I recently had the chance to ask Karen Traviss a few questions regarding her Gears of War books, upcoming third person shooter Gears of War 3, and the new Halo book trilogy.
Gears of War books
Game-Smack Ireland: For people who haven’t read Jacinto’s Remnant and Anvil Gate can you give a small summary of what the books are about?
Karen Traviss: Buy the books and read them, or else I starve to death and that sort of compromises my ability to write. But I can tell you that they explain what happens after Jacinto is sunk at the end of Gears 2 and what the refugees have to do – and where they have to go – during the eighteen months or so before the events of Gears 3. Coalition’s End takes you to the dire straits they find themselves in when Gears 3 starts. This book’s where a lot of questions get answered and the real shocks begin. That’s why it’s also an extra-long, extra-meaty book, even compared to the length I usually write.
GSI: Some people criticised the story of Dom finding Maria and the scene between them in Gears 2. How much did you want Dom to come across as distraught in the books from the incident?
Karen: I honestly don’t understand why anyone says that, unless they don’t want any depth in the games they play. The whole story is set up from the start with Dom’s search for Maria – and of course he’s going to find her, or you’re just messing with the players/ readers/ audience. The clever and courageous thing about Epic is that they didn’t fall prey to the soft option of a happy ending and went for more realistic drama. He shot his wife in the head. He had to put her down like a sick dog after losing both his kids, and looking for her for ten long years, then finding her in a state that would have broken anyone. It’s not a matter of me wanting him to come across as distraught or otherwise in the books, or even in the third game; that’s just how he is. If that kind of trauma happens to you, you’re going to suffer, because that’s what real people feel, and making death and bereavement trivial isn’t just lazy, unprofessional storytelling, it’s also dishonest. When I write characters, I treat them as fully–realised people behaving and feeling how real human beings usually do. That’s why fans engage with them. Epic wanted Gears to be more than just a shooter – they wanted a nuanced, challenging, adult drama underpinning the gameplay, and that’s what they hired me for. I don’t do happy endings either. But I do write reality. The whole saga is about a destroyed world with billions dead, and if you don’t address loss and pain in it, it’s going to be a lightweight game with no emotional stakes. And it won’t make sense, either.
GSI: You introduced Sam Byrne in Anvil Gate. How much of her is your creation and how much was Epic Games?
Karen: Epic wanted playable female characters for Gears 3, showed me a model they’d built for a character called Sam Byrne, and asked me to build her backstory and personality. It fitted in so well with the scenario for Anvil Gate that I’d come up with for the third book that I decided to use her and her parents in that, to dovetail with the game and get fans used to her. The main thing I do is build characters, basically – like the Stranded guy played by Ice T in Gears 3, for example. When I was writing the game, I wrote that character specifically for him and his voice to make the most of his talent. The foundation of all my fiction, regardless of the medium, is character analysis and development. All good stories are about people, even alien stories – so get the people right, and the story tells it itself.
GSI: Who’s been the most fun to flesh out in the books?
Karen: Hard to say, but if you’re talking in terms of which characters gained most depth and provided most surprises for me as a writer in following where they went naturally – Prescott. He’s very layered. Just by working through his choices and seeing events as he saw them (and obviously I knew things from the original story arc that readers would only find out much later) I realised he did what needed doing, and he wasn’t quite the Prescott that Epic started out with. They were always cool about things like that – they had the confidence in their game to let the characters change and grow. Prescott’s not a loveable bloke, but he’s not one who shrinks from tough decisions either. But in terms of utility for the story arc – basically, the most useful character to flesh out and use so that I can cover the maximum amount of ground and timeline – then Hoffman was significant, because he’s a bit–part character with no real backstory in the first two games. (But he has his moments in the third… )
GSI: How long after Coalition‚s End does the Gears of War 3 story start?
Karen: I’m going to be deliberately vague, but it’s something between one and two years.
GSI: How much creative power did you have writing the Gears of War trilogy between Gears 2 and 3?
Karen: Remember that I wasn’t just writing the books (and later the comics), I was also story consultant to Epic. They gave me complete freedom, and I do mean that. We all knew from the start how and where the saga was going to finish at the end of the third game, so Rod Fergusson, (exec producer) and Cliff Bleszinski said to me: “Just tell us what happens to get us to that point.” They didn’t dictate anything, which is one of the things that made Gears such a great gig – many IPs fill in too much unneccessary detail before the story even gets written, and that paints you into a corner. Epic were smart and always open to new ideas, and, as they’ve said before, they like to leave storytelling to storytellers. Take the pivotal battles, for instance. Right at the start, when I joined the team in January 2008, I asked what happened at Aspho Fields and Anvil Gate, which were just names in the story bible. “Other than Carlos getting killed at Aspho, we don’t know,” they said. “You tell us.” It was the same when I was writing the game – obviously there are huge constraints on how far you can go in a game because you have to follow the technology and the gameplay, and most of the levels were already set, but they still gave me a huge amount of creative freedom.
Gears of War 3
GSI: How different is writing the books to writing the script for the game?
Karen: It would take an article the size of a novel to explain how different the techniques are, but storytelling is storytelling regardless of the medium. I find it comes naturally. A lot of novelists who try games find the adjustment to both visual and non-linear media hard, but I had a TV background so it felt like coming home to me. The big difference in non-linear fiction is that you build in a lot of plot redundancy – because the player has choices of where to go and what to do and may completely skip some elements, you have to find subtle ways of repeating the clues in cinematics, gameplay, and dialogue so that overall they pick stuff up. Gears is a thriller. It’s a horror whodunnit set in a war. You have to keep the tension going right up to the final frame of the final cine and even after the credits. Okay, a lot of players think they don’t care about story, but they’d notice (and gripe) if it wasn’t there. A game has to be more than good gameplay to become iconic.
GSI: The books have a strong emotional aspect. Does the game portray the same?
Karen: Well, that’s how I wrote it… and as far as I know, because I haven’t seen anything of the game since they started on the technical polish more than a year ago, that’s the way it still is. A lot of post-recording changes get made in games for technical reasons, and stuff has to be chopped or changed sometimes, but the emotional stakes are so much part of the fabric that the impact will still survive.