Bleszinski, Cliff (Gears of War)

Gears of War was the XBox 360 game everyone was talking about at E3, and we’ve been lucky to have its lead designer take a long enough break from working on it to answer a few questions about himself, the game and his love of horror. Cliff Bleszinski, often affectionately referred to as “Cliffy B”, has about as impressive a resume as anyone else in the gaming industry.

He hadn’t even graduated from high school when his first game Jazz Jackrabbit was commercially released, and it was a big hit. He went on to take on the role of Lead Designer at Epic Games and helped make them into one of the biggest studios in the industry with Unreal and subsequently Unreal Tournament. Now he’s back in the game with Gears of War, which for all intents and purposes looks like his best work yet.

On with the questions!

**Editor’s Note: Because the stills featured within are so incredible, you can click on any one of them to see it much, much bigger**

Ryan “Plagiarize” Acheson: What was the first thing to really scare you?

Cliff Bleszinski: The very first thing? Like, way back as far as I can remember? Hell, I think it was a clown in my room. It was a crude device that was meant to hang up towels or clothing, a simple thing really – but it was in the shape of a happy jester. And it scared the bejesus out of me at a very, very young age. It’s one of my first memories ever. Kind of makes me wonder why parents put that crap in their kid’s room; were they out at the flea market one day and decided “Hey! This thing looks like it’ll really screw up our boy’s brain! Let’s get it and fuck with his head!”

RA: What was your first brush with horror?

CB: Probably the film It’s Alive on cable TV. My older brothers were watching the film and my parents intervened and forced me to go outside and play in the sandbox. Any fear that their son was going to have was going to be from the clown in his room, thank you very much! So, naturally I went outside…and proceeded to watch what I could of the film through the living room window. To this day I’m still horribly frightened by babies. Creepy little things, really.

RA: What scares you the most?

CB: This is going to sound really weird but one thing that frightens me beyond belief is the idea of a large object…underwater. Last year I was snorkeling in Cozumel and I went underwater to have a poke around and I found what was apparently the front half of a barge that had been sunk there to create a nice habitat for all the fish and coral. Seeing that large dark shape come out of the blue haze of the water freaked me the hell out. If I were ever snorkeling/scuba diving and a whale were to swim above/near me I’d probably have a heart attack.

This fear extends to boats and structures in general. If I were diving and a large vessel were to come nearby I’d freak out. Swimming near piers is horribly upsetting to me. I had a nightmare recently in which I was forced to swim in a ruined flooded city and it haunted me for days.

RA: Which horror films are your favorites, and are there any directors in particular that stand out for you?

CB: John Carpenter’s The Thing still holds up as a great film; the effects all still look phenomenal. A great classic about isolated paranoia.

Session 9 is a great gem that most people haven’t seen. I’m a huge fan of the idea of ‘urban ruins” and setting a film inside of what is, essentially, a rotting former city for the mentally ill is a great idea. The idea that mental illness may be a spirit or simply a sickness is hardly original but it’s extremely well executed in this film.

I found The Eye to be delightfully spooky. The elevator scene with the floating ghost and the bit with the “Get out of my chair!” line both caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up.

Some of the recent remakes were actually pretty good. Dawn, Amityville and Texas Chainsaw were all enjoyable.

Oh, and for all its flaws I still like a lot of what was accomplished in Event Horizon.

RA: How’s your DVD collection?

CB: Until recently I had been boycotting the entire concept of purchasing DVDs. A few weeks ago something snapped and I’ve started picking up some classics. The DVDs that I want to own are the ones that few other people have; the films that I bring up in conversation with friends that I can then say “You haven’t seen that one? I have it right here, let’s watch it or you can borrow it!” So far I have Frailty, Session 9, and The Eye. Next up I’m going to grab The Thing and, oh, I need to finally check out Dog Soldiers. Heard good things about that one.

RA: How did you enjoy George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead?

CB: I enjoyed it, but I feel that my expectations got in the way and I was a bit let down. If it was just a cool zombie movie that was done by an unknown director I wouldn’t have gone in with the level of anticipation that I did.

