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On Edge: A Chat With Robert Briscoe

Reflecting On Things

This is the latest in the series of articles about the art technology of games, in collaboration with the particularly handsome Dead End Thrills.

Robert Briscoe is obviously not the only great environment artist in games, and it's a bit weird to say he has a singular portfolio after working on just two titles. What makes it a lot easier is if you think in terms of levels: The Shard, Jacknife, Reflex, Velocity (from Mirrors Edge and its DLC); The Lighthouse, The Cave, The Beacon (from Dear Esther). All masterpieces up there with BioShock's Welcome To Rapture, Half-Life 2's Point Insertion and - quick, think of something slightly less distinguished to prove worldliness - that level in Robocod made out of Penguin bars.

I've spoken at length to Rob before about Mirror's Edge, but never about the more dramatic moments of his career: the move from triple-A to indie after just one game, and how obsessiveness helped bring him to burnout on one and a near breakdown on the other. So here goes, for the benefit of other bright idealists looking to dodge the bullets, or for anyone just looking for some juicy old Mirror's Edge 2 goss. *tuts*

Briscoe: Actino Rise, one of my favourite Mirror’s Edge DLC levels for its sheer simplicity and beauty.

DET: Why did you leave DICE?

Rob Briscoe: When you're working on a project like Mirror's Edge, there are certain constraints that are put upon you, not necessarily by the creatives involved but by management and by time. You're still creative while you're working but you have to get shit done, and it's during that time that you see little windows of opportunity.

One of the most defining things about Mirror's Edge for me was that there was a certain element of environmental storytelling going on: the janitor and his rat, and little bits and pieces we just left around. There were loads. For us as environment artists it became a game in itself: who could stick their own side-stories in there to make people stop and take in the environment?

After we'd done the DLC the figures had come back, and EA were like, 'Nah, this isn't profitable, it isn't viable, we're cutting it off.' I actually left before Mirror's Edge 2 was cancelled the first time.

Mirror's Edge was a brilliant project for me, I learned so much and had so many ideas from it. But there's a point where, when it comes to sequels, you feel like you're not really evolving. It's doing the same thing slightly differently, and that, along with the burnout, was the end point for me. There were no other projects internally I was interested in. I've gotta say I was quite disillusioned at the end.

Working with some of the artists on the team and the team itself was all brilliant. I started at DICE and barely knew anything; I'd done level design for about five or six years beforehand, working in Hammer and Radiant and stuff, and had only just gotten into doing UV mapping. When I finished it was just amazing. But the pressure that was put on you as an artist takes the creative enjoyment away and makes it into more of a sausage factory.

I have pretty high standards in my work. One of my things is that if it's not up to a level I'm happy with, it's not something I can leave alone, it's something I obsess about. A lot of the late nights I did were just me getting things up to a level I was satisfied with. That's how it went for a lot of the team.

Briscoe: The Stormdrains were built for a creative escape from the usual high-rises and rooftops found in the rest of the game, while still maintaining the verticality that was so important to the gameplay.

DET: How was Mirror's Edge 2 shaping up?

RB: There was R&D going on when I left, and at that point it was looking quite interesting. It was an opportunity to smooth out all the issues we'd had along the way and implement the ideas we didn't have time to do.

We had some amazing concept art. Johannes [Söderqvist, art director on the first game and its original sequel] came up with a bunch of concepts with Pierre Hanna, who's this amazing concept artist who did all the paintings in the first game. They were taking the style of the first game and expanding it, making it look different while still keeping the aesthetic. So you had this really clean look that was like Mirror's Edge inverted: if you just took a picture of Mirror's Edge and inverted it, it was kind of like that. And it looked super cool, kind of like a noir style. That wasn't the whole game, obviously, just a way of expanding the art in a new direction. So I'm really hoping that at some point they show something similar.

DET: You're referring to the new Mirror's Edge 2, which had a very weird announcement trailer that didn't really suggest they'd fixed anything. It had no message for the fans who'd petitioned it into being.

RB: I gotta say I still don't understand why it's a reboot. I know the story was a bit shit in the first one, but there was still so much room to continue on from there, take the world that was built and keep building on it. But what did they mean? Reboot? There's that bit in the trailer where it's action and you're thinking, 'Shit, what is their plan? Are they making it into some kind of God-Of-War-in-firstperson beat 'em up?' Which is obviously the complete opposite of what we were going for in the first Mirror's Edge.

The trailer is very almost-Battlefield - very colour-graded and cinematic, shall we say? The original was very stylised, fresh and different. One of my pet gripes is that every game today wants to look like it's shot through Michael Bay's sunglasses or JJ Abrams' asshole. One of the things that defines Mirror's Edge is that it wasn't any of those things. It wasn't set through a camera lens but someone's eyes. When I saw the colour-grading on that trailer-- I don't know if you saw on Twitter, but someone posted to me a colour-corrected version and I RT'd that because, boom, they'd nailed it.

