Telling the story of Gears of War 3
You may not have heard her name, but Karen Traviss is one of the world’s foremost writers of science fiction. Since her debut in 2004 Traviss has had 20 full-length novels published with another couple already dated for later this year and next.
Included in that bibliography are six books set in the Star Wars universe, six in the Gears of War universe and the upcoming Grasslands, a sequel to Halo: Ghosts of Onyx (yes, set in Halo world).
Prior to life as a novelist Traviss was a journalist and defence correspondent. Despite the rich resume, Traviss has continued to branch out into new areas. The newest of which is videogame writing as lead writer for Gears of War 3.
We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Traviss to talk about the pressures of penning the script for the final game in a much beloved trilogy, working so closely with Epic Games and the act of the playing the game itself.
Part two of our in-depth chat with Traviss will be published tomorrow. Enjoy!
Read our full review of Gears of War 3 here.
Part two of this interview, in which we chat to Karen Traviss about how the industry can take game stories further, can be found here: Are Games the Best Medium for Stroytelling?
IncGamers: Given the fact that Gears of War 3 is the last game of this particular trilogy, and we’re all expecting a great ending, have you felt a particularly high level of pressure from the fans to get it perfect?
Karen Traviss: I don’t feel under pressure from anyone, but me. Everything I write – but it a comic book, a novel, or a game – it absolutely consumes me, and I make it the best I possibly can.
I certainly wanted to justify Epic Games’ faith in me. I’ve never written a game before so to give me a triple-A title, and to give me control of the story.., I’ve done so much story stuff for them (with the books and everything) which has shaped the game as well.
They’ve put a serious amount of trust in me and I really didn’t want to screw it up. It’s just such a good IP that you want to knock it out of the park for them.
IncGamers: What is it about Gears of War that you like?
Traviss: Bear in mind that I’m not a fan of anything that I work on; I deliberately set it up that way. I basically have to keep myself blinkered because it’s important not to cross that line, it’s just the way my brain is wired.
In 2006 I saw the ‘Mad World’ promo for Gears of War and thought “wow, games have really improved. There’s a hell of a story there.” I didn’t know what it was, didn’t know what Gears of War was and didn’t think about it again.
Then, two years later, I get a call from a publisher saying that they desperately needed a rush-job for a novel for a game. They said it was Gears of War and it didn’t ring a bell at all. So, I got onto “Jerry” at Penny Arcade (who is a mate of mine) and he basically said “do it”.
I then did a quick search of YouTube for Gears of War and, what do you know, the ‘Mad World’ promo came up and I thought “yes! It’s that, I’m doing it.” That was it.
IncGamers: And how was working with Epic?
Traviss: From the very first conversation Epic were prepared to speak with me directly. On a lot of other IP’s [the publisher] want to do things through an editor, Epic always wanted to speak directly with me. I was dealing with [President of Epic Games] Mike Capps and [Director of Production at Epic Games] Rod Fergusson, not just some minion.
I knew that these guys were serious about their product if they were prepared to talk to a novelist directly. It was corporate love to first sight; we hit it off straight away. We got on like a house on fire, there was a big ‘meeting of minds’ and ‘vision sharing’ and all that kind of stuff.
IncGamers: Just how much freedom did you have with the story?
Traviss: An enormous amount, enormous.
Bear in mind that I know what is expected of the medium. Although I’m new to games I’ve been writing for a very long time and you have a way of working out what it is the medium requires. Automatically I understood that there were levels and environments that they had to use because it’s the gameplay that’s driving this thing. So, you need to fit in with the game.
However, Epic’s the sort of company where you can sit down with the level designer and say that that gameplay doesn’t work with the story. So we’d talk about it and they’d change it. That’s their commitment and it shows they believe in the story.
IncGamers: What about the fact that stories in games are often overlooked? Not many people bother to find out who the writer is…
Traviss: It’s the story that engages the players. There’s a lot of mythology that’s been built up about it being gameplay that tells the story and that story gets in the way of gameplay. That’s just a 1980s line of thought. Players engage in the game because of the environment, they want to feel what it’s like to be in that world and to be immersed. You do that with characters and you do that with storytelling.
Since I’ve started on the third game I’ve been getting mail from players saying they love the game, they love the shooting etc etc, but then they read the books and started to feel even more strongly about the games because they really understood the characters and felt [emotion for them].
That proves to me that gamers do care about story very much, they just don’t know they care because they’re constantly feed this line about story getting in the way.
IncGamers: Having played through the game, we noticed that there are many more primary characters than have featured in previous Gears of Wars’. Was that a conscious decision on your behalf or did that evolve naturally?
Traviss: There were characters that needed to be there because we needed to explain their own ending. At no point did it ever not gel with the storytelling, though.
What did happen to Dizzy, for example? What happened to another character that was in the books or the comic. What happened to Anya? We can’t have her still sat in the office because the office was blown up, she doesn’t have an office any more so she needs to get out there and be like her mum. They were all quite logical story things but they all also enrich the game.
I know everyone loves the gameplay but the characters are the most important thing, without caring about the person on the other end of that rifle…
IncGamers: Have you played the game?
Traviss: I have to keep it separate. One day I will get the Xbox out and I will play it. I would get distracted, though. I have to keep to my part of the ship.
There’s also the time factor, because I’m obsessive. I really would be like one of those Korean guys; they would have to wheel my corpse out of the room. I just don’t know when to stop with anything and I’m like that with my work.
I’m very interested to see how people take to ‘Beast’ mode, though. I had nothing to do with it, but to me it was like “I can’t possibly shoot one of my kids.” That just freaked me out. There’s just so much in the game, so many layers, it’s just massive.
Part two of this interview can be found here: Are Games the best Medium for Storytelling?