Understanding where things come from has always been an important and driving factor in my life. From an early age I’ve always been fascinated by people and what they do. That may sound a bit strange but for all the hours spent sitting in front of a TV as a kid, on my 15th re-watch of Lord of the Rings The Two Towers, marveling at the sheer scale of the battle for Helms Deep, was an urge to understand. This curiosity extended to the videogames of my youth too, taking in the little details like discovering you can shoot each individual glass bottle at the mini bar on the Tanker section of Metal Gear Solid 2, I always thought "how is this even possible?".
Documentaries became the perfect answer to these burning questions and there were few that did it better than The Lord of the Rings extended edition DVD’s. The Two Towers, for example, is a 4-disc set of a 3 hr 43 min epic - the film itself spanning two discs with the remaining two just on the making of alone was incredible. It became the gold standard for my deep diving geekdom and anything less than that was unacceptable because, why wouldn’t people want to know how Orc armor is made?
Well it turns out that when it comes to game development, up until recently, these in-depth deep dives into some of our favorite creations just didn’t exist. We've had some yes, a 10-minute featurette packaged with the collector’s edition of a game here - or the odd Behind-The-Scenes hype video as part of a publishers marketing campaign there - but little else. So, when Danny O’Dwyer and his long time colleague Jeremy Jayne started Noclip with the seemingly exact intention of rectifying this it was a very welcome breath of fresh air, filling the void that seemed so ripe for the taking.
Since beginning this journey, Noclips popularity has grown steadily these past 4 years. Now, with over 500,000 subscribers on YouTube - Danny's documentary series has continuously provided a steady stream of high quality content that allows us gamers to see the behind the scenes of an industry that rarely shows its hand. Luckily for us, Danny is also one of Ireland's own and when we reached out to have a chat he was more than happy to have a virtual sit down with us!
Well first off, a big céad míle fáilte and thanks for taking the time out to have a chat with us! How about an introduction then? We know you from Noclip but how did you get started on this docu journey?
It all started with trying to make developer interviews more interesting at my old job at GameSpot. We basically ended up creating these short form videos about a certain aspect of a game's development and it evolved slowly from there info these longform documentaries.
These short form video packages known as "The Point", looked at specific talking points over a wide variety of topics. Ranging from think pieces like No Man's Sky: A Walk in the Digital Woods, that looked at breaking down what the game truly offered shortly after it's release - To the more reflective piece on Satoru Iwata in Understanding Iwata's Legacy - the former head of Nintendo who passed away in 2015. For the curious, in these videos you can really see the beginnings of what would become Noclip and are fascinating pieces in their own right worth checking out!
Did the opportunity to develop these videos come about naturally or was it more of a realization of where you wanted to be?
A bit of both. I think of creativity like a river flowing down a mountain - except you have control over the direction of the flow. You can decide to take the path of least resistance, or turn to do something more challenging. That being said, you can't pick the mountain you're on. I basically found something that was creatively satisfying in an area I was already working in. So in a way I realized a type of work I enjoy - but it came from my circumstances.
On the back of that and putting aside the very obvious passion that is put into Noclip, there’s a clear drive and confidence in telling these stories, how did it feel believing so strongly in your ability to provide this kind of content once your Patreon took off? Has crowdfunding opened your eyes in a way?
I think crowdfunding this work is really helpful in a creative sense because people are buying into you - rather than any particular product. So it gives me the confidence to do something weird or different very often. The patrons are very supportive and are funding the mission of what we do, rather than any one particular documentary.
Patreon (which I of course implore you to check out) is a crowdfunding site that helps fund Noclips documentary series, as Danny mentions, it allows people to to buy into the person, the people behind their creative endeavor that traditionally wouldn't be possible otherwise. Below is just one example of the kind of in-depth looks Noclip provides, a quality that permeates throughout their back catalog of content.
Talking strictly inspirations, are there any examples you go to (or perhaps went to) when you guys set out to create a Noclip doc?
Not any more. But at the start I wanted it to be the ESPN 30for30 of games. Stories that are different, but under one tight umbrella. Games + Documentaries.
