An interview with Brian Kindregan, Starcraft II’s lead writer

This is not Brian Kindregan

Yesterday I put up an old interview with Dustin Browder, and today it’s Brian Kindregan. Kindregan is the lead writer on Heart of the Swarm, and joined the Starcraft II team about one year before Wings of Liberty was completed. Before that he was a Bioware man, working on games Mass Effect 2 and Jade Empire, as well as storyboarding the Oscar-winning short The Chubb Chubbs back in 2002.

But the most impressive thing about Kindregan is that prior to meeting him I had a fairly apathetic attitude towards Starcraft’s lore. I love Starcraft multiplayer, was the thinking, and so whether it comes with a story doesn’t concern me. As with most things, researching for the interview beforehand exposed my own ignorance of an intricate piece of world-building. Starcraft’s universe is in the traditions of the best science fiction: it is infested with all sorts of alien scum and villainy, but rooted in humanity. Over our chat Kindregan stoked my nascent interest, and convinced me it’s not all based on Warhammer 40,000.

If you’re interested in Kindregan’s work I recommend this great short story on Blizzard’s site: Mothership. He has his own site too but clearly doesn’t use it – hell, when millions of people are playing through your stories, who needs a blog? Enjoy the interview.

Brian T. Kindregan

Rich Stanton: You’re humanising a race that’s totally animalistic – where do you start?

Brian Kindregan: I start by thinking about it quite a lot, writing down a lot of notes and trying to figure out a way to not totally screw up the Zerg. As you said it’s essentially trying to figure out what it is about that race that humans can react to and understand and plug into, without turning them into human beings wearing Zergy suits. We definitely want to keep that strange alien ‘other’ quality to them. But at the same time they have to have something we can plug into as viewers and sort of understand and buy into.

RS: What would that be?

BK: There’s a lot of different ways to think about it. I mean, just by having voice acting – a human being, even if they have a strange accent, saying these lines of dialogue immediately pulls you in because your ears and your brain make certain judgements about a character based on the way that they talk.

I think for me the biggest thing about the Zerg is that they have a sense of belonging: obviously they’re a hive mind and many Zerg don’t even have individual sentience, but certain Zerg do – like queens, for instance, cerberates. Overlords as well, interestingly enough – I’ve discovered a lot of people don’t know that.

There are certain characters as well obviously, but even if they’re sentient they’re still part of a greater whole, and this is something that they share with the Protoss who have the Khala, right? I think they percieve themselves to be part of… I wouldn’t say a community because it’s something deeper than community, but to share in something greater than themselves all the time.

That’s something that I think many people feel some degree of – whether it’s the town you grew up in, a particular neighborhood or just your family. That’s something humans think about quite a lot – do I belong, do I belong in this group, how does this group feel about that group? All of that is a very human thing, but it’s also an entry point for us to understand how the Zerg think and feel, and it opens up into a whole universe of very non-human things.

RS: Were you tempted to not have them speaking?

BK: That’s something we’ve debated quite a bit and there’s still possibilities for characters who might make growling noises or whatever – another possibility is to have characters who speak but their mouths don’t move because they’re all psionically linked – which would be factually correct, but would sort of look broken visually. There are a number of ways to go and we’ve explored all of them and we might use all of them or just some.

RS: How do you come up with the GRAWR noises the Zerg do make?

BK: Well that, really as a writer I don’t have to worry about – I just call the sound department and say ‘Hey, can you give me like twenty different growls? Make some of them sound irritated. OK great, bye!’ It’s the easiest part of my day.

Kerrigan

RS: Kerrigan seemed to veer between bloodthirsty and philosophic at a quick pace – do you think of her in terms of one mind or multiple personalities?

BK: I wouldn’t say she’s quite fractured into multiple personalities. She’s struggling in a couple of ways. One is, I equate it to having drunk quite a bit the night before and you wake up and have fuzzy memories of doing some things and some of them might have been quite bad and you’re trying to piece it all together.

She’s struggling with what she did as the Queen of Blades [lots of genocide], and whether or not that’s really her or was it this other person or is it some combination of the two. And then there’s even things she did way back when she was a Ghost assassin when her memory was regularly wiped so she’d only have fractured bits from that as well.

Taking the sum total of all these half-remembered things into the present and trying to figure out who she is now and who she needs to become – what she needs to do to survive and whether it’s worth surviving at all. There are so many things weighing on her that she’s going to struggle and swing back and forth between some extremes for a while. And some of that is also stuff that moving forwards we might smooth out a little.

RS: Is that development in any way player-authored by, for example, the battle focus paths you choose in the campaign?

BK: I’m not sure if that’s the source but we’re definitely looking at ways to keep the player engaged with the battle focus.

