At Gamescom this year, one of the smaller titles that caught my attention was a game based on Christopher Brookmyre’s book ‘Bedlam’. Given that Christopher Brookmyre’s opus belonged to the science-fiction genre, and bearing in mind that Metro 2033 had also been an adaptation of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s work, I was intent to discover as to why there weren’t more games that used novels as their core source material. With an intent to find out a little bit more about Bedlam, and why the game used the Unity engine, I sat down with the developer’s CEO – Kerry Fraser-Robinson – and got to ask him as to how RedBedlam, given the developer’s background in MMO’s, was able to adapt Christopher Brookmyre’s sci-fi novel. Enjoy!
Bedlam has its origins on Christopher Brookmyre’s book that was well received by sci-fi enthusiasts. There aren’t that many games, to my knowledge, that happen to take their inspiration from books directly as a licensed source material. Why do you think that is?
It’s quite a challenge. It is quite a challenge from a story telling perspective to turn a book into a game, and it’s quite a challenge to write a book of a game. One of the advantages we had was the evolutionary process that brought about this idea was actually a parallel concept where Christopher Brookmyre along with ourselves in various discussions had enthusiastically come up with an idea and a story that we all wanted to tell. Which was a story about a person going through a series of games and experiencing some of the things that we had experienced as gamers. So, actually this really lent itself to a parallel development. He wrote the novel while we were out planning, getting funding, and designing the game. By the time he had written the first treatment for the novel, we had enough source material and inner-framework. Again, he is a gamer. He’s an experienced gamer and he has the same sort of passion and history for the industry as we do and so he wrote it with a view to that, and understanding what we could and couldn’t do. As the protagonist is living a game story, it really lends itself to that parallel design, unlike many other stories where you have to retro-fit and cut and be quite cruel and harsh to your story in order to try and get it across in the context of a game or vice versa.
Based on screenshots of the game, Bedlam looks very much like a Doom clone from the early 90s. I assume its running id Tech 1 or id Tech 2?
No, we actually use Unity as an engine. That’s one of the paradoxes that we face actually because the story is about the progression of games, the progression of game technology, the progression of game design. As I say, it is a love letter to the industry where we are showing some of the tropes and some of the clichés… having a little friendly dig at them, all from a place of love. But in telling that story, we are leading somebody through something and we are in spoiler’s territory so we have a bit of a paradox. What we want to do is to show screenshots of all those lovely 21st century state-of-the-art content of some of the more contemporary games, but that’s kind of spoilers. We need people… we want people to experience that personally as they play through it. So, actually most of the screenshots that we’re putting out are of those first few levels, which are a bit of a sort of Quake-like 90s shooter look and feel. But there is much more to the game than that and there are certain levels that you will recognize as being a contemporary RPG with excellent graphics, but the levels will be designed very differently and you are still playing it, you will always be playing it even though we have some games that are platform games, arcade retro games from the 80s, and all of these different genres such as RTS games. All of these games you visit and you play through, but you always play them from the first person shooter perspective as a first person shooter player maintaining that quick fast-paced game play that we saw in the 90s shooters.
What steps did you take in order to ensure that Bedlam, although it’s a homage to the shooter genre and all of its various guises that have come from the late 80s to now, how did you ensure that the game didn’t turn from a homage into what one would argue is a parody or even a pastiche of what the genre represents?
I think if you’re doing a parody or a pastiche of something then there’s a little bit of satire in there, there’s a little bit of bitterness in the satire even. Whereas where we were coming from is a nostalgic love, it is a fondness. Even though when we’re making a little dig at some of the clichés, we are saying that we miss them in a way, and we’re kind of nostalgically reflecting upon those times with no malice and no judgment. There was a progression of the industry and that’s one of the things that we’re trying to highlight. As all individuals, and again we relied very much on Chris’ story-telling abilities – he’s very at one with this history, and it was his ability with a very wry grin and a very dry sense of humor to make those jokes that… I don’t think anybody is going to play this and think that we’re genuinely having a nasty intent towards any of these games.
