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Hitting the Battlefield with Hardline


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About eighteen months ago, Battlefield Hardline creative director Ian Milham and I exchanged a series of emails. The ostensible reason for our communication was my review of Dead Space 3, which I had greatly enjoyed, for Grantland. So what, I asked, was Mr. Milham working on these days? “Funny you should ask,” he said. “What’s your schedule like?” Having just rolled off a game, I didn’t know whether I wanted to jump into yet another AAA cyclone, but the chance of working with Visceral wasn’t an opportunity I was going to let pass by. A few days later, my co-writer Rob Auten and I were sitting in the Electronic Arts atrium. All day Rob and I had been throwing out guesses as to what project we were going to discuss with Ian. Dead Space 4? Dante’s Inferno 2? Some new IP altogether? Then Ian finally said it: “Battlefield.”

I believe, at this point, Rob and I may have exchanged a dubious sidelong glance. Here’s the deal: I like and play military shooters. Rob does, too. But I was also getting bored with them, and had said as much publicly. As a game writer, especially, the military shooter poses real problems, not only in terms of verisimilitude but in the paucity of potential storytelling scenarios. Simply put, I never wanted to virtually invade China, Russia, or Iran again. We started to tell Ian that we didn’t have much of a desire to write “whisky-tango/target-down”-type dialogue, so good luck with the project. That’s when Ian smiled, held up his hand, and said, “That’s not what we’re doing.”


Ian started to describe a murky world of crooked cops and ruthless robbers in which, when the story begins, the characters already pretty much know each other. Imagine, he said, a game with 80 percent less exposition than games usually have. Imagine a gameworld in which everyone was equal parts bad and good. The storytelling, he said, had one primary goal: People over plot. Ian didn’t want the characters to talk about “the plan,” or where to go next, or how evil the bad guys are and how awesome the good guys are. Rather, he wanted characters that revealed themselves as messed up, funny, compelling people. Then Ian brought up the crime writer Elmore Leonard. “Something like that,” he said. “Tonally, that’s what I’m looking for.” Leonard is probably best known for having written the novels and stories that Jackie Brown, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Justified are based on, but I’ve always viewed him as the single greatest genre writer in the history of American literature. Rob and I looked at each other again and nodded. It looked like we were going to make a Battlefield game after all.

Battlefield Hardline doesn’t reinvent the video-game storytelling wheel. Our goal, however modest it might sound, was to try to achieve a tone that games don’t often have. Our television-episode presentation format gives us the opportunity to be dizzingly meta sometimes, and our wonderful actors gave us the opportunity to bear down into the characters when we needed to. We also tried to approximate Leonard’s signature “goofball seriousness” — a drollness that’s often comic but never silly. If there’s a thing I’m proudest of in this game, though, I’d have to say it’s the ambient thug dialogue, which is the kind of sentence only someone who writes video games will ever find himself saying. Because we wanted our gameplay to encourage players to observe and monitor potential combat encounters before going live with gunfire, we needed a lot of guard and thug chatter. Hardline is stuffed with so much ambient guard and thug chatter — the total game script is well over a thousand pages — I suspect several people on the audio team would pelt Rob and me with spoiled food if given the chance. But all of us at Visceral wanted to breathe at least a little life into every possible corner of the game. So when you sneak around, listen to and watch those guards. I promise they don’t talk about the weather or how they hate being guards. There are Easter eggs galore in their conversations, and other things, I hope, that simply make people laugh.

More than anything else, working on Battlefield Hardline put to the test a core belief of mine, which is this: Storytelling is the stately presentation of What Happened, and shooters are rarely very good at communicating What Happened. Why? I think because shooter gameplay, and its considerable cognitive demands, constantly competes with the player’s awareness of what’s happening. Shooters are not stately; shooters are narrative rosaries strung with beads of pure chaos. I think that’s what Ian was saying, too, those many months ago, when he talked about “people over plot.” Video games are at their storytelling best when they introduce you to memorable people and give you memorable things to do, and everyone at Visceral did their best to ensure the Battlefield Hardline campaign had plenty of both.

Tom Bissell
Battlefield Hardline Writer

Learn more about the cast and crew of Battlefield Hardline here.

The post Hitting the Battlefield with Hardline appeared first on The Battlefield Blog.

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