Anyone who has listened to Secret Identity for any length of time is likely familiar with the name Antony Johnston. The mastermind behind the wonderful post-apocalyptic Wasteland series has also made quite a name for himself in the video game industry the past few years. Antony has written extensively for the Dead Space franchise of games, and wrote the comics set in the Dead Space universe as well. He also gave an amazing talk at GDC a couple of years ago, which everyone should check out.
This week, Antony's latest game writing endeavor arrives in US stores. Binary Domain is a a third-person squad-based shooter for the PS3 and Xbox 360 that takes place in a future where human-like robots have become a reality. We caught up with Antony this week to talk about his experience with writing the game, working with the famed Yakuza Studio and how the process for Binary Domain differed from his work on Dead Space.
Antony Johnston: I don’t think they were at first, no. Sega Europe contacted my agent and outlined what they were planning -- a Japanese game that felt like it was made in the West. I was one of several writers my agent put forward, and we all did some tryout samples. So obviously Sega must have known when they saw my resume, and maybe that influenced their final decision, but I don’t know for sure. Either way, they offered me the gig, and it sounded like something completely new and unique, which I always find hard to resist.
We know that Binary Domain is a third-person, squad-based shooter. Can you give us the premise of the game's story?
It’s 2080, and after a series of global floods, much of the world -- including Tokyo -- is under water. At the same time, advances in robotics and a decline in human population have led to most hard labour and/or hazardous jobs now being performed by robots. As part of this evolution in society and technology, the New Geneva Convention was signed, including a clause that made the development of human-like robots a serious crime.
Cue the (rather violent) revelation that someone is, indeed, building “Hollow Children” -- human-looking robots. International suspicion falls on the Amada Corporation of Japan, but Japan at this time is completely insular and protectionist, so there’s no chance of sending neutral inspectors in.
Instead, the authorities assemble and activate a clandestine Rust Crew -- soldiers trained specifically to eliminate robots, or “scrap-heads” -- and send them to infiltrate Tokyo and find out if Amada really is responsible for the Hollow Children. You play the leader of this team, an ex-US Marine Sergeant called Dan Marshall.
Aaaaand, cue guns. Lots of ‘em.
It was interesting. Game developers, being “wacky creative types”, are given a lot more freedom in how they work compared to most Japanese employees, and I could see glimpses of that during my time there, but it’s all relative; compared to how game devs operate in the US and UK, it was extremely structured and formal. I didn’t have a problem with that at all, but it was certainly different.
The thing is, even though everyone involved had plenty of experience in games, this was nevertheless new and strange territory. Sega Japan had never worked with a non-Japanese writer before, and only rarely with writers who weren’t Sega staff. At the same time, I’d never worked with a Japanese studio before. And to top it all off, Nagoshi-san was determined to make a kind of game they’d never attempted before. So we were all kind of fumbling our way through the fog together.
But it was good; I always felt welcome, and was treated with respect, even when we disagreed (which was often!) Overall, I can’t complain.
How did the writing process on this game differ from some of the work you've done with Dead Space?
Every game’s different, so it’s really hard to compare and quantify.
There was already a story in place for Binary Domain before I came on board, but it was very rough and needed a lot of work, not least because there were a lot of tropes and cultural references which simply don’t make sense outside of Japan.
The script itself then went through a huge amount of revision, going back and forth between myself and Sega, and there were a lot of story changes. We had characters disappear, new characters appear, whole levels and cutscenes change and change again, right the way through development. That’s fairly normal for game development, but because everything else about BD was so different as well, it just added to the stress.
And then came the squad command lines, which was an enormous database of all the possible permutations of a combat scene depending on who did what, which characters the player had selected for the team, how high the character’s trust level was with each AI character, and so on. So for the first time ever I enlisted the help of a few other writers, turning to people in my agents’ stable, and we split those lines up between us.
In short, it was really hard work!
Overall, it was definitely a positive experience for me, and I think for Sega as well.
There were parts that were difficult; the language and culture barriers presented problems, and there are aspects of the game, script, and acting that I wish I’d had more influence over (mainly to avoid certain Japanese stereotypes about Westerners creeping in). But writers are always our own worst critics, because we know what went on behind the scenes, and we’re *never* 100% happy with the end result! It’s much easier to focus on the things you wish you’d done better, than to step back and realise you did a lot of good stuff as well. And there really is a lot to like.
So perhaps I’d do things differently if something like this came up again, but despite all the difficulties, we pulled it off. Binary Domain is an absolutely unique game, and the product of a unique process. Considering the odds that were stacked against us, I’m very pleased with the result.
You can keep up with all of Antony's projects on his official website, www.antonyjohnston.com.