Community heroes is our ongoing series of interviews with some of PC gaming's greatest heroes – the pillars of the community who have devoted huge chunks of time and love to make the PC a better place to game. Today, we've asked Ross Scott a load of questions about his Freeman's Mind videos, Civil Protection, and his PC gaming habits in general.
PC Gamer: Why did you decide to narrate anything, and why Half-Life in particular?
Ross Scott : I created Freeman's Mind largely as an experiment as something I could produce faster, due to my frustration with how long it took to animate an episode of my other series, Civil Protection. I picked Half-Life since I already had a Half-Life fanbase from working in the Source engine and the game is one of the more famous ones for having a silent protagonist with no personality traits.
PC Gamer: How do you make it? It seems too well-written to be improvised, but presumably a script would need to take into account exactly how long each area takes to play through.
Ross Scott : I generally think up one or two jokes ahead of time, then record a demo playing through the game, keeping in mind any parts I want to emphasize. Afterwards, I'll go step by step in editing to see how much time before the next stimulus to react to, then I'll try and think of something to say for that time block.
PC Gamer: In the games, Gordon Freeman is a totally blank slate. Did you always have an idea of what he was like as you played, or did you just make him up when you came to make these videos?
Ross Scott : I thought of him more as a vessel for playing the game and never tried to assign personality traits until far later when making the series. The only hint I thought they gave to his personality was how proficient he immediately was in weaponry for being a physicist.
PC Gamer: Did your idea of his character change as you made these? Lately he's been talking about using a 'drop-weapon' to get away with killing civilians, and how slavery was a good idea.
Ross Scott : Not really, I realized from the beginning if I was going to have a prayer of getting through the whole game I had to make his personality as interesting and dynamic as possible. Thus he has shifting paranoia, egomania, mild schizophrenia, over-aggressiveness, petty motivations, and immaturity in general. I try to at least lend some plausibility that he has enough cognitive ability and education to be a brilliant physicist as well, though that part's not easy. It all results him having a highly malleable personality that can react in very different ways depending on his mood, without necessarily being a completely unbelievable character. In retrospect, I realized that the sheer number of people you have to kill in the Half-Life games suggests that some sort of paranoid psychopath might actually have a far better chance of survival than someone sensible.
PC Gamer: Are there things you have to bear in mind when playing to get the footage - things you wouldn't normally think to do when playing a game?
Ross Scott : Yes, I try not to turn too fast, walk most of the time instead of run, try not to make my shots too accurate, "put away" my weapon when I'm picking up items, using a ladder, etc. If I have some relevant dialogue planned, I try to account for that in the motion of the character, standing in one area longer than normal to contemplate, etc. My gaming style in an FPS is much more spastic, fast, and jumpy than what someone would do in reality, so I'm trying to slow everything down.
PC Gamer: Did any particular bit take a lot of 'takes', in terms of playing it right?
Ross Scott : Generally the longer the level and the more events that occur, the higher the chance for me screwing up. There aren't many spots that really stand out, however a few sections I've had to retry up to about 20 times.
PC Gamer: It looks like you're playing a version of Half-Life where the combat is very quick and easy - is it modified in any other ways?
Ross Scott : I made it an easier difficulty because I'm trying to play the game as though it were a real person going through Half-Life. Magically healing yourself by picking up 50 medkits or having to shoot someone 10 times with a pistol before they go down breaks immersion and reminds the viewer that it's a game. I also use noclip cheats where I think someone could reasonably do a pull-up to bypass a hazardous area. I'll also sometimes replace lines that are spoken by scientists or npc's (which are semi-random anyway) with other lines I'd rather respond to. Beyond that, I haven't really changed anything.
PC Gamer: You did one episode in a sort of Irish pirate voice. How did that go down?
Ross Scott : Actually I was aiming for a British West Country accent, but my voice acting isn't the best. I generally try to do something every April Fool's Day and that was the only idea I had at the time that I was able to do within the timeframe I had. The year before, I killed Freeman off for April Fool's, so I was just trying to think of something that would throw people off.
PC Gamer: At one point you were working full-time for Machinima.com - how did that come about, and what did you do there?
Ross Scott : I got my foot in the door early with Machinima by submitting Civil Protection to them in 2006. Since then, they've been pretty happy with my videos and have offered me full time employment there before in the past. At the time, I didn't think the salary that was being offered would have been much to survive on in Los Angeles, plus while I love making movies, LA is about the last place I would want to live. Later on, after expanding more due to Youtube, they came back at me again with a higher salary offer and with the idea that if I was working with them I would have many more resources to be able to create some of my more ambitious ideas. I have several movie ideas that I would basically kill to get done, but are beyond what I could just by myself. My reasoning was if this was how I could do it, it would be worth it, so I took the job.
