In 2006 when science fiction author Karen Traviss' editor asked her if she wanted to do a military video game tie-in novel, it was the first she'd heard of Epic Games' Gears of War. Today she's responsible for the entire fictional universe, steering the adventure of Marcus Fenix and company to its inevitable conclusion and beyond.
Kotaku recently spoke to the award-winning author about fleshing out the world of the epic video game franchise.
A former television and newspaper reporter , Traviss made a name for herself in science fiction circles with her original Wess'har series of novels as well as the much-loved Star Wars spinoff series, Republic Commando. Traviss is a highly visual storyteller, fully capable of transporting the reader to the front lines of a massive war on an alien world, but it's her work in the trenches that's always impressed me, developing the personalities and depicting the personal relationships between soldiers in battle, breathing life into what otherwise might have been a handful of plastic action figures.
Her storytelling style was a perfect fit for Gears of War, so much so that when Karen reached out to friends and Penny Arcade creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik back in 2006, hoping to get a little background on the project her editor offered, Holkins replied with "It's Traviss Town."
And now it's Traviss Universe, and that's not a responsibility the writer takes lightly.
She writes the novels. Last year she took over writing duties on the ongoing comic book series. She once even wrote some text for the packaging for the Gears of War action figures. This is not a woman that delegates.
"I don't delegate anything that's got my name on it," Traviss told me during a recent e-mail interview. "Writers are judged by that — although you have to accept that stuff will get changed in a game for necessary technical reasons after you've gone, and you won't always love what results."
It's with that same spirit that Traviss took on the extended responsibility of writing the story for Gears of War 3, the third chapter in the tale of humanity's struggle for survival on the fictional planet of Sera. Just how involved did she get? "I think the only way to describe it is that I lived and breathed it every waking moment for the best part of two years."
This wasn't a case of the game creators hiring a writer to come in and clean things up. I inherited the levels because the environments had been built, but this was a game series with a solid story structure from the start, so it wasn't what (Heavenly Sword and Mirror's Edge scribe) Rhianna Pratchett so aptly calls ‘narrative paramedic' work," Traviss explained. "It fitted the story arc, so it was a matter of fleshing it and tuning it to the fine detail of the game story.
"And yes, Epic was prepared to change stuff in the levels to make a better story. That's what I admired about them."
Traviss' involvement in Gears of War 3 goes far beyond writing the story proper. "The game was a great deal more than writing a pile of scripts," she told me, explaining how she developed storytelling devices for the game's environments and wrote up the game's collectibles. She tailored the banter between characters to suit the story and specific situations, sitting in on the "hilarious" voice capture sessions. She even worked with cinematics director Greg Mitchell ("the Brilliant Greg Mitchell"), on the visuals, briefing the motion capture actors.
Having her hand in every aspect of the Gears franchise helps balance the story across multiple media — books, games, and comics — ultimately creating a richer universe. "It's definitely easier to keep a story straight across different media if there's one writer working on it," she tells me. "But it's not just because I effectively became the Gears canon maven. It's equally important that the emotional tone and characters match and makes sense throughout, and no two writers will ever interpret those the same way."
Hailing from a television background, Traviss illustrated her point via long-running programs. "TV is an old hand at this style of writing, because sitcoms and soaps have run on writing teams for decades, but what you gain in continuity you can lose on what I'd call ‘distinctive flavour.'"
That television background proved to be the steepest learning curve for Traviss in transitioning to video game writing. Television programming tells a story in a linear fashion, leading the viewer through the process. Television writers have control over the pace in which their product is consumed. They know when the important plot beats can hit; they shape the viewer experience. A video game writer must take a different approach.
"Pacing doesn't exist — the player consumes in chunks, sometimes weeks apart, so each element, be it cinematic or gameplay, has to both stand on its own to keep the interest going, and also become parts of a larger, holistic process to convey a story arc," she explained.
"Gears is, as I've often said, a thriller. It's not only a who-dunnit but also a what-did-they-do. That's a challenge in linear storytelling, but it's as hard as it gets in a game — because none of the linear devices are available to you. You have to build subtle repetition into the story because you can't guarantee the player will work through the plot clues in the order that they would in a linear medium like a novel or a movie. So where there were key story elements the player needed to know, I would repeat those clues and cues in different ways in the in-game dialogue, chatter, and even collectibles as well as in the scripted cinematics."
Karen Traviss' involvement with Gears of War 3 ended a little over a year ago, when the game went into the technical polish stage. "Then I got some sleep," she joked, but her journey through the Gears universe is far from over.
The fourth of five Gears of War novels went on sale today, Gears of War: Coalition's End, telling the story of what happened between the end of the second game and the beginning of the third. "It's effectively the run-up to the third game, and although I've left a big unfilled space in the timeline, the events take you right up to the point where the game opens. You'll know why Marcus and Co. are in the spot they're in."
At 464 pages, it's a lengthy tome ("by even my lengthy standards"), but it covers a great deal of ground, shedding light on who did what, why they did it, and past decisions coming back to bite fan-favorite characters on the ass. "Pay particular attention to Prescott, because... no, that would be a big spoiler. All I can say is that you'll see a lot more clues, and then at the end of the game, most of it — but not all — will finally fall into place."
There's a fifth book, Gears of War: The Slab, due out next year, telling the story of Marcus Fenix's time in in the Jacinto Maximum Security Prison. Then there's the comic book series, and whatever action figures might be coming out (they need writing too!). She's even got a series of Halo novels in the works.
As for video games themselves, Karen Traviss absolutely loves writing them (almost as much as comic books), while remaining wary of the delicate balancing act committing to such a monumental task presents to a writer with her own career and fan base.
"If you've already got your own established writing career where your name is your brand, it does present a dilemma. You can do specific parts of a game while other writers pick up the rest, which can be unsatisfying but is less risky. Or you can do the whole shebang, full service agency stuff, and that may mean dropping out of sight for two years. So you become invisible to your regular audience and you also don't write as many (or any) of the books, comics, or screenplays that are your core business."
Without the royalties or residuals that come from writing for other media, it makes hunkering down for a major game project a risk, one that can be balanced by the increased profile that might come from working on a successful game.
"Trouble is, nobody buys a game because of who the writer is, not even if someone digs up Hemingway and reanimates him to do Call of Duty. (Although a zombie Hemingway sounds like a terrific movie.) So there's no good reason for any developer to give PR profile to the writer. That means you could end up having to rebuild your career each time you emerge from a game cycle. It's quite a stark choice."
I'll be picking up Gears of War 3 on September 20, and Karen Traviss is my primary motivation for doing so.