The release of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is fast approaching, and while it doesn't have a traditional campaign, it does have two Zombies storylines. At launch, the fan-favorite mode will have both the returning Aether story, which consists of the Blood of the Dead map, and the new Chaos story, which spans the Titanic-themed Voyage of Despair map and the Roman Gladiator-themed IX map.
We recently spoke to Treyarch's senior executive producer Jason Blundell and lead writer Craig Houston about Black Ops 4's take on Zombies, how writing for the mode works, and the most bizarre things that made it into the games. The two have been working together for 17 years and, as they put it, have a very particular brand of British and Scottish humor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Is there a connection between the Chaos storyline and the previous Zombies story?
Jason Blundell: I can absolutely confirm that the Chaos story is in no way connected to the Aether story.
Craig Houston: Other than sharing space.
JB: Well, they do share a connection there. They are on the same disc. Yep, that's true.
Are there Easter eggs in Blood of the Dead that fans can look forward to?
CH: Lots. I think the thing we started talking about was, over these last 10 years the Aether story involving Richtofen, Dempsey, Takeo, and Nikolai has been a very involved, time-traveling, multidimensional thing of craziness that has a beginning, middle, and end. But we left a lot of very deliberate gaps so that we could revisit, and Blood of the Dead is definitely one of those. It's nice to see the speculation in the community about exactly where it sits in our chronology. All will be revealed. But in terms of Easter eggs, it's gonna change people's understanding of some of the things we have seen and perceived so far.
JB: In the article, can you put a little star next to the bit where Craig says, "All will be revealed," and it says, "Jason says, 'Not really.'"
CH: Lots will be revealed.
JB: Yes. Some things will be revealed.
CH: A thing will be revealed.
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JB: With Easter eggs, it's like the Easter Bunny just ran around Alcatraz throwing things around.
CH: Which is true of everything we're doing in Black Ops 4. We're trying to return to a lot of old-school Easter eggs in terms of audio logs and things like that, rather than just giving people impossible-to-solve ciphers so Jason can show off his brain.
JB: That's a very good point. Let me do the serious answer to that. [laughs] As we got to the end of Black Ops 3, especially toward the end of the Aether story, we had to make Easter eggs more and more difficult to kind of slow down or control the drip of information to the community. So we started to utilize a lot more ciphers, because that would slow it down. You have to do math problem solving and so forth. Going into the new stages with the Chaos story, we eventually took our mentality back to the beginning of Aether where it was more about pressing X on things, or reading things that we had on textures, or stuff we'd hide in the world. So those stories have different mentalities now. You'll see a lot more "traditional" ways of hiding stuff for the players. But the thing about the Blood of the Dead is, you know there's a couple of ciphers around for the fans who enjoy that part of it.
Do you guys, and does the team in general, feel pressure for Zombies and for making some really fantastic Zombies storylines considering that Black Ops 4 doesn't have a traditional campaign?
CH: The pressure's always been there, on Zombies, as it's grown. Because it took off so early on, as the little bonus map in World at War. You know, with every iteration, we just really tried to push it further and further, both gameplay-wise and narrative and everything. So, given that the love for that kind of feels natural, we're just doing it even more so this time.
A lot more writing goes into the Zombies stuff than in writing something like World at War.
[...] I think in narrative terms, as well, to be perfectly honest--a lot more writing goes into the Zombies stuff than in writing something like World at War. Because in a linear campaign, characters don't talk as much as they do in those kinds of modes as they do in Zombies, because Zombies is constantly evolving and constantly changing. You need lines dialogue for people who've gotten very good at the game and are getting headshots from 20 meters, and you need lines of dialogue for people like me and Jason [who] need help.
So the sheer volume of dialogue, which is not just on the player characters but is also in Easter eggs, that ends up being a pretty massive chunk of work. The world building and planning for the mythologies that we're exploring is really quite significant.
JB: And Craig and I both have that campaign background. In terms of the level of engagement, and the kind of narrative exploration, we actually scaled up our narrative team for the Zombie work.
CH: I've got a good one: Zombies is a world that you can live in, not just pass through. [laughs] You know what I mean. Campaigns are often a one-and-done thing.
JB: Yeah. Zombies is more of a state of mind than a methodology. Is that what you're saying, Craig?
CH: No, I wasn't.
JB: I know. Thank you.
Is the writers' room always this bantery?
CH: Well, whenever Jason and I get together, it is. But when I'm working with other writers I try to be a bit more serious and encourage them to write, not just make jokes.
JB: We're just putting on a show for you. We're actually very serious, boring individuals.
CH: In all fairness, though, I think we do have--well maybe it's a British thing, but our disagreements are usually solved through ridicule. Jason suggests an idea, and if I don't like it I go straight to ridicule. "Oh, you think that's a good idea, do you? Think that up in the shower, did you? Oh, it writes itself, doesn't it, Jason?"
What is the weirdest thing you thought up that still made it into Zombies?
CH: Thousands? I mean the fact that you've got a golden spork in Mob of the Dead.
JB: Oh yeah, the golden spork was good. The idea of a, what, 1960? When was the spork invented? I don't know.
CH: I don't know.
JB: Kind of a utilitarian utensil. The combination of a spoon and a fork. It just blows me away. Still to this day it seems like a greater achievement than the moon landing.
CH: Yeah, and there's so many. I don't think there's a bar where anything is too silly. I mean, Richtofen cut out Maxis's brain and put it in a drone. And then flew it into a dimensional portal. So if you can do that kind of thing...
JB: That's like a normal day at work.
JB: [pauses] I dunno. All of them, really. I always say, when it comes to Zombies development--not only the way we work with the team but also how we direct it as well--which is that it has to feel like the inmates are running the asylum. It's gotta feel like a mode where--and I say this [hoping for] forgiveness here with Activision on the line--like they've not got any control over us and it's a bunch of madmen making a mode. So I think that speaks to people in a certain way. And that's the spirit we keep on going, that kind of rock-and-roll attitude. That kind of, "Yeah we're not really going to listen to what the official advice should be for this, but this is the way it is."