Game designer Harvey Smith is perhaps best known for his work on the Deus Ex series for Ion Storm - though he has also worked on titles for developers such as Origin and Multitude. He joined Midway in Austin as studio creative director in 2005, and his first title for the company, BlackSite: Area 51, is a first person shooter that -- on the face of it -- looks similar to many titles on the market today.
But as this extremely candid interview, conducted earlier this year and published in shorter form in Game Developer's September 2007 issue reveals, the inspirations for this Unreal Engine-powered shooter are deeper and more complex than average. Smith focuses on the surprisingly political, Iraq Occupation-derived elements in the game, as well as wide-ranging looks at quality of life and the future of the game medium.
Tell us a little about the background behind the genesis of BlackSite: Area 51.
Harvey Smith: It's been a weird arc with this game, both for me personally and the people looking at it. I moved to Midway to work on this one particular game that we haven't announced yet that's part open-world, part RPG features. And I was like "this is great, this is exactly what I want to work on!" Then in the background -- though I love shooters too -- there was this first-person shooter, and I just wasn't that interested in it. At first, I built the department there. In the first year, I was just hiring and firing. I'd say that I fired more people than anybody, and I hired more people than anybody, and sort of framed up the two games, and it was very dissatisfying. I was effective, I think, but it was very personally dissatisfying, because it wasn't on a team. This game got into trouble about a year ago, or a little before that.
But about a year ago, my boss Denise just said, "Do whatever it takes," and I said, "Okay, I'm going to have to move my desk." And so I moved into the team and I said, "Fuck this Area 51 thing. I don't know what you're talking about. I don't want to do that." And I started saying that we were going to call the game BlackSite. The executives at Midway were like, "What?" So we pushed small town environments, which they thought was odd. Everybody thinks that you've got to be in a giant alien stomach or on a weird ship or something.
Or a vomiting whale.
HS: Yeah exactly, but I've always been about the very grounded. The Deus Ex levels I love the most are the ones that look like a train station, or a bathroom, or a bar. So we pushed that, pushed the name BlackSite, and pushed the subversive political angle, which is I think a lot stronger than what marketing thought it would be.
Right -- part of it is taking place in Iraq. How much are you doing with that element?
HS: Quite a lot, actually. When I first wrote the one-page BlackSite story, it ignored things like, "Sure we want to steal some of the breakables from Stranglehold. We've got vehicles, [and so on]." We eventually did squad command and this interesting squad morale feature, and I think those are cool. But always in the background, I was like, "Look, I'm really fucking angry right now. Everything I read pisses me off." You can do this two ways: you can be super heavy-handed and propagandize -- and I wasn't interested in that -- or you can try to organically weave something through the entire work. If you do that, you run the risk of minimizing it so much that nobody notices it.
I think that we've actually done a pretty good job of not pushing it down your throat, and yet not letting it vanish either. It's very much there. The game starts in Iraq. You're Aaron Pierce, this Delta Force assassin, essentially. Something happens to one of your squadmates in Iraq. You're looking for weapons of mass destruction that aren't there, of course, and then you move into small-town America. At that point, you're U.S. special forces operating on American soil. It's subtle stuff, but moving into the first mission where you're about to be briefed, you're going past people and cars and checkpoints that have been quarantined. They're going, "Hey, you guys can't do this," and somebody else is saying, "The hell we can't."
Then it just gets more and more subversive from there as Pierce figures out that the primary enemy in the game, which is being called an insurgency operating on U.S. soil, is really wounded American soldiers from Iraq who are being disappeared by the government, taken underground, and experimented on with regard to this "Army of One"-type program. So we go into the Walter Reed allusions, and the Abu Ghraib allusions, and we try to do it in such a way that won't make people vomit or whatever, but at the same time, it's definitely there. The whole theme is, "Who is the enemy? Look at the enemy -- do I look like the enemy to you?" One year, somebody's a freedom fighter, the next year they're a terrorist.
