The Creative Intent of Rage

[In this extensive interview, id Software CEO Todd Hollenshead and artist Andy Chang answer questions about the creative intent of Rage by describing exactly what the team hoped to accomplish from both art and design perspectives.]

Rage marks id Software’s first major release since 2004’s Doom 3. It’s been in development for a long time, and features the company’s own engine technology, id Tech 5, which has gone down some different technical paths than the majority of engines used in game development in 2011.

Gamasutra already spoke to legendary id programmer John Carmack about how he made the decisions when creating the engine, but that is, of course, not the whole story. In this feature interview, Gamasutra speaks to id artist Andy Chang and CEO Todd Hollenshead about the creative decisions the development staff made for Rage.

When it was first announced, the post-apocalyptic and wildly successful Fallout 3 wouldn’t be released for over a year; Borderlands showed up a year after that. Does Rage have what it takes to compete in what has become a thriving sub-genre of the current generation? Do decisions made years ago bear fruit, or are they evolutionary dead ends?

In this extensive interview, Hollenshead and Chang answer such questions by describing exactly what the team hoped to accomplish from both art and design perspectives.

What do you personally feel is the unique element of Rage that’s going to get people really playing it?

Todd Hollenshead: Well, the game has a number of things, but I think it starts off with — as most games do — with “What does it look like?” And when you look at Rage, regardless of what platform you’re playing on, it is a game that doesn’t look like any other game. It’s the only game that has uniquely textured environment, it’s the only game that’s using id Tech 5, and visuals go a long way towards like, “Okay, this is something.”

But we go beyond that with combining, I think, the classic elements of the shooter genre that we invented, with other elements as well, and when it’s put all together — as you play the game, the whole game is sort of brighter than the sum of its parts. And it’s that element of putting these things together, as opposed to, “Well, we have this, and we have this, and we have this,” and go down a check box list of features, or “We have this, and another game doesn’t,” or “we have that, and another game doesn’t.”

I don’t actually feel like it looks unlike every other game. It does kind of look like Borderlands or Fallout to me. I mean, I’m sure, when you really get into the tech, it looks different. But it does have a similar kind of look and feel.

Andy Chang: It really came down to the approach of how we constructed the landscapes and stuff. Rather than using procedurally generated mountain programs or stuff like that, we developed our own technique of making unique geometry, and used the stamping system to make sure it didn’t apparently look like things were tiled, and stuff like that. So that’s kind of the approach we took to making it unique.

Do you think people will really notice? I mean, on the consumer side?

AC: We notice, and we’re gamers. We make an effort to make sure it’s visually excellent, so that’s pretty much my train of thought on that.

Driving around the environments, I noticed these bandits are incredibly artistic. They’ve got art up on the walls, they’re building structures and sculptures, and things like that. I feel like I’m going around and murdering an artist colony somehow.

AC: Yeah. Someone pointed it out — he asked me if any of the artists had ever been to Burning Man. And I was like, “No, but we looked at lot of Burning Man pictures, so we tried to get in the heads of these guys.” And you’re right, they’re probably found artists. They found garbage and they thought hey, this looks light enough, let’s take it to our place and decorate with it.

Within the mythology of the game, is there a reason why these guys are so art-inclined?

AC: It’s because they were made by guys that were art-inclined.

I played through a lot of Borderlands. Were you guys annoyed when that came out? I mean, because you’d been planning this for a long time, and there are a lot of similar elements? A lot of driving, a lot of shooting, linear with mission-based side branches — the internal structure of the game is extremely similar.

AC: Yeah. I sometimes wonder if it’s like when, maybe five or six years ago when every military shooter was based in World War II. And I think that just happens. Technology moves along to a point where it’s like, “Hey, you know what? Technology is at a point where we could do a post-apocalyptic game.”

And we can’t be the people that came up with the post-apocalyptic genre, so it’s just a matter of, I think, different studios reaching this same sort of goal, and using that as a jumping off point. And when you jump off from post-apocalyptic themes, obviously Road Warrior is going to come into it, you know? That’s the big one, and then…

As we’ve noted, brown is one of the easiest colors to put in everything.

AC: Brown? Quake is famously brown, and I would say with Rage, the palette is more orange.

Did that come naturally or were you looking at the trend of popular culture now, as with the orange/blue trend in films?

AC: Not really. I mean, I think we had a lot of great concept artists, and when we were doing initial concepts and prototypes for the game that’s generally just what we leaned to. Our artistic eyes move along with pop culture as well, so if it seems to be looking like a trend, then that’s probably why.

