Dishonored’s Ricardo Bare: Geek For All Seasons?

Game Front 1-on-1 is a continuing series featuring interviews with and personality profiles on a variety of people in the vast and diverse community of gaming, including creative fans, passionate players, amateur developers and everyone in between.

If you’ve been paying attention for the last few-odd years, then you’ve heard of the escalating ‘are games art?’ conversation, a discussion that has become largely focused on whether or not a video game can provide as profound a storytelling experience as a novel, film, or teleplay. Of course, this is understandable. There’s no direct historical analogue for the way people consume video games. So it is that we’re forced to look on the example of the novel, of movies and TV, all of which bear superficial and not-so-superficial similarities to a narrative-based video game. But are we thinking about it the wrong way? Does worrying about how gaming stacks up against other media only reinforce the idea that it’s unsophisticated and immature?

According to Dishonored Lead Designer Ricardo Bare, the answer is an unambiguous ‘yes’.

“It really bugs me when people start talking about stories in games,” he told us. “[when] they start to deride games for being immature, for being unsophisticated. ‘A’, there are games that are sophisticated, and ‘B’, that’s not the point.” What is the point? As he explained it, it’s that games are much more than a narrative device. “Telling a story is one of the things that games do,” he told us. “In their own way, and in their own strengths, games already do a good as job at telling a story as novels and movies. They [just] have a different core competency; a book or movie can never, never provide me with a powerful, self-driven narrative, the thing that I created as a player. It’s interactive in a way books and movies are not.”

Bare ought to know; A twelve-year gaming industry veteran, he made his bones as a junior designer on the original Deus Ex, a game he acknowledges is the spiritual predecessor to Dishonored. An impressive achievement in universe-building and gameplay, Dishonored is built around his view that interactivity, more than story, is key to making a great game. But Bare also writes fiction, with several published short stories and his debut novel due for release in spring, 2013. As I found out during a lengthy conversation with him on the occasion of the launch of Dishonored, he’s spent his entire career switching back and forth between those mediums.

So how, exactly, does one end up writing fiction and making games? In Bare’s case, it was mainly a chicken or egg situation. He began writing from an early age, a pastime he credits to the discovery of his grandfather’s copies of Edgar Rice Boroughs’ John Carter series. “One of the first novels that I ever tried to write was, I think, very much that kind of story,” he told us, adding that this is “a very common experience for writers, that when you first begin to write you’re usually mimicking your heroes. You’re writing your own version of Lord of the Rings, you kind of learn by imitating their voice, and it takes a while to find your own voice.” Burroughs-biter or not, in high school, one of Bare’s stories prompted am English teacher to recommend that he take a creative writing class. From that moment on, he said, he was writing whenever he could.

However, he was also a gamer, especially table top RPGs (in college he created his own RPG system), and by the time he was a student at Howard Payne University in Brownwood Texas, he’d decided to pursue game development as a career. The only problem is figuring out where to start. “I had no idea how to do that,” he said. “Nowadays there are all these really badass schools with video game programs. When I was in college they didn’t exist, or if they did exist I didn’t know about them. There was nothing other than to take a programming course or go to an art institute.” To compensate, Bare learned programming, and used class projects as an excuse to talk to industry figures. “I interviewed lots of people in the industry to find out what you have to do to make video games,” including, he says, members of the team who developed the first StarCraft for Blizzard.

After graduation, Bare moved to Austin, “the closest city I could move to that I knew had a game industry.” Here, he managed to make the acquaintance of Harvey Smith, who at the time was in the early stages of making the original Deus Ex for Ion Storm. Following some advice from Smith, Bare devoted himself to mastering the Unreal Editor, using it to build levels which would eventually become his application to work for Ion Storm. He was hired as a junior level designer for Deus Ex, and stayed with the company through the sequel to Deus Ex, moving to Midway Games, where he worked until that company’s 2009 collapse. After a period spent in between jobs, he was hired by Arkane Studios, where he joined his former Deus Ex teammates (Smith, Steve Powers, and Monty Martinez) to work on what would become Dishonored.

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