Gears of War carried a narrative weight that it didn’t wholly earn before the game even came out thanks to its iconic “Mad World” trailer in 2006. What started as a visually rich but emotionally vacant series was grown into something much more over the years. There were growing pains in Gears of War 2 as Epic tried to add some personal tragedy to the game’s guns-and-muscles leads, but after myriad novels, comics, and a spectacular third game, the series came into its own as a story. Militaristic and chest-thumping as it appears on the outside, Gears is a thoughtful series and Epic is on the forefront of trying to make characters matter in a sea frenetic action.
Tom Bissell and Rob Auten, writers of Gears of War: Judgment, have also taken a long road to great game writing. After meeting at GDC, the journalist and the consultant set out to work in games. Their collaboration with Epic and People Can Fly is the realization of an ambition to break the stilted video game storytelling model of cutscenes and action. Digital Trends spoke with the two about collaborating over great distances, the post-revolution mindset, and how to tell a story about four characters that can seemingly survive anything that doesn’t seem ridiculous.
How did the two of you start working together?
Rob Auten: We actually met through a mutual friend at GDC four years ago. At the time I was working on a project that involved the Vietnam War and Tom had just published a book on that conflict. We had a long and loving conversation about some of our favorite games, so I thought this would be the perfect person to work with on this sprawling project. We kept talking and Tom sent me some excerpts from his book Extra Lives. Eventually we got to a point where we thought, you know what, let’s buddy up and see if we can do some damage together. We both liked the same games for the same reasons.
Tom Bissell: One of which was Gears of War.
Auten: Gears, Farcry, Fallout 3. All those 2008 games had just come out.
Bissell: It took awhile to get some traction too. That was the tough part. I thought publishing a book about video games would make me a widely sought after voice of reason when it came to games writing, and that just wasn’t the case. (laughs). It took a lot of banging our heads against the wall to get people to notice us. I have no optimistic words for aspiring game writers out there. It’s tough.
How did you guys come to Epic? What drew you to Gears? Did Epic approach you?
Bissell: That has to do with me profiling Cliff Bleszinski for the New Yorker in 2008. I got to know those guys a little bit and met up with Cliff and Rod (Fergusson, former Epic head of production) socially a couple of times. Microsoft called me out of the blue in 2010 and asked me if I would write an accompanying art book for Gears of War 3. I didn’t know if I wanted to do it. I was teaching at the time and busy, but Rob said, “No man! Do it!”
Auten: I told him if he didn’t do it that I would do it!
Bissell: So I got to Epic for a week to work on it and while I was there Rod mentions that they’re looking for writers for the next game. I said my friend Rob and I have worked on a couple of things so we’d love to audition. Rod and Cliff were curious about this rather bold, forward volley of mine. They gave us the audition and they signed us on. But if I hadn’t been there that week, it never would have happened. Luck was the determining factor.
There were a lot of fingers in the Gears of War: Judgment pot. How did the chain of communication work between you, Microsoft, Epic, and People can fly work? Did you communicate with past writers on the series like Karen Traviss? How did it all breakdown?
Auten: For most of the process Tom and I were in separate cities. You’ve got the guys in Poland and the guys in North Carolina, but it ended up being pretty cohesive. What would end up happening was that we would just go to Epic for a week every month. When we weren’t at Epic, we would spend a lot of time on video calls. I have never been in situation where it was so important to have the video part of the call before. The guys at People Can Fly would insist we were on video and insist we look at the camera and not get distracted. It would be these early morning LA calls where at my most laconic and distractable, so it was great to have these European voices yelling, “Rob! What is it? What are you thinking?!”
The end product of that was that we had this intense relationship with the guys in Poland while simultaneously, just by virtue of going there and spending 16 hours a day in the studio meeting and talking with everyone, we had a pretty cohesive dialogue. We only spend a couple of days in the same room as the guys from Poland but I feel like we know each other really well and work together really easily.
Bissell: I would like to say that you can’t overstate how difficult it is to coordinate two writers in two different cities with a studio in North Carolina and another in Poland. This was a game with a lot of deadlines, most of which were met with time to spare. The fact that we were all able to do that together seems extraordinary to me. This was a billion dollar franchise run by one of the biggest video game developers in the world, Microsoft, and one of the top studios. The fact that Rob and I never felt like we were being controlled or told to do stuff or writing stuff to order. They really let us feel our way through it in a way that was so heartening. When we did stuff that people weren’t responding to, they told us we had to fix that. I cannot say enough what an amazing collaborative experience it was. I know that sounds like PR bullshit, but it’s not. It was astounding. Now that I’ve heard so many horror stories from writers especially, I feel like we were really blessed.
It seems like Epic has worked hard over the past few years to foster an environment that’s more inclusive for writers, rather than pulling in someone for-hire and never even bringing them in to meet the staff actually making the game. What were some of the ideas the two of you exclusively came up with that were incorporated into the game?
Auten: The most significant is the two new characters. Everyone knew we wanted to mix up the squad a little bit. There were certainly other characters from the novels and the lore that we could have worked with, but we said let’s just start from scratch. Let’s make characters the fulfill the needs of this story. Considering how iconic Gears’ characters have become, that was huge. People who play these games know the names of all four principal characters. That’s unheard of in video games. People don’t usually get to know the characters very well but these guys have stuck. We totally could have blown that. It’s still untested. We love these characters and we hope other people do too.
You’re right, the guys at Epic do have an interest in working with writers and with us, we were lucky. They really got sort of touchy feely. We would talk about who these characters would really be, their histories. Because of that, people who weren’t really involved in story would come out of the woodwork a little more. Animators would come by and we’d have a whole conversation about how this guy might walk. That kind of relationship gave everyone in the team more agency, more of a voice, in creating what could be an iconic character.
