Men of Valor Designer Diary #3
Level designer Peter Marks explains the amount of research involved in making a game about a conflict as controversial as that of Vietnam.
Designing a game based on a historical event can be a tricky task, because you have to worry about adhering to the facts--or at least adhering as closely as possible to the facts--as they happened. When that historical event is one as controversial as the Vietnam War, the job is even trickier. In this edition of our designer diaries, Peter Marks, a level designer for developer 2015, explains how the developer balanced the storytelling needs of the game with reality in this intense, upcoming first-person shooter.
The Story's The ThingBy Peter Marks
Level Designer, 2015
For most people, the first-person shooter is about placing one's targeting reticle over the desired target and pressing the fire key. Whether the first FPS you ever played was Doom, Quake, Marathon (if you're of the Mac persuasion), GoldenEye, or even Halo, the basic play-mechanic of point-and-shoot games has remained essentially the same. While "thinking man's" shooters, like Thief, may have turned that paradigm on its head (to some extent), when you come right down to it, getting Thief's Garrett to nock his water arrows to shoot out torches takes the same skill set as and provides a similar payoff to blasting aliens' brains out of the back of their heads with Duke's boomstick.
As the shooter genre matured towards its present incarnation, a game's story became more and more important to its overall success and playability. A good story can not only distract from a game's potential flaws but also it can complement and highlight the gameplay that the developer wants the player to remember. A story's ability to engage and hold its audience, regardless of the story's medium, allows developers to enhance gameplay moments by bringing in whole ranges of emotions to make the basic point-and-shoot play mechanic that much more powerful.
Men of Valor is very much a story-driven game. Story, of course, comprises characters, setting, and conflict--and Men of Valor has plenty of all three.
To really provide the player with the best possible experience, we felt we had to respect the historical context we set our game in, especially given the still contentious nature of the events and the period of time in which they happened. This took a lot of research on our part. Hundreds of hours were put in scouring the Internet for Web sites run by and for veterans, historians, governments, and military buffs. We spent days and nights reading articles, essays, memoirs, and recollections. We archived thousands of photographs (for reference) to better visualize and understand the environment as a whole. The design department has several large bookshelves filled to overflowing with books of all sizes and descriptions that were read by one designer or another in an effort not unlike the one that goes into some postgraduate thesis papers.
All of this let us lay out our basic story through a series of historical events. Granted, we did take a number of liberties; for one, the length of time our protagonist and his buddies are serving in the war is probably substantially longer than any soldier actually served in combat duty. As much as possible, however, the names, dates, times, and places in which our missions take place are historically accurate--down to the gear the men carry. Where we fudged, it was usually in the interest of making things fun for the player rather than representing a lack of effort on our part or a refusal to take history into account.
A good portion of the research we did revolved around learning the language the soldiers used. This included not only the technical terms but also the slang used by both American and Vietnamese soldiers. Where appropriate, translators helped us accurately translate enemy battle chatter and dialogue, as well as find appropriate cultural idioms. A fluent speaker of Vietnamese will be able to clearly understand every line of dialogue screamed at the player across the battlefield.
This volume of research and degree of understanding allowed us to define some basic parameters for our game's story, but before it was time to sit down and start setting up levels, we needed to come up with some real game design. This meant fleshing out not just the game's story, a core of which was worked out by the design team beforehand, but also the kinds of scripted events, cutscenes, and enemy encounters we wanted to have in each level. Much of this was up to the individual designer, but, of course, we wanted the whole thing to be cohesive, so we all had to work together to get our gameplay to fit into the story. Likewise, our story had to fit into the timeline that we had researched. We also had to come up with dialogue for some situations and situations for some dialogue.
For instance, we knew that we wanted a situation where the player's squad would come across another group of marines that was pinned down by enemy machine gun fire and was, at the same time, being shelled by a less-than-fully competent US lieutenant. It was therefore up to the designer (in this case, me) to set up a scripted event for this bit of dialogue, as well as lead up to it in a convincing manner that would allow for gameplay to be built off of it.
An Apolitical Game
It takes a lot of tweaking to make an event look good, and then it takes a bit more to make everyone happy with it. First, all the marines have to scurry for cover when shells start to come in. Then, as the player's squad hooks up with the pinned-down squad, both will need to interact in a believable and realistic way. This means that each squad member will look at one another as lines are shouted, suppressing fire is doled out on a bunker in an effort to neutralize it, and heads are covered when shells land too close for comfort. Even though this event is all scripted, it all happens in the "real" world, with the player able to look around at things other than what he or she is supposed to be looking at. This means that there have to be things happening around the player to provide a certain richness to the world.
These kinds of rich, scripted events were very important in the development of Men of Valor. We took a lot of effort to keep the player as much in the game as possible while telling the story around him or her. We felt this was the best way to keep the action close at hand while making the world seem both vibrant and visceral.
Strong characters are an important part of a good story. The characters really came to life in setting up the dialogue for them. It's one thing to have one of your squadmates berate another for hiding behind a rock and not firing his weapon during a firefight, but it's quite another thing to have that same guy kick your cowardly squadmate in the ass for good measure. As we set up dialogues and conversations for the characters in the game, we started to get a feel for who they were and would sometimes cut things that didn't seem appropriate. In one instance, a designer grew so attached to a pair of characters that when the level they were supposed to be in was slated to be cut for technical reasons, he simply put them in a different level. You can now see Harlan and Spooky playing poker in one of the mess tents in the first level.
Enemy soldiers will curse at you in both Vietnamese and a sort of broken English. Soldiers on both sides will cry out in pain and fear when they are wounded and will sometimes even beg for mercy. The artificial intelligence has several sets of behaviors that will allow it to help its fallen comrades. For instance, it will pick them up if they are wounded, and it will take them to safety before bandaging them. Alternately, a recently felled foe may receive an extra bullet or two once he or she is on the ground, which may be followed by a kick to verify death. Sometimes, friend and foe alike will search bodies for souvenirs or ammunition. These kinds of things we did to make the gameworld a little more real and immersive.
Men of Valor has taken some criticism (mostly from outside the US), because it doesn't make a strong political statement about the war. This was intentional, and we feel it is in line with all the great works of art generated or inspired by the Vietnam War. Heretofore, many of the movies, books, and, to some extent, the games that have dealt with the conflict in Vietnam have focused a large part of their storytelling energies on uncertainty in all its incarnations: moral, political, social, and more. These stories have told tales of despair and confusion that allow us to move past that uncertainty and toward hope. Men of Valor tells a tale of hope mired in uncertainty as well. What Men of Valor does not do is lay blame. Men of Valor says that sometimes good men can make good decisions for the right reasons and still be wrong--but still be good men. Men of Valor says that friendship and family is stronger than politics.
The story we crafted for Men of Valor, in support of gameplay, allowed us to ground the player firmly in the history of the Vietnam War. The player is able to experience, almost firsthand, the triumphs and the tragedies faced by the marines who fought that war. Men of Valor may not work very well as the sociopolitical critique that perhaps some expect stories about the Vietnam War to be, but that was not our intention. With Men of Valor's story, we wanted to create a reminder of the bravery and sacrifice of the men who served.
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