Writing Brink: You have to be Stern

Two awesome things were waiting for Neil and I in the VIP area of the Eurogamer Expo: free coffee, and Splash Damage’s lead writer for Brink, Edward Stern. Though his surname makes him sound like a particularly severe member of the Mr Men lineup, Mr Stern couldn’t be any more warm and affable if he tried. Or perhaps he could, and he’s just not putting the effort in; we can’t be sure.

He speaks with great passion and authority about both his own game Brink, and videogames in general. This is one guy who is definitely not phoning his answers in.

“It’s always a problem.” he says, when asked about using real world science in the script. “It doesn’t matter if it works in theory; it’s got to work in gaming practice. There’s a difference between an interesting idea, and an idea you can make a game out of. The challenge is really doing the research and going ‘That’s fascinating, but that’s not going to work’. Or to give an example…Brink is set on the Ark. In the Brink universe, round about now some venture capitalists, some eco visionaries, some techno gurus start putting together this floating testbed for sustainable living. It’s set up for global warming, because it’s floating anyway; it’s got solar panels, it’s got wind farms, it’s got wave generators… clearly these are current concerns. A lot of work has been done on this. I was thinking ‘Oh wow, a whole field of windmills! A whole load of wind turbines!’ that’ll be kind of interesting.

Then we went through it with the level designers, we mocked some stuff up… and it was a really boring place to try and have gameplay. Because anything that’s above you, is effectively behind you, it’s not in your field of view. But we still really wanted that as a narrative element… you look around and there’s a bank of wind turbines; but it’s 2045. They’re all cut off, they don’t know what’s happened. Some of the turbines are missing blades, some of them have fallen over. The environment’s the best narrator we’ve got, it’s the best narrative medium we have.

Every wind turbine you see is a symbol of the future eco – tech. When you see them worn and broken, that does so much better a job than having an NPC say ‘I know you have paid for this game, but I’m going to stop you playing it to deliver a lecture telling you how things used to be and what has happened‘. That’s something I went nuts over; we did the research and then had to reluctantly shelve almost all of it, because it didn’t add to the gameplay. There’s no point putting in research because you’ve done research, that’s just exhausting. If you put in a load of technical details that doesn’t make the world more real, that just comes across as something they’ve read somewhere else.”

Without prompting, Ed is more than happy to credit talented writing elsewhere in the industry.

“Bioshock is still the benchmark. You really trust them; they’ve done the work, everything here is meaningful. The backstories, the characters, their interaction… it’s certainly an inspiration, ‘here’s what you can do in games’. Also Deus Ex. That’s the first game I played where I genuinely didn’t know what to do, what the right thing to do was. The choice between right and wrong is boring – there is no choice. It’s the choice between right and right that’s got more going on.

We’re echoing current concerns, and not in a finger wagging lecture; but hopefully no matter what your opinions on these things, it makes you care about the environment in some way. I don’t think people are going to be in tears halfway through the first cinematic. ‘I have to save this place!!

Some of it is about identification and emotional dimensions. I think it’s just about confidence; ‘Okay, they’ve done the work’.”

PhotobucketI must mention the audio.” says Ed, reminding us that Brink is a team effort – and not for the last time. “There are some things in Brink that once we point them out to you, are glaringly obvious. Some people play the game and go ‘It sounds really… good’ and they can’t quite say why. They just know it does. So after we say ‘You do realise that different body types have different footsteps?’. So you can tell if it’s a light, medium or heavy body type just from hearing them walking around. And whether you realise it or not, people are just intuitively going ‘Oh – sounds like trouble. Maybe I’m not going to jump this guy’. I think we’re the first game to have a separate audio mix for weapons, depending on whether you’re iron sighting or firing from the hip. And as soon as you think about it, you think ‘Of course it’s going to sound different!’ There are things in Brink which are sort of spoilers for other games because you go back to a game that doesn’t do that, and it seems incredibly strange that you fire this gun right next to your ear – and it sounds exactly the same as it does when you’re firing it down by your hip. We did a huge amount of audio recording for the weapons.

We’ve got the security and the resistance. The weapons are the same for both, they deal the same damage and so on; but they look different, they sound different. The security ones are brand new, and sound a lot more tight. The resistance ones are two different weapons held together, they have wire wrapped round them, they’re rusty – and they sound more loose and sloppy when you’re firing them.”

