Jason Blundell Wants to Keep Players Guessing in Black Ops 3
Ben Sheene / Nov 12th, 2015 No Comments
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 has broken its fair share of records in terms of sales and player counts. Considering the amount of content packed into the game at launch, it isn’t much of a surprise. Treyarch’s first current-gen entry in the franchise received an impressive 96 percent rating from Gaming Illustrated. Not only does the multiplayer hit all the right notes, the campaign has proven to be a high point for a series not always recognized by its narrative.
Before Black Ops 3 made is way to players, Gaming Illustrated had the opportunity to sit down with Jason Blundell, director for the game’s campaign and zombies mode. Blundell fielded plenty of questions about the franchise’s path into the future, player expectations for a complex narrative, and whether or not the zombies lore will ever make total sense. And for those of you looking for more about Black Ops 3, be sure to check out our multiplayer-centric interview with Treyarch’s Dan Bunting.
You can listen to the audio version of the interview below or continue on to read the interview.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): What do you want to be the last thought in a player’s head after they finish the campaign of Black Ops 3?
Jason Blundell: The last thought… I should play this some more!
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): That’s a good one, I’ll accept that. All right, how about: Do you hope players are scratching their head at the end of it? Wondering what just transpired.
Jason Blundell: I don’t hope that, I hope it’s an ending that provokes conversation and opinion. It’s a narrative and I think it’s very much about the journey rather then the destination, right? I think people who found it intriguing, people who found it engaging will want to go back and look at it again; take certain ideas and hypotheses that they have, certain thoughts that they have and want to look at certain aspects closer. All the sign post are in there, multiple sign posts are in there for different theories. There’s multiple right answers as well, which is important.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): I can definitely see that. Have you always planned for the narrative to be so cerebral? I think the common conception about Call of Duty is you’re playing out action movies. There’s these big exciting action sequences. In the campaign you didn’t really have… I mean you had big explosions.
Jason Blundell: Sure.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): You had exciting moments, but maybe not like those set pieces in previous entries. Instead I think the last part of the game made you sit back and use your head a little bit and think about what you are doing.
Jason Blundell: Black Ops really has always been a story about individuals. We’ll paint a dark world or a world in some sort of strife and conflict and then we tell these very personal stories going through it. I think we’ve always wanted people to intellectually engage, sometimes we are more overt about it. Sometimes it’s more for the people who are interested in that stuff.
Black Ops 1 is very interesting in that some people walked away as Alex Mason being the hero. He’s more of an anti-hero. In Black ops 2 we challenged the idea of the bad guy when we looked and said, “okay well Mendez… there’s a different point of view of things.” You can look through the prism in a different way.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): Yeah, he has a reason for being the way he is.
Jason Blundell: He’s got reason and you may not agree with his method but you can also see there’s two sides to a story. Same with Woods, right? The guy that we learned is a hero and is a bad ass macho, ra-ra America guy. You can also in Black ops 2 look at it and say, yeah that passion can also result in negative outcomes. That focus and drive, I feel like we’ve always been cerebral in one way, which is to challenge the conception of narrative and story telling. I hope that’s also been expressed in Black Ops 3.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): I think one of the big things I noticed was, it wasn’t necessarily soldiers versus a terrorist who’s trying to destroy the world. It’s more a contained plot, I think it gets even more focused because it becomes about you the player, the two team members, Hendricks and Kane. I felt like for the first time it was really contained so I got to know these characters pretty intimately. Was there always the focus to keep a small cast like that?
Jason Blundell: Yeah, it was a very big drive to have first of all an ensemble cast. A cast were we could get them into the (mo-cap) suits, and have access to them everyday and put them in. Actors really come into their own when they have time to play together. That’s why actors and dramatic groups have workshops. It’s to allow them to move and you get to this place where the actor understands the character. Not only that, but understand how that character responds to another character. In games normally it’s very rushed. Okay, do this scene, do this scene. We did one of our longest recording schedules just so the actors could get used to it. It was also very important at times to not always explain to them every level of the script. Otherwise, if you wink to the camera, if you know something, you’ll act it or portray it in a certain way. We have to talk it out with an actor, you’re asking them to trust you. An actor’s job is to bring an emotion or a certain depth to it. To say to them, “okay I can’t tell you everything about this but this is what you know right now.” They have to put their trust in you, by giving a longer lead time we could build that and I think it worked very well.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): One thing I couldn’t help but notice was the prominence of strong female roles in the game. During my playthrough it was interesting seeing her be tough, be brutal. I also remember a mission where I shot a solider and I heard a woman die in pain. It shocked me because I don’t think a lot of people expect that from such a violent game, even like a war story. Have you always thought of incorporating or giving the players the choice to be either a man or a woman. How did that work in the design narrative?
