When you think of properties that are ripe for adaptation to the silver screen--and the video game one, for that matter--Anglo-Saxon epic poetry from the Middle Ages probably doesn't leap directly to mind. Regardless, director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) is steaming ahead on his late-2007, computer-animated feature film interpretation of Beowulf, and Ubisoft is likewise hard at work on a video game version of the movie slated for release on the Xbox 360, PlayStation3, and PC. When you think about it, cramming Beowulf into a game isn't such a stretch. You've got muscle-bound barbarians wielding massive weapons, a dragon, a couple of nasty monsters bent on destroying the king's good people...it's almost as if the poem's anonymous author wrote it with your average hack-and-slash fantasy game in mind.
So how do you get from a millennium-plus old epic poem to a modern-day video game, anyway? Ubisoft Tiwak game manager Adrian Lacey took time away from his busy development schedule to answer that very question.
GS: How did Ubisoft get involved with the Beowulf property? And how was Ubi's Tiwak team in France chosen to handle the project?
AL: Paramount came to Ubisoft headquarters and showed us some early artwork and said, "This is a film from Robert Zemeckis coming out. It's a different way of doing it. It's using motion-capture technology that's being developed by his team." This must be going back a year and a half, two years ago. We had just finished [the first] Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, so we were already looking at what other games we're going to do, what's going to be the next stage. But we also wanted to do something a little bit different. We heard about Beowulf, and we were like, "Oh, what's it about?" Our editorial team said, "You know, Beowulf, it's sort of Viking-esque, big burly men, the strength of 30 men and all that kind of stuff," and we were like, "All right. So it sounds interesting, Vikings, that kind of stuff could be cool."
And then we saw a couple pieces of concept art and then we started doing some of our own research, digging up things about the poem--we found out that it had been studied by Tolkien for a long time and that there had already been a few smaller films and animation and comic books, and that Lord of the Rings and things like that were inspired by the poem itself, which was an old poem that was discovered in the 11th century. It's actually quite a unique story in the sense like you've got this big Viking--it's all about death, hacking and slashing--but there's also a deeper side. It's sort of a man torn by his own selflessness and selfishness. It's this balance between the carnal side, the inside of him, and as he progresses through his life and suffers the consequences. It's also based on temptation, you know, all man's bad habits, basically. I think that's what gave us the first hook into it.
Then from there we turned around and we had an opportunity to meet the filmmakers and said, "Have a think about what kind of game you want to come up with and how to think of the concept, the basic concept. But in parallel, come and meet the filmmakers so you can get an understanding of their vision," because there's been that many interpretations of Beowulf anyway. It's inspired so many things like The 13th Warrior and things like that, that we wanted to understand the visions of [Zemeckis] and Steve Starkey, who've made everything from Back to the Future to Forest Gump. So we thought, "All right, that's cool. Let's see what he's going to do. His vision obviously is going to be pretty cool." We went to sit with him and we just let them tell us the story, tell us what they could feel. And the script was written by Neil Gaiman, and so all these little things--when we started listening a bit more, we started realizing it sounded pretty sexy.
So we went to see them, they explained to us their vision. You know, the Vikings were sort of like the Marines of yesteryear. They were like Special Forces of the fifth, sixth century. So there were some tie-ins to a certain extent. We wanted to apply that to that time period and to the "hack-and-lead" element. There's something about this guy who's an arrogant young warrior who then becomes a king. There is something about that sort of journey that we really thought made a good story for a game, and we could also apply it in terms of the gameplay mechanics. The filmmakers spent a lot of time explaining [their] story, but they also gave us a lot of liberty in terms of how we were going to tell the story. They obviously insisted on key elements of the movie being interpreted. But they realized that if they make a two-and-a-half-hour movie, they also appreciate that we've got to give 10 or 12 hours of game play.
So we have to expand the universe, and that was one of the big things that we discussed with them in the first meetings: "Can we expand outside [of the movie] and what are the limits of where we can go? We don't want to just tell the exact story of the movie. We want to extend the universe a little bit more so the player understands what the torment of Beowulf is all about." So that's how we got to that.
GS: Are you expanding the universe based on your own creative ideas, or are you going back to the original epic poem to flesh out the story in the game?
AL: For us it's Beowulf versus his inner monster, the monsters within. The poem and the movie don't really deal with that situation. It's sort of like an ellipsis. It goes from when he's young and flashes forward to when he's old, and then has little flashbacks to when he was progressing. That's all you see.