Statue of Mengsk

RS: Kerrigan’s troubles are on a galactic scale, like you say. So why’s she still obsessed with Mengsk? Surely he’s a speck.

BK: I tend to think it would actually magnify that. If I was the leader of a race and there was someone who had done some really terrible things to me in the past and I had tried to kill them a couple of times and not succeeded I think that that would magnify their position to the extent I would be obsessed with killing them.

RS: It sounds like your job involves a lot of interesting self-projection

BK: [laughs] Yeah that is most of my job, trying to step into someone’s head like that.

RS: Starcraft II’s episodic structure is expanding the universe in a big way. How do you do this in a way that doesn’t suck like, for example, Star Wars?

BK: It’s always a risk. It is a big problem too of perception – I mean, for me, I feel the same way about Star Wars, the first three movies, well the first two really. And I’m probably sitting here today because of A New Hope a little bit. But at the same time, as terrible as this is to say, I’ve met some younger people who were 12 when the new movies came out and they think they’re awesome. I don’t know what’s wrong with those kids but… a part of it in other words is that I’m so invested in that experience I had when I was seven, because I am very old and was actually alive when Episode IV came out, that of course everything that comes after can’t be as good. That stuff that came out when I was in my twenties? It can’t be as good. I was in my twenties.

There are still lessons to be learned though – you want to find out what the core values of that universe are and try to stick with those. Starcraft for instance is a grim dark place where people die all the time. And none of them die in bed surrounded by many loving grandchildren. It just doesn’t happen in the Starcraft universe.

Of course there will be creative decisions along the way that people will not be thrilled about, but keeping those kinds of things in mind are ways to stay true to a universe and expand it while still keeping it all a part of the same thing and not have that feeling of ‘Oh – they sold out’ or whatever.

RS: You say grim, but I always quite liked the little bit of hokeyness in the first Starcraft – did SCII consciously move away from this?

BK: I wouldn’t say that was conscious… I think that we were focused on setting the tone for what that universe is right now. The original was quite a grim dark thing punctuated by those moments, yes, but we had quite a few moments in Wings – whether we had enough or not I don’t know. The news got pretty goofy at times, and there’s the moment you find out Matt Horner, a very very serious character, was apparently involved in a shady marriage to a merc with a cybernetic eye… there were a few of those.

RS: In terms of HotS what we’ve seen is very Kerrigan-focussed, is that true of the whole?

BK: I think yeah. Right now the plan is to have her on most of the maps – one of things about hero characters is that they’re really fun to play with, I think. But to be honest one of the things in the original Starcraft was I would start a mission with Jim Raynor and the game would say JIM RAYNOR MUST NOT DIE, so guess what? I wouldn’t use Jim Raynor – he was in the back of my base hiding. I didn’t really use him that much.

I think a great example of using hero characters and having it work well was the cave mission near the end of Wings of Liberty where you had four hero characters and three could ‘die’ which meant they just fell over – but as long as one was still standing all three would heal and get back up. That was fun but then…

JIM RAYNOR MUST NOT DIE

RS: There’s something unrealistic about being surrounded by monsters and effectively spraining an ankle.

BK: Yeah, exactly. I think Kerrigan offers us an opportunity to do that – have a hero character right in the heart of battle doing all sorts of crazy things and commanding her army – and yet not have that threat of losing the entire mission just because you didn’t husband her hit points. I don’t know if she fell in combat for you, but she gets transported back to the hatchery and after a time gets reborn.

RS: How does the planet mechanic work?

BK: It depends very much on the world – obviously on Char there were quite a lot of Zerg running around, many of them feral. And then you have K’aldar which previous to Queen N’asbash bring her brood there was empty of Zerg. And Kerrigan doesn’t really recover many Zerg from that planet. So it depends. She will go places where there is no Zerg presence and then she will go places where there most definitely is.

RS: In general though we’re talking about Kerrigan re-infesting the sector here?

BK: Yeah, she’s definitely re-building the Zerg swarm in the Koprulu sector, this is a resurgence of the Zerg who were shattered when she was de-Zergified but also before that she had kind of gone quiet and brought back most of her forces to Char in the four years between Brood War and Wings – now the entire sector is getting shaken up and it’s all changing.

RS: What can you tell me about that teaser trailer?

BK: Very little. It is definitely a teaser and supposed to whet the appetite but it’s also a spoiler-ific section of the story so… I could synopsise what you saw but…. you’ve seen it. There’s Nova though, that’s interesting.

RS: Is Tychus proper dead?

BK: Yes.

RS: Would you say ‘Will’ is the theme of HotS’s campaign?

