Filing into the auditorium for the Game Developers Conference 2005 Game Design Challenge (theme: make a game based on Emily Dickinson), most people could have been forgiven for wondering who the third member of the panel was. Will Wright and Peter Molyneaux are two of the more high-profile Western game designers, each with a history that deserves recognition as industry leaders and visionaries. In comparison, Clint Hocking was an unknown.
It would then come as a shock to most of us when Hocking's game design won second place in the Challenge. More impressively, his design was arguably the most coherent and feasible of the three, combining a creative concept (use the DS stylus as an analogue to Dickinson's pen) with the pragmatism necessary to coalesce said creativity into a
manageable project. In fact, Wright's cult of personality was really the only reason that Hocking didn't win the Challenge outright. Clint also talked at the GDC 2005 International Game Development panel and again displayed the qualities that mark him as one of the up-and-coming Western game designers.
In his short time in the industry, Clint has been the game designer and scriptwriter of the original Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell as well as winner of the first-ever Game Developers Choice Award for excellence in script writing. Now the Creative Director of the Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell franchise and fresh from the release of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Clint took the time to sit down (if email could be considered "sitting down") and talk with us.
To start things off, how did you first get into the videogame industry?
I was working in Vancouver as a writer, principally doing contract work for web companies while finishing my MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. I was also fooling around with UnrealEd and ended up getting involved with a mod, and shipping a game level. On a lark I sent a resume to Ubi, and got my first industry job as a level designer on the original Splinter Cell. During Splinter Cell, the game designer departed the company at Alpha, and I took over that role, and the Scriptwriter left the project at Beta, and I took over that role too. After we shipped it, I took on the role of Lead Levl Designer and Scriptwriter for Chaos Theory. About a year into Chaos Theory, they made me the Creative Director. It's been kind of a whirlwind ride so far.
What were your favorite videogames when you were younger?
Depends what you mean by younger… I remember playing Intellivision games with a few friends in elementary school. The Intellivision Dungeons & Dragons game, their sports titles, and some of their naval games were awesome. I got into PC gaming young with a Vic20 and started my level design "hobby" on Lode Runner for the Vic20—I had over 100 levels I made, all of them saved on cassette tape. I also learned to program in Basic and made my own text adventure game. It was a while before I graduated to the "silver age" of gaming, and got very interested in PC games like Lemmings, X-Com, Civilization, Doom… I never really considered myself a huge videogame player as a kid, but they were always around and I got to play great games from every generation.
Do you think of yourself as a writer first and a designer second, or the other way around?
I don't see a priority. In my mind, the two are inseparable. My writing has always moved towards formal experimentation, and even writing that I've done on paper has tried to break the barrier between reader and author. My design work focuses on enabling, and trying to improve the innate capacity of a human being to structure a narrative out of their experience. I really find it hard to design without imagining the narrative context—whether that means the authored narrative context, or the kinds of emergent narrative that the player will be creating when he engages the systems. The two fields are the same for me.
Who are your favorite writers?
Because my "writing" is so experimental, I've had a hard time finding writers who I strongly identify with. I read a lot of non-fiction. Simon Singh is great. For fiction, I prefer the classics: ancient epics, Greek and Roman plays, Shakespeare. I'll occasionally read some oddball kinds of fiction I find in a bookstore, the weirder the better—some MIT grad's first and only novel about his love affair with a baseball card or something. I like absurdist fiction. Hunter S. Thompson is great.
During the International Game Developer's panel at GDC, you mentioned that the Metal Gear series had been an influence on you and on other people on the Splinter Cell team. Can you describe how it was an influence?
Metal Gear is a stealth action game. Every game that has ever used that idea owes its existence to the success of Metal Gear. Other people have done it better since, in my opinion, and we now have a deeper understanding of the gamespace that a stealth mechanic can create, but all of us analytical types who understand it now could probably never have conceived it and sold it to a publisher in the first place. Without Metal Gear, there would be no stealth games. So it's not really that I feel we were "influenced" by it, but rather that we owe the existence of our game to those who were brave enough to take the first step and to open up the new genre for us to create in.
What other games have influenced you as a designer?
that offer a deeper stealth mechanic, I am thinking of these games. These games also offer the player a way to meaningfully express himself, and I learned a lot from that.
What other games have impressed you as a designer?
I don't want to start a giant list, but any game that offers me a way to play intentionally, any game that lets me use my understanding of the game's systems to approach and solve the problems of the game in a meaningful and creative way.
At this year's GDC, many sessions concentrated on the use and role of narrative in videogames. As a videogame writer and designer, what are your feelings on how narrative can and should be used in interactive media?
