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Spinning The Moral Compass: Designing Free Radical's Haze

Free Radical's PlayStation 3-exclusive shooter Haze resembles most military shooters on the market, but in this in-depth interview, creative lead Derek Littlewood describes how it sets itself apart by looking at morality and playing with the nature of video game narrative.

Free Radical is entering into a new, narrative-driven era with its high profile FPS Haze, soon to be released by Ubisoft as a PlayStation 3 exclusive. We recently published an interview with the game's writer, Rob Yescombe. Filling in more of the picture of how a next-generation shooter comes together is creative lead Derek Littlewood.

Gamasutra spoke to Littlewood about his career, the origin of the game, video game violence, the difficulty to "communicate the core message of the game through interactive sequences", three-dimensional character design, Hideo Kojima, beta testing, Apocalypse Now, the importance of themes, and why the industry is so immature.

What did you study, and where did you work before entering the game industry?

Derek Littlewood: I graduated with a degree in Computer Science from Nottingham University in 2000 before spending a year working at the bakery in my local supermarket. Of the two of them, one was enormously educational. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide which...

How did you enter the video game industry?

DL: After demonstrating to the Free Radical directors that there really aren't as many differences between baking bread and developing video games as they'd imagined, they gave me a job in mid-2001. My first task was design and setup work on TimeSplitters 2, after which I moved on to lead the design on Second Sight. I was then involved in concepting and designing Haze and become project lead on the game early in 2006.


Free Radical's paranormal action game, Second Sight

Typically, how are you involved in the development of a game, on a day-to-day basis?

DL: It's my whole job. The thing I do more than anything else is to just play the game, because there's nothing that tells you exactly where you're at more than simply sitting down with the game and seeing how much fun you can have with it. I'll also spend a lot of time chatting to the team about how their work's going, and seeing if we can refine anything to improve its impact in the final game. The one change for me on this project compared to Second Sight and TS2 is that I don't really do much hands-on work anymore (aside from occasional bits of balancing); but the team we have on Haze is probably the most talented I've ever worked with so I'm more than happy to leave them to do their thing.

In your opinion, what qualities does a good game designer need?

DL: An ability to work with the tools he's given and an understanding of when to compromise and when to go that extra mile, and more than anything else, a thick skin! There's a lot of misconceptions about what being a game designer involves -- some people think you just sit and play games all day, others that you just come up with a vague idea and then some fairies come along and make it for you. Fact of the matter is that bridging the gap between having the idea and making it work in game, together with all the inevitable compromises that involves, is where the meat of a designer's work is. And the whole way along you can guarantee there'll be a whole bunch of other people telling you to do it differently, or that they don't think it's going to work, and that's where the thick skin comes in handy, to enable you to stay focused and believe in your idea until it works.

 


The Free Radical team has a long interest in speaking about video game violence. In Perfect Dark, when you threatened to kill a soldier, he sometimes said "I’m only doing my job." In Second Sight, your violent acts were questioned by Hanson and if you killed one of the cleaners in the Conspiracy chapter, one of the agents, which happened to be her boyfriend, entered the room and screamed "No" after seeing her body… So I guess the idea of Haze comes partly from that?

DL: Yeah, it's definitely becoming a bit of a theme. Personally I've always been fascinated by perspective, the idea that an object that appears flat and two dimensional from one point of view can, with just the slightest change of perspective, suddenly reveal three dimensional depth. And that applies to people too -- we've all been in the situation where we've learnt something about someone that causes us to see them in a completely different way, with added depths we hadn't considered before.

So those little touches in Second Sight were really satisfying to me, because you could see people experience them and suddenly, these very two dimensional, archetypal "bad guy guards" that you've been running around killing, suddenly became deeper characters, with girlfriends, wives, families, and lives beyond just being a guy walking on a patrol route around some office complex somewhere. And not only that, but you put the player in a really interesting place where they might start to think about the consequences of their actions, which is something video games rarely explore, particularly with regard to the consequences of killing.


The highly anticipated next-gen FPS Haze

Free Radical sums up Haze as "a war game that becomes a game about war". How did you come up with this idea? Did you make Haze because you were simply fed up with the stupidity of most video games? Or as you get older, you want video games to get older too? Or since you make violent video games, you feel a responsibility towards society, towards your family, towards the media, towards the video games industry? Or maybe since you think that, by making more clever games, you can get more people to play video games?

DL: We made Haze for both of these reasons, and more. I think the idea of trying to tell a story that is mature in the sense of not treating the player like an idiot, and of actually trying to highlight and explore the complex moral issues associated with shooting human-like characters in games, rather than simply ignoring them, was our core motivation for making Haze.

There's nothing wrong with a game that's just a game -- that's something some people have misinterpreted in our comments about the game, like we're somehow saying that every game has to have a philosophical or political message. Well, of course they don't -- I can sit down and enjoy Super Stardust HD for just being a great blend of precise shooting action and pyrotechnics and nothing more -- and games like that will always exist.

