Rick Remender has demonstrated time and again that he’s not afraid to embrace the outlandish. Whether he’s writing the adventures of hard-drinking space cowboys (“Fear Agent”), undead vigilantes (“Franken-Castle”) or petty criminals pulling off the job of a lifetime (“Last Days of American Crime”), Remender always entertains in an over-the-top fashion. It should come as little surprise to Remender fans then that Epic Games and developer People Can Fly (“Painkiller”) sought him out to provide the story for their upcoming sci-fi shooter “Bulletstorm.”
“Bulletstorm” takes place on a planet that was once a tourist destination but has become overrun with mutants and killer flora. The game’s tagline is “kill with skill,” and players are rewarded for dispatching enemies in creative and brutal ways, using everything from electrified whips to the killer plants that populate the environment. Remender spoke with CBR News about the game which debuted at Comic-Con International in San Diego this week.
CBR News: It seems that both games and comics sometimes struggle with the idea that a good story doesn’t necessarily have to be serious or realistic in tone. Similar to what you’ve done with “Franken-Castle” on the comics side, do see your work on “Bulletstorm” as challenging people’s assumptions about storytelling in games?
Rick Remender: I do. I’m a fan of taking big and wild ideas and doing my best to tell well-rounded gripping stories with a focus on character and humanity. A good story is a good story; in the end, genre is just for aesthetics and tone. Pixar can make you weep while watching 3D toys run about. It’s all about the story, and for the aesthetic and the rest, going a bit out of your comfort zone is where the good stuff is. The story beats, character arcs and foundation are sturdy in both “Franken-Castle” and “Bulletstorm.” However, the imagination and openness to fun help make them more enjoyable for me to write and I hope more enjoyable for readers/players to experience.
How different was your experience as the lead writer on “Bulletstorm” from the work you did with Warren Ellis and Antony Johnston on “Dead Space”?
On “Dead Space” I came in after Warren Ellis and the EA team had the building blocks in place and I fleshed it out, wrote out the full story, tweaked the structure that was bullet pointed, added new scenes and did a good few rewrites before it went to Antony Johnston. It was a collaborative effort, with other writers passing a thing down a line like a baton. For “Bulletstorm,” it’s just the game’s development team and I. They had the basic pitch, a great starting point with some terrific ideas and I took it and smashed it, reworked the focus and setup, did character bios, created the universe stage and wrote a story that we all spent weeks working on to fine tune. I’ve had a tremendous amount of input, which helps me stay excited and keep mentally invested in the story more than if I was just hired to add chatter or write a few cinematics. It’s been very collaborative while also allowing me a great deal of freedom.
You created an iconic sci-fi character with “Fear Agent’s” Heath Huston. As you were designing “Bulletstorm’s” lead character, Grayson Hunt, was it challenging not to just make him a clone of Huston? How did you deal with that?
It was clear that Adrian Chmielarz [from People Can Fly] wanted me to work on “Bulletstorm” based on my work on “Fear Agent.” That was never really a secret. So I knew going in they wanted a pulp sci-fi game in the same tonal vein as “Fear Agent.” Now, obviously, there are millions of ways to take something like this. In terms of “Fear Agent,” we’ve got an alcoholic in Heath Houston who is scuttling around the universe, making his dailies as an alien exterminator. Heath had to kill off an alien race to save Earth and he’s never gotten over it, never healed. The focus on Heath is that he’s a walking wound. Father of a murdered son, husband to a woman who hates him, he’s a damaged human being who has fallen into real drinking problems. He’s a legitimate alcoholic, and that’s his character.
What we’ve got here in “Bulletstorm” with Grayson Hunt is a hardcore, highly trained military man, a disillusioned black ops soldier who had been misused, so he goes rogue and turns into a space pirate, paying back the government that abused him and his men. He’s much more the gruff military man on a mission of pure savage revenge. He’s a killer. He was a loyal soldier and member of a crack squad known as Dead Echo who discovered that their commanding general had manipulated and distorted them. “Bulletstorm” has heart and emotion, for sure, but it goes in a much different direction than “Fear Agent.” There’s a scene in the game where Gray is drunk, it’s a natural element, and that was the one thing that got me a bit nervous as so much of Heath’s character is his struggle with the disease. But it’s only one scene and I don’t think people will feel the same things from Gray as they do from reading about Heath.
At this point, we know that Grayson Hunt has a cyborg partner named Ishi Sato. Can you tell us a little more about the supporting cast in “Bulletstorm”?
Adrian wanted a Cyborg in there. It was something he really loved, and so I locked down to try and find a way to make the cyborg a big part of the game, not just some super future sci-fi thing that only played a visual role but something that actually played a large role in the story. The rest of Dead Echo are in there as well, they play a big role. The story is a lot about the pitfalls of revenge.
“Fear Agent” aside, what were some of your other influences for “Bulletstorm?” Is it safe to say there’s a little bit of Frank Castle thrown in to “Bulletstorm” as well?
My writing style in “Bulletstorm” is tonally similar to my creator-owned work like “Black Heart Billy,” “XXXombies,” “Fear Agent,” “Last Days of American Crime” and, yes, my work on “Punisher.” Coincidentally, the projects I’m most proud of. I think those book are in my natural voice, and “Bulletstorm” is as well, with a bit of the subversive humor of “Mr. Show” and the cheeky dialog from films like “Evil Dead II” and “Big Trouble in Little China.” I like taking the over-the-top, bestubbled, man of action stuff, and twisting the expectations and traditional tropes a bit. Humor is a big part of that. Getting an unexpected laugh in a tense moment, well, yeah, comic relief is a big part of what I do.
One of the most prominent characters in “Bulletstorm” has to be the planet of Stygia itself. How challenging is it to bring a sense of character to a planet?
I think of the city of Elysium (our stomping grounds on the planet Stygia) as a big “foolproof,” corporate plan to make a Dubai style vacation world that quickly proves to be not as foolproof as imagined. So you drop the Road Warrior into the middle planet Dubai and you have the city of Elysium. “Savage” is the best way to describe Elysium, a place where everyone that’s still alive has probably killed a few people to stay that way. The place is full of various roaming gangs of feral humans with various degrees of mutation all with different motivations. Part of the fun is uncovering the world, seeing the mutant flora and the natural animal inhabitance. That’s a big part of the fun in this kind of sci-fi, “We’ve crashed, let’s go see what’s outside.”
In addition to writing the story and characters, did you have additional input into the development process?
There are a good few big levels and gameplay approaches I threw out there that have been incorporated in the game, which is fulfilling. Conversely, Adrian, Tanya [Jessen], Cliff [Bleszinski] and the PCF/EPIC teams have a good deal of say about the story and the events in the game. It’s been a comfortable middle ground. The game speaks to so many things I love; it’s been a blast to help create it. They’ve really let me go to town on it with big ideas and the kind of blue schlock talk I love to write. Being lead writer has vulgar privilege.
They flew me out to Warsaw for a week and we all locked down the story together as you would in any writer’s room. We tore it up – everyone had great ideas – by the end we’d written our dream sci-fi movie, it just so happens that it’s also a groundbreaking video game. Epic and PCF are equally as invested in the story and gameplay in a way I don’t see that often. Working this way has set apart the better games of the past few years, just never in a FPS. It achieves totally immersion.
Are you continuing to iterate on the story as the development process goes on? For example, are you checking in to make sure the story matches the tone of the gameplay?
We’re in constant contact. I’m sent video clips of the game once a week and then we all talk about tweaks and rewrites. They’ve been as inclusive as a company could be. If something isn’t working I’ll throw out a new level idea and in many cases they’ve used it. You know you’ve got a great team when it isn’t about egos but ideas. We tear things down and the strongest idea wins, no matter who came up with it.
What’s your reaction to the feedback from E3 and what people have seen so far? Do you feel like people are getting what you guys are trying to do with “Bulletstorm?”
Yeah, the news out of E3 was unexpectedly terrific. Everyone responded incredibly well to the B-movie schlock as well as the amazing game play. That was nice to hear. I’m bored to death of self-serious melodrama. I’m pretty sure I hate it unless it’s tempered with something lighter and self-aware. So, yeah, I’m glad to hear the response was so positive. Epic/PCF took a big chance letting me do what I like to do, and to see it pay off was a big relief… for them as well, I’m sure.
Even with “Fear Agent” coming to a close, you’re keeping pretty busy in comics. That said, are you interested in doing more work with games in the future? Any specific genre of game you’d like to take a shot at?
Yeah, we’ll see. Should there be more game work in the future I think it would come down to the team and my schedule. Right now I’m focusing on my Marvel work on “X-Force” and “Punisher” and wrapping up “Fear Agent.” I love comics, love making them, and will never be able to stop. I’ve been very fortunate to work with the very best editors in comics and hone my chops. I want to keep doing that – working with inspired people who care deeply about the quality of a project. People I respect and can learn from. If that’s in games or comics or film, I’m going to be interested.
“Bulletstorm” is scheduled to arrive on February 22, 2011 for the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. You can find out more about the game at bulletstorm.com, and keep up to date about all Rick’s projects at rickremender.com.