The Writing on the Wall

At Splash Damage, we believe that a game's environment is the best narrative medium we have. Compelling environments allow players to pull in information from their surroundings without having to be held hostage by an NPC lecturing them on The Way Things Were. We knew we wanted to use our game environments to tell the story, so they'd need to be packed with detail.

We created a design goal internally called IDC: Instant/Deep Context. Basically it's the old axiom "Show, don't Tell". If we get IDC right, then when the player looks at a game asset they immediately and intuitively grasp where they are (that's the "Instant" part). And the more they look at the assets, the more the cumulative narrative detail builds up, and the more they see how the game world works and how it came to be that way (that'll be the "Deep").

So, how did we go about creating the story and setting for Brink?

The Problem

When we began, all we had was a blank piece of paper (oh alright, it was a beer coaster, what of it?). We already knew our next game's setting had to accomplish several different things: the game had to be set somewhere players hadn't been before, and show them something they hadn't already seen. We wanted the setting to inspire our character artists, environment artists and level designers, and suggest cool map and objective ideas. We also needed a story that would explain why the factions are fighting, why they couldn't just leave and also give us a rich variety of environmental contrasts.

We were making an action shooter, so we didn't want to set it too far in the past (melee and magic) or too far in the future (lasers, which can feel like distance magic).

Where could we set this game and tick all our desired narrative and design boxes?

A Salt Solution

After having spent a lot of time reading Geoff Manaugh's brilliant architecture/futurism/infrastructure website bldblog and researching the sci-fi towers of the Burj Al Arab hotel, the Masdar Initiative, the buildings of Santiago Calatrava, Paolo Soleri's visionary (and unfinished) Arcosanti, Patrick Salsbury's Oceana and the Shimizu Pyramid, it became clear that some sort of seagoing eco-city would give us everything we wanted. It was familiar enough to draw on zeitgeist-ish current concerns, but distant enough in time and space that players wouldn't have seen it before. We'd be building a location that was a constructed, confected place with plenty of geometry suitable for gameplay. Like any city, it would be a place where many stories could occur, but it would also have its own creation story.

It was only after we'd mocked up fake press releases and investor prospectuses for our fictional Ark project that I remembered that back when I first joined Splash Damage in 2002, Paul had mentioned that one day he'd love to do a game set on an Arkology. I was elbow deep in World War II research and reference photos for Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory at the time and couldn't quite see his point. Suffice it to say, I do now.

Constructing the Ark

So we started our IDC process, developing the story and sketching concepts for a floating eco-city named, naturally enough, Ark. In the Brink universe, a group of eco-visionaries and hard-headed venture capitalists start building a testbed, a floating habitat to showcase and further advance sustainable development; a zero-carbon, fossil fuel-free blueprint for future cities.

Ringed by a protective wave-absorbing breakwater, the Ark is a combined luxury eco-resort and floating R&D lab, producing new materials and technologies such as Arkoral, a revolutionary carbon-trapping construction material derived from genetically modified coral. With a population of around 5,000 visionaries, technologists, scientists, engineers and VIP guests, the Ark is towed to a secret location (you can't get billionaires to pay for an exclusive luxury resort that anyone can turn up to). But in the 2020s, as the seas rose and nations fell into chaos, ships overloaded with desperate refugees set out to find the Ark. Most ships ran out of water and the passengers perished, but some did find it. Suddenly the Ark and its inhabitants, who had lost all contact with the outside world, had to find room for an additional 40,000-odd souls. The Ark's founders would end up ironically referring to the new arrivals as Guests -- much like the former VIPs, only vastly more numerous and not quite as fragrant. I'll use the Container City level to illustrate how our IDC approach works. We began with a written backstory brief of what started out as a fully automated shipping terminal and secure archive facility for the Ark's private and corporate tenants. But in the Brink universe, when the seas rose and the refugees started arriving in droves, the Ark rapidly ran out of accommodation space. As it had the most horizontal space available, the terminal was used first as an emergency holding area, then a temporary camp, and finally, as all contact with the outside world was lost, a shanty town. By the time Brink starts, Container City is a rusting Guest slum, a dangerously overcrowded and corroded tangle of converted container homes perilously close to toppling into the sea. It's the heart of the Guest political movement, and has the highest concentration of Resistance sympathizers. Security forces don't even want to fly over it, let alone patrol on foot.

With our written brief, and rafts of reference images and concept sketches, Splash Damage's environment artists and level designers began the tricky process of turning Tetris-stacks of plain blocky shipping containers into a cluttered living labyrinth of homes and shops. Because Brink's backstory is so firmly rooted in real-world developments, there was very little we needed to invent outright. We could extrapolate from what was already out there: super-buoyant spar platforms, OTEC plants, wind turbines, solar panels, wave generators, vertical farms, bioreactors, breakwaters and a lot more.

Creating Conflict

Of course, one of the main stories the environment had to tell was who our factions are and what they are fighting about. We could have made it Hero Cops vs. Evil Terrorists, or Hero Freedom Fighters vs. Evil Stormtroopers, but it seemed much more interesting to let players make their own mind up about what's taking place on the Ark. In the real world very few people agree entirely on what's going on, who's to blame and what should be done about it. Man is not a rational creature, but rationalizing. We come up with reasons why we're right. So we decided to make the game world as various as the real world and let our factions be right (at least in their own opinion) and let the player decide what side they take

What's the motivation of our factions? On the Ark, the refugee Guests live in cramped and crowded slums. They've been taken in by the Ark's Founders, but their initial relief and gratitude has turned to resentment and anger at their unequal status. They're doing most of the work to keep the Ark afloat, but are on restricted water rations while the Founders -- who don't contribute that much to the running of things -- live in relative plenty. Increasingly the Guests are coming to doubt the Founders' claims that all contact with the outside world has been lost, and are agitating to use the Ark's remaining resources to find help. Some of them organize into the armed Resistance. At the other extreme, the original corporate police force has had to expand to become Security, the ones who maintain order and manage the Ark's resources so that all can survive. Security fight to save the Ark. The Resistance fight to escape it. And looking around the place, it's not hard to see why both sides believe they're right.

I hope this has given you a taste of what we're trying to achieve with Brink and leaves you hungry for more. Stay tuned for more Brink developer diaries in the months to come.

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