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Chat Damage: Ed Stern On Brink

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Some weeks back, I visited Splash Damage to take a peek at how their upcoming shooter Brink is coming along. Thanks to the invaluable assistance of Master Transcriber Jim Rossignol, I finally have a textual record of my interview with SD’s Senior Game Designer Ed Stern. Read on for an avalache of Brink-o-facts…

RPS: So no “Enemy Territory” this time then?

Stern: Well Activision own that name, so that’s not something we could have done with Brink. It is a new deal, and not just a new publishing deal. It’s a step up for us because we’re creating a game on its own merits, a “new IP” and all that. it’s got to establish itself apart from the whole “here’s a new game from the people who bought you X and Y”, it is what it is. It’s Brink. Although it was nearly called Ark. It turns out there’s a limit to what you can copyright (Are you sure? – RPS Law Irony Ed) and it’s actually rather hard to name anything in games. Brink, the name at least, does everything we want it to. We’re perfectly happy with just that. Of course the sequels can be Briink, and then Briiink.

RPS: Like the old Gobliiins games, although they did it reverse…

Stern: Really, interesting approach. But anyway, the name signifies new, and we’re delighted to be able to do stuff, and to keep the complexity and depth of the games that we’ve gone and made before, /and/ cater to the PC hardcore with custom servers and all that stuff. But we don’t want that to be sat at the front of the game: look at all these controls! That’s going to be squirrelled away for the hardcore to customise their games as they see fit, but we don’t want to be daunting new players with it from the off.

Brink is about bringing our games to lots of new people, which demands, insists on, a different approach. And that is a concern, because one of the criticisms is likely to be “oh it’s on the consoles, they’ve had to hobble it because the constraints of that”, and our responses is: “we bloody hope not!” These versions will be developed for their own platforms, but we’ve had to focus on what’s required for that: you’ll be able to play on the PC with a gamepad or a mouse and keyboard.

RPS: The SMART system (Brink’s running and leaping movement cleverness) seems designed with a gamepad in mind.

Stern: I mean it’s an interesting issue, with regards to what you’d choose to play with a gamepad on a PC. You’ve had some scrapes with that…

RPS: Well yes, and people have complained about us saying gamepads are better for particular games, but it’s often a different experience from mouse and keyboard…

Stern: Right, exactly, the kinaesthetics of the two control systems are different! In a tactile way the game feels different with thumbsticks and vibration compared to mouse and keyboard. I’ve been playing Left 4 Dead using a controller, and it’s easy to master: most of the enemies are crossing a single line of fire. With regards to Brink, though, we have some stuff that will help gamepad and mouse aiming. It’s not an assist as such, but it means that once you’re following someone with your crosshairs, it becomes easier to follow them – “gravity wells”.

That should help us create an “easy mode” for the mouse user. And I think difficulty levels are set to high in games generally. All gamers are more hardcore than you think. We are more hardcore than we think we are. It’s a genuinely tough challenge to assume zero knowledge of this kind of game, a shooter. If guys can appear to be friends, when they’re actually enemies, well that’s a rage-quit moment for someone who doesn’t understand how these kinds of games work. It feels like the game is cheating! Gamers with Team Fortress legacy experience understand that, they don’t have to be told it, they just know it, and expect it. But the rest of the population do not know that…

RPS: Team Fortress 2 explains it fairly well with the way you see friendly spies behaving, and the imagery of the mask and such explains it.

Stern: Yeah, and that’s partly their presentation. I’d say we have an element of that in the exaggerated art style. But whatever else we do it has to be an intense shooter, it’s got to have that hands-on quality and that fuckfuckfuck when things go wrong!

RPS: Yeah, the exaggerated characters do look great against environments that are that detailed and deadly. It’s an impressive look.

Stern: It’s taken a long time to get the technology together to have that look. One of the goals of the game has been: it’s got to look awesome, it’s to look totally awesome close up and far away, and all the characters have to look fantastic. That’s a hard task… Does anyone at RPS not have a cat?

RPS: Kieron doesn’t. He has comics.

Stern: No sort of cat.

RPS: No, comics don’t wee on your bed when they get upset.

Stern: Except the special edition Bladderman…

RPS: Where did that question come from?

Stern: You have a picture of your cat on your phone.

RPS: Ahh, I thought you were building up to some clever analogy.

Stern: We can’t talk about the urine physics yet. But anyway, character art: establishing the tone of the game is a hard problem, and deciding exactly what is appropriate is never easy. We’ve had some good responses from E3, of course, so that’s encouraging. We’ve got a bunch of cinematics that will hopefully make you laugh, because they’re fun. There’s no jarring change of tone from a game that is quite serious. We want you to think that something is at stake. But there’s more to it than that: designing a world, designing the social, political, technological backdrop for the game, and making it mean something, that’s an amazing task, and my job, incidentally. We want to be able to deliver this information, or rather allow the player to pull that information from the world – rather than have NPCs lecture them about it – in an ambient way. If we can do that, then it’s a win.


RPS: So the cinematics we have seen are in the single player?

Stern: You can skip it, but there’s no difference for multiplayer. There will be in-game cinematics, although what you’ve seen so far is simply for illustrative purposes for E3. But the game will have some cinematics so we can actively tell the player stuff.

RPS: How does that work in multiplayer?

Stern: You see that stuff when you’re changing spawn point. It’s the explanation of what’s going on. it’s as much about getting the players to focus on some new bit of gameplay as it is about saying “we’re drawing this bit of the map now!” And, as you can see, these environments are very, very detailed. And very efficient. The source textures are gigabytes big, and the game is very choosy about what the player gets to see. We’re using a few megabytes from the original texture in each frame. This is why we can do all this stuff in multiplayer. And we use that to make things hi-res, close up. The Ark is claustrophobic, and so these environments have to be detailed enough at close quarters. When you do get into some open spaces in the game, it’s spooky. The world is one where things are not distributed evenly.

