Back in October, The Nerds of Color caught up with game designer and Arkane Studios legend, Dinga Bakaba, to talk his latest next-gen masterpiece DEATHLOOP. The sci-fi first-person shooter released to critical reception in September, and Bakaba shared details of the game’s development, including the impact of boasting such a diverse cast of characters. After industry veteran Romuald Capron recently stepped down as Arkane Studios’s game director of 16 years, Bakaba was officially named his successor following DEATHLOOP‘s wildly successfully launch.
Time, Visionaries, Loops, Slabs. The world of DEATHLOOP is crazy immersive — how did you manage to fit such a rich story on an island as contained as Blackreef?
With time! And I don’t mean dev time, I mean the time loop and the opportunities it provides. Because thanks to this structure of four areas available at four times of day, we could include storytelling that you could miss and see the next time. You are traversing one day but in so many different points in space and time that there is a lot to discover, and this discovery is active, it feels like you found something, when and how you wanted, be it environmental storytelling, a juicy conversation between Eternalists, or reading through someone’s retro-Slack channels. But a resetting clockwork wouldn’t be enough, we needed a personal connection to that story, and we can find it with Colt retaining his memories through loops, commenting on his successes, victories, and discoveries at the same pace as you, but always offering an entertaining perspective. Same goes for the Floating Messages, residual thoughts of previous iterations of Colt, messy and cryptic memoirs that, once again, the player gets to actively pursue. Lastly, Julianna is the other side of the coin, calling you regularly, offering her perspective, teasing you with bits of knowledge just out of reach, and, again, giving these tragic events a fun twist, making sure that you always desire discovering more rather than rushing to the conclusion. Until you have discovered all there is, that is, and then the player’s mindset of “ok, this world has nothing for me anymore” mirrors Colt’s own motivation to break the loop. Long answer!
Was your aim with DL always going to be about time? I mean, when you first started bringing these ideas and characters together, was messing with the concept of time and mortality at the heart of it all?
Yes, the time loop came super quickly when we started toying with what to do next. I think some of the characters came before–maybe, the icy place, etc. but the loop came very quickly: an eternal lawless carnival where you are the only one not having fun at all. Quickly after we nailed that structure, we started digging into the theme of immaturity and whether a life without consequences was life at all with our characters, each one expressing it in a different way and they started to be shaped as what we now know them to be, through iteration.
Jason E. Kelley and Ozioma Akagha have the absolute best chemistry. Can you talk a little about landing them for this project and working with them throughout it?
We 100% deferred to and trusted Voice Director/Narrative Designer Bennett Smith with the casting. With the first recording tests there was a lot of charisma but also an energy that was even on both sides, so one wasn’t overpowering the other in their delivery. And I guess that having them both come to the recording booth before the pandemic, and the chemistry that was totally evident nailed once and for all, that they were the right fit for the characters.
How much of Dishonored 2 informs DL? Was it a challenge transitioning out of that game and into the design of this new project? I know stealth is still very present in this game but how did you approach making DL its own distinct title from your previous works?
I’d say a lot, it’s our last game, a big ambitious one that we are very proud of, and even if this was going to be a different beast, we were not only building from the same philosophy and with the same craftsmen and women, we also decided that for each new and atypical element (timeloop! Retro sci-fi sixties! Different progression systems! Multiplayer! No quicksave! No nonlethal! More guns and less fencing! Etc.), we needed an anchor of familiarity (European base for the architecture, similar core gameplay verbs and systems). And that can be felt on every aspect of the game. We wanted the game to feel like home to returning players, but also something so different that it would catch and hopefully retain their interest. And for new players we hope that this can be a gate to discover the Dishonored series as well as Prey, maybe with the approach of embracing the chaos for the first run before they try to perfect stealth.
Representation is so important to me as a gamer and for many gamers today. I wanted to personally thank you for making this game because of how significant Colt and Juliana’s stories are in the pantheon of Black/Brown video game character narratives. How much does this project coming to life mean to you? I know this isn’t your first work that features diverse characters but it’s a massive title on next generation consoles that fans have truly come to love.
I’m proud, man, I’m really fucking proud, actually. My father was a West African actor in France, it was very complicated to get lead roles outside of the African continent in the ’80s-’90s French speaking world, and it was frustrating that I got to identify with his characters that would always die or be secondary, rarely at the measure of his amazing talent. Seeing Colt and Julianna on the box of a big game and helping Jason and Ozi get a lot of love and recognition for their tremendous work feels like (constructive) revenge for so many talented artists that never got the recognition they deserved because there were either barriers or just an absence of meaningful roles/opportunities for them to shine. That’s a bit personal, but actually it wasn’t a project goal: it was actually [Sébastien Mitton’s] art direction that led us on that path, making me feel blessed to work with people like this for whom not only is it totally imaginable and even desirable to have someone that looks like my dad on a box, but they would even fight for it even though they have no personal stakes in the matter. And to be fair, as you mentioned, I couldn’t feel more at home than in Arkane, where it’s not the first or last push in the right direction.