The Brink Diaries; the Ark and story explained
If you’ve been following PS3 Attitude, you will know that we’ve been giving Brink a lot of coverage of late through our unabridged Brink Diaries series. Each article has covered a different aspect of the game, and for this article we will be learning more about Brink’s story and its setting, the floating city of Ark.
We’ve been speaking to Brink’s lead writer Edward Stern and its creative director Richard Ham, and this is what they have to say.
[Richard Ham] Brink is set on the Ark which is this man-made city. It’s kind of based on real-life technology that’s happening right now. It’s being considered as one of the ways to deal with world over-population: to get people living on permanent floating cities.
The Ark was built around the year 2005, and it was an experiment for that. It also had a whole lot of green living (eg. renewable resources). The thing is that it worked: it became the eighth wonder of the world. Everybody looked at it and breathed a sigh of relief that humanity was going to be okay.
But unfortunately the Ark came a little too late; Greenland’s Ice Shelf has melted, and overnight the sea levels rose all over the world, and millions of people were displaced and became refuges. A lot of those people came to Ark because it floated and everything was fine.
The biggest mistake the founders of the Ark ever made was to open their doors and letting as many people as they could. The game starts about thirty years after that. The Ark has completely lost contact with the outside world and nobody seems to know what’s going on: “Have things straightened themselves out? Is there anything still out there? Is it only us?” There’s all kinds of conspiracy theories: “Why won’t we talk to the outside world?”, “Because it’s not there.” There’s all that kind of stuff.
But none of that really matters, that’s just people getting agitated, because the most pressing concern is that they’ve completely ran out of resources. All these green technologies, they were designed to be able to maintain about 5000 people; there’s 50,000 thousand people living on Ark.
So everything is breaking down; they don’t have the parts. There’s no RadioShack or Dixons to go to get replacement parts. The whole place at the beginning of the game was on the brink (it’s the title of the game) of an all-out civil war, and when that first shot is fired it escalates and there is no going back.
So potentially the last people on the planet are now fighting and squabbling when they should be working together. The interesting thing: in the story, there are two sides of the civil war. There is Security, who is charged with maintaining law and order, ensuring that everything moves smoothly and ensuring that the place doesn’t sink, literally; and on the other side you have the Resistance, who Security thinks are dirty terrorists, who are out there to grab theirs, who have crazy ideology. The Resistance from their point of view: “Look, we’re just fighting for our basic human rights. Look at the slum we’re living in.” “Look, you have no choice, we’re out space” says the Security, and: “We took you in. You’d be completely screwed without this.”
So both sides have really legitimate points of view, and when you’re playing through either of these storylines it becomes very obvious to you, because everything you see and experience and learn shows that you are fighting on the side of right, and you’re completely justified in everything you do. It’s only when you play through the other storyline –because you will take your character that you have levelled up and play through both these storylines – that you start to see the other side.
Tale Container City for example; when you play in your storyline as Resistance, the guy gets up onto his soapbox and says: “Can you believe it brothers, it has come to this: they are attacking us in our homes.” This is fairly late in your storyline. You know, they kept pushing and kept pushing, and “now they’re actually kicking us out of our homes. This is unacceptable; we will stand and fight; we will push them back to the sea.” I really like that line.
Why have they come? “Well, they’ve come to steal our vaccine that we’ve been developing.” One of the subplots in the game is that there is a plague that is spreading like wildfire, and it’s not just affecting the people of the slums; it’s affecting the founders, the rich people, as well. But they’ve [the Resistance] have been given no help, and so they have no choice but to steal supplies and recruit the smartest people they can to work on a vaccine. They’ve just about got it, and, what do you know, Security comes and they’re stealing it. Of course you’re going to defend it; Jesus Christ, how could you not?
Container City actually comes pretty early in the Security storyline. The previous level you’d already got intelligence that very clearly points to the fact that the Resistance are in Container City right now making a dirty bomb, a viral weapon. You were the one who actually got the intelligence: you know it’s legitimate. Of course you have no choice.