There are some really good guys I knew on that team, some from Grin, a couple from Starbreeze. They're really good artists. But I don't think Johannes is working on that any more, I'm not sure. So whether the art direction is going to stick with the original or be rebooted, I don't know. But it's one of those things where it's like: they're messing with my baby.

DET: I wonder if they'll spare it the dirty camera lens effect.

RB: That's a last-gen thing where they try and cover up limitations in the graphics with shitloads of post-processing, and you end up with a situation where someone's got glaucoma. It's just completely unrealistic and ruins what good art there is. Did you play Syndicate? From an art point of view, that just felt like instead of trying to work on the art they just smeared all this bloom and lens flare all over it to compensate. It just makes me cringe so hard when I see stuff like that.

Briscoe: One of the goals with Dear Esther’s art was to make the island look like one big organic sculpture, with rocks, grass and even buildings seemingly growing from its surface.

DET: Moving on to Dear Esther, how spontaneous was the remake?

RB: The idea of embedded storytelling - the janitor and his rat - grew throughout Mirror's Edge, and when I stumbled upon Dear Esther it was the 'Eureka!' moment, the perfect outlet. I'd made a vow when I stopped working at a defence company that I never wanted to model another tank or plane ever again, so I decided I was going to take a year out. It wasn't even a year - I was going to take six months out and just chill out and do nothing, and maybe work on this side-project.

I'd spent the last two years in the office and hadn't had many experiences outside of that - hadn't seen my family, really. The plan was that in six months I'd go out and get another job. But working on Dear Esther just brought it all into perspective. The creative fulfilment you can have from doing something that is entirely yours, that you have complete control over, is what really reinvigorated the whole thing of being a game artist, of carrying on with games. There's a real contrast there between being paid to do a job and doing something you really believe in and love.

DET: But both have their dangers, right?

RB: That's the other side. Dear Esther was a passion project, it was everything. 'This is an accumulation of everything I've done as an environment artist.' The downside is that you lose touch with everything else, with what other games and artists are doing. I went through a period of, I don't know, maybe a year or longer without playing a single game. And it's been hard to get out of.

I used to come home from work and play the shit out of a game like STALKER, and play it again and again, but until recently I've had to force myself to sit down and play games. What you can learn from them is amazing - very technical things like: How did they build this bush? It's one of those things that's made me think I need to be around other people again. You learn so much when you're in a team, around other people who are better than you.

Another thing is that there was no plan for Dear Esther, there was nothing. One of the things I always say if I ever do talks and people ask how to become an indie is, first and foremost, that you've got to make sure you're financially stable. You've got to save and prepare for the fact you'll be isolated and alone. There won't be outside pressure but pressure on yourself. That's in some ways worse because you've put an expectation into your mind, and if you fail then it's not like missing a deadline at a big company.

Briscoe: The caves are a unique break in Dear Esther’s bleak, open environments that allowed room to explore a more surreal, organic style that was full of metaphors and hidden imagery.

DET: The darkest hour?

RB: That would be just before Dear Esther got funding from the Indie Fund. We went through a point where we were promised all this funding from Dan's [Pinchbeck, creative designer] university, and at this point I had two grand left in the bank to last six months. All of the money had just gone into getting the Source Engine licence and paying for a coder, getting the audio remastered and the music redone. There was nothing for anyone to actually pay themselves with. So, it was a case of: 'Cool, let's do it. So long as it comes out within six months then I'm good to go, I can just about make it.'

We'd already been in negotiations with Valve for a Source Engine licence for about four months, and it took another four months to get that finished. The university was waiting for us to get this licence sorted before they could pay it, and when we finally got the licence to them they saw a small clause at the bottom. Valve have a non-indemnity clause that means that if there's anything offensive that might cause people to sue, you're completely liable for it - and of course the university shit themselves. 'Someone's going to sue us because they thought we killed their wife' or something ridiculous. This was four or five months after the date where I'd said it needed to be out in six, and they turned around and said no, there was no way they were funding it now.

The game was almost finished and I just sat down, looked at my finances, and was like: 'I'm fucked. Absolutely fucked.' I was a grand into my overdraft and had about a grand left. Even after getting the Source Engine licence I just didn't think I would make it.

The stupidity of what I'd done, racking up debts... You never go into your overdraft because the interest is just ridiculous; get your balls cut off, it's less painful. I was borrowing money off friends and family, doing the figures of what it would take to pay everyone off, and it was 20,000 sales just to break even*. That's with no money going to myself. 'Nobody's going to fucking buy this game, it's just ridiculous.' I almost had a breakdown and was depressed for the rest of the project.

It was just fucking scary. I'd been so passionate about this thing and was so determined to get it finished that I'd not really thought what the consequences might be if anything went wrong, if we went outside of the plan. I see it as a fault in my personality more than anything else, this thing where I became so focused I didn't see the consequences.

