Clearing the Haze: Rob Yescombe On Writing For An FPS

By Brandon Sheffield

Ubisoft and Free Radical have teamed up to create Haze -- one of a multitude of next-generation shooters following close in the wake of Halo 3, and one of several that has overt political content as part of its narrative.

Here, Gamasutra speaks to Rob Yescombe, Free Radical's full-time, in-house writer about the formation of the scenario for the game, which is currently planned exclusively for the PlayStation 3, how the writing and development affected one another, and more.

Haze's story centers around a private military corporation known as Mantel Industries, engaged in a battle with rebels. Set in 2048, the game's story and gameplay revolve around that conflict and Nectar, a nutritional supplement-cum-drug that lets Mantel's soldiers fight with superhuman power.

Tell us a little about your role on the game.

Rob Yescombe: Let me get this out there first... my job is the screenwriter, so it's kind of difficult for me to talk about how good the script is, because that would be supremely pompous of me. So what I'll tell you is this: the lead actors in Haze are from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Those kind of actors don't do video games. However, actors are interested in two things: lots of money, or a good script. And we didn't have any money. So hopefully that's testament to the script being a pretty decent piece of work.

I think it's an interesting tactic to go for theater actors instead of movie actors, because movie actors have generally proved themselves over and over to be somewhat not suited to video game work, because they seem to view it as a lesser art.

RY: The reason why that happens is all down to direction. There is no actor in the world that will turn in a bad performance if you have a good enough director.

I agree completely.

RY: A lot of movie guys -- not to name names -- but movie actors will come in for the paycheck, and publishers will dish out massive amounts of money and get a bad performance. People are starting to realize that, and I think less and less movie guys are appearing with some publishers.

And obviously it's not that big of a draw to players. They're not like, "Oh, I better go play that game because it's got so-and-so in it." They just want to play the game, really.

RY: The truth of it is as well is that when people do use big actors, they're an appetizer. You never saw Michael Ironside's name on the front of Splinter Cell, and his performance is pretty good -- very good in fact. But I always find it weird that they don't name them on the front of the box.

Yeah, it's very strange. This game seems to have some similarities to a couple of its contemporaries. Feigning death is also happening in Army of Two. You're the scriptwriter, so how involved are you actually with all the intricacies of its development?

RY: Absolutely. I'm full-time now. I'm not a freelancer who has come in to write the script; I was there right from pitch documents right down to writing the manual.

Okay, good then. So there's that mechanic, which is also in Army of Two, and it seems that you've got a little bit of the political content that we're seeing in that game, as well as in BlackSite: Area 51. As far as the message of the game, what are you trying to get across?

RY: Well, to be honest, I've talked about that a lot in the past, and it's an extremely controversial subject, and we're very wary about talking about it now, because people got very worried about it. The truth is -- make no bones about it -- it's the entertainment business, and without the business, there's no entertainment, so you have to have a product that will sell.

Pushing something that's overtly political or making it your selling point will alienate people who aren't interested in being lectured. What we have is, yes, absolutely, there's a subtext to Haze that I want people to be able to discover for themselves. People are smart. If they want that, they'll find it, but I don't want to push it too hard, because I don't want people to feel like that's all that Haze has to offer.

 


Have you diminished it, as a result?

RY: I can say that originally, some of the stuff in there was way too controversial to include and it had to be cut. I can't talk about what it was, but it was very overt and very direct, much moreso than any other games.

That's a shame, because actually with BlackSite, when I was talking to Harvey Smith, it's incredibly overt, insanely overt. The U.S. government is making soldiers turn into monsters, and they're not taking care of them, and now you have to go kill them. I think it's interesting that some of these things are happening right now, but it's also interesting that there's a backlash.

RY: Haze, more than that, is a commentary on games themselves. In a game, you obey your orders without exception. That's what you do. And as a soldier, you obey your orders. There's no exception, and that's what you do. There are definitely parallels that can be drawn.

But more than that, it's a commentary on violence in video games. As a Mantel guy, it makes sense that you play it like a game, because you're absolved from responsibility. It's weird that our entertainment is founded on shooting people in the face! The truth is that I enjoy it as much as anyone else, but I find myself weird for liking it so much. That's less than a big political statement; it's much more about, "What are we, as people who are entertained by this?"

Yeah. I think inherently in our culture -- especially in masculine culture -- we have the exaltation of the hero, and warrior myths and things like that have always been intriguing to us. It makes sense. It's very ingrained in our culture. But do you think that games are a way you can do that without actually having to go through with that?

RY: How do you mean?

I mean, a way to live out a power fantasy without actually...?

RY: Oh, absolutely. That's where the kick comes from. Look at pretty much any high-concept movie; it's basically "ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances." It's no different for this. It's being able to do the things that you would want to be able to do if there were no consequences.

