For Auten and Bissell, the hardest part about writing Judgment was the declassification missions. Judgment’s campaign mode uses a series of flashbacks to tell its story where each member of Kilo Squad gives personal accounts of the events that led up to their arrest. When you “declassify” a mission by activating large red icons in the environment, you’ll find out more information about the story (with new dialogue that reveals what really happened in each mission) than if you just ignored it.
Activating it also turns on a special set of rules and restrictions — such as using only certain weapons, finishing the level in a specific amount of time, or fighting stronger Locusts. But as fascinating as the gameplay mechanic is, the writers couldn’t find any enjoyment in trying to account for the different scenarios a player could come across with this optional system in place.
“Terrible,” Bissell said about their writing process. “I wouldn’t wish them on anyone [Laughs].”
Auten and Bissell described one memorable moment that involved some poisonous gas — the player has to complete a certain chunk of the level before a timer runs out. If you fail, the place fills up with poison gas that immediately kills you and your squad. It was the writers’ job to come up with some kind of reason to explain why this area — which also happens to serve as a sort of headquarters for COG soldiers — would have this gas mechanism in the first place.
“And then we had to do multiple versions of [the dialogue],” said Auten.
“All the narration you hear has three different versions,” explained Bissell. “So if you play through again, you’ll hear different versions of it. And so figuring out a way to ground the declassifications in a fictionally plausible way was murder. It was so hard.”
“[It was] a nightmare!” Auten said. “It was probably the hardest part of writing the whole game. Writing like 30 different lines for why you pick up an ammo container for eight different characters was easier than sometimes a single line of declassification narration.”
Finding room in the existing lore
Like Microsoft’s Halo or BioWare’s Mass Effect, Gears of War is one of those franchises large enough to spread out to other forms of media besides video games. Books, comics, and even toys continue the story for fans even when they’re not playing on their consoles. Judgment is in a unique position, as not only does it act as a prequel to the Gears trilogy but also as an expansion to Gears of War 3.
But despite all these existing threads covering a number of topics in Gears history, Auten and Bissell still found room to craft their story.
“We tried to identify a place in the lore where we could slot in our story,” said Bissell. “And the helpful thing from our perspective was that all the events in Judgment were later shrouded in COG secrecy — the trial was hushed up, parts of it were classified. So that was our internal justification for why no one ever talked about any of this stuff before, because it was a top secret trial where … records have been sealed.
“And that’s where the declassification [system] comes in. So there’s been some griping on Gears forums of people saying, ‘Why didn’t this ever come up before?’ Well, answer one is: Because we just thought of it … 18 months ago [Laughs]. But answer two is we actually tried to present a fictional justification.”
“At the end of the day, we wanted to make a game that was — that didn’t have to have a lot of plot exposition explaining why it was sneaking around these kind of boundaries,” said Auten. “We were hoping that even the players who have the red pens out won’t have to make too many strikes against us.”
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