Life after Epic: Getting to know Cliff Bleszinski (exclusive interview, part one: his past)

EGM intro (Gears of War)

GamesBeat: What was your reaction back in the day to me calling you a dick in the first line of my cover story for Gears of War in Electronic Gaming Monthly?

Bleszinski: I was just happy to be in EGM at that point. I grew up reading the fucking magazine. I still have some of my old issues in my drawers over here. It’s like the guy who became the lead singer in Judas Priest. He was a big fan, and then he became the singer. Or … I don’t know if it was Priest; I think it was. [Editor's note: It was.]

I approached this industry from the outside wanting to get in, and then I was able to rise to damn near the top. Even the first EGM cover we had for Unreal Tournament was a monumental career moment for me. The irony, of course, is that most of print is going away, but still, I have a lot of those framed in my house because they were huge career milestones even if you did call me a dick.

To be fair, writing that article as an objective journalist, you couldn’t come in and be like, “Cliff’s the man!” When Tom Bissell wrote that New Yorker article on me, he was like, “Oh, he could be a model or a small-town weed dealer.” I was like, “Thanks … I think?” There’s this fine line between a piece that tears somebody apart and a piece that’s just a fluff piece. That’s the line that a journalist walks.

GamesBeat: Do you think it’s weird or inappropriate that Gears of War toys are marketed to young children?

Bleszinski: Yeah, that’s always an issue. The thing is, I’m 37-years-old, and I’m still collecting cool new Transformers. That’s not a cop-out answer. The fact that they’re in Toys “R” Us … it’s one of those things. Yeah, it is there. But at the same time, it’s a fantasy, sci-fi experience. There are Prometheus action figures that I saw the other day at Toys “R” Us. Like, really?

The bottom line is that you want to get your game and your franchise in as many people’s hands as possible, when it’s appropriate. I’ve always defended Gears with the fact that it was an over-the-top chainsawing-aliens game, as opposed to a sticking-ice-picks-in-gang-members’-ears type of game.

GamesBeat: That reminds me: I’ve mentioned to you in previous interviews that I’ve always had this issue where Gears of War seems to have two personalities. It’s almost like when you see a trailer for an action movie, and they made sure to insert a scene that might appeal to the people who don’t like action movies –

Bleszinski: I’ve seen them do it. I’ve seen the Lifetime movie version of the commercial and then the ESPN version of it.

GamesBeat: Exactly. It seemed like Gears of War went through that but not just marketing-wise. On the one hand, you have the “bigger, better, and more badass” mantra. There’s the chainsaw guns and all the weapons blowing people up into bloody bits.

On the other hand, you had the “Mad World” commercial, trying to show the humanity that was lost in this world. You have the Dominic storyline, with him reuniting with his comatose wife in Gears 2 and what happened to him in Gears 3. It’s all touching, but for me, it just really didn’t fit the action and violent theme of the series in general.

Bleszinski: Part of that was just pacing. You’re going to have this incredibly emotional scene in the midst of an IP [intellectual property] where you say, “Shit, yeah!” and cut through 50 lizard men. How’s that going to work? Is it a square peg in a round hole? Yes. Why did that happen? Well, a lot of it is down to how the Ouija board of the development team panned out, but part of it is also my own imprint on how I operate and think.

When I was a teenager and I was working on games like Jazz Jackrabbit, I would listen to basically two types of music: hardcore gangsta rap and then musicals. It’s honestly that DNA coming through. I’m in two modes. I’m either in go-go-go-fuck-shit-up mode, or I’m in let’s-go-cry musical mode. Moving forward, if I’m working on something, I’ll have to adjust for the fact that not a lot of people can operate in those two spaces.

That’s the duality of who I’ve always been. One minute I want to watch something really sweet, a rom-com, and then the next minute I want to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I can appreciate both. I’m not all black or white. So I think that might have been some of that DNA making it through all the way to the final product.

This is also, by the way, a sensibility that [former Gears of War executive producer] Rod Fergusson shares. Rod loves action movies and explosives, but he’s also a big musical geek. He’ll have a big porterhouse steak and then have an apple martini with it. It’s just that kind of sensibility that I think came through myself and Rod and ultimately into the franchise.

Could it have been done better? Absolutely. I think the pacing of the levels before and after, leading into the whole Maria thing, probably could have been handled a lot better. The Dom thing, in regards to sensitivity — you can debate whether it worked. I think the scene worked rather well. I think that’s a better example, where the level started off super quiet, and then it ramped up to get crazier and crazier. It ultimately built up to everybody attacking you, and your back is absolutely against the wall. You realize, as a player, that you can barely counter this. Dom finally making his sacrifice at that point, I think, worked better than the setup and the payoff to the Maria scene, personally.

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