Why Death Should Bum You out In A Video Game (‘Far Cry 2′ Vs. ‘Halo,’ ‘Gears’)

Why can’t “Halo” make me feel what “Passage” made me feel? It’s clearly not a question of budget. It’s either unwillingness to do it or inability to do it. And I’m not saying that the guys who make “Halo” couldn’t do that if they tried. The point is they didn’t try — to me they didn’t try.

– Clint Hocking To MTV Multiplayer, January 15, 2008

After talking to “Far Cry 2” creative director Clint Hocking about explosive barrels, and fears of slumping PC first-person-shooter sales, there was only one more big topic for me to tackle with him: not selling out creatively.

Hey, I know how it is. I work for a big company. I know what expectations people have when you get involved with a big-budget enterprise. Folks begin to doubt that any interest you have in anything that’s indie or alternative has no chance of showing up in your work.

So I challenged Hocking on this. He loves indie games, or so I’d heard. How does that square with making a big-budget first-person-shooter. He took me up on it and we wound up talking about emotion and death, and how “Halo,” “Gears of War” come up short in a particular way that he says “Far Cry 2″ won’t.

(NOTE: I strongly suggest you play the five-minute indie game “Passage” before reading on, unless you don’t mind Hocking spoiling it for you.)

Multiplayer: You’re known to be a big-idea game designer and to be into indie games. You’re working on this title and at a glance it looks like this is Bruckheimer-level spectacle. And I can’t be insulting Bruckheimer now that MTV has a deal with him. But is the indie game part of you proud of certain things that may not be so apparent? Are there Jonathan Blow-approved touches?

Clint Hocking: We’re really proud of how the story works. And — I didn’t die in this demo. Watch what happens when I die. I’m going to randomly jump off a cliff.

[Ed Note: Hocking jumps. He tumbles dozens of feet to his character’s death, his field of vision tinted with deep reds.]

I have my friend Marty. And now there’s no one around to shoot at him except the sniper on that hill. And Marty’s going to come in…

[Ed Note: Marty, an optional side-character Hocking had befriended earlier in the game and who was coming along on subsequent missions, runs over to hoist Hocking’s character up, giving him some first-aid and carrying him back to his feet and consciousness.]

Marty is a real character. Marty is in play. He’s come in and he’s saved me. I’ve lost all my guns. He’s dragged me out of whatever pile of s— I was in. I have to heal myself.

The point is that Marty’s a real character. I had rescued him. I’ve done missions he might have assigned to me. All that kind of stuff. And now he’s in play, and if he gets shot, he’s dead. I could shoot him myself and he’d literally be removed from the game. In fact, usually what happens when he gets wounded or shot by the enemy is that just like me he’s wounded and he lies around on the ground until he eventually bleeds to death. I can go over and I can heal him just like I heal myself if I have [the right items]. And if not I can euthanize him. I can take him in my arms, put my gun under his chin and put him out of his misery.

There are a dozen guys like him in the game who I can find. They will offer me interesting ways to do missions like alternate approaches to the different plans I might have. And I can do side missions with him and for him. He’ll show up and save me when I’m in trouble and he’ll show up and save me when I’m in trouble. And I think it’s really interesting that I build an actual mechanical relationship with him within the rules of the game and that he can die.

And at some point if he dies I could go, “Well screw it, I’m just going to reload the game from before when he died.” But if I fought my way all the way up here and then realize he was down at the bottom and dead. Maybe I don’t want to try that level again. It’s like: “He was my friend. We worked together for a while. Things didn’t work out for a while and better him than me.” Or maybe I just didn’t like him. Then it’s “Oh well, too bad for you.”

Multiplayer: Sum that up for me. What do you think you accomplished with that?

Hocking: I was talking just the other day with [game designers] Eric Zimmerman and Frank Lantz last night. We were talking a little bit about “Passage.” Here’s this little indie game that built my investment in a little 10 pixel character and breaks my heart when it dies.

Multiplayer: I didn’t play that yet.

Hocking: It takes five minutes, man.

Multiplayer: I was busy playing “The Marriage.” [laughing] Did I get my credibility back right there?

Hocking: I haven’t played “The Marriage.” … What I think is important that “The Marriage” or “The Passage” have a budget of zero. We have a budget of I-don’t-know-what-it-is. It takes $10 or $20 million to make a game. “Gears of War” had a $20 million budget. And so did “Halo.” Why can’t “Halo” make me feel what “Passage” made me feel? It’s clearly not a question of budget. It’s either unwillingness to do it or inability to do it. And I’m not saying that the guys who make “Halo” couldn’t do that if they tried. The point is they didn’t try — to me they didn’t try.

Multiplayer: And what you felt from “Passage” was an emotional connection?

Hocking: I was devastated when the character died. I could have sat there staring at my screen weeping. I was like, “What the f— man?” It was really deeply moving. And why can’t we do that in these [big budget] games? It’s not easy. It’s not just a question of “Oh, just put a pixel wife that appears and follows you around in “Far Cry.” But the point is to take a real character and give me a mechanical investment in that character — a guy like Marty. And then put me in different situations where I have to make decisions about whether Marty is going to live or die. Yes, we’re still kind of handcuffed by the fact that the player can reload the game and try and change the outcome. The point is to build up a kind of inertia and have the player be willing to accept something that is mechanically unfavorable for him because he’s had an emotionally compelling experience. You can’t avoid it in “The Passage.” It’s inevitable. In our game you can try to avoid it. Like I said the story is procedurally assembled. So if you’re avoiding it, we have other plans in store for your relationships with these people.

So that’s all stuff I’m proud of. Yes, it’s a shooter where you run around and machine-gun a bunch of people. But there are real characters in here who I hope you’re going to develop a real relationship with.