No one speaks more eloquently or more passionately about Ubisoft’s inventive reboot of fighting games than its creator, Jason VandenBerghe. The Feb. 14 release marks the end of a 15-year “odyssey” — as he puts it — to get this game made. VandenBerghe had been studying at his local San Francisco dojo for a year when, on the way home one day, he was struck by an idea: Wouldn’t it be fun to play a game that translates sword-fighting to the controller on a visceral level?
“I took a course in German longsword,” he said. “It’s this rediscovered martial art. We figured out how the knights used the longsword. And it’s really cool!”
With that, an odd scene suddenly played out on the streets of San Francisco. VandenBerghe — a large, big-bearded man with a wooden sword strapped to his back — started fiddling with an imaginary controller. He was mapping out how his virtual swordplay could work.
There are plenty of video games that feature sword-fighting, but this idea had a specific goal: VandenBerghe wanted a game that would capture the “emotions of combat.” Something you feel rather than think about.
“I wanted a game that felt the way I feel when I pick up a weapon,” he said.
He knew from his long obsession with armed combat — which fueled his interest in video games — that there was no game scratching that itch for him. In fact, most of those that touched on his favorite subject matter did the opposite. “All the other sword fighting games were all really cerebral,” he said. “It was all: observe and memorize. I didn’t want that.”
“I wanted to be on the battlefield and feel that lizard brain activate. Feel the sense of survival, fight-or-flight… I wanted that.”
For starters, it was an unusual concept. This was before the days of Dark Souls and other technically demanding melee combat games. Most publishers didn’t see a road to success in the notion of a melee combat game with a script-flipping control scheme.
VandenBerghe’s approach could also have been better. It took him a number of years before he figured out how to pitch his idea, which was less a game and more a notion of reinvented game mechanics.
“When I was starting to pitch it, I started out with ‘I have this really great idea for a new control scheme that would make melee combat feel way better.’ And people were like,” — he made a loud snoring noise here — “‘I fell asleep on the second word of your sentence there, kid.'”
Everything changed when VandenBerghe, working as a narrative director on Far Cry 3, went out to lunch with Yannis Mallat, the head honcho at Ubisoft Montreal.
Mallet asked: “What do you really want to do?”
“So I told him,” VandenBerghe said. “And he said, ‘Hmmm. No, but I’ve got somebody I want you to meet.”
That someone was Stephane Cardin, a Ubisoft producer who would go on to become a key figure in For Honor‘s development. Cardin worked with the team that produced Ubi’s Prince of Persia and Naruto games — they had a lot of experience working with melee combat.
“I pitched it to them and they said yes,” VandenBerghe said. “So now, five years later, here we are.”
It’s not quite that simple, however. There was no For Honor yet in 2012; simply an idea for a control scheme. VandenBerghe, Cardin, and their team were really into it, but no one could agree on what to build on top of it.
“We had all these discussions on the team. And of course, these open forum discussions — because that’s how you do it — it was always people arguing,” VandenBerghe explained.
Factions formed. Some wanted a game about knights in armor. Others felt the swordplay would work better with viking warriors. A third group was convinced that the simple elegance of samurai swordplay would work best.
Everyone felt very strongly about their chosen warrior, to the point that some threatened to leave the project if they didn’t get their way. After a few weeks of this, VandenBerghe turned to Cardin one day with a ballsy suggestion.
“Hey Steph,” he said. “How about we do knights, vikings, and samurai?”
Cardin looked at his creative partner and paused to think. “I kinda love that,” he said.
“Me too! Why hasn’t anyone done that?”
“I don’t know. Let’s do it.”
And that is where the game we now know as For Honor — which tosses knights, vikings, and samurai into an epic, not-at-all-based-in-reality war — was born.
“I have never been more present in a creative endeavor,” he said, beaming.
He mentions the thrill of watching people fall into the game during playtests, on the eve of For Honor‘s release. These total strangers pick up the controller and, as they start messing with his baby, VandenBerghe delights in seeing them get into it.
“I can hear from the words they’re using that they’ve fallen into their own warrior. The part of their brain that knows how that works, that has been living inside of us for our whole lives, has woken up and suddenly it’s speaking,” he said.
“I love that.”