Jason Blundell: It was very important because as you will see through the codex, right? I don’t know how much you’ve looked into it…
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): A decent amount.
Jason Blundell: A decent amount, right. We wanted to show our workings and we’re guessing the future. We don’t have a crystal ball, right? What we try to do is make logical small steps and then there’s a therefore and a therefore. We talk to our futurist, who are essentially historians that are interested in technology and so forth. It sounds cliché but a futurist essentially will look at events of the past to be able to predict the future in lots of senses. History just repeats itself. As we’d moved forward and showed stuff we got to a point where they said the role of females in warfare will only increase. Countries now have got women in support roles, which only 50 years ago there would be absolutely no women in the military at all.
Women in the battlefield. With the power of current gen I felt we could do justice in terms of the number of assets and things that we do. It’s full mo-cap, full VO; all the outfits are female outfits, male outfits. You have to have the right amount of memory because it’s a Call of Duty game as well. I have to have all my female assets loaded and all my male assets loaded. It just became the right time to be able to take on that technological and storage challenge as well. Also the narrative challenge with a 3 year development I felt you could do justice. Essentially you’re doing every scene twice.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): Right, it didn’t feel like a palette swap and a different voice actor. It felt like a living, breathing person plus that actor filling a role.
Jason Blundell: Yeah.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): Going into the whole technological aspect of it, I remember playing at the end of it. It’s very … It’s speaks to how detrimental technology can be when it becomes to advanced…
Jason Blundell: That’s your interpretation of it.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): Okay that’s my interpretation…
Jason Blundell: No, that’s a good interpretation.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): I feel like there’s so many ways you can interpret that part. If someone were to take that path do you feel that in anyway the futuristic aspect of Call of Duty is taken. Do you think it’s detrimental to the Call of Duty name at all or maybe how the series will work out in the future?
Jason Blundell: In what sense?
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): I think there’s always going to be people who want to keep it classic. Don’t get too advanced. On our website one of our writers questioned, when does the warfare become too advanced? I think as long as it works in a narrative sense as long as it works in a gameplay sense, it’s fine. Do you every think it might… When would it lose sight of the Call of Duty name?
Jason Blundell: Here’s the thing, right. I could break that down into multiple elements. From an mechanics point of view, pure game mechanic point of view, it’s incredibly liberating. You can go after aspects that really give customization and personalization to the player like never before. That’s not time period specific but it gives certain liberties to you.
There’s that aspect about dealing with the future stuff. Now Black Ops 3 you can actually change and take the mechanics or not take the mechanics and make it like a traditional Call of Duty of the past as well. You can take the copy cat rig and now you’re picking up weapons off the floor. You don’t have to switch on the EV mode or the TAC mode, they’re all level agnostic abilities. You can switch them on or off whenever you want or take them or don’t take them. From that point of view it really opens you up to make it the kind of game you want to make it. From a narrative point of view, and I’m going to get a little bit pretentious at this point…
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): Go ahead.
Jason Blundell: Thank you. I would say greater people than myself have said that if you tell a story about a person and his experiences and his time, then you tell a story about all people at all times. In other words, people are people no matter whether it’s 200 years in the future 200 years in the past. The same emotions: fear, anger, loss, jealousy, revenge. These things have always been the same, it’s the reason why Shakespeare still works. You can still read it and go, “yeah, I get that, I get depression, I get those things.” That would work back then as it works in the future as well.
Black Ops has always been, like I said before, a very personal story about individuals and relationships. The world around it could be the future, the past. For us as well there was a very natural narrative progress. The first game is man corrupts man; Reznov corrupting Alex Mason. The second one is man corrupts machine; Mendez taking control of the US drones for his own ends. This one you could describe as machine corrupts machine, or machine corrupts man. However you want to look at it. It was natural for us to move forward because that was really a progression of thought and a progression of a narrative concept we wanted to see through.