He’s obviously a big fan of Bioshock. Does he think the industry would benefit from more literary inspiration?

“I don’t think you necessarily have to base it on books, it’s essentially borrowed robes. Where would we be without Starship Troopers and Aliens? As soon as you say ‘space marines’ everyone knows what to expect. That’s an incredibly effective and efficient way of doing things, I can see why some people do it. One of the goals for Brink is to show gamers a world they haven’t seen, which is really hard. You can’t take anything for granted; the problem of course is to do that without having rafts and rafts of exposition.”

I start waffling on about how the world of Rapture is the polar opposite of Ayn Rand’s utopian vision of objectivism; but he cuts through my crap with embarrassing speed and precision.

“The thematic specifics are almost irrelevant; it’s the fact that it’s about anything at all, and that it makes choice meaningful. That’s as much as you can aspire to do sometimes in games; just give the player a reason to give a damn one way or the other. Ken Levine gave a great speech in a presentation he gave. He was talking about the three profiles of players you get regarding Bioshock. The vast majority of players say ‘Okay, I’ve got to go and kill this guy’. Then there’s another branch: ‘Oh, his name’s Andrew Ryan, and he’s built this place, there’s some guy called Fontaine, and something went wrong’. Then there are the completists, who include journalists. ‘Hang on, have they got this right?’ I played Bioshock as slowly as I possibly could, because it was a masterclass in environmental storytelling and sketching a world, making the characters. I really wanted to know all the details – I listened to all the audio diaries. But his point – and this is a very smart one – is that your solutions for each of these profiles can’t interfere with one another. You’ve got to make some stuff optional because otherwise… you know what? People just aren’t that into story, they’re not. Most people just want to run around shooting… and they’re not wrong. That is not an invalid way of playing a game. That’s certainly not an invalid way of playing Brink.

PhotobucketThat’s been the challenge for us, to provide the depth. A lot of that turns into a general feeling of ‘Oh, this is a big, rich world’. It’s not an open world, it’s still a very linear set of missions within the two storylines. For the gamers, that translates to ‘I trust them. If this bit doesn’t seem to make sense right now, I’ll be told something later that does’. I hope that’s something we’ve delivered on.”

Isn’t it frustrating, writing dialogue for such a non – linear game with so little in – game speech?

“One of the big challenges is making whatever you’re doing appropriate for that point in the game. All cinematics are skippable. There are points where you think ‘Stop telling me things! This is a combat phase’.”

It turns out that Brink will feature a great incentive for people who ordinarily avoid online play…

“Say you have an internet connection but you’re playing offline only; you’ve tried multiplayer before and you just had a load of racist, homophobic, misogynist twelve year olds screaming at you, you don’t want to do that again. We’ll see how well you’re doing, and if after a couple of missions we can tell you’re doing okay, we’ll say [via an on – screen prompt] ‘How about you play the next chapter of this story online against human opponents? We’ll give you double the XP’.”

“We needed to make it ourselves, all three versions. There could not be a lead SKU, as they say.” Brink, of course, is being developed for PC, 360, and PS3 simultaneously. “You can tell if it was designed for a machine other than the one you’re playing on, particularly between console and PC. Trying to navigate a menu that was designed for one or the other… you feel like an unwanted guest. We knew we couldn’t be like that. We use the same engine, based on idtech 4, and the same assets for all three versions. People are saying ‘Can you tell the difference between the three of them?’. Well, if you’ve got a top end PC with a fearsome graphics card and a lot of memory, clearly it’s going to look a bit better. We’re not going to clamp the top end just to make sure we can’t exceed the capability of a console. But it’s the same game and the same details on all the platforms. We want to make sure none of them feels like a poor relation.”

But we won’t see cross – platform play. It would, as he points out, trigger major flame wars. There’s also the old WSAD vs joypad argument.

“Then it turns into a test of the interface, and you’re not going to beat mouse and keyboard; although one thing about the keyboard is, it’s not analogue. We come from a very hardcore PC background, it’s really interesting when we’re swapping control interfaces around during playtesting. Clearly it’s easier to aim with a mouse, but it’s easier to move with a thumbstick. One of the big things with Brink is movement, it’s something we’ve been wanting to fix for years. It’s ridiculous in this day and age that if your guy in a game comes up to a wall that’s just chest high, you can’t get over it. I’m a fat bloke, I can get over a six foot high wall. If you shoot at me, I can definitely get over a six foot high wall.”

