For Honor Interview: Creative Director Jason VandenBerghe and Telling a Story of Combat

on December 14, 2016 12:00 PM

Great warriors have echoed throughout the ages, as countless wars have been won by factions such as Vikings, Samurai, and Knights for hundreds of years. Thanks to the creative team at Ubisoft Montreal, next year’s upcoming action title For Honor will put those three factions to the test, and most of all, against each other, with a unique blend of storytelling, history, and gripping third-person action.

Before the game heads to consoles and PC in February of next year, we had the opportunity to attend a special hands-on preview event with Ubisoft in San Francisco to play For Honor, and also spoke to the game’s creative director Jason VandenBerghe, for a more in-depth look at For Honor ‘s tale of Knights, Samurai, and Vikings.

After several hours of trial by combat and trying the game hands-on, we had the chance to dive deeper into the inspiration of For Honor‘s war between Vikings, Samurai, and Knights in our conversation with VandenBerghe – the full interview transcript can be read below, along with our video interview.

Ryan Meitzler: Jason, thanks so much for having us to here to check out the game. Can you start off by giving us a little bit of background on For Honor, what it is, and all that?

Jason VandenBerghe, creative director: So, For Honor is a whole new way to play with swords: as a game that’s built around putting the sword in your hand, putting you in the middle of this epic battlefield, and giving you all the tools that you need to be the victor.

The game came out of our belief that combat is an art form, that this form of art is the kind of art where the warrior often gives their life in the service of what they believe in, and wanting to really capture that feeling in the battlefield. We’re putting that on the screen so you can pick it up with the controller and give you a whole new way to feel that intensity and that connection, and then live out these epic medieval battles as the medieval “special forces.”

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Jason VandenBerghe, the creative director of For Honor. (Image via Stevivor)

RM: The big part of the game seems to be the faction war between the Samurai, the Knights, and the Vikings – what was the inspiration between having these groups fighting each other in these medieval battles?

JV: Well, from the beginning we knew that the game originally came just from the desire to do great sword fighting in video games, but when we started talking about what kind of world could we do and what would that be, we would have these conversations like, “Should we do Knights? You know? Or we could do a Viking game, you know? We could do a Samurai game, that’d be really cool!” And people were always voting, right: and after a while, after we had enough conversations like that I’m like, “Hey guys, what if we just did all three? Like, clearly we’re all not gonna agree on this right? Isn’t that kind of the point?”

So, I think that the great thing about [For Honor] is that these three factions, they represent not just the sort of “skin” of history: they also represent the different values of types of warriors. The Knights are defenders or protectors of the helpless: that’s the idea behind the Knights. The Vikings and the people who love Vikings – it’s about “freedom” and “passion” and “ARRRR!” The Samurai follow mastery and devoting themselves to something greater than one person, and striving for perfection and all that. So, underneath [For Honor] is this question of “what kind of warrior might you be.”

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RM: Were there other factions you considered having in the game at some point in development?

JV: Oh I’ve considered every possible faction: I mean, this is my dream game. This is a topic that I’m deeply, deeply interested in – I’ve been studying all of these types of groups for most of my life. So, we considered everything and yeah, I would love to be making a game where every possible type of warrior was in there but you know, this is a great place to start, it’s a solid foundation.

There’s so much new stuff going on in this game: we really wanted to start with something that was iconic and that people could get their head around immediately – “pick up the weapon, start going for it, see if they liked it.” It’s really new, right – there’s no other game that plays like it.

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RM: What can players expect from the storyline in the single-player campaign of For Honor?

JV: The campaign is a full cinematic adventure – so you’re going to play as the Knights, and then the Vikings, and then as the Samurai – this linear story that tells the story of this one region of this world called Ashfeld. The Vikings call it “Valkenheim,” their ancient homeland actually, and they had sort of been wiped out in the cataclysm and had traveled to other lands. The Knights have occupied this place, and the Vikings have returned, and the Samurai have ended up here from across their homeland that has been destroyed, and they’ve ended up here as a place of refuge.

And in this world where these three factions are fighting for who owns this territory, we have this “splinter group,” this faction of this group called the Blackstone Legion, led by a warlord named Apollyon, and Apollyon she’s a “believer”: she’s a visionary. She believes in “predator” and “prey” – she believes that humans are divided into wolves and sheep, and that we have a kind of a moral obligation to set the wolves free so that they can prey more readily on the sheep.

So, she doesn’t really care what faction you’re in: she cares whether or not you’re a wolf, and is setting about to encourage more and more war. So, in this region we have those three factions, and you’re gonna start as the Knights and you’ll actually end up joining the Blackstone Legion, and you’re gonna see from the inside what they’re all about. And then, as wars begin to spread, you’re gonna experience the “hows” and “whys” behind that, and you’re gonna find out how this whole thing got started.

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RM: In terms of the multiplayer, will we see any integration of a storyline or anything that players will be doing from the single-player?