Wow. That's a humongous question. To try and state it as simply as possible; narrative in games ought to be used to encourage and reward intentional play—as described above. The narrative of a game should be structured in such a way as to allow the player to feel more or better feelings of agency in the world. The narrative should be structured in order to validate and reflect, and provide additional layers of meaning to the player's actions and decisions. I'm sorry that's such an abstract answer—here's a hypothetical example:
If the game offers me the option of trying to save someone from a really dangerous situation, or leaving them there to die, the narrative needs to flavor the decision I make in that situation, regardless of what I choose to do. If I confront the challenge and rescue the person, the narrative needs to reward that decision by telling me directly, or indirectly that I am a hero. If I leave the person there to die, the narrative needs to reward that decision by telling me, either directly or indirectly, that I made a hard decision about a life, and that the thing I chose to do instead was, regrettably, more important. It needs to validate my decision—not punish me for it. This can add a rich (and more traditional) emotional layer to the emotions that are already prevalent in games and the feelings we already get from simple system-interaction.
Related to the previous question, what are your feelings on cutscenes/cinematics and the role that they play?
Time to get away from those. We're not very good at it anyway. We should leave linear storytelling and CG animation to those who do it better. I don't care how good your cutscenes are, I'd rather watch a 20 second commercial spot for a Pixar film than the very best cutscenes we have ever offered. The only use for cinematics and cutscenes is to provide a narrative framework and a context that justifies the action of the game. But we are increasingly coming to the point where we don't need this anymore—we can deliver almost everything we need to do this in the interactive space now, and our goal should be to move toward doing exclusively that.
At a few points in Chaos Theory, the issue of American imperialism is brought up by enemy soldiers. Do these story details represent an intentional commentary on current world politics?
Not really. I want the"enemy" soldiers in the game to express the things that they would likely express. Peruvian guerillas interested in extending "The Revolution" do (I think) perceive American foreign policy in South America and the developing world as being "Imperialist'. I'm not here to make statements about whether their beliefs are right or wrong. I paint my characters roughly equally as being politically motivated, or personally motivated, as being intelligent and informed or as being ignorant or foolish.
More important than the opinions of enemy soldiers is what Sam's attitude is in the game. Sam definitely has some reservations about the policy he has been tasked with enforcing. He definitely has some opinions about so-called American Imperialism. I would imagine a handful of people would take that as some kind of leftist Canadian whining on my part. They'd be wrong, though. What it is, is an attempt to illustrate a character in conflict with his own role in a complex situation. Just like the player who needs to make tough decisions about saving a life or taking a life, Sam also needs to be illustrated as a character who has to make tough decisions. Does Sam agree 100% with every element of American foreign policy? No. Is he willing to wrestle with those conflicts and struggle to make peace in himself and in the world. Yes. This is what makes him a hero. A hero without internal conflict is boring, and arguably not really a hero at all.
The Tom Clancy IP is known for simulation and realism, yet Splinter Cell is more stylized and "Hollywood" than some other Clancy properties (i.e. Rainbow Six.) However, it still features a somewhat realistic tone. As one of the major creative forces behind Chaos Theory, how did you deal with walking the fine line between entertainment and the "ripped from the headlines" ambiance one expects from the Clancy name?
I think Splinter Cell is only more "stylized" and "Hollywood" than other Clancy titles because it is focused on the characters and motivations of individuals. There is a coat of paint there that makes it seem all political and international, but really the game is focused dramatically on individuals. Rainbow (Six) and Ghost Recon are focused on teams or armies, and the character and personality and individual motivations of people are not as illustrated. When you deal with individuals, you have to frame everything dramatically. We keep some of the "technothriller" stuff with the gadgets and the high-tech weapons, and the realistic tactics, but this stuff is just mechanics. If you focus on that, you are very much a simulation, but if you scale down from the army level to the squad level to the individual level, things get more personal and more dramatically compelling.
As a writer, how did you deal with working with an IP developed by another writer? How much impact did Clancy's personal style have on your own writing?
Not much. Clancy himself didn't really develop the Splinter Cell franchise. The franchise was designed by us, here at Ubi Montreal to fit his global brand. I wasn't involved in the original conception of Splinter Cell 1, and admit that I've only ever read one of his books. Also, since his writing is prose, and the vast majority of our writing is "narrative in the form of play" and "dialogue", his personal style had no impact at all on my writing work. Sam writes his own dialogue in a sense, I just transcribe it. And the "non-dialogue" part of the story is "written" by the player.
What elements of the original Splinter Cell do you feel were most successful, and how did you approach the problem of expanding them in Chaos Theory without destroying the earlier balance? Conversely, what were the areas that you were dissatisfied with in the original and felt you needed to improve?
