Train2Game interview: Brink Lead Writer Ed Stern – Part 1

Brink Train2Game blog imageTrain2Game attended last month’s Games Writers Panel at BAFTA’s headquarters in London. There, the Train2Game blog spoke with panellist Ed Stern, Lead Writer at London studio Splash Damge. In an in-depth interview, Ed discusses development of Brink, game design and game writing and offers advice to Train2Game students on how to get into the industry.

Part 1 focuses on Ed’s role as Lead Writer, the design and art of Brink. Read it below here on the Train2Game blog, or alternatively you can read it on Train2Game’s Scribd page. Part 2 of the interview is here on the Train2Game blog.

First of all, can you tell us a bit about your role as Lead Writer at Splash Damage involves?

It’s an odd one. It’s sort of a narrative designer director role which means lots of things. It can end up being virtual location scout and production designer and wardrobe guy. I think a lot of it is giving design documents and reference images to artists, environment artists and level designers and so on. And it’s tough for writers because we’re used to working with words but lots of people who make games aren’t textually inclined, you’ve got to give them images. So, photo research is bizarrely a lot of the writing I do.

Because it doesn’t matter if I write a document that I think describe what’s going on, that’s not the target audience, the target audience is the team making the game and quite often they’re more visually inclined. So yes, writing back-story, creating the world, writing cinematics, storyboarding cinematics, writing dialogue, directing performance capture, directing voiceover and trying to do localisation as far as possible. Well it’s not so much trying to do that as building in localisation, so something like ‘here’s a text box, I can’t fill it with text in English because in German it’ll be a third longer so whatever I write has to be a bit shorter than that” That’s the glamorous world of games writing!

Splash Damage released Brink earlier this year, how did you go about writing it?

Well that was really fun because that was the first time we at Splash Damage produced our own original IP. Previously we got to work on Quake and Doom and Wolfenstein which is fantastic, because if you’re working on other people’s IPs that isn’t a bad place to start! So we needed to demonstrate we come up with a world. Arguably we overwrote that, that’s kind of an RPGs worth of back-story and world for pretty much just a multiplayer shooter. But it was great! It was great fun to do and the goals were it couldn’t look like anything anyone had seen before, and we wanted to be sticky, it’s a great test of a character. You turn the page and do they still linger in your mind?

Dickens is a great example of that. He’s got characters who only have a detail of their costume, he only talks about the guys’ waistcoat, but he’s really memorable, even after you put the book down you think what was it about that guy? So the goal was that the world itself would be the games main character and it would be memorable and even when you’ve finished playing you’re thinking ‘What was the deal with…Oh that, that’s the half of that that was in that other level there!’ It was trying to create a world complex and sticky enough so players will think about it even when they weren’t playing.Train2Game blog Brink image

Is that the reason behind the very distinctive art style Brink has?

Partly. I mean partly that’s just to get away from photorealism because there are enough dark brown or green shooters and so it was a unique thing. Also for immersion, I mean realism doesn’t actually engender believability. In fact it turns out that you can exaggerate facially quite a bit, it’s whether there’s an immersive character or situation. But yes, partially it was also to be visually distinct. It made it interesting trying to direct for that with performance capture, because the actor makes a subtle gesture, but by the time it’s been replayed on this enormous hand model with these huge great meaty fingers, quite a subtle gesture turns into this huge operatic gesture. We didn’t see that coming, we should have anticipated that.

What were the challenges of writing a mainly multiplayer focused game in Brink?

The problem is that you’ve got is all the writers tools are generally about a protagonist and you stick with this hero who works their way through. We didn’t have one – we had these three characters depending on what faction you chose and you saw cutscenes with them – but you weren’t one of them, you were just a member of their team.  The challenge is to make the player interactions meaningful so that when they press a button, they don’t just feel like ‘I’m running around and pressing a button on a controller or clicking a mouse.’ You’re feeling like ‘I’m one member of this team and I’ve picked this faction rather than the other and I’m in this location and I give a hoot about what the objective is.’

One of the things we did – for instance there’s a level called Container City and it’s a kind of slum – and if you go there as Security you’re told ‘They’re building a bio weapon, you’ve got to get this thing,’ and that’s a pretty important reason to go and get that thing, fair enough. But if you’re as Resistance you get told ‘They’re stealing our vaccine.’ So hopefully they care about that. Or my personal goal if they’re paying attention to the story – and lots of people don’t, that’s another thing – is they go which is it? And we’re never going to tell you definitively and it’s entirely plausible that it’s both because what do you make vaccines out of other than viral particles which could be used as a bioweapon?

The goal was that it wasn’t just ‘Take objective to place B,’ that we were going to dress it up in a fiction, so that even though it’s all just chaotic being shot in the head action, the narrative carries on even though the cinematic was over. That was the challenge.Brink

And what was the thinking behind adding the alternative game endings as missions?

Well we didn’t want to privilege one story over the other: if you win fantastic, if not that other thing happened. We didn’t want there to be a canonical ‘this is correct and all the other ones are wrong.’ Actually it turns out there is kind of a storyline but we didn’t want to collapse all the possibilities down unless we absolutely had to.

I think it’s a problem with lots of games that in their urge to explain everything they kind of explain everything away and it’s like an equation where it all factors out and there’s nothing left, it just goes, and it’s an exhaustive explanation of what’s going on and there’s nothing left to think about. So we quite like that there were these loose ends and the loose ends themselves would join up, and so players should have questions should have questions about ‘Why are they doing that?’ If they’re of a disposition to listen to audio diaries, ‘Oh that’s what that was about!’ Even if players aren’t into that I think they can sniff it in the time and trouble that’s been taken.

So that was the goal, even if people didn’t watch all of the cinematics or read all of the diaries, somebody has done the work and it does all add up to something.

Looking back at a Brink, if you could change anything, what would it be?

We weren’t able to do it, unfortunately, but it was very much the plan that you would be one of the characters in the cinematics, it would be you doing those things. But because we really wanted to let people choose their voice packs; that would’ve meant recording every line of dialogue in every single one of the voice packs and we just didn’t have the budget to do it. That I think would’ve changed the sense of story, because it would’ve been you going through it, not just three guys you might or might not care about. That would’ve been one thing that would’ve changed the meaning of the game and it’s a shame we weren’t able to do that.

Read part 2 of our huge interview with Ed Stern here.

Leave your comments here on the Train2Game blog, or on the Train2Game forum.

For more information, go to www.train2game.com

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