At a recent EA press event, we had the quite surreal experience of playing a Command & Conquer 4 multiplayer match against Kane. In person. The unmistakeable pool-ball head of the Nod supremo gleamed from behind a monitor in the opposing bank, ordering his units around with less mad-villain intensity and more relaxed, arm-over-chair-back insouciance than we've been led to expect by 15 years of RTSC (real-time scenery-chewing). The roll-neck sweater and blazer was a new look for him, too.
It was, of course, actor Joseph D. Kucan, in London to promote Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight and his return to the role that dominates the all-but-defunct field of actual, on-screen videogame acting. While the brief hands-on didn't leave us with much to add to our initial preview - it wasn't long enough to tell whether our muddle of excitement and disquiet about the mobile bases will swing one way or the other - a chance to chat with Kucan was too good to miss.
According to the Guinness World Records Gamer's Edition, he's the longest-serving recurring actor in any game series. Kucan's been involved in C&C since 1994, when he was hired by then-developer Westwood studios to direct as well as star in the game's FMV [full-motion video] cut-scenes. Although his involvement's been limited to acting in recent years, he's still got a unique perspective on the entire series - and its unique style of story-telling.
Eurogamer: So, I haven't seen much of Command & Conquer 4 myself yet...
Joseph D. Kucan: Oh, it's been very low-key, we're trying to be very quiet about it. We haven't even brought it here. All of the demonstrations you've seen in there have been done with flip-books, so we've just drawn frames of gameplay, and flip it by you really quickly.
Eurogamer: So you just think you're playing?
Joseph D. Kucan: Yeah, exactly. We're keeping it under wraps because it's... a very hypnotic game. We're actually concerned about the lawsuits that are going to come from people being completely addicted to the game, being unable to eat, drink, go to school, have sex with their wives - or husbands, depending upon. We're looking at a big class-action lawsuit due to the addictive quality of the game. It's kinda scary, actually. I don't want to be held personally liable.
Eurogamer: You've been involved in the FMV, the storytelling and acting side of Command & Conquer since the beginning.
Joseph D. Kucan: Yes. We still call it FMV? After all this time?
Eurogamer: I guess I'm old enough to. But I mean real video, real actors in the cut-scenes.
Joseph D. Kucan: We're the only ones that are doing it any more, this is it.
Eurogamer: What were the origins of that approach?
Joseph D. Kucan: Well, when I got started with Command & Conquer was back in the days of Westwood Studios. I was brought on as the director of dramatic assets for the game. You have to understand, this was back in '93, '94, this was just as floppies were starting to be replaced by CDs. So suddenly we had all this spare space on the disc. It just seemed logical to go from text dialogue to recorded dialogue, and the next logical step seemed to be video. So that's how we did it. We started with very early experiments into compression technology and how we could get video on to CDs, and that led to FMV.
Eurogamer: And you say you're the only people still using that style...
Joseph D. Kucan: As far as I know, unless Myst is making a huge comeback or they want to take another swing at Wing Commander...
Eurogamer: Why has Command & Conquer decided to stick with that for the storytelling?
Joseph D. Kucan: Because I think it's iconic to the Command & Conquer franchise. I think it really is such an endemic part of the game that without it, you're missing a key part of the experience. I think that no matter what anyone's doing with highly-rendered graphics, whether they're photo quality or not, I think there is no replacement yet for the look in a real actor's eyes as he stares into the camera and speaks to you, the emotional qualities of that. I just think it's endemic to the product.
Eurogamer: Recent Command & Conquer games have been quite high-camp in their style...
Joseph D. Kucan: [Shrieking] HOW DARE YOU SIR! HOW DARE YOU SAY THAT TO ME? HIGH CAMP? I'M INSULTED. THIS INTERVIEW IS OVER!
Eurogamer: Are you going to carry on with that? [The style, not the outburst.]
Joseph D. Kucan: We've changed the approach in that the camera actually has a lot more motion and will carry through the perspective of the player. So, it's little more gritty, it's a lot less talking directly into the camera, and a lot more scenes with other actors as opposed to just sitting there alone, stridently giving commands into the camera.