But at the same time, I've always felt that creative media are at their most compelling when they actually speak to the person experiencing them about their own life, and cause them to ask questions, or look at things from a different perspective, than they'd considered before. Haze certainly isn't the first game to try and do that, but it's still definitely the exception rather than the rule. I don't think we're going to cause every gamer who plays the game to look at war and violence in games in a completely different light, but I think the game will at least create a debate about those questions amongst some of the people who play it (to an extent, seeing people's reactions to some of our comments on the game, it's clear that debate is already happening), and that's an achievement enough in itself, I think.

Are there precise events in the world, or in your life, that made you feel like designing Haze?

DL: There's definitely a number of recent events that fed into our desire to make Haze but we've been careful to not be too overt in referencing them. I'd prefer to let people take their own interpretations away from the game rather than have one message forced upon them.

 


How difficult is it to convey a message about war in a video game, without being too patronizing, boring or obscure? I guess the best way to avoid these problems is to communicate the message seamlessly in visuals and gameplay, rather than with long cutscenes with moralizing dialogue?

DL: I've always thought that interactivity should be the medium with which games communicate their message -- it's the one factor that makes games unique, so we should use it to give players experiences they can only have with a game. If you're communicating your message purely through narrative, then it could just as easily be communicated in a film. So yes, we've always intended to communicate the core message of the game through interactive sequences rather than with narrative; the narrative elaborates on that message rather than delivering it.

Could you give me precise examples of messages that were difficult to convey with gameplay or visuals? How did you finally manage to convey them?

DL: The most difficult aspect of the game to get right was the sanitization of the game world when the player is using [fictional combat drug] Nectar, which we wanted to appear normal to a cursory glance but then to have small hints that it wasn't quite what it seemed.

The problem was that many of the aspects of it that we thought were incredibly overt are still easily accepted by gamers as being technical or artistic limitations. So when we first showed the game at E3 '06, we were pointing at elements like the fading bodies and going "Hm, isn't that strange?" to which most people were like "No"!

We've spent a lot of time carefully balancing all the elements of the different "realities" the player sees in the game, but we're finding new things all the time, as well as a whole lot of things we simply haven't had time to do. I remember one early suggestion was that all the Promise Hand forces should look more stereotypically "evil" when the player's using Nectar, while the Mantel Soldiers should look more like shining knights; an interesting idea but one we simply didn't have the resources to experiment with!

Ragnar Tornquist, designer of The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, thinks that it's really important that a game should say something. He thinks that it's important to find the theme of the game and to build a lot of things around it. It's true that very few video games have a theme. And I think Haze really has a theme. How do you feel about that? How difficult is it to design a very coherent game, where gameplay, scenario, message are tightly linked?

DL: I think it's vital to have a clear theme and message in mind when developing a game, because it's the uniting factor that binds every simple element of it together. I often find that when faced with a particularly difficult design issue, returning to your theme and message usually provides the answer.

That all said, game design isn't a very precise art and I'd be lying if I said that every element of Second Sight or Haze was there from the very start of development. But I think that one of the strongest philosophies we have at FRD is that it's never too late for a good idea; it might involve working a bit harder to get a feature in late in the day, but if it makes the game better, it's worth doing. You'll always think "Why didn't we think of that at the start!?", but better to have the idea late in development than after the game's been released!

Second Sight is an obvious tribute to the Metal Gear Solid series and Hideo Kojima: the stealth gameplay, the closets, and the behavior of the enemies… Kojima was one of the first game designers to criticize the violence of video games, or the links between games and real warfare (in Metal Gear Solid 2, video games and simulations are even described as a way to manipulate the hero's and the player's minds). What do you think of that? How did Kojima influence you?

DL: The thing I admire most about Kojima's work is his desire to stretch the boundaries of the sort of subject matter and messages that games can deal with whilst simultaneously having the humour to acknowledge the limitations and idiosyncrasies of games as a medium. It's easy to get wrapped up in delivering your message and forget that the player is there to have fun, and I think Kojima's blend of message and humour shows a great understanding of that fact. I'd like to think Second Sight and Haze share a little of this sentiment too.

In Haze, do you want to mix real and fictional events like Kojima does?

DL: From a point of view of referencing real life events, Haze is a lot less explicit than Kojima's work; there's definitely a political message in Haze but it's not the focus of the game.

Second Sight has a rather open gameplay. How difficult is it to tune and to test a game such as this one?

DL: Oh, Second Sight was a complete nightmare to test and balance.

 


Could you describe a few changes you had to make in your games because of internal or beta testing?

DL: Several levels were entirely overhauled on more than one occasion to ensure they played well. For instance, the Asylum level where you rescue Jayne was our very first demo level for the game, and was rebuilt, and restructured, at least three times based on play testing. There wasn't really some amazing procedure we had for developing it though; we'd just play it, and if it wasn't right, we'd change it again!

