Picture the scene: it’s 9PM, I’ve just been playing Strange Brigade for about 3 hours at the end of an already long day that had me trekking down to Brighton and back, and I’m the last interview of the day for Ben Fisher, Rebellion’s Studio Design Lead.
Then the PR chap, who’s been sat on the floor for the last couple hours of interviews spots a vacated chair and says something like “Oh, I’m getting a chair for this one.” Suddenly all I can think is that I need to start off my so-called interview with nonsense.
Welcome to what is probably my favourite interview, and it’s been preserved in nigh on unedited form, for what will eventually be quite obvious reasons. Oh, and here’s a link to our hands on preview.
TSA: So, we’re both fine and well bearded gentlemen. What is your daily routine for looking after your beard?
Ben Fisher: My beard routine is a little bit of beard balm and I’ve got a beard comb that I use to try and keep it tidy. Generally just tidying the edges when it starts to get a bit bushy, but I have to get the barber to deal with it.
Ben is on the right, Stefan on the left. Can you tell his photo was taken by a professional?
TSA: Obviously you’re something of a beard advocate, so are there any particularly fine beards in Strange Brigade?
Ben: Ooh, that’s a good question… I mean, there’s Harbin’s beard, but I think that’s the only beard we’ve got in the game. Oh! They do mention King George’s beard!
PR: Don’t forget there’s one of the characters in the season pass?
Ben: That’s true, but I don’t think we can go into the specifics of them too much…
PR: Well, he’s out there [points at a trailer being projected in the background] and he’s got a beard, so…
TSA: So can you confirm beard DLC?
TSA: That’s good. This is all really good info… Just to make sure you’re aware, I’m from TheSixthBeard.com. It’s a male grooming website. [laughs]
TSA: We’ve got off to a very surreal start. So, co-op games. What makes them fun?
Ben: [laughs] That was a seamless segue!
PR: You can see why I had to get a cushion for this interview, can’t you?
TSA: But more seriously, Rebellion have really gone down this path with co-op and four player co-op in particular. Is that something that’s really struck a chord with your audience, and so that’s why you’re like, “Yeah! We need to do more co-op!”?
Ben: Yeah. What we’ve noticed is that we’ve got a lot of players that like to play through the single player campaign and drive all the way through the story, but players that keep playing for a long time tend to play co-op as part of a group. Also, Strange Brigade started in a similar place to something like Zombie Army Trilogy and we explored from there, so that’s part of the template. It does seem to fit naturally as well, that group of adventurers wading their way through mummies.
TSA: Did the early prototypes just have four Karl Fairburnes running around?
Ben: [laughs] I presume so! I wasn’t on the project right from the start.
Karl, Barl, Farl and Marl. [laughs]
TSA: The Rebellion Quadruplets? The Rebellious Quads? [laughs]
One of the things with Rebellion’s games in particular is that personally you’re always on the cusp of the levels being too long. I don’t know if that’s just how I play them, tending to be very cautious, but how do you strike that balance to not overstay?
Ben: Yeah, that’s the thing. Rebellion games tend to be designed so that you can blast through them very, very quickly, but if you want to play thoroughly, there’s a large environment and there’s lots for you to do and find around the edges. It depends on the game and depends how you’re playing with other players if in co-op.
TSA: Yeah, it feels like you’ve really stuffed a lot of corners with secrets, some of which are character specific, some of which are puzzles. What have you done with puzzles so it’s not always just pipemania?
Ben: What we’ve done in Strange Brigade is make sure that the core route through the environment focusses on run and gun shooting, leading up to great big horde fights that are then broken up by simple observational puzzle solving. For players that like to explore every nook and cranny, we’ve got layers of more complicated puzzles.
In one of the missions that you saw, there’s an entire maze that’s hidden!
TSA: I actually did go and do that maze. I got all the way to the end too, when two of us had gone on to the next amulet bit, and I was completely lost. I just had to keep going forward and hope it wasn’t a dead end. I was just like, “I’m so sorry. Maybe I’ll see you soon?” [laughs]
Ben: [laughs] Yeah, they always loop back. That’s an example of a puzzle where, if you go all the way through that, it’s a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle. As you play through those environments, you get more and more layers of puzzles, if that’s what you’re interested in.
TSA: The monster design. You’ve got the standard zombies, you’ve got skeletons, some of the skeletons glow and blow up. Where have you found the… out of the ordinary mythological monsters? I think you know what I mean.
Ben: Some of the inspiration comes from Egyptian mythology, but at the same time a lot of our inspiration comes from the 1930s serial tone. Having giant scorpions and having mummies are obvious archetypes, but you don’t see them that much in games, despite their obviousness. We really lean into that tongue-in-cheek 30s feel.
TSA: I’m trying to think of other examples of giant scorpions now, but all I can come up with is something like EDF, I guess?
Ben: There’s the Rad Scoprions in Fallout? But they’re just irradiated, and our are poisonous giant scorpions which has more of a Land Before Time kind of vibe. You know, if you want to get technical about your giant scorpions!
TSA: Are you a big scorpion buff? [laughs] Is this what you studied at university?
Ben: As in quite literally a buff of big scorpions!
TSA: There is a lot of humour in the game, that’s clear to see, and it is that hammy 1930s serial style. The narrator in particular stands out, but was that something that came up early on, to have this chap going, “What what? Keep a stiff upper lip!” and all that?
