Neill Blomkamp Interview: Why His Upcoming Battle Royale Is Less Political Than His Films
Neill Blomkamp, director of District 9, Chappie, and Elysium, is currently working as a 'chief visionary officer' at Gunzilla Games, working on the studio's upcoming narrative driven battle royale Off The Grid. When I had the chance to sit down with Blomkamp to discuss the game, there was one thing I needed to know first – just what the heck is a chief visionary officer anyway?
"It is quite unique," he laughs. "I think the CEO of the company, Vlad Korolev, is quite colourful, and I'm pretty sure he came up with it. The best way to describe it, I guess, would be a film director, someone who is in charge of the aesthetic, and design, and pretty much all of the creative choices that are layered on top of the game design and structure. Much more seasoned veterans that know how to make games are building the structure, and all of the artists that work at the company are flavouring the game on top of that structure. I'm the person guiding those people. It's actually a relatively accurate title. It just sounds a little over the top."
Fans of Blomkamp's work will know that it often mixes searing political commentary with blockbuster action. District 9 is an allegory for segregation and apartheid, while Elysium takes the injustice and inequality of immigration and transplants them into a tale of outer space exploration. However, when I ask Blomkamp if we'd see this reflected in Off The Grid, he distances himself from the idea. "Richard Morgan, the famed sci-fi author who wrote Altered Carbon, was actually at Gunzilla for more time than I've been there, so he built this core narrative that everything I have done has only built upon," he says. "I think there's a lot of themes in there that are – and it's probably why they contacted me – evident in my work as well. So I would say that it's definitely not striving to be political in any way. There's just something in the fabric of it that deals with class structure and corporatism. How all of that can be remixed into a cyberpunk sort of metaphor or analogy for the world that we live in now. It's definitely evident, but I would say that this project is something where entertainment and fun is primary. I'm not going out of my way to say something important."
That will likely be disappointing for some to read, especially those whose interest in the game was piqued thanks to Blomkamp's involvement. He explains that the genre of the game is the reason politics takes a back seat. "People play games like battle royales for pure entertainment, they're not really looking for something that is overly preachy or has a point of view. Gameplay is the primary objective. In order to create the lore and story and world you have to know how all of those elements came to be. Initially, the story was written around 2090, and now the game takes place in 2060. But we need to know what happened from 2022 to 2060. And then we still know what happens all the way up to 2090. There's obviously huge amounts of socio-economic and political turmoil that we know about, but you want to just make that experience as player friendly and awesome as you can make it. So it's definitely being approached differently to how I would make a film."
He adds that progress through the years 2060-2090 may well be possible if Off The Grid is successful, so we could see more narrative from the game post-launch. While it might not be deliberately political, some form of social interrogation is largely unavoidable when the game takes place in a cyberpunk dystopia. Blomkamp agrees, and shares his thoughts on why gaming seems so enamoured with cyberpunk stories right now. "One of the tropes of cyberpunk is that it is a very interesting way to look at a corporatised world. That’s what draws me to it. What happens from that point is it starts turning into transhumanism and modifying the human form and modifying evolution and taking evolution into your own hands. When you combine that with the kind of class struggle stuff that is embedded into cyberpunk as a trope, it just is incredibly fertile. In history with creative stuff, you always always notice these patterns of where there's a whole bunch of things that are similar, and then a whole bunch of the next wave of things that are similar. So I don't really know what the reason is right now."
It's clear Blomkamp has some interesting ideas on what the cyberpunk backdrop offers, so I remind him that he told me Off The Grid is being approached differently to how he would make a film. I push him on how he might make a film in this world, in the hopes of getting a sense of the game's underlying framework. "It's the tropes of how corporate power dehumanises people and how capital power, monetary power enslaves people, and how humanity is lost through that process. There's a very interesting singular focus for me in cyberpunk that I find super appealing where you're not really trying to wrap up some large scale resolution to everything. It's more on a personal level that you're just trying to find ways to live within this overly corporatised environment. And then when you start bringing in the transhumanism elements and an incredibly destabilised, chaotic world, it's like the real world that we live in now is beginning to feel cyberpunk because it's so chaotic and unstable. I think that cyberpunk has always been about trying to operate in an ever changing environment that feels chaotic. All of these topics are just incredibly interesting."
Blomkamp seems so keen to discuss the political machinations of the genre itself, but somehow even more keen to insist that politics don't influence the game. It feels like an odd way to make a game built on the foundations of Blomkamp and Morgan, and I'm hoping that even if you can play without acknowledging them, these deeper themes will be present and actively shape the game.
Off The Grid is coming soon on PS5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC. You can watch the trailer here.
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