even a classic DVD player," Baldissera explains. "It was designed to work with a mouse, a PlayStation controller or a simple TV remote."

The attraction of this concept was based on its perceived simplicity from a development perspective. "I liked being able to develop cinematics without being forced inside the technical limitations of a 3D engine on a single platform," Baldissera tells us. "Instead, Dangerous Heaven could be run on all platforms, without the need to write specific code to port the game on another console." The design, say Gasparo, was inspired by Dragon’s Lair, amongst other things. They pitched the idea to Microids, a French publisher, which at the time, had an office in Milan. Baldissera remembers sending a small demo without much hope of an answer but, to his surprise, Microids replied – and also offered to invest money in the project. "We had enough funds for quite a medium-sized dev team so that we could expand on our original idea."

Dangerous Heaven would be published by a subsidiary of Microids, Blue Label. Despite their young age – both Gasparo and Baldissera were just 24 – and their relative inexperience in the business of making games, the two developers did get smart. "We knew that most publishers tried to rob you of money with the whole revenue-sharing model," recalls Baldissera. "Instead, we ditched the revenue sharing in favour of getting the money right up front, rather than waiting for the sales." It was certainly a bold move for two rookie developers to make.

Gasparo mentions that, along with the game, he was in charge of the development of the DVG system. "It allowed one to play more complicated games by using a simple remote control. One of the many dev problems was that each DVD player had its own reading times, so we kept a whole stack of them at home to try." Gasparo adds that, after testing, the system worked akin to a classic DVD menu, "but slightly more complex, so the player could have a quicker response when selecting and clicking on hotspots and options."

Dangerous Heaven would present several gameplay sections: point-and-click adventure, puzzles and QTE sections very much in the style of Dragon’s Lair. The story, Baldissera explains, comes from a bit of conspiracism. "It was all about these two young kids finding Noah’s Ark. Along with several stories online, we found inspiration even on 4chan. Then we mixed in the story of the Nephilim and the giants; it was a bit of a potpourri of everything we found online on the topic." Part of the story also comes from a curious place, as Gasparo remembers he had, by mistake, signed up for a 'book of the month' subscription. "I was cursed to buy a book a month for a year, and, right around that time, I got one about Noah’s Ark. That’s also where the idea for Dangerous Heaven comes from – quite the curious coincidence."

Helping with the story (and called in by Microids) would be Stefano Gualeni, who had previously worked on several adventure games for Italian company Prograph, such as Tony Tough and the Night of Roasted Moths. Gualeni was also one of the few writers in the country who had experience in designing puzzles for adventure games. "He did make some strange changes, such as a slightly homosexual relationship between the two characters," recalls Gasparo. This was a bit of an awkward situation, since the two characters were initially based on the two developers.

Baldissera and Gasparo were not happy with the changes he made to their script, which the writer still stands behind it. "I’m sad to hear they did not like my changes," Gualeni tells us. "But, honestly, they wrote too much dialogue, and there was not enough breathing space for the characters to evolve. Consequently, I thought the best thing would be to shorten and make it more impactful." As for the homosexual story, Stefano says he had to backtrack on that change. "I thought they were okay with separating themselves from the protagonists of the games, but in the end, they forced me to go back on that idea." Baldissera mentions how the cuts impacted the gameplay too much, with the story cut down to little more than 60% of their original ideas.

Gasparo also recalls several discussions with Microids about the game's design. “They wanted us to make the game as simple as possible, since originally there were several sections where, if you did not act quick enough, you would die. So, for example, instead of the character simply dying, we were forced to make it so that you had to at least choose a minimum of 60% of right choices to proceed.” Baldissera wanted to be sure Dangerous Heaven would come out as the best product possible; he mentions being present for all the different phases of the project, all the way to the soundtrack and voice actor recording. "I saw Microids was really investing in the production, which I thought was a bit strange, especially because they did not think to invest the same money in the marketing, which I felt was a bit lacking."

The two even asked Microids to put in a sort of copy protection. A comic inside the DVD box worked as a sort of prequel to the game’s story, but also contained a code which the player would need, at one point, to progress. Since the game did not have a save system – for obvious reasons of compatibility – it used a password system instead. "This also allowed us to include a few extras," mentions Gasparo. "Such as a whole making-of video and a few shots of Mauro’s little dog!"

In the end, Dangerous Heaven: The Legend of the Ark was released in 2006, quickly finding an audience, despite the reviews not being particularly favourable. Baldissera mentions that "everyone seemed to appreciate the graphics, but not many appreciated the simpler gameplay compared to a classic adventure game." Microids sold the game outside of Italy in France and the UK, but also in Russia and several Slavic countries. "For those distribution contracts, we asked for revenue sharing and got much more money than the original contract with Microids Italia!" says Baldissera. "I think, economically, for us the project was successful; for Microids, not so much.”

Gasparo feels that Microids promotion of the game was especially poor. "I guess they were banking on people being curious about what that was all about, but I doubt it worked," Among the marketing problems, there was also the fact that Dangerous Heaven was often dumped in the movie section of shops rather than being placed in the video games section. Still, that first release was not the end of the DVG format, but only the beginning. Microids would soon start publishing an entire line of titles that could be played on several formats. But, instead of being originals, they would repurpose pre-existing adventure games specifically converted for the format. The line-up included adventures such as Syberia (with the title 'The Adventure of Kate Walker'), Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Silver Earring and Return to Mysterious Island.

While Microids did get in touch with the pair for a sequel to Dangerous Heaven, that, unfortunately, was not meant to be. Baldissera already had a story written for the second game, which would follow a similar storyline. The developer again blames Gualeni, since Microids told the duo they did not want to work with him again. The writer was not even aware there were any problems. "I only found out about Microids not wanting to work with me again years later!" he says. While Baldissera and Gasparo did ponder the possibility of developing the sequel on their own, there was not enough money to form their own studio. Baldissera says the original team disbanded, with none of its members continuing to work in the gaming industry – instead, they moved into commercials and movies.

In the end, the DVG line-up was cancelled a couple of years after the release of Dangerous Heaven, with Microids also shutting down its subsidiary Blue Label. The two developers mention pitching several other ideas for the line-up, such as a game based on cooking, which never saw the light of day. Still, they haven’t completely given up on the idea of a possible sequel or, at least, a full remake of Dangerous Heaven. "With the whole line of DVGs, I figure we were a bit ahead of the times," concludes Gasparo. "But considering how Netflix did something similar with Black Mirror and its interactive Bandersnatch episode, perhaps there is still an audience for these kinds of interactive game products?"