Dennis Detwiller talks Prototype
We sit for a nice cup of tea and a custard cream with Game Designer Dennis Detwiller, the mastermind behind Radical Entertainment's outrageous 'Prototype', an action title set for next-gen consoles and the PC in 2008.
What genre do you see Prototype slotting into, and does the game break convention when compared to near-rivals?
The game breaks with convention in many ways. For one it is not a straight-up story of good vs. evil. From the beginning, we imagined Prototype set in our world. This is incredibly important. A shape-shifter rampaging through Times Square in 2008 is engaging, but one on Mars in the year 2550 is not nearly as interesting. People need to relate to the situation/location on a fundamental level to buy-in.
It also puts the player and character in the same shoes - the experience the player has is identical to the character in the game. When they begin, they know nothing, and together they piece together the history of the world of Prototype.
Story is heart of Prototype. What can you tell us on the premise?
Prototype is about mystery, memory, retribution and what it means to be human. Unlike most games which gloss over the history of the main character ("My name is Mike Blade and I kill people...."). Prototype is about the history of the main character. Who were you before? What were your motivations, your morals, your goals?
The player must dig to the bottom of the mystery that is Alex Mercer and find out what makes him tick; and what he finds may not be to his liking.
How will this plot be integrated into the 'open-world' of the title, without harming either the plot, or impairing the freedom of the player?
We have a rather unique opportunity with a main character who can consume and become any character in the game. Alex Mercer collects minds like a detective gathers clues. In the game, this is represented by the Web of Intrigue, an interactive chain of clues which are actually minds of select important individuals, spread throughout the game world.
All of Alex's main abilities - how he fuels his powers, genetic advancement and health replenishment – are focused around consumption. Alex can consume humans, absorbing their mass, genetics and minds; allowing him to become a perfect duplicate of the target and, more importantly, allowing him full access to their memories. So, he consumes Web of Intrigue targets and gains a memory relevant to your history - these memories are displayed as videos that illustrate some fact dealing with Alex's past. The videos are available to you in an interactive web of nodes that you can search through in real-time. The more nodes you collect, the clearer the conspiracy that lies of the heart of Prototype becomes.
We've witnessed plots based around saving New York before. Is it fair to say this is a story inspired by others before it?
While there are significant influences on the Prototype story, it's not accurate to say that Alex's sole motivation is to save New York. While the events in New York City directly oppose Alex, his motivations are much more personal (and even greedy) than the altruistic idea of ‘saving the city’. Alex's motivations can be broken down to a single concept: to understand who he was before his transformation into a shapeshifter, and to find out who did this to him. Both Blackwatch — the government agency attempting to stop the outbreak in New York — and the outbreak itself hold the secrets of Alex's past. To uncover these secrets, Alex must confront and defeat both Blackwatch and the forces of the virus. He also has several personal reasons to stop the destruction of the city. His sister Dana is his lone tie to the life he once had — if New York dies, she dies with it. All in all, we hope to personalise Alex's motives, as opposed to regurgitating the same old ‘save the world’ tropes.
As for being inspired by other stories before it, what story isn't? However, I expect people to be surprised at the choices in the story. It certainly isn't the same old flat tale of good verses evil in an unchanging world or cartoon concepts. Prototype is dark, gritty and realistic, with enough twists and surprises to keep even the most jaded fan engaged.
There are two major applications to Alex's shapeshifting that have huge ramifications on gameplay. One, he can assume a perfect disguise by becoming the person he consumes, and two, he can instantly reshape his body into biological weaponry. In gameplay, these seamlessly blend. For example, Alex can consume and become a perfect duplicate of a military captain. He can then waltz right into the middle of a military base undetected and use his identity to call in an artillery strike on the base itself. If discovered, he can then grow a pair of three foot claws and cut his enemies to shreds. Or perhaps he’ll grow a body-full of chitinous armor to deflect tank rounds then use his infrared vision to locate targets in hiding. The greatest thing about the these powers is that you can activate them almost simultaneously, at least within a second or two.
How grandiose and detailed is your modeling of New York?
I grew up there, and I can tell you, as an avid videogame fan, it's the single best representation of New York I've seen. It's not a rote street-by-street imitation, it's the feeling of New York. More people, more cars, more noise and traffic and action per square foot - not an abandoned rubber-stamp simulation of the city. Prototype's New York is alive. It's funny and heartening to see people going on about the screenshots of the game that have been released; people are saying, "there's no way that's gameplay!" But it is.
Our world builders have put an incredible amount of detail into their work, and it shows. Anyone who has visited the city will instantly recognise it when they play the game; whether they're perched on top the Empire State Building or running through Central Park.
