Q&A: Creating Intrigue In Prototype's Open Worlds
Vancouver-based Radical Entertainment has made a name for itself in the open-world genre, primarily in games based on licensed properties: The Simpsons Hit & Run, The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, and Scarface: The World is Yours.
For its current project, however, it is taking the lessons learned from those titles and applying them to an internally-developed IP. Prototype, to be published next year by parent company Vivendi, is an ambitious "open-world thriller" set in New York.
During a recent Vivendi event, senior producer Tim Bennison sat down with Gamasutra for an in-depth chat about what Radical hopes to contribute to the open-world genre and to game storytelling, some of the challenges involved with making games in this segment, and why pitching a project like this is almost as hard as developing it.
Prototype is an open-world game. What do you think remains to be done in open-world games? How are you pushing it forward?
Tim Bennison: We've always thought of open-world as a structure that you can use to tell a lot of stories. My analogy is that the FPS genre, the evolution of that was that it used to be a certain, confined thing. Now, you can tell a lot of different stories in that genre. Why not the same with open-world? We've been pretty restricted in the games we've seen so far in that space. It's either superhero or a crime story where you're building your own criminal empire of various types. It doesn't have to be. It can be something else.
What we've tried to do - and I don't take credit for this, Game Informer came up with this phrase - is the first "open-world thriller." The concept is that it's a conspiracy or thriller structure, even in the sense of a blockbuster movie, but it's an individual story told against a backdrop that's very large. It's about finding out what happened in the past and how you got here, and uncovering a conspiracy and peeling back the layers within the structure of an open-world game.
I think that's something that hasn't been done before. It's hard to explain. It's hard to market. But I hope when people play the game they'll experience this and realize that's what's different about the game. It's more than the powers and the explosions and whatnot.
During the demo, you mentioned that the city evolves. What exactly do you mean by that, and does it have an impact on the geometry of the game world?
TB: When we say New York evolves in our game, we mean that it's almost like a giant game of Risk. Territorial control ebbs and flows across the map of Manhattan.
At the beginning of the game, it's neutral. There's a few little incidents, and you're involved in them. But as the game progresses, there's outbreak zones that are infected. They're no-go zones that get walled off, and you don't want to go in there, unless you're really strange. There's also militarized zones next to them and trying to control them. That flares. It's almost like a forest fire. There's flare-ups. But as the game progresses, the military declares martial law and locks the media and everything down. It starts to become pretty well one or the other, and it evolves even further.
I don't want to give away anything, but basically, our data pipeline allows us...we basically built every square foot of New York three times over. Normal, militarized, and infected. We're playing with that. Since our system dynamically allows us to swap in what's going on, then the nexus of each zone is a hive or a base, as the case may be - infected or military. It lets us play around with that, and the player as well, as they experience it.
I don't know if I'm right about this, but I think it's the first open-world game where not only the player evolves over time - which is pretty standard - but so does the world. The world is not the same at the beginning as at the end of our game. Even in a game like Scarface or GTA, the world is really the same. You've changed, and you've built your empire and whatnot, but that's it.
On that note, how is the game structured from the gamer's perspective, in terms of the story and the linearity or nonlinearity of it? Is the main story essentially linear?
TB: Yes. I'll be very clear. The story is linear and there's one ending. There's episodes within the story, which are collections of missions that are associated with an ally that gives you your information and whatnot. Some of those run in parallel, so you have choices. But essentially it's a linear story.
But we're telling the story, I think, in one innovative way. We have cinematics and all that, but we also have what we call a "web of intrigue." We haven't shown anything of it, but we're talking about it, and trust me, it's happening.
It's essentially...the web of intrigue ties into Alex's consuming ability. When you consume someone, he doesn't just get their physical form and their abilities like tank-driving or whatever. He also gets memories, in some cases. Not all cases.
There are some people in the world called "web targets," who are generally conspirators and have something to do with and will expose some aspect of what's going on, or are maybe part of Alex's life in the past. Since the purpose and goal of the game is to reconstruct Alex's past - it's not to save New York or to destroy the world - it's to figure out who you are and why you're here, which is a pretty symbolically...hopefully some of our audience is doing that with their lives, if you think about it. I don't want to be literal, but that's where we're going with it.