* - Including bundles, Briscoe's Dear Esther remake has so far sold over 750,000 copies.

Briscoe: One of my earliest experiments with a hand painted art style. The goal was to create a watercolour style that had consistent background and foreground detail to look like it had been painted straight onto the screen with a brush.

DET: Developers in similar circumstances now might turn to Early Access for funding. I'm not sure that's doing their games any favours.

RB: The problem with Early Access is that you're giving players who are eager to play your game this not-ideal experience to take away with them. You can slap 'beta' and 'unfinished' all over it but, at the end of the day, if it's really buggy and not a good experience, people are going to go away thinking: 'It's shit. It's not what I expected.' There's such a small window if you're an indie to go out there and make your sales. For us it was the first month we had it out, and by the end of that we were on drip-feed until the sales. That's when people form an opinion and talk about it.

DET: It's not like gamers' attention spans and interest levels reset when the game comes out, either. You can tire of a game before it's even out nowadays.

RB: You have about 50 different trailers coming out, and it's not just trailers of the game but live action trailers, concept art trailers, documentary trailers... It gets ridiculous. You don't even care any more. It's like when you see one of those bad movie trailers that has the entire story in it, so what's the point in watching the movie? I had that experience with Far Cry 3. I finally got to the game itself and, like a lot of people, I just wanted to go out and explore, so I buggered off up the map on my own. Then I died and ended up six miles back in the other direction. Fuck it, I didn't want to go back. That was it, my attention span was gone.

Briscoe: All Good Things was created for the Unearthly Competition back in 2009. This piece was one of the earliest that experimented with environmental story. It depicts the death of a great hero, a Viking warrior on his journey to Valhalla.

DET: You did a lot of small experiments in Unreal and Unity after Dear Esther. Were you in limbo?

RB: For the last year I've been trying to explore different avenues of art, going outside of my usual photorealistic type of thing, doing some hand-drawn stuff. The Ghibli tests were from when I saw a bit of Ni No Kuni and thought, 'Yeah, that's really good but it hasn't quite got that watercolour look.' So I went off looking at that, trying to learn new skills and improve myself. But I went through a period of about a year, I'd say, from the moment the Mac port [of Dear Esther] finished, where it was like, 'Right, what the fuck do I do now?' One of the first things I did was do nothing, I just turned my computer off. Needless to say that didn't last.

It's weird giving something like that up. It's like a habit, like quitting smoking. You have a hole that you need to fill.

One of the first things I did was download UDK and decide to just start making shit in that. I spent about three or four months just making this shitty little hill. I was just trying to figure out how all the terrain materials work and I got completely obsessed. 'That's too many shader instructions, I have to get that down.' Three months later: 'I've done fuck all. I designed a whole level in Dear Esther in that time.' So I carried on doing that for another six months.

It got to the point where I just sat down and said: 'Right, what are my goals? I need an idea for a game. I need to sit down with a piece of paper.' That was probably one of the most difficult things I'd ever done, I just don't have the attention span.

It's a good thing I had no choice other than Source at the start of Dear Esther because that would have been a nightmare. One of the things that helped me a lot was that I just couldn't do anything with that engine. I couldn't go in and make my own shaders, I had to go through a coder to do anything. It's almost like asking your mum, and sometimes they say no. Going over to UDK you've got everything. 'Where do I start? I'm just going to make a massive shader that looks and functions just like a real-life neutron.' Something stupid like that is basically what I did for those six months.

Briscoe: The Willows was an abandoned survival-horror project from 2008, set in remote woodland. The art and location was a heavy mix of Stalker and early Alan Wake stuff.

DET: What was The Willows?

RB: That was the project I was going to do before Dear Esther came along, just something I'd been tweaking and playing with for a year or so while I was at DICE. It was an excuse to build a forest environment where you had to explore, but it was a compromise between that and gameplay. The idea was that you were a writer who'd stranded himself on an island in this wooded resort, and about six months later you wake up one night aaand... there's a zombie!

You go outside and find out the forest's been overrun, and there's this boat that's supposed to come each day that's been gone for a couple of weeks. You've got to scavenge bits and pieces to build a boat engine and escape. It was kind of time-based where there'd be more and more zombies spawning over time, and the more you'd kill, the more would spawn. They were the slow Dawn Of The Dead type zombies. I didn't really want the zombies in there at all but there wasn't a game without it. Then Left 4 Dead 2 came out and for five years everything was zombies. So I put that on the back-burner, but it's one thing I've been reworking recently because it's obviously been proved - and not just with Dear Esther - that you don't have to shoot things to be interesting.

The interview ends here, I'm afraid, because I can't really divulge what Rob's working on next. When the timing's right, I dare say he'll tell you himself.

Briscoe: The Escape is an unfinished piece primarily made to expand upon earlier experiments in creating hand-painted environment art. The style is heavily influenced by Ghibli movies. The scene shows the secret refuge for a young female worker in an industrial coastal town.

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