So we wanted to give the player that journey, those 30 years where he's suffering for the decision that he made when he was young, and that's how we give the player the experience of being torn, because he's facing his own monsters within. We based it very much on Viking mythology, Norse legends, that kind of stuff. We were very much inspired by the Norse gods and that kind of stuff from that time. But it's completely independent from the movie or from the poem itself.
GS: How much can you tell us about the filmmakers' creative direction and their technical execution for the film? How much of that are you guys adapting for the game?
AL: The big advantage from the relationship that we had is that they gave us access to everything from the beginning, from their concept art right through their early renders. So we're basically linked into their production cycle because the way they're producing the film is very similar to how you would produce a game. We get to see everything that they are editing down and producing, so we see a lot of the work-in-progress stuff, how they're evolving the characters, et cetera. I've done a few licensed games, but on this one we do have a very open door to see what's being produced step-by-step, which is cool. That gives us a big advantage to focus on the gameplay and not worry about what's [Beowulf] going to look like.
I think one of the important things, in terms of what they've done [with the movie], is how they've allowed the actor's expression, which normally if you look at cinematics in games, it's quite difficult to get life in the eyes, life in the mouth, life in the expressions and stuff. And there, they hit it straight on. You feel as though you're seeing something, you're seeing an actor come through his animated persona. It's mental. It's pretty cool, actually.
GS: You're using Ubi's YETI engine, which was used in GRAW. How have you evolved that technology for Beowulf?
AL: In terms of technology we had to really think about what we were trying to do with the player, in terms of the environments that he's going to be in, the visual treatment based on how we were going to make the game look as close to the movie as we possibly can. For example, the Vikings always wear fur. They wear furry underpants. So fur was a big part of what we tried to develop with the engine. Now we have complex fur shaders, which allow us to paint on fur in real time. This then allows the fur to move in accordance with the environment, whether it's windy, whether it gets wet, and in accordance to the character's movement. So when he runs, his fur outfit will move naturally towards his environment. It gets wet. It gets bloody.
In terms of other aspects to give it a bit more dynamic approach, we've also done motion blur, which adds a lot of fluidity to the animations and much more realism. That also adds a lot of dynamics to battles, especially when you're in close-quarter combat, hand-to-hand combat, or when you're swinging swords. We also use zoom blur, which gives you more sensation of speed. A lot of post-processing effects, really, depth of field. It's basically the same tricks that you would use as a cameraman making a movie.
GS: Speaking of battles, what will the combat experience be like? What's the scope of the battles? What kind of interactions that you'll have with the enemies, and with your comrades?
AL: The basic principal is that your progression is, you start off with this arrogant monster slayer and then you progress either down the path of a carnal monster slayer or you go more towards becoming a heroic leader, a king. Now those paths are completely intertwined. It's not saying you're either good or bad. We're saying that you make decisions throughout the gameplay that will have consequences in terms of your environment and how your people react to you. The thing about being a king is not so much about you, it's about your people around you. So we've tried for a much more squad-based hack-and-lead approach to beat-'em-ups. You can fight on your own in a selfish sort of way, just hacking, slashing, grabbing, ripping, pretty much going crazy, going a little bit berserk now and again, or you can also use your thanes, which are your men, your gang that hangs out with you and helps you, defends you. You've got up to about 12 of them at any time that you'll collect along the way--either you'll save them or you'll go back to your castle and pick them up.
If you're a more heroic leader, you will use the thanes appropriately. If they're getting beaten up by some crazy troll and you go and help them, then they will obviously fight harder and longer for you. That's one of the big areas of gameplay that we've really tried to focus on, that sort of squad-based side. You also use them to open doors. So if there's a giant stone pillar blocking your way, you'll send them in and then you'll cheer them on in a minigame that's based on timing, where you'll have to convince them and cheer them to open the door as quickly as possible. You can also use them to attack, defend positions, hold positions, and attack certain enemies. That's the thanes-related gameplay.
On the other side, you have the more visceral gameplay, which is that close-quarter combat. Now you obviously have all your series of combos and weapons that you'll use, whether it's a sword or an ax, a spear, hammers, and what have you. But one of the things that we really wanted to give the player is the sensation of the hands, because obviously Beowulf has the strength of 30 men. So we've done a lot of it based on the grab mechanic, which is an important feature in terms of how you will play against a lot of enemies. Your camera will zoom in and you'll be able to grab and do a series of combos based on grabbing hold of enemies, ripping their heads off, ripping their balls off, snapping their necks, grabbing and twisting their arms. That's very much in-your-face, close-quarter combat, hand-to-hand combat.
