Gears of War: Judgment writers on what makes the series special and how to improve it

"I'm not entirely sure a game has been told quite in this way before."

Bissell has reported on actual wars. 'It's made me a lot more conscious about having characters sound believably military, he said.'

In the past, the Gears of War series hasn't been particularly lauded for its writing.

Dead Space story producer Chuck Beaver called it, "literally the worst writing in games," and Gears of War 3 scribe Karen Traviss didn't instil much confidence when she called herself "a writer who doesn't read novels."

Epic Games seems to have taken these criticisms to heart and has brought on Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter author and New Yorker contributor Tom Bissell along with his writing partner Rob Auten - a consultant at 20th Century Fox who worked on Avatar - to pen the upcoming prequel Gears of War: Judgment.

Thus, the question on everyone's minds is thus; Why Gears? And: What are they going to differently?

I caught up with Bissell and Auten in a phone interview to answer these questions and more. After hearing them discuss this latest collaboration, it's become clear that this is a radically different beast than the bombastic slaughterfest we're used to, even if it still contains chainsaw sodomy.

"So why Gears?" I ask Bissell. To polite society it may seem like a regressive move after penning critically acclaimed novels and having short stories made into movies.

"It's just how fun and intense the combat was," he says. "The first time I played Gears seeing these locusts you'd blow apart with a shotgun kind of walked the line between being really horrifying and almost comic. The way you navigated that really delicate line of violence that was crazy but also but also had this - Cliff once called it Gallagher hitting a melon with a sledgehammer."

"I'm a sucker for it," he continues. "I really like how it feels."

Auten's initial intrigue followed a similar trajectory. "When I got a console Gears was the first game I went out and actively purchased." He says that whenever a new Gears game comes out he has to play it day one with a buddy. "It's always sort of been kind of a special game playing experience for me." Between that and Bissell's exposure to the series having written a profile on Gears designer Cliff Bleszinski for the New Yorker several years back, Auten felt that it was a perfect opportunity for the pair.

Okay, so Gears is fun. We all know that. But what makes it rise above a guilty pleasure into something that respected literary folk would want to dedicate a long-term commitment to focus on?

"I'll tell you the thing I like about Gears the most," says Bissell, who elaborates on this in the Gear of War 3 art book he scribed. It's "all these conceptual contrasts in the game. It's a rifle game, but you fight so close to each other it feels like a gladiatorial combat game. It's a sci-fi game, but all the weapons are projectile weapons grounded mostly in the technology of Vietnam. It's a game about these characters' relationships - it's kind of a buddy game - but it also gets into some fairly dark stuff."

"It takes place in its own world that has been completely divided by its human population, much less a major conflict going on with an underground enemy," adds Auten. "There's beautiful destruction but also beautiful architecture. It's visually and conceptually unique. And in that space it's enabled the creation of these very memorable and recognisable characters."

"People knock Gears for being derivative, but in 2006 there was nothing else that looked like Gears out there," Bissell explains. "Gears looked like a heavy metal album cover meets Full Metal Jacket meets Star Wars meets Lord of the Rings. And that was really different in 2006. I mean no-one had really combined those strands of popular entertainment before, so that to me is what makes it cool."

Auten then describes it as "a web of many different threads" or "a grandmother's patchwork quilt" in the cosiest metaphor ever attributed to the series.

This isn't to say the new writing team - and Bulletstorm developer People Can Fly - will tone down the violence. In fact, that's one of their favourite things about the series.

"It doesn't consistently take itself too seriously," says Auten. "Seeing these big and scary creatures come out of the ground is a fun and visceral experience."

Bissell, who's generally socially conscious about how violence is portrayed in the media, reckons Gears sidesteps some of the moral grey areas that haunt typical shooters where you go around blowing people's heads off. "Gears of War is an over-the-top action game filled with lots of larger than life moments and characters and the violence is a part of what I really like about it because it's very explosive," he says. "I would feel a little bit differently working on a game like Call of Duty or Battlefield which I think have a different level of responsibility with the fidelity of combat and human on human violence."

Bissell likened the narrative structure to Rashomon. Auten joked that it was more like Peggy Sue Got Married.

Both Bissell and Auten are also drawn to the series because it taps into an adolescent part of their brains that gets excited about visceral sci-fi/fantasy adventures.

"What I love about Gears is that it feels like I'm 14 again," says Bissell. "As an adult you go to a part of your imagination that you cherish so much from when you were a kid and a teenager - loving sci-fi, loving Star Wars. And making this game that's way darker than that but captures some of those sci-fi loving emotions you have when you're discovering this stuff - it's a total blast.

"The first time I sat in at the studio and saw Fred Tatasciore as Baird say a line I wrote was one of the most joyfully deliriously happy moments of my writing life."

"We really tried to make this a character driven game."

Tom Bissell, author, Gear of War: Judgment writer

Auten explains it's not simply nostalgia because he played the game in his twenties. Rather it's a sense of deja vu from being that age and filled with wonder. "Even as we and the rest of the audience age forward I think there's something really special about the series that takes you back to that kind of place no matter how old you are."

Clearly both Bissell and Auten understand and appreciate the series on a deep level - deeper than most people consider the story of meatheads slaughtering muscular gun-toting insects, I reckon - but the question remains, how will they leave their own mark on the series?