To the question of the die-hard guy or the guy who says “I want my history back” or whatever… sure, and I would never rule that out. For us there was this natural flow that we had to see through. I really happy how it worked out.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): I noticed especially in the latter part of the game there was a lot of self referential stuff. You hearken back to World War 2, shot up some zombies, I think there was a bit of fourth wall breaking. Are you paying homage to people who have been following Treyarch as a studio throughout Black Ops and World at War or were you also shooting for a greater narrative purpose of that?
Jason Blundell: A little bit of both I think. There’s a cheeky nod to… I mean I can’t hide the fact that I’m a Brit. A little cheeky nob there. We’ve played with different ideas. The narrative is true to itself, it stands up on its own in that way. For guys who are familiar with some of our previous works yes, there are nods to them in there as well. I never wanted to put something in that would be like, “where the hell did that come from?”
When I do want that it’s because I want you to feel, “where the hell did that come from?” The zombies in the Demon Within level was really about trying to eject you from this experience. It just happens to be in my other mode that I look after. I got a very good scary thing. It’s two things, right. It was an expression of an evil trying to force you out and it was a little nod to “yeah you remember this.” When we started off with the sound effect, anyone who’s been with us for quite a while would instantly recognize what that sound was.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): I think sometimes Call of Duty games get a lot of flakk for their campaign. People say they’re really short, brief. I noticed in between missions when you’re at your safe house you can go on the computer. You can read up on the collectibles you’ve found. There are audio files, there’s web pages you can explore. There’s a lot of lore tucked into it, also a lot of Easter eggs. Is that for people who want more out of the story? How do you hope people explore and consume the story you’re trying to tell? The deeper story you’re trying to tell.
Jason Blundell: It’s the longest campaign we’ve created to date. I think that goes to address it, by giving the customization and the social aspect to it as well. It’s a more all-enveloping story in the current campaign experience in my opinion. We know there’s certain segments of the community who maybe don’t want to read the all the pages of stuff. There are very active guys who do. Not everyone would want to look for possible hidden game modes that are in there or other aspects. There are guys who do, and those are the things that made it possible for zombies to be the thing that it is today. Which is parts of the community who really enjoy that stuff, we enjoy making it. Based on who you are and how you like to play and how much time and energy… I like the idea of a game giving your energy back to you.
If you want to get in there and read that stuff and look out for things we’ve put the energy in to give you a return on that. It’s very important to us. I think that’s a special brand, that’s Treyarch. What we’ve always done is really put the foot down in terms of the amount and kind of content. We’re not happy until we can fill every byte of a disk and we’ve given you your monies worth at the time.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): Ignoring spoilers for the very end of the game, I played with subtitles on. I saw that my character was referred to as Player. Was there every a point in time where he or she had a name? If you can’t say it I understand.
Jason Blundell: Let me answer your questions with a question. Who the “Player” is and what they represent to you could be part of your explanations of the narrative as well. By using the gaming generic term Player I’m deliberately making a choice to leave it up to you.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): I felt that given how the game ended, it opened up the idea of a player. Okay yes you’re a player, you want to put yourself as the solider who is your avatar. You want to play as them, so maybe not giving them a name helps you live that role more. Given how twisty and turny the end is it actually makes a lot of sense. Another thing I’m curious about, how was the co-op important in building the narrative. Does that have any affect on how people might interpret the ending?
Jason Blundell: One thing I will say to you, there were moments in the game where… Let me explain it this way, I’m getting a little excited now. In the very beginning I was thinking what happens if you have another player in. Two guys, three guys, four guys; the narrative can’t ignore the fact that there’s these people. You can do one of two things: embrace them, the team, right? Or you don’t, right?
I didn’t like the idea of just saying you don’t, so the co-op experience is actually part of the narrative if you experience that way. There’s a particular moment in the campaign as well, where if you’ve got multiple players it starts to speak to something that you wouldn’t notice as a single player.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): I’m interested in that because I experienced the game in single player the first time. Then I did a few missions in co-op and was curious. Not only from a gameplay standpoint but from a narrative standpoint. Knowing that part of the game is based on these soldiers being connected to each other, their minds being one. When you’re playing the game with other friends you need to be as one so you can work together as a team. I feel like that’s a hidden story aspect in a way. People might not think of it too much but, like the lore, it’s there if you want to reach out.