RA: Which upcoming horror movies are you most excited about?

CB: Saw 2. The first one had its flaws, yeah, but it was still able to get under your skin and disturb you a bit. I’m also curious to see The Devil’s Rejects because I think Rob Zombie will ultimately evolve into this generation’s shock horror master.

RA: On to gaming! What was the first game that really scared you and made you realize the potential for causing fear in the person playing the game?

CB: Doom is the obvious answer for everyone so I really won’t go there. The first game that truly scared the hell out of me was the Silent Hill series. The gameplay devices of the flashlight/radio coupled with the setting and Jacob’s Ladder demon design were all just pure genius. Games can be far scarier than film because you’re the one driving the pacing; it’s you who is choosing to go into the closet.

RA: For everyone that remembers Unreal, arguably the part that sticks in most people’s memory is the first encounter with the Skaarj. It’s certainly the scariest part of the game. When you were working on Unreal, was there a feeling that this was going to connect with gamers or was it something that was more effective than you’d predicted?

CB: I had originally created that scene towards the end of the level after the player had killed a few dozen of the Skaarj aliens and then realized that it would make the most sense for this to be the “grand unveiling” of the beast. After watching numerous films I had noticed the concept of “Monster Foreplay”; showing as little of your monster as possible before finally blowing your wad in a grand, exciting moment. I had tickled in moments of the Skaarj throughout the previous scenes, a tail here, a growl there, and finally I threw the big sack of scales on top of you. In hindsight I probably wouldn’t have used the techno-eurotrash dance mix though. Hmmm…

RA: Would you personally class Gears of War as horror?

CB: Gears is a blending of genres. It’s got some tactical action elements and some spooky/creepy moments. Even within the “scary” areas it has multiple levels of horror – gory horror (blood and guts,) awe-inspiring horror (giant, frightening monsters) and foreplay horror (hear the monster outside the window while the lightning crashes around you…)

RA: Should we be looking forwards to blood and severed heads and people being torn apart and all that other stuff that people frown at in horror films and games?

CB: Gears of War will be a very dark and bloody experience filled with many nightmarish visions.

RA: For those of our readers who haven’t been closely following the game, could you briefly explain the world the game takes place in, and what kind of storyline they can expect to see?

CB: Gears takes place on a planet not unlike Earth in which a nightmarish army of subterranean foes burst forth from the depths and begin to lay waste to all they see. In addition to having ruthless infantry these “Locust” also use many different nasty creatures to accomplish their nefarious goals. In some missions you’ll be trying to keep the lights on since your foes are stronger in the dark.

RA: Obviously with Unreal you used new technology to really amp up the kinds of emotional responses that gamers expected at that time, as well as providing new environments instead of just better looking versions of what they’d seen before. People really responded to that technological advance, because it made the world around them feel that bit more real. That led to feelings of awe, excitement, and heightened fear. Are you approaching Gears of War in a similar way?

CB: We’re making a universe that is dark, scary, but at the same time beautiful. I believe that scary moments are much more effective if they unfold in places that should be comforting. Familiar, believable locations that feel like, say, old world Europe generally tend to be a bit more upsetting when there’s a four story monstrosity running down the street.

RA: What would you say are the key differences between a scary film and a scary game?

CB: In video games the user is the director, the cameraman, and the star and you have to count on his pacing and experience to essentially scare himself. The user has to want to feel fear; he doesn’t have to go into the dark cave and explore. He chooses to. So we’ve got to provide all sorts of incentives to encourage the player to do so through positive and negative feedback. If the player proceeds into that cave he’ll acquire a new weapon, or meet a new character…he’s just got to have the crap scared out of himself first. In a movie you’re simply along for the rollercoaster ride. In games you’re steering.

RA: Do you think it’s more effective to try and make the player feel for the character they’re playing, as most third person survival horror games do, or is it better to just go the standard FPS, Half Life route and make the player’s character a blank canvas for the player to fill? Do you think it’s scarier to feel responsible for someone you like’s death, or to feel like you are the person in harms way?