To draw a comparison, Bedlam is a science fiction book, but to draw that comparison with another book, Metro 2033. Whereas Bedlam is more grounded and also happens to give a more humorous humanistic tale, Metro 2033 gives a slightly darker dystopian tale where humanity is portrayed at its very worst. Given the fact that both games take inspiration from a literary source, in what ways do you think Bedlam benefits, but also is hampered by the sci-fi book connotation that Metro was obviously able to nail down a few years ago?
It’s not been a major thing for us, as I say we’re kind of telling a story that, in actual fact, the story that we’re telling of these games all being in a single virtual world, and there is a corruption and certain players are trapped within these worlds and are going from one to another. There is a villain of the peace, the villain of the peace is this integrity which effectively representing the virtual space and interest to keep these games intact and keep the game worlds all very locked down, whereas the individual people within them are trying to break out. There is a dystopian story of humanity trying to fight back against a system, and we are telling that story. There are moments of it that do reflect the combat darkness, but the story for us has always been one… because of the nature of the games that you’re playing through, when there are others players talking about their experiences as they’re going through and reflecting upon real life experiences that we’ve all experienced playing these games, humans in dystopian societies will be laughing. Mark my word. That’s what humans do.
It’s the only way we cope…
It’s the only way we cope, precisely.
I laugh a lot.
(Laughter) Exactly, you’ve got to laugh or you’ll end up crying. I believe fundamentally if you did find yourself trapped in some strange artificial world and you had to try and wrap your head around it, and you had to try and progress through this bizarre story, and there were oppressive forces working against you… the first thing you would do would be to take the mick out of it.
To use the Metro comparison again, you mentioned the word “darkness”. Bedlam from it’s screenshots and game-play videos is considerably lighter in tone, and significantly more colorful in comparison to say a game like Doom, which obviously is a game that’s very brown, very dark. Even though Quake 2 had more colorful neon aesthetics, what made you decide to emulate that approach as opposed to going for the more traditional “brown shooter” approach?
Well, again it’s a bit a paradox. We wanted to capture the look and the feel and the vibe that is put across by playing those games, but we also wanted to show that you didn’t have to. It is the 21st century, we can employ modern technologies, we can use dynamic lighting, and we can use a physics engine. When you kill one of the bad guys in the Quake levels of this game we can use real physics to have a bit of fun with it, which you couldn’t have done back then. Again it’s one of those ways, when you find yourself in a Call Of Duty style or more like a Battlefield 1941 style 2000-era cover shooter, and you find yourself rocket jumping over it, it’s kind of a good way for us as story tellers to show that progression and allow people to see that not only is visual aesthetic changing but the level design is changing and bringing that dynamic gameplay and allowing you to explore the world in a way that really allows us to highlight that and bring it out into high definition.
So there will be segments of the game that will emulate traditional “brown shooters”?
A little bit, a little bit. But again we don’t need to religiously follow that
What advantages did the use of the Unity engine allow for you in terms of game development?
We’re actually big fans of the Unity engine at this point. We’ve had a history with it. We’ve been working with it for a long time. Initially, because our experience as a company is kind of specialist network engineering and MMO stuff and back end stuff, when we first looked at Unity it was in that context of using it as a client platform to work with our server platforms. In doing so, we found we could take junior programmers with very little experience and they would get into Unity and they would be very productive straight off the bat. So we’ve actually find the pipeline is very slick, our guys all understand it, and with a very small team we’ve managed to produce an awful lot of content and game play very rapidly. It’s a rapid application development model, very agile… It suits our development style and we’re very pleased with it.
Is most the team comprised of modders?
No, we are a development studio as I say.
With a background in games?
With a background in MMOs. With a background in virtual world technologies.
How do you think your [MMO] background has enabled you to deal with the challenges of making a first person shooter?
