Gearheads Interviews Eric Nylund

So many people want to pigeonhole Gears of War as the next Halo, making the comparisons on a daily basis. But the truth is that the two games will likely have little in common outside of the fact that they could both be classified as shooters in a sci-fi universe.

One place where the Gears universe actually intersects directly with the Halo universe is in the home of Eric Nylund. Nylund is best known for writing two of the Halo novels, including The Fall of Reach and First Strike. He has penned a third unreleased book about the continuing Halo saga called Ghosts of Coral.

Apparently, Nylund has become the go-to guy at Microsoft for their really valuable IPs as he was brought in to help with Gears of War’s story. Nylund’s mind is the one place where the Locust and Covenant duke it out for evil, bent-on-destruction supremacy and where Master Chief and Marcus Fenix can kick back, have a brew and brag about all the ass they’ve kicked.

Nylund recently agreed to talk about Gears of War and his role in developing the all-important storyline that can either help carry a game or leave it as limp as Bob Dole without the little blue pill.

Without further ado, here is my interview with the prolific Eric Nylund:

Gearheads of War: First of all, how did you get involved in the Gears of War project?

Nylund: I work as a writer at Microsoft Game Studios. About two years ago, I started helping Epic’s lead designer, Cliff Bleszinski, shaping his ideas into a compelling game narrative.

Gearheads: What was appealing to you about the project?

Nylund: EPIC takes their story seriously. They have a rich story arc, deep backstory, and they’ve spent a lot of energy planning how best to present the story in the context of a video game.

Gearheads: Is this the first in-game story that you’ve written? I know you wrote the Halo books, but was this the first time you will be seeing your story in a game format?

Nylund: I’ve worked in the video game industry for seven years. GEARS is not the first story I’ve helped out with…but it will be one of the most interesting.

And to be perfectly honest, it’s not my story. The story is first and foremost, Cliff’s, and many other very talented and creative people on the EPIC team have contributed–most notably Rod Ferguson, Jerry O’Flaherty, Lee Perry, and Susan O’Conner.

Gearheads: When you first came on board, what kind of story outline was already there and how much detail was needed?

Nylund: There was plenty of detail, but it wasn’t crafted in a very game friendly way. A lot of the early work with Cliff was taking his ideas and the vast backstory and streamlining it to pick out what would eventually be shown in the game. We wanted maximum drama without slowing any of the action!

Gearheads: Was Sera already a concept in place or was that a concept that evolved when you came on board?

Nylund: Sera was there before I came along.

Gearheads: Why do you think that a fictional Sera was chosen when it could’ve clearly been placed on Earth given the similarities we’ve glimpsed of the two planets?

Nylund: Sorry – can’t answer this one. Label it TOP SECRET and move on…nothing to see here.

Gearheads: I recently interviewed Cliff Bleszinski and he said that Susan O’Conner helped in the development of the story. Was it difficult to collaborate with another writer?

Nylund: Nope. Susan is great. Epic needed a writer on site for large periods of time when the levels were being finalized, so Susan was brought onto the team. She jumped in feet first and soaked up two years worth of development in a few weeks. She brought a fresh pair of eyes to the project, and most of the in-game lines are hers. Everyone should check out her website at: http://www.storiesforgames.com/

Gearheads: What has it been like working with the Gears of War/Epic team?

Nylund: Great. They’re very committed to GEARS. For a bunch of non-writers they’ve come up with some great story ideas! There’s not a lot of ego on this team, either. They just want GEARS to the best game possible.

Gearheads: Did you have to collaborate a lot for the Halo books with Bungie and was there a big difference in how you worked with both teams on their intellectual properties?

Nylund: Yes, there’s a great deal of collaboration with Bungie especially for the latest book. We’re trying to dovetail events in three games and novels and make it work.

But writing for a video game is much different than writing for a book. There are similar elements: in both you’re trying to tell a compelling story. But in a game it’s more of a team effort. You’re not free to just writing anything. It’s got to mesh with level design, gameplay, and art. Words you put down on paper can impact 60 other guys on the team. You have to be flexible.

Gearheads: Are there any plans for Gears of War novels to accompany the game?

That’s up to EPIC. You never know…

Gearheads: Where did you get some of your inspiration for the storyline?

Nylund: Mostly Band of Brothers. A dash of the Resident Evil series.

Gearheads: Did you find any inspiration in recent events in the world…wars, politics, etc.?

Nylund: I’d say a good deal of the backstory could be taken right out of today’s headlines, a few names altered, a science fiction twist…and viola.

Gearheads: Is there anything about the limitations of the characters being in a video game that hinders your work and conversely is there anything that makes it easier to write the story?

Nylund: It’s easy to write huge galaxy-spanning scenes in a novel, change location on the next page, and populate them with millions of exotic characters. That’s harder to do in a game. Every new scene and character is a new art asset to be generated and fit into a level. You’re plying with a much more limited tool set in game writing.

On the other hand, it’s easier because you actually get to see the people, places, and things in the world, and can influence the in-game events. It’s a more vibrant palette to paint from.

Gearheads: Do you think that the story part of games is becoming radically more important with the advent of this next generation of
consoles?

Nylund: I think story has always been important in games, it’s just rarely been done well. To a small extent it’s been limited by technology, but to a much greater extent it just hasn’t been thought about with the creative energy that has been poured into gameplay and art creation. THAT is changing.

Gearheads: Is it tough to alternate between the Halo universe and the war on Sera with the Locust?

Nylund: No. I’m only happy when I get to work on three things at once. It keeps it all fresh.

Gearheads: Without giving anything away, what percentage of the story has changed from what you originally penned at the beginning?

Nylund: I wouldn’t use the world “changed” more like “evolved” which is typical of the game development process. Levels change or get cut, things are reordered, some art assets never materialize. I’d say the GEARS story has
“changed” by about a third.

Gearheads: How developed was the character of Marcus Fenix…and by that I mean, one of the biggest criticisms of Halo is that Master Chief is kind of soulless character who hasn’t really been developed (in the game, not in the novels)…will there be more to Marcus?

Nylund: Yes. Right from the start, we find Marcus in an interesting situation. How did he get there? How’s he going to get out of this jam? There are clues and little bits of story inserted throughout the game that fill in his past…but not everything. I think it’s smart to keep some things a mystery, to tell later….

Gearheads: Would you say your involvement with the Gears’ story is pretty much over at this point?

Nylund: Alas, yes…for GEARS OF WAR. All the audio lines have been recorded.

Gearheads: Were you a video game fan before you got involved in all of this? And if so, what are your favorite games and do they help with inspiration at all?

Nylund: Sure. I’ve played video games since I had a TRS-80, although the one game that got me hooked was The Ancient Art of War on my 128K Fat MAC.

Gearheads: I have to ask because I’m a big Halo fan in addition to Gears, but are you involved in the storyline for Halo 3 at all? And does the next Halo novel that will be published in October relate to the game?

Nylund: Sorry I can’t answer anything related to HALO 3. Bungie ninjas will find me…. And same goes for the new novel. Bungie controls the release of all the information related to the next novel–but soon, there will be some new information!

Gearheads: Thank you so much for taking out time from all of the writing to talk to the diehard Gears of War fan community.

Nylund: It was my pleasure!

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