Eidos releases Guerrilla's Vietnam War combat-fest Shellshock: Nam '67 this Friday in Europe on PC, PS2 and Xbox, and in the run up to launch we'll be taking you on a final guided tour of the game. A developer interview, exclusive media and final impressions of release code wait in the wings, but we kick off the first day of our four-day-long coverage with a chat with Matt Costello, the author responsible for the title's storyline that ties the action together...
A rather obvious question to start off with, but can you give us a synopsis of the plot you've penned for Shellshock: Nam '67?
Costello: There's one main plot that ties together the entire run of Shellshock missions, and other subplots that feed into that main story.
Without giving too much away, the plot revolves around the rumors of a brilliant NVA strategist who seems to anticipate the US forces' moves, with deadly and horrifying results. This hunt for the reality of this figure - jokingly dubbed 'King Cong' by the grunts - becomes an obsession as deaths and deaths mount. Ultimately, the player must come face-to-face with King Cong, his army and the dirty secrets behind his success.
Can you tell us about the lead character, about his situation at the start of the story and how he develops as the plot unfolds?
Costello: Layered under the main story, the player has his own 'story', traveling from a wet-behind-the-ears grunt to Special Forces, following in the footsteps of the brutally trapped and killed SF mentor, Gunner. As the truth of Cong grows, the player's ability to face this enemy will also grow - and the desire for revenge will play a big part in that personal story.
How much time has gone into background research on the period, and what types of material did you use for research purposes?
Costello: Weeks, if not months were spent by the developer and then me researching the war in general, the period (1967) and getting up to speed on weapons, and technology. Key resources where The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien and, of course, Mike Herr's Dispatches. In order to create realistic Saigon-based armed forces DJ, a lot of research went into - not only the music of the time - but events in the real world beyond the reach of the horror, from the first Super Bowl to the latest Bond flick. The goal: to make the player feel that not only are they in Vietnam hell, but also the soon-to-be-surreal world of 1967.
Are there any parts of the plot that are an obvious nod to some of the more prominent Vietnam War films?
Costello: Not so much nods, but I looked at the films for capturing tone, setting and character. There's the craziness and mysticism of Apocalypse Now. The mad terror of Deer Hunter (as well as the brotherhood of Nam grunts). The squad level action of Platoon and the cityscape fighting of Full Metal Jacket. The research in books gave me more than enough raw material to build the characters and events of Shellshock. But the films helped guide how that world should feel.
Ignoring the Vietnam War 'the event', is any of the story based on actual fact?
Costello: There's a lot of reality in the game, and that is reflected in the makeup of the individual missions. And while the jungle was alive with rumors and fears about the NVA regulars, their leaders, etc... The story of the game is fiction, exactly as it should be.
What different types of challenges have to be overcome in intertwining a fictional narrative with real historical events, as opposed to creating something purely fictitious where you can let the imagination run wild?
Costello: Big difference. I'm also a novelist and I often build a world from the ground up. But here we had not only data, events, and information to be respected - there was also the truth of the war and the experience. I took care that the characters - even the more broadly drawn ones like Psycho or Short Timer - all felt and sounded real. I worked real events into the time-line of the story, and used those events to shape what the player learned and what they could do about it.
The biggest challenge was to create compelling characters, keep them in harness to the real war, era events, while still delivering a powerful fictional story.
One of Shellshock's features always talked about is that it 'portrays the true brutality of the conflict'. Was there anything that you wanted in the plot that got cut because in terms of 'gruesome value' it went even beyond the harrowing gameplay experience we're being promised?
Costello: Actually no. Some things were discussed that, if we took all such horrifying images, would have left the player numb... Having just the opposite effect of the horror. Again, as a horror novelist, I know it can't be all shock - or there is no shock. You need the quiet, then the fear.
Still, the brutality is very much in this game and will be, I imagine, controversial... Though the same imagery and events in a film or even a graphic novel would be accepted as true to the material.
When the player finally finishes Shellshock, what's the one thing you want them to come away with - is there a message or moral tale?
Costello: Interesting question, and it shows how far we have come in what some of us are demanding of games. The hidden moral tale is... Can you go into hell, master the tools of hell, do hellish work and somehow retain your humanity? That's what the soldiers had to struggle to do. And while the player is only in a game, if the characters resonate, if the player feels a connection to Gunner, or the others when suddenly they lose someone they depended on... If they can feel something while still vicariously enjoying the fantasy of "Hey look, Mom, I'm in Nam" - then the game will have succeeded.
What are you most pleased with about the plot for Shellshock: Nam '67?
Costello: Plot can be tricky thing in games. How do you tell a story when the player controls so many things? How to tell the tale and not have that tale get in the way of action? I think Shellshock's story can be sampled at whatever level you want, from just getting the basics and getting out into the jungle, to spending time, gaining info and really connecting to the world and its people deeper.
It's all your choice... Just like in real life.
Check back tomorrow for day two of our coverage of Shellshock: Nam '67, where we'll be bringing you a hefty slice of in-game action via exclusive footage and screenshots.