How novelist and game writer Richard Dansky went from horror to Tom Clancy and back again.
It's a Tuesday and Tom Clancy is dead.
Appearing in the headlines, as if from one of his own stories, first the news comes that he may have died, and then it's confirmed. The creator of the political "techno thriller" has died in a Baltimore hospital, a few scant miles away from the center of American power where, on this very day, political turmoil rages, negotiations with Iran are ongoing and God knows how many black operations — the likes of which Clancy himself may have written — are in progress.
Late in the afternoon we speak to Richard Dansky, a man who will never be a feature of Clancy's tales and yet who, for the past 13 years, has had the privilege to know them as well as, if not better than, any writer on earth.
"I would be, in some ways, the last person you'd expect to really enjoy writing Clancy," says Dansky, who is currently the keeper of the Clancy flame at Ubisoft Red Storm, the game developer Clancy himself cofounded.
Today, of all days, we ask Dansky what it feels like to be responsible for as much of that man's legacy in video games as the man himself. He hesitates before answering and his voice sounds dry.
"This is obviously a property that has meant an awful lot to an awful lot of people," he says. "It is, at its core, something that's very appealing. It speaks to a lot of people. To have been a part of continuing that on in a way that has continued to bring joy to folks and has engaged them ... that's a privilege."
And then he tells us about how it almost never happened.
Dansky's mother was a teacher in Philadelphia, his father a "problem solver" in the electrical lighting industry. If a client company had trouble paying its bills, the elder Dansky would travel out, law degree and accounting certifications in hand, and find a way to make the trains keep running.
It's a similar role to the service Dansky performs for Ubisoft, the current owner of the Tom Clancy video game franchise.
"I would say that I am narrative spackle," Dansky says, laughing. "More seriously, the way I've always viewed my role is that I am a resource in narrative ... to be applied as needed. If that means my job is to write the story and write the dialogue and help design the characters, I'm happy to do that. If the need is for me to gut check a story that someone else is doing, saying, 'OK, this violates the brand pillars here, and we blew up Rio de Janeiro in HAWX, so we might find a different city,' I'm happy to do that. If it's people who have questions about stuff, or coordinating with them ... whatever they need me to do.
"'Resource' is really the best word I've got for what I do. It means that the demands are ever-changing, but it also means it doesn't get boring."
Dansky's parents were both "voracious" readers, with a house full of books. They held a "read-a-thon" to benefit the Philadelphia Children's Hospitals. Dansky was encouraged to read at an early age.
"The literary side of things was omnipresent, and at times aggressive," he says.
But his father's role as a fixer may be what has shaped him the most from his days writing narratives and mission descriptions for White Wolf Games to his latest work for Ubisoft Red Storm as the narrative lead on Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
"For lack of a better way of putting it, I view myself as having a low bullshit tolerance policy toward my writing," he says. "My job is to tell a story, and the things that get in the way of telling that story, I need to examine them as to whether they're actual impediments or just me bullshitting myself.
"Dad's job was always to go out there and cut through the bullshit and find a way to find the optimal solution for everyone. That has infused my professional life and my writing style. I worry less about the subtext I'm creating than I am about blowing through and finishing the manuscript and going back and seeing what my unconscious planted in the story for me to tease out in the iterations."
"My samples ... were genre fiction. I suspect they had the highest body count of any of the samples that she received."
Yet in spite of his literary upbringing, Dansky was almost permanently discouraged from a career in writing by, against all logic, his college writing instructor.
"Everybody has their story of their encounter with a great writer that changed their life," he says. "My encounter with a great writer that changed my life turned me off writing for years."
Dansky had won the freshman writing prize at Wesleyan and attended writer in residence Annie Dillard's writing workshop thinking he had it in the bag. When he submitted his samples, Dillard was horrified.
"My samples ... were genre fiction. I suspect they had the highest body count of any of the samples that she received. It came back with a note on it the next day saying, 'We have nothing to say to each other.'"
The response shook Dansky's faith in his own ability and pushed him out of writing, almost for good. Years later a grad school friend coaxed him to contribute to a sourcebook for White Wolf's Wraith: The Oblivion. He wrote his chapters while moonlighting as an SAT prep course proctor, sitting in a Boston church basement in a desk designed for a child.
They were a hit. Several assignments later, in spite of Dillard's rejection, Dansky decided he might actually be a writer after all.
A picture and a playlist
Dansky wrote his thesis on H.P. Lovecraft and, like the master of "creeping horror," populates his own fiction with so-called "bookish nerds." People who, like Dansky, are more comfortable in a library than on a black op.
Clancy's world is a not a world of creeping horror; it is a world of action-y thrills and manly men who stride aircraft carrier decks and get hoisted by helicopters and defuse political time bombs as well as actual bombs. Nothing in the Clancy-verse creeps, unless it's a silent commando parachuted in with an oxygen tank from 50,000 feet to stab you with a knife.
