Interview: Richard Morgan on rebooting Syndicate

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Just what does it take to write a game these days? We speak to author Richard Morgan about his work on EA's Syndicate.

 

Just what does it take to write a game these days? We speak to author Richard Morgan (Altered Carbon, Market Forces) and writer of Crysis 2 and the impending Syndicate FPS reboot on that and just how he came to writing scripts for games in the first place.

Games Catalyst:  Your background is obviously Sci-Fi with lashings of comic book writing thrown in. How did you first get into games scripts with Crisis 2?

Richard Morgan: In the nicest possible way – I was invited aboard!  Though in fact Syndicate was actually the first game I was put on, back in 2008.  I didn’t get asked to work on Crysis 2 until about a year after that, and then worked on the two projects in parallel.  But in both cases, I was called in basically because there were fans of my books at EA, and they got in touch and asked if I’d liked to write a game for them.  And since I’ve been a crazy enthusiastic gamer for about the last decade, I couldn’t say yes fast enough!

GC: What does writing for a game consist of, do you sketch the broad outline or write the dialogue that each and every character utters during the game?

RM: That depends very much on what the studio in question wants – my official title on both Crysis 2 and Syndicate was lead writer, which covers a multitude of sins.  But no game studio in the world is going to require their lead writer to create every single line of dialogue, every street sign and random piece of grafitti on a wall.

The idea is that as lead, you’ll provide a fictional framework into which the staff writers and level designers can pour their own creativity and you just check to make sure there’s a general coherence and plot continuity.  In both Crysis 2 and Syndicate, there are plenty of lines that aren’t mine, but what I was responsible for was the bulk of the cut scene scripting, a fair portion of the in-game NPC lines, a fair few of the general level concepts, and the whole overarching storyline.  Which, I might add, was more than enough to be going on with!

GC: How about the game’s scripted sequences, does the writer work with the development team to make sure all the scenes tie in with the storyline or once the script is done are you largely finished in your role with the game?

RM: Gaming is a young industry and the templates haven’t been hammered out yet the way they are in movie-making.  Generally speaking, though, there never really is a “script” in the sense of a bound screenplay-style document that takes you through the game from start to finish.

Cut scenes will get written in screenplay fashion, but you don’t generally link them up unless it’s for a logistics document of some sort.  And in-game lines tend to exist as an audio database into which you delve to edit as the levels evolve.

As for my role being over, on both games it seemed like that just never happened.  There was always some last minute tweaking to be done, some secondary content to create or re-hash, and then of course the publicity.  I guess there are some external writers who will stick to a very tight set of contractual commitments and then walk away, but that was never me – for one thing, I was really having too much of a good time to leave the room!

GC: Were you already aware of Syndicate and the franchise’s rich history within gaming or did you have to revisit those old games to see where the game derives from?

I came late to games as I didn’t start playing until late 2002, so I completely missed not only the original Syndicate, but that entire period of isometric gaming.  We had the IP bible from the original game on hand for reference, of course. And there was a conscious effort to include elements from that stock which Syndicate fans would recognise – the idea, basically, was to make them feel at home.  But really I was already on my home turf.

The underlying theme of the original Syndicate is one which transcends the game itself and stands alone as a classic concern of the science fiction genre. The issue of naked corporate power, shorn of any governmental or social constraint, has been cropping up in SF since the fifties at least.  It formed a major bulwark of the cyberpunk movement in the eighties, and it’s an area I visited myself in my own 2005 novel Market Forces. It’s an enduring memeplex which, in one form or another, I’ve been writing into my whole career.

GC: Syndicate’s lore of faceless corporations dominating the world while waging war with each other worked well as a strategy game but how have you gone about breathing life into that world to make it a first-person shooter?

RM: Well, I guess the personal is the political, so all we’re doing here is taking an individual ground-level look at the same context.  As an agent of EuroCorp, you’ll get to see the impact of your predations first hand, up close and personal.  Basically, we’ve taken the amoral savagery implicit in the original game and hit you in the face with it.  It’s a headlong, visceral and utterly pitiless experience.  Enjoy!

GC: The idea of the syndicate agents, that they are Terminator-like killing machines, doesn’t make for easily likeable characters. Have you left the player character as a remorseless killer or are these agents blessed with their own personalities?

RM: We’ve done both!  After all, remorseless killers do have personalities.  A major tenet of good fiction is that no-one ever sees themselves as a bad guy – everyone has an agenda, everyone has a point of view.  That’s the case with Miles Kilo, the agent you play as, but it’s also true of both your comrades and your antagonists.  There’s no easy good guys/bad guys dichotomy here, just points of view and a gaping moral void you have to fill for yourself.

GC:  Player characters within games are frequently mute – some developers of the opinion that a mute lead character pulls the player into the game by making the player that hero. Is that something you’d adhere to or would you rather give the hero an individual voice?

RM: I’m not averse to the idea of the player character having a voice per se, it’s just that I’ve never seen it executed in a first person shooter in a way that doesn’t either shatter the game experience for me or completely pass me by.  I hate dialogue trees with a passion, I find them clunky and mechanical and dull.  And most of the first person games I’ve played where my character has a disembodied voice, I’m usually halfway through the game before I realise I’m listening to myself.

In RPG format, I think player character voice works fine, but until a time arrives when we have the speech recognition technology to actually speak to NPCs through a mike, I prefer my FPS characters mute.  And once you accept that, it then just becomes a creative challenge to make that dynamic work in the scripting.  And I’m always up for a creative challenge.

GC: You’ve recently had your Altered Carbon manuscript optioned for movie release. Having overseen the plots of a couple of games would you be interested in seeing your work turned into a game?

RM: It’s certainly an interesting thought.  The concept of re-sleeving in Altered Carbon – essentially body swapping – would lend itself nicely to an upgrade path, and of course the book is full of all sorts of cool and exotic weapons too. Whether I’d personally like to be involved in the process is another matter – I think that might be a bit like asking a surgeon to operate on his own children.  I’d perhaps be standing too close to the material to be able to apply a cool enough professional eye.  But if someone else wanted a crack at it, and it was someone whose work in games I respected, well, then sure – why not?

GC:  Do you think there’s a danger that games might become too reliant on action set pieces over storyline? For every LA Noire or Portal 2 which perfectly paces its story, there’s a plethora of brainless shooters which reinforce the opinion held by non-games players that games are violent toys for kids.

RM: Really, I think this is the wrong way to look at it.  Games are reliant on action set pieces   or at least on compelling action dynamics – that’s what people play them for.  And the role of story is to support that.  That doesn’t make story unimportant, but nor is it in any way the dominant element.

You could have the greatest story in gaming history to deploy, but if it doesn’t support the gameplay, then it’s still going to make for a shit game.  The trick is to integrate the elements with due respect for each part of the whole.  And yes, unfortunately that very often doesn’t happen because the brainless shooter market is huge.

Games of that sort play to a big, dumb lowest-common-denominator demographic and make a lot of money as a result.  But the same can be said for brainless blockbuster movies too.  And as for the opinion that games are violent toys for kids, well, that’s just ignorance of the medium talking and I don’t think you need to set any store by it.  The multiplexes are filled with mindless cinematic dross, but I don’t see anyone dismissing the whole medium of film as a result.

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