Greg Rucka doesn't seem like somebody who needs help making his dreams come true. This is, after all, a man who wrote Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman comics all at the same time. He’s also managed to craft incredibly tense dramas in creator-owned series like Queen & Country, Whiteout and Stumptown. But the best-selling novelist still has other things he wants to do, like write a work set in one of BioWare’s video game universes. And, as he recently told me, over e-mail, he wants it bad: “I’d cut a throat to get into the Mass Effect and Dragon Age universes, frankly.”
Granted, he’s going to be a bit busy for a while. The Portland-dwelling writer is associated with not one, but two, Kickstarter campaigns. The first is for a print collection of Lady Sabre & the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether, a webcomic that Rucka and artist Rick Burchett started nearly two years ago. The other crowdfunding initiative aims to power the development of point-and-click adventure game AR-K, which Rucka is contributing writing to. (Ash Sroka, who voiced Tali in the Mass Effect games, plays the role of lead character Alicia.)
In the interview below, Rucka answers my questions about how AR-K will be a game design education for him, the game he most infuriated him and breaking away from bigger comics publishers and charting his own destiny.
Kotaku: You've written stories with very combat-oriented characters like Batman, Wolverine or the Punisher. It seems like the static nature of the point-and-click adventure genre might be a challenge for you. Is that the case? Or are you using other tools in your skill set aside from the things you call on for high-octane set pieces?
Rucka: It’s funny, because I don’t actually think I’m terribly good at writing violence or action. In comics–and in my novels–it’s part of the genre, and often a necessary part of the story. But my main interest has always been in character, who people are and what they want and what they’ll do to achieve that end. So in that sense, writing on AR-K is absolutely ideal. The game is driven by Alicia’s character entirely, her choices and her words. As far as “my” toolbox goes, that’s pretty established.
The biggest challenge I have is, frankly, that I don’t think I’m terribly funny. Alicia isn’t a comedian, but she’s incredibly wry and acerbic, and that absolutely has to come across in what she says. But, y’know, I write from character, and Sergio and Fernando had done a wonderful job establishing who she is before they even brought me aboard.
Kotaku: Aside from the big, obvious answer of 'writing a video game,' what will AR-K let you do that comics or novels haven't let you accomplish yet? How's it going to be different than writing Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow?
Rucka: On Logan’s Shadow, I really had very little to do with the actual execution of the game. I was brought in to provide the story and to advise on its execution as much as anything else, and some of the dialogue I provided in that process ended up used in game.
Here, I’m much – much! – more involved. I’m actually scripting, which is something I’ve never done before in video games. That’s a learning experience in and of itself. It’s very much an issue of taking an established skillset and applying it to a new form, and that’s exciting and daunting all at once.
Kotaku: You've written Perfect Dark novels featuring that series' main character Joanna Dark. Are there other video game characters you’d like to write?
Rucka: I’d cut a throat to get into the Mass Effect and Dragon Age universes, frankly. It’s always seemed to me that both are ideally suited for further exploration in novels and comics, and BioWare seems to have recognized that, because of course they’re doing both, with both franchises.
Kotaku: You've been writing pirates in Lady Sabre for a while now. Is there pirate stuff you’d like to see in Assassin's Creed IV?
Rucka: I think what I’d like to see nobody would want to play, honestly. We tried, over at Lady Sabre (in Chapter 8) to depict a “naval battle” in a somewhat more realistic fashion than you tend to see in movies and games. Nautical warfare is fraught with so many variables, and I’d love to see at least some of that represented, because I think that adds a depth that is truly enriching. But the AC games, while they’re tactical in part, that’s never been their thrust, so I don’t really imagine them saying, hey, yeah, let’s figure out how to code an 8-hour naval engagement and sighting cannon on rolling seas, etc.
Kotaku: Walk us through your video game biography. What was the first game to really hook you? What game do you look back on with anger or frustration?
Rucka: Oh, man, you’re making me feel old. The first game that really hooked me? Would have to be a toss-up between the original Fallout and Baldur’s Gate. I lost weeks, if not months, of time to those. I adore them both to this day, and still return to them from time to time.
