There's a half-broken tent fluttering in the wind. Beside it lie the remains of a plastic baby doll and a pile of detritus I can barely identify. In every direction, all I can see are broken things, discarded things. Dirt and despair. Walls made of cargo containers stacked two high are funneling the stiff October breeze through this broken landscape of clutter and depsair and I can't help thinking how much it resembles every disaster refugee camp I've ever seen.Except this is no camp — it's a television set.
I'm standing on the backlot of Syfy's new television series Defiance, an epic science-fiction drama set three decades after an alien invasion of Earth. The lot, a roughly five-acre gravel parking lot, has been converted into the downtown of a city called Defiance, the remains of what used to be St. Louis. Everything around me — from the tent to the baby doll — is simply set dressing, placed here intentionally on the off-chance a camera might catch it for a half second in the middle of a scene.
Even now, as I tour the back lot with a gaggle of reporters, the Defiance crew is shooting an exterior scene. There are cranes, smoke machines, cameras and what appears to be an army of production staff. Some hold clipboards. Most just watch, waiting to hurry up and do something else.
Occasionally they glance our way, seemingly on alert that we may do something crazy. Like talk loudly. Or storm the set looking for autographs.
The nervousness is understandable. Ours is one of the first group of outsiders to have been granted access to this set since the project was announced, and Syfy is showing us everything: every exterior and interior set, all of the workspaces. We've been given time with each major cast member, the award-winning visual effects team (inherited from Battlestar Galactica), the show's linguist, the producer and even the president of Syfy original programming, flown in from Los Angeles for the day, on his own first visit to the Defiance set.
What we take away is a look at an ambitious project in motion: the first attempt at a true marriage between Hollywood and the video game industry, conceived by some of the brightest minds working in science fiction today and brought to life in the metropolitan wilds of Toronto, Ontario.
"In this world of Defiance, there are things that we have lost," says Steve Geaghan, production designer for Defiance, the television show. Geaghan is a 30-year veteran of television production, with credits on shows including Airwolf, Defying Gravity and the 2011 remake of the classic V. "We have lost our ability to fly. Where [before] we have been in outer space or near space, we can no longer do that."
Defiance, the television show, tells the story of refugees (human and alien) from the chaos of an alien war waged on Earth. Set three decades after the worst of the fighting, the television show — written by Farscape creator Rockne O'Bannon — was designed to be a post-apocalyptic/western/science-fiction yarn full of alien races and down-home drama. Defiance, the video game, is a MMO shooter, in which players will explore parts of the same world presented on the television show, and experience their own adventures, separate from what's on the screen. Each component is being designed separately but equally, so that fans of each will get a complete experience whether they combine the two or not.
Grant Bowler (Lost, True Blood) stars in Defiance, the television show, as Lawkeeper Nolan, driving around in the remains of St. Louis in a souped-up, Mad Max-style Dodge Charger with a futuristic peacemaker strapped to his hip. Bowler also appears in Defiance, the video game, handing out missions to players as they adventure in the remains of San Francisco. He actually recorded his lines for the video game and performed his own motion capture before he'd read a single line of the script for the show.
"That was a very odd thing as an actor," Bowler says. "I walked in with the Trion guys and they were like, 'How would your character do this?' and I said, 'I don't know! We've never done it!'"
Defiance producers say Lawkeeper Nolan's journey from the San Francisco area to St. Louis comprises part of the story arc of the television show's pilot, and that players of the game will therefore be exposed to an extra bit of story by interacting with the character in-game. In the preview demo we were given, Lawmaker Nolan kicks off the initial missions before hopping into a dune buggy-like vehicle and driving away into the sunset, presumably toward whatever adventures lie in store for him in the show.
"I can't believe it took us to 2012 for people to decide 'Hey, let's do a multi-platform launch,'" says Julie Benz (Dexter, No Ordinary Family, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who plays Defiance mayor Amanda Rosewater. "It's such a simple idea, but for it to actually be executed is — it's brilliant, absolutely brilliant, so I'm very excited to be a part of something that's never been done before."
