Ubisoft's next big release is Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, which launches on October 4 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC. The publisher worked with a military adviser, Emil Daubon, on the project, and GameSpot recently had the chance to sit down with him for a wide-ranging conversation
In our chat, Daubon--a 17-year military veteran who served in the Army Special Forces with multiple deployments to Afghanistan--told us about his unique background, how he became attached to Breakpoint, what his contributions on the project are, and lots more.
Daubon has a degree from Columbia in theatre with a concentration on acting and writing, and has written for TV shows and movies; he's an actor, too. He brings these creative chops, along with his extended military background, to the table for Breakpoint.
His responsibilities on Breakpoint included working on the soldier chatter, or "barks," which are the conversations between characters. Daubon pulled these lines from a number of places, including his own time spent serving in the military.
"Soldiers on patrol tell jokes or complain about the weather or talk about how their rent is due or, you know, there's a variety of things that people talk about in real world situations that happen and have nothing to do with military tactics," he said. "And I honestly feel that creating a game where all you hear is very specific, military jargon doesn't feel real at all. Because the truth is two guys on guard who have been there for hours and hours, and it's raining, and they're miserable are going to crack wise or tell jokes or insult each other."
Daubon touches on numerous other subjects in the interview, including how life-like the Breakpoint weapons feel (as someone who has handed many, he knows), working with actor Jon Bernthal, why military stories are so endlessly popular, and what he thinks about telling stories that accurately reflect the military experience but are also enjoyable and fun.
You can read the full interview below.
Can you just talk about your background in the military, and then how you became associated with writing for video games or writing for TV and movies. What was that transition like?
I've served in the military for 17 and a half years, almost 15 with Army Special Forces. I was active duty military for about 10 years, and then I transitioned to the National Guard. There are Special Forces opportunities in the guards as basically reserve unit.
And I went back there, because I used to work as a film crew, technical lighting technician on film crews, and I wanted to get back into that. So I was doing the part-time military thing and then working on films. And I realized after a couple of years that I wanted control of narrative content. I just ... I found that I wanted to tell my own stories.
So I went to school. I was super fortunate. I got to go to Columbia, and I started off studying film, and I ended up transitioning to theater just because I wanted to... I wanted an education in classical drama theory to support sort of my writing, so my degree is in theater. My concentrations were in acting and writing, and I was pursuing film. I wrote and directed a few shorts.
I've written a couple of features, and you know the intent was to either stay in New York or go to LA and pursue filming. I had the opportunity to work on Ghost Recon Breakpoint, which was just blind luck really. I happen to know one of the writers who was at Columbia with me doing his MFA who was writing on staff [at Ubisoft], and they were looking for an additional content writer. "Okay, we just need someone to help fill in some gaps in it."
He said, "Hey, here's my friend Emil's email. You should reach out to him, interview him, see if he's interested." And so I came on board with Ghost Recon Breakpoint just as an additional content writer, but once they learned of my background in Special Forces, my role quickly evolved into technical adviser and consultant as well as writer.
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On Breakpoint specifically, what would you say your main areas of contribution are?
So, predominantly writing. I focused on systemic writing, which is, you know, barks, and voices, and dialogue for all the AI. So, all the non-player characters I was focusing on writing.
The systemic narrative design team had a really ambitious vision for expanding the systems to create sort of multi-layered systems and interactions so that as you navigate the world, it just had more real depth, like a ... more three-dimensional feeling world. Based on proximity, or other sort of triggers and coding constraints, you can trigger different interactions. So, even if you're in the same objective, the same mission, if you're standing two meters to the right or left, you're going to trigger different responses from different enemy archetypes.
The idea was to give it that sort of authentic experience. So, you're actually immersed in this world where you're not hearing the same barks over and over and over again.
And because of the design to have this expansive and multilayered systemic writing, they needed somebody who could focus just on that. So I came in to do that. I did get to write some side missions and some optional dialogues, but ... I spent a lot of time writing, working on the systems.
And then as a consultant I worked with every department to help heighten details of authenticity, whether it was realization, the progression team, the voice team. I was on site and available to help answer questions about details. So, whether it's how this particular gun functions, or how this particular character looks when they're diving behind cover, or how this body moves through space. So, I was fortunate. I got to work with every creative team to help sort of create a more immersive experience.
How do you go about balancing authenticity and making the game fun?
