Harvey Smith's resume probably emits an actual glow. It has Wing Commander, Ultima, System Shock, Deus Ex, Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows on it. Goodness me. Here he talks to Eurogamer about Blacksite - the sequel to PS2/Xbox shooter Area 51, but without any real connection - and some of the issues that face developers today, including a potentially uncomfortable parallel with Sony's current troubles with the Church of England.
Eurogamer: Obviously this is quite different to Area 51. Is that your influence specifically? Were you unhappy with the first game?
Harvey Smith: I didn't work on the first game. Some of the same people are working on this that worked on the first one, but I did come in and I said, "Look, I'm not going to tell you how to do this, this or this part of your job, but I'm a game designer and a writer and a creative director and here's the direction we're going. We're angry about politics. Here's the atmospheric vibe that I like in games. Here's the moodiness, the small-town." And I've downplayed all the comedy and anything like that, and I've added a few people from the Deus Ex team.
So it's a new team really. The Area 51 team was very strong at some things, really; the gameplay in places was really good and the art was good, but it's just not my kind of game. And so I took them in a different direction - more like Half-Life 2 or, you know. I'm the one who pushed the small-town America. But I also had allies from that team as well. They learned from their project as well. Each time you do a game you get a little bit better in some ways. So yeah, I told people this is not the sequel to Area 51; we do say there was a disaster at Area 51 and the events of this game follow that, but it's not the same characters or gameplay.
Eurogamer: It's funny actually - coming here I was jotting down silly questions about what you knew about the real-life Area 51, looking at it from the quirky angle, but obviously you've moved away from that now.
Harvey Smith: Yeah. It's been hard to get that message out, too.
Eurogamer: What with your body of previous work, how does what you're doing on this diverge from those principles and how much is it instructed by them?
Harvey Smith: I've worked on different games. Everybody knows Deus Ex - if you're into the industry you know Deus Ex, I guess - and it's a hybrid RPG, but it has a lot of immersive environments and a lot of attention to detail that make it feel like you're in a real space, and that's the part that I think that we're pulling over. We want it to feel like a small town. But it's really nice to be working on a pure shooter just once. The next game, we might expand the world-exploration a little bit. But I felt like there were things I needed to learn, actually. There are developers like Blizzard or Bungie that put a certain level of polish into their games that we never could at Ion [Storm] or Looking Glass or Origin. And so I'm trying to figure out how to assimilate those things and synthesise them. But the love of fiction, the desire to innovate in some small way - the squad-morale feature and the breakables and the cover system - but then also the polish; the level of polish...
Eurogamer: We've seen the scenario you've set up but we've not heard much about the story.
Harvey Smith: The story is interesting. I'm working with Susan O'Connor who worked on BioShock and Gears of War - and Blacksite - and what we wanted to do was start out with a jingoistic, patriotic kind of vibe, and you're Aeran Pierce, the leader of Echo Squad, Delta Force Assassination Squad, and you go to Iraq looking for a bunker full of weapons of mass destruction and find out that there aren't weapons of mass destruction and it's another government lie. And slowly but surely the game gets more and more subversive, and by the end you're American soldiers fighting against former American soldiers who have been unethically experimented on.
So we've created the insurgency; we've created our own enemies. And somebody's profiting from this conflict - the left hand is fighting the right hand and somebody's making money off of it. I think the last six years of American politics are a giant disaster; playing on people's fear; the military-industrial complexes. You know, there are companies making billions off of this - Halliburton and companies like that. You can point to directions where they're making billions of dollars off of this, and our vice-president is connected to this company and our secretary of state is connected, and our president is a former oil executive: my government is full of monsters; we're creating our own enemies and somebody's profiting on it, and the only people losing out are the common people, whether it's common Iraqis or the Americans who are losing their civil liberties. It's just a dark time.
Eurogamer: I don't know if you've seen in the last few days, but there's been this big furore about Resistance: Fall of Man on PS3 and its use of Manchester Cathedral. The Church of England is angry because on the one hand it's gun violence within a setting that in real-life has significant problems with gun-crimes, and on the other because Sony, they say, didn't seek permission. And this was the biggest story on the BBC News frontpage at the weekend.
Harvey Smith: Wow, I didn't know that.