BK: Yeah, that’s interesting that you picked up on that. Yes, absolutely – strength of will and force of will are absolutely… I was just about to make a terrible pun and say [laughs] she WILL take control. But no, strength of will and force of will are a huge part of what makes Kerrigan what she is and what the Zerg are about, I mean literally it is a leader controlling a race based on their strength of will. To me it kind of goes back to what a lot of the characters in Starcraft are about – again, these are not the kind of characters that die in bed. And a lot of times the only thing that carries them forward is sheer will.

RS: Is there some kind of connection between Nova and Kerrigan we don’t know about?

BK: There was a manga put out that shows they trained at the same Ghost academy, but they weren’t there at the same time. Nova is I think about ten years younger than Kerrigan. Kerrigan was the most powerful student they ever had at that academy, and Nova was the only one that ever came close to her.

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Monster Hunter 4: Wild Swing

I accidentally took the above image while screengrabbing the new Monster Hunter 4 trailer, and for a brief instant felt like DeadEndThrills. If that’s the first time you’ve heard of that site, leave here immediately, because it contains the best pictures of videogames ever taken by anyone, and is constantly updated.

Back to Monster Hunter 4. If you haven’t seen last week’s trailer, I thoroughly recommend it.

 

Capcom have gone very Dragon’s Dogma with this, most notably in the clambering and the guy wielding a greatsword in mid-air. Grabbing monsters I like very much, because Dragon’s Dogma’s combat has a winning blend of depth and immediacy that can easily be married to the greater precision of a Monster Hunter. Well, I say easily. But I really don’t like the jumping attack. Weapons in Monster Hunter are brilliant because of the detail that goes into their use – as in, ‘how would a guy actually swing this thing at a giant dragon?’ The only other (thirdperson) games with weapons like it are the Souls duo, and for me it’s the biggest part of why I like hunting monsters.

People often talk about accessibility and depth like they’re two different things, which is to ignore all those games that get it right. Blizzard are absolute geniuses at this. I’d say Vanquish is another – much as I love Bayonetta, I’ve seen too many people put off to include it here. The trick is instantly gratifying feedback, the gift that keeps on giving. When a punch isn’t just a punch, but a zooming fist of justice that connects every time with a gigantic wham, you’re onto something that will delight new players (keeping them in to learn more) and keep on delighting grizzled vets hundreds of hours later.

Capcom, whatever the company’s other weaknesses, has always been great at this. It’s no surprise that the Monk class in Diablo 3 has basically been constructed by looking at old Capcom games. So I’ve got a lot of faith they can pull off MH4’s new system, but that midair greatsword swing does make me worry. It seems crazy to say this about Monster Hunter, but it’s just not realistic. And no matter how much jazzy feedback they incorporate into this new system, as soon as the emphasis moves away from quasi-simulation of weapon swings and precision blows, it’s not going to be the same. I’ve got a lot of faith in Capcom, but all the same: talons crossed.

Do I dare to eat a peach melba?

There was a bit of chat on twitter this morning about ice cream, sparked off by Jeffrey Matulef finding this fun Guardian piece about vinegar and celery ice cream being sold in Italy. I don’t see the sense in messing around, straight-up vanilla ftw.

It made me think of a favourite anecdote involving ice cream, which I heard from a guy who collected literary anecdotes. I’ve never seen it in a book or had it confirmed, so there’s no guarantee of veracity. But it’s too good to be fake.

T.S. Eliot was a big fan of ice cream. In the later part of his life, we’re talking the 1950s here, Eliot was a real grandee. You could almost say he was prematurely canonised. Anyway one day he was in an ice cream parlour, having an ice cream, when an American tourist noticed him.

“Hey! Aren’t you T.S. Eliot?”

Eliot confirmed that this was the case.

“Hell, if I was a great poet, I wouldn’t be sitting there eating ice cream!”

Eliot replied:

“You, sir, are not a great poet.”

Perfect.

When good box art goes bad, part 1

When I was seven or eight years old, I loved Double Dragon II on NES. Not only was it about beating people up (+1) with weapons (+2), not only did it change between 2D and 3D, but it was co-op (+1000). NES games with genuine multiplayer were like gold dust in those days, with many offering it up on the box specs only to produce a lame turn-taking mode. So Double Dragon II, alongside Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers, ruled the roost after school.

I later found out that what I thought was Double Dragon II is in fact very different from the original Double Dragon II arcade machine – not the least of which changes were the 2D sections that my younger self somehow enjoyed.

Anyway, the copy I had came in a box with this art. It’s fair enough, as far as B-movie action stills go, and even manages to get a few nods to the actual game in there. And I love the metallic sheen over the whole thing, like this is a city where baby oil is mandatory.