Bissell: An eye-opening experience for me was when, and this was late in the development process, one of the levels was totally scripted but we had one last scene that needed rewrites. We had one more shot with the actors in the studio. Rob and I were at Epic and we actually went through the level with the designer sitting next to us. As we’re playing it, every time a line was fired off that he didn’t like he would wince. We’d say, “What you don’t like that? Well, what do you want? What emotion do you as the level designer want people to feel here?” We did that with a bunch of the levels right at the end, and it was night and day how much better they got instantly when the level designer and us could talk about what emotive qualities these moments should have. I’m convinced that why most video games have this emotional disconnect between the story and play is because the writers and the level designers rarely have these conversations. It makes a huge difference.
Games have that flow for telling a story. It goes from cutscene to play to cutscene. It’s very divided. What’s the solution to fixing that? What’s the alternative?
Auten: You’re giving us the perfect opening for our platform! We’ve been talking about this very subject more than any other subject over the last six months. We’re hitting a point where games are becoming these incredibly smart systems. Linear stories inside of smart stories, the way that games communicate story to the player, it just doesn’t fit. The days of somebody turning in a screenplay-style piece of narrative writing for a game and expecting that to morph into a successful game are over. Or we’ll soon be passed it. In the same way as when physics was introduced in shooters in the ‘90s and everybody needed to use ragdoll, pretty soon you’re going to see it: A much more granular approach, a systems-based approach, to what actually triggers the writing that happens in the game when. That will change the way the game’s are written themselves.
Bissell: Let’s talk about shooters, because shooter stories have their own unique set of problems. The script part of a shooter is like the second layer of a soundtrack. It’s there for mood, for bits of context, but I don’t think the script in a shooter is ever going to be the main source of meaning in that kind of experience. In that experience, the meaning all comes out of the action, the intensity of combat. So Rob and I have been talking about a shooter script that’s modular, that’s context-dependent, and has a lot of variation depending on where you fight, how you fight. No one’s ever done a shooter conversation where you yell to the other side and say, “Hey, we’re friendlies!” Shooter fights that aren’t just here’s ten enemies, finish them off, cue music, move on. There’s a huge, huge place for a more emergent experience in shooters. My rallying going forward is: Much, much better writing in games and much, much less of it.
The end of Gears 3 is a bummer, but it’s also this beautiful condemnation of violence. Marcus Fenix is sitting there, covered in the ashes of his dad staring out at this ruined landscape, saying, “Well, we’ve won. Now what?” Your war narrative has reached its inevitable conclusion. Now you’re going back to the beginning. How do you tackle that?
Bissell: No offense to you, my friend, but I really reject the basis of this question. You know how Argo ends. You know how Schindler’s List ends. It’s never the what of a story that’s important, it’s the how. Just because you know Baird and Cole get to the end of the story alive doesn’t mean that really cool, interesting, twisty-turny stuff can’t happen during it.
Auten: I read that question a little differently. What you’re talking about is, how do you propose anything after that timeline. That’s a conversation we had with the guys in Carolina. There’s this movie called Sans Soleil by Chris Marker that I like a lot. There’s a discussion in it about what comes after a revolution, what comes in the day after. You wake up the next day, and the thought is, “Well now the real problems start.” That’s what I think is interesting about Gears. The were able to end it, but the question of what that civilization becomes is up in the air. This is a society that’s fought a hundred year war against the Locust. Who they are and what they become as a civil society is a really fascinating question. For Judgment, though, we relished the opportunity to go back before that point.
That’s very much what I was getting at. Forget all the character questions. These are all interesting people. The fact that Cole Train became an interesting character in Gears 3 speaks volumes about the opportunity to tell great stories with all these people no matter what. The question is how does the post-war perspective inform the way you write the beginning of the story?
Bissell: The great tension at the center of a game like this is that the four characters the players control always kick everyone’s ass and yet the rest of the army seems to keep losing. That’s a weird kind of gamism that you just have to accept. We dealt with it by showing in the COG the seeds of their misunderstanding about the enemy they’re fighting. Baird, being a smart guy, realized this was a different kind of war that needed different kinds of methods. The reason Helos Squad gets court-martialed is that they go against the COG’s Pendulum War-era mindset. Baird, though, is in a post-E-Day mindset. Like a post-9/11 mindset, Baird’s in a post-E-Day mindset. So the fun was showing that in Judgment.
Epic is this very American video game maker. Gears of War is this very American game, down to the fact that the fiction has its own spit-take version of the NFL. People Can Fly, on the other hand, is a very Polish development studio. How has that Polish perspective changed Gears?
Auten: The guys at People Can Fly are largely a pan-continental and UK-bred crew. There is a European flare to these guys, but they’re also very culturally adept people. Their very conversant in American culture, film, music, and literature. In a way, they realize that even being based in Warsaw, in order to make games for the world they would have to become more than what they might have been. There’s a really impressive cultural awareness in everyone we worked with there.
One thing I will say is that in this game we have our first character from the UIR, which is sort of the Gears equivalent of the USSR. A lot of fun that was had with that was making a more grave character with a Russian sensibility to him. That’s the wink to the game’s origins.
Bissell: The architecture, especially in the first level of the game, is this wonderful mash up of Prague and Warsaw.
Auten: It’s a much less Anglican than previous games. We’re talking about a relatively subtle palette here, but they really opened up it up to different sorts of buildings. It’s gorgeous.