Ever since The Division was first released, the development team at Massive has been working hard to continue the story behind the game. Set in a post-apocalyptic version of New York, The Division follows sleeper agents who’ve been activated by the U.S. Government to fight back against the chaos that’s taken hold of the city — but they aren’t the only ones left fighting for it.
As we all know, New York is absolutely massive and filled with people living their daily lives like all of us. But what would happen to them provided a national disaster broke out? What would they do? How would they act? Since release, Ubisoft has been working to build up this exact idea by expanding the lore through a series of books, partnered YouTube videos and most recently released a project of their own: Operation ISAC.
Inverse had the chance to speak with both Aaron Sternlicht of modop and Trevor Shackleford of Ubisoft about Operation ISAC, who spearheaded the project designed to tell the story of the technology behind the agents players take control of in The Division.
So for those who may not be familiar with Operation ISAC, what’s the basic story behind the series?
Aaron Sternlicht: Operation ISAC was the brainchild of Ubisoft’s brand team, to come up with a way to have weekly updates to coincide with in-game content that was compelling, would have a storyline that would draw you in and that would hopefully result in gamers coming back again and again to watch it each week. What we did, was we created a web series with each episode being somewhere between one and half to three and half minutes in length and over the course of however many episodes it runs we are drawn into a plotline with some pretty interesting characters. As the storyline evolves, that will coincide with missions in The Division and provide a narrative structure to launch each week’s challenges. Now we actually have rewards that coincide with certain content in the series that players can earn in-game.
Some of the characters in Operation ISAC have fantastic personalities, like Simon for example. What was it like creating the Mr. Robot of The Division?
AS: It’s interesting when you go into such a diverse storyline like that behind The Division, which is set in New York City, and all of the inhabitants that might be there. There’s a number of different ways that you can go to create a really compelling story. So we started with a number of different constructs, and one of them resulted in what we called the technician. There was inspiration from a number of different genres out there — like Mr. Robot — that were definitely interesting for us. As was The Martian and certain other aspects of having an extremely intelligent, bright and capable agent who is much more focused on the intellect and technology than on the fight. For us to be able to have him as somebody who could speak to the player, providing you information and the ability to become a more successful agent.
For us, we see Simon as a really interesting and compelling character who has given up a lot to basically be in this bunker. He hasnt had much connection with other people for quite some time and the idea that he is doing is duty and his job to help the Division try to take back New York in his own way is key to his character.
Now, there’s no doubt that most of the action in The Division is focused on combat and heroic actions for player. What steps did you take to make Simon (and other characters) capable of reaching out to that type of audience?
AS: In general, when your crafting some type of narrative we need our protagonist to feel like they are part of the world, in this case the world of The Division. We have personally been really enamored about how compelling the storytelling within the game. With Simon, first and foremost, we had to make him feel like he was part of the world. And then, the idea was to provide a window into the world of the ISAC computer itself, showing players how they got access to the system in the field. We thought that would be compelling for a gamer to see and get a little bit more world building that wasn’t segmented in the game. What’s great about a story like Simon and Operation ISAC is that there is a number of different ways to their story in New York and we’re really excited to see where that story goes in the future.
The game concept behind The Division has been around for quite some time, but when did the idea for Operation ISAC come into play? Was it post-launch?
AS: It was very much pre-launch. The idea of us being able to define an entire content series, write all of the episodes, cast all of the episodes, and shoot all of those episodes was a very large endeavor. For us, we were thrilled to be brought to the table by Trevor Shackleford and the Ubisoft team – which was all the way back in the fall. We spent months developing the series and getting the studio to support the project going forward towards The Division’s launch.
When you first started developing Operation ISAC as a series, what sort of concerns or hurdles did you see ahead of you since you were developing a piece of content outside of the game?
AS: There were a number of different challenges. One of them was the length of time that this series takes place over and being able to setup a construct; a narrative that would allow us to be somewhat modular as we went along with the development of The Division. As things changed with missions, quests, expansions, etc. – we had to be able to adapt to them from our side in order to keep Operation ISAC alive within the world of the game. There was a number of different story approaches we could have taken but we didn’t because we would have panned ourselves into a corner. That was always a constant challenge for us. The other one was to be able to hit deadlines and develop the story for the downloadable content drops following the release of the game, which was definitely challenging at first. It’s been great since then because we’ve been able to get ahead of the game.
Operation ISAC is based solely on YouTube. Why was the decision made to keep it out of the game itself?
TS: We wanted to explore different aspects of the world and use the medium that was best for it. We don’t have the videos directly posted in-game, but we do post them in-game as a link which will pop them up in YouTube on your console. It was a choice that we made to try and use the medium (in this case, YouTube) that it was best suited for.
AS: And to add to that, we found that when people booted up The Division they wanted to play the game. So the idea of having the series distributed differently so that players can be involved with The Division even when they aren’t online playing.
TS: Absolutely. The idea was to create content that would help players get excited to play while at work or on their commute home.
How has the reception for Operation ISAC been?
TS: The community itself is super engaged – I think people are reminded of cut scenes from games in the past and are just excited about the idea of The Division’s lore expanding. A lot of people are interested in the individual characters present in the series as well as the rewards they are receiving from the weekly tasks tied to Operation ISAC in-game.
So, I’ve got to ask - we have two expansions coming up for the game in the next few months. Will we see any of Operation ISAC’s characters showing up in-game?
TS: Right now we’re keeping that a mystery, so I can’t really say yes on that one. What I will say is that the studio is super-involved in the series and they are excited about the content and they are working hard to develop these characters. So I don’t think it would be crazy for something like that to happen.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.