[Considering Mr Levine’s turned up in the rumour mill today, I thought turning an eye back at one of Irrational’s other games would be a worthy endeavour. This interview with Ken was done in the run up to the second Freedom Force game.]
“We had a lot of internal arguments at the time. Some people wanted it more dark and gritty, and others preferred it in a lighter style,” recalls Irrational head-honcho Ken Levine, “I remember waking up in the middle of the night, before we shipped and going “What did I do? Why did I go and make it so it was retro? What was I thinking?””.
The panic was understandable but unnecessary. What Ken and his colleagues at Irrational had done was break a dread spell that had haunted the world of videogames since its inception, meaning that never would a game be based around over-muscled/over-bosomed people in skin-tight spandex…. ever. Except, not. “The superhero curse. It was ridiculous,” laughs Ken, “I think what happened was that a couple of games that started development were canned. It became an article of faith that it just didn’t work and isn’t going to sell.” Of course, there had been games based around superheroes before – but normally a singular, licensed character like the Bat-chap or the Spider-fellow. And even then, it was more about inserting metahumans into a standard beat-em-up or platform game than anything really about Superheroes per se. But a game where you created a character from the ground up, based firmly on superhero ethics and mythos… no publisher seemed interested.
Well, one was. When Irrational took their game to publisher Crave, it just clicked. “We did a two page pitch document and they said… great,” says Ken, “They bought it. It went from being impossible to being incredibly easy.” In a second the problem changed from paying for the game to actually working out how this thing would even work.
Being a game unusual in scope, that was easier said than done. Initially, for example, it was a turn-based game before they decided to abandon it to create a more dramatic real-time game. However, in real time, the game’s variables start to confuse the player. “Pick any power you want. Pick any character you want,” explains Ken, “With turn based it’s not an issue. Because it’s… turn based.”. Luckily, innovations in design were occurring which Freedom Force appropriated, namely the pause-time feature that made complex RPGs like Baldur’s Gate with tactical-RTS combat playable. This allowed both speed and control, though had some problems. Baldur’s Gate, based on the Dungeons and Dragons rules, was actually a turn-based game beneath all the movement. “With Freedom Force it’s more difficult,” notes Ken, “because the rule system running beneath is in real time, which was a fair amount of work to make right and get good.”
The biggest problem was the biggest aspect of the game. Freedom Force is all about – as the name suggests – Freedom. It’s easy to do a game with one superhero. Making a game which simulates all superheroes is somewhat harder. And balancing it? “If you have an arbitrary power creation system, you also have an arbitrarily difficulty QA problem,” laments Ken, “How to balance it? How do you make it work? It gives the player a lot more freedom, but the QA guy a lot more headaches”. Even in the release game, things weren’t perfect. For example, the super-speed character “The Bullet” was far more powerful than his friends in the final release. Once you’ve got hold of him, he unbalanced the game. This was corrected in a patch, but a good example of the difficulty Irrational faced.
The payoff for all this work would be the freedom. How successful were they? Ken has an unusual Gold Standard for this. “The standard I use is how hard is it to write a strategy guide for this game.” Ken grins, “I’ve always liked Strategy guides. My favourite of all time is Master of Magic’s. It doesn’t say “here’s how you play this part of the game” and so on. It gives you guidelines.” So rather than having set solutions, you’re set problems with many solutions. “I think most of the game is fairly successful at that,” Ken decides, “You could play through with any of fifteen characters. You could play through with characters you’ve created. And the environment is far from a corridor.”
Structurally, Freedom Force was a linear series of skirmish missions, with a plot connecting them. There was no way to alter the grand sweep of the narrative. However, the freedom offered inside each of the missions was where the design concentrated. “We provide a single path, but with a broader range of how you go about it,” Ken states, “Traditional adventure games go from point A to B to C to D to E and so on along a central path. Our games tend to be just heading from one door here, to one door here, but how you strategise to get to those points is absolutely and incredibly traumatic.”
Its kitsch-aesthetics and playful attitude of its world was one of Freedom Force’s strongest points. This is all the more impressive considering it was based on a new world rather than a licensed one. Ken looks back at the time he was Stan Lee for a week with obvious pleasure. “Writing Freedom Force has to be the highlight – and if not the highlight, definitely one of the highlights – of my career,” he exults, “I sit down and have to create a whole universe of comic book characters. It’s really gratifying to create this whole world, that’s both new and familiar at the same time, inspired by that whole generation of comic books.” Not that he was in complete isolation, locking himself in a room and coming out with a tattoo of Manbot etched onto his chest, but rather worked hand-in-glove with an artist as a partner in crime. “Half the time, I come up with an idea, and get him to draw it… then I get an idea from that,” Ken Explains, “And it goes back and forth. Occasionally, he’d just do a drawing and I’ll go “I know who this guy is!”.
So, generally speaking, Ken’s pleased with Freedom Force, with only regrets over the relatively vestigial multiplayer component tempering his joy (It’s notable that the forthcoming sequel, the brilliantly named Freedom Force versus The Third Reich has considerably developed this area). But what most pleases him? “The most gratifying thing, I think, is going on the Freedom Force fansites and not knowing what the hell they’re talking about,” he grins, “The whole world is being create and a whole language being created. Irrational is irrelevant to it, in some ways. We enable it, and made their own permutations about it. Like Doctor Man-bot.” It’s unsurprising that the game produced such a relatively witty fan-base. After all, Freedom Force was cut from very similar spandex. “It had a sense of humour which made it stand out,” Ken notes. Large communities mean more niche areas. More niche areas mean… well, things like Dr Manbot a fairly surrealistic riff off the perpetually depressed metal-clad hero from Freedom Force. We quote from the (currently down, alas) site: “Left stranded by his Freedom Force teammates on the Celestial Clock, Dr. Manbot eventually wiggled free and jumped ahead to the year 2003. Made his claim to fame by offering ill advice in a frank and brutally honest manner, often under the influence…”. We especially like his fried Ted Mentor, who is simply Mentor from Freedom Force with a gloriously attached moustache. “I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about it, and that’s great – because they’ve taken the game and made it their own,” states Ken, gleefully bewildered.
The comics cultural cross-pollination reaches further. In some ways, it’s an ideal creative synergy. “Comics have if not the same, then at least similar, limitation to we do,” theorises Ken, “Back then, they were fairly limited to their colouring compared to what they are now. That’s why Jack Kirby had to design the characters so iconographically. Videogames are still a relatively low resolution medium, for texture maps and polygons. And that’s why the Freedom Force characters looked so good, I think – because they were so simple and controlled”. Simple, controlled… and very funny.