Ben Kuchera / Dabe Alan
Cliff Bleszinski explains how Gears of War is more personal than you think
“The first advice I give to young game designers is to make their work personal,” Cliff Bleszinki told me at GDC. It’s an odd statement for a man known for the Gears of War series; a trilogy that seemed to invent the cliché of oversized men killing brutal aliens. Bleszinski walked me through the autobiographical aspects of the game, and described how the gung-ho nature of the characters may have obscured some of the original thoughts behind the game. Video games are a collaborative art form, but Bleszinski described development as a Ouija board. Many people put their hands on the pointer, but there is one person who exerts their will and controls what words are spelled out. It's a tortured analogy, but the message comes through loud and clear: Authorial voice is important when creating a game, and the stories need to come from a meaningful place inside the creator's mind. “I wonder how much of the first Gears, the violence and weight, came out of the angst from the failure of my first marriage,” Bleszinski said. “I’m sometimes at my best when I’m challenged by someone or angry at someone in my life.” My mind flashed back to the first scene of Gears of War, where Marcus Fenix is rescued from his jail cell. The game takes place after a war and is famous for its depiction of beautiful things that have been torn apart by conflict. The game features characters that fight because they don’t know what else to do, and a feeling of hopelessness fills the game. There is a certain amount of clarity that comes to the design and concepts behind Gears of War when you think of them through that context. There is also the importance of Marcus Fenix's father to the game. “Lee Perry [Senior Gameplay Designer on Gears of War 2], Rod Ferguson [Director of Production at Epic Games] and myself all lost our dads at a very young age,” Bleszinski continued. “When I was 15 and dealing with grief I had these dreams that my father hadn’t actually passed, that he was, for tax reasons or something, he was secretly living in an apartment a few towns away. These are the ways you cope.” Marcus believed his father had been killed during the war in the first two games. He later discovered that the elder Fenix had actually been kidnapped to work on a top-secret project. There’s a certain amount of wish fulfillment going on in the game: It may be impossible to reunite with the people we lose in the real world, but in a video game we can make that dream come true. This is no different than a child with a deceased parent telling others they had become a spy in order to avoid the truth. Bleszsinski was able to live out that fantasy via the games he helped create. There are hints of deeper meaning throughout the series, but there was very little of that heart until the third game. This is something Bleszinski regrets. “Gears was always meant to be a lot more Band of Brothers than Predator, and that’s one of the things that, in hindsight, if I could go back and change I would,” he explained. “The characters didn’t need to be huge, although it turned out to be an iconic thing. I never stood in front of the company and said I wanted to see the biggest, most macho motherfuckers you could ever see, that never happened. [The character design] happened completely organically.” There was concept art of the characters, and the artists who created the final models thought having a large, stocky build worked for the game. It fit with the idea of slamming into cover, using large weapons, and the sense of violence as a driving force in the game’s world. “But a little bit of the heart got lost in that process,” Bleszinski said. “And then it became a negative stereotype in this generation. I want to be smarter about that in the future.” He described growing up in New England, and knowing that he could go to a pile of discarded tires and find snakes to bring home. He remembered how exciting it was to find pornographic magazines in the woods, a memory that is oddly shared by many of us who grew up exploring the wilderness around our neighborhoods; Bleszinski wondered if there was a sort of “porn fairy” who would drop these magazines so that young boys would find it and see their first naked breast. The first game that gave him the same feeling of discovery was Legend of Zelda on the NES. The most recent game was Skyrim. That sense of wonder and discovery was touched on in very light ways during the Gears series, and it's something he seems keen to improve in future games. “If I were to pass Gears off to another studio, and they came back with a pitch of having a double-edged chainsaw, and the characters are more buff, and now you can pull off someone's head and shit down their neck, and they had a character that makes Cole look tame… I would look at them and say no, you're going in the exact wrong direction. Gears is always some of that, but I would want to further evolve it in more of a Christopher Nolan way.” The DNA of Gears, according to Bleszinski, is Marcus fighting through an environment against overwhelming odds with nothing to lose. He said he'd love to get the movie back on track to explore that idea. There are also a few thoughts about what happens to Marcus after the end of the third game. Bleszinski says that, as a developer, he's often in situations where everything is big and loud, and there are announcements being made every five minutes and then you take meetings and you're forced to always be on and enthusiastic… and then you go home, sit down, and try to watch TV and deal with the boredom and the addiction to that rush. This is only a small taste of the problems soldiers find when they return home. “For combat, I can't imagine what that would be like,” Bleszinski said. “That's why I liked the Hurt Locker, the idea of being addicted to that rush to the point of not caring about your own safety. In the future, I would love to deal with these characters having to struggle to sleep at night, having cut through all these heinous, nightmarish creatures and having watched their friends' heads explode next to them. That I find compelling.”
There are many developers who exist squarely in the public’s eye, but Bleszinski seems uniquely comfortable in the role of successful developer, complete with fast cars, travel, and frequently tweeted updates about how cool it is to be Cliff Bleszinski. This is a man who, ironically or not, refers to himself as “Dude Huge.” I asked him about this, and he scowled and thought for a moment. It's odd to see someone sit and contemplate their own happiness. Bleszinski’s fiancé creates an annual yearbook detailing the couple’s adventures, and he enjoys leafing through them and marveling at their travels. “Chris Rock says to go get kidnapped and have some new things happen to you. Do something. Don’t sit around and talk about the good old days. The good old days are now,” Bleszinski said. That stance may bring a large amount of resentment from people who already think Bleszinski has a dream job. His official response? The haters are going to hate. “I’m not going to front, I was picked on in high school. The majority of my job involves e-mail and meetings, and playing broken games that aren’t fun until they work.” Life is not all glamor and posing with machine guns, in other words. Bleszinski noted that in a few years he won't remember a series of phone calls on a Wednesday. What he will remember is appearing on Jimmy Fallon's show, trying to reach the roof, and tripping the alarm. The developer is not ashamed of his success as much as he seems to believe that being in an extraordinary circumstance brings the responsibility to do extraordinary things. If you're blowing up, you might as well be huge about the explosion. There is also room for quiet. “My happy place is the Carolina shore, Lauren and I sneak out there all the time. That’s where we’re at our happiest,” Bleszinski said. He described the act of leaving the boardwalk and running towards the water, taking off his shoes and shirt and losing himself in the water. It's no surprise that the last image in the Gears series involves Marcus sitting on the beach, his wars fought and won, enjoying the company of a blonde companion.