Talking about the troubles of prequels and triple-A game writing with the writers of Gears of War: Judgment.
The upcoming Gears of War: Judgment will introduce some narative twists to the big-selling action game franchise. To begin with, in a series first, Marcus Fenix will not be the story's protagonist; that honor goes to perennial "also there" Baird. Additionally, the main story will be told in a less linear fashion, utilizing flashbacks and other writerly tricks. The story itself is actually a prequel to the events depicted in the first three Gears titles, taking place just 30 days from the "Emergence Day" that defined the Gears universe. I recently had a chance to sit with Judgment's writing team, game writing veteran Rob Auten and Extra Lives author and occasional games journalist Tom Bissell. Auten's previous credits include a stint with 20th Century Fox on the Avatar video game and Aliens vs. Predator. Bissell is credited (in addition to Extra Lives) with a profile of Gears designer Cliff Bleszinski and The Art and Design of Gears of War, a supplement released as part of the collector's edition of Gears of War 3. I spoke with Auten and Bissell about how they landed the gig, their experiences working with Epic Games and Judgment developer People Can Fly, the challenges of writing for games and how the two plan to reinvent the wheel with their take on the Gears universe.
Is this your first involvement with the Gears franchise?
Tom Bissell: No. I profiled Cliff Bleszinski … four years ago for the New Yorker. That was the first time I had ever written anything about video games. Then I got to know these guys a little bit. A couple of years later they asked me if I wanted to write the art book for the deluxe edition of Gears of War 3. Then I was here working on that little … It was like a 13,000-word book that came with the deluxe edition. While I was here, Rob and I had been doing some game stuff with varying degrees of success. Then Rod Fergusson mentioned that they were looking for a writer for the next thing.
Rob Auten: When Tom said, 'Hey, I have an opportunity to do this book,' I was like, 'See if they need writers! See if they need writers!' [laughter] 'Get in there! Get in there! C'mon, do it! You're our Trojan horse!'
Bissell: When Rod mentioned they were looking for writers, I said, 'Could we throw our hats into the ring?' And Rod was like, 'Do you know anything about writing video games?' I was like, 'Uh … not really?' But they gave us a test. It worked out. That was about a year and a half ago. So far so good. That's how it happened.
What was the test like?
Auten: It was a couple of scenarios. It was kind of set between Gears 2 and Gears 3. It was actually really well-done. The guys are walking up a mountain and Marcus [Fenix] makes the decision to take what he thinks is a shortcut. It turns out not to be. How that affects the dynamic within the team, the leader having dropped the ball a little bit. We were looking at this and thinking, 'This is a scenario that we never even see in the game. This is really interesting.'
Bissell: Yeah, there were all these interesting scenarios.
Auten: Kind of emotionally … 'Wow, I don't know what would happen.'
Bissell: Yeah. It was really cool, because that was our first signal that they were thinking about ways to mix … they said as much. They wanted to shake it up a bit. They'd kind of taken the style, the narrative style of the first three Gears games, as far as they could. They knew how to make that kind of a game.
Auten: I think it was [about] looking for a new challenge.
Bissell: Yeah. They wanted to do a different thing. I think Judgment, for better or worse, is a different kind of Gears game. They did what they set out to do, which is [to] shake up the franchise. Think of that in a way that doesn't sound like marketing speak … [laughs]
Auten: I can answer your question, or give you this three-by-five index card with an answer …
How much of a free hand did you have, and how much of a course was already plotted?
Auten: We came to the table with pretty much a tabula rasa. There was some data that the guys had collected. There were some ideas bandied about. 'We like Baird. Do you guys like Baird?' 'We love Baird!' 'OK, cool, we'll do Baird.' Then we talked a bit about time and place. I think it was about finding a moment in the franchise history. Something where people would know what it was, that they would want to see, and that hadn't been covered in the comic books —
Bissell: Considering how many comics and how many books there had been, it was actually hard to find a place that hadn't been —
Auten: We did some research. We liked E-day, but the thing about literal E-day is that neither Baird nor Cole would have been soldiers. They enlisted afterward. They were both living their own independent lives. Click forward a little bit. We found some moments. In one of the books, we found the fall of Halvo Bay, and this beautiful kind of luxe resort burg, this Santa Barbara sort of place, and we thought, 'That's kind of cool. Maybe we can find a story that's set in there. It's contained. We know it ends poorly. Let's see if we can put some roots down there.'
