Writing Gears 3: An Interview With Karen Traviss

With the Gears of War trilogy coming to a close, Epic is upping their game in terms of character development and narrative. We sat down with Gears of War 3 scribe Karen Traviss – author of twin Gears of War novels Aspho Fields and Jacinto’s Remnant – to discuss the direction she intends on taking the franchise.
Game Informer: How did you first become involved with Epic and the Gears of War franchise?
Karen Traviss: I'm basically a journalist by training, I've been writing fiction full-time since the end of 2004. I'm on my 20th or 21st novel in that time. So I do an awful lot of work [laughs] in a very short time, catching up. I've done licensed work, I'm still doing other licensed work as well. I've got my own series, I'm now working across various media. So it's not just novels, it's games, comics, various other things. I first came on board with Epic when the publisher at the time was looking for someone to do the first book, and, well, it's an often-told story that I really wasn't sure what I was being asked to do to start with. I'm very wary when publishers say, "Can you help us out with this?" It's always, like, whoomp, let's dump this in your lap. So I checked it out, and when I found out what it was, that it was something I had seen and recognized a couple of years before, it hit me quite hard. I said, "Oh, yeah, I definitely want to do that." It was something very... There was something about Gears that drew me to it as a storyteller. Now, when you're talking to fans, they say, "Well, what do you like about Gears?" What a fan gets out of Gears is not what I get out of it. So when they ask me things like, "Who's your favorite character?" it's a totally different way that I engage with it. What I really liked about Gears was, I could see the depth in it. And also it's this dark, psychological drama, and it's the thing that I really like doing most, which is the personal dynamics of a small squad. That's why I jelled with it straight away.

So I've done all the Gears books so far, and we've got some more coming up now with a new publisher, Simon & Schuster. It's really been... Initially the aim was to just fill in the gaps between the books, but... It's quite interesting at the moment, writing the books in parallel with doing the game, because... One of the classic things for a novelist, working with someone else to do something, is worrying what they're doing with the continuity. "Do I know everything they're doing? Am I going to be able to knit it back into that?" When you're doing it yourself and you end up tripping yourself up, you say, "OH NO! It's that stupid writer again!" Keeping yourself informed. When you get to the level of complexity of this... I mean, it isn't as complex as a lot of franchises, because it's been around a relatively short time. There's not been time to build up the whole mythos. But there's still a lot to take in. It's a matter of... "What happened there? Oh, yeah, oh, yeah... Yeah, he said that there..." Sometimes I find that things in the book, when we come to the game, it's like... "I might have to change that just a bit." Which is interesting. So we're not quite as obsessive about absolutely keeping everything the same. It's a matter of interpretation rather than changing huge facts. But it's still an interesting juggling act, even if you're doing it all yourself. Which is interesting. That's been quite a sobering experience for me, that you can actually trip yourself up. I found that with my own personal series, I literally needed a content manager, not that I had one, because I couldn't remember what had happened over six books. It was like... "Did I write that?" [laughs]

GI: When you were first approached about penning the Gears of War novels, how did you prepare? Did you play through the games? Interview key staffers?
KT: This is the bit that shocks everyone. I'm a best-selling novelist but I don't read. Hate reading. I blame my school for that, but also, I wasn't brought up in a reading environment. I don't play games either. If I make something, I can't use it. I've got to keep a very strict wall, otherwise I just can't write. I have to approach things cold. I joined the team in early 2009, so I've been around two years, but a lot of the story was largely in place then. Even if you know how you think a story is going to end, over a long story arc, you've always got to take the risk that you're going to come up with something more interesting along the way, or the characters won't move that way. It's what I call the difference between convergent stories and divergent stories. The way I normally do it, left to my own devices, is to take the characters who would be in a certain environment and almost use them like a computer program. Say, "How would they react with each other?" With this, the framework was largely there, so it becomes a different sort of puzzle. It becomes a convergent thing, like, "How do we get to that point in the most interesting and authentic way?" Because this, to me, is very character-based, and that's what makes it such an appealing thing. I know the gameplay is great, but if you took the gameplay out and said, you know, the thrill is just in shooting things, then we'd all still be playing Pac-Man. People want a broader experience. Games have got to, in many ways, compete with movies. So characters are central to it. What drives a story in a lot of ways... We often sit down and say, "Would Marcus really do that? How would Marcus react to that? How would Cole react to that?" So you're not pushing the characters into places they won't go. There is real respect for what the characters would do, and I think that's what gives it its depth. That, for me, is what makes it easy to write. Because it isn't contrived, because it is about, "What would that person do?" We know this about their background, we know their motivations, and this is a logical thing that they would do, this is how they would react to it.