But then the other day, what should I see but something that makes the above look like a da Vinci. A true monstrosity. Virgin licensed the game for distribution on other platforms, and clearly the original art wasn’t part of the deal. So they came up with the amazing spam-face men. I think the only thing to admire about this is that it keeps the low-budget theme going by just not drawing one of the thugs. Note also presence of blood to indicate the Virgin brand’s ‘edginess’.

It makes you want to cry. Or at least vomit on Richard Branson. Still, £9.99 for the Spectrum cassette? Can’t complain.

Dark Souls: Dickyman Vs. Dastardly Dan

The best thing about Dark Souls can be the worst – its strange, semi-tangible online structure. A big part of it is an ever-present threat: despite this being a largely singleplayer game, at times your world can be ‘invaded’ by another player who wants to kill you.

There is nothing else like this. Invasions are the scariest, most exciting thing in the Souls games, because they’re beyond your control. If you stick Halo on and load up a Team Slayer match, you know you’re in for some competitive action. But there you’re prepared, there’s time to get into the mindset. In Dark Souls you can just be checking out the view, or even worse in the middle of a big barney, when the warning text flashes up.

There’s no time to get ready, and that’s what makes invasions such a thrill. As soon as the warning appears you decide how to play it, going hell-for-leather or sneaking around and trying to catch the bastard off-guard. It’s possible to summon other players to help, but the element of surprise often precludes this.

One day I was in the Painted World of Ariamis. It’s a gorgeous, melancholy location, a snow-coated mystery filled with creepy monsters. One of the scariest in Dark Souls, a kind of crow-stroke-harpie, makes its home here.

As is usual while playing Dark Souls, I was bricking it. Creeping slowly, teasing out enemies one at a time, doing everything possible to eke out my health and avoid dying. Mid-battle with a harpy, the legend appears on-screen: Dastardly Dan has invaded.

Now I don’t know about you, but that name cracks me up. I did the worse thing possible, took my eye off the harpy while laughing – and nearly all of my character’s health was gone in a flash, the creature’s unblockable grab as near as dammit doing Dastardly Dan’s job for him, as he got closer and closer.

I pulled it together, knowing that this monster had to die if I was to have any chance. Generally, if an invader finds you fighting another creature that’s game set and match. So an all-out assault ended with my character exhausted, on a sliver of health, with the monster dead. Just as its death-rattle sounds, who should turn the corner.

We eyeballed for a split-second. There were no bows. Dastardly Dan moved forwards with the telltale beginnings of an orange glow in his right hand – pyromancy, slow-moving but devastatingly powerful magic designed to finish fights quickly. He was in front of the only exit, there was no time to restore health, standing my ground was as good as suicide. So I ran at him.

Dastardly Dan threw his first fireball just before I dove past him – flames exploded where I’d been, and there was the whooshing ignition of more to follow. I rolled through the door as its frame took the full force, molten slag inches behind, and bravely kept on running.

The Painted World of Ariamis has a giant ruined tower slap-bang in the middle. I did not know at this time that the curling staircase going upwards within it is a dead-end, the only way up or down. I ran up, looked back, and Dastardly Dan was following.

I kept on sprinting, up and up, thinking about what I could do to shake this guy for long enough to heal up. I didn’t look where I was going, but it wouldn’t have mattered. As the walls of the tower became open-air ruins, the staircase continued upwards into nothing, curling round and ever-upwards. As I realised I was trapped, a harpy landed. Then another. I now had minimal health, two monsters in front of me, and Dastardly Dan behind.


Basically, I was fucked. I ran past the birds and turned to at least face doom. The birds began to swing with their clumsy but razor-sharp wings, I raised my shield, and Dastardly Dan began sprinting up the stairs. There’s no easier way to kill someone in Dark Souls than when they’re having to block attacks. The orange flame in his hand began to glow.

I still have no idea how he did it, but just as Dastardly Dan threw the killing blow he simultaneously fell off the stairs. The fireball smashed behind the harpy, but missed me. One of the harpies launched itself, I dodged, and it fell off the stairs too. I somehow managed to finish off the last harpy through the laughs.

When characters fall off ledges in Dark Souls both their arms reach for the heavens at once, a dainty and faintly silly pose that became Dastardly Dan’s goodbye wave.I don’t think I’ve ever pissed myself so hard. This is no small staircase – it took about ten minutes to eventually reach the bottom, where I found the thick red fug of Dastardly Dan’s bloodstain, and absorbed his souls.

Even though my only involvement in his demise was to run away lots, Dastardly Dan is the win I’m most proud of to this day. I think of him throughout that chase, sometimes, knowing he had a wounded player on the run and watching me tie myself up in even worse trouble. Did he feel a glimmer of guilt as he stepped forward to seal the deal – and stepped onto thin air?

We’ll never know. Because Dastardly Dan is dead, and I killed him. God bless From Software, god bless Dark Souls, and god I love invasions.