"I still chase down interviews and quotes from folks like Feargus Urquhart and Chris Avellone and Brian Fargo, basically anyone who has the whiff of the old Black Isle studios still on ‘em."
There’ve been a few games that I picked up with high hopes and then was bitterly disappointed by. There was a Star Trek combat one for the Xbox a while back that was a rage-quit festival, I remember. But most of the time, what I react to is loss of promise, a game like KOTOR 2, for instance, which so obviously suffered from not-enough-time-to-finish-it. I still think it’s a 75% brilliant game and story, and it so clearly was compromised by someone’s decision to get it to market by Christmas.
Kotaku: What have you played recently and what have you enjoyed about them? What are you looking forward to?
Rucka: I’ve spent way too much time playing ME3 multiplayer, frankly. That’s been the go-to game for the last year, both because of how wonderfully it was executed and because it was really the first time I embraced online multiplayer fully. I’ve got a small handful of friends, and it was our social outlet for quite a while.
I haven’t picked up much in the new release category, honestly, because I’ve been under deadline on the new novel. I did play the new (old?) XCOM, and I loved it. I played the originals and I thought Firaxis did a wonderful job of updating them without once compromising what made the originals so good.
Next up is probably the new Tomb Raider. It’s just a question of time, y’know?
Kotaku: Man, that Mademoiselle Marie storyline of Checkmate… whoo. Not a question, I know.
Rucka: She was all the awesome. I wish we’d had the opportunity to do more with her. I’d love to do a MM series.
Kotaku: You've made pointed comments about the waning desire to work for Marvel and DC, going so far as to assert that even top talent gets treated as disposable. Now you're doing a new creator-owned series at Image and crowd-funding a collection of Lady Sabre. How much extra work is there in steering your own ship? Did you ever feel like you had a safety net writing for the Big Two or is that whole idea a fallacy?
Rucka: I think Marvel and DC both have their place, but comics are larger than that, and I fear everything that’s out there gets eclipsed by the giants in spandex, if that makes sense. These days, the opportunity to do quality work for the Big Two is diminished, because both are more than ever obvious extensions of the parents – Warner Brothers, in the case of the DC, and Disney in the case of Marvel. These are businesses, and the bottom-line is what matters most, and when you’re talking about a creative endeavor, that can be problematic.
That said, I love the genre, I love those characters, and I’ve gone to great lengths to never-say-never in regards to working on such properties again.
The thing about Lady Sabre is that everything – everything – we do with it comes down to the decisions that Rick Burchett (artist) and Eric Newsom (editor) and I make. We sink or swim based on that, and it also means we have to do all the heavy lifting. The current Kickstarter campaign is a perfect example of that; we spent literally months putting together not only the campaign, but also the information and quote on what printing would cost us. You work at a big – or even small – publisher, and that’s work that someone else does, that’s someone else’s job. With Lady Sabre, that’s part of our job. It’s an extraordinary amount of extra work.
There’s another crucial bit, that goes to the idea of a “safety net.” One of the things you trade off when working at the Big Two – or on any work-for-hire project – is autonomy. What you get in return is consistency; you’ll get paid, and you’ll ideally get paid in a timely fashion. Those of us who work in comics, we’re freelancers, we’ve always got to be worried about where the next job, the next check is coming from. With Lady Sabre, there’s no monetization as yet; even the Kickstarter exists not to pay us, but rather to allow us to print the trades, and ideally those trades – the extras from the campaign – will be turned into some modest income.
"...It comes down to this: You treat talented creators poorly, you get shitty comics. It’s as simple as that. If you’re happy reading shitty comics, then I suppose you shouldn’t worry about it. If you want to read good comics about the characters you love, then you should damn-well care."
Kotaku: Dystopian futures are a dime a dozen in genre fiction. What's going to make Lazarus stand out? The sort-of-medieval idea of ruling families?
Rucka: There are lots of stories with dragons, what makes them different? There’s lots of stories with murder, what makes them different?