"We really tried to make this a character driven game," says Bissell. "We really worked hard to make Cole and Baird's friendship actually feel like something that's not stated. It's not told to you. 'These guys are best pals, watch them go.' We actually tried to give them more moments to actually see them relate to each other as guys that really love each other and we worked really hard on making that connection something that's actually real."

That's right, Bissell used the L word to talk about two dudes from Gears of War. And he means it too. This won't be Brokeback Platoon, but it's important to the team that these characters' friendship feels real, deep and authentic.

"Their connection is sort of like a camp friend," says Auten. "These guys haven't known each other for very long and they've fallen for each other very quickly. They rely on each other, they are kind of a dual creature and they share brains and brawn between them."

Besides fleshing out Baird and Cole, the new writers are thrilled at the opportunity to create two new major characters. "It's exciting that we're allowed to bring characters this substantial to a franchise that's so established," says Auten. "We've already plotted out their backstories and what happened and why and maybe someone will explore some of that material as well."

"We're kind of in love with [the new characters] and we really hope people will love [them] too," says Bissell.

He then explains that the locusts are relatively simple villains because that allows for more time to delve into these character moments.

"The nice thing about having the locusts as the enemy is that we never really hear about their motivations. They're monsters. And that gives you a lot of time to work on the character to character stuff. Because when the moral rightness of their characters is established you don't have to argue over the ramifications of marching through these endless waves of enemies like you do in something like Spec Ops. They're monsters that you're plowing through because they will f***ing kill you if you don't."

"I'm not entirely sure a game has been told quite in this way before."

Tom Bissell, author, Gear of War: Judgment writer

Perhaps the biggest change the writers are bringing to Gears of War: Judgment is its unique narration that alters based on what Classifications - Gears parlance for "additional challenges" - you accept. Since the game is told in flashback by a squad giving testimony before a judge, there's plenty of wiggle room for how these recollections can be told.

"The outcome is the same; it's not a Choose Your Own Adventure," says Bissell clarifying that there won't be branching paths. "What does change is the narration itself. You're never going to hear the same game narrated."

"When you pick them [classifications] the narration changes. And when you succeed at them the narration changes. And so what's cool about it is that it's going to be very hard to play through the game and hear the same narration... It's the same event from slightly different perspectives.

"I'm calling it quietly, sneakily innovative in that it I'm not entirely sure a game has been told quite in this way before. Other games have done aspects of it, but we've been really committed to this aspect of the testimony and I think it really works," proclaimed Bissell.

This shift in how the story is told could have a big impact on synchronising the storytelling and gameplay that tend to exist as conflicting pieces of entertainment in so many shooters.

I asked the pair of writers how they felt about Halo producer Matthew Burns' assertion that most shooters have bad writing because the template of going around shooting hundreds of dudes is inherently at odds with telling a mature story.

1

'I've really paid close attention to the way Valve writes their games and I'm sick with admiration for them. I think they're the best in the business.' Tom Bissell.

"If you're trying to tell a story in a shooter where you're doing shooty things, then have a cutscene in which the hero drops to his knees and agonises about finding his lost wife, that's never going to be good, ever."

Tom Bissell, author, Gear of War: Judgment writer

The problem is "deeply structural to the product itself, at a level where no amount of 'smart' versus 'dumb' choices can really change things," said Burns on his blog, Magical Wasteland.

Looking at a game "centred around shooting aliens with guns and lasers" or another "navigating an environment and punching people until they died" Burns deduced that "the very second you try to wrap actions like those in a 'good story' that does not somehow address what happens during the mechanical part of the experience is the second you fail to write a good story".

Auten thinks this premise is flawed and that "anything can be done well". It just needs to be given the attention it deserves from the get-go.

"A shooter game can have a good story. One of the things that was really positive for us is we started working with the team here at Epic from the earliest conception of the game. We were involved in the conversations about what kind of game it was going to be. And from that perspective it helped us... We're listened to when we say, 'Can we make a little tweak?'"

Bissell, however, agrees with most of Burns' assessments.

"Matthew's essay really struck a chord in me because I think he's fundamentally right," he says. "If you're trying to tell a story in a shooter where you're doing shooty things, then have a cutscene in which the hero drops to his knees and agonises about finding his lost wife, that's never going to be good, ever."

So instead, Bissell proposes both the design and story change to be more harmonious with one another.

"In this game the story is literally moving through the level. The story elements we're adding and cutscenes are the testimony moments and talking to the judge. The story of this game - what happens in this game is actually traversing from point A to point B. That's the story! We're getting all of our storytelling juice into the moments that the player's actually playing.

"This is a brutal, savage game about a brutal, savage world in which people do really brutal, savage things and it's all is grounded in itself."

Tom Bissell, author, Gear of War: Judgment writer

"There's not that weird disconnect where the story is telling you our hero cherishes life so much he's willing to charge across the world to save it and he's going to kill a thousand guys on the way there."

"Gears has never been about the sanctity of life. It's actually the opposite. It's a brutal, savage world in which people are fighting for their lives. I think Matthew's right in the sense that most people choose to tell the wrong kind of story in a shooter space. This is a brutal, savage game about a brutal, savage world in which people do really brutal, savage things and it's all is grounded in itself. So we're not seeing contradiction in it to the degree I think a lot of shooters suffer from.

"When you're making a shooter story, you have to be very careful about the kind of story that you want to tell for there to be any hope that it'll be good."

I approached these writers wondering, why Gears? Having heard what they had to say, a better question would have been, why not?

Comments (55)

Comments for this article are now closed, but please feel free to continue chatting on the forum!