Since it ties into that, once you consume a web target, you get a memory, which is a mini-movie. It can be a 20- or 30-second snippet of a fragment, and it's done in a very certain style that's evocative of a memory. It goes into the web of intrigue interface, which is a physical, actual part of the game. Literally you see linkages and relationships, and as you progress through the game and collect more of these web targets, you see the conspiracy unfold before your eyes. You develop theories.
Our hope is that through the fact that players can interact with this in ways that they see fit...some won't care, some won't do it, and some will go the whole nine yards. Our hope is that when people are talking as they're playing the game, they actually develop theories that may be wrong, or may be partially right, because we're going to misdirect you. Some of these memories might be from people who aren't privileged about what's going on but have their own theories, and you have to interpret that.
For example, one memory is two marines talking five years ago, and they're on their smoke break. They just transported a body from the hospital to the pathologist's location, and they noticed a really strange lesion and they're talking about it for like 20 seconds. It's just a snippet of conversation. That's a web node, and how it fits in and what it tells you or doesn't tell you, that's up to you.
We're really trying to do something interactive, and I don't think it's been done before in telling a story, in addition to the regular ways you tell stories in games.
So this is independent from the actual main, linear storyline, because you said that players don't necessarily have to invest in it.
TB: Right. Exactly. Some missions give you some web of intrigue nodes, because the objective of some of the missions is, "Get that guy." So every player will be exposed to it to some degree, but the players who don't care about knowing the backstory and the deep side of it will just get the skeleton. When they finish the game, they will have just had an action experience, which is fine and cool by us.
But the completist - the person who wants to know everything - will have to dig and will have to work hard to get some of the key elements. They will want to get all of them. There is no right, blessed way to play this game. We need to accommodate lots of people.
Do you think that that kind of interactive uncovering of a backstory is where games are destined to go, from a story perspective? It almost sounds like the contextual discoveries in BioShock but more interactive. It's not the core story here, but it seems like you could actually tell a whole game's story like that. Is that something you'd be interested in exploring?
TB: Yeah. I'd love to not have to do cinematics, because it's more immersive, right? These are cliches everybody talks about, but it's true. This is new to us, too. We're just trying to figure this out, so we weren't going to lean entirely on that method.
Maybe next time, if we get a chance and the game's successful. Maybe we can try a more pure approach that way. Who knows. I mean, I think it could support it. We'd probably have to beef it up from what we're doing, but it's a first try.
The demo I saw today was largely combat-oriented, but in an open-world game, I think one of the things that players expect is other things to do - obviously, you talked about the web of intrigue. It also kind of reminded me of Crackdown and a little bit of Hulk and so forth. What kind of actual, practical mechanics are you guys developing, other than the combat stuff?
TB: Well, the events, which are minigames - we're calling them "events," because we're trying to make them more emergent from what's happening in the world - there are a variety of them, and some of them are more combat-oriented, but they are pitched at you in a way that's hopefully less gamey than...like, our previous game had minigames around batting soldiers into the sea and stuff like that.
What we're doing now is we're saying...you might have a minigame where you have to play the role of somebody for a while, say, a military guy in an operation. It's combat, but it's not combat as Alex. It's combat as this guy. If you don't stay in-role, you'll lose. Even if you could beat it as Alex, you'll lose, because they won't give you the information. There will be no access to you for that.
There's also...we've got a lot of collection mechanics beyond the web of intrigue as well. This is more expected stuff for open-world games, like collectibles that make you go everywhere in the world, and then there's also locomotion-based stuff. A whole big part of our game is this locomotion system. It's this adaptive parkour system. That's the term I use.
What it means is that the AI is involved in predicting the environment, looking ahead, and determines how your character's going to locomote, including over dynamic objects, not just fixed objects. We're going to have some minigames around that too, obviously.
Our hope is that the whole "disguise versus all-out combat" dynamic, and the way the player can switch between them - I've used the term "deceive or destroy" - our hope is that will provide a more multidimensional experience than our previous game, where you're this green guy, and people are like...in this game, you can be in that mode, obviously - we've shown a lot of that - but you can also do things a lot more...I wouldn't call it stealthily, but slyly.
