Death is an Inconvenience: Peter Watts on Crysis: Legion

19 03 2011

[Since the site I originally posted this on has since gone down, I'm migrating it over to my own blog, since I'd hate to see a good gaming and science fiction interview go to waste. Enjoy.]

Those so inclined have probably tried out the Crysis 2 multiplayer demo by now, and, having been strong, fast, and invisible, may be wondering what else is going on in the Cryniverse. The answer: Words! Lots of words! So many words that they could not fit into the game, and have been condensed, in book form, by a noted science fiction author, marine biologist, and Creative Commons supporter. And so it is with great pleasure that I present the following interview with the architect of Crysis: Legion, Peter Watts.

Or, perhaps more accurately, with part of Peter Watts. In one of my more bizarre autoreply conversations, I received the following after our initial contact:

Thanks for writing. Unfortunately I have been stricken with a severe case (there are no mild ones — mortality, even with treatment, is 70%) of necrotising fasciitis. (You may also know it as “flesh-eating disease.”) I am currently in the hospital and do not have internet access. I am recovering but it may be some time before I am able to respond to your email. For further information, see my blog posting at http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=1831.

Stoically,
Peter

When I went to look, my prospective interviewee had a large bit of his leg missing, and was documenting his Goya-esque encounter with mortality in a series of photos that you may wish to view before lunch for more reasons than one–as one commenter notes, it does look a bit like roast beef.

But though I was convinced that this was the end, Watts’ resolve far outstrips that of his bemuscle-suited protagonist, and he continued with the interview almost immediately after leaving intensive care. My hat goes off to you, sir. This almost makes up for scaring me away from hospitals forever.

Read on for a deconstruction of FPS tropes, the meaning of the nanosuit, and an origami adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So how did you get involved in Crysis 2? Why did you decide to write for video games in general, and this one specifically?

By “video games generally” we’re only talking two gigs spread over ten years (the other was a script for Relic Entertainment in Vancouver that never went anywhere), and in both cases the initiative was on the industry side. People just approached me out of the blue asking if I’d be interested in the gig. I don’t know of any secret handshake that might allow an outsider to pitch an idea to the industry; a number of insiders have told me there isn’t one. You basically just live your life and one day the Magic Phone Call arrives and you jump at the chance, because, you know. Video games. Way cooler than the day job.

What was your project with Relic? What happened to it?

I was scouted to write a sequel to Relic’s RTS space epic Homeworld, and I was actually pretty proud of the story I came up with. Unfortunately, Relic and Sierra were undergoing a bitter divorce at the time, and rather than give up certain rights Relic chose to cancel the project outright. They kissed and made up the following year, and rebooted the project under new management; but I was out of it by then. I heard rumors to the effect that they’d brought in a new producer from California and he wanted his girlfriend to write the story, or something. I still haven’t played Homeworld 2 (I got a copy, but a friend borrowed it years ago and still hasn’t returned it despite numerous requests– I’m looking at you, Dave Nickle), but I’ve been told it’s somewhat more — mystical, I guess — than the hard-sf treatment I cobbled together back in the day.

What’s the relationship between the novel and the game? Is it intended as a supplement, a replacement, or something else? What aspects of the game were difficult to adapt into the novel and vice versa?

It would have been an absolute disaster to simply retell the game in novel form — you might as well try to convey the experience of 2001: A Space Odyssey in origami. Books and games are completely different animals, with different strengths and different purposes. The trade-off is always interactivity versus complexity; the more choices you give your protagonist, the simpler the storyline that continues from each of those choices simply because of the code required to give literary depth to every fork on a decision tree with a thousand branches. But novelists don’t have to worry about covering a thousand bases. We’re only telling one story, and our protagonists don’t talk back. So we can present game events in far greater depth than the game can; we can present events that don’t appear in the game; and we can jump right over those endless skirmishes and gunfights and scavenger hunts that keep you playing until 2.a.m. if you’re hanging onto a controller — but which put you to sleep before the end of the first chapter if that’s all you’re reading on the page.