Yeah, you’re just getting swept along by the zeitgeist.

AC: Yeah.

Is the entirety of the game relatively linear, as I have experienced in these two and a half hours that I played?

AC: The story itself is linear, obviously, but there are moments where you can just have fun, and go off and make money. I’ve seen people just do races; I’ve seen people at this press event just do races, and races, and races, because that’s what they like to do. So in that sense it’s what we call “open but directed.”

TH: There’s a main story arc, but the gameplay isn’t necessarily directed, or dictated, by that. There’s a narrative that goes through it, but then the game is sort of built around that. There are story branches as well, that you can either play on the main path to completion of the game, or you don’t necessarily have to participate in.

And then there are also aspects of the game that, as Andy was saying, kind of have an arbitrary nature — like, how many times do you want to race? Is it really important for you to get first place, because that’s the type of player you are? Because all the game requires you to do is finish in the top three.

Yeah, although I did come across while playing at least three or four instances where the game was like, “Nope, you’re not going that way right now!” I can see that it is not entirely linear, but I did feel like I was being strongly gated — usually by getting murdered.

TH: It’s not like, “just wander around,” and that’s on purpose. I mean, the point of the game isn’t to [wander around]. And in fact we looked at it as we were building the wastelands. Part of the reason why you have a car is sort of the same thing — we have these vast environments. If you’re just walking around through the wasteland, I mean, that’s one of the bad things that happens.

If you die out in the wasteland, we put you back in a town, or whatever, and you have to rebuild your car, and stuff, because we didn’t want people just like, “Oh, now I’m out in the middle of nowhere! I’m going to get it handed to me by all these guys in cars, and towers with guns, and stuff.” So we try to make the wastelands more like — some of the experiences like running a gauntlet to get through from point A to point B, as opposed to just going where you want.

And that’s kind of the idea: that it’s open, there are meaningful choices that you can make, in terms of what you want to do. There’s not necessarily a predetermined order of, “this is number one, this is number two, this is number three.” You may have multiple missions that you can do at the same time, and the order in which you choose them is up to you. Now, it may be more or less challenging based on the way it was intended, but it’s not necessarily dictated.

But there are aspects of the world that are only opened up to you once you do certain things, and you cause the bits to happen, and yeah, we don’t open the whole thing. For example, once you go from the Wasteland One part of the game to Wasteland Two, you go forward; you can’t just go back and forth between the two.

You said there are some meaningful choices, but so far the choices were basically, “Save this guy, or don’t save this guy” or “look for this, or don’t look for it”; it was more like, “Do you want to have a mission, or do you not want to have a mission?”

TH: Well the choice on that stuff is something like, “Pardon me. Is this something you want to do at this point, or do you want to come back to it later?” Or is it necessary? Some of this stuff has to be accomplished to be able to open up the game; for example, you’re never going to get your car if you don’t go get the buggy parts. So it’s just, “Okay, you don’t have to do it,” but then you’re not going to get any parts, and you’re going to be stuck.

But the choices are more directed, I guess, at what players want to do. Do you want to collect stuff, or do you want to sell it?

Do you want to sell it to get the gun, or do you want to spend your money on getting the better gun now, or do you want to hoard it and wait and get it later, or see if the game doesn’t present it to you in some different way? Do you want to buy the fat boy bullets, or do you want to buy the steel rounds for your assault rifle?

These things do impact how the game reacts to what you’re doing in the game and will impact your experience.

And the game is flexible enough that we’re still learning things about what happened. Literally last week in testing, we weren’t even aware that you can do the fat boys out of order. You can, because you can go and do a little side quest where a guy gives you fat boys. Well once you get those, you don’t get a lot of them, but then that actually opens up the vendor to sell them.

So when you get them, the intent or the idea behind the game is, “I’m going to take these, and I’m going to go, and I’m going to use these, and I’m going to go in this area, and battle these bandits.” But the clever player says, “Oh, maybe I can go buy more of these,” and then loads up on them. And then it really does change things, because now you’re getting a much more powerful bullet. Those are one shot-kill bullets, and so it does change, tactically. That, to me, is an excellent example of a meaningful dynamic game decision that a player can make or not make.

You give the player some freedom. You can leave a dialogue any time you want, if you don’t want to hear what the guy’s saying anymore, which is interesting. Whenever you want to go to a shop, you’ve got to wait for the guy to finish talking before you can hit A and get in there. Do you have a hierarchy of what dialogue people must hear?