CB: Apples and oranges, really; each interactive experience is trying to accomplish one thing or another. Some games go for the “sweet spot” between the two. In the “pure first person you are the character” camp the gamer believes that he is the one dying and he therefore tries to avoid this death. In the “third person you’re playing as Hero Guy” genre you’re the puppet master for your onscreen avatar and you must feel a certain amount of empathy for him in order to avoid his demise. I think both styles have the potential to be equally scary, just in different ways.

RA: Horror films are often ensemble pieces, where you fear for a good number of characters, but it’s really an area that few horror games have tapped into, really only The Thing comes to mind. With Gears of War featuring squad based combat is that something you’re trying to tap into?

CB: Gears is about the men of Delta Company and the hellish trials and tribulations they go through. You’re never quite certain who is going to live and who is going to die. I really want the player to identify with the different squadmates in the company and worry about their well being. Stay in the light and take cover in order to save everyone’s neck!

RA: You’ve often cited Resident Evil 4 and Rainbow 6 as inspirations for the game, but are there any films you’d like the horror fan to be calling to mind while playing the game?

CB: As silly as it sounds, Tremors and CHUD actually inspired the game a tiny bit. Having an enemy that’s not from space and is, instead, from beneath the ground you walk on is a drastically underused idea.

RA: Tell us a little about the so called “water-cooler” moments you’ve mentioned in other interviews.

CB: Water Cooler moments can generally fall into several kinds of categories. There are “creep you out” anticipatory moments, “Oh my god did you see that?” moments, and “I can’t believe what I just did” experiences. My mantra for this game is to continually give the player something to share with his friends at regular intervals. Sometimes that shared experience is two players teaming up to solve a puzzle involving a broken lift. Other times it involves running from a very angry and strong blind beast.

RA: Were there any specific pieces of reference material that you wanted everyone on the team to check out?

CB: Spielberg’s recent update on War of the Worlds leveraged the coolness of an enemy “from beneath” and I found it to be a wonderful film which I heartily recommended to all Gears team members.

RA: How accessible to the casual gamer is Gears of War going to be?

CB: I’m targeting “very accessible” for Gears. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found that my patience as a gamer has dwindled somewhat and I want to have an experience that epitomizes the idea of “easy to learn, a lifetime to master.” It’s so important that you grab gamers of all skill sets within the first three minutes of your game these days. I think that recent games like God of War did a great job of making complex systems easy to learn and delightfully addictive and that’s a level of accessibility I’d like to achieve with Gears.

RA: Scary games tend to get less and less scary as you get deeper into them, gain more weapons, abilities and knowledge about the world you’re playing in. How are you hoping to avoid this in Gears of War?

CB: We as designers must continually up the ante with the threats that we throw at the player. If you’ve acquired a rocket launcher and you can now blast the bipedal foes you’re fighting in an instant how can you resume the creepiness that you’ve now lost? Come up with a unique foe that cannot be harmed by this weapon and you’ll reclaim that suspense and fear.

RA: Have you ever given any thought about branching out into other media? Comics, movies, and such? Is there a horror movie inside you dying to get it?

CB: Games are where my heart is at. If any of our properties can be leveraged into other mediums, we’d love to see it happen; we’ve got some things in the queue so who knows…Let the folks who make movies make great movies and we’ll simply provide great games for them to potentially leverage into their own medium!

RA: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add for our readers here at The Horror Channel/Dread Central?

CB: Do me a favor and help out with harassing Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi so we can have another Evil Dead flick, ‘kay?

As always, we’d like to take the time to thank Cliff for spending time chin wagging with us. I hope he’ll forgive me for not further harassing Bruce Campbell about Evil Dead 4, especially since Bruce doesn’t seem to be able to walk out of his door without hearing those kind of questions, but should any of you brave souls out there want to take the hit on his behalf, feel free. You can keep tabs on Cliff at his website and even though Gears of War’s official website has yet to properly launch, you can count on us to let you know when it does, as well as any other news we get on this eagerly awaited title.

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Jon Condit

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