Battlefield earned its stripes as a multiplayer game. Fast forward 11 years and Battlefield, now promoted as the contender to the colossal Call of Duty, will have to exhibit similar skill at telling a story. Who better to hire as help, thought Battlefield 3 developer DICE, than best-selling author and former SAS member Andy McNab.
McNab, a pseudonym, shot to fame for writing Bravo Two Zero, his account of a failed Gulf War SAS patrol. He's written more books based on his own experiences since, as well as fiction and an autobiography. McNab also spent time in Hollywood advising on the use of weapons and military manoeuvres, and worked with Michael Mann and the actors on Heat. Now, his silhouetted self has turned to games.
Andy McNab is co-writing a book called Battlefield 3: The Russian to accompany the game. The book fleshes out game character Dmitri "Dima" Mayakovsky. But McNab's influence on Battlefield 3 doesn't end there; he's been working with DICE for just under a year, ensuring that the story works, the game looks believable, and that the actors behave like real soldiers.
Eurogamer talked to Andy McNab.
Eurogamer: What are you doing on Battlefield 3?
Andy McNab: Working on the game on a number of different levels. I was asked to look at the script, and I was looking at motivations and justifications for things to happen. It was more question and answer than a creative process on that.
"There's a nine year-old today, and when he comes back from whatever he's doing he can turn the telly on and he can watch rape and murder at half-past six at night."
And then sitting down with the teams doing different aspects of different levels and looking at the aesthetics, trying to get it looking right. You can look at a catalogue of tanks online, but actually what we forget is that for the tank crews that's their home, they live in it, so they personalise it. It's trying to give it that feel of being right.
Then looking at the tactics, what people are doing on the ground and the reasons why they're doing it, and transferring it into the motion capture studio. Actors want to know why they're doing something in a certain way and why they're saying things. Soldiers' dialogue is always progressive and positive, there's no "what we're trying to do". It's "what we'll do is..." - it's all that positive stuff. Trying to talk about that and why that happens, so when the actors do their two or three lines of dialogue they've got that background to it, as well as holding the weapons in a realistic way so it looks like they've been using them for years.
Eurogamer: Did you change anything in Battlefield 3?
Andy McNab: Certainly, on the tank attack aspects. I've already talked about tank crews, how they live and how everybody's trying to plumb in their iPhones and all that stuff. But when they're going through the compound, the big desert fortification where they build up the sand to make it like a fort complex, it's an exact replica of one that is on the Iraq-Iranian border.
You get these big, battalion-sized fortifications. It looks like some medieval embankment. So we're sitting down looking at all the bits and pieces coming out about the major tank attack and looking at the fortifications, and I remembered that about four years ago I was flying along the border with the MOD, because I do these trips for the Ministry of Defence, you know, the Brits. And we flew over these [fortifications] that we used for 10 years in the war between Iraq and Iran. And as you do I just took some [pictures]. I thought ah, you know what, I've got some pictures. When I got back to the UK I'm trolling through the lap top trying to find it and I sent the pictures back [to DICE].
So what happened is you've got an exact replica of one of the fortifications that's on the Iraq-Iranian border. I wasn't quite sure if it was going to be used, but the next time I come [to DICE] it's there, in the game. That was really good.
Eurogamer: What shape was Battlefield 3 in when you first saw it?
Andy McNab: These guys know what they're doing, they've been doing it for years in different games. But what they want to do is get it right. The meat was already there. And the beauty of it is, unlike film - where you have a point where the creativity has got to stop because you've got to film - you can still be creative and change and adapt, and everybody wants to as well. So the process was good.
Eurogamer: Did you do any motion-capture?
Andy McNab: No, I didn't get the kit on. When you got the actors there and the stunt guys there you do the walk-through talk-through with them. On part of the promotion packs there's some film of me on the motion capture, on the floor in the studio doing bits and pieces with the actors.
I'd look ridiculous with one of those suits on anyway.
Eurogamer: Has working on Battlefield 3 brought back memories?
Andy McNab: When they're in Iran and in the game it looks and feels very much like the Gulf [War]. You know, about a million-and-a-half people got killed in that war. And actually a lot of the urban stuff in Tehran takes me back to infantry days, running around the streets of Northern Ireland. The tactics, the way that you operate in an urban environment, is obviously different to a rural environment. That was quite good, because I was trying to give practical examples of why guys on the ground would do a certain thing, so the guys had some kind of context for it.
Eurogamer: In real-life, war isn't pretty, but a game can't go that far. How much more gruesome could Battlefield 3 be?
Andy McNab: I don't think it's about that. What we're trying to do is to entertain - it's a vehicle of entertainment. We're not trying to say, with any ideology, that this is what war is really like. What we're trying to do is give people entertainment that actually feels right, because when you're playing a game or watching a film, it's really easy for your unconscious mind to go "that's wrong; I don't know what it is, but it's wrong". All the effort is really about making this feel right. But it's entertainment. It's not a documentary.
Eurogamer: Games today resemble real-life - are video game makers behaving responsibly enough with what they portray?
Andy McNab: I think they are responsible. If you look at it as part of what people are exposed to: there's a nine year-old today, and when he comes back from whatever he's doing he can turn the telly on and he can watch rape and murder at half-past six at night. Or he can turn on 24-hour TV and watch famine in Somalia and kids literally dying in front of his eyes. People are more exposed now to trauma of all types than they've ever been before.
Eurogamer: Do you play Call of Duty?
Andy McNab: Yeah, yeah I play them all. And I lose at them, from Wii Bowling upwards. I've got a couple of godsons and they range between nine and just turned 14, and I'm really bad - I get annihilated by them all the time.
"Whether it's books or the media in general, there's always offers that come in. But nine out of ten times, quite frankly, they're sh*t."
Eurogamer: Is this a one-off or will you work with Battlefield again on four, five, six?
Andy McNab: Well I hope so yeah! All depends how this game goes, ha ha. So far so good. I like the process very much, because you've got that flexibility and everybody's involved in that process. It's good fun and I enjoy it.
Eurogamer: Is this your first game project?
Andy McNab: No. Like all these things, whether it's books or the media in general, there's always offers that come in. But nine out of ten times, quite frankly, they're sh*t. Once something comes up and it's something I would like to do [I ask] has it got its own credibility - could it stand alone anyway? It doesn't become enjoyable if you're just called on board because they think you're going to elevate it. Well this [Battlefield 3] has got its own elevation anyway, so you're joining something that is already a winner, which is a great thing to do.
Eurogamer: How much are EA paying you?
Andy McNab: Well my answer to that is: not enough! Ha ha. Unfortunately there's no one here from the EA office listening! No, it's all good, and you get loads of time spent in Stockholm. It's fantastic.