TH: There are some things that you can click through, and then some things that we feel are important enough that we preclude you from doing that. How you experience it throughout the game is just a design decision. When I played through it, the vendor is like, “Okay, here’s what I have for sale,” or whatever, it’s pretty short. If that’s the stuff you’re talking about. Especially when you first meet him, he’s going to tell you, “Here’s the deal,” and all of that.

You’ve got some Southern dialects, and some British dialects, and others. Within the mythology of the world, what’s that all about?

TH: The bandit clans tend to be culturally homogeneous, so the Wasted Clan’s thing, for example is that they’re kind of punk rockish — you’ve got the Union Jack and all that sort of stuff. We just really tried to create different types of enemies that were distinct enough in all sorts of different ways, so that they sound different, they act different, they have different weapons, they’re in different locations, they do different things, they represent different challenges to the player, so that you really get a sense of, these guys are not just bandits generically. It’s this, and they do that, kind of a thing.

One thing that I found a little odd at first is, you get out of The Ark and you don’t know anything about the world. This guy picks you up, and he’s saying all this stuff that I would really want to ask questions about. What do you think about the whole silent protagonist thing?

TH: We like the silent protagonist. He makes pain sounds occasionally, like, “Oooh!” But it’s a really a different style of presentation.

It’s a gray area where you’re going to draw that line as to what we incorporate into it. We look at Rage as, if you’re going to compare it to the movie genres, it’s like the summer blockbuster action flick — where the things that are in it are fun to do.

A lot of the action is over the top, and chopping guys’ heads off. You’re driving through towers out in the wasteland with your car, crashing down, there are explosions, mutants, and all that sort of stuff.

And we had these elements of the towns and things that take you out of the action, which give you a lull, and a chance to take a rest. But the decision on going to dialogue trees and things like that was just something that was one step more than we wanted to go into that type of game.

I found it particularly amusing when I first went into the town Wellspring and the guy says, “You just keep your mouth shut!” Well, what else am I going to do?

TH: Hey, we can poke fun at ourselves, too.

And another interesting thing about Wellspring is, “People don’t take kindly to strangers around here — you better not talk to them.” Everybody was so friendly. I go in there, everyone’s like, “Oh hey, how’s it going? Welcome to Wellspring.”

TH: There are a couple guys that will give you a little attitude.

They’ll give you a glance or something, but by and large, everyone’s like, “Yay! A new friend!”

TH: That’s one of the things — as you play through the game, you basically gain a reputation as this guy who is unique and a stranger. Thematically, if you’re going to say it’s like Road Warrior, just in terms of the outdoor environment, post-apocalyptic, and all that sort of stuff, that’s fair. But if you want to draw a character parallel, it’s really more like Buck Rogers — like a man out of time and place but who is there, and he’s the only person who can do the things that he does.

Why is he the only guy that can do the things that he does? He likes to murder dudes. I mean, there’s that, but what else?

TH: Yeah, but only the bad guys.

Yes.

TH: Well, these are parts of the things that come out in the story. Like when Dan Hagar is telling you, “There’s something different about you.” A lot of it has to do with the Ark Program, and the nanotrites, because you’re the only one. Your Ark comes up out of the ground as a result of an earthquake, unscheduled, that The Authority wasn’t aware of, and they’ve gotten everybody else except for you. And so, your ability to regenerate health… And just the fact that if you’re good with a keyboard and mouse, or a controller, you can be a badass in Rage, and it makes you different.

The towns, they are a nice kind of a lull thing, and I am interested to hear what people have to say, but because they’re there I actually want to interact with them a little more. Obviously the classic Japanese RPGs did similar stuff. It was an interesting choice. I guess you already explained it, by saying it’s more about the action.

TH: Yeah, we believe in the philosophy of the wise old owl; the less he spoke, he more he heard.

How did you envision these towns, though, knowing that it was going to be more of a one-way information vehicle?

TH: Within the game construct, it’s really about what course of actions a player takes, and how the story evolves, and what you’d do with the missions you chose, and your success in doing those, and [that] builds up how you’re perceived by people in the towns. And it changes from, “You’re a stranger, keep your head down,” when you’re in the Ark suit, to when you look more like the rest of us, and “Oh now you look more like you fit in.”

And you just start doing things, people start appreciating it — like when you go back to the Hagar Settlement, they react differently to you. And that’s consistent throughout the rest of the game; as you go through, and build your reputation for doing things that are helping Wellspring, Hagar Settlement, et cetera, these people change their attitude and their skepticism of you — to treat you more like a friend and a protector.

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