If you see the opening cut scene for this level, it’s the guys coming in on their assault boat, and they talk: “Dude, I didn’t sign up to this storm trooper bullshit (I think we had to change bullshit because we’re going for a teen rating) of kicking people out of their homes.” The ends justify the means:
“Can we let them make this dirty bomb? How many people are going to die because of that? We get in there and we strike clean and we strike fast, and get out of there with the minimum casualties. We’re not the fascist dictator assholes; we’re doing this because they made us do it.”
You [the player] think: “But it’s a vaccine! I know I played that level. Was the leader of the Resistance lying or was the leader of Security lying? Somebody is lying to me.”
The thing is – we don’t expect all the players to delve into all the permutations – nobody’s story adds up. You can say: “No. Clearly I got the intel, and I saw it in the cutscene; I know it is a dirty bomb.” But then, there will be other stuff: “He clearly told me this thing and it’s undeniable that what I learned on the other side… he wasn’t lying, but he wasn’t telling me the whole truth.” So you’re always left in doubt.
The underlying message, the theme of Brink, is that this is the way it is in real life: nobody is a bad guy; everybody believes they are doing the right thing – because I don’t believe anybody lightly takes another’s life or lightly picks up a gun and fights. They have to feel justified; when in fact, the people they are fighting against feels exactly the same way. If these two people are fighting could just stop for half-a-second, and truly looked at the other point of view, that’s how peace could come about. Not by beating them, because everything comes back ten-fold. It always comes back and it gets worse and worse.
Our cutscenes are fast; they are about 30 seconds long; they need to be. Not only because that’s the way we think cutscenes should be in games, because we’re not moviemakers – let’s not kid ourselves – but it is also important that we keep them short because those cutscenes serve a double purpose due to our multiplayer approach.
Traditionally if you played in a match you’d be put in a lobby screen you’d be made to sit and watch a timer count down. We thought: let’s take advantage of that 30 seconds; let’s put a cutscene there and tell some story. So for us, that’s what the cutscene is, and that’s why we have to keep them short, because we want to keep our lobbies short so everyone can get into the match and go.
So we had to be really economical and to the bone about our story telling. The characters that you encounter, they are bigger than life. I’ll be honest, they are stereotypes. They are the grizzled vet and the young idealistic kid, and that kind of stuff.
We do that on purpose because that means it’s shorthand. Everyone immediately knows who they are, and we can get right to talking about who these guys are and what they represent, and watch how their attitudes change ever so slightly over the course of the game, and in some cases really radically.
But we do that very economically, in these 30 second snippets, because we think most people got the game to play. But I believe they want a story, and they want a reason to do what they’re doing. They want to feel like they’re heroes and good guys.
It was amazing: in my last game, before I was at Splash Damage, I was lead designer on Fable II, and we had a lot of research from the original Fable that proved that the vast majority of players, about 80%, always chose to be good, they always do. And when you think about it (I’m an American but there’s probably an equivalent for Europeans), when we played cowboys and Indians, everyone wanted to be the cowboys because they’re the good guys. It’s terribly un-PC but the Indians were the bad guys. Cops and robbers: everyone wants to be the cop; every kid wants to be the hero. Every player wants to be the hero too.
So that’s why we created a story where you’re never the bad guy, you’re always the good guy. So it’s really when you explore that and see what it means for both sides that you start to think that maybe there is something more going on. We’re not trying to change the world by making a half-hour movie talking about nuclear weapons as being bad – obviously I’m not talking about a particular game. We recognise that it is about clean and efficient cutscenes.
[Ed Stern] One of the first images we had for the Ark was wind turbines, because that’s such a current thing: “Oh look they’re elegant, it’s nature and zero carbon.” Okay, well clearly we were going to have wind turbines somewhere in here, let’s make them rusty and dirty; let’s show them when they’re old and broken down. That does a much better job of telling the story on the Ark than having some NPC guy saying, “this place was wonderful years ago, you know, but things started to wear out.” You don’t want to be held hostage to an NPC.