Benz is no stranger to video game work, having performed the voice for the Halo 2 character Miranda Keyes. She says she's proud to be a part of the industry at a time when it appears to be gaining more mainstream credibility.
"I think it was always like, the forgotten stepchild that we didn't really talk about," she says. "We have an audience and we have people that love gaming and love this whole world and it generates income ... it's not the little stepchild anymore. Now it's the big brother. So it's exciting to see that transformation happen."
Exactly how deep the convergence between the two products will ultimately be is still unclear, and will continue to evolve as both projects progress to their April 2013 launch and beyond. Bowler suggests the eventual commingling between the Syfy television show and the MMO shooter developed by Trion Worlds will be strong.
"There will actually be characters who physically ... enter the game and the player can interact with them in the game universe," Bowler says. "And that will change, the characters will change, and the when where and why will change. The story lines of how and why they enter the game and [move] back into the show will change with both the game and the show.
"We've already shot — I'll mention it now — a number of environmental or climactic events that cross over between the game and the show. There's also story points that [enter] the game from the show and will cross from the game back into the show. We're very fortunate; in order to do this congruence and find the synthesis between two media. We're very fortunate that the game is an MMO and is a pervasive world – it continues to exist even when we stop shooting."
Bowler says the benefit of cooperation between the television production studio and the game development studio is mostly to the benefit of the television side. They will have the luxury of having to stop shooting from time to time in order to catch up and integrate what is happening in the game.
"You need one of these worlds to stop ... one of them has to stop so we can reseed, reboot and re-synthesize, and — from an audience's perspective — if you are both watching the show and playing the game that becomes seamless from your end but from our end it gives us the opportunity to see how events unfold in the game and then kind of reengineer so it's a congruent universe in the show.
"It is immersive, but I think what everyone is at pains to remind people is: it's an additive experience. The game on its own can be played without watching the show. You never need to watch the show. The game is complete."
It's a bold experiment. Games have been made out of television shows and vice versa, but never in the history of either medium have two teams worked collaboratively to launch two separate products simultaneously, each with it's own focus and direction, based on not one or the other, but on the two combined. Whether or not either product succeeds will depend largely on execution — and how well the two teams can work together.
"From a game perspective, empowering a player and having them feel powerful and that they're making a difference is part of that satisfactory game experience, and the show doesn't have the same goals," says Nicholas Beliaeff, senior executive producer at Trion Worlds. "And I think that's part of that educational process that we had back and forth ... the realization that it doesn't have to be the same. We wanted them close enough, that you're going to hear news that happens in one or the other really quickly, [but] we want them far enough away that if you're going to go from one to the other that's a bit of a journey, right? So you understand things that happen in the show and you hear about them in the game and vice versa, but having that person just jump – it's not just like going to your next door neighbor's house or anything."
According to Trion, the original plan was for game and show to occupy the same world at the same time, but the team quickly decided that allowing players the illusion of impacting the world of the show, and then not seeing those changes immediately impact the show would be a losing proposition.
"What if they want to go one way with the story and we want to go another," Beliaeff says. "Or, then what happens when they're in repeats and we're moving forward? And we're like, 'OK, realities are going to stomp on each other. Let's separate the neighborhoods.'"
"If you're doing a show that's a melting pot drama, St Louis is a really great place to convey that."
The terms of the agreement are this: Trion gets San Francisco as the setting for the game, Syfy gets St. Louis as the setting for the TV show. And should the two, at some point, meet in the middle, then they'll just have to figure out what to do next.
According to Syfy, while its preference may have been to base the show in San Francisco, the St. Louis setting offers some interesting storytelling opportunities.
"St. Louis is right in the middle of North America, and I always loved the idea of the gateway arch," says Kevin Murphy, co-creator and showrunner of Defiance, the television show. "It was the gateway to the west, and it took them many, many years to actually get it built. It seems to me that if you're doing a show that's an immigrant drama, a melting pot drama, St Louis is a really great place to convey that."
