Bethesda’s Ed Stern Talks Brink With ZoKnowsGaming

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It’s a special day over here at ZKG, when we can bring you exclusive information on upcoming titles, and do it with relish. Recently, I was able to get in contact with the people over at Bethesda on one of their upcoming games, Brink. With their title being recently pushed back to Spring 2011, and information being dredged up here and there, it was time to go straight to the source. Ed Stern, the Lead Writer for the game, was able take a few moments and answer some questions on storyline, control scheme, and lack of caffeine.

ZKG: What more can you tell us about the story, and why these two factions are fighting? As far as we know now, it’s set as a police force vs. a resistance force on a floating city in the ocean. That’s pretty much why there’s a problem correct?

ES: Brink’s backstory (and thus, setting) had to accomplish several different things: it had to be somewhere players hadn’t seen before; it had to provide players interactive, dynamic environments; it had to explain why there was a conflict; it had to explain why people didn’t just leave the place; it had to give us environments that would narrate the backstory (so players wouldn’t end up being lectured by NPCs), and it had to be a story we could actually make. As a bonus, we also wanted it to be a story that players could bring their own opinions, prejudices and enthusiasms to. Deus Ex did such a masterful job of mixing in real world issues and concerns, and really making you question the motives and opinions of the game’s protagonists and antagonists (and your own). Also, I loved how Deus Ex’s characters weren’t completely unanimous: in lots of games everyone knows and agrees exactly with what’s going on. That’s very odd. In real life, there probably aren’t two people on the planet who agree entirely on what’s going on, who or what is to blame, and what to do about it.

So we didn’t want a black and white Hero Military v Eeeevil Terrorists or Hero Freedom Fighters v Eeeevil Oppresso-Troopers plot. Right versus Wrong is boring. Right versus Right is much more complex and true to reality.  There is more opportunity for the player to feel like their choices are meaningful.

We set Brink on the Ark, which was originally a  demonstration testbed for sustainable living: a modular artificial city, generating all its own power from the forces of nature, growing all its own food, purifying its own water, recycling biomass, all zero carbon, renewable resources, and immune to rising sea levels because it’s already floating. And it worked pretty well, on a small-scale, as a sort of Ten Star Eco-Resort and high-end industrial research lab (conveniently outside national waters). But then the sea really did start rising, and things started getting bad. The Ark was towed out to a secret mid-ocean location, protected by a huge wave-turbine breakwater. And even though it was supposed to be secret and exclusive, tens of thousands of refugees turned up by ship and plane, some in terrible condition. And then, suddenly, they stopped arriving. And all contact with the outside world was lost. Suddenly the Ark has to work out how to feed, clothe, house and supply all these people. By the 2040s, things are running out, and the Ark is breaking down — it was never designed to work for decades, or to support such a large population. The original Founders resent the refugee “Guests” for turning most of the Ark into a crowded slum, and the Guests resent the Founders for still hogging the Ark’s resources when it’s actually they who are doing most of the dirty work to keep it afloat. Resources aren’t distributed evenly on the Ark. Whether you think that’s fair, or there are reasons for it… that’s up to you, along with what should be done about it.

ZKG: How will playing as the two factions differ in terms of gameplay? Is the gameplay and story unique depending on which side you choose?

ES: The story is certainly different. We make a point of showing two different versions of events. For example, in the Container City map , the Security are told that the Resistance are developing a viral bio weapon; the Resistance are told it’s a vaccine. You have to experience both sides of the conflict to start working out what’s really going on. And of course, some maps the Resistance are defending, some they’re attacking: only by playing those maps as Security do you get the other point of view.

As for gameplay, the factions feel different, but deliberately don’t play differently. For instance, while Security weapons are new, well maintained and in good condition, the Resistance’s guns are stolen, repaired, cannibalized, and held together with wire and tape. They actually sound different. Security weapons sound tight and precise, while Resistance weapons are sloppier, rustier and feel looser. But we deliberately didn’t want to make one faction’s weapons more accurate or do more damage than the other, as that didn’t seem fair.


Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong?

ZKG: The game seems to have a lot of emphasis on multiplayer play: is that needed for the story or can you go it solo?