That part of it is to really show the sort of aggressiveness of Beowulf as well. So the thanes element is much more distant, more logical. You think a little bit, whereas the visceral is very much getting in there, getting stuck in, doing combos, button-bashing. The idea is that you balance the two as you're playing. The same applies in terms of the tactics. There's a very simple tactical layer. We're not trying to complicate it too much--the tactical layer is literally how you hold the thanes' positions, send them to attack or defend an area, giving you time to attack a troll, for example. You'll have a giant troll and you'll have to go into your carnal mode, which is like a berserker mode, like a blind rage.
In the old days, the Vikings used to take mushrooms and stuff before they went to battle, and then they went into this blind rage. Crazy but true. And so we wanted to give that that visceral side. So when you're in a bit of trouble or when you're feeling a bit under pressure or when you just want to lash out and rip people apart, you just press the trigger and you go into this blind fury. And this is where you grab. You have more power. You can lift heavier objects, whether they're giant pillars, giant rocks and so on. And you can completely destroy your enemies, just decimate them.
The danger with that is that you can also decimate your own men because you're in this blind rage. So if you're swinging a sword around and one of your guys is next to you, you'll take him out quickly and he'll die. So you've killed one of your own, and that's one of the consequences of that action.
At the other side with your heroism, when you call your men, you can use the heroism to call them over so they regroup around you, so they defend you, so they help you when you're on the battlefield. And it's this sort of balance between the two sides that we're trying to give in terms of gameplay.
GS: Cutting down one of your guys probably isn't going to do much for the collective loyalty of your men, then.
AL: No, pretty much they'll be pissed. [Laughs] One of the impacts that has as well is that obviously if you're killing your own guys--the idea of these consequences is not that we say, "We blame you and you're being naughty." You can play it how you want. That's one of the advantages that we want to give: We want the player to sort of judge himself. Obviously there are areas where we'll push you and pull you in certain directions to show you what happens. But it's all about the feedback we give through your own men. They'll be more depressed. They won't fight as hard for you. But then also when you return to your kingdom of Herot, you'll also see a change in the way your people react to you. They'll be like, "Yeah, you're a bastard, we hate you," or, "Hail to the king. You're great! We love you!"
GS: Do any of those decisions that you make affect the key story moments that you experience? You're going to fight Grendel's mother regardless of what you do, right?
AL: Yeah, absolutely. You'll fight key areas within in the game. The key characters in the game are there. Grendel you'll fight and Grendel's mother, et cetera. At the end, we have what we call the legacy system, where you'll accumulate either heroic or carnal points as you progress, depending on how you fight. You'll have this system of points that will give you a gauge as to how you're playing.
At the end, by playing the way you did, you'll define your own legacy--are you a monster slayer or a heroic king--and that's where some differences will appear. But it also impacts your gameplay--it means you will have more or less thanes as well. It will depend on how you fight your enemies. It will change how you fight your enemies. And it will also depend on the upgrades that you buy. You know, you can either upgrade your thanes when you're more heroic, or you'll be able to upgrade your carnal side and buy bigger weapons, different shields, your carnal power will last longer and that kind of thing.
GS: Is there any sort of multiplayer or online component to the game?
AL: No, we've very much made the conscious decision that it's about the story of Beowulf. To make it multiplayer--we did actually look at it because we thought Viking, barbarian-type characters fighting each other would be cool. But we decided to focus on the thanes and you being responsible, becoming a king, and the story lent itself to that psycho-mechanic rather than trying to make something like a massive, multiplayer online game.
GS: When are we going to see the game? Is it going to be right alongside the movie?
AL: Yeah, we're destined for mid-November, and the same for the film. So hopefully we'll have a [hands-on] look at it around the start of August. You've got the gameplay trailer now. That gives you a first look at where we're at. Obviously, the effects aren't implemented yet. One of the things that I try and explain to people in terms of technology is that it's done like a cake, it's like a layer cake. So a lot of the weather effects and all the kind of lighting effects and special effects always happens right at the end. So bear with us. It's on its way.
GS: We'll look forward to it. Thanks, Adrian.