What makes them different is the people who tell them and what they’re trying to say with what they’re offering. Michael Lark and I are writing less science fiction, I think, than “speculative fiction.” The world is character, not solely setting. That’s part of what we’re going to explore. If you want a longer answer, you’ll have to wait until the book is released. Issue 1 of LAZARUS is out at the end of June, from Image comics.
Kotaku: Can you articulate what comics as a medium loses by giving creators short shrift? Why should fans care if they keep getting new comics about their character every month?
Rucka: Yeah, it comes down to this: You treat talented creators poorly, you get shitty comics. It’s as simple as that. If you’re happy reading shitty comics, then I suppose you shouldn’t worry about it. If you want to read good comics about the characters you love, then you should damn-well care. You don’t get the best work from people who feel they’re under fire, that there’s no security in their job or trust in their work. Respect the talent, respect what they bring to the characters, and collaborate. Comics is, by nature, a collaborative medium. When writers and artists are treated as disposable and interchangeable, the work will suffer.
It all comes down to what you want to spend your money on. You continue to pay for crap, then the message you’re sending is that crap sells, and more crap will come to market.
Kotaku: Your work's been filled with nuanced, naturalistic characterization of female protagonists. People call them 'strong women,' but they're not just tough. Your heroines have been delusional, naïve or self-destructive. That can't be said about a lot of female video game characters. Do you think there's one stumbling block preventing more well-rounded portrayals in games?
Rucka: I don’t know if there’s one. There’s certainly a belief that the male gamer doesn’t want to see/play female protagonists, despite evidence to the contrary. But, like most things, I think fear is the defining factor in these kinds of decisions – fear that money won’t be made, or worse, will be lost. And I think that, like in comics, video games suffer from a lack of women behind the scenes as much as on the screen.
Kotaku: Comics fans know from creators. They can name-check you, Grant Morrison, Michael Lark or Jim Lee as forces in their favorite medium. Are there game-makers—writers, designers, artists—who you follow in similar fashion? Is there a creator or studio that gets you excited when you hear they're working on something? Or are you more a fan of franchises or genres?
Rucka: I’m slavishly devoted to what BioWare does, especially in their RPG games, and I actually do pay attention to the kinds of things they’re saying, and who’s saying them. That’s pretty much always been my focus, computer RPGs and the folks behind them. I still chase down interviews and quotes from folks like Feargus Urquhart and Chris Avellone and Brian Fargo, basically anyone who has the whiff of the old Black Isle studios still on ‘em. I’ve met Ken Levine once, years ago, and he struck me then as an incredibly talented, incredibly smart guy. I haven’t played Infinite yet, so I can’t comment on the game, but I’ve always appreciated his unapologetic attempts to push the medium. It’s why I follow the BioWare folks and the other people I’ve listed—I think they’re cutting a new storytelling medium, honing it, refining it, and pushing it, and I’m always eager to learn about what they’re working on now, what they’re working on next.
Kotaku: Are games a part of your kids' lives? How do you play with them? And where do you draw the line in terms of what they can and can't play?
Rucka: Absolutely they are. My son’s 13, and he’s a well-adjusted kid who knows his boundaries, he knows what he can take and what he can’t, and I’m pretty much happy to let him choose what he plays in almost any instance. He just got a new laptop and the first thing he did was get on Steam and download Tomb Raider and the Mass Effect franchise. He’s playing through the Assassin’s Creed games now, too, on the Xbox, when he can tear himself away from FIFA 13.
My daughter is 9, and most of her gaming is on her computer, as opposed to any of our consoles. She’s played a lot of stuff on the Wii, and that’s been a genuinely good console for the whole family to enjoy, so we tend to play with her a lot. Xbox has been harder for her, not so much because of content but honestly because her hands are only now really big enough to handle the controller.
Thing is, and it’s not original to say this by any means, what they can and can’t play, that’s very much case-by-case. It’s not the industry’s job to parent my children, that’s for me and my wife. We want to know what they’re doing, it’s incumbent on us to be informed and to talk to them.
We play a lot of tabletop games, too, for the record. It’s good family time, and it’s a good way to actually explore other things going on in their – and our – lives. Everyone needs to play, you know? It’s good for the mind and the soul, be it on a screen or at the table.