Building a Narrative that’s Explosive

A Hollywood Screenwriter decides to 'Go Game' and tread into the world of Video Game Narrative Design.

This article was originally published in the New York Times.

In 2010 Tom Bissell — author of seven books, contributor to publications like The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine, darling of book reviewers who compare him to writers like Wells Tower and John Jeremiah Sullivan — announced that he was going to “go game,” in the way that prominent writers “go Hollywood,” in search of bigger paychecks and the challenges of a new form.

What makes the fourth edition of the popular video game series Gears of War different is that its writers were more deeply involved in its creation than writers have typically been allowed.

The occasion, at the McNally Jackson bookstore in the NoLIta section of Manhattan, was a reading of “Extra Lives,” Mr. Bissell’s delightfully ambivalent defense of video games. In that book he declared that games were “the most consistently pleasurable pursuit in my life,” and yet he also attacked the industry for “an unnecessary hostility between the greatness of a game and the sophistication of things such as narrative, dialogue, dramatic motivation and characterization.”

Three years later, Mr. Bissell has gone and done it. He and Rob Auten have written Gears of War: Judgment, the fourth title in a popular series of military science-fiction games for the Xbox 360. The two men met in 2009 when Mr. Auten was trying to put together a game adaptation of “Apocalypse Now.” That project foundered, as did several others the men worked on.

“The writer is someone who only occasionally steers the story ship during the game development process,” Mr. Bissell said in an interview about Gears of War: Judgment, which was released on Tuesday. “So much of it is responding as the game design stuff changes, and figuring out how to ground some pretty absurd gameplay hook in a plausibly fictional context. And that’s the fun part. It’s also the hard part.”

Yet Mr. Bissell, 39, and Mr. Auten, 35, were more deeply involved in the creation of this game, developed by the North Carolina studio Epic Games and the Polish studio People Can Fly, than writers have typically been allowed. For good reason, game development privileges interactive play mechanics over narrative devices like plot and dialogue. For the first Gears of War game, released in 2006, the combat sequences were built before a story was even conceived. Then some writers were hired to layer meaning on top of the gameplay.

Rod Fergusson, a former executive at Epic, once explained the process to me this way: “Here are your levels. Put story in these levels.”

For Judgment, however, the writers were in the room almost from the beginning. Somewhat surprisingly, the result is not a talky, highly literary game — interactive Tarantino, if you will — but a lean and quickly paced structure in which much of the story and character development can be missed if you’re not paying close attention.

The game is subtle in that way, but there’s also no avoiding that it’s about using guns to dismember large, insectlike aliens. (It’s rated M for Mature for its intense violence and strong language.) “We realized pretty astonishingly quickly that the more writerly it got, the more it stopped feeling like a Gears game,” Mr. Bissell said. “And our biggest goal, early on, was to get the hell out of the way of the things that make Gears awesome.

“The things that are great about Gears are the explosiveness, the gore, the fun characters, the world,” he continued. “And just the sense that the player gets of how awesome it is to be in that place, surrounded by these monsters, blowing stuff up with incredibly cool weapons. And as a writer your job is to create an atmospheric foundation for all of that stuff to sit on.”

The process is not one that sounds — or even feels, Mr. Bissell said — very much like writing. He and Mr. Auten worked in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, writing lines to be uttered when one of the game’s characters performed an action.

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