Interview: Karen Traviss
Gears Of War might not be the first videogame that springs to mind when talk turns to innovative narrative, but Epic is anxious for the culmination of its million-selling series to resonate with players’ emotions as well as their trigger fingers.
Indeed, it’s interesting to note that of the three writers who’ve each penned an entry in the series, two are female. The latest, Karen Traviss, is a New York Times best-selling author who specialises in science fiction. Originally from Portsmouth in south England, Traviss worked as both journalist and defence correspondent before turning her attention to writing fiction. Initially recruited to pen the Gears Of War tie-in novels, she’s since been drafted in to sculpt the script of Gears Of War 3.
We sat down with her and the executive producer of the Gears franchise, Rod Fergusson, to discuss her interpretation of the military realism and emotional touchpoints which lie behind the sci-fi shooting spectacle, why she doesn’t play games and the role of storytelling in games.
Before you became involved with the Gears Of War novels – and latterly the script for Gears 3 – what was your literary background?
KT I wrote, or rather still write, my own military-based science fiction. I’ve also had Star Wars novels published, and some Halo novels – but we won’t talk about that. Real-life military is my specialist area. I grew up in a naval town and all my family have served at one time or another. I’ve actually gained a very large military audience and it’s wonderful to stay in touch with them. Most of them are US Army or Air Force. Very few Brits, unfortunately – I’d love to make that contact with our own boys somehow – but I’ve made a lot of friends in uniform. It’s a very special relationship. I like to tell the truth in fiction and I think one of the things about Gears that appeals to the military player is that it’s honest about soldiers. It actually shows what they go through rather than being ‘mil-porn’, as I call it, which glosses over the human side of conflict.
Was there anything in particular that drew you to Gears?
KT I write novels, but I don’t read books. I hate reading novels, damn my English teacher! I do not come from a reading family; I grew up with comics, radio. And I don’t play games. I haven’t actually played Gears – somebody played it in front of me. To play would kill it for me, in the same way that if I’m a fan of something and I’m asked to write about it, I can’t. I’m too close to it, I need to come to something fresh as a writer, and love it for its creative potential. As I did with Gears Of War. You see Marcus Fenix in the game’s promo walking through that wrecked city, reaching down and picking up that broken cherub’s head. Then you see all the lines in his face and you just think, ‘What the hell happened here?!’ ‘Who is he?’ And, of course, now I know!
With your military experience, does the behaviour of the COGs in Gears closely mirror real-life soldiers?
KT Hopefully. People occasionally say to me, ‘Why are you working on Gears?’ and I’ll respond, ‘This is a band of brothers who will die for each other’. This is the real core emotion that Marcus and Dom feel. You can forget politics – they really don’t care about the Coalition Of Ordered Governments. They’re looking after their mates, and that’s the universal feeling: this incredible combat bond. Epic takes this side of things very seriously. It’s the sensibility behind the game… I know it sounds very high-minded, but there are ethical rules for me, that if I’m going to depict soldiers then I do it fairly and I don’t subscribe to cheap stereotypes. And these guys ring true to that.
Games like Modern Warfare, Halo and Gears of War are very popular with troops.
KT When Gears of War 2 came out, my friend was serving in Kabul. We emailing back and forth and he wrote that all he could hear up and down the corridor were soldiers swearing, alongside the sounds of Lancer fire. It was really weird, because they were in the midst of a real war! There was combat going on outside!
Gears‘ storyline has the Locust, like humanity, on the verge of extinction. Will you afford them some sympathy?
KT I’m not sure Marcus has reached that stage of understanding whereby he could stand back and say, ‘It must be pretty tough to be a Locust’. Ever since Emergence Day it’s been slaughter, slaughter, slaughter. It’s an element I’d like to explore more in the novels though, where humans might wonder: ‘what is it like to be a Locust? Do they look for their buddies’ bodies? Do they mourn? Do they have families?’ We don’t really know anything about them. Yet once the firing starts, humans do what any race would do. They’re trying to kill us, so we’re going to kill them. The Locusts give no quarter because, as we find out, they’re also fighting for their lives. This is an endgame for all species. This isn’t about winning territory, or oil, or anything that we see in wars – this is a battle for survival, us or them.
How differently did you approach writing Gears 3‘s script to the way you would a normal novel?
KT There’s no parallel between this and a novel, but for me the big cognitive change was trying to not see it as a television drama. However much you know about the way in which games are developed, it still takes time to appreciate the fact you can’t control the pacing, can’t control what the player sees and hears. What you’re doing is steering someone through a game, punctuated by drama that will keep them interested. And clearly the drama does matter – if it didn’t, you’d still be stuck with Pac-Man.
Epic has this wonderful cinematic director, Greg Mitchell, but you have to be aware that even though you have this carefully crafted cine, the actual player who’s engaging with that may say, ‘Ah, screw this,’ and just skip straight past it! Or perhaps they watched it, then went away for a few weeks and are like, ‘Where were we again?’ So somehow you’ve got to regale the story in a way that fits into the game, but also reminds players of what they’ve might have forgotten – because very few people, I presume, are going to just sit there and play Gears 3 solidly to the end. Not to mention the fact we also have to recap what happened during the previous two instalments. So pacing is an issue; we’re not necessarily able to use it as a tool to create the drama. It’s quite the balancing act.