During the great Vivendi Universal fire sale of 2008, Activision's Bobby Kotick sloughed off several blue-chip titles, including Ghostbusters: The Video Game and -- ack! -- Brütal Legend (though it seems Activision might be having second thoughts about the latter).
But Prototype? The grim, gruesome and borderline depressing take on the sandbox genre? Activision would be keeping that one, thank you very much.
Sure, it looked interesting, and cool. And Vancouver-based developer Radical did make that terrific The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction game a few years back. Still, Bobby, you kept this over Ghostbusters and Brütal Legend (and The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena)?
But that gamble is paying off.
For every copy that a certain other open-world/do-awesome-things/shoot-lightning-from-your-hands game sold last month (don't be coy with me; you know the one), two copies of Prototype were rung up at cash registers.
I finished Prototype a couple of weeks ago and liked it a hell of a lot more than Tom Chick did, though I agree that it's not without its problems. I sat down with Prototype's executive producer, Tim Bennison, who was gracious enough to indulge even my dumbest questions.
Crispy Gamer: I played the living crap out of The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. It was during my busy season, over the holidays, and I had all these other games that I needed to review, but all I wanted to do was play more Hulk.
Tim Bennison: Wow. That's good to hear.
Crispy Gamer: With its open-world structure and bust-shit-up aesthetic, that game was obviously the, erm, prototype for Prototype. Only this time, Radical wasn't tied to any previously established IP. So what we get is a surprisingly dark, and even borderline morbid, experience. Talk to me about that.
Bennison: Well, we obviously wanted to make a kind of game that we knew how to make. That's especially important when you're introducing a new IP. You've got to play to your strengths all the way. So we knew we'd do another open-world game. As for the dark material, I think Ultimate Destruction really started that trend for us. As with most open-world games, players typically had the most fun [in Ultimate Destruction] by being a real jerk. [Laughs] Take that to the extreme, and that's Prototype.
Crispy Gamer: Alex Mercer is kind of a jerk, isn't he?
Bennison: But he's also a bad-ass. Bad-asses are often jerks. It can't be helped. They're selfish by nature. Our goal was to make the ultimate videogame bad-ass. We wanted to take the whole anti-hero thing to the extreme. And we were able to do that without the obvious limitations of the Hulk, who is a T-rated Marvel property.
Crispy Gamer: The biggest "jerk moment" for me is when the game forces you to consume other humans in order to survive.
Bennison: I hear what you're saying. But it really all comes back to fun, and to letting the player do what he wants to do, with no restrictions. I've read a lot of the reviews; I'm one of those developers who really listens to the feedback. What I'm hearing is this: "I don't necessarily like this guy, but damn, this game is fun." And that was our intention, right from the original concept.
That reminds me: I read a story a few years back, in USA Today I think, that talked about how the Oscar nominees one year were all anti-heroes. Someone who is evil can be so talented at doing evil that you wind up rooting for him. Hannibal Lector is an example of that. He's a terrible person. But he's also the most interesting character in "The Silence of the Lambs." Gamers are so comfortable playing heroes; our goal was to push you out of your comfort zone, and make you do things that wouldn't feel too familiar to you.
Crispy Gamer: Still, I felt kind of queasy whenever I consumed innocent humans to regenerate health.
Bennison: Alex does some dark things, yes, but we also tried to build a redemptive quality into him. He's a blank slate at the beginning of the game; he's almost feral. But as he goes on, as the game progresses, he becomes an amalgamation of all the minds he's consumed. And that makes him superior to other humans, and to his enemies. In the end, that redemptive side may lead to other things down the road. [Editor's note: This seems to be a not-so-subtle reference to the game's inevitable sequel, no?]
Crispy Gamer: I've lived in New York City for 15 years. I'm pretty impressed with the game's version of New York. You even managed to squeeze the hideous Javits Center in there. But, like all New York-centric games, you chop off NYC at around 110th Street. Talk to me about that decision.
Bennison: A couple points about our New York City. It's a game. It's got to be fun. That means we're not putting stuff above 110th Street if it's not fun. If there's nothing up there that's fun for us to do, or that's fun for the gamer, then it's not going to be in there. Maybe in another game, with different gameplay mechanics, the area north of 110th Street offers fun things to do, and they can keep [that part of the city] in their game. [Editor's note: There are fun things to do above 110th Street. But what Bennison is saying, we think, is that there isn't anything fun to do up there if you're a shape-shifting anti-hero. Unless you like soul food. Then I'd recommend Sylvia's. Because even shape-shifters have to eat.]
