Crysis 2: Richard Morgan Interview

Before we start, we’d like to direct your attention to yesterday’s article about Richard Morgan. You don’t have to absorb its 2,000 words in order to comprehend the interview that follows, but it will give you a good insight into the man, his work, and why his involvement in gaming is so exciting.

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[TheSixthAxis] I’m interested to know at what point in Crysis 2’s production you joined the team. For example, was the setting of New York already chosen, were you given a rough outline of the game’s events, or were you literally given carte blanche to construct the story as you saw fit?

[Richard Morgan] A bit of both, really.  I came in towards the end of summer ’09.  By then, the New York setting was already chosen, and the team had a list of putative locations and cinematic moments they wanted to include in the game, as well as quite a lot of preliminary artwork which they didn’t want to throw away if they could avoid it.  But they’d also decided to make strong narrative a central tenet of the development, and they understood going in that there would have to be some sacrifices to make that work.

We hung onto everything that would help in creating kick-ass cinematic moments and gorgeous locations, because in the end that’s all part of telling a strong story.  So it maybe wasn’t carte blanche, but something close.  Carte beige, maybe?

[TSA] How much has your narrative influenced the game’s future tech? Have you ever suggested that the nanosuit could do certain things, for instance, that the game designers have responded: “Well, the suit can’t currently do that … but give us a few weeks and it will …”

[RM] I think it’s fair to say that the central fictional assumptions about the nanosuit in this game are largely of my making. And there’s some associated technology that comes with those assumptions too.  But I don’t think anybody was ever phased by anything I sketched out – pretty much everything I envisaged, they were copacetic with.  Things I came up with that got discarded were only dropped in the end because their story value wasn’t strong enough to justify the brakes they put on some other aspect of the game experience.

[TSA] EA have stated that they contacted you because they wanted to attract the best in the business, to combine creative people who are at the top of their game in an effort to create something truly spectacular. This would suggest that they are likely fans of your Takeshi Kovacs novels. I understand the movie rights to Altered Carbon were picked up sometime ago. How might this impact the possibility of a Kovacs game?

As a gamer and writer myself, I instantly identified the world in which the series takes place as very much a universe that is highly compatible with the core dynamics of gaming. For example: in the Kovacs series death is rarely permanent, the ability for consciousness to be stored on stack and re-downloaded into fresh sleeves being available (for a price). Considering that the “respawn” element is a staple aspect of gaming mechanics, how would you feel a Takeshi Kovacs game would play out? Is this something you’ve had discussions with EA about?

[RM] Well, certainly it’s true that I have a bunch of fans within EA, both here in the UK and in the US, and that’s been a very gratifying discovery for me.  And sure, I can see the potential in a Kovacs game where the upgrade path is defined by re-sleeving in increasingly jacked-up bodies.  But to be honest, right now, we’re all way too busy with other stuff, and the movie interest is still very much to the fore.  The option with Warner Brothers and Joel Silver has actually lapsed, but I’m currently in talks with some other people, chief among them a very highly regarded – and justly so – Hollywood screenwriter whose star is very much on the rise and who’s also a big fan of my work.  Which is not to say that a game is out of the question.

[TSA] I’m interested in learning more about the process of game writing. Can you touch upon the differences in approach, style and pacing between writing a game and writing a novel? What surprised you most in terms of actually writing Crysis 2?

Uhm, well, yes, there are a shit-load of differences.  Where to start?  First of all, when you write a novel you essentially do it alone.  As lead writer on a game, you are anything but alone.  As I said in New York, I tend to regard myself as a sort of lens, working to capture all the creative talent boiling around the project and to refract it safely through the eye of the story.  It’s very much a team effort, much more so even than TV or movies, because there is so much more to consider than simply telling the story.  As to the actual mechanics of the writing, well, that’s not so very different to screenwriting, which I’d already had some experience of.  And as a keen console gamer anyway, I had a pretty good idea of what game scripting would look like, so no real surprises there.

I think the two things that surprised me – and pleasantly in both cases – were first, the lack of any fixed industry template as to how the work gets done – something which gave me a great sense of freedom to experiment – and second, the extent to which the writing feels like jazz; the story is constantly evolving as you write and as the game develops.  The interesting thing is that that’s a pretty good match for how I go about creating my novels.  When I start a book, I very rarely have much clear idea of where I’m going, and the story evolves organically as I work on it; similarly, although we had a basic story thrashed out for Crysis 2, a lot of the detail and implication has shifted around as the game started to come together.

There have been some quite substantial changes along the way, often forced on me by game dynamics or simply good suggestions from other team members, and each time we’ve made a change like that, the story has come away tighter and stronger as a result.  That’s a very pleasing – though somewhat humbling – experience to go through, and not something I’d ever experienced before.

[TSA] You’ve voiced your opinion lately that the quality of some game writing has been less than stellar. While some people have echoed your criticisms, others are concerned that you’re setting yourself, and by association Crysis 2’s story, up for immense scrutiny when the game finally launches. Being your first game writing gig, do you feel you’ve placed yourself under undue pressure? Or are you confident that the story of Crysis 2 will speak for itself and your viewpoint on existing games’ plots will be validated?