One of the biggest fallacies in the industry, I've found, is the idea that you can somehow design a game on paper and "prove" that it will be fun before you even start making it. While a strong design process will always help create a good game, that core essence of "fun" is something you simply can't be sure of until you can sit down and play the thing.

How did you design Haze, step-by-step? What did you begin with?

DL: The core concept for Haze was developed by Dave Doak and several key team members, including myself. Initial design discussions very much focused around the idea of telling a mature war story in a game, which both covered plot details and technical issues that might prevent the player being immersed in such a plot, one of the results of which was the continuously loading nature of the game.

How did you come up with the Nectar idea?

DL: The Nectar was developed to enable us to communicate the message of the game. I think the thing that's most fun about the Nectar is that we needed the player to be using it -- and to want to use it -- right from the start of the game, but also for the player to not question what it was, or what it did. So we made it into one of that most common of video game staples, something players will all have seen hundreds of times before -- the power up.

In one of the gameplay sequence you showed in the Haze demo, the helmet fails and the player briefly perceives the horror of reality, the real violence of war, hidden behind the sanitised video game world the Mantel soldiers experience in their suits. This sequence reminds me of a powerful scene in John Carpenter’s They Live, where the hero, by fitting a pair of special glasses, discovers the truth: politicians or journalists are in fact horrible aliens, ad-panels reveal slogans such as "OBEY", "BUY" or "NO SEX UNTIL MARIAGE". How did you came up with this "hidden reality" idea ? What kind of war movies did you get inspiration from?

DL: Apocalypse Now was probably the biggest single inspiration for the concept of Haze. Although Haze also has some superficial similarities to the film, the main inspiration drawn was the idea of presenting a story in a war rather than a story about a war. The strongly anti-war message that Apocalypse Now carries is also something we were interested to see in a game, as, if anything, games mostly tend to celebrate war. And how better to explore that message than to put the player in a very stereotypical game world to begin with, and then to start stripping it away?

As you point out, the idea that Mantel are manipulating their soldiers' perception of the war to maintain control over them has wider parallels with other movies, such as They Live, The Matrix and Equilibrium, although none of them were a direct influence over the game.

In a lot of games (MGS2, Half-Life 2, Killer 7, FEAR), the player realizes that he’s manipulated, that he’s a kind of puppet, that he doesn't know exactly why or who he fights. How do you think Haze is different from these games?

DL: I think that one of the things that distinguishes Haze is the way that the player's fight to escape Mantel's manipulating influence brings with it a completely new way of fighting. When you join the Promise Hand to take the fight back to Mantel, you'll not only have access to new weapons and vehicles but also new abilities, which unlock extra layers of tactical depth to the game that previously were hidden to the player. Perhaps most interestingly of all, many of those abilities are only possible by exploiting Mantel's greatest strength -- Nectar -- and using it against them.

I think the other thing that marks Haze out is that the theme of manipulation doesn't end with the player changing sides -- it's a continuing theme throughout the game. But you'll have to play the game to find out exactly how!

Harvey Smith's new game, BlackSite: Area 51, is a metaphor about the war on terror and current American foreign policy. Games very rarely speak about our times in such an explicit, politically charged way. Actually, games very rarely speak about social, economical, political, historic or metaphysic issues in a meaningful way. A lot of games deal with serious issues without even thinking about the ideological messages they convey. For example, no FPS war game has ever shown the subtlety, documentary precision, emotional strength or cleverness of analysis that Clint Eastwood demonstrates in his two Iwo Jima movies --Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo-Jima. What do you think of all these issues? Why are games so stupid? Who's to blame? The publishers? The game designers? The lack of recognition of game designers? The players? The very nature of video games?

DL: It's about the immaturity of the industry more than anything else. Videogames are very new and are developing at an absolutely insane rate, particularly with regard to the fidelity and breadth of experiences they can provide. But while the potential to make more profound, more emotionally stimulating and more intellectually challenging games is increasing, the capability of the industry to actually utilize that potential is not necessarily expanding at the same rate.

And that's due to a combination of issues -- the rate of hardware advancement, that can distract attention away from content of a game to technical concerns; the lack of specialization in certain job roles (such as scriptwriting); and a lack of a more developed methodology for actually making games -- unlike movies, which generally all follow a fairly similar production process, the approaches taken by different game developers vary massively.

But perhaps more than anything else, there is a preconception in many parts of the industry about the sort of experiences games can -- or even should -- provide. In some areas this is due to commercial concerns -- do gamers actually want games that deliver a political message? Well, I've always felt the industry underestimates the intelligence of the average gamer. I mean, most gamers also watch films and read books, both of which regularly deliver strong messages and emotionally intense experiences, so why not in games too? But that level of doubt remains, which is why I think that games with such overt political messages are currently the exception rather than the rule.

Finally, what are your three favourite games and why?

DL: Ico, for telling a story of actions, not words; Rez, for exploring the limits of abstraction that games, despite their virtual nature, so often fail to even touch upon; and Super Mario 64, which is still the most perfectly designed game I have ever played.

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