RPS: In The Ark, which is your city setting?

Stern: Yes. We’ve created an entire history for it, and the idea is that where it was once a luxury hotel, now it’s home to thousands of refuges. Where the residents were once guests at the hotel, they are now, ironically, “guests” in the slums. We’ve tried to create a kind of international world where enough is different for it to be strange to you. Have you seen Michael Winterbottom’s film Code 46? That’s a sci-fi film made from splicing pieces of the real world together – Dubai, Shanghai, and so on – and adding just a couple of foreign language words to the dialogue. It’s enough to make it a science fictional experience. That’s a big influence. People on Ark come from all over the world, and we’re going to have an international cast of voice-actors, hopefully. Why not have Nigerian accents in there? Why are all games American voiced? Why not have different African accents, from different countries? And I should say that once you’ve created a character, he will be able to join either side. Your character who grew up in a guest slum will just as likely join Security side, because isn’t that – in the real world – one of the traditional ways out of poverty? His sympathies are with law and order, but that doesn’t mean he’s a fascist.

RPS: Do you feel a game is enough of an expression of the world you’ve created? Do you feel you need a book or a comic or something too?

Stern: Well, I hope it’s rich enough to do that. I like the idea that you won’t get all the of the game world in one go. I mean, games often end up with a fairly airless over-explained fictional environment, and I’d like to avoid that. Of course we’re not at The Wire end of things where it takes you a couple of episodes to even figure out what’s going on, but as a player I like it when I’m left to work things out for myself. Ambiguity can be irritating and confusing in games, but when it’s done well – and not cleverer than thou – you can get a kick out of being lied to. And that’s how the world is, not everything get explained to you. And creating this stuff, and making it work is hard. I have more and more sympathy for cliche. You put space marines in there and so much work is done. Where would we be without Aliens? I have so much respect for what that did. You put space marines in, and you’re left to fill the details. You aren’t explaining your game from the ground up. There’s less wrong with that approach than people think.

RPS: Accessing cultural memories…

Stern: Exactly, ease of recognition. It gets you playing with minimal fuss. And in creating Brink we’re faced with those kinds of problems: this isn’t an interactive documentary about climate change, but what do gamers need to know to send them on their way? We have done our homework, and we balance that with making stuff look cool. If you fill this stuff out then it reinforces itself, and as players progress they begin to see how all that works. You see connections. And it’s not a lot more work for us to do that, because we have to check that the game is internally consistent. Not to say we’re not swamped. Someone asked me if I was going to write the novel and well, no, because I’d have to stop balancing weapons for four months to get that done.

RPS: So is there a resolution? A conclusion of some kind, to this story?

Stern: There are two storylines, Resistance and Security. When you play through the other one you’re going to hear a rather different version of events. Also, there are some maps that are unique to one campaign. So if you play through the campaign as Security and then as Resistance, there will be one map where are not the other side of the battle. We… I can’t spoil it. But there’s some meta stuff there that’s going to be fun.

RPS: Campaigns being contradictory do pop up in games here and there – the C&C games do it.

Stern: That’s life. It’s smoke and mirrors to an extent, but in real events you hear alternative versions. Having NPCs narrate an exact series of events is not as good as allowing players interpret events from their experiences, either. And I think we’ve included a level of debate about events in the game world. For the first mission the cinematics are the guys saying “shoot to kill? What?!” Because it’s shocking that it has come to violence. These guys are the police, the Security service, they’ve never been told to kill people before. And I think that’s interesting because many game worlds take that for granted: “yeah, we shoot people. What else is there?”

RPS: Yes, the weird limbo of the multiplayer shooter, where combat is all.

Stern: Yes, and as great as arena games are, that’s not what we’re making here. It should be shocking and weird to these characters that it’s come to this.

RPS: Do you think that having campaigns resolve events will stop people going back and playing multiplayer matches? I mean, if they’ve seen how it works out, is there less motivation to go in and replay these single scenarios for the multiplayer?

Stern: It’s nice to have narrative, but the story of the game is the gameplay. It’s a shooter, and that’s what people want to play. That’s what they’ll come back to: the action. That’s what they play. There is no pacifist team! Perhaps people will form sympathies. That said, I think people will take something from the campaigns. Which side would you believe? That might factor into how you play the game. People mean well, everyone thinks they’re a good guy. And people aren’t rational, they’re rationalising. We come up with reasons why we are right.

RPS: The game is quite bright and exaggerated, however. Colourful, even. It’s going against a trend for photorealism, isn’t it?

Stern: I think we’ll see more of this stuff. Look at TF2 or Borderlands, they have unrealistic characters too. And look at all three next to each other, take a screenshot from each of them and none of them look alike.

RPS: And none of them look like CoD4.

Stern: Quite. I think we’re maxed out in terms of photorealism. The achievement there is clear, and huge. But I think non-realistic approaches do have more emotional pull.

RPS: Back to the stencil abstract characters of Mario and Sonic…

Stern: Absolutely, and there’s something important in that. It’s like the Scott McCloud Understanding Comics thing where it draws a photorealistic face as it represents one person, and made less realistic, it represents 50% of people, and a smiley stick face, it could represent anyone, that’s one reason for abstraction. Brink perhaps takes another angle: we’re allowing you to be even more different. Everything in the game is Brink. I don’t think you’ll look at anything and think “that could have been in game X!”

Thanks, Ed. We’ll have more on Brink soon.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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