The fall of Halvo Bay was already spelled out in the expanded literature. Going in, some players may know already: This place is going to fall. How do you compensate for that dramatically when the outcome is already a known quantity?Bissell: Well, there's a little twist … Everything you imagine is going to happen based on what you know in the game. Everything is twisted a little bit. You could be the biggest lore-hound of the Gears world, read all the comics and all the books, know all the references in the game, and you're going to be surprised. There's stuff that happens —
Auten: At some point or another you will be surprised.
Bissell: At some point or another we pull the rug out from under you a little bit.
Bissell: Hopefully, yeah. I love procedural stories, like Argo or The Insider. Stories where you know what happens at the end, but that manage just by how completely interesting they are on a step-by-step basis ... they allow you to forget how it ends. I guess that was our challenge. If we can make the game —
Auten: I think we really embraced that, though, with the trial. The first thing you see is all four members of Kilo Squad being brought into this courtroom. Clearly, no matter what happens, they're all going to be there up to the point of the trial. We didn't feel the need to run from that. It's more about, how the characters get to that point? How do they behave? How do they talk to one another? How do their group dynamics change? How do they change as individuals? What causes them to make these decisions?
From a writer-ey perspective, this is all really fecund stuff. We can tell these stories within this little environmental system of the squad that rolls its way through the more overarching story, which is ... compared to other Gears games, it's really simple. There's a bad guy in town. We have to get the tools to get rid of the bad guy.
"You could be the biggest lore-hound of the Gears world, and you’re going to be surprised."
Bissell: Bad guy in town. Get rid of him.
Auten: It's High Noon.
Bissell: I love the previous Gears games, but there's a sense that they're so big and so sprawling that it's often very hard, in the game, to remember what the hell it is you're doing. I hope that this game, given its geographical smallness and the simplicity of the goals — Kill This Guy — that that story problem gets solved a little bit this time. That was one thing that Adrian Chmielarz at People Can Fly … it's the first thing he said. He said, 'I want no missions where you get your hands on the thing and then the bad guy swoops in and takes it away.'
Auten: 'If only we can get the thing …'
Bissell: He was so smart to do that. Forced failure is a cheat. It's a story cheat. So many games do that. I notice it all the time now, after Adrian laid down the law on that. I think he was totally right to do that.
What you wind up doing is chopping up your missions just to generate more content. You go here, but then you get diverted to get the key, and then you have to come back to the gate, but then the guy isn't there and you have to go over here … By the end you don't even know what the hell you're doing anymore. I really hope that, in this game, you never have that core confusion about what it is you're doing.
Auten: We were lucky, because I think we were able to come together and figure out a polyvalent plot that had independent things that were connected to one another, but then they all needed to be done and they all contributed towards a core goal. If we had had three more ingredients, I think we might have started to —
Bissell: Go a little crazy, yeah.
Auten: Yeah. Trying to find justification for keeping things linearly strung along.
"Forced failure is a cheat. It's a story cheat. So many games do that."
Bissell: People don't fall into those video game structures because they're dumb or not talented. They fall into them just because you need … it's just what happens.
Auten: 'Guys, we need to add another level.'
So it's just a function of adding so many —
Auten: Yeah. I've worked on games where it's like, 'Hey, we have an airport, a butcher shop, a children's garden of verses. Can we get some story? Why are these guys here?' We were lucky in that we were able to start baking bread with flour and water, as opposed to coming in midway through the process and having to wedge some extra chocolate in there or something.
Bissell: I don't know what that metaphor means. [big laughs]
Auten: We were able to start baking bread with the core ingredients!
Bissell: Block that metaphor.
I was waiting to see what else the bread could be made of.
Auten: When you're stuffing the bananas into the bread as it's being cooked in the oven. That's what we're not doing.
Auten: I think we were really fortunate that we were even able to have some agency in that. Unless we really blew it … People get excited about the characters in Gears. We've said before, there aren't four characters in any other major game franchise that I can rattle off the top of my head as quickly as I can the core team of Gears of War 1, 2 and 3. That means something. When they were like, 'Hey, guys, you can make up some characters,' we were like, 'Whoa! Cool! Who do you want?'
Bissell: There were a lot of options. We bandied around a lot of different possibilities, but … I don't remember who it was. It didn't come from us. But someone suggested a UIR refugee. Someone suggested an Onyx Guard cadet. Early on, Sofia and Paduk were switched. They had opposite roles. Sofia was the UIR and Paduk was the … They had different names and everything. They were different ages. Then, at some point, we made the decision to swap them. It made more sense.
