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When they stopped making games that I really enjoy -- and I hope that they come back to those -- that's how I started playing games. Just screwing around, and getting outside of the map in Gears of War and things like that.
HS: We had this German fan for Deus Ex who read some interview or something where we said someone had somehow seen through the wall of the world. Very often, when we were building levels, the whole world was a solid, and you'd subtract a pocket and build the city street in it or whatever. Right on the other side of it, we'd subtract the pocket, and we'd put down one of every type of furniture object or whatever.
So there's this odd little cube in an otherwise solid plane of existence with stars on top and living room walls on the side, and maybe one wall that's nothing but fish swimming around, and weird pieces of furniture. It's very surreal. It's like, "This is where the god of this city street lives." Someone found something, or we told somebody about it, and we kept getting letters from this German fan looking for how to get to that in the game. Maybe there had been some mistranslation, or something. It's definitely true that there are people out there that just want to, as Will Wright put it, "Play with the possibility space."
They want to find whatever there is to find.
HS: The boundary, right.
It also plays into what Cliffy B. said in an interview I did with him, which was something like, "Never underestimate the ability of the user to undermine the narrative you're trying to tell."
HS: Yeah, totally.
If you give people stuff to do, they're going to do some weird stuff.
HS: Expectations were so low for BlackSite initially, then slowly climbed as people realized, "Oh, this is the kind of shooter they're making, and here is the feature set, and... oh, wow, looks pretty fucking good." Then people played the demo, and the demo is based on really old code, but it was five minutes of interesting, immersive shooter stuff, I think. In the demo, this giant fucking thing crashes through a strip mall and rises up and roars, and it's about to spawn all these enemies, and we fade to black. And the last line -- one of the morale lines -- is, "This is going to be bad."
We had a meeting at midnight one night before released it, where we said, "Should we end our demo on a line that says, 'This is going to be bad?'" And somebody went, "Fuck you! That's a trivial concern," I don't know whether I thought it was that big of a concern, either, and it actually wasn't. But somebody, invariably, will point out that's probably not a good way to end your demo. It's like, "Well, you're part of the 0.1% of people who would think that, and you probably didn't dwell on it very long anyway."
Someone could make a YouTube video [out of that].
HS: The YouTube video I wanted somebody to make so badly is all footage of President Bush at a press conference, and a fake reporter in the crowd saying, "Sir, do you realize that your popularity rating is as low as any President in history? Currently as low as Nixon. Do you realize there are even video games that are mocking your administration?" Then you'd cut some footage of Bush together where he's like, "What are you talking about?" And the guy's like, "Well sir, there's this game called BlackSite. Have you played it yet?" And then go back to Bush and he's like, "No, I don't think I have. I don't think I know what you're talking about." Just putting together a fake press conference. If I had time to do that, it would be so awesome.
Get the marketing people on it!
HS: Nah. I think it would be fantastic, but it's not going to happen.
It would be! I think it's good to be going for that kind of stuff. Was it your idea to turn it into this sort of thing?
HS: Yeah, like I said, a year ago, this project was in trouble.
Until you said, "Just give me carte blanche to do this weird thing?"
HS: Not necessarily carte blanche, because I never get that, but I said, "Hey, look. This is a one-page story treatment. Do you like it, or not?" And all of the execs were like, "Wow, this is the most exciting thing we've heard around this game." I said, "Here are the four or five things that I think are going to be important." I kept driving to those points, and sometimes people don't get it. Some people can see it, and some people can't. When we could demonstrate it, everybody got it. It was like, "Oh, it's this kind of shooter with Unreal tech, and I get why squad morale with one single button is as easy to use as a pistol."
Initially, they were like, "Squad, oh god, terrible. Serious hardcore military shooter menus, confusion, not mass-market, and yada-yada-yada." That's not what we were talking about. And then morale... some U.S. journalist thought we said "moral," and wrote an entire article about how we were going to have a moral system in the game. We were getting on the phone saying, "Correct this guy, please. Don't set up false expectations for what kind of game we're making."
Those are not all my ideas. Those come from working with a cabal of people on a team who are pushing certain things. Often, I drive an idea or come up with an idea, or as soon as I hear it, I steal it. I'm like, "That's important!" "How do you know it's important?" "I don't know!" It's just a compass that I have that says, "That's important," and I could be wrong, or I could be right, but that's the way we're going. As long as I can control the steering wheel to some extent, we're going to go for that.
There are people on the team who are like, "That's going to be offensive," or "That's going to cause problems," or "The squad morale is not going to be cool or interesting." Everybody points out every possible problem. "Well, if the game makes it harder when you're doing poorly, doesn't that make it even harder and then you do more poorly?" "Yes, that's called a positive feedback loop. We'll correct for that, don't worry." But then there's like a hundred reasons not to do any one thing, and you have to pick the five. If somebody's not driving to a vision, your game just ends up some random bullshit video game.
There are a lot of those. With the squad thing, it seems like component by component, people are taking previously difficult elements of gameplay and making them work for a larger group of people. It doesn't really seem to be making the market casual or not hardcore enough, necessarily. It doesn't give you that crazy ridiculous level [of detail], but those [hardcore] people are such a minority anyway in some ways.
HS: Yeah. The two games I'm playing right now are Dungeon Runners -- the most casual game ever, in terms of being in an MMO you can play right now -- and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the hardest-core PC game that you can be playing right now. Those are the two games I love right now. Last year, my favorite game was Dead Rising. There was something else in the list from last year, too. I always cited three things last year: Dead Rising, Gears of War for its art direction, and something else.
Resident Evil 4 has been my game of the year for about three years now.
HS: A lot of people love Resident Evil 4. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. right now is so awesome, but you know, there are a very small number of us who would actually go through the lengths of getting in the vibe of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and the main thing I get out of it is this sad, sad atmosphere.
I love playing cat-and-mouse with their AI, and I'm totally into the fiction. I love power-balancing the artifacts that you can carry. But that's a small number [of people], you know? I really do believe that with every generation of games, we have the opportunity to open up somebody's eyes again, the way mine were when I was ten and my neighbor got a Pong machine or something. One thing after another was just eye-opening, and there's never a shortage of new gamers who probably haven't played a story-based shooter before. They weren't there to play speakerphone Doom like I did with my office comrades, so co-op games to them with voice chat is really powerful. To me, it's like, "Yeah, this is a familiar experience I love," and then I'll run out of steam for other things. I can't play another RTS for maybe ever, because I went through all of them, and worked on one for awhile.