Jason Blundell: Even the use of third person camera has a deliberate narrative reason.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): Actually, you saying that makes me wonder about it now. I noticed there were several moments where it was in first person then cutting to third. I know this isn’t just for a dramatic effect…
Jason Blundell: You’re always the person in the center of the third person representation as well. If you and I were playing I would see me and you would see you. Now we could have done it and had you seen both of us in that cutscene and so forth. It was very deliberate narrative choice. You are the center of that experience.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): Finally, after completing a pretty whirlwind last third of the game. Players may discover that they can go into Nightmares mode.
Jason Blundell: Did you play much of that?
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): Yeah.
Jason Blundell: Oh good.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): I was fascinated by the fact that you constructed a new narrative on top of what you already had. Especially from the perspective of the female soldier. Did you always have that in mind to do a spin off?
Jason Blundell: Yeah, there were multiple reasons. We’ve been having feedback for a very long time that they wanted a zombie campaign. There’s multiple reasons why I believe separating the mode into it’s own product was not the right thing. I’m about making a product based on your mood or based on what you see out of gaming. It’s all on the disk. You’ve got an experience for everyone, it’s very important in my mind. I also wanted to speak to that desire and because of the completely reconstructed A.I. system and everything else we were doing. It became feasible so I wanted to go after it this time. I also wanted to construct a narrative which… We essential wrote four narratives for the campaign on top of each other. We said, “well we’ve made four lets make a fifth one.”
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): “Okay, why not!”
Jason Blundell: Basically my lead writer Craig Houston who writes the campaign and has written every single zombie map as well, we started saying what what would it be like and let’s splinter off and tell a very dedicated story.”
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): I’m interested in how it fragments the narrative. From the single player… well, from the main campaign and how it moves the missions around. I think it’s fascinating that characters you meet late in the normal campaign you encounter early into Nightmares. It’s interesting how that plays into it and how the dialog crafts this narrative. Kane, you meet her for the first time and it’s almost unsettling because she’s been with you the whole time in the main campaign. I’m interested in seeing how deep that goes.
Jason Blundell: Some people’s theories on the campaign may also lead them to look at Nightmares in a certain way.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): Yeah I get that impression. Okay, one last questions. With regards to zombies, are people going to ever truly understand everything that goes on with the story?
Jason Blundell: One day. I would say this, which is Shadows of Evil, The Giant which is the bonus map, and the four DLCs that are going to come after this have all been considered right up front, which we never had done that before. What we normally do with a DLC is pick up certain threads and answer them or open up new questions and do the next one. This one we planned it all out, the writing team and myself, we sat down and we planned it all out. Right now I’ve got my design guys back at the studio building all these things ready for the DLC season.
That allowed us to pick up some threads going back all the way from World at War. Some things that have really been vexing the community for a while. Tied up some of them, opened up some new questions. It all ties together, it’s all connected. Someone asked me why we went off and did 1940s film noir. “What they hell does that got to do with anything?” It absolutely ties into the story we’re telling as a whole.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): Well there’s a reason for it to take place in that time period.
Jason Blundell: Yeah, we’ve been there before with Mob of the Dead. Then you had Origins, the Origins characters turning up. Did you notice the blood vials that are on Richtofen?
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): No.
Jason Blundell: He’s got two little vials hanging down from him, if you look on those vials there is the prisoner’s serial numbers from Mob of the Dead on there.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): People who invested in Zombies for awhile will pick up on it and appreciate.
Jason Blundell: Yeah, my other job, by the way, is to write all Easter eggs for Zombies. So it’s my fault.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): That actually seems like a really fun job. A little treasure hunt.
Jason Blundell: It’s great fun. Whenever I think I’m being particularly clever they get it in less then a week. I got them this time. I’ve got some good ones.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): Sit back and just wait for the Reddit post in the community.
Jason Blundell: Exactly, I have to sit there and wait for them, yeah.
Ben Sheene (Gaming Illustrated): Jason, I want to thank you for your time and look forward to trying to solve Black Ops 3’s mysteries.
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