The second point about our NYC is that our first conscious goal was to make it feel like it's populated. You lived in New York; you know it's not 10 people walking along a deserted street. Add in the roving Infected, and the war zones, and things get even more chaotic. That's how we spent the machine horsepower: in creating the impression that you're actually in a hustling, bustling place.
Crispy Gamer: I've heard other gamers complain about the overall lack of visual detail in the game, saying things like, "It doesn't look as good as this game or that game." Or, to be blunt, "It doesn't look as good as Infamous."
Bennison: That was a conscious decision on our part. What we were going for is not so much a picture-perfect representation of the city. For us, it was always about the chaos and the mayhem, and delivering that mayhem to the max, on a large scale. Infamous is a great game. I'm not going to kid you; we respect it and enjoy it. But what we tried to accomplish with Prototype was very different from what they were trying to accomplish with their game.
Crispy Gamer: Was there a collective oh-shit moment for you when you realized that, a) Infamous was similar to what you were doing, and b) that it was getting shipped a few weeks before your game?
Bennison: I'll say this. I love Sucker Punch. I was on vacation once with my wife in Hawaii, and I'd brought my PS2 along, and a copy of Sly 2. Man, I was playing the game so much that she almost booted me out. [Laughs]
Were we aware of Infamous? Of course. I mean, you're always looking at what your competitors are doing. It's still a very small industry. Certainly there wasn't any ill will from us toward them. We mostly thought of it as friendly competition. And our game had been in development for so long that there were lots of cases along the way where similar products came out. If you start changing what you're doing, if you start reacting to the marketplace, then you're not being true to your vision.
I honestly think there's probably room for both [games]. They are, in truth, very different games. They might look similar, but they're not. They're very different experiences.
To be honest, I think in having the games paired up in the same sentence, there's a lot of benefit to both teams. I also go back to the Oscar Wilde quote: There's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's not being talked about. And they're both new IPs! One of the inherent problems with a new IP -- and I'm sure [Sucker Punch] faced this as well -- is letting people know what you're all about. And pairing us off, even as friendly competitors, helped to let people know what both games were all about.
Crispy Gamer: Tell me a little bit about the merger. Not good times, I'm guessing.
Bennison: It was a total rollercoaster for us. A merger of that scale happens over many, many months. First, you hear things internally. Then you wait. Then you hear that it might or might not happen. During that time, it was really, really tough to keep focused on the product. To the great testament of the team, we kept our noses to the ground. We knew we had something fun here, so we just stuck to it. There also this kind of feeling that you can't control the forces that are controlling the merger; so why worry about them? It's kind of freeing, if you think about it. Then, when it turned out that they were going to keep our product, we were happy. Making games is hard; anybody will tell you that. But doing it under these circumstances was excruciating.
Crispy Gamer: Anything manifest itself in-game because of the merger? Did the game become more cynical, or angry, in any kind of subtle way, because all of these things were going on around you that were outside your control?
Bennison: We knew we had to deliver; we knew we had to show good results during the process. Maybe the game became more dramatic because of that. It's tough to say.
Crispy Gamer: Were there any touchstones in other media that you turned to for inspiration during development? Any influences?
Bennison: We were influenced by pop culture, like anyone. We started designing [Mercer] three years ago. One character we had in mind when designing him was Darth Maul. There's this scene in "Episode I" when he's standing there, waiting to defeat Liam Neeson, but they're separated by this force field. And Darth Maul paces back and forth. He's an animal in this moment; he's got all this pent-up energy.
We also liked this scene from "Taxi Driver" when Travis Bickle is walking toward the camera in slow motion, and the whole thing is shot through a telephoto lens. He's coming toward the camera, and he's surrounded by all these people who are walking in the opposite direction, and he's such a psycho -- he's about to blow up in the film -- but all these people around him are completely unaware.
Crispy Gamer: I have to ask this: So, what's with the hood?
Bennison: We came up with the hood early on. We had this stock photo of a guy walking down the street. You couldn't see his face at all; he just looked menacing and mysterious. We liked that. There are also story reasons why he wears the hood. His whole look is based on who he is. He's a scientist. He worked for GENTEK. He's in his late 20s. He went to Columbia. He has a Ph.D. in genetics. He's probably somewhat wealthy. He's a guy who lives in the city. But he's also on the run, so he has to look like he snatched some random items from his wardrobe before fleeing. We tried to think about his back story and what actually happened before he went on the run.
