Appropriately enough, Michael Biehn’s Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon story begins inappropriately. “The first time I masturbated,” creative director Dean Evans told the actor before a crowded auditorium, “I was watching you bone Linda Hamilton in The Terminator.” Evans tells us that afterwards he “basically ranted at [Biehn] for about an hour on what the game is and what the concept is, and yeah, he was super down with it”.
At the end of July, Evans will be celebrating Biehn’s birthday with him, almost exactly a year after that off-colour conversational gambit at Montreal’s Fantasia movie festival. Back then, Blood Dragon was already in production at Ubisoft Montreal as downloadable content for Far Cry 3, and Biehn – who starred in Aliens and Navy Seals – was quickly sold on playing the role of its protagonist, Sergeant Rex Power Colt. “The idea was to have the ’80s as a backdrop, and Michael was so important to that,” Evans says. “So many modern shooters are really trying to push the envelope with regards to narrative and emotional content, but the game design isn’t changing. We play a lot of these modern games and they still feel like you’re taking part in an ’80s action movie, so I just wanted to embrace that.”
Eighties action cinema is a powerful antidote to ludonarrative dissonance. Were Nathan Drake an ’80s action movie star, the hundreds of men he slays with a machine gun and a wisecrack would seem perfectly reasonable. Rambo III, Red Dawn, American Ninja and Invasion USA all have body counts of over 100. John Matrix kills almost single-handedly 102 of the 109 men who die in 1985’s Commando, but even that bloody rampage falls short of most modern videogames. So when Far Cry 3’s Jason Brody graduates from trust-funded college boy to hunter-shaman by way of a body count in the thousands, it’s barely credible, whereas in Blood Dragon, Evans explains, “It’s OK because I’m a cyborg and the universe is fucked up.”
And that was essentially the pitch for Blood Dragon, a fictional ’80s action franchise that had long since run off the rails. “[Far Cry 3 producer] Dan Hay was looking for some kind of DLC extension,” says Evans. “I think those words were really interesting: ‘some kind of’, as in we’re not limited to just doing an extension of the full game, or just putting in some new multiplayer maps. He approached me and said he wanted something, [and this is] the most horrible phrase of all time, ‘out of the box’.”
On the first slide of Evans’ pitch was the word ‘nostalgia’. It was followed by stills from Commando, Predator, Missing In Action and – long before Biehn was on board – Navy Seals, Aliens and The Terminator. The game references included Doom, Wolfenstein (specifically Mecha Hitler), Shadow Warrior and Rise Of The Triad. “So many shooters are still Wolfenstein, still Doom,” Evans says. “They shoot you with a shotgun, there’s an animation reaction and then you’re back in your combat stance. I think that will stand out in a harsh fashion when the next gen comes along. Try to make a serious game where they want you to care about the character, but you have to go murder 200 people along the way… You have infinite bullets in your pistol? What? You’re a bullet sponge, but you’re told you’re a human? What?”
The levity of ’80s action cinema let Evans’ team do “whatever the fuck we want. From day one, what I’ve been communicating to the team, and everyone at Ubisoft, is to not look at Blood Dragon as a videogame set in the ’80s, but as this action property that’s gone off the deep end.”
Evans points to RoboCop, an 18-rated action flick that begat a kid-friendly film in which RoboCop can fly, has a gun for an arm and fights ninjabots. “And then the TV show comes out, and it’s like, ‘Oh my God…’” he continues. “So imagine there have been a few Blood Dragon movies and an animated show already, and they’ve been successful, and the game is the point where Blood Dragon goes RoboCop 3.”
The game Evans pitched would be an ultraviolent ’80s action movie with a disregard for body count, the trailer would be composed of scenes from the fictional animated series, the 2D cutscenes would be torn from the ’90s movie tie-in game, and the final sequence would feature the Battle Dragon, which Evans describes as “just a commercial for the Blood Dragon action figures”.
Such references went further than the pitch. “It [was] important to get everyone on the team in that correct mindset when working on the game. I busted out all of my old He-Man figures, so everyone on the team had their own totem. Everyone got to pick their own figure. Someone got a broken Prince Adam. That was a shame. I got Beast Man and I put him on Battle Cat. We picked up a bunch of old Genesis games, so the artists could look at what old covers and logos used to be like. The desert chrome lettering [we used for the logo] has such a classic ’80s and early ’90s feel. I was showing everyone in Canada why Mega Drive is better than the Genesis, because it says ‘Mega Drive’ and the logo is absolutely killer in desert chrome.”
Long before anything bar the action figures and Mega Drive boxes were in place, Evans’ team had contacted Australian electro duo Powerglove. “David Lynch said it years ago: sound is 50 per cent of everything. The music was the first thing we did. When you don’t actually have any visuals yet or assets, there’s no better way to get your team on board than by having them listen to the music nonstop.”
Powerglove had provided the soundtrack to a furious shootout in the 2011 exploitation movie Hobo With A Shotgun. Evans was taken with the band’s work instantly. “My brain was on fire. Why don’t we ever hear this stuff in videogames any more? Back in the day, we had fucking speed metal! We had techno! Streets Of Rage 2 was acid house! Today we have quite flat, ultimately forgettable orchestral scores, but if I’m going around shooting cyborgs’ faces off, I need the beat to accompany that.”
