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Sherlock. Eric the Unready. Unreal II. Bob Bates has a very diverse portfolio. He is also a great interviewee. Want proof? Read on!
Peter Clausen: Is there a lot of storytelling in Panzer Elite Action?
Bob Bates: Well, in an action-game the most important part is the action. It’s hard for a writer to admit that, but we knew that the most important thing to do was to have a good action game with lots of variety, lots of different enemies to shoot, different environments and settings.
Along with that we had a theme for the game. One often wonders if he fights for a country or a cause or for the sake of the men around him. So very much a “Band of brothers”-feel to the game. And in order to do that you have to create characters that the player cars about, and characters within the game who care about each other. So, very likely, we have layed this into the game. We don’t have big cutscenes where people are talking to each other about their hometown or something like that, but in the course of the game it develops.
You play a tank commander, and as the game goes along they talk to you, and you talk to them. And their personalities come through. And through these exchanges, you come to realize that they are your men.
Peter Clausen: So, a bit like Wing Commander?
Bob Bates: Yeah, a bit. And in the course of the game you actually play three different campaigns. You play a German commander for the first part of the war, and the Russian commander, and than an American commander. And each of them has a slightly different reaction, a slightly different version of the theme. So, the German commander starts the war as a very proper millitary officer and he sees his men sort of coming together but he stays aloof from them, because he is an officer. And he works back on that and thinks “That was probably a mistake. I wish I had the closeness that they have”. The American officer on the other hand starts out the game as kind of a loner, kind of a drifter sort of guy. No human attachments at all. But in the course of the game he becomes very close to his tankmates. And after the war they become very good friends, and stay lifelong friends. So that’s pretty much the story. And we wanted to make sure that it did not get in the way of the action.
Panzer Elite Action is available on PC, PS2 and Xbox
Peter Clausen: That’s actually pretty interesting, because the way you tell it, the story is very character-centric. However, many game developers tend to make the mistake of writing plot-centered storylines, where characters are just devices to further the plot.
Bob Bates: Well, the two have to go together. Character drives plot in a lot of ways. In a World War II game, the overall story is none. Unless you are taking an alternative history, which this is not. What we did was to find actual interesting battles, interesting locations and design interesting missions within those locales. So it’s not plot-driven in the way many games are. It is attachment-driven and the characters sort of feed into that.
Peter Clausen: Recently there has been a lot of discussion about emotion in games. Many people claim that games will never be able to tell actual emotional stories, to touch the audience. Do you think that is true?
I think it’s very difficult to do. We know it can be done, because it has been done. But it is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, to marry those two things together. And the challenge is simply one of interactivity versus linearity. When you put the player in control of a game, it’s hard to tell a story and engage people’s emotions. It’s hard to do, but it can be done.
Bob Bates: Was it easier to tell good stories in the days of Infocom and Legend Interactive?
I think it’s more difficult now, because adventure games were pretty much a storytelling genre. People came to those games looking for story. If you come to a first-person shooter you are looking for action. As a designer you have to make sure you are giving people what they are looking for. In an adventure game you have more opportunities to fill story into the game. In an adventure game you spend a lot of time in an environment. The more you interact with it, the more the game designer has the opportunity to add litlle bits of story and background and backstory to the environment. So if you come into a room, and your main goal is to get ouf it, some players will just work on getting out. But there is a vase on the shelf or a picture on the wall. And the picture shows someones great grandfather. And then you look into the vase and it contains the ashes.
So everytime you do something, there is the opportunity to put in a little bit more. You can create a rich tapestry of character, background and story.
Well, some games DO make you violent...
Peter Clausen: Of course there have been many recent adventures, but they are not very interactive. You just work on solving puzzles, but there is just not the same degree of interactivity as there used to be. For example, in “Eric the Unready” I would always try the most insane stuff, like killing someone, or other unmentionable things. But it was so funny, because there were different responses for everything.
Bob Bates: Yes. The joy, and it is a joy, in creating something like that, is that you imagine as you are sitting there while making this, you imagine the person on the other side. It’s actually a very intimate thing. Because I sit there at three o’ clock in the morning, I have been up all night. It’s four a clock, five a clock, and you have a room, and you always think about the player: “This is what the player knows. This is what he’s trying to do. These are things around him. What is he gonna try? And what is he gonna try that’s goofy. What is he gonna try that’s of the wall. Something, he thinks, I am not gonna think about.” So you might type in some very strange things. But if I thought of that very strange thing, and in comes back in a non-default response, than as player you go “Oh my god, he thinks the same thing, I think”. And that is a connection, that’s kind of been missing. When the parser went out of business, that opportunity has been lost.
Peter Clausen: Do you think this connection could resurface somewhere else?
Bob Bates: I’ve got plans to bring back this concept into games.
Peter Clausen: Have you heard about Facàde?
Bob Bates: I have read about it, but I haven’t had the chance to play it yet. But I will! I believe that the parser is so powerful a tool, that it will return. And I have lots of plans.
Peter Clausen: So, would you actually like to develop something in the vein of your old games again?
Bob Bates: I would!
Great moments in gaming history!