The city dilemma is just one example of the potential clashes both teams have faced, and is as clear an indicator as any that, unlike practically every other television-show-based video game project ever developed, Trion is not getting the short end of the stick by default.
Hollywood, Meet Video Games
The Defiance project emerged as a sketchy concept from somewhere inside NBC Universal (parent company of Syfy and "heavy" investor in Trion Worlds, according to Beliaeff) months ago. Audience research pointed to a strong crossover between the Syfy audience and players of MMOs.
"They realized that how people watch television and consume that is changing," says Beliaeff. "We started talking with them. We started throwing ideas back and forth. And it was interesting, because initially we kind of fell into the 'games-and-Hollywood' trap. Generally, one comes first and you end up having a licensee and a licensor, master or servant, whatever, and whoever comes in second has to make compromises.
"So they started sending us scripts, and we realized we were falling into that behavior pattern so we stopped. We said, 'OK, we're done with this; we know how this game ends, let's not play that game.'"
That initial rebellion sparked a months-long compromise between the two camps and eventual redistribution of power back to the middle, if not closer to the video game development team.
"We had this really interesting trip where we went up to their offices up in LA, and we explained to them, 'this is how you make a game,'" says Beliaeff. "And it was really just like Gaming 101, and it was kind of cool because a lot of the executives over there had grown up with games, and were like, 'Oh this is neat; we're working on a game.' And then they went and told us, 'this is how you make a show,' and we were like, 'television and video games; yeah we might have watched a show or two. Oh, this is neat, we're learning how to make a show!' So this little nerd lovefest. ... So it created this natural order of who should be in charge of what and who should get stuff done."
"We explained to them, 'this is how you make a game.'"
According to Trion Art Director James Dargie, there are usually three ways to do any one thing, and the benefit of working alongside a television crew is being exposed to a way of doing things the game development team might not have previously been exposed to.
"We have a lot of assets," Dargie says. "It's a big world, and it's pretty rich with detail. So, the show's had the luxury of seeing all of that to start their work with, and then we get to see how they're utilizing it and coming up with their own versions of things ... and sometimes it's just like the artistic balance between the two.
"It's a lot easier for us to come up with some amazing visual alien ark on the interior where the show looks at it, and says, 'that's going to cost our entire budget to build that.' So we have to make a version of it that still conveys the same visual impact and importance, but it's usually done cleverly so that it's achievable for them. It's usually the game that comes up with something grandiose and wild. The limitations we hit are usually, like, bone count – if they come up with characters that have too many legs, or something with a flowing cape or gown, we're just not going to be able to do justice to that type of character or creature, so that's when we'll come up with a sort of compromise to make sure that we're each kind of calibrating our expectations correctly."
The major sticking points to date (aside from the question of setting) have been based in the unique nature of the individual production disciplines. One example: the costumes. According to television production tradition, costumes would be one of the last things to be decided, but in a video game, where items of clothing are immutable art elements that must be shaded and textured and comprise a very real element of the overall game geometry, that's one of the first decisions to be made.
"When you're making a computer game of this scale, conceptually preproduction starts [years ahead]," says Trion Executive Producer Nathan Richardsson (previously of Eve developer CCP). "So we basically, as a natural part of our game development process, we do have a lot of mood setting, clothing and so forth set really early on — because simply what preproduction is is setting the entire direction for the rest of the team that's going to come in."
Richardsson points out that the opposite problem exists for the television show. Where a game development team can make radical changes to their design at a moment's notice (if necessary), a television production crew, working with real human beings and physical sets, doesn't have that luxury.
"We can change things with a day's notice; 'we're going to change this feature and there we are,'" Richardsson says. "With a television production that's not very possible because we've already shot the entire series, to go back to the set get everyone on board and change stuff. ... So finding these crossover points has been pretty difficult because of those two different worlds.
"We can change things with a day's notice. With television production that's not possible."
"But at the same time, I'd say that because of the enthusiasm and the willingness to move forward and make this amazing thing ... both parties involved are willing to take into consideration each other’s world."