ES: Brink is never you on your own versus the world, James Bond style, but you can absolutely choose the way you want to play. One of the reasons we’re so obsessed with multiplayer objective-based gameplay is that it contains all the other modes we love too. If you want to be an assault guy, you can play as Soldier. If you want to be more of a supporting role, you could play as Engineer or Medic. Or you can go lone wolf, doing your own thing away from the main action and still benefiting your team. And of course you can change class at any point, just by going to a Command Post, or when you respawn. Even if you don’t want to fire a single shot, you could still work through the entire game, complete both Security and Resistance campaigns offline with your AI teammates, then complete the objectives as a Medic to keep your teammates healthy and fighting. Alternatively, you could infiltrate enemy lines as an Operative in disguise to keep your teammates informed about enemy player positions.

ZKG: There is also a strong sense of free-running (or parkour, depending on where you’re from) throughout the game from the trailers – are we going to see that as a major gameplay component?

ES: Ahhhh, the SMART system. Smooooth Movement Across Random Terrain. Yeah, we’re very excited about movement in Brink; it’s something we’ve been trying to fix for years, and we’ve only just worked out how. Or rather Aubrey Hesselgren, our Technical Designer, worked out how. He trained in Parkour (although you’d never think it to look at him, he is agile like the nimble leaping mountain ibex) and was convinced there was a way of making the player feel like they were mobile without unbalancing gameplay, and without making them sick with camera bobs. Aubrey strapped on a head cam, and dove and tumbled around his parents’ garden to prove his approach.

The smartest thing about SMART is it’s so easy to use – you just hold down Sprint and move where you want and – if your body type is capable of it – you’ll automatically make the jumps, leaps, vaults and mantles required to get over any obstacles in your way. Or, you can time the jumps yourself manually — in fact, if you do, you’ll perform the movements slightly faster and more smoothly, rewarding your expertise without punishing players who are still auto-SMARTing.  The SMART system is not an autopilot, it just takes the strain out of being agile – we want the player concentrating on their tactical situation and playing the game, not working out how to use our control interface. And you don’t have to use it, it’s just there if you want it, and helps you get into the action the first time you play. People have had hands-on experience at several different shows now and we’ve gotten really strong, positive feedback. SMART just works.

ZKG: At last year’s E3, it seemed like Brink was all over the place, but this year it was pretty much nowhere to be found, was this on purpose?

ES: Actually at this year’s E3, we had our first-ever hands-on for press on the PlayStation 3 and we had a seemingly endless stream of press come through and play the game.  So I suppose the questions is… where were you?

ZKG: Unfortunately, we got caught up in traffic halfway there. Though speaking of delays, the game has been delayed twice now, setting it back to a Spring 2011 release. What were some of the causes of those delays?

ES: Our previous games have been very, very replayable. Our first game, Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, was released over seven years ago and is still among the most popular multiplayer shooters on the PC. That kind of depth only comes from lots of testing and balancing, testing and balancing again, while also polishing, polishing, polishing. I know it’s frustrating to wait for a game you’re interested in, but we have to ensure that when Brink ships, not only does it work the first time, but it keeps on offering up cool things for players to discover and enjoy.

On top of that, Brink is a very ambitious game. We have a lot of stuff that hasn’t been tried before, and a ridiculous number of combination’s of player abilities, weapon modifications and items. And because SMART lets you be so agile and find so many different routes, our maps have to work in every possible direction, for each body type.

ZKG: Were there any other big hiccups in the game?

ES: The office coffee machine broke. We tried to use donuts and energy drinks as fuel instead. It wasn’t pretty.


The battle never ends

Closing Remarks:

ZKG: Is there anything that you think gamers need to know about the game before they play it, so that they come in ready and prepped?

ES: One of the reasons we’re so excited about Brink is that we’ve put a lot of thought and work into making it easy to pick up and play. Games should be hard to make, not hard to enjoy. It was always our goal that players shouldn’t need to know anything in advance about Brink to enjoy it. If we’ve done our jobs right, the story and visuals will be interesting, the situations compelling, the controls intuitive , and the action exciting enough for Brink to be fun. Judging from the feedback we’ve had from the hands-on demos at E3, PAX and Gamescom, we’re on the right track.

There you have it another awesome ZoKnowsGaming Interview. We want to again thank Ed Stern for stopping by to chat with us and we want to make sure you guys remember to put Brink on your list of games to be excited about in 2011. That’s all for now, but stay tuned for even more awesome interviews with some of the most brilliant minds in the video game industry. Who should we try to get come chat with us next I wonder?

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