Auten: There was something of a notion of the dramatic structure that we wanted. We knew we had the trial. We knew that therefore we needed something bad that they did. You kind of want a voice on each shoulder, dramatically. It ended up that Paduk is the demon saying, 'Do it! Do it! Nobody cares!' Then Sofia, being an experienced and trained elite COG soldier, is like, 'Look. I've been in this army for a while. There's a hierarchy for a reason. There's structure for a reason. We're supposed to follow orders.'
"I hope we made a character in Baird who can carry a Gears game."
Baird, the confusingly-empowered lieutenant because of his kind of hoity-toity background, is the one that has to actually make the decisions. Who those people became was something I don't think we really figured out until we got them all in a room and they started talking to one another. They rapidly shifted … not dramatically, but they took on their own lives at that part in the process.
Bissell: The actors, too. We wrote a couple of versions of the script we wound up throwing away. Versions that were recorded and put in the game. They just weren't good. We started over again, pretty much. Having already gone through some sessions with the actors and hearing their voices … they were as much a part of the process as we were in a lot of ways.
It's such a magical, weird alchemy in which a video game character that's at all memorable is created. There's the voices. There's the stuff that they say, which is what we do. There's how they look. Then whatever core mechanic that's the thing they do, whether it's shoot or jump. How they look and how they move. All that stuff has to work together.
If the character's really good, you don't think about any of that. They just seem like they're real. Marcus, to me, is a really good example of a character who feels real. We all might wish he had a slightly wider emotional register sometimes, but he's Marcus. I think he's a really iconic and great character in that sense. Baird is … I hope we made a character in Baird who's able to stand alongside Marcus as someone who can carry a Gears game.
Auten: I think fans of the game who know Baird will see a lot more in Baird after they play the game. I hope so.
That was one of my questions, actually. In the first three games, Baird is a main character, but he's not really a leadership figure. In this game he starts out as a leadership figure. How much of —
Bissell: This game is, in a sense, the story of why Baird is never again a leadership figure. [laughter]
How he learns that he's not Marcus Fenix?
Bissell: Yeah. Why he's been a private for 15 years, even though he's saved the world three times.
"This game is the story of why Baird is never again a leadership figure."
Auten: And why he's kind of always looking over everybody's shoulder and saying, 'Look, I'm smarter than you guys. I could do it that way.' But he's never actually the boss.
Bissell: The cool thing is that the story of this game was actually already there for someone to tell. All you had to do was just look at the character and how he is.
Auten: This confusing situation that he's in.
Bissell: It's cool. That was the fun thing about it. A couple of people asked us if it's frustrating to do a prequel. I was like, 'Hell no.' The chance to show some of these characters from an earlier perspective was really thrilling. I really mean that. The people who love Gears, they love Gears.
Auten: We wanted to honor that.
Is that a challenge? In any game, there's an element of heroism, or at least fantasy escapism. The idea of being greater than an ordinary person. Is it a challenge creating a game based around a central character that, in a lot of ways, really isn't a hero?
Bissell: That's funny. See, for me, my personal preference is … I don't play games for that kind of empowerment.
Auten: When you put him on the screen, he becomes, in a sense, the hero. Whether or not he's actually heroic. I think some of my favorite games … Is John Marston a hero? There is this kind of gray area. Niko Bellic's definitely no hero.
"For us, Baird is an unconventional hero, and that's part of the reason we love him."
Bissell: Nathan Drake is a hero, but he's also … we're occasionally reminded that he's kind of a dirty-dealing guy. Isaac from Dead Space, who spends most of the game in this hunchbacked posture, not saying anything. A game hero can be a whole wide range of things.
I think triple-A game guys do themselves a disservice when they try to download from this central character database and get a prototypically heroic guy. Look at how many games have tried to generate 'Generic Hero Number Three.' It doesn't work. Characters have to have wrinkles and vulnerabilities. They have to be weird in some way to generate a response.
Auten: The more I think about the way games keep clinging to these kinds of genre archetypes … it's at the point where it limits their accessibility to the larger populace. Filmmaking has moved past these genre archetypes. We don't have RKO serials anymore. We have The Dark Knight. We have nuanced and emotionally and morally complex heroes. For us, Baird is an unconventional hero, and that's part of the reason we love him.
What brought you to writing games? How has the experience of writing this game stacked up against everything else? I'm kind of curious about how the experience of writing on Cliffy's game compares to writing about Cliffy.