I really liked Deus Ex, and the way it was one of the first games where I genuinely didn’t know what the right thing to do was, because I didn’t have to park my brain and run around and shoot things. I was importing all of my opinions, biases, prejudices and feelings and the game was incorporating these things and asked what I really thought about this. Lot’s of games have done that to some extent, but that was the first game to put it front-and-centre for me.
It’s not a finger-wagging, interactive documentary about climate change by any means, but I liked the idea of, “how would you do these things?” Partly it’s about giving the world some weight and to give a sense that we’ve done our homework. I can think of lots of games where you just think: “Yup, they’ve done the work; I trust them.” They haven’t just made up all this stuff out the air, it is about something.
There was one thing that came up, which was hugely helpful, it was the Seasteadying Institute; a real-life organisation of libertarian businessmen and eco visionaries and technologists, who want to create island states in international waters that are not subject to international law; and they’ve done a lot of work on engineering about how you can make a floating city that won’t get washed away and blown away in a storm. I thought: oh that’s how they make it, that’s brilliant.
There are some things a game setting has got to answer: Why can’t you just leave? Why are they fighting? Why can’t we just get along? Is there a valid reason for it? Or is it just red army versus blue army, which Team Fortress 2 does brilliantly: they are just different colours – that is why they fight.
It just seems like it you’re not going to engage anyone’s sympathy that way. You’re not going to say: “Actually I’d rather play team A rather than team B because my sympathies lie with their social cause.” So there is an excuse. It’s a microcosm; we’re trying to import as many real-life elements, because real-life stuff is always more interesting than completely fictional stuff.
So right at the beginning we had: so it’s an eco world gone wrong? Well that’s kind of sad. That means they are running short of things, and things are wearing out and breaking down? Okay, that means that certain objectives are really precious and valuable, and you might need to get them somewhere in a hurry. Immediately, that turns into something game-able.
The toughest thing is trying to make it for people who do not care about stories. You cannot make them care; you have to make it sort of optional. You have to be able to skip past it, but for the people who do care you have to make it convincing. I will play through those sort of games really slowly and pick up every audiolog because I love that sense of a rich world… it’s nice to have a joined up world.
I just wanted to get a sense that the main character is the Ark. Like any character in any book or film, once you close that book or turn the television off, does it still exist in your mind, does stay with you? Are you still curious about it? There are some places that are transparently there to just tell you one thing, and it doesn’t really matter what goes on, but there are some things that really stay with you and make you think, “Wow, what a weird situation to be in. I don’t agree with what they did but I can see how they got there.”
It’s the basic rule of drama, the Ancient Greeks knew it: the basic choice between good and evil is boring. The choice between good and good has some traction. So deliberately it isn’t hero cops versus evil terrorists, and deliberately it’s not heroic freedom fighters versus evil oppressive policeman. The whole point of it is that you play through one side of the story and only see one side… Who are you going to believe? There is all that hall of mirrors things going on.
So whatever level of thematic complexity or narrative complexity you want to do, hopefully there’s a game in there and some meaning for you.
If you stand next to the command posts you can actually hear some of the broadcasts that their leaders do. So, yes some propaganda, but no one thinks they’re evil. [RH] There’s a moral certainty that we try to avoid. [ES] You just end up with a very airless universe… In real-life no two people agree on what’s going on, who’s to blame and what to do about it. Why would that be the case in a game?
On writing to 30 second cut scenes
It’s a challenge, especially because they don’t really end: they sort of pause and suddenly you’re into the action. It was interesting, and in some ways, it helps to have that kind of constraint, and to have it that brief. If you had no constraints at all you’d just have people talking at each other.
This is the sixth entry into our Brink Diaries series. Tune in next Monday for the final entry, where we’ll be discussing Brink’s unique art style. Until then, why not catch up on the previous articles? You can find them by following the links below.