Ben: That was a Jason Kingsley suggestion, and it was once we’d started down the road of exploring that 1930s vibe. We were trying to find a way to make it all come together, come to life and it was the tipping point where it really came together.
TSA: That voice really sets the tone for when some of the ridiculous bosses turn up, like Captain Tiberian and he’s all, “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!” And then there’s just the weird culture clash of having Caribbean pirates in this Egyptian style setting!
Ben: Well that’s a very Saturday matinee thing to do, and the voice over helps to paper over the cracks a bit. Those matinee stories tend to just do what was awesome and what was a swashbuckling adventure…
TSA: And also, I’m assuming, whatever costumes they had left over in storage!
The one thing that I am a bit wary of is that it’s set in a time period where the British empire is still a thing, and it’s not inconceivable that it could get a bit jingoistic as you explore the far reaches of the world. How do you ensure that it’s still fun and not weirdly exploitative?
Ben: I mean, we were very aware that was a risk and we’ve tried to tread very carefully in that area. Among the particular things that we’ve done to avoid that problem is we avoid mentioning the empire and discussing it as a positive in any light, the Strange Brigade is a department with characters from all over the world, so we make sure those backstories are deep and rich and make sense for where they come from, and we made sure that the voice actors for each characters come from the same region as the character did…
Effectively, we developed a cast of characters that felt 1930s tropey, and then simmered that list down to a main four that helped us best tell the story of this first adventure. We were very careful to poke fun at it in a tongue in cheek way. They’re 1930s superheroes from all over the world.
TSA: I did get the feeling from the mission briefing intro videos, where they’re talking over the radio, that they’re kind of a bit like a 1930s Charlie’s Angels.
Ben: [laughs] Yeah! Charlie’s Strange Angels.
TSA: Charlie’s Strangels?
Ben: Strangels! Hang on, let me just write that down…
If there’s an achievement in the DLC called ‘Charlie’s Strangels’, it’s your fault!
TSA: You know what? I’m fine with that.
Let’s see… these two questions are a bit out of order, but I might use the magic of transcription and word editing to reorder them! And this is also a particularly leading question…
What have you learnt from public showing and how has that influenced the game?
Ben: [answers that weren’t really what I was hinting at]
TSA: OK, I’m going to give you a hint, that it’s something to do with scores and attacking.
Ben: Ah yes, OK. So Score Attack mode is one of the modes where… hang on, no. I’ll feed you with an answer that leads more naturally to Score Attack.
TSA: [laughs] Mate, I can edit it. It doesn’t matter.
TSA: I can edit your answers, I can edit my questions, it’s great! [laughs]
TSA: This has become such a weird interview. I’m so sorry!
Ben: Well, I think we’re doing pretty well for last interview of the day!
PR: Did we really talk about beards for two minutes?
TSA: Oh no, that definitely happened.
Ben: So, right…
When watched how people played the game, we noticed that the core gameplay hit a really nice sweet spot when you have loads of traps triggering and explosives taking out big groups of bad guys and powerful weapons decimating the guys that are left…
TSA: I’m really enjoying the arm waving.
Ben: I can’t think if I sit on my hands! I’ve tried it in the past and I just end up doing this instead. [bounces] If I’m doing a camera interview, they have to zoom out! [laughs]
So yeah, that core, plate spinning gameplay of there being too many bad guys to deal with but the players having loads of options, that seems to be when people were more excited about the where the game was going.
TSA: Um… I’m going to ask about the season pass again and what people can expect to see in it. Obviously beards, but what other kinds of things?
Ben: Yup, we’ve established that there is a beard and a character to carry it…
TSA: [laughs] Not just a floating beard? Although, a mystical floating beard would be a fantastic end of level boss!
Ben: He could be a pirate. Beard Beard the Pirate!
TSA: Yeah, because the pirate died, but the beard carried on!
Ben: I mean, you know you’ve got Long Beard, Black Beard, Red Beard? This is just Beard Beard. A beard with a peg leg! [laughs]
TSA: [laughs] I’m just thinking of The Simpsons’ Halloween episode where Homer gets the hair transplant!
Wait, that would be great! The beard attaches itself to one of the player characters, and if you’re playing co-op, they’re the heel and they get points then for trying to kill the others.
Ben: Or what you could do is the person who’s the beard can see, and the other person has the character controls, so you have to use voice comms tell them what to do. That kind of simulates being controlled by a sentient beard.
TSA: That feels a bit more like a two player co-op mode.
Ben: You’d have to put cardboard down the screen so you can’t see the other side.
TSA: No screen cheating!
Ben: So! The Season Pass contains a new mini story campaign, new characters and new weapons. There’s also free content coming out in a similar model to Sniper Elite 4 – we’re not mentioning exactly what the content is yet, but if you look at Sniper Elite 4, that’s a good indicator.
TSA: I swear I had one more stupid thing to ask you, but I can’t remember what it was…
Ben: One other stupid thing?
[Literally two minutes later after the interview had first finished]
TSA: This is the last question: Has anyone in the Rebellion office ever called this game “Strangay Briganday”?
Ben: I’m going to have to check. I expect so. I really hope they have.
Wouldn’t it be “Strangay Brigaday”?
TSA: I know, but I throw an extra ‘n’ in there so it rhymes better…
Ben: It’s true! That’s another achievement name right there… I think we’ve done a good job here today.
Thanks to Ben for being a jolly good sport for a rather surrealist interview. Catch our hands on Strange Brigade preview here, and keep an eye out for our review when the game releases on 28th August.