The call comes in the early morning on the 23 rd of October. NYPD SWAT is needed to serve a high-risk arrest warrant for 28-year old Lawrence Fairfax at 25 Glendive Lane, the Bronx. DNA evidence has linked Fairfax to a string of murders committed against young women, all students at the State Law school where Fairfax works part-time. Fairfax isn’t alone in the house. His mother, a frail and reclusive woman, is also believed to be inside, and it is possible that Fairfax has a hostage, 20 year old student Melinda Kline. She went missing six days earlier.
SWAT is asked to respond quickly, but without lights and sirens. “Suspect is believed to be mentally unstable,” says the officer over the police scanner. Your commander has little to offer in the way of reassurance. “Ok guys, this is tough one,” he says at the beginning of your briefing.
That’s the thing about the Fairfax Residence, the second mission of the stunning tactical shooter SWAT 4. It forewarns you. Every paragraph of the briefing emphasises that this is not likely to be a typical bust. You know before you set foot on the doorstep that you’re about to enter the home of a potential serial killer. And yet this abundance of information also misleads you. It makes you believe you’re ready to face what lies beyond the boundaries of 25 Glendive Lane. Yet not even your crack team of SWAT officers are prepared for the human atrocities that go on within the home of Lawrence Fairfax.
SWAT 4 was developed by Irrational Games, best known these days for creating Bioshock. The project was headed by three key designers, Paul Hellquist, Bill Gardner, and Ian Vogel. Each designer took charge of different levels in the game. Hellquist designed the introductory mission, for example, while Gardner handled missions like Red Library and Northside Amusements. But it was Ian Vogel who oversaw the construction of Fairfax Residence, and Vogel’s design priorities differed slightly to those of his co-developers.
“I’ve got a long history of doing creepy stuff,” says Vogel, whose other level design credits include the notorious Med/Sci area of System Shock 2. “Irrational at the time had a brand of being off the beaten path, a little bit weird, right? And I really pushed that in the levels that I built. I was pushing specifically the horror, not any sort of supernatural horror, but the horror of what we do to each other.”
With SWAT 4, Vogel had a very specific objective in mind for his missions. “I wanted to create levels that were very, very challenging to remember the rules of engagement as a police officer,” he says.
This is a fascinating design goal in a game like SWAT 4, which is fundamentally about playing by police rules. The central tension of the game stems from only being able to use deadly force when a suspect shoots first. Pull the trigger before the suspect pulls theirs, and you’ll be docked points from your final score. Lose too many points, and you’ll fail the mission entirely.
Everything in SWAT 4 is designed to make guns feel like an absolute last resort, and that includes the guns themselves. Not only are they tricky to handle, with even the slightest movement heavily impacting their accuracy, they’re also designed to feel uncomfortable to fire, as SWAT 4 designer Bill Gardner explains.
“They’re meant to have, I think a much crunchier, unpredictable feel, than a lot of other weapons,” he says. “I particularly remember the UMP .45. When you fire it, it’s meant to feel very jarring and ‘Oh my God what did I just do?’. I feel like that was a very different approach from a lot of shooters where there’s a bit of fetishisation of the weapons.”
The intent is to challenge the player on a tactical level, to encourage them to find other means of suppressing suspects. Often these alternatives leave players more vulnerable to being shot, thus increasing the tension. Vogel, however, wanted to challenge the player on a moral and emotional level too, to find out where each player draws the line between following the law and taking justice into their own hands.
For Fairfax, Vogel’s premise was the murderer who lives next door. “How many of those interviews have we seen where there’s a killer, or something terrible happens, and the neighbour always says ‘But they seemed so NORMAL.’ Right? That’s the feeling I wanted,” This began with 25 Glendive Lane itself, which was designed as a nondescript suburban home, split on two levels between a roomy basement and an upper living area. Beyond the basic layout, there is no real-world basis for 25 Glendive Lane, precisely because Vogel didn’t want to conjure a specific location in the player’s mind.
“We wanted you to be bored looking through the house as you’re driving by,” Vogel says. “But if you look at the little details, there’s an unkempt yard, and as you get into the basement, or into the upstairs and the kitchen, you’re like ‘Uh oh, this is not normal. This is definitely not normal.’”
