First thing’s first. “X-Men: Schism” #1 is out now. Go buy that shit. It’s a big, crazy story about mutants fighting giant robots and it will set the course for the X-Universe for the foreseeable future. A future that will include me, as well as my guest today.
Rick Remender is one of the hottest writers in comics, currently tearing up all kinds of shit in the pages of the hit series “Uncanny X-Force” and “Venom.” He is also to blame for “Bulletstorm,” a first person shooter video game released earlier this year by Epic Games that at the time was dubbed by none other than our good friends at Fox News as “the worst video game in the world.”
And “Bulletstorm” wasn’t Rick’s first foray into the world of video games. It’s that side of his career that I wanted to talk with him about.
Jason Aaron: So, I know you’ve worked a lot in animation, you’ve drawn comics, I hear you’ve even written a few, but I wanted to talk to you about your video game work. How did you first get involved with writing for video games?
Rick Remender: In 2004 I took a job as a storyboard artist working in-house and Electronic Arts in Redwood Shores, which is just south of San Francisco. I worked on the videogame adaptation of “007: From Russia with Love.” It was great because they got Sean Connery to come back and revise 007 for it. It was a fun project. At one point, as they were preparing our animatics for Sean Connery to watch as he did his voice tracks, the guy putting together the animatic needed someone to put a scratch track over the animatic for Mr. Connery, to simplify timing and placement issues. I jokingly did my Sean Connery impression, which is really just Will Ferrell from the old SNL sketches, and as it turns out I do the world’s worst Sean Connery impression. So I was the guy they had do all of these scratch tracks. So while Mr. Connery was reading his lines he would first have to listen to me deliver them in a bastardized version of his voice. Career highlight.
Shortly after this they offered me a position storyboarding on the Simpsons. I had been working full time at EA, penciling a book for Dark Horse, and writing four books for IDW and Image and it had almost killed me. I couldn’t do it anymore. So I had to make a choice if I was going to stay in-house with all of the money and sweet benefits or if I was going to continue to fight out my comic book career. We chose comic books and moved up to Portland where it is a little more affordable to give comic booking one final try.
During my time in-house at Electronic Arts I got to know most of the team who would eventually create Dead Space. So right after we moved to Portland, they contacted me and I was hired as one of the writers on that game. That was my first writing job for video games.
Were you already a guy who played games? Do you still? Would you like to play me in a game of Centipede?
Yeah, I’ve always had a video game going. At the time I was playing a lot of a game called “SoCom” on the PlayStation 2, this eventually led to my playing quite a bit of “Call of Duty.” I haven’t had a whole lot of time to play games lately but I did recently make it through “Portal II” which was my favorite game ever.
As long as the game of “Centipede” you’re proposing we engage in is the electronic version and it’s not some euphemism for one of your hillbilly, moon shine, grease ‘im up, yellow-toothed, pig jiggling, forced rear entry in a dark barn with cobwebs as my only handkerchief, hoedowns… count me in.
What would you say is the biggest difference between writing for comics and writing for video games?
You have to be mindful of how your dialogue actually sounds when spoken aloud. On the game I finished last year, “Bulletstorm,” I was using a very strange cadence. The main characters were space pirates and I wanted them to have a very salty tone, one that was a bit unique. Given that this is in the far future I wanted it to sound like cursing had evolved. So writing a game, like a screenplay, comes with a second task of reading the lines aloud to see if they work. I would go through and write a level of the videogame and then I’d have Final Draft read it back to me. Sometimes hearing that cold robotic voice read back the dialogue would help me catch things that didn’t sound as good aloud as they did on paper. So I’d go through and adjust and then I’d give it a read myself trying to imagine how the voice actors might deliver the lines. I usually readjusted and self-edited about five passes before turning it.
In game writing, a lot of the time you’re trying to fit in character moments and story into a level of gaming that’s already been designed. So you’re trying to add a narrative track over what is already a playable maze or fighting sequence or whatever. That’s not to say that the games aren’t plotted out in advance, they are, but a lot of the time it’s written as an outline that hits the basic beats of the story. But given that the games are 5 to 10 hours during the campaign, a lot of the time you’ll get a 40 minute level and you’ll have to find a way to fill it with interesting character dialogue. This is fun to do, but can prove challenging.
So wait a minute, Final Draft can read your dialogue back to you in a cold robotic voice? How come no one ever told me this? I could’ve been saving thousands on phone sex.
If you’re looking for a cold robotic voice to help you achieve orgasm I have Axel Alonso’s cell phone number. Sometimes I call him pretending to be the cable guy or his drug dealer/therapist, just to keep him talking for a couple minutes. He’s hip to what I’m doing pretty early in the conversation, but he’s a super cool guy and he just keeps talking anyway. What a boss.
No way did Axel Alonso give you his cell phone number. That’s totally your mom.