We actually shot, not on videotape, we shot on film, with 70mm camera in Imax. So this is actually the first videogame that will be released in Imax. You need a 70-foot monitor to play the game just because of the aspect ratio of Imax film. That might actually be a lie, now that I think about it.
Eurogamer: We've had legends like Tim Curry and Malcolm McDowell working on the Red Alert series, and you've appeared with Michael Ironside, James Earl Jones in Command & Conquer games...
Joseph D. Kucan: I don't know them. They don't sound familiar.
Yeah, we've been very lucky in that actors are starting to realise that this a new way of telling stories, a way to develop a whole new audience and I think they bring a certain... credence to the work.
I think you'll be surprised with Command & Conquer 4 though, there has been less emphasis on star actors and a bigger interest in committed actors that are really interested in coming in and doing high-quality acting work. Not to suggest that any of the actors in the past have not been... but the level of acting in this game has been really top-notch.
Eurogamer: Are you still directing as well as acting in the games?
Joseph D. Kucan: No, I haven't directed a Command & Conquer game since the last Red Alert 2 expansion, Yuri's Revenge. C&C3, another director, Kane's Wrath, another director, and this last gig, different director.
Eurogamer: What's different - if anything - about directing actors for a videogame rather than say TV, or the stage?
Joseph D. Kucan: Well, in working with a videogame as a director, I always wore pants. As a director in a theatre, I don't know if you know any theatre majors, but it was very easy to come into rehearsal and not have to wear pants. Often no clothes at all, often just a nice pair of sneakers because I was on my feet all day.
Eurogamer: I've been there. Well, I wore tights.
Joseph D. Kucan: Exactly. When I was behind the camera in Hollywood and directing film, and the video work that I've done, because it's Hollywood... I don't know if you know anything about the film industry, but it was always incumbent on me to come in in full clown make-up. So I'd wear white-face and a big smiley-face and big floppy shoes, just to sort of pay my respects to the history of Hollywood and the quality they demand.
Eurogamer: And to make the sure the cast had an appropriate level of respect for you.
Joseph D. Kucan: And me for them. It's very hard, important work that they do in Hollywood.
Eurogamer: Have you had much input into the game? Do you get to say, I want Kane to be this way?
Joseph D. Kucan: There were a couple of times I did put my foot down. The original design of this latest game was that is was to be a musical. It's true. All the FMV was going to be done in arias, straight into the camera, and I said no. I don't really sing. I was OK to do the dance numbers, that was no problem, I could do the tap-dancing - and in fact in the second half of Command & Conquer 4, Kane delivers all his mission briefings to the player in interpretative dance. Not a word is spoken. And mime.
Eurogamer: Saves on the localisation, I guess.
Joseph D. Kucan: I don't have a lot of input any more other than, when the scripts come to me, I have a certain amount of leeway in terms of saying: I don't really think that sounds like Kane, let's change some of these words a little bit. I think that's just a nod to the fact I've been doing it such a long time.
Eurogamer: You've been involved in C&C since the very beginning. Have you noticed much change in the approach since the move to in-house EA development?
Joseph D. Kucan: Well, there is no Westwood any more. EA is EA. That's a loaded question, isn't it? The production values have grown... well, you can't say that, even, the production values were pretty high back in the Westwood days. The production values continue to be huge. I think it's to EA's credit that they have understood the value of the video and kept that in the game. I really do think it brings a certain cachet, and I think it's of interest that we're the only ones doing it.
What was really nice about the whole process, since the revival of Command & Conquer with C&C3, it's been really nice to be part of a project... You know, I step into meeting and I'm surrounded by 25, 26-year-old kids who grew up on the game, and come with a certain perspective and are great fans of what that game meant to them back in '95, '96. That was really something.
It really says something about the industry that those kids who came in as gamers are now the ones taking the helm, setting the direction the game should go. That gives me a lot of confidence in the evolution of the product.
Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight is due out for PC on 19th March 2010.