For the first few weeks I wasn't doing much. They didn't have an extra computer for me to work on and it took a while for my possessions to arrive, so I couldn't even work at home. Once my own computer at home arrived, I basically kept working on Civil Protection, since I couldn't record Freeman's Mind where I was living due to noise. After a couple months, I finally had my own system to work on at their office, but the recording situation was kind of a mess since I was in a room with 4 other people and no tops on the ceiling, so all the noise echoed from everything else. Since Freeman's Mind isn't pre-scripted, and there's a delay between every line of me doing multiple takes, editing, and thinking up new lines, I couldn't just ask people to be quiet for 10 minutes, I would have had to ask them literally over 100 times a day, which I didn't want to do. I finally got around it by coming in at night when everyone was gone, so it was quiet enough for me to record. In short, I was working on creating more episodes of Freeman's Mind and Civil Protection, but while performing more of juggling act in the process.
PC Gamer: When you left, you said that a key problem was "a misunderstanding about how much work some of the episodes required". Was that about Freeman's Mind? How long does an episode of that take to make?
Ross Scott : No, that was Civil Protection, the other series I currently make. The workload for that is immensely higher, is much more complicated technically, and is on par with creating a small mod for a game. In October of 2009 I was working 70-80 hours a week primarily on that and was still notably behind. Freeman's Mind usually only takes a few days. The main reason I left was that I wasn't getting any more done there than I was on my own, but had much more stress and time pressure.
PC Gamer: How are you doing now? Does your machinima work bring in enough to live on, or are you doing other stuff too?
Ross Scott : My income definitely varies. I can't say what I earn for contractual reasons, but I will say if you work flipping burgers or bagging groceries, you are very competitive with what I earn. It's currently my primary source of income, but I do some other oddjobs as well. While I suppose my future is uncertain, I'm very frugal and I can eat and pay rent and I'm not in debt.
PC Gamer: You often sound kind of down about Freeman's Mind when you talk about it in the context of your other projects, saying you'd axe it if you had to axe something. Are you bored of making it? Do you think you'll ever get all the way to the end?
Ross Scott : I have many, many other ideas for videos I'd like to do and if it wasn't for all the bugs with the engine and time animating, I could easily have ten times the episodes I've created so far. I do get bummed about how much farther my ideas outpace my production speed, especially considering how I haven't gotten to my best material by any means. Freeman's Mind feels more like a paint-by-number process to me rather than something more original and certainly doesn't represent my best ideas. It's not that I dislike it, so much as it interferes with me from working on other (and I think potentially much better) ideas. I really wish I had more animation help, then I could juggle multiple projects much more effectively. Then I could do Freeman's Mind AND other projects as opposed to having to put one on hold and irritate a bunch of fans while I'm working on something else. Unless people get sick of it, I'll at least continue the series to the end of Half-Life. As for the sequels, I haven't decided yet.
PC Gamer: What else are you working on right now?
Ross Scott : About fifty different things. Presently I'm spending most of my time working on another Civil Protection episode which is way overdue. I also have another additional unfinished episode and a pilot episode for another series idea I'm not sure when I'll get to. I'll do some manual labor oddjobs. My website currently needs a lot of help and is being revamped. I'm trying to get more subtitles submitted by volunteers organized and processed for the different episodes. I'm way behind, but I've been trying to reply to most of the emails I receive. I'm researching different game engines and have very slowly made attempts at learning a new one. I've been doing experiments with motion capture that have had some limited success. I could probably use a secretary in addition to more animators.
PC Gamer: I know you're a dedicated PC gamer - other than Valve's stuff, what are some of your other favourites?
Ross Scott : Here are a few of my favorites: System Shock 2, Phantasmagoria 2, Silent Hill 2, Deus Ex, Strife, Sanitarium, Tyrian, Unreal Tournament 2004, Gothic, Diablo, Still Life, Rama, The Black Mirror, Dungeon Siege series, Serious Sam series
PC Gamer: What's the best thing about PC gaming?
Ross Scott : I think being able to customize your gaming experience is the best thing about PC gaming. You can play with any controls you want, change gameplay, change how it looks, etc. There's a world of options on PC that aren't available on other platforms.