GT Q&A: Eric Holmes, Lead Designer of Prototype
Prototype, the upcoming game from Radical Entertainment introduces a new world and a new hero in the form of Alex Mercer, an amnesiac man looking to uncover the secrets of his forgotten past. Radical, creators of last year’s Scarface:The World is Yours and the excellent non-movie tie in Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction are bringing this new world rife with conspiracy and a gritty real world feel to life.
Recently Gaming Today had an opportunity to question lead designer Eric Holmes about the world setting of his new game. Eric talks about the game’s protagonist, the story and just what makes Prototype different from every other superhuman sandbox game on the market today.
Gaming Today: Prototype centers around a person with superhuman abilities, but the main character is not your typical spandex clad paragon of good. Can you talk a little bit about Alex Mercer, the game’s lead character. What makes Alex different from other super powered protagonists?
Eric Holmes: Alex is a shapeshifter, released into an intense version of contemporary New York. Then something goes wrong, and Manhattan starts changing for the worse. Alex’s powers are what the core of this game is, and the deadly, deceptive way that they can be employed is what makes it different. Alex can adopt a perfect disguise or change his body into a deadly killing machine. The way we realize that is like something you haven’t seen before.
GT: There also seem to be elements of military conspiracy and survival horror melded into the game, who do you think Prototype is most likely to appeal to in today’s crowded market?
EH: I hesitate to say it in this era of “casual” friendly focus, but this one is unashamedly focused at gamers. We wanted to make agamer’s game, but make something people hadn’t seen before. This is a gamer’s game. Controls are a strength of this team – it will be easy to pick up and play, but there will be lots of depth to sit down and master what you can do and how you can combine abilities and strategies. You can use Alex’s shapeshifting powers in a lot of ways…we’re still plumbing the depths of that as I write this; there’s no roadmap when you’re doing something different. Prototoype is guilty pleasure for gamers – this is a game that as you’re playing it, your girlfriend might get angry at seeing what you do – but you’ll be cackling all the way.
GT: Dealing with super powers in a realistic world opens up a whole can of worms. Is Alex the only character with abilities? Does the game’s setting have a “real world” feel or is it more like a side story in a universe populated by super folks?
EH: Grounded. That’s the watchword here. We do fantastic things in this game – but everything must be grounded. We have a realistic location in a contemporary Manhattan. We have realistic clothing style. We have real brands on many of our signs. It’s all about immersion, reality, feeling like it could happen. That means we have a lot of work to do in the story to make you feel that, to make you believe – but that’s our goal.
So no, there’s no random group of mutants running around created by lightning storms or coming from other planets. There’s one idea – ONE – that differentiates the world of Prototype from the world you and I live in. The main thrust of the game is about chasing after what that idea is…
GT: Talk a little bit for us about how the player is meant to discover the world Alex lives in. If he’s amnesiac how much will Alex learn about his situation and how he gained his abilities?
EH: Well, to be honest an amnesiac is not an entirely new idea. It has been seen before in other media – but it has never been realized in the way that Prototype is pulling it off. Yes, there are stories where people remember things – The Bourne Identity, Memento and so on. However, in Prototype your character consumes those that represent a part of the conspiracy, and through consuming them Alex gains the memories, the skills, the abilities of that individual. He relives their experiences, he sees what they saw and learns what they knew. He is a product of all this knowledge, gaining years and then decades of experience; he surpasses what a typical human can experience and becomes something more. This is the principle mechanic that makes Alex different as a property and as a game character, and it’s quite the sight when you first see what he does to “consume” a foe…
GT: Superhero’s are becoming more and more popular in light of recent movies and TV shows like Heroes, what drew you to this game concept? Why tell this story now and could you have created the same game say a few years back before this latest hardware evolution?
EH: You know, we have never thought of this a super hero property. In fact, when anyone brings it up I reject that. Yes, we have fantastic powers, but this is not a morality play. It’s not about pulling kittens from trees or saving people from towering infernos – this is a bloody revenge story with player abilities of the like you haven’t seen before.
Why tell this story now? Whenever developers look at a game concept they are looking into a crystal ball and guessing what they think will be fun, what will connect with consumers, what will be something new and exciting several years down the way.
