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The Subversion Game: An Interview With Harvey Smith
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The Subversion Game: An Interview With Harvey Smith

October 5, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 8 Next

The fact is, you spend the first three missions trying to put this thing down in a hole so that you can map out all these charts, and it doesn't work. That should be a dramatic moment. But within 15 seconds, this guy is like, "Oh hey, this thing I was carrying the whole time does everything we just tried to do for the last three missions, so it was all pointless."

HS: The game writer's job is never easy, because they have to work with game designers, and the game designers' job is never easy -- the level designer's job is never easy, because he has to work with writers. The two things don't really go together like peanut butter and chocolate, so you have to be very, very careful. I think Gears of War is the best art-directed game ever. All that stuff like the roadie run, I looked at it and said, "Why don't we do more of that?"

The guy who was supposed to direct the Halo movie, Neill Blomkamp -- years before that, we looked at these two videos that he made. One is about this robotic cop in Johannesburg or something, and the other is about racial tension with aliens in some third-world country. Both of those are really amazing. All this amazing camera stuff that feels like a documentary, or like a police surveillance video. There's all of these little tricks. We have camera technology that's more capable at some level than real-world camera technology, because we can fly through buildings and do whatever. Yet very seldom do people mess with that at all.

I feel like we've really regressed in terms of camera use in recent years. We were building up because we had all of these single-player third-person experiences, and then everything changed to become about first-person, or open worlds. We no longer have a forced camera. We were getting to this stage in games like Silent Hill, where you've got these dynamic camera angles that freak you out.

HS: Did you play Fatal Frame?

I haven't, but I've heard a lot of good things about it.

HS: I love Fatal Frame II. Some of it's really cool. I also like games that really understand horror. Whenever we were around the Thief team, we would talk a lot about horror. Not just giant monsters with big teeth, but subtle things. Fatal Frame does that really well.

I feel like since we've gotten to this other stage, we've really regressed.

HS: But that's going to happen over and over. Whereas films started and built up, and every innovation built on the last one, and yet you can still show a film from the earliest days of film in a movie theatre today. [In games] every five years we reset, and you can't play a game from 15 years ago on a current machine, generally. Somebody comes up with open-world tech, or materials with specularity in them. "Ooh, the street looks shiny and wet -- okay, now we have to redo all our textures so they look shiny and wet." And then it becomes, "that's too expensive. Now you can't do this camera thing you wanted to do last round." And I say, "We could do this on the PC in 1993. Why are we not doing this today?" And somebody's like, "Well, because it takes five times longer to make materials-based textures than it does old-school textures."

I was kind of spoiled. I guess my first significant gig in the gaming industry that lit me on fire was when I was lead tester on System Shock. For ten months, I got to work with the System Shock team. Doug Church just blew my mind, and the team blew my mind. They did things with the game that I admire to this day. It was such a well-realized sense of place, and I feel like I've been trying to recreate that with games like Deus Ex or BlackSite, not in the same gameplay style, but in the mood or the contiguous feeling of, "I believe someone lives here. The guy who works here -- I believe that he sits at this counter all day with nothing to do but watch TV."

I think that's a real problem. Even in something as simple as the Sonic the Hedgehog games, when I played Sonic 2 or Sonic CD, there were flowers, little bunnies hopping around, and clouds moving by. I believed that was an environment one could be inside of. As that series moved on, it became less about environment, more about him and his badass attitude or something.

HS: It's almost like this Darwinian thing that happens, where some people come together and try something and it's successful, and that brings in people that are concerned about making sure that it's successful again. With Deus Ex, we included fish in the water. Whenever you jump in the water, there are schools of fish. There are two different kinds of fish, and there are markers in the water that generate them. There's a flocking algorithm, where they swim the right way, and they dart away from you. You can stand on the dock and watch them, and you can jump in, and when you're killing people underwater, there are fish swimming around you. There are rats in the alleys. There are cats on the rooftops.

It's so hard to convince your team about those things. I was recently adding a buzzard to BlackSite, and I wanted buzzards that wheel in the distance in the desert, and when you're driving along, I wanted, 20 yards down the road, buzzards around roadkill. As you get closer, they turn and flap and ascend into the air, and as you get closer, you realize it's a wrecked Humvee, and the roadkill is an American troop. That worked for me on many different levels. Some producer will look at that and be like, "Ambient Animal: Priority Four." And I'm just like, "You don't understand. This is really fucking important. I can't explain to you why." And he's like, "Well, is it more important than fixing this bug in our animation system?" Technically, no! It's a nightmare.

Classic FPS/role-playing hybrid, Deus EX

It's hard, because on one level, I believe that's necessary to advance this as an art. At the same time, only five percent of guys are going to notice and understand why that's cool. That's true of movies, too. If you watch Punch Drunk Love or something, it's a really great movie that had a lot of great technique. You've got Adam Sandler standing just to the side of this beam of light, and he's feeling freaked out, and his face is half-lit, and it's this amazing emotional scene. Most people won't notice what's going on there, but the people who do are like, "Oh my god, that's amazing!" How do we advance this medium as an art if most of the time we have to stick to our budget?

HS: Half the cool shit that happens in the game industry happens because of subversion. You're tracking to one date, and you're working X number of hours per week, but in the background, you're ninja-ing in features. That happens all the freaking time. It's all about when everybody's leaving. Right now, we only work like six hours on Saturday. We're in the final stretch, when everything's finally there, so every day that we have, we can massage the game content, and it makes a tremendous difference.

The game gets better every week. That wasn't true six months ago. It wouldn't have helped to work long hours, because everything was in a nascent state. Most of the time it's not me, it's the other guys, but when everybody's leaving one of our guys is hanging out with another one of our guys, and I'm like, "You know what would be cool? This buzzard thing." We dig through some library somewhere and find a buzzard, and the guy's like, "I can rig this model. It would probably take four hours to hook it up, and I could turn it over to that designer and he could script it into the game." My part is telling them that the buzzard is important in setting up the scene, and explaining why roadkill being a U.S. troop is cool. But they're the ones that have to work the extra hours half the time.

Of course, you're like this guy coming in and saying, "Hey, work ten more hours to do this tiny thing!"

HS: And then he says, "But I just had a baby last month!" "I know dude, but..." It's really like that. One of our guys has triplets, and I don't have children or anything, but I'm told by my friends that do that if you go away for a week and come back, you notice changes in your children. That's how fast they're growing. Denise is my boss, and she just had a baby. She told me the other day, "I get to see Teddy for three hours a day," and I was like, "That sounds horrible! What is wrong with you?" and she was like, "Well, he sleeps a lot, first of all, and three hours is a lot for that age I guess."

She felt guilty, and I said, "Well, you know what? Since he sees you most of the time, he probably dreams about you, so all that time he's sleeping he's probably thinking about you." And she was like, "That actually makes me feel better," and I was like, "Yes! Work this weekend!" (laughs) Half the cool stuff that happens is because someone sacrifices something, and some other group of people is veering off of the budget, the schedule, and the corporate goals.


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