Crispy Gamer: Is there a replica of the Radical office building anywhere in the game?
Bennison: No, but we've done that in previous games. There are, however, tons of references to team members in character names, on storefronts, on signs.
Crispy Gamer: Radical is based in Vancouver; are there any Vancouver-centric references in the game?
Bennison: Not really. There are no totem poles, no Stanley Park. [Laughs] The team does, however, like to put my car in games. I drive a black Trans-Am. I'm sure at one point there was a model of my car in Prototype. But I think they took it out, because they couldn't get the rights to use it. They've done this in other games before. If you see a black Trans-Am driving around in our other games, that's my car.
Crispy Gamer: As the executive producer, do you always know about these Easter eggs?
Bennison: If I'm lucky, I find out about them and put a stop to them. A while back, while working on a game that shall not be mentioned, an artist had slipped in some questionable stuff.
Crispy Gamer: Tell me.
Bennison: We were in a game demo, and suddenly a blimp flies overhead with a giant marijuana leaf painted on the side. Luckily, I caught that one in time.
Crispy Gamer: Man, that's funny. Anything not talked about [by the press] regarding Prototype that you wish was talked about more?
Bennison: We've been happy with the media's response. But one thing that doesn't get talked about much in the press, or as much as I'd like it to be talked about, is the Web of Intrigue.
Some people complained that they couldn't follow the story in the game. We intentionally built the game so that you don't have to pay attention to the story if you don't want to; that was done to cater to both types of players. If you're having trouble understanding things, delve into the Web of Intrigue. You'll get more out of the game that way. I think a lot of people liked the idea. We were really proud of the concept.
Crispy Gamer: Yes, I really liked it. There's a pretty robust story to find in the game, if you want to find it.
Bennison: The other thing to remember is that all we tried to do was make a fun game. We weren't trying to be the best at everything on the planet. Is it a perfect game? I would never claim that. Every team has constraints, and we certainly had ours.
Crispy Gamer: I finished the game, which was no small task. Two points. One, the difficulty level seemed really uneven to me. And, two, the game seemed to run out of steam in its third act.
Bennison: On the difficulty side, the intention was to have an overall ramping difficulty in the game. But within that, we deliberately included spikes in difficulty, followed by easier moments. All of this was designed to give a rollercoaster experience to the player. We spent months working on this. We knew that [the game] was going to be beyond the average player's difficulty. Prototype is not an easy romp; if it was, I think it would feel like a betrayal to the spirit of the project.
That said, every mission can be resolved pretty easily if you think and plan ahead. Stop and think about how you're going to use your powers, and things get much easier.
In terms of the whole third-act thing, I don't know how to respond to that without getting into specifics and spoilers. We accomplished the goals of our story. We pushed gamers out of their comfort zones. We did what we wanted to do.
Crispy Gamer: Was there anything that got left out of the game that you'd wish you'd put in? And vice versa, was there anything you wish that now, in retrospect, you could have taken out or done differently?
Bennison: There are thousands of things that I wish we could have put into the game. And there are probably hundreds of things I wish we could have taken out, or done differently.
For example: We wanted to put more enemy types in the game. We got pretty far along with a bunch of different types, but they eventually got left on the chopping block, due to constraints.
As for stuff I'd take out ... I don't know if there's anything I'd take out, per se. But there is a lot of stuff I would have loved to polish more. That's the nature of development.
Crispy Gamer: Finally, anything annoy you about the reviews you read?
Bennison: Somewhere this guy was complaining that there were too many upgrades in the game.
Crispy Gamer: That's like complaining that there's too much ice cream in your bowl.
Bennison: That's how we felt. And you know, we originally had even more upgrades in the game that wound up on the chopping block...
Crispy Gamer: Thanks for your time, Tim. This has been a total pleasure. I talk to a lot of developers, and they constantly tell me how impossible it is to make open-world games. But Radical has done it multiple times now [Editor's note: The Simpsons: Road Rage, Scarface: The World Is Yours, etc.], and you've made it look easy every time. In the same way that Infinity Ward is the go-to place for war-centric FPSes these days, Radical seems to be becoming the go-to place for anything-goes open-world games.
Bennison: Thanks, Scott. It's good to hear that.
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