I guess the best answer is “the planets aligned” – with the industry, with consumers on next-gen consoles, our technology and consumer hardware. We wanted to do something new, something exciting, something that sounded “next gen” to us, something that scared us a little. Next-Gen consoles were shifting from PR to reality when we were concepting our next game; this allowed if not demanded something new. Internally Radical’s technology was undergoing a huge overhaul to our new Titanium engine and tools allowed us to push open world further than we ever could have. We had a lot of lessons learned about how to make fantastic abilities from our previous game, yet hungered to push that further, make it more multidimensional.
So here we are.
GT: One of the abilities you’ve revealed that Alex uses in the game is a form of absorption. With this ability he seems to take on the memories and appearance of another person. What gameplay implications did this ability present and what storytelling techniques are you using to utilize to realize this power?
EH: Absorption is for towels. Alex CONSUMES.
GT: Alex’s movements have been compared to the art of Parkour, an interesting combination of daredevil jumps and acrobatic street dancing. Why Parkour? What does it add to the character or the game? Does this mean the environments of the game will be crowded urban landscapes to take better advantage of this artform or have you taken a different approach?
EH: Alex’s movement is pretty unique. We have studied parkour and there are certainly elements of it in his style, but I think it is beyond parkour, it’s a superhuman acrobatic movement style that’s just not possible with human reflexes or abilities. The spirit of parkour is what got us excited – it’s free flowing, and it simply doesn’t stop – just like a player wants when he’s sprinting across a game world.
Game worlds have become increasingly more complex with each generation of hardware; more props, more characters, more vehicles; they’re generally busier. For a player this can actually be a bit of a drag as he’s moving around bumping into things, slowing down, clipping bits of detail in the geometry. We wanted all of the looks of next gen with none of the control pain – Alex moves seamlessly over objects, be they static or in motion. We’re talking about hundreds of pedestrians, hundreds of cars moving through New York’s streets all at once; our locomotion takes care of that, whether it’s Alex pushing people out of his way at low speed or bashing through them at high speed. That’s a lot to take in. Since the player spends a lot of his time moving, it should feel good – right?
Running to any surface, static or in motion Alex will find a way across it. It could be a cop car swerving to running you over and Alex will smoothly flip over it and keep going. It could be a city bus that has been flipped from an artillery shell – and it’s tumbling onto you! In either example, Alex will just move over that object with the smooth motion of a butter covered ninja. A lot of work has been done to make this happen, but from the consumer’s perspective “it just works” – and it feels great.
GT: Radical Entertainment has had recent experience dealing with sandbox styled games – especially highlighted by the excellent Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction a few years ago, how do you plan to use the open world feel to best tell the story of Prototype and still allow players freedom of action in your game? Did you take anything players would recognize from Hulk to enhance the concept for Prototype?
EH: There are certainly principles we lifted from our Hulk experience – and some of the other Radical titles. We’re a pretty humble studio and are always trying to learn, we challenge our ideas and preconceptions a lot. I think that’s healthy. One example from Hulk would be that everything needs to be interactive – everything! That’s a goal in Prototype too, although the character works in a different way, in a different scale from the likes of the Hulk. Alex allows us to do a lot of things we wished we could hve done in our last game – Alex can use firearms and drive vehicles – he can also be just as brutal as we wish since we’re creating the character. This has really allowed us to find a stylized and cinematic form of action for our character that I think will set us apart. I can’t wait until the first gameplay videos go out – you’ll see what I mean.
I guess another aspect of Hulk we’re pushing into a new dimension was weaponization. This was where Hulk would take objects and use them to create new weapons, for example ripping a car in two to make giant boxing gloves, or flattening a bus into a shield. Alex takes that to the next level; he weaponizes himself, creating new weapons and forms on the fly according to what powers you activate. It’s not about props or weaponry with him; it’s about biomass.
GT: Prototype is an original setting, have you found it easier to work in your own sandbox? How is it different for you as a designer to adapting a known property like Hulk? Are there plans for the prototype universe outside of this game? A lot of developers seem to be framing their worlds in trilogies these days.
EH: New IP is definitely harder; all your ideas are often challenged, and there are no guarantees. Someone like Hulk or Tony Montana are already cool; people “get” them. It’s easy to see why they’re cool, what they do and what they don’t. New IP doesn’t give you any of that foundation, so that core is something you have to find, you have to prove – to the entire team. That’s undoubtedly the hardest creative challenge with a new IP, but is also the most exciting and fun thing it too.
GT: Thanks for your answers Eric. We’ll look forward to more information on Prototype as it gets closer to release.