Splinter Cell was an amazingly immersive game. Watching first time players, and the sensations they got from controlling Sam, and the feelings of connectedness they had with the physical environment—that was something that was amazing in the original, and we had to be careful not to break it. We wanted to bring a lot more physics into the game,
but the idea of seeing Sam put his hand on a doorknob and carefully open a door—the amazing feelings that gives were totally destroyed when he then walked into a crate looping his generic walking animation while the crate slid along on the floor, pushed by his collision cylinder as though he didn't even know it was there. It looked awful. We were really careful with all of the changes we made to the animations and we had to make sure that every new action we made available promoted or even increased those strong feelings of physical embodiment in the space.
As for what we didn't like—that's obvious… the linearity and the trial and error gameplay. We knew that had to go. The player has this amazingly rich possibility of expression in the lower levels of the game. The options he has in the low-level gameplay are very broad and meaningful. He can shoot lights, distract guards, pick locks, shoot people, knock guards out, hide bodies… the list goes on. But then at the high level, in the original, the player was entirely limited to going in a fixed direction and typically limited to performing specific actions in any given space. We wanted to bring the same freedom of expression up to a higher level in the gameplay, and let the player make more decisions about where to go, and about how to get to and through specific areas. This opened the space up to allow more expression from the player, and removed a lot of the frustrating trial and error.
Two years ago, Warren Spector spoke at the GDC about the relationship between game licenses and creativity as a game designer. What are your feelings on working with a license and how that's affected your creative process?
I agree in a lot of ways with what Warren said at that lecture. Working on a license certainly isn't all bad. In fact, it's not even mostly bad. It allowed us to really focus. We didn't waste a lot of time futzing around with thousands of weird ideas. The concept was very, very easy to scope. If I was given the task to simply "make a game", I'd never get off the ground. Ideas are cheap and easy to come by and sorting through them is a long and difficult, and fairly non-creative task. A brand, a license, a sequel, any of these things can make the work of sifting through a mountain of garbage to find a nugget of gold much, much easier, and free you to get on with the important creative work of actually building something.
Are you interested in doing an original title?
Interested? Sure. Am I in a hurry? No. As long as I'm learning from what I'm doing, I'm happy. Like I say, there is a terrible chore that comes with trying to bring something from nothing, and the hunt for constraint—a way to "pre-sort" the millions of ideas you might have—is not that fun. If I get to do it eventually, I'll be happy to, but I'm not running around in a panic worried that I'll never get to do it and I'm certainly not going to complain about getting to work on the amazing brands I'm working on now.
At this year's "Burning Down the House" session at GDC, the general tone was very negative, especially in terms of games becoming too generic and the inability for designers to be truly creative in today's market-driven industry. Would you agree with that as an overall assessment?
No. While entertaining, the "rant" was terribly inaccurate. Here's a rant for you: I wish my parent's generation would stop whining about how horrible the world is because of evil capitalist corporations and war-mongering, and how the only way to fix anything is to burn something—whether it be "the house" or "a draftcard", and then get everyone in a huff about the injustices of the world before going for a double latte. It's very depressing to me that this panel of experts thinks that my work, or the work of my peers—thousands of us working in this industry—is not truly creative, and that we're driven by the market and enslaved to share-holders and quarterly financials. Guess what, we're not making Space Wars in a basement by ourselves. Those may have been the good old days, but I'd put the emphasis as much on "old" as on "good". I work for a large corporation that's responsible for returning profit on the investment of shareholders. Do I sit here at my desk and look at a design problem and call up the Ubisoft Stock page on Le Bourse and try to design a way to make the market value of the company go up? No. I do creative work for a company that believes that the best way to be profitable is to develop quality products. I work as creatively as I can, and I work with others who do the same. I also work to protect that creativity and emphasize the value of creativity and originality when confronted with the success of derivative design. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail. I agree that there is a lot of derivative design out there, and probably the only thing that is indicative of is that we fail more often than we succeed. I think it's irresponsible of these industry legends to chastise us for our failures instead of celebrating and rewarding our successes… of which there are many. You'd think they'd have learned something about how to use reward mechanisms in their study of game design.
You've been an advocate for greater quality of life for those working in the videogame industry. What do you think is the largest issue regarding quality of life and what solution would you like to see implemented?
That's another really hard question. The largest issue actually seems to be our ignorance of where to even begin working on the problem. I was shocked by Steve McConnell's "Business Case for Improved Production Practices" that was offered at GDC this year and presented again in a video to the Montreal IGDA Chapter. The fact that I'm a professional software developer who has never even heard of things like CMM software development practices is insane. But it's not the lack of formalized development processes itself that's the problem, it's the fact that we're so isolated that we didn't know such methods existed. What else is out there that we should have learned from that we don't know about? So the biggest issue is simply lack of awareness of methods that already exist to deal with the issue.
Thanks for your time.
Thanks for the awesome questions.