Cliff Bleszinski was lead designer on the popular video game Gears of War, and also worked on other classic titles such as Unreal and Fortnite. His new memoir Control Freak describes his rise from Nintendo fanboy to rock star game designer.
“It’s 300 pages of my life story, starting when I was a pimply faced teenager who didn’t really have any friends or even a girlfriend,” Bleszinski says in Episode 531 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I didn’t really like the world in which I lived, so I decided to pursue a career in the video game industry, in which I could not only manipulate the worlds that I played—in the games that I played—but also create those worlds myself.”
Control Freak is a surprisingly candid look into the life of a game designer, detailing Bleszinski’s many mistakes and insecurities. “So many video game books are often vetted through the PR and marketing people from the various entities that are involved, so what you get is the official, corporate-approved statement,” he says. “I wanted this to be deeply, deeply personal. I think if you’re going to go there and put yourself out there, I think you have to full-on go for it.”
The portrait of Bleszinski presented in Control Freak stands in stark contrast to the cocky, outspoken persona he honed over years of press tours and convention appearances. “I was giving people what I thought they wanted, and it wound up being very polarizing,” he says. “I was just a dork trying to masquerade as what I thought a cool person was. So the reaction has ultimately been one of surprise.”
Bleszniski launched his own game studio in 2014, only to watch it fold a few years later. Since then he’s moved away from game design and into other projects. He’s currently at work on a short story and a graphic novel, and he also helped produce the hit Broadway musical Hadestown.
“I loved being in the [game] industry,” he says. “I loved the friends I made, I loved the contacts and the adventures that I had. I made decent money. And now I’m at the point where I just want to see where this goes. I feel like I’ve been playing an RPG my entire life, and that point in an RPG where the world fully opens up and you can go anywhere and do anything, that’s kind of what my life feels like at this point.”
Listen to the complete interview with Cliff Bleszinski in Episode 531 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Cliff Bleszinski on Gears of War:
People will criticize the game: “This is just some big stupid bro shooter with chainsaws.” But then once every three or four months, I’ll just pop onto YouTube and look up Dom’s death, look up the Maria scene, all the famous scenes, Tai killing himself, and just see how every comment is like, “Man, I had to pause the game and go to the bathroom after this and catch my breath.” To know that we had that power, that impact on people. Because books are amazing, television and film are amazing, but with games, you’re there, you’re the one controlling these characters, and they live and die based on your decisions. Though sometimes we have to take that decision away from you, as the creatives, and go, “No, this character’s going to go bye-bye, and it’s going to suck, and hopefully we’re going to squeeze out those feels from you, and make you suffer.”
Cliff Bleszinski on game writing:
There’s a reason why nearly every Gears game has a new writer, because writing in itself is hard enough—writing [Control Freak] was really rough, it took four years from start to finish—but then to write a video game is a whole other beast. You can have this character who’s key to the game, and he has a flamethrower, and the programmers can come in and be like, “We need to cut the flamethrower guy because the frame rate’s not holding up enough.” And it basically causes the writer to have to go and unpin every single narrative arc that was interwoven. … There’s a story about the writer for Gears 4 and 5 that he actually wound up in the hospital with chest pains from the stress of it. Making games is hard, but being the writer who’s at the beck and call of the designers and the video game team is a tough, tough gig.
Cliff Bleszinski on game developers:
Your average developer/publisher doesn’t want there to be visible developers, because a visible developer gets a fan base, and then they ultimately can leverage that fan base—and the fact that people know who they are—for more money and a better contract. And so you’ll see so many games now where you’ll get an update, and instead of being signed by the lead designer or the main creative, it’ll be from “the team.” And the powers that be like that, because they can just interchange anybody like a cog. You replace that cog and the machine will keep running. Whereas if there’s one person spearheading it and they move on, public confidence in the game goes down.
Cliff Bleszinski on Nintendo:
I worshiped Nintendo, my entire walls were covered in all things Nintendo, I ate the cereal even. My reaction time was on point. I was Spider-Man Tobey Maguire catching the food in the cafeteria. Deadly Towers was another really tough one, Mighty Bomb Jack. All of them. I saw them as conquests, and so I wanted to see how many I could beat. I had a giant poster board on the back of my bedroom door, and I wrote down the names of all of them. I wish I still had it. I have that old Nintendo upstairs right now, and I literally have hash marks on it—kind of like a fighter pilot shooting down MiGs—of games I beat. I even took an old broken cartridge and spray-painted it and wrote “100 Games Beat” and made myself a little trophy. I just loved it.