Monday 30 August 2010

Brian Mitsoda Talks Vampire: Bloodlines & Newly Announced Dead State

I first heard Brian Mitsoda's name attached to an interview he did with Rock Paper Shotgun back in 2009 (meaning I've just had to google 'rock paper mitsoda', which makes me smile), discussing one of the games that most influenced my career, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. Brian started out in QA at the infamous Black Isle, before taking on writer's responsibilities and moving over to Obsidian. In his own words his 'cancelled project resume is stunning', and despite working on an early version of Alpha Protocol, Bloodlines remains his only narrative credit. Brian and new wife Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda founded small independent DoubleBear in 2009 and have since been working on a zombie RPG that more than registered in my list of games I'm excited about last month.

Hi Brian, thanks for talking to me today. First up, we have to do some Bloodlines chat, and in particular tackle the Malkavian character who, as you know, was no small influence in my character design on Penumbra: Overture. The Malkavian was a taut combination of nonsense poetry, startling insight, hilarity and depravity. To what degree was he (or she) based on White Wolf's existing template [Bloodlines is based on a table top property], and from where else did you draw inspiration?

I read most of the source material – all the core and clan books. While I might have written the majority of the Malkavian dialogue, the idea to have Malkavian-flavored responses came from Chad Moore (who also wrote a few characters, including Strauss). One of the things I wanted to do with the Malkavians was not just make them “crazy” because I think that’s too easy. I wanted them to tap into the Malkavian “insight” – somewhat like having ESP without really knowing why you know these things – and also make them sound like people that would make you uncomfortable, rather than be over-the-top zany.

People tend to make madness hilarious, and I wanted to try to get into the head of someone without impulse control or rational thought patterns. Sure, sometimes they could say things that were amusing, but if you were to actually have a dialogue with someone who spoke like a Malkavian, you might first think they were weird or putting you on, then you’d be a bit creeped out, and finally you’d try to find ways to get out of the conversation because you had no idea what this person was capable of. They were usually some of the last dialogue I did to finalize characters, so at the point I was writing them, I was probably a bit out of it myself from deadline stress and lack of sleep. Whenever I have a chance to do mental illness in a character, I want to portray it closer to reality than comics or movies – it’s just a cop-out when a character’s motivation/antics are hand-waved because “they’re crazy!”

Bloodlines embodied, for me, a very Fallout vibe, in so far as it took the now entrenched western RPG template and without drastically changing the mechanics pushed the boundaries beyond what they could arguably handle. As anyone who played the game out-the-box will know, it was a rough edged diamond. I know you've said that game overpromised, but would you really rather be working on a Dragon Age where arguably the biggest advancement over the past decade has been the engine?
Well, working on successful games is nice because you have the money to keep the lights on for the next game, but I loved working on Bloodlines, despite all the problems and challenges we faced and its lack of (immediate) success. It was a smaller team and I think we felt real ownership over our contributions. That’s something you don’t really get on larger teams and it’s somewhat a trade-off for large scale projects – you either get better compensation or more control, but rarely are you going to get both. Some people want stability and a small piece of a gigantic machine to work on, and that’s fine. I’d much rather work on projects where everyone knows everyone and where we don’t have to have several meetings to decide on the color of the hero’s shoes. I don’t necessarily think every project should be the most ambitious ever, but it would be nice if more games took some risks. I completely understand when projects with $50 million+ budgets play it safe, though it would be nice if there were more $500,000 projects that made you felt like you were playing something unique.

I often feel a little as if I've walked into my role as a writer without too much formal training - on the job or otherwise - and I've learnt my trade by trial and error. It must be very different starting out at a studio with a couple of experienced senior writers. How did you learn to write games, and how would you see things ideally?
Good question...  I didn’t stumble into my job so much as pursue it and get really lucky in regards to the projects I was assigned to write to. I trained as a fiction writer, then worked on becoming a screenwriter, then applied both to the very demanding and frustrating realm of game writing. Game writing is really exciting from a gameplay/story perspective, considering it (ideally) reacts to the way the player is making choices in the game. HOWEVER, my biggest problem as a game writer is making sure every possible path through a dialogue/character arc is top-notch and memorable, which is like coming up with a screenplay with ten times the good lines per character. You’ve got to pay attention to the flow so the player doesn’t feel like any one path is the “boring” path or that the character isn’t acting out of character to close off a logical path of dialogue. You run the risk of putting in too much reactivity and bloating your dialogues to the point that 1 out of 100 players will actually see a line of dialogue. It’s really a balancing act, and if done right, it is both good dialogue and good design. It’s a challenge and it’s a form of storytelling I feel is still in its infancy. There are simple ways of building reactivity that would be easy for more teams to implement. Ideally, people would pick a few important ways their game could respond to player choices and throw in some simple story branching/reactivity to reflect that, but since games and cutscenes/VO takes so much time and money, I understand why so many companies go the linear gameplay with cutscenes route.

