Want to know who the real Cliff Bleszinski is? He gave a keynote lecture at GDC this year wherein he gave young developers advice on how to develop into a “power creative.” One of his notes for the audience was to make their games personal, citing the loss of his father as a motivation for Marcus Fenix’s story in the Gears of War series, for example. I covered that keynote back in March for G4, and it was in the middle of this section on making games personal that Bleszinski said what I found most interesting of all:
“So, press, feel free to ask once in a while. I mean, some of the best interviews I’ve ever had are ones where we’re not going ‘What are the new weapons that are in your game? How many levels? What’s the new features in the Unreal engine?’ ‘cause you’re just going to get us spouting the same thing we said to the 15 other guys. Come in and talk about, you know, ‘What it was like to grow up in New England and how that influenced you,’ or, you know, ‘What do you value in family?’ or ‘What’s your favorite music?’ or ‘What book have you read lately?’ and that sometimes yields an interesting insight into how the power creative mind actually works.”
We sat down with Bleszinski to take him up on this offer of getting a little more personal, and we were glad for the opportunity. Read on for the full interview, and watch the video where he peels away some of the layers of perception to let us know about the guy behind the public image.
The Cliff Bleszinski of 2011 is decidedly not the Cliff Bleszinski of 2006, but to hear some of the talk about the man from gamers, one would think he hadn’t changed from the kid who had frosted tips, wore crazy outfits and swore a lot in interviews years ago. Much of the negative perception of Bleszinski among gamers likely dates back to this era.
Some of this is Bleszinski’s fault, and he owns it. “You can’t ever shake a nickname like [CliffyB],” he told us. “Mark Wahlberg will always be known as ‘Marky Mark’ to a lot of his fans no matter how many great movies he does. That said, when I talk about growing up, I tried a little bit too hard early in my career, instead of letting the great games like Unreal and Unreal Tournament speak for themselves. It was earrings, it was cuffs in my wrists, it was goofy outfits. I’m at the point now whereas, you know, put on a decent shirt, take a shower, and let the games just speak for themselves.”
We asked whether shedding the old CliffyB persona meant that we were seeing more of the private Cliff Bleszinski. “As I’ve evolved personally and professionally over the years, there was a certain bit of a façade there as far as who I was trying to be versus who I wanted to be,” he said. “And thankfully over the years, having a bit of success with Unreal and then later Gears, I’ve been able to just shed a little bit of that kind of chrysalis and kind of evolve into my own personal self and be far more comfortable in my skin, and honestly, I have no trouble sharing certain aspects of my personal life with the public.”
Even with that willingness to be open, Bleszinski seems extremely self-aware. There’s a distinct perfectionism in how he composes his answers for the camera. To a point that comes down to Bleszinski knowing how to play the PR game after years of practice, but also suggests that he’s still concerned about how people will interpret what he’s saying, and how they might think of him as a result.
We could probably lay much of Bleszinski’s early eccentricities of fashion and language on a desire to be noticed above and beyond what financial or career benefits this may have lent him (Bleszinski said in his GDC keynote that he viewed his visibility as a form of “career insurance”). All artists are looking for attention, as some say that unless work is viewed, it may as well have never existed. When we asked about his oft-stated predilection for big-budget games versus smaller titles, he said “I want the projects that I work on to be seen by the largest amount of eyes possible. I’m not averse to working on smaller projects. I’m just addicted to feedback.
“One of my favorite things to do is to read the internet. And I have that kind of like, ‘want to please them all’ mentality where I do a little bit of that jumping in on a random message board and explaining to random user 2,345,086 that ‘No, actually you can in fact use that code after that certain date. Hope you’re happy!’ I guess it’s a certain amount of that wanting to have good customer service, and wanting to make everybody happy, that comes out for me.”
We could also look at it as something that most artists share: a desire to see their work validated. For someone like Bleszinski, who got into developing video games because he had previously been so ensconced in playing them, seeing a game succeed surely isn’t just about measures of professional success. Video games were a formative part of Bleszinski’s childhood, as he’s spoken about many times in the past. If he’s willing to dispense with the facades and the masks, perhaps that’s because now more than ever, Bleszinski has found his way home culturally and personally.
“In the past I described myself as not cool enough for the cool people and not geeky enough for the geeks, and now I’m at the point where, you know, I could go to a Hollywood party and I could talk to everybody out there and fit in and have fun,” he told us. “Ultimately you learn that anybody who is really cool, deep down is actually a geek, and anybody who is ‘cool to be cool’ will crash and burn in the matter of a few years, right? It’s really, actually how the world works.
“We’re at the point where people are masquerading as geeks. They’re like ‘Ooh, I’m cool! I play World of Warcraft!’ right, and I’m at the point where you know, I’m happy in my circle. When I go to GDC and I’m at the W Hotel, and I’m around developers and industry people I’m comfortable. That last night when the majority of the West Coast people fly out and the majority of people with bedazzled shirts returns, I’m like ‘Oh, God. My people are gone.’ And that makes me sad.”
I wanted to do this interview because I never bought into the “CliffyB” persona. The more ostentatious a person is, the less likely that’s who they really are, in my experience. Perhaps I ought to be more cynical about this, but when I hear Bleszinski talk about appreciating where he is today, I hear someone vulnerable and human, not haughty and superior.
“It’s a bit of a relief to be where I’m at right now in my career, to be comfortable where I’m at, to know that I’ve had a certain amount of success, to be excited about the future,” he said, “but one of the things I’ve told my friends multiple times is ‘Be careful when you achieve your dreams, because then you become terrified of waking up from them.’”
I understand that Bleszinski is still playing to the camera when he says something like this. It doesn’t make the statement any less true or sincere, but if there is still a role to be played, it’s much closer to home today than anything he’s shown us before. So say goodbye to CliffyB, and enjoy our interview with Cliff Bleszinski.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelancer from Boston, MA. His weekly video game opinion column, First Person, is published by Village Voice Media. He occasionally blogs at punchingsnakes.com, and can be followed on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.