Do you think people are going to take some of that away from it? I think that grounding it in a plausible beginning is a good way to get people to think about it.
HS: We said early on that it would be great if parts of the game looked like CNN footage. We're working with Unreal Engine 3, which is very powerful, and we're making a game that is a Half-Life 2 or a Call of Duty 2-style game. We're all huge fans of those -- Half-Life 2 is one of my favorite games of all time. But it's weird; you start doing that sort of thing, and of course you've got the squad morale and all that, but you start doing that sort of thing when you're using Unreal and it changes everything.
The Unreal Engine doesn't like certain things, and it likes other things. But grounding it very much so that it wasn't just a goofy game about aliens or whatever -- it's an allegory, in the same way James Whale put together Frankenstein in the '30s. He was simultaneously talking about a monster for 13-year-olds and a totally disenfranchised character for those who felt disenfranchised. In that same way, if we're successful, we would like to do that sort of thing.
I think it's a good thing. I was just talking to Alex Seropian, who's doing Hail to the Chimp. I was trying to see what kind of political agenda he's got going on there. On his side, it's much more light-hearted.
HS: Ours is kind of dark. We try to lighten it up every now and then -- our mission titles, you know how even if you're not really hitting a gated spot, because most of it actually just streams in, but when you reach something that feels like a new mission or sub-chapter, we fade in things like, "Misunderestimated," or "Mission Accomplished," or "Shock and Awe."
HS: Exactly! That's one I'm stealing right now. We thought through this long list, like WMD MIA - that's one that's all acronymns. We're going after it, but we're trying not to be obnoxious about it. The game definitely has a tone, and it's the most polished game that I've ever worked on, which is what I'm super excited about.
I'm really happy that someone is at least trying, because we talk as an industry a lot about making people cry and laugh, but above and beyond that, we can try to take some responsibility in certain ways.
HS: With Deus Ex, when we were building missions, we said initially, "Wouldn't it be cool if, in addition to the guy telling you 'Here's some ammo, go kill everyone. These guys are terrorists, remember that -- they're terrorists,' there was another guy who stopped you and said, 'Hey, remember these are people. They believe what they believe, and if you can possibly do this mission without killing anyone, that would be awesome. Here's a taser.' It's kind of ridiculous at some level, but you were able to do that as a player, and you would not believe how much we had to fight our own team. [It was like,] "Dude, that's so lame."
Similarly, we had a conversation the other day about how gamers accept certain features after a period of time, and then they think that's the right way to do it, because it's the least frustrating. But initially there's this giant wall of resistance, and I think there's a little bit of a resistance related to the content. This one game I want to make, I would say that moms would like more than hardcore gamers, and yet it would benefit from something like the Unreal tech, it would be very visceral, it would be very much about moving things physically through a space, and it would involve breakables.
It wouldn't be comedy, but it wouldn't be a soap opera either. Kind of Lara Croft without the guns, or something. I have no idea whether I'll ever get to work on that game or not, but I just mention it, and maybe ten percent of the people tapped into the industry are like, "Whoa, way to go. That's cool," while 90 percent of the people have a giant wall of resistance. BlackSite has endured the same sort of thing.
It's really hard... you've got Nintendo trying to push for this different market, while also saying "but we're still hardcore too, don't forget!" And you've got every other console maker saying, "We're hardcore! But also we've got this [casual-oriented] thing on the side." It depends on where you're going, but you're swimming upstream either way.
HS: Either you're the company who would like people to take you seriously, because you previously made kids' games, or you're the company that is mostly known for Mortal Kombat, and you would like people to take Stranglehold and BlackSite seriously, as a new brand almost. Or you're the company who only makes "tear peoples' heads off games," and you would like to introduce some kids' bowling game or whatever.
Or you're Warren Spector or Alex Seropian and you head off on your own and make your own thing.
HS: Good luck with that too! That's difficult as well. I love Warren. He lives in Austin, and we talk all the time. I really admire what Junction Point is doing in terms of being independent and all. I tried it for eight months.