What was the impetus for the writing of the script? What was the node of the idea?

RY: Right back at the very beginning, the template for it was Apocalypse Now, but in the end, we became too overt and just too controversial to approach the marketplace. It's a 20-odd million dollar production, and it's a very risky thing to try and push it down that avenue too far. That stuff is still in there for the people who want to find it, but at the same time, the most important thing about Haze -- and this is the most important thing about any game! -- it doesn't matter how interesting your political commentary or story is. If a game isn't fun to play, you've wasted your time.

Well, certainly I'd imagine that if a game is fun to play, it'd surpass any type of political expectations that people may have, because people will skip the cutscenes or whatever.

RY: And by the way, there are no cutscenes in Haze.

It's all in-game?

RY: It's all first-person perspective in-game and it's a single streaming experience. There are no levels, and once you load up the game, if you bought it on the day of purchase and loaded it up, you could play the entire single-player campaign ten to fifteen hours without ever seeing a loading screen.

But there's probably a heavy loading screen at the beginning if you're streaming off the hard drive, right?

RY: No. It's all done on a stream.

 


I see. Cool. Well, I was just thinking that it's a shame to have to dial stuff back, because as an interactive medium, it seems like we don't have an obligation necessarily, but we certainly have a unique opportunity to be able to inform people more.

RY: It doesn't mean that we're not doing that. It's the same with anything. If you want to entertain people, it's about balance. Look at a movie like An Inconvenient Truth. That is a very intelligent balance between making it entertaining but also informative. If he'd gone in all po-faced without the jokes, it wouldn't have done the business. It wouldn't have reached that many people. So you need to have the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

That's true.

RY: Originally we didn't have the sugar, and people wouldn't want to swallow it.

I see. So it was more like a serious game, almost.

RY: It's still very serious.

Well, I meant serious game as in serious games as a genre, like training games or military simulation types.

RY: It wasn't so much about the gameplay being very serious. It was just about that story and the things that were happening there. I mean, it's still some extremely fucked up shit that happens sometimes, and that you will feel responsible for. And that's the key thing. We want people to feel a little bit guilty about what they're doing.

That's good. As long as you turn the camera back on the player, I think that's...

RY: Exactly. And that's one of the reasons why we're keeping all the narrative in single-player. We want you to feel claustrophobic, trapped inside this body doing these things and thinking, "Well fuck, I'm responsible for it."

No, it's good. It's kind of hard, though. I understand it's difficult to get that kind of thing across and have it still be fun. It seems like a very difficult thing to do.

RY: It is a very difficult thing. But we're not out until November, and we're tweaking and balancing and have got plenty of time to get it right. It's going amazingly well, as you will see and play today.

Yes, good. But at the same time, there are still movies that we can watch that make us uncomfortable and are really a bit tragic and things, but they're still really compelling and we want to watch them again. I hope eventually we'll get to that stage in games as well.

RY: The complication with doing that in a game is that a player in a game is an actor who doesn't know his lines. So making him complicit in the events he wasn't complicit in, is all about taking away the interactivity, but they're paying money to interact. It's that balance -- giving them the gameplay but not taking too much away to get the story across.

Yeah, it seems like if you give people difficult choices, that's a good deal of the way there. But it would really be nice to see sometimes, a few more games take some kind of a stand on something. But I suppose that's more of the place for a smaller project than something of this scale.

RY: It's difficult. I mean, all it's going to take is one breakout game to do it and make the money, and then everyone else will follow. I think we are edging towards that.

Good, good. Now, in terms of the gameplay side, being able to bury things and steal weapons and this sort of stuff -- how much of what you do is on the player? How much player choice is there? Are you basically in a first-person sandbox game, or is it not quite that far?

RY: It's still a limited game, absolutely. But all those rebel skills I was talking about, you get those in the multiplayer maps and in the single-player. It's up to you when and how you use them.

But you can't just traverse the entire universe or something like that. You still have specific goals that you have to meet at certain times.

RY: Yeah. I mean, by playing through the game and traversing the universe, you'll eventually complete them anyway as a matter of course.

 


I was just wondering, because it sounded like you were giving a lot of options to the player. I was wondering how much of the -- since it's obviously scripted -- how much of the direction of the narrative is given to the player.

RY: It's a linear experience. Because that's what I mean -- in order to get those points across, you've got to steer them in a particular way.

I think that people are a little unnecessarily afraid of the word "linear," because they seem to think that means that it's bad.

RY: Linearity, and not liking it, is because they think it's going to take choices away from the player. But we're giving them all those combat choices, so the way they fight is so immensely diverse -- and in the multiplayer as well and the co-op of course. It's just about making sure there are enough features and enough ways to play the game for you to feel that you're not being restricted.

Yeah. You just have to give people different methods from getting point A to point B that they can feel that they have their own amount of choice.

RY: Exactly.