How long does it usually take, start to finish, to write a video game?
On “Dead Space” I was one of three writers; Warren Ellis did all the world building stuff, I came in and worked it into a narrative and then Anthony Johnston came in and did all of the polishing, rewrites, and most all of the dialogue. So my part of that only lasted about three, maybe four months. On “Bulletstorm” I was the lead writer and, for the most part, the only writer, so that one ate up more time. At first they flew me out to Warsaw, Poland for a week of writing room fun (Warsaw is where the studio, People Can Fly, is located). We spent eight days locked in a room with our Epic producer, the game designer, and the head of the studio, and we beat up the outline that they had already put together. While the basic stuff was in place (crash on a planet, cyborg sidekick, evil general to defeat, bestubbled man of action lead) we were still free to move around and rework things quite a bit. And it was a terrific experience because everyone involved wanted to make a ridiculous over-the-top videogame that was completely leaning into being a videogame. Colorful, ridiculous, fast paced, and fun. Even the drama was consciously melodramatic, a wink and a nod at all of the self-serious military shooters that have begun to dominate the industry. I think from beginning to end, my production work on “Bulletstorm” lasted about a year and a half.
Having to craft a narrative that fits over a level of gaming sounds like a totally different sort of challenge than you likely face scripting “Uncanny X-Force” on a monthly basis. Is it hard to go back and forth between what seem to me like two very different kinds of writing? Or are you able to apply the same sort of skills you use for Marvel when writing for video games?
It’s surprisingly similar, given my process. And that’s right, readers, now we are discussing my “process,” like I’m some kind of frilly, fancy lord of Hot Chaunceytown, a delicate artist lured out of his pillow topped world to divulge his process with the unwashed masses. But in all seriousness — and back to enlightening you with my “process” — a lot of the time when I write a comic book script most of my time goes into taking what is initially 30 or 35 pages and condensing it down into the space I have. I try and keep dialogue very rough, basically just a scratch track. This is something that I learned from Axel and it helps me focus on more of the visuals. If you do polished dialogue it makes self-editing, really cutting out the fat, very hard as you become married to things. The idea is to end up with only the absolutely necessary bits. So a lot of the time when I’m getting art pages back I haven’t really done a full dialogue pass, just a scratch track. At that point I spend a couple days going through and really digging in to the dialogue and the captions.
What advice, if any, would you have for someone who wants to get into writing video games? What’s the best way to hone their craft?
In game writing you need to understand videogame language. You need to understand the differences between an in game cinema and a regular cut scene and when to utilize each one. You need to understand basic game mechanics, as well as how much dialogue to use in any given level. If I’m doing a lot of walking, and the game designer has set this aside as a catch-up scene, then you normally know you have about a minute or less depending on the scene to get across what it is you need to get across. At this point, again, I normally just write the scene out and then edit it down over and over to fit in, keeping the cream.
Yes, everybody knows this is how you should write, but you asked me the question, so I’m answering it, okay? You don’t have to live your life like a candle in the wind, Jason. You don’t have to be a dick about everything all the time just because you’ve got that BBQ soaked, psycho-hippy beard and people think you’re going to molest them if they’re not careful around you. NOTE: Do not share moonshine with Jason Aaron behind a grocery store in the early morning unless you have an amazing tolerance to moonshine or are “down” with his party plan.
Ha, funny. While you were busy making your little jokes there, I just went and re-wrote the end of “Schism.” All of X-Force are now dead. If you’d like to set things right again, I’ll be waiting tomorrow morning behind the grocery store.
Do you have any more video game work in your future that you can talk about or tease? What about upcoming super-secret comic work? Should we take this opportunity to announce our upcoming “Fear Agent/Scalped” crossover, “A Salute To Alcoholism?”
Nope. For the first time in my life I’m going to focus all of my energy on making comic books without keeping a “fear toe” in some other career pond to make myself feel safe. No more video games, no more screenplays, no more teaching, no more animation work, not for the next year or so at least. I’m going to give all my love, my heart and my sexy time to this comic book beast-mistress who has ensnared me with her abuse and withholding of affections. Our union will set the night sky ablaze, and bring about the moral revolution we’ve all been waiting for.
You will be the first against the wall, Jason.
Then I’ll do the “Scalped/Fear Agent” crossover solo and I won’t have to share any credit or the tall cash proceeds from the inevitable film.
Sorry, you lost me at “fear toe.” I didn’t get any of that.
Can we start over?
Jason Aaron is an Eisner and Harvey Award nominated comic book writer whose current work includes the critically-acclaimed crime series “Scalped” for DC/Vertigo and “Wolverine,” “Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine” and “PunisherMAX” for Marvel. He was born in Alabama but currently resides in Kansas City. You can follow him on Twitter (@jasonaaron) or his blog. His beard is bigger than yours.
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