By John Gaudiosi
SAN DIEGO, CA—Cliff Bleszinski, design director at Epic Games, was the featured speaker on the Comic-Con International "Xbox 360 Gears of War Showcase" panel, over the weekend. Sitting alongside was comic book writer Josh Ortega, who worked with him on the Gears of War 2 story, and New York Times best-selling author Karen Traviss (Star Wars: Republic Commando), whose first of three planned Del Rey novels, Gears of War: The Battle of Aspho Fields, hits store shelves October 28.
Travis received an e-mail from her Del Rey Editor, Keith Clayton, asking if she could do a fast turnaround on a military game tie-in. After asking around and being told that Gears of War was "Traviss town" material, she acquiesced.
"If I don't like something, but I've taken the money, I maintain a tactful British silence if asked for my opinion on it," said Traviss. "I certainly won't lie and gush over it, but I won't talk it down either. So if I say I love something, I love it. And I bloody well love Gears."
Travis, who began her writing career as a journalist, said Gears is the best-looking game that she's ever seen.
"The art matters a lot to me," said Traviss. "I'm a visual person and I cue mainly off the images. I'm not joking when I say much of the art is pure Carvaggio - it's all such perfect lighting. Everything about it, from the concept art to the execution to the animation, is utterly spot on."
As a writer, Travis never approaches a job as a pre-existing fan. She said if she's already a consumer of a property, it kills the thing as a pleasurable experience for her because the working process involves dissecting it and having to look at the strings.
"If you come to a universe cold, not as a fan or even as someone who knows anything about it at all, you tend to see a very different world," said Travis. "I knew bugger all about Star Wars when I was asked to write it, and the first thing that struck me was that the Jedi were pretty despicable on the ethics front, and had I been interviewing them I'd have had some hardball questions to ask. So that was the emotional spark I grabbed hold of and used. From that one moment of 'God, what a bunch of master-race hypocrites...' came a whole series. I treated it as a real scenario, not a kids' science fantasy with wizards, and examined it just as I would have done had I still been a reporter. I don't know how else to tell a story, actually. It's much more about posing questions than giving answers."
In addition to working on tie-in novels, Traviss has established herself within the literary community with her six-part Wess'har series. Although she doesn't play videogames, she loves the way they tell stories.
"That's why I'd love to write for games," said Traviss. "That will horrify my more high-minded readers who are still in shock that a 'literary' novelist like me has sullied herself with tie-ins at all, but I really do see games (and comics, of course) as the ultimate form of storytelling, because they engage you on more levels. Novels are fine, they're my living, and I don't think I do too badly at them, but they are, by their very nature, limited. Pushing those limits - creating a vivid sense of a visual or physical experience just from words on a page - is a genuine test of skill, but add sound, images, variable outcomes, and even tactile/ kinetic effects these days, and it's the difference between the two-dimensional inhabitants of Flatland and the 3D world we live in. It's a bigger test, a more complex puzzle. And I love exploring things like that."
Working with Epic Games and Cligg Bleszinski on this project has opened Traviss' eyes to the world of videogames. She said one of the things she loves about tie-ins is the collaboration with people who do a very different job than she does — artists, composers, software designers, audio producers, etc.
"The buzz of working with people who can strike sparks off you really raises your game," said Traviss. "I'm not an imaginative, wildly creative person - I'm analytical, a question-asker, and my fiction comes from deconstruction and observation - so the really creative types are a good foil for me. I need to surface from the isolation of writing my own books and get a 'fix' of working with other people for a while, or else I'd go nuts. Or I'd be nuttier than I am now, anyway."
Traviss said working with Epic has been a great experience, especially given the quick turnaround time she was given for this first project. And the relationship was pretty open, although there were some rules.
"The one constraint from Epic that I thought would stuff me was that I couldn't use Marcus as a point-of-view character," said Traviss. "I write very tight third person POV, no authorial intrusion, and that's how I navigate the story, so I felt that my right arm had been cut off. I griped about it, believe me. But I'm glad now that it had to be that way. It forced me to show Marcus wholly through the reactions and thoughts of those around him. It created a whole new avenue for me. So much about the Gears world is buried, emergent, unknown, glimpsed in shadows. He's almost a microcosm of that."
Traviss discovered through her work on the Gears of War novel that game technique actually mirrors how she writes fiction. She sets up the characters thoroughly, with a psych profile, and then lets them loose in a scenario to see what they do, very much like a computer model.
"It's why my books often catch me out and don't end where I first expected them to when I started writing them," said Traviss. "I suspect this is why I have such an affinity for game tie-ins. I can see much more potential in games than 'reader' writers can, perhaps. It's a radically different way of writing. I'm not holding the steering wheel. I just identify it or build it, and then the characters take the keys and I'm left watching as they roar up and down the road."
Traviss relied on Gears' cinematics and the story bible as her reference points, and just filled in the rest. She said there was a huge amount of scope to fill gaps.
"Actually, everything I needed to know about the characters - and characters are the story, as far as I'm concerned - was in a couple of the cinematics in some magnificent brush-strokes of characterisation," said Traviss. "That's how brilliant the game is. For example, the cinematic in the Raven after Dom rescues Marcus sets up the whole character dynamic of those two in a couple of dialogue lines and gestures. I knew those blokes right away, just from that."
Traviss really got into the world of Gears, going into some minute details that not even gamers might have thought about.
"I really love the whole idea of chainsaw bayonets," said Traviss. "Being a boring pragmatic type, though, my first thought was how much cleaning and maintenance you'd have to do on a real Lancer for every grub you carved up. (And the power supply - how long does a charge last? But I digress.) I was talking it through with a buddy who's serving in Afghanistan, and we decided it would be a long, messy job. Think about it; ever cleaned something simple like a meat mincer? And that's usually just lean meat, not bones, fat, and connective tissue too. All I could think of was stripping down a Lancer and trying to get all the crap and gristle out of the chain. Lovely. And what's the best way to apply the chainsaw? How much weight, what angle, how far before you have trouble pulling the blades clear? What happens to all that debris flung out from the wound? That's the kind of stuff a novelist has to think about. You really need to be curious about it, because it tells you what your characters will be doing for a big chunk of their day...anyway, more of that in the book itself. I promise. Messy as hell!"