I’m going to mull over some personal perspective stuff in this blog post. If you’re looking for something enlightening about game design, or maybe even something slightly interesting, this might not be the post for you.
I consider you warned. Now I can be totally boring.
I’ve spent the last (n) months cranking on the narrative design for Far Cry 3.
My goal has been to make sure that the narrative experience of FC3 will be the best goddamn Far Cry narrative ever… and, most importantly (to me), that it is absolutely recognizably as a Far Cry narrative. The results have been good – our demo at E3 got a huge response, and fans of the series have expressed delight at what they’ve seen (and hope that we’ll continue down the righteous path and deliver them the Far Cry of their dreams: that’s the goal, peeps!).
Before that, I had a tour of duty on Ghost Recon (Future Soldier, among others).
My focus there was directing the whole shebang, but the part that required the most of my personal effort was ensuring that the “Ghostiness” of the experience was in line with the franchise’s history. Helping clarify what a Ghost Recon game should be like (in the modern era) was an honor and a delight, and the result has been a game that (so far) has been heralded as in-line with players expectations for Ghost Recon.
I’ve… done a lot of this kind of thing in my career.
Somehow, without intended it, I’ve ended up spending most of my professional time on projects where there is an enormous amount of confusion about exactly what our brand/IP/game/product/whatever name you are comfortable with is/should be/has been/will be. And, I’ve ended up smack-dab in the middle of these efforts.
Why is this?
I’m not asking this rhetorically – this is my personal blog, and I’m musing aloud. Honestly, why is this? It’s not what I set out to do with my life, to be sure.
I wanted to “direct”.
Originally, I imagined this in the ‘film director’ sense, but once I realized that I could work in games (like, at all – the whole notion of “working in games” was inconceivable to me as a teenager), I shifted my goals overnight, and haven’t looked back. I wanted to direct so bad, in fact, that I wore it on my face like a tattoo – for my birthday one year a friend of mine got me a t-shirt that said simply: “…but what I really want to do is direct.” I wore it, and without a single shred of irony. I meant it.
I wanted to direct. And, I do! Not every day, and not in every role, but I do a lot of freaking directing. Which is nice.
I also wanted to make games.
This started with making D&D adventures in my basement (largely adventures that were originally intended for imaginary friends that I didn’t have, but I did eventually find one or two fellow nerds to share them with) – and that quickly grew into making card games, board games, LARPing (yeah, I’ll admit it)… making games was an inheritance from my weird programmer/philosopher/child-in-a-mans-body/guru father, and this urge towards interactivity has always been the “why” behind the whole endeavor.
So how did I end up as a brand/context/world/character/audience expecations specialist? For fuck’s sake, I wanted to direct video games and I’ve ended up providing expert brand direction and advice to creative organizations.
I’m sure it’s my fault.
From what I’ve seen of how things work in The Real World, you tend to end up doing the things that you are a) good at, and b) unwilling to say “no” to. We’d like to imagine that we get our work because of merit, effort, and deservedness (“paying your dues”) – but the truth is a bit more Darwinian than that.
You do what few can do as well as you can, and what you are willing to accept. So, clearly, I’m doing this because I wasn’t willing to refuse the call.
This is true, by the way. Generally, the places I go are projects or teams where the “struggle to define ourselves” is one of the big development factors interfering with production. I’ve often said: I’ll never work on Assassin’s Creed. Why? Because they know what they are, who they are serving, and what is and is not an AC experience. That team wrote the book on producing a coherent brand experience and sticking to their core while constantly expanding and surprising their audience…
…so, therefore, they don’t need me.
I would show up on AC and go “yep, looks like you’ve got this pretty well nailed.” And then play multiplayer Brotherhood in a corner until something went wrong.
Does this sound strange? I’ve never really known what people outside my head (read: everyone) think I do. It’s clear to me, but I can imagine it’s harder to see from the outside.
Am I a creative? Sure. Am I a director? Yes. But… what I do, really, better than most, and most often (professionally) is clarify.
I clarify confusing, difficult creative problems. Years ago, one of my creative director friends told me that he would gladly keep me on staff just so that he could ask me one question a week. I still am not sure that was exactly a compliment (“Wait, so my daily contribution isn’t valuable? Huh?!? Is THAT what you’re saying?!?!”), but that did sound like a sweet gig. Jason VandenBerghe: Game genie. You get one wish a week. Just rub the lamp.
The thing is… if those intractable, challenging, complex creative problems don’t exist on a project, this super-power of mine sits idle.
And I go slowly crazy.
I once made the mistake of asking my kids which mutant I am. Have you ever played this game? The “which mutant are you?” game? The rules are simple: it can be any mutant from any version of any timeline (and yes the movie versions of characters are often different than the comic book versions, and that counts) – but the idea is to line up the essence of a particular mutant’s abilities/gestalt with your personal “flavor”. I play this game with anyone who I get to know with any kind of depth, and my kids have played it again and again. It’s a super-fun form of personality analysis, and it’s surprising how many goddamn mutants there actually are out there, man.
I was hoping they would pick Magneto, of course. In fact, I had bribed them to say this. (They refused, the defiant twerps, and they kept the money! Who raised these deadbeats??)
But no. Not so much Magneto. Beast.
I’m Beast, as it turns out. The intellectual monstrosity. The one who wishes he could just be left alone in his laboratory, but who can’t help himself: when the bad guys shows up, it’s teeth-and-claws time. And with a vigor.
Where am I going with this? I mentioned above the issue of “if nasty hard-to-solve problems don’t exist on a project, I’m not useful”. Well, okay, so I’m Beast. Imagine if you had Beast, and you put him in a place where there was no interesting analysis to do. No research, no insight necessary: the problem was plain and straightforward – it was just a matter of doing the hard work of getting from here to there.
If I were Beast, I would fuck off and go find a more enigmatic villain to fight. Booo-ring.
It’s kinda like that.
Yeah, see, this is why I end up doing what I do. I told you it was my fault.
If I am asked to work on a project where everything is hunky-dory, the team is getting along just fine, everyone is playing their positions, the design is well-established, and what’s in front of the team is a series of technical, artistic, and/or production challenges to pull it off in the time they have…
…well, that kinda sounds like a living hell to me.
EVEN THOUGH that is the “promised land” Shangri-La game development project that everyone wishes they were on.
Isn’t that WEIRD??! I’d refuse it if I found it. I look for the difficult problems. I require them, in fact.
Anyway, I warned you at the beginning that this blog post would be boring.
p.s. Did I mention I turned 40 last month? I hear that people get all introspective and reflect on their lives in this period of their life. Sounds like complete crap to me.