Enslaved Interview With Tameem Antoniades

Enslaved may be published by Namco Bandai rather than Sony, and may be on Xbox 360 as well as PlayStation 3, but Ninja Theory’s latest still has a lot in common with its PS3 exclusive, Heavenly Sword – Gollum Serkis is returning to wax lyrical in his own inimitable, rubber-faced way, and there’s the familiar promise of a vast, cinematic story brought to life by a convincing cast of characters. One of the lead characters, Trip, also bears a striking resemblance to Nariko. But there is, of course, plenty that separates the two. Enslaved tells the tale of two characters, most notably, and there’s Alex Garland, him of The Beach fame, writing the story, with gameplay built around the unlikely duo of Monkey (Serkis) and Trip working together, against one of their wills, in a post-apocalyptic world of killer robots.

With the game due out next year, there are still a lot of unanswered questions, so we tracked down Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades to find out more.

Eurogamer: How did Enslaved come about?

Tameem Antoniades: I liked the relationship between Kai and Nariko in Heavenly Sword, and many people mailed us telling us how very deeply they were moved by their story. They talked about them as if they were real people or old friends. So beyond fear, anger and sadness, how much further could we push player empathy? Can you feel all the kinds of feelings you would do in a real relationship? Protection, disappointment, comfort, derision and so on?

About two years ago, I read Journey to the West while I was researching the Wuxia genre for Heavenly Sword. It’s an epic, breathtaking fantasy on par with Lord of the Rings in my opinion. I really like the character setup with Monkey’s master, Tripitaka, being completely vulnerable yet having complete power over him. So this became the basis of Enslaved, which is only loosely based on this epic novel.

However, we didn’t want to do another Wuxia-themed game. I knew that sci-fi was an area a lot of people in the studio were interested in. What if we replace the demons with near-future military machines and the magic with technology? Everyone in the studio dug it so we went full steam ahead on that basis and, after a few close shaves, Namco Bandai signed it up and we were in business.

Eurogamer: What was it like changing from a PS3-exclusive studio to a multiformat one?

Tameem Antoniades: We have an intimate low-level knowledge of hardware and this goes way back to Kung Fu Chaos, which was an Xbox exclusive. So we are applying this knowledge in the areas that will make our games shine for all platforms: combat, facial technology, audio and animation.

When you are exclusive, sometimes the pressure to demonstrate technology can override other aspects of game development. Being involved in one side of a format war as if it’s the machines that make great games can also be draining. You get a lot of attention as an exclusive developer which is great, but on the flip-side there was a lot of anti-Sony feeling going on which I felt was unfairly being directed at our team.

Our focus is now on building as compelling a game as we can and I am more comfortable with that.

Eurogamer: Are there any online plans for the game?

Tameem Antoniades: Enslaved is meant to be a story-driven, single-player experience so we do not have plans for online multiplayer type functionality in the game. However, we do have plans for DLC, which we’ll be discussing more in the future.

Eurogamer: Monkey and Trip start on a slave ship. Will they spend much time there or is the escape out of our hands and the story already begun?

Tameem Antoniades: Without giving away too much, you start the game trapped in an egg-shaped cell on the slave ship. Trip is another prisoner in there. She escapes and, in doing so, shorts the entire ship, freeing Monkey. It also causes the ship to lose power and crash through the skyscrapers in New York City. You get to play through this whole sequence.

Eurogamer: What does your post-apocalyptic picture look like?

Tameem Antoniades: We projected forward to a time of peace. Our future is colourful, bright and beautiful. There are no more wars simply because there are not enough people left to fight them. In the 100+ years after humanity has been all but wiped out, nature has reclaimed the cities. The desolation and beauty is captured in Nitin Sawhney’s unique musical vision.

In a sense, this is a post-post-apocalyptic setting. In this world, only around 50,000 people are still alive in the North American continent and these numbers are heading towards extinction.

Humanity is represented by small pockets of communities trying to eke out a viable existence or lone feral survivalists existing in the wilds. Trip comes from the former and Monkey is one of the latter. When they meet, worlds collide. Monkey and Trip were born long after the apocalypse and can only guess at the purpose of the derelict artifacts they see around them.

The age of man has been replaced by the age of drones: autonomous, hunting, killing machines left behind from forgotten wars, asleep for decades until activated by the few remaining survivors. This scenario is partly based on the current landmine problem. Landmines currently maim or kill 10,000 people every year long after the wars that spawned them. In places like Afghanistan, where I originally come from, millions of colourful “butterfly” landmines dropped by the Soviet forces continue to maim and kill children who mistake them for toys.

Today we are witnessing the advent of drone warfare, the rise of despot nuclear nations and the possibilities of large-scale casualties in bio-terrorism. In the comfort of our privileged western world, post-apocalypse equates to fantasy. In places like Afghanistan, people are living day-to-day in a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

Eurogamer: Can you talk a little about how the story is structured? It’s a linear quest, presumably?

Tameem Antoniades: By linear you mean focused, right? Joking aside, linear is often reserved as a derogatory term for games that offer limited interactivity. Ours is a story-driven action-adventure with a bit of a road-movie vibe that requires brains as well as muscle. It’s far more tactical than your average adventure game as you have to protect Trip in order to survive.

There are often many ways to approach a particular situation involving combat, clambering, puzzle-solving and making use of Trip’s hacking and reconnaissance skills. Overall it will be a tough game to play on the brains and brawn front. Hopefully, you won’t feel that this is limiting when you are playing it!

Eurogamer: Will there be any kind of upgrade system or experience-based ability tree or anything along those lines for Monkey?

