[Ubisoft Montreal narrative designer Patrick Redding (Splinter Cell Conviction, Far Cry 2) discusses the techniques employed to create more complex and satisfying character interaction -- including an examination of Conviction's co-op mode, which he directed.]
Patrick Redding believes that the integration of narrative and gameplay is something that has to take place at a systemic level to be satisfying -- just examining his work on 2008's Far Cry 2 makes that obvious. He has been handed a simpler set of tools, though, with Splinter Cell Conviction, for which he served as the co-op portion's game director.
What can you do to make character interaction more compelling? And what can you do to engage players they want to be engaged today? Can games move forward into new emotional tenors and narrative spaces? And just what did Infinity Ward accomplish when it delivered the No Russian mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2?
These topics and more are all examined in depth in this interview.
How did you get involved with this project? You were previously on Far Cry 2, and this game has been in development since before that shipped.
Patrick Redding: Absolutely. I think it's well-known now that the project went through a half-time major turnaround and transitioned into a new direction, new team, et cetera.
Once that happened and I rolled off Far Cry 2, rather than doing the sensible thing and lying low for a little while, I took two months of vacation, and then our executive producer Chadi [Lebbos] basically said, "The co-op side of this is going to need some narrative love. Obviously, it's not going to be as complicated as Far Cry 2, so you shouldn't be clawing your eyes out and pulling your hair out. It should be something where we can go in and work with a team."
It's also quite different in that Far Cry 2 wasn't a co-op game at all.
PR: Right. Quite honestly, the main attraction for me -- aside from the fact that it's Splinter Cell, and I specifically love Splinter Cell co-op -- is that I really believe co-op represents the new center of gravity for mass-market gaming. I think people want these kinds of experiences that are narratively rich, that have a lot of interesting kind of depth and authorship attached, and all that other fun stuff that people talk about when they play Modern Warfare; but I think they want to share that with someone. I don't think they necessarily want it to be a solitary experience.
Our generation, you know, we're used to sitting in our basements and playing Deus Ex for eighteen hours, and I do think people want that same level of narrative depth; but they want to be able to have a social interaction that's part of that. So I think there's an interesting challenge there, in how to do that. The multiplayer side of it is something that's reasonably well-understood by a lot of people, and I think that the co-op part is an interesting mix.
There's an increasing amount of variety in the approach to co-op design these days.
PR: I think co-op in particular, across the board, is just an interesting opportunity. Because, yeah, you can make it a total arcade experience -- that's not hard to do -- but I think the idea of a co-op game that has a storyline represents an interesting challenge.
And your traditional single-player narrative and your co-op narrative are totally separate treatments, right?
PR: What we have is a single-player story, and then we have a co-op story. [Co-op] is four missions, about five to six hours of gameplay. Then, on top of that, we have Deniable Ops. Deniable Ops is four modes, three of which can be played single-player or co-op. The [last one] is actually an adversarial mode, the spy vs. spy mode we call Face Off. Deniable Ops, quite honestly, I couldn't even begin to tell you how much gameplay time is in that because, particularly when you look at our Last Stand mode.
Because it's intended as more of a traditional repeatable multiplayer scenario?
PR: Yeah. And it's honestly something that, if players dig it, they might be playing it for dozens if not hundreds of hours. Hopefully it introduces a huge amount of replay value into the final product.
Splinter Cell Conviction
Are all of those co-op modes and campaigns available on both versions of the game?
PR: Yes. The only thing that isn't on PC for us is split-screen.
You were mentioning earlier the familiarity developers have with traditional multiplayer modes as opposed to co-op. Is that one reason you just went with an entirely separate mode, instead of the more traditional "two Master Chiefs" scenario?
PR: Yeah. I think that, commonly, you get this phenomenon: "We have a single-player game, and people like to play with their friends, so let's reuse some the maps and some of the setups, and maybe put a different path through it and beef up the number of enemies." Maybe you also mix in slightly different ingredients so it's fun for two players. That's the tried-and-true approach. It works; you can ship some awesome games that way.
The other way you do it, which is really technologically hard to do, is you have drop-in/drop-out, like in Left 4 Dead, where literally it's the same experience.
And that's not just a technology issue; it's primarily a design issue. Left 4 Dead assumes co-op by its nature; it basically intentionally isn't fun without it.
PR: Exactly; it isn't. I think other games have moved into that space because they realized that, if you're willing to make the commitment to it, it's pretty fucking cool.
The other way you do it -- and it's the more expensive way, but ultimately [the way] that allows us to explore some things mechanically that are unique to co-op -- is you say, we are going to have unique content, unique maps, and level design that is really two-player oriented level design. We're going to have scenarios and gameplay moments -- whether it's exotic gameplay or mini-games or even just core gameplay -- that is really designed to implicate two players or three players or four players or however many it is; and we're going to build a story around that to help justify it.
That's what we did here. It was interesting because, again, as everyone's aware, we were a game for which the clock was ticking when we got started. People were waiting for it. Going down that path was an interesting and ambitious [choice], for which I am extremely grateful because it allowed us to try something new.
One of the only other current series to really explicitly focus on a two-player co-op experience with mechanics designed solely around that assumption is Army of Two. Did you learn much from playing that?
PR: Oh, yeah. We played every co-op game we could get our hands on -- obviously Gears of War, lots of Left 4 Dead sessions. We certainly looked at the way co-op had worked in all the various shooters and previous Clancy titles. It took a lot of time spent playing [Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell:] Chaos Theory co-op with Bob and Steve.
In terms of Army of Two, it was something that we looked at mainly because they did focus on the experience as, by default, a co-op experience. It is a third-person game, like [ours]. They were looking at some interesting, exotic gameplay that was focused on having two players. There are definitely lessons to be learned from it, but it was part of a huge library of games that we looked at.