Dansky, himself a bookish nerd, favors the creeping horror. He is an author of tabletop role playing games, vampire novels and genre fiction. For years he was an in-house writer for White Wolf Games, creators of the Vampire: The Masquerade series among other things. His novelizations of White Wolf properties read like a Rue Morgue of genre staples. Creatures from fantasy come to kill you with your own fears. His original novels are pure horror, like the gothic ghost tale "Firefly Rain" and his latest, the recently released video game industry demon tale "Vaporware."
In "Vaporware," a cancelled video game project comes back to haunt the team that designed it. Literally. They've devoted their lives to creating it and might have to give their lives to stop it. It is a horror tale, to be sure, but one with a distinctly realistic flavor. It's been lauded for getting the details of game development spot-on perfect, which few novels do.
Dansky writes horror stories by night, often late at night, in his blood-red writing room. And yet by day he's in an office like many you might imagine, with wide windows and inoffensive carpet, in a sun-drenched office park a mile or two from a highway in one of the most corporate-looking cities in the world. It's a dichotomy Dansky himself seems fascinated by.
"For somebody like me who loves research, who loves history, who loves those sorts of weird stories that hang out on the fringes of history and politics, Clancy has been a real pleasure to work on," he says, "because I can dive into those loose ends, the things that show up on page 23 of the international section of the New York Times. I can go diving into those stories and find real meat for games. It's been a tremendous education, learning about that world and learning about stuff that I wouldn't have necessarily sought out on my own."
Writing his own fiction is as different from game writing as Lovecraft is from Clancy. For Dansky it starts with a picture, and then a playlist.
"Generally I start with an image," Dansky says, "whether it's the image of these kudzu-coated trees looming over the road, which was the genesis of 'Shadows in Green,' or the boundary of light and dark on my wife's family farm that was the inspiration of 'Firefly Rain.' Just sort of a stark image. And then I say, 'OK, this is really cool. How do I get to this image?'"
"Generally I start with an image ... And then I say, 'OK, this is really cool. How do I get to this image?'"
Once Dansky knows where he's going, where his story will ultimately take him (and a reader) he methodically hammers out the details and personalities of his characters and then lets them lead the way.
"I'll write down 10 words that one character will use and 10 words that they'll never use, just to make sure that they have a distinctive voice. I'll maybe do short interviews or QAs with them, so I get used to writing in their voice. I can make sure that it's distinctive. I'll try to — for lack of a better way of putting it — get to know them well enough that when the plot throws me a twist, or when I've written myself into a corner, I can write myself out by saying, 'OK, what would this person do?' Not, 'What do I need to have happen next,' but, 'This person is in this situation. Where is he or she going to go with it? What does that mean for where I'm trying to get with the story?'"
Dansky describes a scene in his latest, "Vaporware," in which two characters were having a conversation and he didn't know how it would end. The main character in the novel is feeling depressed and a colleague (who is also his ex-girlfriend) is attempting to console him. From one line of dialogue to the next, Dansky wrote what his work on the characters led him to believe they would say until he came to an impasse: The next logical utterance was something he didn't want his character to say.
"I said, 'OK, no, I'm going to try something different.' I tried 30 different lines in that place and they were all the wrong line. It came back to that one that had to be there. So I said, 'OK, this is who he is. This is what he's going to say.' And I typed it.
"Next thing I know I've written that she slapped him, which he deserved, immensely, and I'm like, 'Oh, crap, they're going to end up sleeping together. That's where this is going.' And that's half of the rest of the book laid out."
All it wants is everything
Dansky turned to original fiction in 1997, about halfway through his tenure at White Wolf. He describes the transition as a "slow, creeping process."
"I felt that I had learned enough from writing tabletop that I could try and tell stories that didn't have rules attached to them."
His first novella, "Shadows in Green," was a modest success, but it gave him the opportunity to work hard, write a lot and achieve slightly less modest successes with dozens of stories, one short story collection and two novels, culminating in this year's "Vaporware." Then, of course, there are the games.
After working on more than 100 books for White Wolf, Dansky was looking for a new challenge. A friend who worked at Red Storm suggested "Why not video games?"
"I didn't want to keep writing the 'storytelling' chapter of the main book over and over again," Dansky says. "Once you've tackled the biggest questions that you can find in your field, it makes sense to try to move to another field and see if there are any new questions you can answer."
The new challenges would be punishing. Dansky describes the learning curve going from writing tabletop to video games as being like "the wall in American Ninja," the televised athletic competition program where amateur athletes perform insane physical stunts. The wall is a steeply sloped ramp that becomes vertical near the top. It is the ultimate challenge.