While on the outside Vogel wanted the player to feel indifferent about 25 Glendive Lane, inside the sensation Vogel hoped to evoke was disgust. Entering the residence through the front door, the first room you come to is the kitchen, which is crawling with filth. The floor is strewn with rubbish, the table sports ash-tray filled with dog-ends. On the counter is a slab of nondescript raw meat with a cleaver embedded into the flesh. Beyond the kitchen, the living room flickers with the pallid glow of a static-y television, and there’s a room filled almost entirely with old, yellowing newspapers. “What I tried to do was glide-slope you into the horror,” Vogel says.
25 Glendive Lane may be unclean, but what is more important is that it is unchanged. Lawrence Fairfax is 28 years old, but hidden behind the stacks of newspapers is a childlike den, complete with toys and doodles that haven’t been touched in years. The only drinks in the house are milk and fizzy pop, and everywhere there are empty boxes of sugary children’s cereal. “What I really hoped to suggest was that there was this frozen development there.” says Vogel. “There’s this frozen maturity. There’s this almost overbearing mother.”
It’s in Fairfax’s mother where the layers of the mission’s horror begin to unveil themselves. “Mother’s my favourite,” says Vogel. “She stays upstairs. She’s got the bathroom and the kitchen and the crazy filthy living room, and there’s a wheelchair in the corner, and she’s just sort of incubated there. And I really like that metaphor, because she’s incubated about everything. She’s probably protected from any kind of decision making.”
The horror story of Fairfax residence is one decades in the making, and SWAT only experience the conclusion. But there’s more Fairfax’s mother than clever environmental detailing. Her character is programmed at an AI level. SWAT 4 is famous for the randomised nature of its encounters. Although the levels themselves are fixed, suspects and hostages can spawn in a wide variety of ways, meaning that no two missions play out in exactly the same fashion. Yet although the spawning feels random, it is in fact delicately authored.
“The way we would script that is we would have parent and child spawners where, if a particular suspect or hostage would spawn, we would have children of those parents,” says Gardner. “Because if it was completely random a lot of the time you would have the hostage or the CEO or whatever spawn all by himself. Which, in a lot of cases isn’t that interesting… we never wanted you to get to the point where it was like ‘I came into this room and there was like 10 different suspects.’”
Other elements of the AI were semi-random too, such as the likelihood of a particular suspect choosing to surrender to SWAT or attack them. These systems were created to make the game unpredictable, to keep the player on their toes and encourage them to consider all tactical options. “The second the player is going to detect ‘Ok, every single time I use this item on a suspect, or a hostage, they’re always going to react this way’, that’s the second that you stop caring and you start becoming robotic. You just get into a routine, and that’s not what SWAT’s about,” Bill Gardener emphasises.
But this system could also be used to tailor more specific events, and Vogel utilised this in his approach to designing Fairfax’s mother. “I set the AI to be as aggressive as possible, but didn’t give her a weapon,” he says. “She’s protective of her baby, no matter how horrible [he is] and you have to taze her, or have to gas her.”
Fairfax’s mother puts the player into a dilemma. To do your job and complete the mission you need to force her into compliance. But there’s nothing that feels noble or heroic about pepper-spraying a defenceless old woman, no matter how defiant she is being. “What I wanted was that feeling of ‘Are you kidding me lady? We’re a SWAT team, we’re telling to get down, you’re refusing!’ What a crazy situation that is, right?”
While Fairfax’s mother lives her life in the refuse-filled upstairs of Glendive Lane, Fairfax’s domain is in the basement. For Fairfax’s character, Vogel doubled down on the childish element of his character, making him bald and chubby, and having him speak with a high-pitched, reedy voice. “I wanted him to feel like a pale grub grown in the darkness,” says Vogel. “You have to work with your art team on this. I didn’t dictate what he looked like. But when I created that story people were like ‘Oh yeah, I get it, let’s go build that model.’”
The upstairs is meant to frame this image of childishness in your mind, the pillow fort, the toys, the discarded cereal boxes and so forth. But as the player descends into the basement, the child is stripped away, and the true nature of the adult is brought to fore. “Think of this as a journey where the upstairs is almost his ego, his frozen sense of development,” Vogel says. “And then as he gets into the basement from that video room where his bed and the TV are, that’s where you get into the id. That’s where you go into the dark stuff.”