“Is that a challenge?” asks Neil, with a worrying glint in his eye.

“No, that’s a promise, not a challenge.” grins Ed, clearly more confident than I am that Neil was just joking. “We took a good old look at it and kudos to our Technical Designer Aubrey Hesselgren who came up with the SMART system, Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain. I, for the record, was totally wrong about it. I was thinking ‘This seems like a big risk, we’re innovating in a lot of other areas… let’s maybe be a bit more cautious’. I was totally wrong; it’s fantastic. Like many things about gaming, it doesn’t sound like it’s fun. People read the description and said ‘What, so it’s like autopilot?’. That’s exactly what it is not. It doesn’t take away control. You don’t have to use it.”

SMART sounds reminiscent of the system used in the Assassins Creed games but, Ed assures us, they’re two very different methods.

“They’ve got a fantastic solution given their game world, but they’re not primarily shooters. As with Mirror’s Edge; as I say, deliberately not about shooting. Brink is primarily an action shooter, that’s what it’s all about. Shooters are primarily about moving. If you look at how long you spend moving and looking compared to how long you spend shooting, there’s actually not nearly so much shooting goes on as people tend to think. Good players move a lot more than they shoot. With the SMART system you hold down the sprint button and if you can climb over something, you will. Actually, if you time the jumps yourself, you’ll climb faster than if you just use the SMART system.

PhotobucketIf you’re playtesting and you see someone look down at the controller… the moment they look away from the screen and down at the controller, you know you’ve failed as a designer. They shouldn’t have to do that. The whole point of SMART is ‘I want to go up here, but I’m looking over there as I’m doing it’. You can still shoot as you’re climbing. Not as accurately, because you’re one handed. If you press sprint and crouch, you slide. You can still shoot but again, not as accurately. It’s all about making it easier for players to get into the game.”

Ed looks around at the VIP room.

“We’re in a room full of tables and chairs; nobody is crashing into the tables and chairs. A few of the more hung over people are avoiding them by too wide a margin, but… in games you just collide with things. Nobody does that in real life. It’s really rewarding watching people going ‘How does SMART work?’ and twelve seconds later ‘Oh, I totally get this’.”

As both he and Paul Wedgwood (interview coming soon) told me that day, the offline experience is identical to the online one. But isn’t there a danger of alienating people who enjoy the traditional singleplayer experience?

“What are the cool things about playing singleplayer? You get to change the world. You are the agent of change in this universe. In our gameplay, you are not the only agent of change. It’s more rewarding when it’s the result of teamwork and team interaction. The problem is it’s quite tough to get into that; I think a lot of people have gone online and said ‘What’s going on? It’s too confusing’. What we’ve got is the objective wheel when you hit up on the D pad, which basically models the decision making process of a really good clan player. The most important thing you can do at any moment, is the main objective. The next most important thing you can do is help the guy doing the main objective. We bribe you with XP; it’s all carrot, no stick. We assume people are going to farm XP. Good; we want them to.

You don’t get that much XP for killing the enemy. But if you heal and revive your team-mates, we’re going to absolutely smother you with XP. As soon as you spawn, the chances are someone’s going to give you extra health, give you extra ammo. It’s all the same interact button. ‘Okay, I might as well buff him back’. You’ve just had a clan level of interaction immediately! Even if you’ve never played that kind of game before!

We’ve had nearly a decade of making multiplayer shooters; we’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. We can pass on the benefits of that experience to gamers now. One of the problems in Quake Wars was that medics revived you whether you wanted to be revived or not, for the XP. Sometimes you’re in the middle of a firefight and you’re thinking ‘No! Frankly, I do not want to be revived at all!’. So the way it works in Brink, is they throw you a revive syringe. You choose if and when you want to be revived. Maybe you’ll get the revive syringe and go ‘I’m actually a bit low on ammo, I could respawn with a full clip. Thanks, but I’m not gonna revive’.”

This is how Ed hits home the idea that Brink wants to blur the lines between singleplayer and multiplayer:

“It’s always 8 v 8. It makes absolutely no difference how many of those players are AI or human. Say as far as you’re concerned you’re playing singleplayer, and you happen to be connected to the internet. Your friend turns up. You’ve got your friends list set up so your friends can join your game. Within one tick of the game clock, we replace one of the AI team-mates with your friend. Nothing has changed; it’s exactly the same game. Maybe your friend’s got to take a phone call, they drop out, we replace them again. Maybe all your other friends turn up; all of a sudden every single one of your team-mates and the enemy is a human player. Nothing has changed. It’s the same game session, you haven’t had to reset everything.”

“We’ve got a number of matchmaking solutions, but also, one of the big challenges in making the game in terms of balance is the weapons.” he explains, when Neil brings up the issue of new players coming across experienced players. “It’s not that the weapons are better as you advance; they’re different. So for example, the different attachments. They do affect the gameplay. For example, you put a front grip on an assault rifle. Now, the grip has the effect of reducing the spread, so it’s more accurate. But it’s slightly heavier, it’s a bit more awkward – and it actually takes a bit longer to switch to that weapon, because it’s got this thing sticking out of it. The vanilla version of that weapon isn’t necessarily worse for you. It’s not that you start out with the bad weapons, it’s about which ones you prefer.”

On a more general note: how does he see the quality of writing in the industry in general?

“We’re still finding our feet as a medium. It’s the old joke, ‘Why is it a medium? Because it’s neither rare nor well done’. When cinema came out, they started off doing filmed plays. It was very dramatic; it was a style of acting that was required to be seen at the back of the gallery, or the third row of the stalls. It took a while to realise that actually no, you can place the camera closer. That’s not an appropriate size or style of performance. Similarly with game writing… clearly cinema is a big influence, it’s an influence on the players and the developers. But there’s some stuff that just isn’t the right size or shape. We’re still finding our feet.

I think more often than not, people tend to go ‘the voice acting is bad’. Very rarely is that the case. I think it’s because the actor in the booth was given a photocopy of a spreadsheet – literally an Excel spreadsheet – of their lines. It’s their job to provide context and emotional ambience. And those are the two bits of information they’re not being given at that point. We’re getting better at it; we’re getting better at making sure there’s a writer involved. There’s a writer at the session, and you’re giving the actor the information they need, so when their emotional response comes out it’s in tune with the situation.”

Mimicking Hollywood when writing for games is not, in his opinion, what the whole industry should be doing.

“It’s not the only way of doing it. I think a lot of it to be fair, is consumer led. A lot of it is demand rather than supply. Many games aim toward the B movie, that’s something we can do quite well as a medium. It’s not the only way of doing it, and there is some very brave and interesting writing going on. It’s trial and error. Hopefully we’re getting better at it. The test is when you close the book, when you leave the theatre, whatever – do you still think about it? Do you wonder what happened? And sometimes if the character’s transparently there to only say one thing they don’t really exist, you don’t care about them. But if you have a predicament with some emotional resonance, you think ‘Wow, that’s a horrible situation to be in’. You have some sympathy or empathy with them. Hopefully that’s true of the characters in Brink, you’re going to go ‘Okay, I don’t agree with everything he’s said, but I can see how he came to that conclusion’.”

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Written by Luke K

He plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. He doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

2 comments

  1. I can’t begin to list all of the features and design ideas I find interesting in Brink. This was a really comprehensive interview.

    As someone who hopes to write for games someday, I always enjoy hearing about storytelling methods, and it sounds like Mr. Stern has the right idea.

    • KrazyFace /

      Absolutly Stephen, Rapture is a perfect example of environmental story telling, as is Fallout 3 because the stories are not shoved in your face but instead unravel to the keen eye. Though Rapture seems more akin to a set-peice to me, the recordings worked really well. In Fallout the few times I’ve found a child’s room scattered with toys and a small, burned-out skeleton on a bunkbed says more to me than a cut-scene depicting the moment of horror could.

      Being left to figure it out on your own not only makes you feel like your interating with the environment more, but you’re also choosing to fill in the blanks by your own merit. I felt that Brink was gonna be a fairly on-rails shooter, but hearing him talk in this interveiw has got me rather interested now.

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