With Enslaved proving a fascinating diversion into high-budget storytelling, we thought we’d ask Ninja Theory’s Chief Creative Director Tameem Antoniades about their latest project, Heavenly Sword, and plans for the future.
Hi there. Firstly, can you give us a little insight into your background within videogame development and how you came to become involved with Ninja Theory?
In 1995 I started working as a programmer at Millennium Interactive, which later became Sony Cambridge. It was there that I met Nina Kristensen and Mike Ball, and together we decided to create our own studio. So in 2000 we formed Just Add Monsters and in 2003 we release Kung Fu Chaos for the Xbox. In 2004 Just Add Monsters became Ninja Theory and we went on to release Heavenly Sword in 2007 and ENSLAVED this year.
Enslaved feels like a natural evolution in terms of your storytelling prowess with a far subtler focus on technology. Was the decision to dial back in-game melodrama based purely on the script, or was that a reaction to previous titles?
With ENSLAVED we wanted to explore the very minute detail of the relationship between Monkey and Trip and convey their feelings and expressions through facial expressions and body language rather than just the words they are saying. It may just be a shake of the head from Trip or a slight movement of the eyes from Monkey, but we wanted these forms of communication, the things that we all do subconsciously in real life, to form part of the game’s narrative. Because we use performance capture we can afford to tone down the script and let the movements and expressions of the characters tell more of the story. For example, if we want Monkey to appear angry we can do this through both his voice and his facial expressions, we don’t have to rely on just the voice alone. If we were relying on just the voice we’d have to make sure it sounded really angry, which can result in a script that sounds over the top.
Having Alex Garland’s input on the game also helped a lot in this sense. He brought a new perspective to the game from the point of view of a movie producer and director.
How does your working relationship with Andy Serkis operate on a day-to-day basis when producing the game? Is there as much room for creative thinking and improvisation as either of you would like?
Andy and I previously worked together on Heavenly Sword, so at the beginning of the project we already had a very good understanding of how each other worked. We get on really well too, which helps.
On ENSLAVED, Andy’s role was to play the part of Monkey and direct the performance capture shoot, which was actually a role that we shared. When Andy was playing Monkey I would direct and when Monkey wasn’t in the scene Andy would direct. When you’re on set you need to have a very good understanding of how everyone works and what the end goal is and that’s something that Andy and I had. I think sharing the same vision is crucial to conducting a shoot smoothly and efficiently.
There was certainly room for creativity and improvisation from both myself and Andy. We’d often shoot a scene in a number of ways, based on what we thought looked and sounded good on the day, which gave us a lot of options when putting the final game together.
As many reviews have already noted, the dialogue in Enslaved is exceptionally well-crafted for the medium. How did Alex Garland come to be involved in the project and how closely did he work with the team?
From the very beginning we knew we wanted to bring in a writer to work on the script. We talked to some agencies and Alex’s name came up. We met up, talked through the project and all thought it was a good fit. He’d actually wanted to work on a game for a while so we were happy to oblige. Alex is a big gamer and has strong opinions on what he does and doesn’t like in games.
Alex’s initial role was to take the bare bones story that we had and make it into the encapsulating story that it ended up as. He did that, but in addition he spent a lot of time with the design team giving his perspective, as a movie producer and director, on the game. He would come in every week, play the game and give his thoughts on managing the drama and tension through the game. He had such an input on the game design that we actually ended up crediting him as a designer.
As a team has focused on pushing the boundaries of videogame storytelling into new territory, how do you feel about the manner in which other studios are handling the same task? Can you look at Heavy Rain or Red Dead Redemption and pick up inspiration from those titles?
There are lots and lots of different approaches to telling a story in a game. For us we’ve chosen to go down the route of performance capture because we feel that it is a technique that gives our games believable life-like characters, characters that can show real emotion through their facial expressions and body language. We also like to work with talented people from outside of video games to bring a fresh perspective on the story, people who have experiences in other mediums that they can transfer to game development.
Other studios have different approaches, but this is how we feel it is best to tell a story in a way that is truly memorable.
One of the key criticisms of your previous title was that the gameplay didn’t quite match up to the quality and ambition of the narrative. Firstly, is that something you would agree with? And secondly, did you accomplish everything you set out to achieve with Enslaved’s mixture of platforming and combat?
We’re very happy with the way ENSLAVED turned out. We’ve created a game that tells a story through both the gameplay and the cut scenes, and a game that technically flows very smoothly between controlled and non-controlled sections.
There was a lot of thinking that went into the clambering and platform elements of the game, we wanted to make them feel fluid and fast paced. The combat has been designed in such a way that the fights feel heavy and rough. When you’re fighting as Monkey we want you to get the feeling that he is putting every ounce of energy that he has into each attack and that he is truly fighting for his life.
Looking back for a moment, did you feel the reception to Heavenly Sword was influenced in any way by Sony’s decision to push the title as a flagship PS3 release?
If we’re talking about the reception that the game had from the press, then I would think that most journalists would write reviews on the content of the game, rather than how the game matches the hype surrounding it. So in that sense I wouldn’t have thought that there would have been a relationship between the marketing push behind the title and the reviews.
We were very happy with how Heavenly Sword turned out, but I think it is inevitable that when a game receives a lot of media and public attention that some people may feel that their expectations haven’t been met.
Do you feel the experience of working on a multi-platform title benefitted the project overall? Or are there any elements that might have been held back by an inability to tailor to specific hardware?
Developing a multi-platform game certainly benefits the project overall because it means that we can get our game out to a wider audience. If you’re developing for just one platform you’re really restricting the number of people that can play your game.
We create our games simultaneously for both formats, so it isn’t just a case of developing for one console and then needing to port to the other. Our aim is to make the product as similar as possible on both the PS3 and Xbox 360.
Finally – and without giving anything away – Enslaved concludes in a rather tantalisingly open-ended fashion. Are there many ambitions to take the storyline further?
I’d like to work with the story again, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Many thanks for your time, and best of luck with whatever the team produces next.