In the basement, the player is given further environmental clues about Fairfax’s warped personality. In a shadowy corner of the basement corridor is a discarded weights-bench, hinting at Fairfax’s failed attempts to change his appearance, to fit in. In the garage and corridor are CCTV cameras, which seem to be watching for potential intruders. But inside Fairfax’s basement room, the walls are stacked with video-tapes, while a black-and-white TV shows grainy images of a woman lying on a mattress. Fairfax is a man who likes to watch people, particularly when they’re under his control.
It isn’t only these visual cues that lend Fairfax its eeriness, sound plays an enormous role too. SWAT 4’s audio was designed by Eric Brosius, who previously worked on games like Thief and System Shock 2. Brosius specialises in strange and offsetting electronic soundscapes, and SWAT 4’s audio design is no different. “When you listen to the levels it’s almost… there’s an Alien-like hum. There’s this thrumming, repetitive bass. And it’s not a bass guitar, but it’s not quite a bass keyboard. There’s just this alienation in the soundtrack.” Brosius also worked on the game’s sound effects, including those powerful, jarring gunshots. A particularly fine example of his work on Fairfax is a clanky old radiator in the basement, which also sounds like fingernails scratching at a door.
Beyond Fairfax’s bedroom is another L-shaped room, with the broader part of it cordoned off by a hospital curtain. It’s here where the scope of Fairfax’s depravity is revealed, and the layout of the room forces the player to take the full-scene in at once. The walls are plastered with newspaper clippings all about the so-called “Law-school Lyncher”. Washing-lines are tied across the room, with plaster moulds of women’s faces hung out to dry. “I remember I pushed that image because I wanted there to be another metaphor, like what masks do people wear in their normal life?” Vogel says. In one corner is a cast of a woman’s torso with a pair of scissors stabbed into it. Worst of all, behind the hospital curtain is a soiled mattress with an unidentified woman writhing on it, her body half-covered in still-drying plaster moulds.
It’s in this room where Fairfax himself usually (though by no means always) resides. If arrested, he utters phrases like “You can’t take her away from me,” and “Don’t tell mom about this.” “There’s almost this bizarre care, or love, or attraction that he has for his victims,” Vogel explains. “It’s a self-delusion that I think a lot of killers have where they’re either, they’re such the centre of the universe that they don’t care about anybody or they just have this bizarre take on what it means to do something important… I wanted his language to feel like that too.”
Even with Fairfax neutralised, there’s one last surprise left in store for SWAT. In the killer’s work room is a blast door, and beyond this door is a long, winding tunnel dug by hand into the earth. At the end of it is an underground chamber constructed out of heavily rusted sheet metal. Inside is where you find Melinda Kline, filthy and bruised, but alive. Slumped against the wall beside her is a full-body plaster cast which, at a glance, looks like a corpse. Here, SWAT has ventured into the deepest part of the killer’s mind, where any sense of logic and normalcy has completely unravelled. The level design reflects this. “I wanted you to feel like you were going from reality to this unreality that most people hopefully never go to,” Vogel points out.
The ultimate goal of Fairfax’s design to create a situation where the normal rules don’t seem to apply, and hence tempt the player into breaking the rules beset upon them by the game – the rules of engagement. Vogel shows me a Youtube video that demonstrates this effect in action. It’s of two British players exploring Fairfax together. They enter through the garage, notice the cameras and conclude they are being watched, freak out for several minutes at the clanking radiator, and mistake the full-body cast in the makeshift cell for Melinda Kline’s body. The players are audibly unsettled by their surroundings, and as they return to explore upstairs, they stop to torture the already-subdued Fairfax with pepper-spray and tasers.
“They’re swearing at him, they’re swearing at an AI character on the screen, they’re talking at each other like ‘I wanna kill this guy,’” Vogel says. “That’s how deeply this thing affected people. They’re cops. They can’t kill [him]. But where are the boundaries that they can push to get the satisfaction of dealing with the horror that they’ve just encountered?”
In many ways, SWAT 4 stands out as an oddity amongst Irrational’s canon, both in the nature of its development (the project was handed to them by publishers Sierra after a previous developer didn’t work out) and the subject matter of the game itself. But through Fairfax Residence, it’s possible to trace a clear line between Irrational’s earlier work on System Shock 2, and their later work on Bioshock. Fairfax Residence is the moment SWAT 4 transcends its origins as a straightforward tactical shooter and becomes an Irrational game.