Okay, let's talk about Dead State [previously known under codename, ZRPG]! The reason I'm excited by the project is you guys seem to really know what should make a good zombie experience. It's not about explosions and mad professors; it's about the small scale, that-could-be-me tales that put human nature under pressure to see what comes out. Though maybe some explosions help too. You guys move fast, can you give me a quick run down of your goals and where the game's at now?
Dead State is coming along pretty quick these days, because honestly we have an amazing group of people working on the game – I’m really excited for players because I’ve seen what they’re going to experience. The quality of the work the team is turning out pleases my manager, designer and gamer sides, and that’s just such a good feeling to have when you’re working on a game. Really, if you’re following the game right now, go onto the forums and thank the team in advance – you’re going to love what they’re doing.

Our goals for the game are lofty, sure, but we’re designing around our limitations, so if people interpret our goals as “the most ambitious game ever” it’s mostly just smoke and mirrors. We planned this out carefully and thought of the easiest way to implement our systems with tech that had already been used for another game, so we’re not trying to go to Mars here.  Our main concerns are that the combat is fun (rather than “good for what it is”), the game is reactive, the characters are memorable, and that players each have different experiences. We want them to be able to go through the game again and have a different set of challenges and different interactions with the characters each time. We picked a setting that allows for a lot of structural freedom – the world’s falling apart, law is what you make it, and morality is based on survival. It’s a really easy contrivance to make the game bend to the player’s whims and for dramatic situations to arise.

You guys are really into the indie community, open development thing - you're posting design updates to your forums every week. You talked about the morality system recently: no ethics slider, no bonus powers, lots of possible scenarios. You make it sound like a lot of elements of the game are procedural - is that the case?
We’re hoping that subtext, subtlety, paying attention to your surroundings/allies is going to be enough for people that they don’t need it popping up in the middle of the screen as a floating number. Most of the game is dependent on your decisions and how you’re leading the other survivors. It’s not a very linear game, though there will be certain blocks of time that events may occur. How you respond to those events, that’s up to you. There are also areas and NPCs you’ll discover at different times and it’s still up to you in regards to how you want to deal with them. We do have an end to it all, but I imagine each player is going to have a different journey there and even a different end to their game. We could fall horribly on our face in this regard, but again, I think we’ve got a solid system in place and it’s going to allow for a narrative freedom that players may find kind of novel.

Okay, let's try and get into some theory. I've been thinking a lot about the difference between providing the player agency, and providing the illusion of agency. As game designers our job traditionally is to pull the wool over players' eyes, but sometimes it's difficult to do convincingly. Take, for instance, the scenario where a player's decision looks like it has in-game repercussions but in truth - should the player reload and go down both paths - it's just a cleverly disguised spot of linearity. Is that somehow analogous to real stunts vs CGI in the movies (provided it looks real it may as well be)? Or is there some value to be found in simplifying interactions in favour of true open ended narrative?

Quite frankly, if we didn’t simplify certain interactions, we’d be writing thousands of lines of dialogue to anticipate player whim. You have to control it. The best way to do this – figure out the decisions that are the most important, that are going to divide the players into certain camps and write the branches to react to that. There are a lot of little flavor replies in most of my dialogues, but every once in a while there’s something where I anticipate the player trying to game the system and respond in a way they didn’t expect. For example, when the player decided they’d had it with LaCroix in Bloodlines, they could say they weren’t going to work for them anymore and they’d get dominated. If they “joined” the anarchs, they could report to Damsel, but they were still working for LaCroix (conveniently) so that we didn’t have to do an entirely different set of dialogues.  There’s ways of managing scope, the writers just have to be creative and use the designer side of their brain.