In the case of Crysis: Legion, I chose to take a kind of Wikileaks verite approach. The book opens with an Editor’s Note from Del Rey that begins:

The following document is derived from voice recordings and technical reports provided anonymously to MacroNet. It is therefore difficult to corroborate many of the allegations contained herein. Official responses from the corporate and political entities involved—the United Nations, the Pentagon, CryNet and their parent megacorp Hargreave-Rasch—have ranged from no-comment to outright denial. Both MacroNet and Del Rey have been served with numerous subpoenas compelling us to reveal our sources. We have also been threatened with a variety of civil and criminal charges, ranging from Industrial Espionage to Treason, should we proceed with publication…

The greater story is presented as a series of classified documents, e-mails, technical reports and debriefing interviews taken after the dust has settled, when all the participants have been locked up in protective custody “for their own safety” while the powers that be try to piece together what the hell just went down. This lets you explore the world of the game in a way the game itself can’t, simply because the game is always experienced through a single set of eyes. But in Legion, you don’t just get Alcatraz reporting on his exploits; you get peripheral characters describing their own interlocking stories, you can see Alcatraz not only as he sees himself but as others see him. And you can be damned sure that a fundamentalist Christian gripped by a belief in the End Days is going to look at this guy with different eyes than a quarantined mother whose brain is being hacked by a neuroengineered virus.

The Alcatraz in Legion also has more of a personality than the placeholder in the game itself, for reasons I’ve already discussed. Alcatraz has a backstory: he has a fear of drowning; he comes from a fucked-up family, he has unconventional views about organized religion. He has very real fears and opinions about the nature of the technology that’s wired into into his nervous system. This all comes out during the course of his debriefing, and the ongoing psychological struggle with his interrogator — the constant jockeying for the upper hand, Alcatraz’s efforts to keep certain vital secrets hidden while his interrogators do whatever they can to break him — this forms yet another narrative layer that puts the events of the game into a whole new light.

Something else I could do in the novel was to rationalize — maybe rehabilitate would be a better word — some of those tropes that make the game a blast to play but which make no fucking sense at all when you stop to think about them. Like aliens with a thousand-year technological edge, somehow using weapons that are pretty much like ours except with prettier colors. Whose body armor has huge gaps that leave their vitals unprotected, who fight us on street corners and in hallways like this was some kind of gang fight between the Bloods and the Crips — instead of just using their advanced tech to wipe us out before we’re even aware of their existence. Seriously, these guys hop between star systems the way you or I cross the street; we shouldn’t be able to touch a tendril on their heads, much less shoot down their gunships. When was the last time you saw a bunch of lemurs take out an F-16?

Of course, if you play by those rules you’ve just made the lamest FPS in history — the boot-up screen scrolls by, a big Monty Python foot comes down and squashes you, The End. The paramount priority for any game is that it be fun to play, and if you have to break a few logical rules to do that, so be it. (Besides, the moment you stop to wonder why all your guns and ammo go invisible when the game explicitly shows that it’s only the suit that has cloaking capability, you’ll probably get fragged.) But you’ve got a lot more room in a novel to play around with this stuff. Alcatraz can speculate about the things he sees. I can insert classified technical reports on alien biology and technology into the space between gunfights, and they don’t t kill the momentum the way they would in a game; they just provide a change of pace and some cool ideas, a chance to catch your breath before the next dust-up. And I’ve got a fistful of degrees in biology, after all: if I can’t come up with a few nifty-cool rationales to make the wonky bits make sense, why did I spend ten years in grad school?

Speaking of your comments about the differences between storytelling in games and novels, there’s a recent article about the Sims creator, who believes that games are fundamentally about players creating their own stories, and that writers should rather stay out of it. Thoughts?

I think he’s right when you’re talking about sandbox games — simulations, in other words. Open-ended simulations are not only a lot of fun, but can actually make significant contributions in the real world. (A recent paper in Science, for example, explored the potential of World of Warcraft to run actual epidemiological simulations that are far more realistic than the usual statistical kind. I’m incorporating that idea into my next novel.)

But sandboxes are not the only game in town. Wright is acting as though Half-Life, Deus Ex, Bioshock, Mass Effect — hell, Wright’s acting as though thousands of popular games simply didn’t exist. Not every title is a simulation. Some games are stories; they have plot twists, and characters, and narrative arcs. Those are the games you play not to see how big you can make your roller-coaster, but to find out what happens next. (Every now and then, one of those games even does it right.) It’s kind of a shame that a dude with such legendary stature would be so blissfully unaware of the rest of the field.

