Ghost Recon’s Military Advisor Talks Storytelling in the Tom Clancy Universe
While 2017’s Ghost Recon Wildlands represented a pivot away from the overtly futuristic backdrops of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter and its rapid fire sequel, the newly-released Ghost Recon Breakpoint rolls some of those high-tech shenanigans back into proceedings. Breakpoint explores the ramifications of advanced automated technology growing into a very real and very dangerous threat.IGN recently spoke to Ghost Recon Breakpoint military advisor and writer Emil Daubon. As a Green Beret with three combat tours – two in Afghanistan – Daubon has lived a good deal of what the Ghost Recon fantasy attempts to represent. Enthusiastic about people diving into the game, Daubon chatted to IGN about storytelling in the Tom Clancy universe, the strengths and limitations of military shooters, and what The Punisher’s Jon Bernthal brought to the table as Breakpoint’s bruising big bad.Check out the Ghost Recon Breakpoint live action trailer below.
IGN: Can you give us a little background on your history in the military and how you subsequently found yourself in the creative industry?Emil Daubon: So I’ve been in the military for 17-and-a-half years; almost 15 with Army Special Forces. I had a break in service. I joined the Air Force when I was 19, got out when I was pushing 22, and went back into the Army when I was about to turn 30, because I wanted to be a Green Beret. I just woke up one morning and was, like, ‘Yep, that’s what I’m going to do.’So I’ve been in the Army since. I’m actually still functioning as a Green Beret. I’m in a National Guard unit, which is the same as the Reserves, essentially. I did active duty for about 10 years; last seven-and-change I’ve been with the National Guard, so I still deploy on occasion. However, aside from that, I worked in film for years as a union grip and electric. I worked as a crew member on film sets and, when I switched to the National Guard, I moved back to the Washington D.C. area to get back into film work.I realized after a few years that I wanted control of narrative content. I wanted the opportunity to tell my own stories. So I went to school. I ended up at Columbia University initially to study film [but] transitioned to theatre because the theatre department had a better trajectory for classical drama theory and narrative development. And I started acting and writing. So those were my concentrations. I was pursuing film, you know, writing for film and the opportunity to come on board with Ghost Recon was really blind luck. Like, right place at the right time. They were looking for an additional content writer and I knew one of the writers on staff so they pointed them in my direction.I had never considered gaming really as an industry to pursue. I hadn’t even played a video game in 20 years before I started working on Ghost Recon. But, because of my background in Special Forces, my role evolved very quickly into an additional military consultant and technical advisor. So while I started off just writing, I ended up consulting on the motion capture sessions and working with the pre-visualization and realization teams and the animators to help heighten the sense of realism in a lot of the gameplay mechanics and cinematics. It became an all-encompassing endeavour, being full time, very quickly with Ubisoft just because of the nature of the content of the game. It fit very concisely with of all of my pursuits.IGN: So for someone with your background, and who spent a good deal of time away from what was going on in the games business, what’s something you’ve since found that games do quite well in representing the kind of things you folks do in the military, and what’s something that you think they’re still a bit less equipped to reflect?ED: That’s interesting. In the genre of tactical shooters, specifically, I think they are becoming increasingly good with authentic details. And I know that that’s something that the player base is really intent on finding. Whether it’s locomotion under fire, whether it’s specific weapon details and performance, gun ballistics, attachments; they’re doing amazing jobs with injecting a lot of those details into the gameplay so that it feels a bit more authentic. I think ultimately the consideration is it’s difficult to recreate the feeling of combat, you know? And I don’t think that these games intend to do that. I think the idea is to create fantasies that allow players to have the pride, the excitement, the feeling of being members of these elite units and operating under these stressful conditions.[Y]ou’re never going to emulate that exact feeling of combat, but the idea is to also make it fun.“But, of course, you’re never going to emulate that exact feeling of combat, but the idea is to also make it fun. I mean, combat is not fun. War is not fun. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t find aspects of it that can be tremendously satisfying and immerse that into a fantasy in a game that provides a degree of that overarching notion to the player. I don’t think any of these games fall short in any particular way. I think some games pay more attention to narrative aspects where some games pay more attention to specific gameplay mechanics, where some are more concerned strictly with authenticity. And no one game does it all, I mean, it’s a tremendous effort on development teams to combine all of those factors into one project. And I can understand why different games will focus on some more specific aspects of that. But again, I don’t think any of them fall short in any way considering that the idea at the foundation of it is always to create a fantasy that’s playable and enjoyable and exciting and provides those aspects of the ideas of combat and not the actual horrors of war.Watch IGN’s chaos versus stealth attempts below.IGN: Looking at Ghost Recon Breakpoint, what are you ultimately most pleased with from your side of the fence?ED: So I’m biased because I am first and foremost a writer. I mean, I studied drama theory and dramatic writing. I love the narrative experience of games. Having rediscovered a love for gaming I find that it’s the immersion in a deep narrative experience that I find most satisfying. And with Ghost Recon Breakpoint, as a narrative team, we were given a lot of freedom to expand on the narrative.Having rediscovered a love for gaming I find that it’s the immersion in a deep narrative experience that I find most satisfying.“On this project, from its inception, the core team had the idea of expanding the narrative, of giving the narrative team more freedom to create a more immersive narrative experience. And we really ran with that. It’s unique to Ghost Recon in that, in my opinion, the story drives the gameplay.Now, granted, the mechanics are always at the heart of what players will engage with and it’s what players have come to love about Ghost Recon. But the story is immersive. I mean, it’s an interesting exploration of some very plausible contingencies that technology in the world could present in the next few years. And again, we had a lot of freedom to play with that. Again, being biased, I think the writing team is exceptional. We’ve got tremendous writers on staff and it’ll come forward in the game… You know, on any game you can always skip through a cinematic, but I don’t think people are gonna want to because the cinematics and the backstory really explain why you’re there, what you’re doing, and the importance of it.When it comes to… the conflict between Nomad and his antagonist, understanding that backstory makes it more compelling. It’s one thing to fight a person that’s your equal, that shares your experience and your training. But when you give them a backstory like Walker has, and the connection to Nomad, understanding that is going to make that confrontation so much more rewarding. This is an incredible effort on the part of so many developers. I mean, over a thousand developers across eight studios have been working on this game for years now.IGN: As someone with your military experience and now as a writer, do you think there are there limits to the sorts of themes Ghost Recon could and/or should tackle?ED: The core team had a pretty specific vision. The overarching themes of the game really are this notion of autonomous technology and what happens when it grows beyond our control, and then this other theme of brother versus brother. Those two notions were guiding the development from the beginning. So we were so immersed in the development of these two themes and the integration of the two themes in the game that it’s never really been a thought, like, ‘What is off limits?’ or, ‘What could be out of bounds?’ or, ‘What is too much?’ I mean, what we had already had the potential to grow in any number of directions. So just focusing on keeping those themes playable and relatable to current events and to the state of gameplay now, the mechanics, the story. I really couldn’t answer that well: what might be too much?We’re creating this fantasy and its overarching constraints and parameters are, of course, the Tom Clancy universe, which is steeped in these ‘What if?’ contingencies. It takes very plausible technology and scenarios and expands on possible outcomes. What would happen if, you know, this developed in a certain direction? That’s what this game is doing. It’s pushing the Tom Clancy universe and the storytelling from Tom Clancy in that direction.See Ghost Recon Breakpoint’s technological threat below.IGN: Ubisoft has carved out a reputation for really nuanced villains – not so much in Ghost Recon, but certainly in Far Cry – and it’s something that it’s quite famous for. Let’s talk about the genesis of getting someone like Jon Bernthal, who’s a television and Hollywood actor, into Ghost Recon. What was the motivation for that?ED: What spawned the evolution of Cole Walker was that the Ghosts have ostensibly been the most highly trained, effective, elite fighting force the US military has had to offer in its history. They are the best. Four Ghosts took down an entire cartel in Bolivia. What’s the greatest challenge that the best warriors can face? And that question drove a lot of this development. In round table discussions early on, the core team was considering that question: what’s the most dangerous adversary a Ghost could face? The answer everyone came up with was another Ghost.So that began the development. We wanted to find some way to build on the idea that a Ghost, through a series of events, has had a significant change in perspective and ideology and has become the enemy for whatever reason. And then how do we develop that? So the character began to develop early on just based on those themes. And I wasn’t around at that point; I wasn’t there when the decision for Jon Bernthal came about. But, as I understand, what happened was one of the core team saw an episode of The Punisher, and they had been working intently on the development of this character, and it just clicked. They were, like, ‘That’s the guy. That is our character.’ A deeply conflicted and yet strongly devoted patriot, devoted to honor and duty and yet could be considered a bad guy based on actions. That was a foundational tenant that required for this character. And of course, Jon Bernthal was the optimal choice.IGN: One of the most intriguing things about Jon Bernthal is that, despite the fact he doesn’t have any background in the military, you look at him in things like The Punisher and Fury and I completely buy him as a soldier. Now, obviously that’s his job as an actor, but for someone who’s actually in the military, what do you think it is about this bloke that makes him seem like such a credible soldier? Is there a particular characteristic?ED: So, having got the opportunity to work with him several times and on the project, I got to know him a little bit and he’s got a really interesting history. He’s an athlete. He studied theater in Russia. He’s trained in classical drama theory; he’s a dramatist, you know? He’s an exceptional artist, but he’s been boxing and fighting martial arts his whole life. I mean, he is a warrior at heart. And the reality is that whether you serve in the military, whether you fight in a ring, whether you train in any sort of martial art, the essence of a warrior is still always the same. It shows in how you interact with the world. When he approaches roles, he approaches roles like he’s training for a fight. And that’s easily applicable to preparing and training for war.And so I can understand why other consultants on other projects and films have had an easy time working with him. And then, of course, by the time he came onto Ghost Recon Breakpoint, he had this wealth of experience playing military roles and working with a variety of different consultants throughout his career. So, aside from just having the base kind of character of a warrior, he has also been well-trained by a variety of other military members. Aside from that sort of essence of warrior, I don’t know what else it is that makes him so amenable to those roles. You know, he probably should’ve joined the military somewhere; he would have been great! I’d have taken him in any of my units at any point. Again, because he comes with this extensive background in acting, acting theory, and training, he’s so malleable and pliable, he takes direction well, he makes adjustments quickly, he offers great suggestions. He brings this tremendous portfolio of training and experience to every role. It’s just he has found a niche for damn sure.Watch Jon Bernthal discuss his role in Ghost Recon Breakpoint below.IGN: Is there something in particular about Breakpoint you really like or particularly resonated with you; something that people may not necessarily notice?ED: There are a lot of examples of that. An important thing to remember here is that, first and foremost, we’re creating a fantasy, and the fantasy is based on the opportunity to allow players to be a Ghost. Now, the Ghosts are a fictional element, living in a fictional world. And within that we have the control to create all the parameters of that world. The trick is to make that world feel authentic.And it’s really never about being real; it’s about feeling authentic. It’s about immersing someone in the fantasy and having sufficient details that allow them to never be alienated from the experience. One of the things that I got to do was to work with the animation teams on a lot of the locomotion. Whether it’s how a character runs with a weapon or how they dive behind cover, and we were able to heighten a lot of those details to just make it feel a little bit more real. Magazine reloads or sighting down rifles, or how those rifles perform. I mean, there’s a ton of little details that I can pick out, and oftentimes it’s because it’s something that I guided them towards, but there’s a lot of aspects that players are gonna find that are just genuinely authentic details of how people and weapons and equipment will actually operate in a given space. All of that within the parameters of the fantasy that we’ve created.There are deviations from real details or authentic tactics and there are a variety of reasons for that. Oftentimes real tactics are just not cinematically viable, or they don’t fit with coding or programming. I mean, there’s so many constraints in gaming when it comes to content creation and, in particular, in the application of authentic details. So there are deviations from what is real and my job as a consultant was to take those particular parts, those aspects, and heighten them with enough detail that they look and feel real… You can’t capture the real essence of war in a game, but you can capture a lot of the experience, you know?[T]he co-op experience is what makes Ghost Recon such a great time.“In particular, co-op game play is a great example of that. The co-op feature, which is at the heart of Ghost Recon and co-op is really the experience. I like solo play personally – I love solo stealth play – but the co-op experience is what makes Ghost Recon such a great time. It’s because you as an element have to plan; you have to operate together. You have to communicate. You have to take into consideration all of these tactical aspects of a mission and then execute and see if it works. And that’s really the heart of the experience: immersing players in the boots of an elite special operations soldier and putting them in insane scenarios and just saying, ‘All right: let’s see how you do.’ Because oftentimes that is exactly what happens to us!Watch IGN’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint video review below.
Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. You can find him on Twitter every few days @MrLukeReilly.