Well, specifically to that point we’ve done some white label work for developing very complex systems. When you’re working on MMO technology you’ve got that database management and load balancing, so these are all sort of high level technological problems. Very complex, very intense problems and we have a very specialist programming team with a lot of expertise in working on those problems. We also have an art team, designers who tend to deal with a more traditional client side of developing those games and designing levels and so on. What we found when we started a project like this was it was actually an immense relief, because all of the massive complex technological problems that we would usually have to fold into any one of our projects, we didn’t have to deal with anymore. We could focus entirely on the content, storytelling and game play. Our programmers were massively relieved because all they had to worry about was scripting events, triggers, making sure that the engine and particle effects were faithfully producing what the artists wanted to achieve. It gave them flexibility to focus on those sorts of things and not have to worry about underlying technologies, which they have spent a lot of time having to tackle. So actually to be perfectly honest, given our background in those complex systems, it has been a breath of fresh air to build a traditional video game.
As somebody who’s played a few shooters in his lifetime, just a few by the way, I’ve never really liked the Doom style games. They’ve been more like glorified shooter galleries. One game I do enjoy is Half Life because it takes more a narrative driven approach. For those people who tend to appreciate the more narrative [driven] style of games such as Bioshock, The Darkness, and Half Life… and who are put off by the earlier type of games that don’t place as much emphasis on narrative, how do you think you’ll be able to appease those two factions within the shoot em up fraternity?
I think what’s key is that we are telling a story. This game is a story. One of the things that we were very keen to do was to avoid cinematic sequences. We asked Chris specifically when he was writing for us to make sure that there were no face to face dialogues because we didn’t want any of that to break up the pace of it. We are telling the story of somebody who is going through a series of games, so the way to tell that story is to take them through the series of games. All of the time, there is dialogue, there is interaction coming from other players trapped in this same virtual world. You’ll begin to hear crackling coming over the radio, somebody trying to break through to you and trying to help and guide you through the experience. You do play vicariously through the protagonist and you will feel… I think anybody within the first few seconds of the game frankly from the intro, is immediately dumped straight into the story. It is all about telling that story through the levels and through the games that you go through. This is a story game, much like Portal or Half Life or The Stanley Parable or any of those sort of games. It’s one of the things that we’re kind of playing with, is the ability to… one of the boxes we’re ticking is to show this history and to show all of that, but we’re doing it by taking somebody through the story of living through it. It’s all about the story frankly, and it couldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for Christopher Brookmyre, an excellent and well celebrated story teller who has for the first time dipped into games and allowed us to tell a story with some expertise – his expertise in this medium.
Will the manner in which the storyline is delivered be consistent across all levels despite the fact that certain levels from an aesthetic and design perspective play very differently to each other?
Well, for example there’s a level later in the game, I don’t want to say too many spoilers, but there’s a level later in the game that’s an homage to side-scrolling shooters of the 80s and the character Bedlam and the character Athena, the protagonists of the game, are both playing through that level and discussing with each other one of them the weapons aren’t working so it’s a rescue mission, or it’s an escort mission I should say, where one of them is protecting the other. All of the time there is banter, all of the time there is… as I say, we didn’t want to interrupt game play with exposition. We didn’t want to shatter any fourth walls, we didn’t want to shatter any illusion, and we didn’t want to shatter any immersion. All of the games, regardless of what genre, you will find yourself being told the story by being the story.
What do you hope to achieve with the game?
Our ambitions are to reflect upon the history of gaming. As I said, and I’m going to keep coming back to it very much, it is a love letter to the industry. We make all of these observations from a place of love, we do it with a slight wry grin. Our ambitions really, we would like very much to… the book has been designed as a concept as a trilogy. We would very much like to produce a sequel and perhaps another sequel for that and produce the trilogy. The second game would be more cooperative game play, and the third game might be death match for full on competitive game play. Which would also give us the ability to address some of the other aspects of gaming over the last 20 years.