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Interview: Emil Daubon - Writer, Ghost Recon Breakpoint

Published: 14:01, 05 October 2019
Updated: 18:21, 05 October 2019
Ubisoft
Emil Daubon headshot photo, and Ghost Recon: Breakpoint gameplay screenshot
Emil Daubon - Writer, Ghost Recon: Breakpoint

Following a lengthy period of beta hands-on trials, Ghost Recon Breakpoint has now been unleashed into the wild. At a press event in London, we were very fortunate to sit down with Emil Daubon, writer and military advisor for this latest Tom Clancy title.

Ghost Recon Breakpoint is aiming to captivate players with a particular MilSim urge to scratch, as well as those who just like running and/or sneaking around shooting things. They team behind it certainly have utilised some expertise in this area, with the help of ex-US Special Forces soldier Emil Daubon.

We met this this engaging and rather fearsomely athletic gentleman at an event for GRB. Our conversation ran the gamut, covering his military service, previous work in film and television, all the way through to his surprising transition into the gaming industry. We also cover challenges specific to writing for this ever expanding medium, his own experiences with gaming as a consumer, and plans for the future.

Ubisoft A press event for Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, with demo stations and a bar. There was free beer and pizza. Lovely.

Your work in entertainment has been extremely varied. Can you tell us a little about your formative years? 

So I come from a theatre background, and worked in film as a crew member. Union grip and electric. At 37, I was working on some projects for HBO, and I became friends with one of the actors. We’d talk about how I’d always wanted to act and write, and one day he said “You want to do this, right? Then why aren’t you?” So I made the decision to go back to school. 

We were shooting in Baltimore, and he [the actor] found acting coaches for me, did all this research, and really motivated me to pursue this. I applied to a few schools, and was very fortunate that I got into Columbia. I started off in the film department, but I wanted to learn about the classics. I honestly think that classic Aristotelian drama is still what makes a story compelling. Simple notions that drive a story, like a tragic flaw and a reversal of fortune. 

There’s a reason that the classics are so revered, and that most stories come from those seven basic plots. There’s a reason it works.

Exactly. I really wanted to explore that aspect of narrative creation. The theatre department at Columbia had a much better trajectory for drama theory and narrative development. So I started acting, and studying play-writing. Although I’ll always love film, I developed an appreciation of theatre for different reasons. For the uniqueness of every experience. At the same time, I love film for its permanence. You create something that will endure. 

I considered pursuing an MFA in Drama, but I got deployed halfway through my Undergraduate career. I had to go back to Afghanistan. And I wrote my first feature length screenplay while I was there. I came back, started workshopping it, and through that process it reminded me that what I really want to do is tell stories. Storytelling is my passion. It’s what drives me. 

Although games have become infinitely more sophisticated in their narrative ambition, it’s still a relatively young art form, especially when compared with the television and film industries. What made you take that leap?

In the Spring of ’18, I was graduating from Columbia, and my plan was to apply for an MFA programme in film directing, and I didn’t get in. When this didn’t work out, I was thinking “What am I going to do?”

At the same time, the team behind this new Ghost Recon needed another content writer, and they wanted a veteran. One of the other [Ubisoft] writers was at Columbia doing his MFA while I was there, and we used to collaborate on film projects. He went to the Lead Writer [on Breakpoint] and said “You should talk to my friend Emil”. He explained my background, and showed him a picture of me on deployment that’s actually now being used as promotional material. He told them “This guy is Nomad”. 

They hired me as an additional content writer, and once I was on site in Paris and actively writing, my role evolved very quickly. They wanted me to write more, and I ended up working as an associate lead. My focus was on systemic writing, and specifically all of the interactive systems within the world that are non-player characters, because they felt it was lacking in Wildlands.

Ubisoft Actor John Bernthal in Ghost Recon: Breakpoint You can't deny the quality of those stubble hairs.

That must be quite difficult as a writer, to tell your story within the framework of a game that gives players so much freedom.

It is tremendously challenging. Honestly, that is the work of the narrative designers, and they are so good. They had a vision of what they wanted Breakpoint to be. They wanted a texture and a depth that hadn’t been there in Ghost Recon, in your interactions with regular, everyday characters. They didn’t want NPC’s to say the same lines over and over again. They wanted them to convey gameplay information, and add depth to the world.