Tameem Antoniades: The simple answer is yes to all of those things but we haven’t locked all of that down yet. The idea is that Trip comes from a community of people who scavenge technology and so you can ask her to upgrade equipment for you throughout the game.

Eurogamer: How are Monkey and Trip going to complement each other over the course of the game?

Tameem Antoniades: At the beginning they really don’t. She’s scared and wants to go home but is not equipped to survive outside of her own community. So she reprograms a slave-headband from the slave ship and puts it on Monkey while he is unconscious. With it she can control him through pain or even kill him. She doesn’t do it out of malice but because she knows that he is the one person who can help her get home.

Monkey is able to survive and has done so all his life. He has a multi-function telescopic staff with which he battles and an energy shield to help protect himself, albeit temporarily. He fights rough and ready, like a raging beast. His skin bears the scars of searing hot metal from the countless battles he has had with the machines. Even so, every battle is a test of strength. Go up against one or two robots and you may take some damage but survive. Go up against three or four and you are probably going to lose.

That’s why you are encouraged to exploit enemies and use their weapons against them. So you can do things like rip off a gun-scout’s machinegun and take out a dozen enemies with it, or turn an enemy into a ticking time bomb and throw him into a crowd of others. That is part of what makes the combat become tactical.

Trip comes in with her own set of skills, none of which involve fighting. She’s much more of the brains and is technologically savvy. She can cause distractions to decoy robots and turrets. She appropriates a flying CCTV camera, called a DragonFly, and reprograms it to scan for enemy positions and weaknesses. She can hack machinery that still has some residual power.

Together, you are stronger than apart and you slowly learn to trust and depend on each other. When in a new area, Trip will typically scan the area with the DragonFly. You will see the enemy positions. Should you go in fighting? Should you risk clambering over that one robot and take him out first as he is the weakest of the lot? Should you ask Trip to draw gunfire and put her at risk while you flank the enemies? Will Monkey and Trip ever see the value in each other’s worldviews?

Eurogamer: It sounds like it might work well in co-op. Would it? Does it?

Tameem Antoniades: Actually it’s not really. Monkey does all the really cool robot-dismemberment with all the grease, gristle and sweat associated and he can clamber the environment with great agility. Trip cannot do any of those things and though she is crucial in helping Monkey, who’d want to play Trip?

Eurogamer: I’m glad to see that Gollum’s back! What’s Andy responsible for this time around, and do you have a nickname for him yet? He’s practically part of the furniture.

Tameem Antoniades: Andy plays Monkey, and was also instrumental in casting, character development and was co-director with me on the shoot. We really enjoyed working together on Heavenly Sword and had a lot of fun on Enslaved. This time around, Andy and I co-directed the shoot in LA over four weeks with the wonderfully talented actress Lindsey Shaw playing Trip.

Just to be clear and fair to their involvement, our actors are not voice-acting but full performance-acting. We use performance capture where we capture every part of the body, face and voice for multiple actors playing off each other. Though technically and logistically challenging, I believe this is the best way to create characters and dialogue that feels honest and believable.

Eurogamer: Is Trip really Nariko? She must be related, at least!

Tameem Antoniades: I don’t really know what goes on in [visual art director] Alex Taini’s head. He likes redheads and so when we asked him to make Nariko hot, he gave her the longest, reddest hair anyone has ever seen! Trip… well, we asked him to make her hot, but not too hot. Red hair returns, this time shorter. Sigh. He defends this by saying it’s a different shade of red.

Eurogamer: Is there a supporting cast for us to meet and interact with?

Tameem Antoniades: It’s much more of a personal journey between Monkey and Trip, so while other characters come into play, there is not a large ensemble cast. While we were shooting Heavenly Sword, we really had no idea if we could successfully translate nuanced expression into the game. It turns out we could, and far better than I imagined possible.

When Alex Garland became involved, it was clear that we would be tackling darker, more nuanced themes and that has become our new challenge: to be able to read the intent and emotion of characters not by what they say but by what their face and eyes tell you.

Eurogamer: What lessons did you learn from Heavenly Sword, and how has that helped you?

Tameem Antoniades: We were hugely ambitious on Heavenly Sword. Perhaps a little naïve in our ambition but that is something to celebrate and encourage, not regret. We had no precedent or barometer to judge what a next-gen game should be.

We wanted to create the most beautiful environments seen in a game, to create real drama using acting talent, to go from the smallest detail of facial expression to scenes where you can fight 3000 people on-screen. To create the most complex combat system seen and the first one that happens in a physics-based world. And build an entire engine and toolset from scratch on a hardware platform that was, at the time, still unfinished.

We didn’t hit the mark on everything, but we broke new ground in many areas and I am proud of the work that was done as it defines who we are now and what we do as a studio.

Eurogamer: You set an outstanding example of dramatic and cinematic storytelling in Heavenly Sword, but does carrying that reputation ever feel like a burden?

Tameem Antoniades: It’s a joy and a privilege to be creating stories, characters and worlds. On Heavenly Sword I believed that drama was an important companion to gameplay and one of the most common questions we encountered was “Why bother?” Isn’t it all about gameplay after all?

I think as human beings we respond to pattern-matching which feeds the head, and stories which feed the soul. Games have been hugely successful at providing pattern-matching challenges but not so great at storytelling. We are getting better at stories but how often are you deeply moved by a game? The rare times it does happen, that game becomes unforgettable, something that shapes you as a human being in the same way that great music, books and films can.

For the types of games we do at Ninja, there should be no gameplay/story divide. They are not competing forces. If you manage to find a synthesis between the two, you are creating something magical and that surely is worth pursuing. That so many talented people are involved in the day-to-day grind in capturing that elusive goal is breathtaking to me.

eurogamer.net

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