With so many people involved in so many departments across so many time zones, it seems inevitable that a project as ambitious as Defiance could get bogged down in bureaucracy, or mired in compromise. And who knows, it very well might. At the moment, however, all parties concerned seem practically giddy about the possibilities.
"There's a huge amount of trial and error," says Beliaeff. "There are a lot of mistakes that we made that were part of the learning process because no one had really tried this premise of, 'let's start from Day 1; let's start with an IP that's big enough to hold a top-caliber TV show and big enough to hold a video game, and neither of them have to make compromises.' I'm sorry; it just hasn't been tried before. No one's really done that, so we didn't have anyone that we could sort of copy from or emulate or anything like that. So it's been a very interesting process, and I think that if you look at the guys both on Syfy and at Trion that have been at or near the beginning, we've been to 'Nam. We share the same battle scars, got that thousand-mile look."
Room to Grow
The Need Want is a festival of eye candy. Built by the refugee aliens, called the Votans, it has been assembled around a gigantic bioluminescent tree. The massive tree trunk dominates the center of the structure and is surrounded by a curved wooden bar. Meanwhile dangling orbs of glowing fruit hover over chairs and tables.
Even up close, the thing looks real. Like you could sit down and enjoy a meal under the glow of orb-like alien fruit.
"The idea behind this," says Geaghan, "was that when the Votans came and the terraforming happened on Earth; the zeitgeist was to take exterior Votanist trees and plants, and turn them into the interior. So we wanted to get an environment that was soft, feminine and lit."
The Need Want serves as Defiance's local watering hole and brothel. It is the center of town, in essence, and its design reflects its many uses. Doorways and windows are ovular. The color scheme is rich with lavender and burgundy. Lights pulse, furniture appears to be designed for comfort and utility. It suggests that the future, even in the post-alien-invasion apocalypse, is sexy.
"What I think what is wonderful about the creation of the town is that you see that history repeats itself," says Mia Kushner, who plays Kenya Rosewater, the town madam and owner of the Need Want club. "It's almost like a mosaic of different time periods and different wars and different cultures coming together — how these cultures sort of join together. So in a sense this town is timeless. For me, it's almost feudal. And there's something extremely dangerous in that, and there's something extremely savage in that, and very mysterious.
Dangling orbs of glowing fruit hover over chairs and tables.
Back on the exterior set, Geaghan points out the highlights. Past such-and-such cargo container is what remains of the St. Louis arch (they add it in post — right now it's just bare sky). Behind us is the monument commemorating the founding of Defiance (real). Beyond that, the rail car repurposed as a diner. (Which in real life was repurposed from another American city to resemble the train cars used in St. Louis.)
Every inch of this set has been lovingly created and then left to the elements. It looks battered, beaten and very, very grey. Just as it would, one imagines, if a group of survivors had scrounged sturdy materials to fashion it into a refuge.
"The metaphor is that everything is repurposed," says Geaghan, "Some of this is military, some is old containers. You'll see a lot of containers in this world, because those are the things that survive wars. They're very tough."
Geaghan is showing us the interior of Lawkeeper Nolan's office, the perfect embodiment of his metaphor. There is a battered desk off to one side. Dingy light seeps in from crusted-over windows. A weapons rack lurks inconspicuously on the wall. It is everything you would expect from a science-fiction sheriff's office, complete with jail cell. You can imagine Bowler's gruff Lawkeeper Nolan inhabiting the space, as Defiance's resident tough survivor.
On the other side of a wall is another set entirely, this one in use at the moment. The wall itself is what they call "wild," meaning it can be removed to aid the filming process. Geaghan points up to an empty loft space, built above the Lawkeeper's office set, but not yet furnished.
"There's a second floor on this that we haven't used to date," Geaghan says. "It's built for expansion to the series next season which I'm sure will happen."
Geaghan smiles thinly, stepping out of the role of master of ceremonies for the first time. "Thanks to all of your help." And then it's back to the tour.
Both game and television show are scheduled to arrive in April 2013.