North and South Korea have reunited, the U.S. economy breaks down and erupts in civil war and, suddenly, America is occupied by Korean forces from across Asia. Sounds far-fetched, sure, but that's the premise of Homefront, a new game from Kaos Studies that seeks to imagine the world of occupied America. Here's the kicker, though: The game takes place primarily in Montrose, Colorado. Since we don't often find ourselves at the root of an underground resistance, we decided to catch up with the game's creative director, David Votypka, to chat about how this all came to be.
Westword: Colorado is kind of a strange choice for the Korean invasion -- but it was a weird choice for the Soviet occupation in Red Dawn as well. How did Homefront come to Montrose, Colorado, and what was the initial appeal? David Votypka: There are a few reasons why we chose Montrose, actually. The first relating to the fiction of the game: Montrose is in close proximity to oil shale deposits, which are one of the reasons the Greater Korean Republic has invaded the United States in our game. Extracting oil from these deposits is extremely difficult work, but in our oil-deprived future of 2027, it is necessary.
The second reason why we chose Montrose was that it is much more emotive. Montrose is a relatively small town and surrounded by suburbs. Not only can most Americans easily relate to a setting like this, but people around the world can too. Combine nice homes, schools, shopping centers and a town square, and you get a sense of home and security. What would happen then if this security were violated by a brutal foreign occupation?
WW: What was the research like for the Montrose sections? Will people be able to recognize the city if they've been there? DV: A lot of our research was done through Google and Google Maps looking at various towns in Colorado. We modeled off of small town Colorado environments but for gameplay reasons, not the exact town layout of Montrose.
WW: What was it like working with John Milius (Red Dawn, Apocalypse Now) on the game, and how did he end up on the project? DV: John Milius was introduced to the project by Danny Bilson, the EVP of Core Games at THQ. John had been Danny's writing mentor many years ago and at the onset of the project, Danny offered to introduce him to us.
Working with John was something that I can truly say I'll never forget, and was an invaluable career experience. It began with him coming down to the studio for the day to go over our goals while we worked together to write the game's storyline. My first impression was being a bit surprised on just how much time we ended up spending listening to him tell us all sorts of stories. His knowledge of military history is astounding, and he would talk at length about various historical situations ranging from Alexander the Great to Vietnam, to his experiences working on various films and with various actors and directors. At first I wondered if we might not be spending enough time speaking about the specifics of the game, but after a while I realized that all the different stories and examples eventually tied together in educating us on what John felt went into the makeup of a civilian guerilla resistance.
His main role has been contributing to and writing our single-player story outline. He's also guided us in key creative decisions such as avoiding the "save the entire country yourself" plot line, and focusing on a smaller, human story; it's so much more identifiable this way. He also contributed game ideas such as the resistance tactics. WW: How important was it to use real environments and real cities? DV: More important than trying to emulate actual locations, we set out to create a strong environmental narrative; simply put, as you move through the game, the environments are telling you what has transpired in America. To that end, the idea of the "familiar becomes alien" was the basis for what we would design. Take things familiar to us and just twist them a bit -- deserted suburbs and schools, football fields turned into refugee camps, gas stations and stores turned into military outposts. Of course, when you build the Golden Gate Bridge, it better look like it!
WW: Was it difficult to make this version of future-America (or possibly, was it hard not to fall back on video games tropes like bots, magical laser tech and superhuman strength)? How much went into envisioning the technology? DV: The concept of an invaded/occupied America is something that I've personally been thinking about as a game since we opened Kaos (almost 6 years ago), but we didn't get started on crafting that idea until after we shipped Frontlines. There has been a lot of input on the concept from various people, but the core idea was that we wanted to answer the 'what if' question of, "what if America was occupied?" What would it be like to experience that future? Creating a piece of speculative fiction based on that question that then takes familiar America and twists it with the themes of the game was the core guiding principle from the very beginning. When it came to the technology, weaponry, vehicles in the game, we knew that, because of the fall of America and continual geopolitical turmoil and oil shortages, technology would not push forward by very much. So you'll see a lot of current-issue weapons and vehicles, but showing wear from years of use.
WW: How do you feel environmental storytelling works in games like Homefront -- is there time to stop and really take scenes in? What type of efforts were made to make the familiar alien? DV: You may have to duck a few bullets, but yes, there's time to take it all in. Pacing is very important to the storytelling of Homefront, so while we deliver lots of high-intensity moments, we know that we need to tone it down to let the story breathe. When that does happen, you are taking in vistas that have these familiar-becomes-alien moments.
WW: Can you talk a little about the experience of designing a game around a set of normal, run-of-the-mill people-turned-freedom-fighters? We don't see the approach often -- were there struggles you ran into telling the story of the people as opposed to the war, as most games tend to do? DV: When designing Homefront, we wanted a game that felt different from the other modern combat military shooters without breaking from the formula that makes these games so successful. We decided early on to push most of our emphasis on our storytelling and fiction, while sticking with tried and tested mechanics and features that our audience already knows and loves. So what really makes this game so different is the emphasis on the civilians, the non-combatants, and how they are affected by the war. How real people (not trained soldiers) would behave in combat situations. Much of this is realized via the dialog and character interactions throughout the game. It results in a game that, while familiar in game mechanics, is unlike anything you have ever experienced before in terms of its story and character interactions.
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WW: And finally -- was it difficult to separate the politics from the story? Or maybe a way to put it more bluntly -- is the flag-waving (on either side) as overt as say, Modern Warfare 2? DV: Absolutely not. The North Korean government has been publically vehement toward the West since the Korean War, so we're not inventing anything new in this regard. It's simply a stepping stone that a fictional scenario has been extrapolated from, and it has not been designed to cast the Korean public in a negative light. The game focuses on a military occupation: professional soldiers following orders that come from within a fictional alliance (the Greater Korean Republic) that is made up of Korea, Japan, and numerous other southeast Asian countries.
It seems inevitable that there will be some that may not agree with the events in the game, or don't believe them. The thing that should be remembered here is that this is a work of fiction. It's not a prediction, there is no political statement being made and it's not a condemnation of any current day situation, country or person; It's simply a 'what-if' scenario.