[RM] Immense scrutiny is fine, wouldn’t have it any other way; but let’s back up a bit here.

First of all, to borrow from Sam Clemens, the reports of my criticisms have been much exaggerated.  I was asked for my opinions in New York and I gave them freely; those opinions covered a large number of games and a spectrum from unqualified admiration, through balanced critique to severe criticism.  Any coverage of the positive things I said about anything was notably muted.

I’m a writer, not a diplomat, and I figure that when I pay forty quid for a game, and the story-telling is for shit, I’ve got as much right as anybody else to acknowledge it.  And in my professional capacity as a writer, I’m obviously going to get specific in that call.  But it’s a non sequitur to say that this places me and the game I’m writing under some extra pressure to deliver.  I’m under pressure to deliver a strong story for Crysis 2 because that’s what I signed on to do, and I have to look at myself in the mirror every morning.

That’s all there is, that’s the whole thing, exactly the way it is when I write a novel.  And I should probably point out here that I already have a career as a novelist – I didn’t come aboard with EA and Crytek because I needed the money.  I took this on because I liked the idea of writing for games and wanted to see what I could achieve in that arena.  That’s what drives me, and that’s what makes me take the story-telling seriously .

[TSA] You’ve talked about how the suit itself in Crysis 2 is a character within the game. Can you expand on this idea a little?

[RM] Uhm, not much to be honest, no – I don’t want to risk spoiling the story experience ahead of time.  Let’s just say that whereas in the first game, the suit was a fixed and known piece of tech, this time around there is far more going on under the surface, and far more for the player to get to grips with in terms of a developing narrative.

[TSA] As creating a game is a collaborative process, how has the relationship between Crytek and yourself worked? Do they contact you when they feel they need something extra in terms of the game’s narrative? When you see pre-alpha builds, is the option available to you to contribute suggestions to the game’s overall design rather than just the main arc of where the characters go and what they actually say?

[RM] It hasn’t really been a getting-in-contact kind of deal, so much as a full-contact experience!  What’s happened is that I’ve found myself semi-resident in Frankfurt for much of the last few months, camped out in hotels for days and sometimes weeks at a time, coming in to work with the team pretty much like any other Crytek guy.  I go to the level reviews, I sit and kick ideas around with the art department and the level designers, I work with the in-house story producer and the animation director, in February I sat in on the cinematic recording sessions and gave direction to the actors…

It’s been a very hands-on process from the start, with no expense spared on Crytek’s part to get the collaboration right for all concerned.  It’s also been an immensely positive and productive environment; there’s a hell of a lot of bouncing stuff back and forth, what if, why not, how about, oh no, do we have to, but the key component at every turn has always come back to the same thing – how do we make this game awesome?  No one’s fighting some misguided own corner in these meetings, it’s all been about throwing whatever you consider to be of value into the mix, listening when others do the same, and recognising where the greatest benefit to the game lies.

[TSA] What challenges have you found in writing this particular narrative considering your audience, once a passive observer, is now a protagonist inserted into the story’s events? Do you approach the structure of the piece in the same manner as you normally would, or do you have to factor in how the player might react to occurrences or the choices they might make within the game when outlining what happens next?

[RM] Not been a problem.  I’ve been an enthusiastic console gamer for eight years now, so I have a pretty clear idea of what needs to happen in a game story, and an equally clear sense of how that differs from a novel or a comic-book or a movie.  As with my books, where I’m writing the novel I want to read, so in scripting Crysis 2 I’m just writing the gaming experience I want to have – full on, visceral, engaging, smart.  Of course, the tools you use to achieve that in a game are different to those you’d select for a novel, but hey, that’s all part of the fun.

[TSA] Finally, is game writing something you think you’ll do again? If so, how might you manage such ventures with your normal novel writing schedule? Is it possible to write a game and a novel at the same time for instance? I know some writers focus on one project at a time, and fragmenting “the creative juices” across ventures can cause issues. Does the fact that you’re currently working on your fantasy novels mean it’s easier to bounce between the two because the genres are somewhat different?

[RM] Well, I think it’s safe to say I’m going to be very busy for the foreseeable future!  There are a number of upcoming game projects I’m attached to, more or less loosely, depending on the work in question, and yes, I am still looking to bring out novels on a regular basis as well.  The fantasy/SF divide doesn’t really apply, for better or for worse, because I find that division pretty much illusory anyway, I don’t really recognise it as meaningful.  It’s all writing, it’s all striving after quality and the attempt to capture something true.

Sure, the logistics of it all are a bit daunting sometimes, but I’ve never had a problem working between different projects – I wrote Woken Furies and some of Black Man at the same time as I was writing Black Widow for Marvel, I wrote parts of The Steel Remains at the same time as Black Man – it’s really just a question of finding the time to fit it all in.   And when you’re enjoying the work you do, that’s not as tough as you might expect.

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We’d like to thank Richard for taking the time to talk with us. Crysis 2 will be released on the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 toward the end of 2010.

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