One of the powerful things about Gears is, the visual style defines so much else. It isn't just a matter of you knowing what things would look like. Somehow, almost like a hologram, the whole is in the facet. I can look at Gears and not only do you know what the world looks like, you know how the people react. And it's almost as if it requires no thought, it's a sort of hive-mind thing. The number of times we've all come up with the same thing quite separately and not known it, almost to the word, is really quite spooky. There's obviously a real cognitive process going on there that makes us do it. But there is this Gears mindset. That's obviously what the player picks up, that there's resonance, it's immersive. But for us it's exactly the same way. Considering that I don't play games, and I deliberately now will not play games, because then I'll become someone who actually consumes the product and engages it differently, it's interesting that I often see what players see. I will sit down with people I know who play and say, "What's important to you in the game? What vibe?" It isn't "What color do you want that to be?", "What do you want this shotgun to do?", it isn't that sort of thing, it's, "What feeling does it produce in you?" Because that, for me, is the essence of the game. Why do people choose that game? What is it that lights them up and gets them sitting there for hours at a time? Ultimately, how do they feel about it when they're sat there playing it? If they can articulate that to me, then that takes me a lot further forward. A lot of them just love the characters.

GI: Is this your first time working on a video game?

KT: Yes, this is my first game. I've been extremely brave... [laughs]

GI: How is the process different? Do you enjoy it more or less than traditional authoring work?

KT: I like working with a team. Writing is a very lonely business. The effort of just shutting the door and sitting down to bash out a long book, 180,000 words, mine come out to 150,000-180,000 words, that's a big book, on your own, it's the hamster wheel syndrome. Just to spend some time interacting with other creative people with totally different skills, it's what I need to recharge. So it's enormous fun. One, to be challenged, second, to be told "No." [laughter] "You can't do that!" You know what I mean? Just knocking these things around. I used to work in TV, I'm used to being in a busy newsroom. So to be back with a bunch of people who challenge you and push you, and move you outside your comfort zone, that's really critical to me. In terms of the process, everyone says to me, "It must be an awful lot different from writing novels." Yeah, but that isn't the comparison. The real surprise for me, and the habit I've got to get out of, is that it's not like television. It looks like television, but it ain't television, because you've got no control over the pace. You've got no control of when the player comes back to it. They may come back to something weeks later, months later, they may stop it halfway through. So all the classical things about visual storytelling and pacing are out the window. The most you can do is make the cinematics really well. And then you can't stop them from quitting halfway through or skipping them. That's the most that you can do, and everything else is, you have to cover all the bases. I find that technical challenge really stimulating. I'm not entirely sure I've got it all right yet, but...

GI: Can you give us the short-form preview of the story that you are trying to tell in Gears of War 3?

KT: Ah... I suppose when I'm summing it up to people, I say, "Things started out pretty bad. Then they got worse. Now they've gone to complete and utter disaster." Which isn't the word I normally use, unfortunately, but things are about as bad as they can get. It's one of those situations, and I think people have often been in it, where you think, "Things have bottomed out now. This is as bad as life is going to get." And then it just surprises you. The characters take punch after punch after punch, and then they think they've really hit rock bottom...but they can go even further. I suppose it's a sort of triumph of human will, in a way, just to keep going, just to make it through the next day, because they've lost everything. And even when they've lost everything, even more is taken from them, the structure of their society, everyone there, seeing their population dwindle. And yet they keep going. Someone once said to me, "Do you ever do cheerful stories?" I said, "Well, this to me is a cheerful story, in that it shows that people can survive and stay human in the most appalling situations." That makes it sound very serious and intellectual, but... If you sort of look at the end of the second game, to think that that wasn't as bad as it got is just pretty sobering.

GI: Marcus’ father, Adam Fenix, seems to play a much larger role in this game. Can you speak to that aspect of the story a bit?

KT: Quite some time before I knew I was writing the game, I'd said in a very jealous storyteller way, the really great story in Gears of War is that Marcus thinks his father's dead and then he isn't. You think that's good news, but the real shock, for real people who've grieved for someone, particularly under those circumstances, where Marcus feels that he didn't save his father. And then finally he's alive, he's going to be very conflicted, have terrible feelings. It's such a powerful, powerful thing. And from a novelist's perspective, actually, a really tasty thing to get my teeth into. I wasn't expecting to be able to do it. Everyone has suffered so badly and lost everyone, they've got this squad, and the extended squad around it, just clinging to each other. It isn't about the bigger picture.

Maybe for Adam Fenix it is, because he's the guy that sees the wider view of saving the planet. If you've seen the second book, you see an insight into Adam's motive, that he's got these high-minded views about saving the world from war by creating the ultimate weapon. But Marcus sees it as a matter of saving every individual person he can. You just can't, you literally, you can't save them all. And they've got to start picking who they save and who they don't save. That's a terrible decision to make. And of course Dom is in a dreadful state, this is a man who shot his wife in the head. After devoting his entire life for ten years to finding her, every waking moment. And then having to do that. How does he cope? How does he cope when that finally sinks in, when the shock wears off? These are enormous emotional states. What motivates him now, what keeps him going? This is all good solid dramatic meat. People say to me, "Where's the story in Gears of War?" And I say, "If you can't see the story... If you just take one character and look at the hell they've been through, if you can't see the human drama in that, then you might be looking in the wrong place." There's a lot of story in it, which is what appealed to me initially, just from that first promo. My reaction seeing it was not, "Isn't that lovely graphics?" It was, "Who is that bloke and what's happened to his home?" Because you could see the whole... The whole story was distilled in that, that they had lost everything. That they had once had some sort of civilization and everything was going downhill.

