It's hard to rub a lot of pizzazz into an interview conducted over a conference call, but that's the challenge that we're continually having to contend with during these days of coronavirus-induced lockdown. But, as they say, the show must go on, and the show in this instance is the release of Command & Conquer Remastered Collection, the repackaged and revitalised return of two of the strategy genre's all-time classics, Tiberian Dawn and Red Alert.
As part of the build-up to the release, EA arranged for Gamereactor to talk with Joe Kucan, the man who, among many other things, has portrayed series protagonist Kane since the first Command & Conquer, which launched all the way back in 1995. And so, on paper, a phone-call interview with an actor for a 25-year-old game isn't particularly noteworthy, but then again, Command & Conquer isn't just any game, and Joe Kucan isn't just any actor.
Given my own history of playing Command & Conquer in the late '90s, there's a good chance that I was the more nervous party ahead of this interview, but I needn't have been. Starting almost fifteen minutes late, it was clear that Kucan wasn't going to be rushed. First, we discussed life at home during lockdown and before long everyone was at ease and we were talking like friends and joking, mostly about the paychecks that EA keeps sending him for assuming the role of Kane, a villainous character he enjoys playing but also clearly respects due to the part it has played in his own life.
Before long we were reminiscing about "the golden age of gaming", back when the industry was transitioning from the extremely limited file sizes offered by floppy disks to the relative luxury of CD-ROMs. "There were all these sorts of new technologies just pounding the world at that point. It was like a gold rush, right? It was open to all these sorts of innovation and prospectors from around the globe, and I think Command & Conquer is a pretty good expression of all of the new technologies together. Even the first Command & Conquer you could play on a LAN against other people, and that was for us at Westwood some of the most fun that we had."
Yet it wasn't just networking and competitive play that made C&C such a hit with players, nor was it solely the innovative gameplay that was ushered in by Dune II and then polished in Tiberian Dawn, it was, as Kucan observes, the coming together of various technologies to bring new levels of cinematic flair to the table. Full motion video, or FMV, was just coming into its own, and it was during its brief moment in the sun that the cast and crew at Westwood Studios created some of the most engaging and entertaining video cutscenes of the decade.
"Command & Conquer reminds me of [...] the level of innovation and the smart people that were putting all that stuff together," he reminisced. "People who are much, much smarter than I am - because all I had to do was write lines and look into a camera and pretend to be threatening. But the team that put all that together, the geniuses that created all that stuff in a time where it was all-new; we were nothing but a game of potential."
Yet it proved to be much more than that. Nowadays the RTS genre might not make headlines in quite the same way, but in the mid-'90s it was a different story. More than two decades ago, the audience for real-time strategy games was truly enormous, and the potential that Kucan spoke of would splinter into resolute success across a number of areas, namely the insanely popular mobile strategy space and of course with the rise of the MOBA genre, with League of Legends and Dota 2 spawned from mods played on the servers of another enduringly popular RTS series, Warcraft.
But hindsight is a wonderful thing and, at the time, even if they felt confident about what they were making, the team at Westwood couldn't have known that they were building a game that would have such a lasting impact. As Kucan recalls, they weren't even sure how to market it, it was that innovative.
"When we were first marketing Command & Conquer, I wanted to market it as not a game but as a computer upgrade; if you put this CD-ROM into your computer it would connect you to what was really going on in the world, so sort of an Ender's Game feel. So once you've upgraded your computer you are literally taking control of armies in Germany, you are literally controlling armies in Europe and across Asia and wherever; that your work as a commander was actually being reflected somewhere in the world. Of course, just as a marketing ploy."
The filmed footage lent the game a realistic, gritty edge that jived with Kucan's plan to market it as a computer upgrade, but it also helped to elevate the pixelated visuals, which look cute now but were exceptional at the time. In between the tense and tactical battles, the story was delivered via cutscenes and so fans were able to form a closer relationship with the characters on-screen. Over the years that live-action personality has been maintained, with actors such as Tim Curry lending their talents to the franchise. Personal interest aside, Kucan is glad that the original spirit of the series has endured.
"As Command & Conquer evolved into those later games that EA produced, I was pleased that they continued to keep the video," he told us. "It would have been a very easy thing to dismiss. It would have been a very easy thing to go into either motion capture or something else, because [FMV] is expensive. You have to pay actors and put a studio together, you've got to film and all that stuff. It would have been an easy thing to dismiss, but the recognition that it's an important part of the tone and feeling of the game, that made me very happy."
Part of the appeal of the new Remastered Collection is that includes enhanced FMV sequences and behind-the-scenes footage, giving us a better insight into the world of C&C than we've ever had before. To that end, Kucan "provided the Petroglyph team with [...] some old tapes, some SVHS and some old Betamax tapes that we had shot b-roll on. Honestly, I don't know what's on them because I don't have the equipment to play them, so I turned all that stuff over."
Talking about old tapes obviously brought back a few memories, and before long Kucan was recalling the conditions under which the filming for the first game took place, and how the restrictions enforced by those circumstances directly impacted the performances of the actors in the finished production.
Filming for Tiberian Sun started "before we had a full sound stage and a full concrete floor green screen. We shot it in an upstairs studio in a rented business suite and the green screen was a poster board that was rolled out. And you couldn't really move, not only could you not move the camera but you couldn't really move your actors because as we moved across the floor it would bounce because we were upstairs, so the floor would kind of bounce with us [...] so any kind of movement was translated not just to the camera but to the screen because the backgrounds would move around. So what I see when I look back at the stuff posted on Youtube, I remember the challenges that got us to this point. The challenges that we were meant to overcome to get us to produce what we managed to produce."
With Command & Conquer Remastered Collection landing on PC on July 5, fans old and new are about to get a chance to relive the experience Westwood Studios crafted all those years ago, but at the same time, we're also going to find out just how much appetite there still is for the series. If it ends up being a success, you wouldn't want to bet against a new entry to capitalise on any resurgence. I asked if, in such an event, he would like to reprise the role of Kane.
"Oh not only would I be interested in reprising the role, I'd be interested in reprising all the roles. I have put a bid together to do the next Command & Conquer where Joe Kucan actually plays Kane and the leader of the GDI side and all the other characters as well, just in a variety of wigs, fake noses, and weird moustaches." I joked that he'd make an excellent Tanya. "I think they're considering it. Let's be honest, I still have the Tanya costume. It's hanging in a special closet in my bedroom."
And on that thought, I leave you.