Well that's the point. In particular with a film background, I understand that oftentimes what happens in reality just isn't viable [in a game]. Whether it's coding or programming constraints, whether it's sort of visual or cinematic liability. The trick is finding that balance. And I have found that it comes from the sort of injection or addition of specific details.
Oftentimes there's something as simple as different enemy archetypes. And the way that we were doing that was through motion. It was the easiest way so that you know, even from a distance you can recognize a different archetype based on how they're moving. And in particular the Wolves [the main enemy faction in Breakpoint] were a very specific sort of enemy component that you have to face. We needed that to be distinctive so that as you engage in play, you know, "Oh that's the Wolves, that's a high level of enemy." And so we did that by creating certain sort of visual cues.
We added little details so that they just have a more distinct visual signature. But it's still completely possible. It's still a very real way to hold a weapon, to operate a firearm, to move when you have, you know, gear and equipment and a backpack on. And that's really the secret.
What I found the secret to be was add enough real details that you can make the fantasy feel real. And the point is always been that. It's not to be authentic, it's to feel authentic. So immersion in this fantasy world should feel like you're in a real world, whether it's the real world or our real world.
Was there any kind of pushback with the developers in terms of if they really wanted to stick to something, but you were said, 'No, this is really more the way it should be?'
I mean, there is always pushback in any sort of creative collaboration. The point is finding the sort of point of compromise. I think maybe just because of sort of my experience with film and understanding that oftentimes it's not about what you as a consultant think is real. It's about understanding the director has a vision or the actor has a certain persona that they're going to embody. It's about offering enough sort of suggestions and support so that you can make it feel real.
There was never like conflict. I approached it in such a way that if I felt strongly about a certain detail, rather than saying like, "No, this is wrong, this is how it would happen," I would say like, "Oh, that's really cool. Maybe if we add this detail, it might look a little bit more real."
And we tried it. And I think most often they would say like, "Oh yeah, that's really great." And oftentimes, I mean even coming in as a consultant and saying like, "That's just not how things are done," is completely impossible.
You know, whether it's the code... I mean the animation might already exist, the coding might be so constrained that you just can't change it, and it's pointless to fight about it.
And honestly, I don't think it really benefits because oftentimes real tactics and real sort of details might just not work [in the game]. So my job as a consultant has always been to make the sort of team director's vision function within a realm of viability, not dictating to them what is real.
As I understand the military in combat situations, the camaraderie that soldiers feel is a very palpable thing, and I got a sense of that from watching things like Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. It's the little details that really sell it. So can you just talk more about just what you're trying to do with the chatter?
I mean [I got it from] from a variety of places. A lot of it came from military experience, but a lot of it was just... I mean a lot of the chatter is based on basic, simple human interactions. I mean, in combat, in real life, people aren't constantly just talking tactics, you know?
Like soldiers on patrol tell jokes or complain about the weather or talk about how their rent is due or, you know, there's a variety of things that people talk about in real world situations that happen and have nothing to do with military tactics. And I honestly feel that creating a game where all you hear is very specific, military jargon doesn't feel real at all. Because the truth is two guys on guard who have been there for hours and hours, and it's raining, and they're miserable are going to crack wise or tell jokes or assault each other.
"In combat, in real life, people aren't constantly just talking tactics, you know?" -- Daubon
So we tried to, sort of balance the amount of military jargon with just real human conversations. And then we also tried to sort of vary the levels of both, whether it's military vernacular or like human just regular speech because we want the archetypes to feel different. If they're all telling jokes all the time, they all feel like the same person.
So the trick was to just vary the sort of levels of tactical competency with just humanity. And of course, you know, like, so the Wolves have a very specific vernacular. Even when it comes to tactical jargon, they have a very specific lexicon they use. And that was intentional to give them this same signature when you hear them speak.
The sort of regular PMCs [private military contractors] have varying degrees of military experience and you're going to hear that and feel like in the barks they use, some speak with a very professional military vernacular. But some sound like they're right off the farm and never held a gun; we needed a job, you know. And everything in between. And that was the point was again, creating a textured and layered world that feels real and in real life people just talk until it's time to do business.
Did you get to write any lines or any chatter for Jon Bernthal's character? Did you get to work with him on this?
So, sadly, I didn't get to write anything for him. Walker's dialogue in lines were pretty well locked in by the time I came on board, but I got to work with him on motion capture-
Yeah, I was just going to ask what that was like.