A simple test was applied to everything the team squeezed into the game: “Think of yourself at 12 years old. Would you think it was cool?” So ninjas, cyborgs, shuriken, dinosaurs, Mortal Kombat, and nuclear war were in. When Colt reloads his shotgun, he spin reloads it like Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2. It’s one of only two ways to reload a shotgun according to Evans, the other being Linda Hamilton’s one-handed pump at the end of the same movie. The game’s arsenal also includes Jesse Ventura’s Predator minigun, RoboCop’s Auto 9 pistol, Clarence Boddicker’s Cobra Assault Cannon, and a laser rifle based off the future Terminators’ guns in T2. Every outpost’s name is a reference to a movie: Shakma Station, Hauser Labs and Danko Base. Bad guy Sloan has a robotic jaw, wears a chainmail vest and has a necklace of ears – a blending of characters from He-Man, Commando and Universal Soldier. The game’s crouch icon is the Terminators’ time travel stance from the first three movies. Fire Colt’s minigun and he’ll scream with rage as he cuts cyborg soldiers down. “That was from Metal Gear Solid,” says Evans. “That was a thank you to Mr Kojima.”
Blood Dragon’s team grew from around 25 to over 80 as staff crossed over from Far Cry 3
to Blood Dragon, and along the way the game grew beyond the bounds of its origins as downloadable content. “Throughout the whole production, we made some of the worst decisions you could make, to be honest,” Evans admits. “For DLC, the smart thing to do would be to reuse the assets and reuse the weapons, but every single decision was, ‘Let’s really do something different,’ so it was very strenuous for everyone on the team. Obviously, we kept the core of Far Cry 3 in there, but after that we just went crazy.”
Blood Dragon retained Far Cry 3’s levelling and base-capturing mechanics, but replaced almost everything else. Its aesthetic meant creating a new island setting as well, a wasteland under darkened skies painted in purples and greens and blues. “These days dystopian futures are desaturated and monochrome, but back then they were really colourful,” says Evans. “There was one great image we referenced from the first Terminator movie of the future war when the Terminator is shooting his laser. Then there was the front cover of the movie The Wraith, which we referenced a lot. Double Dragon II and Streets Of Rage 2 were a big influence in terms of the colour palette, too. Yes, it’s dark, but it’s supposed to be. There are places where the lighting makes no sense, but that’s how movies work.”
Even the core of Far Cry 3 was overhauled, with Evans’ team truncating the levelling system, stripping out the radio towers and supplementing the original’s outpost assaults by surrounding every base with an anti-dragon shield you can disable to attract any 30ft laser-eyed dragons wandering nearby. “It’s actually a pretty complicated creature in terms of its design and its mechanics and AI. We worked with some of the team who worked on the animals in Far Cry 3 – a few of the guys based in Shanghai – and our first prototype was just a scaled-up komodo dragon. The biggest challenge was this thing being able to navigate around the environment, because it was so huge. We had to work out the metrics, then make sure level design and art were adhering to those metrics. But we knew from the start it was going to work, because it’s a fucking massive neon prehistoric creature that fires lasers from its eyes.”
Blood Dragon was already one of the industry’s worst-kept secrets when Evans and the game’s product manager embarked on a promotional tour in April. In the middle of the UK leg of Evans’ tour, however, the whole game appeared on file-sharing websites.
“We had to change our underpants when we got the news that the PC version had leaked,” says Evans. “I have not felt like that for many years. It was just a feeling of dread coursing through my veins, because we had no idea what version had leaked. It could have been a PC build from two months before, or a brand-new build. We just didn’t know. But when the forums started to light up, and everyone was making GIFs, and we could see that it was the final version… It was that moment where we said ‘Fuck it!’ and just decided to treat it as a really long demo out there. Then people really dug it, and that was a great feeling; that was a really big confidence booster. We had such a short communication window – we announced and launched within a month – but I’m a big believer in shock and awe, and I’m really happy with how that campaign worked.”
When Blood Dragon shipped as a standalone title, critics praised it for its personality and atmosphere, but questioned it for its uneven tone, its abridged version of Far Cry 3’s levelling, and its script, which features a heavy reliance on sexually themed jokes. Evans, meanwhile, has no doubt in his mind about the problems really hurting Blood Dragon. “Time was the problem on everything we did, and we had to cut stuff,” he says. “The cuts that were really upsetting were the classic Dirty Harry .45 Magnum; the .45 Longslide with laser sight from The Terminator; the Uzi from, well, everything; and Snake Plissken’s MAC-10 with the suppressor and the strap. Colt would spin it around, and wrap the strap around his hand. I was sorry to see that go. If there’s one thing I’m super pissed that we didn’t have, it’s a body count. I think maybe we could have pushed forward the arcade style a little bit more. Maybe put a score in the corner of the screen. And there’s one thing that’s a huge regret. Huge. That’s the one thing I really wanted to tell you: we’re missing the roundhouse kick. I so wish we had that in there, the Jean-Claude Van Damme split kick; the one where as soon as he does it, you need to show it again four times from different angles. We’re totally missing it.”
It seems indulgent, and is, but Evans questions if that isn’t how development should be. “This game is made for gamers by gamers. It sounds so cheesy, but it really is true. It didn’t get put in front of focus groups. Fuck that. I think it would be fantastic to give triple-A talents that opportunity to flex their creative muscles and go crazy sometimes. I think that’s the glory of our medium. There shouldn’t be any rules and conventions. We should just be able to fuck around and do what we want. I feel like we’re coming back to that mid-to-late-’90s feel with a lot of shooters, and I hope it continues. I think in the future, if you want to really make something of narrative worth, you have to align your narrative intentions with the gameplay realities. I’m excited to see what happens with games like The Last Of Us, and I think that [need for alignment] will allow for more weird, abstract junk games like Blood Dragon.”