Auten: Unfortunately, I know nothing about that … [laughs]
Bissell: I wanted to write games because I started writing about games. I wrote a book about video games called Extra Lives. It came out two years ago. From there, I was just so constantly frustrated about how badly written video games were. How tin-eared the dialogue was and how hackneyed the narratives were. I was like, 'Goddammit, I want in. I want to try this. I can do this better.' Well, boy, did I have a lesson in store for me. It is really hard. It is a hard medium to write for.
The problems, in terms of production and in terms of the constraints you're under, the artistic and commercial constraints … all that stuff conspires to water down everything. Not here, but I'm just saying in general, in the industry. I came out of this process realizing that anything good that gets made is kind of a miracle. And just how strange it is to write a game. How many different layers of writing you have to do. We didn't see them all working together in concert until pretty recently.
When they're all in place now, the things you hear people say procedurally and then the dialogue we've written to happen at certain trigger points in the level, combined with the ambient stuff … now that it's all working together … there's no script where all that stuff was listed in order, right? You're taking three completely different elements and putting them on top of each other or next to each other and just hoping that when the player walks through the world, it all makes sense.
Now that I know how weird it is and how much work it is, I'll say it again, it is a miracle that anything works that well. It's only a testament to these guys — they work really hard and they're really good at what they do — that the game is as good as it is. I really do think it's a terrific game.
"This has been a really magical process. It's all that I ever could have wished for."
Auten: For me, I had the desire to write, to participate in writing endeavors for a long time, but I actually ended up living in L.A. and working as an editor, kind of in post. I worked with a lot of animation. I ended up getting a gig with a friend of mine to write and help craft a bunch of … cinematics, basically. I ended up getting involved and working with a lot of awesome people on doing that for a number of years. I was hitting the point where I thought, 'OK, it's amazing to be writing something. It's amazing to be a part of a team. This is the kind of stuff I always wanted to do. There are so many cool, amazing things going on with incredible people. And I’m working on what I’ve come to believe is, in this new amazing nascent medium and popular art form … I'm working on the parts that you don't play. Everybody watches this maybe once if we're lucky.'
I thought to myself, 'I need to learn more about games.' So I ended up working more on the production side for a while. Learning how to talk to studios and how they work. Looking at things like … 'Oh my God, you guys use spreadsheets for everything. This is crazy.' I was immersing myself in that kind of stuff.
I met Tom, and we were sort of like, 'Wow, this is a great opportunity for the two of us to balance each other out.' We both care enormously about literature and writing and character. We both have separate paths and a long-term interest in games. Coming together and then having the opportunity to work on a project like this … for me, this was unlike anything I'd ever worked on before. We came in at the point of conception, really. Which in and of itself is rare and awesome.
A lot of game writers like to say, 'I wish I could have been part of the team early on.' We not only were part of the team early, we also stayed part of the team. We spent a good part of the last year and a half coming out here [in Raleigh] — basically living here — cranking things out. Staying until impossibly late in the morning. Playing the game over and over again. Taking notes and sharing those notes with the team. Doing all we could to take an iterative and almost naggy approach to the storytelling aspect. [laughs]
We did that with the full support of everybody on board. They were so cool in embracing our nerdiness and letting us really go, 'Can we work on some of the street signs? Can we work on some of the store names? Is that cool?' Then they just started giving us … 'Do you guys wanna do this stuff? Great! Fine!' [laughs]
For me, this has been a really magical process. It's all that I ever could have wished for when I was working on other stuff. 'The levels are already done. The game's already playable. Find a story. Find a way to connect the dots.' This really was something that storytelling had a part in from the very beginning. Hopefully it shows. [laughs]
I think it does, just from what I've seen.
Bissell: Did you dig it?
I think what you said, about it being more … I don't want to say 'simpler,' but more directed. That definitely came through in what we played. I never had that typical Gears experience of, 'Hey, I don't even know what's going on here …' [big laughs]
Bissell: I'm in a desert! There's balloons! I'm gonna get in one!
Auten: There's jeeps now!
Bissell: It's hard, crafting an 18-hour game story. I don't envy anyone who has to do that. This is not quite as sprawling. I think that's one of its strengths. I really do.
How long is it, do you think?
Bissell: The game? We're not allowed to say, but it's … I can definitely say that it's not as short as anyone is worried about it being. I think a lot of people think that with four squad members, that must mean there's four chapters. Again, there are some twists. It's much longer than —
Auten: Gonna be a wild ride! [laughs]
Bissell: There's a 55-minute-long cinematic in there. [big laughs again] That really drives it home.