It’s interesting that your role has evolved over time. At what point in Breakpoint’s development were you brought on to the project?

Quite early on. The writers are all US based, and they bring us all out to Paris together at least once, to interface with the team, and get all of the proprietary software. Once they realised that I was a Special Forces operator, they asked me to help them with motion capture. They were shooting the CGI announcement trailer, but their normal military consultant wasn’t available. 

Because I know military tactics, as well as my background in film, I was able to bring authenticity into the realm of cinematic viability. A lot of consultants will say “I would never do that, so you can’t do that”. But I know that doesn’t matter, because the Director has a vision. My job is to make the Director’s vision work within the realm of authenticity. Once they saw I was capable of doing that, I started consulting with all of the departments.

As you were contributing to Breakpoint’s narrative elements, did you come across any storytelling decisions that had a tangible effect on gameplay?

By the time I came on board, a lot of the linear narrative had already been written. I got to write side missions that build your character and the context of the world, and dive in to a lot of optional dialogue, which is another fun way to expand the narrative. The truth is that the gameplay and narrative had already meshed together really effectively. The key impact that I had was to fine tune the mechanics, working with the animators, and tweak the writing so it sounded a bit more plausible. 

Having said that, it was really important for me to remember that we’re creating a piece of fiction. Everything, from the circumstances to the setting, are designed that way because they [Ubisoft] wanted the freedom to create.

Ubisoft Four players playing co-op in Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, looking out over the map. There is a constant battle between player freedom and the constraints of narrative structure.

It must have been an exciting prospect, to see your passion for writing expressed in a totally different medium.

It’s hard to deny the potential for storytelling in gaming. Games have always tried to tell a story, but they were always built on the mechanics. The story was used to sort of fill in the blanks between missions. Then, some very ambitious studios started producing content that was very clearly narrative driven. 

Games are striking a much more viable balance between mechanics and story immersion. And I recognised that games are a tremendous way to tell a story. You’re not limited by a 90 page feature script. You’re not stuck in the two hour narrative. Gameplay can be indefinite.

There’s definitely a trend now of gameplay mechanics serving the story, as opposed to a story being beholden to the tropes of a particular genre.

Exactly. That’s really how things are evolving. Some titles do it better than others, as everyone is trying to find the right formula. From my perspective, finding that balance between an immersive story and compelling gameplay mechanics is what makes a great experience.

What’s your own personal history with games, as a player?

I hadn’t touched a controller in 20 years, before I came on board [with Breakpoint]. I loved games as a kid, but I got away from it. That being said, after about three months of working at Ubisoft, the lead writer said “OK, so I need you to play a lot of games…”, and he gave me a huge list in order to understand the conventions of writing for the medium.

So I bought a PS4 Pro, and started playing. My first game was [Insomniac’s] Spiderman, which was amazing. Two years ago, when I got back from Afghanistan, I bought my parents an 80’ 4K TV. I went to visit them, and my first experience with Spiderman was plugging into that. It’s a brilliant game. 

From there, I started playing Naughty Dog titles. I played Uncharted 4, and The Last of Us, which is probably the most satisfying media experience I’ve ever had. I was enthralled by the story. I had to finish it in time for Death Stranding, because I have a feeling that I’m going to be locked into that for a while. Although, if I had to say my favourite game so far, it’s Alien: Isolation. I like solo stealth games and puzzle solving.

So would it be fair to say that you’ve been surprised by the direction your career has taken?   

Getting into gaming was just dumb luck. It’s a very difficult industry to break in to, and I got lucky. That’s not lost on me. I appreciate that fact immeasurably. Once I got the opportunity, I just worked my ass off, and showed them what I was capable of doing. 

I had never even considered gaming as an industry to pursue. And now, I kind of can’t imagine doing anything else. I still work on film projects, and write screenplays, but I will continue writing for games.

We want to thank Emil for his time, and Ubisoft for inviting us to go hands on with the game. You can check out Ghost Recon Breakpoint, available now, for PS4, Xbox One, and PC. 

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