I've worked on a lot of films and I've worked with a lot of actors. There's some really top level A-list, Hollywood talent ... I've worked with a lot of people. And honestly, Jon was one of the most professional artists I've ever worked with. I mean he shows up every day, he's there early, he's ready to work, he takes direction well, he takes suggestions, he offers suggestions, he makes adjustments like that. And he brings this wealth of experience in these sort of conflicted military type characters and with sort of deep humanity, but at the same time a ferocity that's like engaging and exciting. So he brings all of this and he's just professional. He shows up ready to work.
So it was a... I mean it was a treat to work with him, and then getting to know him, you know, he's a super cool guy and he really loves that he's part of this project. So his enthusiasm and his excitement were palpable every day on set. And I think we created something really cool with him, and he brought something to that character that nobody else could have.
A lot of games will lean into futuristic or sci-fi kind of weapons, but the guns in Breakpoint are based on models that are actually in production in the real world. So what kind of things did you do to make sure that they looked and sounded and everything, you know, very authentic?
I didn't have a lot of control over that. So there are weapons teams that are specifically dedicated to the animations for the weapons, but they would consult with me oftentimes. Because a lot of those mechanics existed when I came on board. I was able to come in ... I listened to all the guns, sort of suppressed and unsuppressed.
Because aside from the realistic details of a particular gun, it's also important they all feel different from one another. And that's another example of how oftentimes realism needs to be not adjusted, but balanced and merged in the fantasy.
One of the chief player complaints that I've seen on countless forums is that every weapon sounds the same. And every weapon feels the same. And that's an important detail. And the team was really dedicated to providing a more immersive experience.
So, you know, I got to sit down with them at one point and just listen to all of the guns firing, suppressed and unsuppressed. I've shot a bunch of those guns myself. We had videos of ones that were really exotic and I'd never seen. And we're able to sit down and tweak the tone and volume levels so that each one has a more distinctive feel while still remaining really true to how that gun actually performs.
And that's just one example. A lot of times again, like I said earlier, it's in those small details and if it's just how like a cartridge actually ejects from the ejection port. If it's something you can tweak a little bit so it looks a little bit different from every other gun but still is precisely how that weapon operates, then great.
Having fired some of these weapons yourself in real life and then having played the game, do you think it feels very authentic? What did it feel like to you?
There's so much diversity in how the weapons performed that it... What I found was important is like when I switched from one gun to the other, it feels different. You know, I feel like I'm transitioning from my rifle and my pistol or I'm switching from one assault rifle to another assault rifle. And that for me is really immersive.
I obviously can't speak for any of the other millions of players that enjoy these kinds of games. But I think that's one of the details that's really going to stand out. Because you know they, within the constraints of the gaming, you know whether it's paddles or you're on a keyboard, it is really difficult to capture the real feel, the tactile sensation, the feeling of a gun. They do a really good job. Like they're pretty cool. I think players are going to be pretty stoked with what we've been able to create.
Another major point about the Ghost Recon games is they come from a Tom Clancy background, and he wrote a lot about 'What If' scenarios. How do you go about modeling military situations in the game maybe that don't exist yet in real life?
I mean, the 'What If' scenario is at the heart of what we're creating right now and it's the heart of Tom Clancy. He takes very--he took sadly [Tom Clancy passed away in 2013]--very real, very plausible scenarios and technologies and applied these contingencies like, 'Well, this exists, but what if it goes in this direction?' And that's what this game has done.
The application of a slightly futuristic setting, just giving us a few years in the future, allows us to explore these contingencies. There's two overarching themes to this game and that is autonomous technology and what happens if and when it grows beyond our control. And then there's this theme of what if the greatest adversary you can face is, you know, your equal. And those two themes are very plausible and very... I mean, as a military member, I hope I would never encounter a scenario like Nomad and Walker.
But the backstory there is very compelling and understanding the character of Walker helps to support that. This is a deeply conflicted man, you know, who still holds true to his values and beliefs that he is right and just. But both of these themes projected slightly into the future allow us to explore those contingencies. Drone technology is pretty advanced at this point.
It is plausible that maybe somehow it could move in directions like this and that's the point of Tom Clancy is to... In a piece of entertainment to explore something that could be potentially terrifying, you know? And then how would the world deal with that in that context?
And I guess it just leads into another question I had just about military stories and stories about war have been popular across all types of mediums since the beginning of recorded history really. What do you think it is that makes these stories so compelling?
