Respawn’s senior map designer Mohammad Alavi talks to X-ONE about Titanfall’s narrative ambitions, its influences and how the campaign will meld with multiplayer.
Respawn has previously spoken about “fast-paced multiplayer action with the dramatically charged moments of a cinematic universe.” Could you break that down for us?
I know Half-Life wasn’t the first shooter to tell a story completely through the eyes of the player, but it stands out to me as the first very successful attempt. Since then, the FPS genre has been doing a balancing act of telling a compelling narrative without sacrificing gameplay. Some games have been more successful than others, but the formula is starting to get a little stale. What makes Titanfall’s campaign mode unique is that we’re giving players the production value of a finely crafted cinematic experience they’re used to from current-gen shooters, but within the framework of competitive multiplayer. We’ve designed the game in such a way that the narrative never obfuscates the goals or objectives, but only gives them more impetus.
Can you tell us about any of the cinematic elements we can expect to see?
I can’t go into detail without giving away spoilers, but from the footage we’ve released both at E3 and gamescom, you can get an idea of the kinda of cinematic elements you’re in store for. We’ve shown daring evacs onto dropships to escape overwhelming forces, and faster than light warp jumps from outer space onto planet surfaces. In the Fracture E3 demo we saw how your ability to capture and hold the hard-points directly led to the fate of the Redeye capital ship. That’s not a story element that plays out the same way each time. You control whether that ship and its captain lives or dies.
We also use AI in a plethora of ways to make the world feel alive. They plan mission strategies, provide cover fire, and acknowledge everything you do from taking down a Titan to the kind of gear you carry. They’ll salute you in quieter moments and thank you for saving them in more dire situations. They get into fist fights, help injured friendlies, and even freak out when they’re squad is single-handedly wiped out by a Titan. These are just a very narrow set of the many tools we use to not only bring a sense of cinematic intensity, but also create a fully fleshed out world.
How are you approaching incorporating narrative into multiplayer? Is that how you’re viewing it as a team, or has it been more of a non-traditional approach?
We’re telling a story through a first person perspective in ways that are both traditional to single player campaigns and very new for multiplayer… at least for first-person shooters. Without going into too much boring detail about client/server logistics, asynchronous scripting, and other buzzwords, I can tell you that from the end user experience it feels both familiar and groundbreaking at the same time.
Each multiplayer level has an objective that is presented in a cinematic way with twists and turns that occur as you play. From picture-in-picture updates from NPCs, events that unfold in-game, to the AI soldiers reacting on the ground, the narrative unfolds naturally and ties in seamlessly with the gameplay. Along with the main story arc, major and minor characters react and acknowledge your direct actions, creating a personal experience crafted just for you set in a larger framework. In multiplayer lobbies we continue the narrative to help bridge the gaps between levels. You’ll be changing your loadouts and viewing unlocks while listening to mission briefings that drive the plot along.
I know it all sounds like “back of the box” bullet points, but we’ve gone to great lengths to present a character-driven cinematic experience, and immerse you in a living, breathing world, without taking control away from you. It feels like single-player, but it also feels like multiplayer. There’s no other way to describe it. Even after working on the game for years now, I still have moments when I jump out of the dropship with a squad of my real life friends, look up at what’s unfolding before my eyes and literally say out loud, “I can’t believe this is multiplayer.”
What is Titanfall’s driving force in terms of story? It seems a similar set-up to an MMO.
While MMOs have certainly been incorporating narrative into online multiplayer, I don’t think you can draw a direct comparison to the shooter genre. There are a whole slew of design considerations that might work in an MMO that simply do not translate over into FPS games and vice versa. My hope is that we’ve created a universe you can believe and relate to that’s also interesting and new. I hope we’ve created characters that you’ll have an emotional attachment to and situations that will stay with you and keep you coming back for more.
Can we expect a vast, overarching story about the fate of the universe? And if so, is this a nod towards lots of post-release updates?
Most consumers play the single-player campaign of any shooter only once, and then go on to play multiplayer for months or years. Single player campaigns take hundreds of thousands of hours to develop, and with a team as small as ours we couldn’t afford to sink that kind of development time into a four to eight hour journey people will only play once. What we’re hoping to achieve is to take an exciting cinematic experience and weave it into multiplayer gameplay so compelling, that players will continue to be engrossed in the universe of Titanfall for months and years after its release.
The surrounding story concerns pitting the ruthless Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation against the Militia. Where does the player fit in this equation?
The great thing about telling the same story from two different points of view is that you can tackle character motivations and plot points from various different perspectives. When you play as the Militia you’ll see one side of the fight. As the plot progresses you’ll accompany the main characters on their adventure, learning their motivations and back story. Even though the plot will make complete sense from start to finish, you’re only getting half the picture. After you’ve completed the campaign on one side, you’ll have to play from the other to fully grasp the scope of events that you participated in. It’s also really cool to see how the “other side” perceives the faction you just played on – it’s interesting how propaganda and labelling can be used to demonise the “enemy.”
How have you added a sense of story-led progression? Will multiplayer progression – in terms of levels/XP – be tied to narrative advancement?
So we’ve only really spoken about one way to play Titanfall. That’s Campaign Multiplayer. You can join a lobby by yourself or with a party, but here’s where it gets different. You and your party or enlisted into a faction, either IMC or Militia. You’ll play the campaign and progress through the narrative hitting the missions in order until you’ve beaten the game on that faction. You’ll then have the option to play through again from the beginning on the other faction. Once you’ve beaten the game from both sides, you’ll be able to play any mission on either faction you like. There are traditional modes as well that you’d expect from a multiplayer FPS game and you can start playing those from the first time you run the game. No matter what you play, you earn XP and progress.
Does this mean Titanfall won’t have a definitive ‘end’, continuing indefinitely?
Titanfall will most definitely have an ending. It’s not a story if it doesn’t have an ending, but there are multiple sides to that story. It’s told from both the Militia and IMC perspectives, and to fully grasp Titanfall’s campaign, you’ll need to play it from both sides. And as with any good story, we’ve hopefully peppered it with enough detail and nuance that you’ll notice something new every time you replay it.