August 12, 2022
In this excerpt from her upcoming book, writer and historian Alyse Knorr talks about some of the design decisions that made Goldeneye 007 stand out from other ’90s first-person shooters, and why that design endures to this day. The book is currently looking for backers on Kickstarter.

When [game designer David] Doak first joined the team at the end of 1995, GoldenEye’s levels were just barebones architecture—no objectives, enemies, or plot. After designing the watch menu, he and [game designer Duncan] Botwood started creating a single-player campaign that followed and expanded upon GoldenEye the movie’s narrative—a difficult task, considering the fact that the film’s dialogue about Lienz Cossack traitors and Kyrgyz missile tests went over the heads of quite a few 12-year-olds. Doak and Botwood’s job was to tell this complicated story using rudimentary pre- and post-mission cutscenes, pre-mission briefing paperwork, in-game conversations with NPCs, and mission objectives, which proved the most powerful way to allow players to experience the story themselves.

Enlarge / GoldenEye 007 by Alyse Knorr, excerpted here, is currently accepting pre-orders on Kickstarter.

The biggest inspiration for GoldenEye’s objective design was not another first-person shooter but rather Super Mario 64. “I studiously tried to learn what Nintendo was,” [game designer Martin] Hollis said in 2015 of his years at Rare. “I played Link to the Past from beginning to end—I got all the hearts and all but two of the quarter hearts. I could write a thousand pages about that game. Then [an early version of] Mario 64 came out during the development of GoldenEye, and we were clearly influenced by that game. Ours was much more open as a result.” Hollis took from Super Mario 64 the idea of including multiple mission objectives within one level. For instance, in the Control level, the player must protect Natalya, disable the GoldenEye satellite, and destroy some armored mainframes.

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GoldenEye’s mission objectives add variety to what a player has to do beyond just shooting people and blowing stuff up. Sometimes you have to rescue hostages or steal secret documents, and other times you have to disarm bombs or sneakily infiltrate a base. The game’s instruction manual makes clear how differently GoldenEye treats its objectives from other games of the time: “Unlike other first-person perspective games,” it reads, “the object of the game isn’t necessarily to destroy everything or everyone you come into contact with. Some people or objects are necessary to complete the mission. Shoot the wrong person or destroy the wrong computer and the mission could be a failure. Make sure to read through the list of objectives for each mission. The fate of the free world depends on it!”

Emotional drama in games is best structured by carefully tuning the highs and the lows like a roller coaster, with brief lulls after big periods of action. Doak and Botwood established a rhythm to the missions so that fast, action-packed levels like Dam and Runway were followed by quieter, stealthier levels like Facility and Surface, respectively. To vary each level’s pace, the two designers brainstormed a large variety of creative objectives. For instance, instead of just collecting keys—the already well-established formula for first-person shooters that id Software had established in Wolfenstein and Doom—in GoldenEye, the player makes use of more interesting, Bondian riffs on finding keys such as shooting a lock off a door or rendezvousing with an undercover agent to receive a door decoder. The level designers even tried objectives that wound up being technically infeasible. For instance, they originally wanted players to ride a motorbike through the Runway level, chasing the plane down the runway just like in the original movie. When this proved too difficult to pull off, the motorbike was repurposed as a miniature model on a desk in one of the Surface level’s cabins.

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The motorbike wasn’t the only thing the developers couldn’t fit in. The team originally wanted to include another level between the Jungle and Control missions called “Perimeter,” but the level never made it past the earliest blocking stages. Another level cut from the game was a Casino mission in keeping with the movie—in fact, the game’s ROM still includes money, a casino token, and a gold bar. In the end, Botwood said later, “there would have been such a lot of work to make a good casino background that we decided against it.”

Stealthy levels like Facility (and its "facilities") helped break up the game's action-packed levels.
Enlarge / Stealthy levels like Facility (and its “facilities”) helped break up the game’s action-packed levels.

In the Streets level, the team originally intended for the player to chase the evil General Ourumov through the streets of St. Petersburg, just like in the movie, and they even modeled Bond’s BMW Roadster and Ourumov’s ZIL car from the film. But after this proved impossible, the workaround they settled on was having Bond navigate a tank through streets full of mines, patrolled by guards with grenades and grenade launchers. During our interview, Doak showed me a hand-drawn map of Streets from the development era. “My god, this is an absolute embarrassment because it’s just shonkily thrown together,” Doak chuckled. “In the film it’s an amazing, stunt-laden scene. But then we came up with the idea that the tank could squish people and that’s funny. We always joked about the tank—it’s like Bond’s made himself into a giant car,” due to the way the first-person perspective doesn’t change at all when you’re using the tank.

The most famous of GoldenEye’s scrapped design elements remains visible to players. The Dam mission is home to one of the game’s most tantalizing mysteries—a distant island viewable through the sniper rifle’s scope, impossible to get to but so seemingly intentional that it left a generation of gamers wondering. Botwood and [programmer Mark] Edmonds said they had originally been planning to add a boat that would allow you to get to the island to complete a mission objective.

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“If I did it today I’d probably have a control for an open water outlet pipe that was blocking Bond’s [bungee] jump there, so you’d have to go there to turn off the water,” Botwood speculated later. “I think the original plan was to have a building over there to go and investigate, with armor as a reward. That would have meant a boat ride needed to be coded in, and some of the scenery had gaps when viewed from the island, so it was too much work.” Late in development, it was way more difficult to take something like the island out than to just leave it in, [scenic art director] Karl Hilton told me.

Looking back on it now, Botwood considers the island a mistake. “I should have never put it there,” he told me. “It’s a visual annoyance.” But messy things like the island add to GoldenEye’s mythology—they add life to the world and give players something to theorize about and are some of the best examples of the handcrafted quality of the game.

For Double Fine content and community manager Harper Jay MacIntyre, the Dam signifies the kind of implicit promise of 3D spaces in the late ’90s. “Shifting from 2D to 3D, the worlds [felt] so much bigger,” MacIntyre told me. “GoldenEye levels are pretty short, but the first time you were playing those, especially back then, it’s easy to get lost, and it’s really intoxicating to think that there are secrets waiting for you.” Even—or perhaps especially—if you can’t ever reach them.