Crysis 2: Richard Morgan Q&A
We’re always sceptical when a developer claims to improve the quality of gaming narratives. Don’t you think the two – massive bodycounts and driving story – aren’t just a little bit incompatible to start with? Isn’t that something that everyone has to wrestle with no matter how they choose to approach it?
You need to read a couple of my books, because the bodycounts in those are pretty high. There is absolutely no reason why you can’t weld a really good narrative to a really cool shooting game. Uncharted 2 is the perfect example, it’s tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a compelling story and it’s a very straight-forward gameplay dynamic. Crysis 2, fine, it is fundamentally about firefights – about shooting stuff – but so was BioShock. The whole point about BioShock was the texture that made it.
Even with a game like BioShock, though, couldn’t one argue that the story wouldn’t be able to stand on its own two feet without the gameplay?
Well, with BioShock, it also got mainstream press coverage and it didn’t get that coverage because you were shooting shit. It got that coverage because people thought ‘Oh wow, there’s actually social text in this game’. So, similarly, just because you’re making a game about aliens in New York it doesn’t mean that you can’t include those kinds of values. I think people mistake what good fiction is. Bradbury, in his book Fahrenheit 451, he says that ‘good writers touch life often’. The closer they get – the pores if you like? – the writer reveals the blemishes on the up-close stuff. And I think that’s the trick when creating your NPC. You’re not going to have like in, say, Arkham Asylum, ‘The Joker’ and the stupid girl with the big tits. That’s ****ing bullshit, man … that’s comic book. What we’ll do is that we’ll create characters where you generally feel that there’s a weight and a gravitas, a depth to them. You can identify, you can actually see where they’re coming from.
Do you think getting that greater depth of character is made more difficult by the faceless nature of Nanosuit 2? Master Chief syndrome, you might call it.
I don’t like the Halo series at all. Okay Halo is not actually bad, it’s just, you know, average. The reason that its fiction doesn’t work has nothing to do with the fact that you don’t get to see Master Chief’s face, it’s because of lines like ‘Okay … I’m gonna get up there and kill those guys’. Halo is full of these bullshit archetypal characters and there’s no real emotional effect.
So how do you go about solving that problem?
Well, the first thing you do is you make it more complicated, you ensure that your characters have agendas which don’t line up with the player’s. So they’re not necessarily deliberately antagonistic to you, they’re not necessarily on your side, they’re just there, and they have their goals and sometimes those goals will line up with yours, sometimes they won’t. It’s a really basic technique, but it’s one that seems to be sorely lacking in games for the most part. I don’t think there’s any problem with enforcing fictional values into a game. It doesn’t really matter if the principal function of that game is to shoot shit. In the same way that there’s, you know, good and bad AI, so there’s good and bad fiction and no one would argue that, well, look, we’re only shooting shit so we won’t bother with complex AI. Well, no, because complex AI makes the game more kick-ass, so similarly, why should we bother with interesting characterisation?
So you don’t think there’s any conflict between gameplay and story as a hard and fast rule?
There’s only a conflict if you come at it from that slightly autistic, you know ‘there is nothing here but shooting’ kind of an angle. In a nutshell, I mean I understand that there are player who are like that, but if that’s really all you want, crank up the PS1 and play Doom or whatever.
To pick you up on something you said before about videogame characters generally falling into the category of instantly recognisable archetypes, do you think that deviating from that approach – giving gamers what they don’t expect – might lead to confusion? There are surely pros and cons to each approach?
Two part answer; firstly I think you don’t have to step a long way from those archetypes. You can still have a big tough guy, but what you will do is you will search for additional hooks that will make them think ‘this character feels real to me’. And I’ve put a couple of companion characters into the game where they’re not too dissimilar to archetypes in other games, but what I’ve done is try to give them all little signatures which just fit. I mean, play Gears Of War; those characters, you can’t imagine them doing anything besides running around shooting monsters. So you look for these little motifs that give you some kind of creative realism. That’s all it takes to move far enough away from the archetype. Like you say there are people who won’t get it, but there are people out there who, all they want to do is race through the game in the shortest possible time, skipping all of the cut-scenes. But if that’s you, then I say again, just go play Doom.
Does it surprise you, though, that a lot of players don’t give two hoots about the story?
I can’t believe that there are players out there who rush through Dead Space, or BioShock, without taking any time to just look around or to take in any of the story strands. Why would you pay fifty bucks for a game, then ignore fifty per cent of its content? It’s like, ‘hey I’m reading this book, but it’s a bit long, so I’m going to rip the last half out’. It’s like my books; my novels are written with a whole bunch of stuff in them … if you choose to read them on fast-forward, you’re the poorer for it. There’s loads of stuff in there that takes a more considered approach to understand. If you don’t want it, I can’t force you to take it. But, at the same time, it’s there for people who do.
Cut-scenes kind of force the story on you by default, though, don’t they? I know some writers/auteurs are always after that Holy Grail of telling the story through gameplay alone and never wrenching players from it with cut-scenes. Which method do you think works best?
There are a whole bunch of different ways of looking at that. Sure, there are people who will say ‘No Cutscenes!’, like the designer in The Incredibles; ‘No Capes!’. No cut-scenes? That’s a bit dogmatic because, look at Uncharted 2, it’s full of cut-scenes and it’s actually a great videogame. But a 20-minute cut-scene is embarrassing.
So length is a concern? Kojima syndrome?
Well, what happens a lot of the time with me is that I’m writing the cut-scenes and I sit down and write it, then I get to talk to the animation director who’s like ‘this is 45 seconds of dialogue, what are we going to look at while all of this is going on?’. So I’ll have to go back a pair it down. So you’re aware of what the limitations are. You can’t just say ‘I’m giving you this, so you’d better just like it’. We create the stuff then find a way for it to work around the game’s dynamics. Looking at the game as it is at the moment, it would be a much poorer game with a ‘No Cut-scenes!’ mentality.