A lot of your content is quite candid, you have developers and team members talking about the game but there’s a genuine emotional follow through. Like in your recent talk with Nightdive Studios remake of System Shock or the deep dive into TellTale studios unfortunate demise. Is that something you intentionally look for or does it come about organically through the process?
No, authenticity is hard earned. It's all part of how we talk to developers, the types of people we approach and the trust they have in us to tell it right. We handle stories with care, and we talk to the folks ahead of time about areas that we'd like to get into so they feel somewhat more comfortable. It's just about being an empathetic interviewer and allowing them the space to tell their story. We try our best to have them tell everything, and it not be our version of events - but theirs.
What impresses most in these series, is the unique nature provided by his approach. Allowing for that empathetic nature to shine through allows the documentary to more naturally take shape. The same way no two games are truly alike, so too is the process of making them and it allows the audience to better appreciate the games they love and instill a deeper understanding of the effort involved in actually creating these projects.
Do you have any dream docs you guys would like to make - be it gaming related or otherwise?
Loads. Rockstar. Valve. FromSoftware. Those are the big ones.
Through Noclips lens, we've seen all manner of developer insights into some of gaming's biggest titles such as Doom 2016, The Witcher 3 and breakout hits like Rocket League. More recently, they released "The Untold History of Arkane Studios", a Bethesda owned developer of sleeper hits like Dishonored and Prey. This time offering a look at the games that could have been, a topic often rumored on message boards and subreddits alike but rarely confirmed or shown in such detail.
After your Arkane Studios deep dive (#ReleaseTheArkaneCut @valve) getting to hear about the games that almost were is fascinating. It’s pretty common for many games to be shelved by a single studio, before they land on the one that gets made, but those never get talked about. Is this something you’d like to see more of?
Yes and no. I think a lot of people think those games are further along than they usually are. Ravenholm was a fun project to show off because of how far along they were. But a lot of the "cancelled" games you hear about never got off a sheet of paper or some pre-vis trailer. There are loads of stories out there, and some are quite thin once you start digging. Other ones that seem boring end up having loads of depth. So it depends. Research is important to us in this way.
To play devil’s advocate, what is the benefit to hearing these stories if we don’t get to play them?
To come to a greater understanding about games development I think. That's always been the mission.
For those who have jumped in and out to watch the embedded videos, you'll notice a unique shift in film making. As 2020 is want to do, the pandemic and resulting cocooning of society has resulted in companies big and small needing to adapt and change their methods to keep up with the new status quo. While these moves have shifted the workforce of these companies online, it has also come with it's own share of trouble.
To bring things more into the here and now, you guys have had a bit of an unlucky run of things in 2020, having to forgo the studio you worked hard to get and stay remote must have been tough and yet - you’ve adapted really well to working under these pandemic induced conditions! How has that process been? (and how much are you wanting 2020 to end already?)
All things considered it's been okay. It sucks that we had to close the studio and can't travel to developers - but we're a small team (it's really 2 of us making the docs, and one other person helping with community stuff) and used to being agile. We pivoted to remote interviews pretty quickly and honestly the whole thing was a creative challenge that I've tried to embrace. We suspect we won't be travelling to developers until 2022 at least so the mid/long term health of the company depends on us being quick to adapt. We have some wild ideas about remote filming we're going to be trying in the coming months. We also made our podcast weekly as we've embraced filming from home.
What’s next for Noclip? I understand you have some videos in the works but are there more avenues you’d like to explore down the line?
We have a handful of really big ideas and games coming in 2020. We're doing something new - we're going to let our patrons guide the next big project for us. It should be a lot of fun.
One final question, and it’s a fun one, if you could go back in time and be a fly on the wall of any classic game, what would it be and why?
World of Warcraft. They created one of the most long lasting and impactful game worlds in all of history, and nobody was taking notes. I'd love to go back and do a retrospective actually.
With a strong drive to provide detailed documentaries and a great community behind them, they've been able to create something truly wonderful and while this year has proved challenging, it has not stopped them from continuing to provide engrossing and engaging content. I can't lie, there's a certain swell of pride knowing that Danny came from our green shores, we're a small island here and I'd argue the very notion of small beginnings came from here too. To keep up with all things Noclip, be sure to check the socials below and as ever, stay tuned to our very own slice of internet for reviews, opinions, interviews and more!
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