A Troubling Confession from Visceral
I’ve never really been the biggest fan of the Battlefield series. I’ve only played one or two of them and they always gave the impression that they were trying to be Call of Duty’s mature older brother. Shrugging off some of the silliness that exists in the COD franchise and replacing it with a commitment to ‘realism’. As such I tend to view any news about the upcoming to Battlefield Hardline with disinterest, occasionally watching footage of the beta confirm my suspicions of the game before moving on with my life. That would have been the case today as well until I saw a remarkably troubling piece from Polygon
The writer of the game talks about humanizing the random goons and thugs that you as a player will mow down in their hundreds to finish the level. But read the reaction he receives from the another member of the team;
“I wrote one about this guy getting back together with his ex-girlfriend,” Auten explained. “Someone on the team pointed out that ‘hey idiot, this is someone you are about to shoot in the head, not deliver flowers to,’ so we decided, let’s not go down that route. We had to cut out the dialog and make it more informative. We had to make sure the bad guys felt like bad guys so the player isn’t as emotionally conflicted about the gameplay.”
Wow, that place sounds unpleasant to work in. Not only is a guy called an idiot for doing his job but then he’s forced to change it, to make the dialog more boring so it gives you more of a reason to shoot someone.
Make no mistake, the “We” he keeps mention isn’t him, it was clearly the other developers, just read it again.
So WE decided, let’s not go down that route. WE had to cut out the dialog and make it more informative. WE had to make sure the bad guys felt like bad guys
Because you know, no ‘Bad’ guy has ever had a life outside of kicking puppies and pissing on nuns.
The piece kinda confirms and underlying suspicion I’ve had a lot of triple-A developers for a while; they don’t respect the writers. Good writing in games is something of a rarity, across the last 40 years of game development, the writing has for the most part always been the weakest element. This is understandable of course, in the early days it was just some coder at their computer, they didn’t understand writing or dialogue because they’d never cared to learn.
As time went on, a few story minded developers began to pop out what would be the forerunners to modern RPGs with games such as the Ultima series, that really pioneered storytelling in games.
Teams and budgets grew, but it was almost always spent on graphical and gameplay elements. In those days the writer would tend to be the producer or the guy with time on his hands, there was no established place for writers in teams.
Times of course changed and now writers or ‘Narrative Designers’ are part of almost every large development house, with trained and professional writers writing as best they can. But if Visceral is anything to go by, that attitude to these writers hasn’t changed. they’re seen as the outsider of the team, they’ve got limited skills and, for the most part, can’t program, their poxy dialogue just gets in the way of the cool ideas the of the coders RE: Shooting people in the face.
It’s as if no one on that team learnt anything from Spec Ops: the Line. That game took the established parts of the modern military shooter, shoved them through Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The end product being a fucked up and disturbing game that made the CODs and Battlefield games of the time feel like hollow patriotic wanking. A lot of how fucked up that game comes from the incidental dialogue. The “enemy” soldiers talking about going back home, about holding the ones they loved. They had dreams that you had to cut short in order to get to the end of the level.
Apparently Battlefield Hardline doesn’t want you feeling those things. Nope, just have those you slaughter indiscriminately have only the most basic personality traits. Another telling part of the games overall direction is this
The cardinal sin of thug design is making the bad guys seem more interesting than the central character. “You don’t want anyone cooler than the player showing up. Players don’t want to feel like they are on the side of the squares, interrupting this cool party of fun guys.”
What’s that about cool bad guys?
Clearly these people never played Far Cry 3, where Vaas was downright the best part of an already exceptional game. What Visceral want to do was make a cop power fantasy (which given the situation in America is pretty dodgy), that lets you infiltrate a gang of criminals, pull of cool heists, before having you yell “Police” and suddenly your the good guy. It’s having your cake and eating it.
It’s both refreshing and saddening to see how writing in games is viewed by some developers. Honesty is always the best policy and if your going to be honest with how you view narrative then I can accept that. Just know I’ll never play one of your shitty games. I do wish the writer for Hardline all the best, I hope he can move on, write the game he wants to, and scrub his time at Visceral from his CV