You can take apart a squad without firing a shot. You can use...that base we showed in our demo, in previous iterations where I've played it, I've actually destroyed that base by attracting a bunch of hunters into it - getting them on my tail, and then they see the military and they start ripping it up, and I stand there. Standing there is not typically fun in a video game, but it's pretty cool.
You're initiating while you're -
TB: Yeah. We call that the metagame. You're using the metagame for your own purposes that are indirect. I don't know. That's not very often that happens in video games.
Our goal in this game was to have a bunch of systems collide. My lead designer and I gave a talk on this at GDC. The idea that we're trying to make a whole bunch of systems - lower-level mechanics, mid-level systems, the bases and the hives and stuff are high-level mechanics - in a higher fidelity that has been possible before, at a more numerous number of systems going on, and within those systems, elements of the systems collide together and let the player come in with their character, who is almost like a stick poking an anthill.
You see what happens, and stuff pours out, and stuff happens. That's the essence of what we think of as an open-world game, and we hope that the combination and the magnitude of all these elements will create a different experience. That's the idea.
What have you guys learned about open worlds and implementing them, with respect to those interlocking systems or in general?
TB: Well, you may have noticed that there aren't that many open-world games out there. They're more popular now, but the reason is that they're hard and they're expensive, because they're big. Just the act of building the world, I was very scared of at the start of this project. The size of the team required to do that and the complexity of the effort...and remember that I said we built it three times over.
We pulled it off, though, because our main secret there is the procedural approach we took. We didn't build everything by hand. We built a system of tools that generate it, and we built the world art procedurally in Lego blocks, basically. Not just the geometry, but everything.
Surface treatment, behaviors...everything. We just pressed the button and "psssh." That's the way we built it in the time we had. That's one thing we learned. We also did some of that in our last game, and that taught us a lot.
Building an open-world game is tough, with stuff to do. It's easy to get repetitive. That's a danger. We're still walking that line right now, to be honest. It's tough. You build Manhattan, and it's a volume, not a 2D map, because of the way our character can move.
That's a huge space of stuff to fill with stuff to do, and ambient systems. Ambient systems are tough. By that, I mean that pedestrians, cars, reactions to you, reactions to each other, in-game media...all those things are hard and expensive, and they all interact. So yeah, it's tough.
Is it hard to pitch that expense with a new IP?
TB: Yes. Some people ask me, "What's the hardest thing?" The scope of the game is definitely one of the hardest things, given the constraints that we have, but getting it through is tough. There's a lot of gates, and it takes years. I wouldn't recommend it for the faint-hearted, especially if it's original. You basically have to pay your dues, for one thing. You can't just walk in and go, "I've got this original IP and this team that's raring to go. Just trust us."
To demonstrate that you know the technical -
TB: Well, our previous game proved that we could make a fun game in an open-world space with this kind of interaction. It scored pretty highly and did well and was fun, and it's the same team. It's the same guys, plus more people who even better.
So that equation is a decent bet, anyway. It's not infallible. It's really all about understanding the gates in the process - and every company has different ones - and hitting them. Yeah, it's not easy.
I think when it's all said and done, when we set out to do this almost three years ago, we had a few guys thinking up the IP. I'm not saying we had a big team three years ago or anything.
We wanted to do something different, you know? Different for the gamer, and different for us. We wanted to somehow create an experience that you haven't really seen before. And clearly there are elements that we have stolen or copied or are similar to - however you want to phrase it - other games, obviously, in our game, but we hope that the sum of all that equals a different experience for the player.
I think from the response we're getting so far, we're tapping into something. Some people get that. They feel it, and I hope we deliver it. It's always a risk, but that's been our goal, to do something different. Do something really different that's only possible on this round of consoles, and wasn't possible before.
It isn't just a better-looking, same experience - which is a fine way to go, don't get me wrong. People love it. If it's a good experience, why not make it better? It doesn't have to be different. But what we're trying to do is something different.