JV: So, there’s two things – first is to know that the story campaign is the “past” – the multiplayer is the “present,” in the same location. There’s a world map, right, and that world map is taking place in the same place in both parts of the game. We have this thing called the Faction War in the multiplayer side, and in the Faction War every multiplayer game that you play – every form of gameplay that you play and participate in – you’re gonna be rewarded with War Assets.

These War Assets are points that you can place on the map for your Faction, and over a series of rounds and weeks, your Faction is gonna fight the other two Factions for dominance of the season: this overall season that you’re gonna be playing in the multiplayer game.

Those seasons are the official history of this world – so, when that first season is over, the “victor” – the team/faction that has won – will officially have won that year in the story of For Honor. So, they’re connected the two [single-player and multiplayer] – the storylines are sort of part of one tale of what is going on in this one region.

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RM: I know when For Honor was announced, a lot of people assumed it was going to be focused as a multiplayer experience – obviously we’ve seen that it has a pretty in-depth single-player campaign. Was that always in place from the start, or did that come later on in development to give it a big storyline?

JV: Well, we knew that we needed to start with multiplayer. We knew that the mechanic – to really make this mechanic work and to prove that it was functional – we knew that we needed to solve the multiplayer problem, because the multiplayer problem was much harder.

We had to invent a kind of new way of doing networking, and a bunch of new technology, and we needed to overcome that problem – now all of that we knew we were going to be able to move all of that into single-player, and we were able to do that.

So, we started with multiplayer and we’ve been working on that the longest, but we always knew with this topic, Vikings, Knights, and Samurai…come on, right? (laughs) The question was “when” – when are we gonna do it, when do we build that out, and the answer turned out to be: right now! It’s fantastic, it’s just been great – so we always wanted to do [single-player], and I’m thrilled it’s here and we’re ready to hand it off to you and see if you like it.

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RM: Definitely! With working on these medieval Knights, Vikings, Samurai and all that, what was the research process like for developing the combat styles and everything? I’m sure there was a lot of work that went into that.

JV: Oh it was so great. So first, the original concept for this game came from a course I took 15 years ago in German longsword and studied the basic form that you see now with the Warden [Knight class]: that form was where we started. Whenever we would build a new character, building new heroes in this game, what we would do is bring in weapon experts who understand not just the sort of the official “historical” style, but “practically” how this weapon [worked]: “what was the role of this weapon in the battlefield? How was it intended to be used? What was its strengths and weaknesses?”

We have a couple of fighters who have a lot of experience in like the “cheap shots” – like “what are the weird ways to attack with these weapons?” Then we bring in stunt people, we bring in martial artists, we bring in game designers and have this sort of “group rumble” where we work out what we can do with this weapon – we did that with every one of these.

So, it’s just a blast and then we mo-cap them and their performance – it’s a blend of research, history, stagecraft, and pure invention. Fitting with our own game design needs – but we always start with “what is that weapon really for?” We want to be as true to the design of the weapon and its place as possible.

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RM: Yeah, I mean from what I’ve played so far I’ve definitely noticed there’s a lot of attention to detail in how each of these characters are moving and have probably some of the most in-depth animations I’ve seen, especially for something like this. I think you guys had mentioned at some point how you wanted everything to feel like there’s a kind of “weight” to it, like all the strikes and blows, and you can definitely feel it. I was playing as the Viking earlier and when you run and bash people, you feel it.

JV: Yeah, it’s a lot of work  and we have an entirely new way to do animation in this game: we have a system called “Ammo” which is a totally new way to even do gameplay animation, which is taking these massive clips of motion capture and sort of slicing them up into pieces – it’s an amazing system.

So yeah, in making that sense of weight, that weight it starts with the mo-cap, with making sure that the original stuff is slow and heavy and really concentrating on getting the weight there, and then we keep improving that and keep working on it. Because really, it’s the key thing – you want to feel that “BAM!” You really wanna feel that when you hit.

RM: One last question – I feel like I know the answer to this already, but Viking, Samurai, or Knight?

JV: (Laughs) So, when I announced the game in the first year, I learned that I look like a Viking.

RM: That’s what I imagined.

JV: It should not have been a surprise. Looking back on it now, I’m like: “right, clear.” So, what I’ve learned to say is: I’m Viking on the outside, right, but inside heart of a Knight, for sure.

The “Defender fantasy,” right – leaping in front of others with your shield –  that has always been where I’ve started. My character really is the Warden, with the longsword: that’s where I live. This game is really kind of an excuse for me to play that character – but, you know, I love all of my children the same, and they’re all my favorites.

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For Honor will release for PS4, Xbox One, and PC on February 14th, 2017 – for more in-depth coverage on the game ahead of its release, you can read our full hands-on preview of For Honor by clicking here.

 /  Features Editor
Ryan is the Features Editor at DualShockers, with over five years' experience in the world of video games culture and writing. He holds a BA in English & Cinema from Binghamton University, and lives in New York City.