What do you consider the primary challenges of video game writing as distinct from prose? Were there things that proved impossible to put into the game that you would have liked to, or things you could only do with the game structure?

This is really more of a question for Richard; I could only answer such a question hypothetically, because I did not write this video game. For some reason, and despite numerous attempts to set the record straight, I keep seeing reports that Richard and I coauthored the script for Crysis 2. This is not true. I did a bit of consulting on tech specs for the suit, and I wrote the novelization. The script was penned by Richard alone.

What was your conceptual starting point from the first Crysis? How are the aliens different this time around–are they the cause of the virus we see in the beginning of the game? Will we see a return of the original characters besides Prophet? Nomad was a bit of a cipher in the first game–what can you tell me about Alcatraz?

Crytek kinda gutted the jacket text I’d written for the book; they thought it gave away too much of the story. The spoilers you’re asking for would give away even more, so get used to disappointment. It’s not giving away too much to say that we will see Prophet again — the latest official trailer makes that much explicit — but as far as Alcatraz goes, all I can tell you is that the title of the book is a reference to Alcatraz, and it derives from the New Testament. Mark 5:9, to be specific.

More generally, an article I read once–can’t remember where–said that all video games were about betrayal. If not that, what are the major themes of Crysis 2? I’m also curious about how the Nanosuit fits into a lot of your previous work, which addresses the cost of being an augmented (or, conversely, diminished) human: The Rifters, obviously, but also most of the characters in that trilogy as well as the protagonist of Blindsight. Does the Nanosuit affect its wearer beyond the obvious, or change their relationship with the world? What are the political concerns (besides the obvious aliens)–and how do people react to aliens and the destruction of Manhattan?

Of course, the nanosuit was the icon of the franchise long before I ever came on board. I did help give it an upgrade — The N2 advertising brochure Crytek released last year was largely mine, although IMO they carved off a few too many edges. (I’d originally named the Suit AI “SANTA”, for example, which led to all kinds of nice ad copy — “With SANTA in the battlefield, it’s like every day is Christmas!”. But the higher-ups didn’t think their customers would appreciate the satire.)

That said, though, the nanosuit is a very nice vehicle to explore a lot of the themes of dehumanization (hell, even of defining humanity) that I’ve played around with in my own fiction. And you can rest assured that those themes get a pretty thorough workout in the novelization. This is one of those areas into which the book can delve more deeply than the game. Alcatraz is a stand-in for the player in the game, so it’s important to keep his character relatively flat; it’s tough to project your personality into an Avatar that’s already preloaded with one of its own. Also, the higher-ups tend to resist layering too much moral and philosophical ambiguity onto the suit; the suit is iconic, the suit heroic, so anything that makes it look too much like a double-edged sword tends to run into resistance.

In the game. But in the book, it would be deadly to leave Alcatraz’s character undeveloped; he’s the narrator for a good half of the story, his debriefing interrogations form the spinal cord that the body of the novel is built around. So we not only know what he does; we know how he feels about it. We get a first-hand glimpse into how he deals with this bleeding-edge technology fused to his brain, what it does to him, how it changes him and how he reacts to that. None of this is inconsistent with what happens in-game; but none of it could be properly rendered as part of the game, where the real hero is always the guy who plunked down his fifty bucks to roleplay Alcatraz. It’s in areas like this that the book really shines.

As to how people react to the aliens and the destruction of Manhattan, well, that’s something else the book can explore in greater detail than the game. And it really depends on who these “people” are, of whom you speak. A fundamentalist Christian raised on a belief in the End Days is gonna look at these events in a whole different way than a quarantined mother whose brain is being rewired by a neuroengineered virus. Some folks will be scared shitless, as you’d expect. But you’d be surprised at the number of people who might embrace Armageddon. You might be even more surprised by their reasons for doing so.

Crysis 2 and Crysis: Legion will be released on PC, Playstation 3, and XBOX 360 on March 22, 2011 in North America and March 25 in Europe, and are currently available for preorder on Steam and Amazon, respectively. Dr. Watts can be found on his blog and site at http://www.rifters.com.


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