Last week, I headed down to Ubisoft headquarters in San Francisco to get a first look at their upcoming tactical shooter Rainbow 6: Patriots. I posted my impressions of the event earlier today—it looks like a solid evolution of the small-team tactical template set forth in Vegas, but what's more remarkable is that it at least flirts with being one of the first big-budget action games to deal with terrorism and civilian casualties in a deeper, more meaningful way.
I spoke with Ubisoft designer Phil Therien about embracing choice without creating a branching storyline, how Rainbow 6 stands apart from Battlefield and Call of Duty, and how he and his team believe they are advancing the video game medium. I was impressed with how genuinely he talked about that last one—it would be easy to cynically insert civilian casualties into a game for shock value (I'm looking at you, Modern Warfare 2), and I was heartened by how Therien described his approach to the subject matter.
Kotaku: Rainbow 6: Patriots will feature moral choices in its single player campaign—saving hostages or letting them die, saving the few over the many. Though it didn't look as though players had a say over whether the bomber got thrown off the bridge. Could you talk about the kinds of choices we'll have to make in the game?
Phil Therien: The point with that sequence [in the target video] is that even though there's choice, it doesn't mean that everyone's going to make it out okay. We're not doing a branching storyline—that's very RPG, it's more about in the mission, it can go differently depending on your choices. That was more important for me than those branching missions.
It's certainly interesting, that idea—that you have to make decisions in the heat of the moment to possibly save more people.
It's important because traditionally in a shooter, you have to play the way that the story goes. You have to play someone else's character. That sounds weird because you're always doing that. We wanted you to get to the end with the means that you chose. So if your hands are covered in blood at the end, that's your doing.
Is the game going to judge you on that?
Yes. I can't talk about it too much, but there's going to be something [to deal with that].
Something I've found in COD and Battlefield is that I'm supposed to be in an elite military unit, but there's no room for me—everyone else is so scripted but I feel like the guy who didn't rehearse my blocking.
That drives me up the wall. It's important to us that you're in the action—you decide when it happens, and it is very very rare that you'll be following somebody else and they'll be doing all the fun stuff like bashing in the doors, etc.
Well, unless you're a civilian, like the poor bomber on the bridge.
Of course, but that's different—you're not the leader of an elite counter-terrorism unit. But it's one of the things that really sets us apart.
Somehow things that have been controversial before don't feel as controversial in what I'm seeing. Civilian deaths, terrorism in New York, playing as a suicide bomber… where is the line on that?
The key is to have respect for the subject matter. At the same time, it's really about time that video games take the extra step to talk about serious subjects. It's not normal that every other media is able to talk about sexuality and violence we're always demonized for either dealing with pornographic material or just being disrespectful, and that's really something that bothers me. So, we're trying to take a step to move the medium forward, we want to talk about serious things. We're not taking sides, we're not making judgements, we're just saying, 'This is a story that happens in our time, it's something that's relevant that we've all experienced in this generation. We understand that it can be shocking, it can even be traumatic for some people, but if you're respectful of the material, if you really show the other side, that they're not faceless people dying, it's okay because you're just telling a story. You're not saying who's the bad guy, you're just saying what happened.
I think that the bomber [sequence] does a good job. You see his family, you understand who he is, you understand his motivation, you understand who he is. And you know that when Rainbow makes that choice, it's not malicious, it's just—that's what needs to happen in that moment."
Ubisoft is a very international company. Does that help you to have perspective on things like terrorism in New York, things that can be tricky for Americans to discuss objectively?
Well, [Creative Director] David [Sears] is American, my wife is American, I'm Canadian—yeah, it gives us an outsider look, but as a designer, you have to put yourself in the shoes of someone else. It's in that same respect that we put ourselves in the shoes of someone else. It's interesting because I have an outsider's perspective, but at the same time I kind of really get into it and try to put myself in it.
[Coming from the outside] helps to get the respect across. Because it's an objective view on something, it's not a "position."
Have there ever been times when you've gone over the line with respect to taste?
Of course, of course. This isn't something that there's a recipe for. So, we go at it, we talk about it, we test it with people. We ask, "Okay, was this really what we wanted to say? Did we get the right message across? It's touchy, but the bomber is just one of many sequences where something like that is going to happen. It's important that it's treated right.
What sets the room-clearing apart from Rainbow Six: Vegas? In Vegas, you could do a lot of similar things to what I'm seeing in these demos, in terms of room-clearing and tactics. It didn't seem dramatically different.
It's actually fairly different. In Vegas you couldn't control where the explosives went, you couldn't give elaborate orders like tag and grenade, a lot of the AI behavior wasn't there, or the different ways you could do the surprise elements. Room-clearing in Vegas was more puzzle-oriented, in that there was one way to clear a room and if you used that method it was great, but it you didn't… that's something that we pushed a lot of.
How elaborate can these scenarios get? How many AIs can you deal with at once?
You deal with you and your teammates, but there's situations where there are other people involved. As far as control goes, we'll never ask you to control more than three.
How many enemy AIs?
It really depends on the situation, but the maximum we support right now is around twenty, in a big enough areas.
You said that there's no 'Game Over' screen for killing innocent civilians?
There might be some situations where it's totally narratively prohibited—it doesn't exist in the game yet, but if the scientist has the code, then yeah, of course [you couldn't let him die]. The hostage in that sequence we showed [while demonstrating room-clearing], you could have let him die and kept going. Some people are going to play that way, the consequence for letting that guy die is not fun. A lot of people would say 'I'm not okay with that," and go back and save him.
Is it possible to save the bomber on the bridge sequence you showed?
In hindsight, if I'd known that this was the first [segment] we would have shown, maybe we would have shown a more clear choice, the whole point of [the bridge sequence] was to say, yes or no, he's going to die anyway, it's kind of a neat change of pace. But we ended up pushing this map more than others.
Are the choices in the game more real than that one?
Some not so much, but others, yes.
There's a scene on the bridge where civilians are running by you, and I'm picturing the type of player who wants to test the game and break it killing all of them. Can that happen? Will the game fail you if you do that?
[Smiles] The game will do something. You'll have to consider how your teammates feel about you doing that.
Got it. Is the character you're playing a specific human? Or you can customize him/her like in Vegas 2?
You'll have a few simple choices, but other than that we're not saying.
Given that Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 have been duking it out this holiday and will presumably have fresh sequels to release in 2013, do you think that Rainbow 6 Patriots stands apart enough to compete?
Battlefield and COD are competing to be the same game. And I'm not really interested in that. I don't feel that we're competing with anyone else. We have the tactical gameplay in there, which no one else really has. I'm super happy that we have a different game. I think both games have their own merits, so I don't even use comparisons between the two. To me they're almost different genres. It's still shooters, but you know what I mean?
There are some similarities between this game and Ubisoft's own Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Are the two games different enough to stand apart?
You know, we talk with these guys. There are some of the same influences, but they have their own take on things. There's not really a concerted effort to do the same thing—you always see the games come up with similar themes over the years, similar concepts, because we're both tactical games. Some of the same ideas, I guess. It's funny because most of the times when these similarities happen, it's not because anybody's influenced by anybody else.
How far would you go to save a life? To save lives? Would you sacrifice an innocent civilian to save a hundred more? Ubisoft's recently unveiled tactical shooter Rainbow 6: More »