"When you see the guy run up it and flail his arms and fall over backwards a few times ... if he's lucky, on the third time, he makes it up by his fingertips."
Dansky made it.
"There were a lot of lessons that I had to unlearn," he says. "There are so many moment-to-moment differences in terms of the scope of projects, in terms of the duration of projects, in terms of the consequences for making changes. With tabletop, when you've got a problem while the book is in layout, you go and you change some words. In games, if you have a problem with a narrative element, changing that could require ripping out an entire level that cost an awful lot of money to make, and they're not willing to do that."
At last count Dansky has contributed to over 30 video games in the Tom Clancy series and other Ubisoft franchises. Yet in "Vaporware," for the first time, he's merged the two worlds of fiction and video game writing.
"There were a lot of lessons that I had to unlearn. There are so many moment-to-moment differences in terms of the scope of projects."
"Obviously it was material that I was familiar with," Dansky says. "If you look at representations of video games in other media — and particularly in horror, which is where I do most of my writing — they tend to fall into two categories. There are human beings falling into a game and something eats them. Or there are human beings playing a game and something escapes from the game and eats them. That's about it.
"The real horror of 'Vaporware' is not the critter. It's the choices that the protagonist makes. The book is very much about being married to the job and the decisions that we make, the excuses that we make, for the sake of something like that, and the damage that it inflicts on everyone around us."
"Vaporware" is semi-autobiographical. The main character is defined by his choices to avoid human relationships in favor of the game. The game is easier for him to relate to than people, even though it's ultimately more demanding than any human would be.
"He doesn't have to take into account its wants, its fears, its needs," says Dansky. "He doesn't have to compromise with it. He doesn't have to have an adult relationship with it. All it wants is everything from him. That's more frightening than the supernatural aspect to him, whether he knows it or not."
We ask Dansky, how literal an interpretation the "Vaporware" story is of his own experience in making games. He replies that when he began to tell his wife the story, she stopped him, saying she already knew how it went.
"It's not biographical, but I can see it from where I stand," he says. "There are elements of my own personal history in there, things that I did or choices that I made."
The less glamorous side of being credited on dozens of video games is the travel to and from the various places in which those games are made. It's staying in hotels in terrible places. It's the long nights and early mornings. It's being away from home and all of the tolls that can take on a life and a marriage.
Ubisoft has studios all over the world, and Dansky has visited most of them.
"There's been a lot of travel and there's been a lot of different travel and there's been a lot of uncertainty about when the travel is going to happen," he says. "That is, in a lot of ways, almost more disruptive to building a life than anything, building a routine in your life, than the actual travel is.
"There have been an awful lot of nights when I've told my wife, 'I'm coming home late, I'm coming home late,' and I don't get home until she's in bed. There have been long stretches on the road and things like that. ["Vaporware" is] a combination of those choices, which everybody in the industry makes, with stories that I heard from professional peers about projects they were on and decisions they made and decisions that were made that affected them. The common thread is always how much of ourselves we put into this industry and how much we put into the games."
At the time of this writing, Dansky's latest game, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, is out and reviewing well (with a Metacritic score in the low 80s), yet he is still unable to quite put into words how he feels about the game. For one thing, he's not yet cleared the question with Ubisoft, which, typical of AAA game publishers, aggressively "controls its message." But for another, he's still simply too close to the game.
"I'm proud of the work that I did on Splinter Cell: Conviction, which I thought had a lot of very interesting human moments."
All those late nights, long air miles and desperate struggles cramming words into games have left him vulnerable. Like his protagonist in "Vaporware," he's still "emotionally invested."
Of the previous installment in the Splinter Cell franchise, however, he says this:
"I'm proud of the work that I did on Splinter Cell: Conviction, which I thought had a lot of very interesting human moments to the narrative and had a lot of storytelling aspects to it that people seemed to really dig. In terms of video games, that's probably my proudest achievement. It was a big team and it was under some tricky circumstances. Being able to create something that really seemed to resonate with people that well, with such an iconic character, meant a lot to me."
And that, for Dansky, is what it comes down to: creating work that resonates with people. That entertains them and makes them glad.
"My job is to help people have fun," he says. "I think adding some fun to the world is a reasonably worthwhile goal. At the same time, it's not curing cancer. It's not solving the great mysteries of the universe. But it is what I do. It's my responsibility to do it as well as I can for as long as I can in a way that is beneficial to everybody involved.
"If there comes a time where I don't feel like I can do it and give it my best effort anymore, or if it comes to a point where I'm doing it, but I feel like I'm not doing it honestly, then it will be time for me to walk away. But I've always seen [myself] ... as being someone who helps create something that hopefully provides some enjoyment. I want to make sure that I'm doing that well."
Images: Ubisoft, Russ Pitts
Editing: Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan