Video Games

David S. Goyer Black Ops II interview – the white knight of storytelling

Not only did David S. Goyer kickstart the current craze for quality superhero movies, with 1998’s Blade, but he’s also helped to refine and perfect them, as co-writer of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films. He’s written actual comic books too, co-created FlashForward for television, and co-written his own trilogy of sci-fi novels.

In short he’s worked in almost every field a writer can, and that includes video games. He’s collaborated with developer Treyarch on both Black Ops games and we caught up with him at the UK launch of the sequel to discuss his work on the campaign mode and the wider subjects of video game narrative and movie adaptations.

As you can see, he turned out not only to be highly knowledgeable about games, but proved to have great taste in non-Treyarch titles – and also sensibly wary of ever working on a video game movie himself…

So, have you had a chance to play the completed game yet?

DG: No! Because at that point in the process what I was doing got fractured and then I was also working on something else…

It seems to me that video games are doing very well out of their increasing use of Hollywood talent but that the influence of games on Hollywood has been almost disastrous. The overall quality of action movies seems to have nose-dived in recent years, I’m thinking of things like Transformers and Battleship – where they’re very obviously taking their cues from games. And yet they do so without realising that a game without a story can still function very well, but a movie without a proper story and characters is pointless. Would you agree with that, or is that just me being overly negative about modern cinema?

DG: No, no, no. I’d say there’s some truth to that. I would say even up to five years ago it was quite common in cut scenes of games to see sequences that were completely ripped off from a film. You could point at that cut scene and say that was from that movie and that was from this movie.

And they always seem so strangely proud of it, as if they’ve done something amazingly creative!

DG: But now you are seeing movies that are ripping off cut scenes from games. Part of it is that one of the things that’s different about gaming compared to film is that gaming is a much more immersive experience, and a lot of what gaming is is creating this illusion that you’re entering and exploring this really immersive world. And so one of the reasons there haven’t been good video game adaptations is because what you’re adapting in a lot of cases is a world as opposed to a character.

And the most successful one might have been Tomb Raider, which is more about character. And there’s a theory in gameplay, particularly in first person shooters, that sometimes you don’t want to have that much of a character because then it destroys the experience of the player being that character.

I think that the other thing is that there’s Tomb Raider and there’s Resident Evil films and I think you can debate the merits of them, but those have been the only ones that have been successful in terms of box office.

I think you saw my face blanch there at the mention of the Resident Evil films, but they’re so inferior to the games in terms of atmosphere and tension. The movies aren’t even remotely scary.

DG: Completely! I remember playing the first couple of Resident Evil games and I would play them in the dark, with surround sound. It scared the s*** out of me! It really scared me. And I think the Resident Evil movies got lucky in that they had Milla Jovovich who just makes for a good… zombie killer.

You obviously do believe that video games are a viable storytelling medium, but that’s not something I like to take for granted and I always challenge developers to defend the idea. How do you see the dichotomy between trying to tell a story and trying to offer an interactive experience?

DG: There are different ways of telling a story and different ways of conveying information. Sure, if you have to stop and just watch a cut scene you might as well just be watching a movie. Absolutely that’s a problem.

But that is still the primary way of telling a story in video games.

DG: Yeah, but we try to experiment with that a little bit in Black Ops, and there’s certain technical limitations.

What I thought was interesting about Black Ops II is that the decisions are often not obvious either when you’re taking them or when they’ve influenced another event. Was that specifically meant to overcome some of these problems with having to stop and wait while a plot point is explained to you?

DG: Yeah, and also just in the challenge of writing some of the branching narrative – I’ll give you an example of something that was kind of difficult. In a movie sometimes you’ve got to get certain exposition across to the audience and in our game… let’s say normally in level five Harper would come in and give you a piece of information. But if that character died because of some other decision you made they’re not around to give you that information.

So we had to figure out other clever ways of giving you that information. Sometimes it would be another character, sometimes it would be another way that you would find it out. And that was complicated and challenging, but also kind of exciting and fun.

War-themed games like Call Of Duty kind of have a free pass with this problem, but how insurmountable an issue is creating a believable character in video games when even the most apparently affable ends up killing hundreds of people during their adventure? Does that mean that action video games will never be able to tell a story with a psychologically realistic character?

David S. Goyer - the 'S' is for superhero (not really)David S. Goyer – the ‘S’ is for superhero (not really)

DG: We tried as much as we could, it still has to be fun, but we tried to be a little provocative. War usually is not black and white, or at least conflicts are not black and white. And one of things we tried to do in presenting some levels in the past and some levels in the future is to show that sometimes the sins of the father are visited upon the sons, in the case of Mason and Mason but also in the case of countries.

So you see what happens in one level Noriega is working with the CIA and the next level, suddenly we’re in the invasion of Panama and we’re hunting him down. And that is our hopefully somewhat subtle way to get the audience to think about how sometimes people that are your allies in one conflict become your enemies in the next. That happened with the Russians in World War II and the Cold War. And hopefully if we can get people thinking about that even a tiny bit I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Another issue I often discuss with developers, and I think you’ll have a wider perspective on this, is what seems to me to be the general public losing the ability, or willingness, to suspend their disbelief. In both games and movies it’s increasingly hard to promote any straight sci-fi or fantasy setting without it having to be very grounded and ‘gritty’.

DG: You have to decide what kind of story you’re going to tell. For instance I would argue a movie like Toy Story 3, which isn’t realistic at all, is really emotional and involving. It just depends. I played this game called
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP for iPad that is totally old school 8-bit, which I found very moving.

Oh certainly, and that’s a great game, but something like that is a rarity. The general trend is for a kind of Hollywood style realism, and yet by having a futuristic setting Black Ops II is able to introduce a lot of new elements that are a great deal of fun – even if they’re not wholly realistic.

DG: But they actually are realistic!

I know but the fans were still very resistant too it, they were worried it wouldn’t be serious enough or grounded enough. The clear impression from some is that they’d rather have more of the same than anything more imaginative.

DG: Call Of Duty initially cut its teeth on World War II simulation stuff and then we gradually advanced to the end of the Cold War, but you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again. And I think that because Call Of Duty cut its teeth on presenting realism, in quotes… verisimilitude. I said if we’re going to do near future stuff we need to make it as realistic as possible, James Cameron calls it the ‘veneer of authenticity’.

So I said if we’re going to do near future stuff we’re going to have to bring in some consultants. So I pushed for Pete Singer, whose speciality is prognosticating robotics and geopolitics over the next sort of 10 to 15 years. And he consults for the CIA and foreign countries, that’s his speciality. And so if anyone has a guess as to what this stuff is gonna be like it’s Singer. And he was sort of our metric for the gadgets and whatnot that we used in the game.

But am I seeing that wrong? Is that kind of faux realism, which you might say is typified by The Dark Knight and ineptly copied by others, not the current trend? Is it perhaps just a current cycle of fashion, and the next Batman is going to have
Crazy Quilt
in it as a reaction to your trilogy? Does it suggest brown shooters will not remain in vogue forever?

DG: Yeah, I think it’s a cycle. Batman Begins came out and it was really successful, and it had gritty naturalism. And suddenly… I can’t tell you how many movies I was pitched where it was, ‘We want to do what you did with Batman but with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or whatever. And that’s just the nature of these cycles and eventually it’ll wear itself out and a different cycle will come along.

Do you want to continue working on Call Of Duty or go back to movies and use the things you’ve learned with this latest game in particular?

DG: It’s not either or. I mean, I do film and television and comic books and video games, and I like moving back and forth between all of them, and I do think I’ve learned things from each medium that I can bring into other mediums. I would potentially do more Call Of Duty games, I get along really well with [co-writer and director] Dave Anthony – I adore him and we just love working together.

But you know, I’d love to try my hand at something that wasn’t a first person shooter as well.

What other kinds of game would interest you?

DG: I would try my hand at a RPG, I’d try my hand at… I mean all sorts of stuff.

Are you a keen gamer? You seem to know your stuff.

DG: I’ve got two young kids so I’m not playing 40 hours a week, but I play games and I’m interested in games that are innovative. And perhaps some of the games that I like couldn’t be further removed from Call Of Duty.

What do you think are some of the more interesting ones recently?

DG: I thought
Journey was interesting.

Good choice.

DG: I thought it was really experimental and interesting, and I like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. I like BioShock, Red Dead Redemption… I think the thing that you also have to remember is that the game industry is still a relatively young art form. I mean movies have been around over 100 years. Modern gaming… 25 years at the most?

But I think that excuse only works up to a point. The LucasArts adventures back in the early 90s had great dialogue, great storytelling. Even earlier than that you had Infocom text adventures written by people like Douglas Adams. A lot of that progress was completely abandoned and it’s taken decades to get back to anything else that focuses as much on script and story.

DG: Yes, that’s true. But one of the things I think that’s changing these sorts of games is the implementation of motion capture, this is my theory. Once you start introducing motion capture into these games and the physical performances are more realistic I think it raises the bar in terms of storytelling.

Because it’s one thing to have cartoonish figures uttering perhaps bad dialogue, it’s another thing to have characters and/or actors like Ellen Page [a reference to
Beyond: Two Souls – GC] that are basically photo-real uttering things.

I think then people will expect the story and the dialogue to be better. I think, we’ll see. Perhaps it’ll be more that people like me will begin to migrate towards games like this and hopefully the games are successful, the gaming industry will say, ‘Let’s try a little more of that’.

Do you get more or less creative freedom with a game? I guess at least someone isn’t coming to you and saying, ‘We want something exactly like Transformers, and make sure it’s just as stupid’. At least in a video game it seems like the developers are more grateful to be working with Hollywood creatives.

DG: I can only speak to my experience, but they actively sought me out for the very reason you’re suggesting. They said, ‘We like what you did with The Dark Knight movies, we like what you did in FlashForward, we want to up the bar – tell us what we could be doing better’. I know that’s what happened because that’s why they recruited me. Maybe some other developers will do the same.

Particularly recently, you must’ve been approached by movie companies to adapt games to movies?

DG: Yes, I’ve been approached to do a lot, but so far I’ve turned them all down. For example, after the first Black Ops game came out a lot of movie studios were interested in doing a Black Ops movie. But Activision didn’t want to do a movie, because they sort of said, ‘The game’s already successful, why would we risk damaging our IP and giving up creative control to you for a marginal fraction of the profits?’

And in terms of other video games, I’m not saying I would never do it but so far I think some of the games I’ve really enjoyed… one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed them is because the environment is so immersive that it’s something I know couldn’t really be replicated in a film. They tried to make Myst the movie, they did for years! I don’t know what Myst the movie would’ve been?!

They tried to make Guitar Hero: The Movie as well didn’t they? And The Sims? It makes no sense.

DG: I think this a corporation saying, ‘This game was really successful, let’s make a movie of it’. But I don’t think they understand why it was successful or how a movie would make sense.

Is the answer to create something from the ground up that’s supposed to be both movie and game from the very start?

DG: I think so. People are trying and I’ve been approached to do that. So far a lot of people have chickened out because so far no one’s said, ‘At the same time we’re going to build a game and a movie’. Because the movie’s fallen apart and then the game’s collapsed, but I think eventually someone will do it. And that could be interesting, especially if they were not trying to replicate the experience but enhance the experience by doing two different things. Somebody will do that.

You’ve got to gain something from seeing the game as a movie, but what? It can’t be just experiencing the world because that’s what you’re doing in the game.

DG: It can’t be overlapping.

Basically it’s got to be characterisation and story.

DG: I agree and maybe…

But if the pitch was, ‘It’s Call Of Duty but with more talking’ I can’t see that getting far!

DG: That would be horrible. But I think the way that that will be cracked successfully is actually if instead of the movie company saying, ‘Let’s hire a game company to make a game parallel to our IP’, I think it will be a games company saying, ‘Let’s make a movie simultaneously’ and whoever does it has to be smart and they’re going to have to make two separate entities that enhance the universe but don’t try to replicate the experience.

OK, that’s great, thanks a lot for your time. I know we’ve overrun here.

DG: That’s fine, it was good talking to you.

Video: Check out
Call Of Duty: Black Ops II trailer

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