The city is open for exploration in any direction; including straight up, a prospect that in other titles is limited to a few vehicles. In Prototype the character can do this in vehicles or on foot. This isn't your typical free-roaming city.
A free, open-world to explore is at the heart of the game. What will we be able to do in this world, beyond the main story?
The second key element is the war brewing in New York between Blackwatch and the forces of the virus. The player can directly affect the outcome of conflicts between these groups. For instance, destroying military bases can cripple Blackwatch while destroying the sources of the virus can stop the tide of infection.
The third factor is the Web of Intrigue as mentioned above. These individuals are scattered around the world and hold the key to Alex's past. Imagine you're Alex and the military is fielding some experimental weapon against you. In response you hunt through the Web to uncover clues on the location of the test aircraft. Or maybe you find the whereabouts of the chief scientist in charge of development, or even liberate the vehicle itself from a military base by using the right disguise.
Finally, there are the key events. Even when Alex is in free-roaming outside of a mission, missions can come to him. One minute you might be trying to cross the city in a free-roaming style, and the next you might be neck-deep in Special Forces, infected creatures or even worse descending on your location.
Will there be a multiplayer mode, or a co-op mode?
There are plans for an online multiplayer mode which allows two players to travel through the game experience together. You can team up to tackle missions which might have given a single player a hard time. Combine powers to expand your destructive capabilities, share vehicles — with say, one player on driving and the 120 mm cannon and the other manning the .50 cal of a Abrams tank — share clues, leads and info you've discovered in the Web of Intrigue. All in all, this is the single most requested feature for multiplayer: co-op. And we don't have any of the conceptual problems of having two Alex's — he is, after all, a shape-shifter who has absolute control of his genetic structure. All he needs to do is grow a duplicate!
What games, or other entertainment mediums have proved influential?
We've looked to movies for inspiration, mostly. Taxi Driver, Old Boy, Memento and others are huge influences on the feelings we hope to portray in the game. Just as with every other creative endeavor, there are dozens more influences too subtle to list here.
What we wanted to hit above all else was the themes of mystery, power and alienation. Memento shows what it means to lose your mind piece by piece, moment by moment, all the while continually trying to put it back together again — the character himself is a mystery. Taxi Driver paints the picture of a man on the edge, filled with rage and ready to explode — Travis Bickle personifies alienation. Old Boy posits a prisoner suddenly released, metering out revenge on those who kept him in a cage — his power is his single-mindedness.
In a certain ways, Alex Mercer is a conglomeration of these characters, and a whole lot more.
Are there any differences between the game on different platforms?
It’s too early for us to discuss this front. Watch this space.
Tell us about the combat in the game, how will it differ from the many other action titles out there?
Combat is a frenetic experience. You can be engaged by three tanks, two dozen Marines, a flight of Apache gunships and a pack of monstrous creatures mutated by the virus all at the same time. What separates Prototype is the choices that are open to you.
In the above situation, you could hijack the Apache, consume and become one of the Marines in order to use his Javelin missile against the Infected, activate any number of shape-shifting powers, blend into the crowd in a perfect disguise, pick up a car and hurl it at an enemy, lead the group on a wild goose chase across the city, lure the military into an Infected area or vice versa, leap into an Abrams tank and fire the .50 cal or the main gun and more... The game is a sandbox in the truest sense, filled with elements to be exploited by the player.
Prototype also has one huge advantage. Thanks to the shape-shifting and disguise elements, the pace of the game is directly controlled by the player. They can grab a disguise and in seconds and disengage from a firefight by blending into the crowd. When they're done, they can activate their powers, reveal themselves and attack the enemy again. I think you’ll agree that this is something we could only do with next-gen platforms, and that’s the reason we all find Prototype such an exciting proposition.
Lastly, is Prototype's story envisaged as part of a wider plot which will continue beyond the game?
One of our main goals in Prototype was to give ourselves enough creative headroom to leave the concept open to future exploration. The elements presented in the game hold enough secrets, concepts and conspiracies to support way more than we could ever fit in any one game.
It’s a great feeling to look at a concept you helped create and realise there are a thousand other stories you could be telling in that world. With the way Prototype has been progressing I’m certain you’ll be seeing more of Alex Mercer in the future.
There are plenty of interesting dynamics at work within the story. We wanted to do something new with our storytelling. It builds to a resolution more like a mini-series than a movie. Along the way the main character discovers many things, not all of them good, and not every conflict is clearly resolved. Some questions remain hanging over Alex's head even after the game experience is over. The deeper you dig (say, by completing the Web of Intrigue) the clearer the answers might become. But, as in the real world, for every truth there are a thousand lies.
Thanks for your time, best of luck with completing Prototype.