GI: What type of a story are you trying to tell in Gears 3? The first Gears introduced the world and the characters. Gears 2 felt much more personal – exploring aspects of Marcus and Dom’s relationship in a brothers-in-arms way. Is there an overriding theme or direction for Gears 3 that you are looking to explore?

KT: It really depends which day you ask me, because I look at different facets of it on different days according to which level I'm working on. But it's very much about who you end up saving. Is Marcus saving his father, or is he saving the world? And does it really matter? What his motives are? It's whether a small group of people can make a difference to a planet. This is a handful of people trying to save a planet that's lost billions. You can keep peeling off the onion layers about what the story really means, but in the end, sometimes I think, "Is this about the responsibility of the individual?" That if you want to be a hero, if you want to try... I mean, Marcus would never see himself as a hero. He just does not see himself as a hero. He's a guy who does what needs to be done for the people he loves. And even for strangers that he doesn't know, but that he thinks he should care about. By making those individual choices, about putting his life on the line, he actually makes a difference to the world around him. And so do all the squad members. It all adds up, so that individual people matter.

GI: Are they more familial now, do you think, these characters?

KT: Well, these are guys, for the most part, who've been in the services since they were 18. Some of them younger. This is their structure. Their world was split up into this very ordered, literally ordered government. It's gradually been eroded and now it's fragmented and people are going off in different tribes. But the Gears stick together. They're on this ship. They need this structure, they actually like that kinship. You ask anyone who's been in uniform, and the sense of comradeship and family is overwhelming. It can actually be stronger than real family. Because it's forged in combat, and that's a very powerful thing. Guys can be closer, and girls, can be closer to people that they've served with than to their spouse. It isn't just that they're surviving and it isn't just that they're cooped up on this ship, it's that they've been basically forged into a family, a sort of wider family, on this crowded ship. But the immediate squad, yeah. They're about as close as you can get. They know everything about each other, they've seen each other's highs and lows. There's nothing more to know about each other, really. Although Marcus still manages to hold a bit back. He's the one that's got these unknowable bits in him. Even Baird, not the most socially able of God's creatures, has become part of that family, in a spiky sort of way. I mean, he's still, his mouth is still going, but he's actually mellowed, because he's been battered and battered and battered with the rest of them.

And this is Marcus's second chance, too. He feels he failed to save his father the first time around, and it cost other men's lives. Now he's got a second chance to save his father, and he's probably got a second chance to save all of it. It's interesting... I haven't reached any sort of conclusion yet as to whether he's conscious of his father, more than the world, because he sort of rationalizes it, saying, "We've got to get to my father." But he actually does talk in terms of, "I'm going to save him, I'm going to save the world." So it's... The interesting thing about writing Marcus is that you only get the view that his friends get. You're never inside his head. Initially this was... Not being able to do the inside-the-head thing for Marcus, I thought, "How am I going to cope with this?" Because that's not how I normally write characters. But just to see Marcus as glimpsed by the others actually gives you quite a full picture of him. I'm not sure if it's necessarily the picture he's got of himself, but then you never know that. Because you never fully get inside his head. By his deeds, you effectively know him. You only see Marcus how he's perceived by others; you never see how he perceives himself.

GI: Obviously, with the conclusion of any property, there are a lot of questions left to answer. Is it a difficult challenge to organically tie up all these loose ends in the final game?

KT: It’s sort of working out what people need to know, to get the most of of a story, isn’t it? Because you don’t necessarily need to have every answer. You might not want to blow all the answers. You just don’t know whether people need all that information. And part of the fun is people working it out, I mean the amount of speculation that goes on beyond the product, that’s part of the thrill of it. We do want to try to provide some answers, and some of it, like we were saying earlier, some of it is necessary because it’s a lingering open question, but some of it... The origins of the Locust, as an example, it’s something that, if you demystify that it takes away their power. So that’s not something we want to do, we don’t want to demystify that. But what is the deal with Adam and Myrrah, and what is the deal with Marcus and Adam, and all that kind of stuff, absolutely, because that helps you to understand the depth of those characters more. Getting those relationships. And we try to do it in a non-monologueing... You know, explaining the whole story. We’re trying to do it in a meaningful, layered way, trying to reveal bits along the way, so that you can come to the conclusions as you’re going along as well.
blog comments powered by Disqus