The multiplayer that you say has some ancillary story stuff -- did you start out planning that way?

RY: Yes. Although [Haze is] a complete game unto itself, our plan is to expand that universe. So we've got an enormous amount of story and related events to tie-in. So this is just some stuff related to one particular story.

So more of it's there if you want to get that out of it?

RY: Exactly.

Okay. But you can't do it in the single-player? They're multiplayer maps only, right?

RY: Yeah.

How do you actually plan for story within the multiplayer environment?

RY: Well, it's more about the objectives. It's about them being related. For instance, in a very, very, very basic form -- I'm not allowed to talk too much about it -- let's say you come across a battle taking place -- that battle is what's happening in multiplayer. So the things that happen there are the things that you might be able to do because of how that landscape's been affected by the battle, is because of what you're doing in the multiplayer.

So in the single-player, you play through an area where you see evidence of something that's already happened, and in multiplayer you can actually make that thing happen?

RY: In its very basic form, yes.

That's a pretty interesting idea. I don't think that's really been done so much, and I applaud you.

RY: Thank you!

How is it being a full-time scriptwriter at a developer? That's not a common role to have.

RY: No. Free Radical are very forward-thinking like that, because normally what happens is that if you're lucky, you get in a freelance writer who will write the main script. But then you've got a bunch of guys who aren't writers, after that one writer's left -- guys like programmers and designers and stuff -- trying to write additional dialogue as the game changes. So you end up with like...

For instance, the main narrative of Haze is about 100 pages. The script of Haze overall is 1,000 pages. So that would've been 900 pages written by someone who didn't understand the vision of the original. So I'm right there from the pitch documents right into scripting the additional dialogue right down into the manual, to make sure that there's a consistency in that product and the quality of writing.

 


Does that 1,000 pages include everything from the barks to the names of guns and things?

RY: I'm talking about spoken dialogue. Spoken dialogue is 1,000 pages. Additional stuff is... all the manual stuff is another X number of pages on top of that.

Wow. How many minutes does that translate to?

RY: It's about a page a minute.

That's a lot. I hope you have a good voice director.

RY: I am the voice director. So I cast it and directed it.

Well I hope you did a good job!

RY: Fingers crossed! Like I said, Royal Shakespeare Company -- they were good.

Yeah, it should be. So as a full-time scriptwriter, are you always writing, or are you also working through the design meetings and things like that?

RY: That's the other benefit -- having someone full-time who isn't just coming it to write and then leave -- is that I'm constantly able to adapt the script to fit the gameplay. In a movie, it's nice because the script is the foundation it's built on, but with a game, it has to be the gameplay, because, like I said, it doesn't matter how great the story is. If it's unplayable, it's a waste of time. So it's all about having them decide, "How do we want the gameplay to work?" and then "How can the story work with that?" It's a constantly changing experience.

What did you do previously?

RY: I was in TV and film, basically. Free Radical found me. It was kind of odd. I wrote a sitcom in the UK. It wasn't actually produced, but it was shortlisted for a Taps award.

Even though it wasn't produced?

RY: Yeah. Still haven't really figured that out. And Free Radical didn't want to advertise for a screenwriter, because you get a million fucking replies. So they contacted Taps, which is this awards body, and they contacted me, saying, "Do you want to write a game?" "Yes. Hell yes!" Free Radical wanted a twelve-page sample; I gave them two full screenplays and a twenty-page document on gameplay ideas. I had like fifty letters of recommendation from a bunch of places, so you know, it was good.

Cool. How have you found writing for games, in terms of being able to having able to kill your babies sometimes when you have to cut things?

RY: It's no different to writing TV or film or anything, because writing is rewriting, and anybody who thinks that the first draft is going to make it to air, you're out of your fucking mind. It's a collaborative process and everybody has an opinion, and everybody's a consumer and therefore everybody's right. It's about trying to figure out what's the best way to run.

What's interesting is that I've talked to some people who've had Hollywood scriptwriters come and write their game's script, and then it didn't turn out that well. It seems to me that there are misunderstandings on both sides. On the one side, you've got the Hollywood writer who's used to writing a draft, and then either someone else takes it over or they're done. And then you've got game people, who are expecting that Hollywood writers are going to be able to do this amazing thing right away that they can totally use, but when they want to change it, the writer is not there. It seems like there's a lot of industry understanding that needs to happen.

RY: It's good, because what it means is developers and publishers want good writers. All they're doing is figuring out how that's going to work for them. So I'm happy that's happening.

I think it's good too. An example of a position like yours is good to set for the industry. Well, assuming it does well.

RY: Let's hope!

There's always that. Yeah, we'll see how that goes. I hope that people will realize that it's important to have.

RY: I hope so. It is happening. It's slow, but it'll happen. We're a big juggernaut, and we drag our feet as the games industry, but we are moving in the right direction.

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