"As a younger person, I wanted to immerse myself in the fantasy of being an elite soldier so much that I joined the military and I did it" -- Daubon
I mean, like you said, I mean every form of medium throughout history has war stories. I mean, literature, poetry, film, novels. I mean every have written about war, whether condemning world war or fighting, and everything in between.
As a younger person, I wanted to immerse myself in the fantasy of being an elite soldier so much that I joined the military and I did it. There is an exciting aspect to the tactical considerations of combat that make games like Ghost Recon so exciting because it's not just shooting. There's so much in that world that you have to take into account. You have to plan. There's strategy involved. There's a deeply immersive experience with the combat scenarios that are based on these tactical considerations.
I think that's one of the aspects that makes shooters so exciting is that it feels real because you have to plan and think and execute your operation. I mean see if it fails or not, you know, see if it works and then adjust.
I don't know what it is about combat that is so compelling for people to engage in other than it very well could just... It's part of life, you know, conflict exists and maybe... I mean in every form, not just combat, but conflict exists. And I think explorations of conflict can always be compelling from a dramatic perspective, because a conflict offers the opportunity for resolution. And I think narratively there's always a very satisfying arc within that.
And it may be something as simple as that, and just like here's conflict on a grand scale in a way that is easily visualized and offers the potential for resolution, and how do you sort of reach that, from A to B, how do you get there and everything within that. And so whether you're reading about some military hero or whether you're engaging in a scenario where you have to interact with it, I don't know. I think that might have something to do with it, you know?
Some of my favorite stories and movies are war stories. Saving Private Ryan in particular is one of my favorites, and Black Hawk Down. And I watched those movies and I come out thinking that war is this horrible thing that should be avoided. What kind of responsibility do you feel as a writer, working on a military game, to portray the realities of war--warts and all? The emotional, the physical scars that people come home with about war, as you're writing for a video game that is inherently fun.
That's really interesting. I mean, I think as a content creator we have a responsibility to depict sort of real aspects of the human experience, but offer them in the context of something that can be sort of engaged with, enjoyable, whether it's playable or immersive as a film or a novel. I mean war can be horrible, you know?
I think having the opportunity to create something sort of lasting and engaging and beautiful is tremendously cathartic, honestly, because it's taking aspects of those events and it's portraying them in the way that they really can be entertaining and can provide people with a little sort of sense of the fantasy. I don't think there's an easy answer.
Again, having the opportunity as a content creator, I find it... I mean it's tremendously humbling to know that I have the opportunity to tell these kinds of stories for people to engage with and to maybe show them a little part of the world that I've seen, good and bad, and allow them to sort of experience it from my perspective. But it's always my perspective. It's always a very sort of limited and specific perspective.
Yeah. I would have to digest that question for a while, because it's really fascinating to consider. I just think ultimately, overarchingly that when it comes to something like combat, I mean, you can't avoid its reality.
But if you can create things that allow people to understand that it exists, but there's so much more than just the notions of violence, that there's humanity behind it, and there are human beings involved in it and each human being involved has a deep backstory. What brought them there, what led them there, what they'll do afterwards. Allowing people to explore all those stories I think is really important.
I asked because there is a competing game coming out this year, and one of the things you can do is put white phosphorus down onto people. I was just wondering if you had any thoughts on--
What game is this?
... the new Call of Duty game [Modern Warfare]
Oh, I've never heard of it [joking]. I actually heard that they eliminated white phosphorous.
[Activision has yet to formally make any announcements about removing white phosphorous from Modern Warfare. The company did not responded to GameSpot's request for comment]
I'm just wondering, are there any lines do you think you, you wouldn't cross in terms of replicating the war experience?
Well, I want to create an enjoyable fantasy. I don't think you need to go into, like, call it gory detail, to provide players the fantasy because again, for me honestly, I genuinely believe that it's the application of tactical considerations that makes it exciting. It's easy to play a game where all you do is pull a trigger and shoot stuff and it blows up.
It's boring, even. But having a scenario where you have to take so many different things into account and consideration and then make a plan. I really couldn't say what is too far. I don't know. I don't know. I tried. All I can say is like, I can only speak for myself as a content creator and I just know that for me the objective is always to create an immersive fantasy, and that fantasy has to be playable and enjoyable.
Oftentimes real details really are not--whether it's because they're too violent or too gory or too whatever--but it's just not really applicable. The point is the creation of the fantasy, immersion in the fantasy, and a lot of people to just sort of embody that. I'm a ghost on the ground, you know? That's the motivator for me, if that makes sense.