Touching the Enemy
A Video-game Designer Shoots For More
Cliff Bleszinski sounds caffeinated. The 31-year-old video-game designer name-drops influences (Das Boot, Killswitch, A Bridge Too Far) like he’s putting down covering fire with an assault rifle. It’s understandable that the man is so wired. He’s in “crunch time”—the last make-or-break months of Gears of War’s development cycle. He and his crew at Epic Games in Cary, N.C., have been clocking marathon shifts in efforts to complete and polish their gritty, sci-fi-flavored shooter for the Xbox 360. There’s a good chance Red Bull is part of the equation. “I’m the Michael Bay-type guy,” he says in a typical downplaying move. But this charismatic designer is more Tarantino than blockbuster hack. Like the Pulp Fiction director, he’s both enthusiast and auteur. Bleszinski is as comfortable talking strategy with the fans who play his Unreal Tournament series as he is participating in a heady game-theory discussion. And where Tarantino used what he learned absorbing Godard and DePalma to craft his cinematic mash-ups, Cliff funnels all his endless hours playing and—more importantly—thinking about games into his work.
So why does a guy so bright devote so much energy to making war games? “I wanted to make a shooter,” he says, “because there’s still a lot of room to explore in the genre.” For Bleszinski sometimes a bullet isn’t just a bullet. “I think we make games about guns because making games about talking is really hard and not interesting yet. The basis of interaction is, ‘what’s the easiest way I can touch this environment?’ And when you’re using your gun, you’re touching. You’re touching the walls. You’re touching the enemies. You’re touching everything.”
ANOTHER DAY AT THE OFFICE
Bleszinski cut his design teeth on a PC game called Jazz Jackrabbit. It was 1994 and he was in his last year of high school. “There were three guys working on that game,” he says. “It was me doing the majority of the artwork, the design and 90 percent of the levels. Gears of War is more of a collaborative process.” He’s not kidding. Development teams for modern games tap the talents of hundreds of programmers and artists. The sheer scale of an undertaking like Gears of War has transformed Cliff’s job from nuts-and-bolts designer to something more managerial. “I don’t have the time every day to completely micromanage every last bit of the game,” he admits.
Video games are software. The art of making them draws as much from Silicon Valley as it does from Hollywood. Development studios use the same tech tools as businesses like Microsoft and Google; whiteboards, conference rooms and, of course, tons of computers. His crew has jobs as varied as designing the game’s bombed-out architecture, modeling grotesque faces for its Locust Horde baddies, and determining the ins and outs of reloading the Lancer Rifle—a gun that comes with a built-in chainsaw—when its clip runs dry. Cliff paints his supervisory role as both administrative and collaborative. “They’re painting an 80-foot-by-80-foot mural. Each person’s working on his four-foot-by-four-foot section of it.” A game designer’s job is “to constantly stand back and look at how the painting’s coming out.” It’s a matter of popping into a workspace, peering over someone’s shoulder and saying, “Oh, you’re lighting the scene? Remember: it’s important to use light as the carrot to lead the player where to go.”
One trait that games continue to share with movies and television is that they still originate from one person’s imagination. “You generally start out with the core ideas in your head,” Bleszinski says. But rather than pen a script, the early version of a Cliff Bleszinski game takes the shape of bullet points. Bleszinski doesn’t mind boiling his ideas down to high concepts. He describes Gears of War as “ Resident Evil meets Saving Private Ryan.” For designers it’s all about getting people on board. “If you can’t tell your idea in a PowerPoint to Microsoft execs, how are you gonna sell your game to your team? How are you gonna sell the game to the press? How are you gonna to sell it to gamers?”
A GAME TO END ALL WARS
Earlier this year Bleszinski participated in a just-for-fun design challenge at the annual Game Developer’s Conference. “The goal was to create a game that could win the Nobel Prize for peace,” he says. The irony that he’d just spent nearly a decade crafting anemically plotted online gladiator games wasn’t lost on Cliff. He took the assignment to heart. In front of a crowd of onlookers, Bleszinski described his hypothetical game—a virtual empathy trainer for military personnel. “The way to encourage peace is to make people identify with the person that they’re bombing.”
Bleszinski hopes to someday create “a game experience that really puts a human face” on those affected by war—where players would find themselves in the shoes of “a guy who’s responsible for keeping his family together.” During the day, he’d talk to his wife and children, keeping them happy and assuaging their fears. At night he’d venture into a deadly war zone, risking life and limb to gather the food, water and medicine vital for keeping his family alive. “Maybe that could make somebody think twice about their actions and not just see people as collateral.”
But the day’s winner was industry veteran Harvey Smith, who imagined a sort of flash-mob software for protesters. The ovation for Smith’s concept just barely outweighed the applause for Bleszinski’s. Cliff, a guy who prides himself on giving his audience what it wants, took a lesson from his loss. “I made the mistake of actually trying to create a design,” he says with a hint of disappointment, “and not play the crowd.”