Published on November 22nd, 2012 |
by Patrick Harkin
Panels to Pads: An Interview with the Writer of ZombiU
This weekend was Thought Bubble, a Leeds-based convention celebrating all the visual arts (but mostly comics). The Royal Armouries threw open its doors to play host to everyone from fans and aspiring creators to world-class creative talent across a whole spectrum of media. I got the chance to pin down and savagely interview Antony Johnston, writer not only of comics like Daredevil, Wasteland and the Alex Rider graphic novels, but video games like Dead Space and Binary Domain.
Antony Johnston: And ZombiU
Patrick Harkin: Oh, and ZombiU? It wasn’t on your Wikipedia page – yet.
AJ: [laughs] My Wikipedia page is so inaccurate! You’re not allowed to edit it yourself.
PH: With ZombiU coming up soon, do you want to take the opportunity to plug it and tell us how excited we should be?
AJ: I am genuinely excited. It’s one of the best work experiences I’ve ever had. I was given a lot freedom and they took a lot of my ideas on board. Some of those ideas impacted game mechanics, which is rare, and also it’s just a great game. I’ve played it, or bits of it, at the studio. It’s bloody hard! I’m no good at FPS’s with twin sticks; I need a mouse and keyboard. I’m too old. I die within three or four minutes every time. We’ve come up with a really good mythology for it and a lot of people are excited. We’ve just launched the webcomic, which counts down to the release of the game; I wrote that along with Gabrielle [Shrager]. I really hope people enjoy it. We’ve desperately tried to make a game that feels like old-school survival horror. It’s not a run-and-gun action game which happens to have zombies. It is a proper, difficult, creepy survival horror and I really hope people enjoy it.
PH: So, you write for both comics and games. Could you share your thoughts on the differences of the role of the writer between the industries?
AJ: The main difference is simply that most of the time you write comics you are the originator of the story, idea and characters. Depending on how involved the editor gets, you are quite often also the final authority although that depends on the comic, if it’s an indie comic you own or a big corporate-owned one from Marvel or DC. You have a lot more power of control in comics, whereas in games you’re often not the actual originator of game concepts and ideas. You are working to somebody else’s plan, but that’s not to say you can’t make some decisions, that you don’t have some control or that it’s not enjoyable. And this is the thing – sometimes there is a lot of fun in the challenge of working to somebody else’s vision or plan.
PH: Do you think there’s been more of a movement towards looking at games as a narrative delivery platform?
AJ: Exactly, we’re brought in earlier and we’re given more control and creative power. In ZombiU there are elements of the gameplay that were influenced by the narrative that myself and the story director Gabrielle Shrager came up with. I think five years ago that would have been inconceivable, but they were willing to look at it, they assessed whether it would work and decided that it would. It’s a good time and I do enjoy working in both industries. Yes, you have more control in comics; no question. But writing for interactive games is so different from any other kind of writing, and I really enjoy it.
PH: There are still lots of horror stories about writers being brought in on projects that were eighty percent done and just being told to staple finished levels together using cutscenes. Has that happened to you?
AJ: Absolutely. I’ve been involved in projects like that and it does happen. It’s a fact of life in the industry but things are getting better, a lot. I’ve been writing games for six years and even in that short time, I’ve seen the role of writers improve, and the way that writers are treated has improved in the industry. We’re generally brought in a lot earlier now.
PH: Do you write your characters differently in games than in comics? On the one hand you’ve got comics, where there are a lot of established characters like Daredevil who have been fleshed out before you even start, but then you have gaming which often has the idea of the main character as a blank slate for the player.
AJ: It depends on the game. If you look at something like Uncharted, Nathan Drake is definitely not a blank slate.
PH: No; he’s Nathan Fillion!
AJ: [laughs] Yeah, kind of. But he’s a very rounded and well-developed character in his own right. It depends on a lot of the sort of game you’re making, but you’re right that it is more common in games. But that’s what NPC’s are for – that’s where you focus your energy. We did this in ZombiU. Because of the perma-death mechanic, we spent a lot of time working on the characters that you will meet, various survivors over the course of the game. That way they can tell the story to ‘the player’, rather than to any sort of player character.
PH: ZombiU isn’t your first horror game; you wrote the first Dead Space game. What was your involvement in the rest of the series?
AJ: I did everything around Dead Space 2, but not the game itself. I did Dead Space: Extraction, which was the Wii game; I did the tie-in comics, the graphic novel, the XBLA game Dead Space: Ignition, the iPhone game… Dead Space 3 I’m not involved with at all, but I have become quite good friends with Jeremy Bernstein, who wrote Dead Space 2 and is mainly a TV writer. He’s staff on Leverage now, so I think he’s too busy to be involved in Dead Space 3.
PH: After you did Dead Space – a horror-action game with a very oppressive atmosphere – you did Binary Domain, which was a world away. It was part of this sub-sub-genre of Japanese takes on Gears of War. Binary Domain, Quantum Theory –
PH: – Vanquish, right – and they all approach the Gears of War ‘thing’ from a different cultural direction and it always turns out interesting. I actually really liked Binary Domain. It was solid mechanically, had a compelling ‘who do you trust?’ kind of story line and the mechanics fed back into the characters. What was it like working on that sort of project?
AJ: Well, I was brought on fairly early to Binary Domain, but there was already a rough story in place. It was very rough and my job was to take that story and polish it up, turn it into something that felt like a Western story and then write the script. I did that and it was a very interesting challenge because a lot of the previous story was so Japanese. And I’ve said before, there’s no denying there were culture clashes going on. There remit was that they wanted to make a game that felt like it had been developed by a Western studio and there were a few instances where I was pointing out that what they were doing didn’t feel like what a Western studio would do. We had a bit of back and forth and in some cases they agreed, but in others they disagreed. That’s why the game has this strange, quite unique feel of East-meets-West. In the end, I’m proud of the game. It came from a unique creative perspective, a unique culture clash and the result is unique.
PH: You were saying early about how narrative influenced the mechanics in ZombiU and one of the things I liked about Binary Domain was the way that character and gameplay interacted, especially with your performance in combat. I remember there was one part where I’d gotten the bulletproof riot shield and the pistol, so I had to go for a lot of headshots to compensate. Faye, the team sniper, just fell in love with me over that. She was going ‘hey, you’re a really good shot! I like that!’ which made me stop and think ‘wait, she would, wouldn’t she?’
AJ: Exactly. A lot of credit for that must go to Nigoshi-san and the programmers in the AI team. A lot of that may have been a great idea, but it wouldn’t have been possible without really good programmers and someone like Nigoshi-san really insisting and driving it home that this sort of element was important. While I did write lines for that sort of thing, I can’t claim full credit. It’s a really great example of narrative and mechanics meshing.
PH: Great, thanks for talking with us, Antony.
Ubisoft’s ZombiU is released in the UK on November 30th on the Wii U. Antony Johnston’s official website is here, and his most recent graphic novel, The Coldest City, is a spy thriller set in a divided Berlin and available now from Oni Press.