Stuart Black was going to make a typically dreary first person shooter. Then he went to see a Lady Gaga concert.
Out went his original shooter game play.
"It had a very serious tone to it," he told me on a visit from his native England during a recent interview in New York. "And then I saw Gaga at Glastonbury, and the energy and the uplifting nature of that just made me think, 'What am I doing? I looked at my software collection and all the games in there and thought these are so beardy and nerdy and feel so old. I feel so old making this sort of stuff."
The eccentric singer and performer Lady Gaga inspired him, which you might not have guessed yourself, had you played the brief portion of Bodycount that Black is showing people. (Although... "Lady GaGa spits fire from her breasts at Glastonbury" could be the stuff of shooters?) Bodycount the game as Gaga material? You might not have mistaken as a the product of Gaga influence a game that claims as its signature element the manner in which bullets fired from the player's machine gun shred corrugate metal, splinter wood and blow up shot crates. And perhaps, thoroughly, this new game is not Gaga.
But Black left that concert a year ago with something from Lady Gaga, a new mandate: to ensure that the thing he was creating felt modern and, more importantly, made his audience feel good.
Black describes the escapist freedom of the shooting in Bodycount, his new game, as the stuff of raving on the dance floor. It is being made to provide arcade exhilaration. But don't panic if you're a Lady Gaga hater. Bodycount isn't going to be scored to Gaga pop songs. It's still probably going to be a game for the people who like blowing stuff up.
Stuart Black has fired few guns in his life, but he knows a thing or two about video game guns and what he considers to be the sometimes-scary fantasy of shooting the powerful things. He is the former co-director, with Alex Ward, of a 2006 PlayStation 2 game coincidentally called Black. It was a pyrotechnic first person shooter from Burnout development studio Criterion Games. That was a game about the impact of guns, guns whose every shot chipped concrete columns, fried neon signs or set off a connect the dots chain reaction of landmine explosions.
Bodycount is something of a successor to Black. It's not Black 2. Stuart Black worked on that unreleased project for three months before he left Criterion following what he called "creative differences" with Ward. It might be fitting that the two talented game creators split, as the break helped Stuart Black re-discover a style with which he yearned to adorn a game.
"When we were doing Black, Alex and I were big fans of 24 and big fans of Alias," Stuart Black recalled. "Both shows were in their first season at the time. And it was always our plan to have aspects of both in the software, but it didn't really work out that way." Stuart Black liked the fantastic yet contemporary style of Alias creator J.J. Abrams. But the game Black became much more a 24 kind of thing, an action-packed shooter mixed with tense discussion about black ops.
For Bodycount, Stuart Black wanted not just a more Abrams-style modern and fantastic setting but one more energizing for the current decade. "There's a lot of bad, depressing things going on in the world in general. I don't really need to see that reflected in my software. I want my software to be an escape."
He had come close to creating something much darker.
J.J. Abrams is one of Stuart Black's favorite creators. Another is David Simon, the reporter-turned dreative force behind gritty TV shows such as The Wire, Homicide: Life on the Street and a recent, sober mini-series about the current war in Iraq, Generation Kill. Pre-Gaga, Black's game might have been something closer to what Simon might have made.
"I was a big fan of Generation Kill and we were kind of on the tip of doing a more serious war game. And we said, 'Okay, people always say, "Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, it's the reality of war."' And it is just so isn't. For starters, there are no civilians around at all. There are always nice, clean simple battlegrounds."
These thoughts were taking Black and Bodycount down a dark path. "There's this moment in Generation Kill when they're driving along the road and there's this little 8-year-old girl with part of her body blown off and it's very horrible," Black recalled. And we said, 'Well if we're serious about doing this in a game, we have to do that. You have to have that moment and treat warfare that way. And none of us wanted to do that. Do we really want to put that in a piece of software and put that in somebody's living room? No. Because we don't want people to feel down that way. We want people to feel up."
There had been false starts. The flirtation with Generation Kill, an abandoned effort to try a Quentin Tarantino dark comedy style and the Gaga concert brought Black to Bodycount's current direction. It is a modern game, though not one to take seriously. Its hero is knocked out in the first scene and then woken in an airplane from which he then is forced to parachute, plummeting into a warzone with no clue what is going on, needing to fight. His guidance is the sexy though seemingly distracted voice of his female handler. His mission, the player's mission, is to shoot — lots of times, at lots of people and things.
"We want you shooting a lot of bullets," he said of Bodycount players. "Let loose."
The version of the game I saw and played showed only a small skirmish between militia soldiers and an army somewhere in Africa. The battle is a firefight that the player joins under a wrecked highway overpass. As they did in the Black game, the guns wreak havoc on the environment. They do indeed shred wood, metal and other substances (not bodies, though, because, Stuart Black stressed, he wanted to make an "action" game, not a "violent" one.) The environment shredded well and the three-act crates — shoot them first to trigger one explosion and then twice more to cause two more — were gleefully explosive.
The test of the guns in this game? Black said they must be fun to shoot in an empty virtual room. If fun means they feel as if you are spitting hail from the rifle in your hand, then, yes, the guns in Black do, so far, feel good.
Black hopes this type of high-action, unrealistic, exaggerated shooting gameplay to achieve what he calls "soft shooting." That's a kind of shooter entertainment that wastes no effort in trying to be realistic and which dares to make the shooting powerful, stylish and not so serious. (It may help Black's cause that he writes off an moral complications by noting that everyone you are shooting at in Bodycount is "a badass motherfucker who deserves a bullet in the head.")
One of the first concepts for Bodycount that Black said, was "fun with a gun." That's the point. Somehow, in this virtual warzone, it's time to have fun. Shooting can be raving, remember. Or like an arcade game, because the feel Black wants, is retro modern.
Bodycount has a long way to go. What Black showed was early code and just the hint of a game that could backslide toward forgettable standards. Some of the best ideas Black mentioned while showing the game — concepts not implemented in the slice he has been showing press — may not even make it into the final product. For example, he hopes — but can't guarantee — that his game will include something called "hotzones," which cause more powerful enemies to show up and attack you should you cause an extreme amount of damage. Think of it was the police system in a Grand Theft Auto game, which sends more cops after you, the more egregiously you break the law.
Hotzones might not make it. Hopefully drop-in/drop-out co-op does. More hopefully, however, is that the Gaga influence really does manifest itself, that Bodycount doesn't lose its growing sense of identity. Making Bodycount, Stuart Black is fueled by the inspiration of the famous pop singer and his personal disdain for consequences-ignoring contemporary shooter games stoking him. He wants to get on his stage and do the fantastic.
Hopefully Black will turn Bodycount into the rave of gunplay that he wants it to be. It's not a pop hit yet, but if Bodycount could be shaped into one, it could be something special. It could be something other than just another first-person shooter in a world already well-armed with them.