Finally, let's talk a little about being a writer, because I often find I'm considered a writer first and a games developer second - as if it's in some way an external skill set. I love the fact that as a human being we can be as well, if not better represented by our writing as we are by anything we might say or do. What do you feel your 'style' is, and do you get adequate opportunity to express it in our medium?

Hmm... what is my style? Tenacious sarcasm? Reticent optimism? Self-flagellating ego? That’s a tough one.  It’s a hard sell in most gigs where participants are looking for ultimate, unfailing triple-A badass, but fortunately I’ve got the freedom in my current role to create something that doesn’t make me lose sleep at night. Most writers, as I’ve come to understand, are mercenaries, hired to turn out whatever is asked for them. It’s probably not ideal for them but I feel very fortunate that I’ve been given the chance to write some really incredible parts in my career. I don’t think I’ve had to compromise much, or I’ve refused to, to the detriment or benefit of my career. Up to last week I’d say writers/publishers were underestimating the intelligence of our audiences for good reason, but now I feel like maybe we haven’t been giving them the benefit of the doubt. I think writers need to express more complexity and depth to their audience as time goes on – you can only ride with training wheels for so long before you wonder why they’re still on there. We really hope to deliver a game that doesn’t underestimate the intelligence and expectation of the player, and I don’t really think that’s a huge risk at this time in game development.

Brian, thanks for your time, and best of luck on Dead State.
DoubleBear will next be appearing at PAX, 3rd - 5th September 2010.


  1. Tom, I hadn't previously picked up on Dead State [ZRPG] until you started tooting its horn here, but what you've extracted from Brian sounds really interesting. Even though I'm zombied out - despite the fact that I haven't bought a single zombie game since the whole zombie thing started (when was that exactly? are we talking 28 Days Later? or L4D?) - this is now on my radar. We don't get enough innovation in our RPGs in terms of setting.

    I am going to say I haven't played Bloodlines yet. I know what you're going to say. "I owe it to myself as a gamer." You already cost me some time-in-the-future with your push on Pathologic. Tell you what, I'll just send you my diary, you can fill in which days I should play what game. Baby #2 is due in the next few weeks, so be quick.

  2. This was a really great post and an interesting interview. After RPS's preview last week I am tremendously excited for this game and I wait with baited breath to see if it can bear out my hopes of it. Definitely one of the most exciting things on the horizon. I'll be interested in seeing if it immediately feels different from other games based on the way it has been constructed.

    This was yet another reference to Bloodlines as well. I'm getting the sense I should really find time play it, though I have plenty of other things to play first.

  3. Oh and they're talking you out of a career on RPS today, Tom.

  4. "(rather than “good for what it is”)"

    I see what you did there...

  5. This is fantastic. Brian Mitsoda has an official place in my personal pantheon, Dead State sounds amazing, and I can't imagine a better interviewer. More!

  6. Glad you're enjoying the content guys, I really want interviews like this to form a significant part of the blog. I realise it's lame to fish, but naturally anything you can do to promote this sort of stuff - where Brian's been kind enough to give us some of his time to say something interesting - is very much appreciated (blogs, forums, twitter etc).

    And yes, Blodlines (as a Malkavian) is an essential play - just make sure you grab the fan updates first.

    Yeah, I had a read of that RPS post but the comments thread was down. In short I broadly agree - I've never been a great champion of writing in games, only story, and I think it's the former Jim's really dissecting.

  7. @tj - not a problem, it's worth twittering about.

  8. Not only a very good interview, but rather a really interesting conversation. The RPS guys did a fine job with their own Mitsoda piece a couple days before, but frankly you blew them out of the water. I guess as someone who's inside the business you know exactly what and where to poke. And it also helps that you're both clearly kindred spirits.

    By the way, this bit:

    “would you really rather be working on a Dragon Age where arguably the biggest advancement over the past decade has been the engine?”

    ... is priceless. Good call on that one, you simply made my day :D

  9. Hah, thanks! I'd really like to turn out more material like this - focussing on indie and writing theory, might be I've found a niche...