Earlier this month I got the chance to speak with Karen Traviss, lead writer on Gears of War 3 and author of five Gears of War novels and several upcoming Gears of War comics. Karen is well known for her writing for the Halo and in particular the Star Wars series, but she’s been involved with Gears of War for over three years. As I saw when I interviewed her, she is clearly passionate about Marcus, Dom, Cole, and Baird and the fate of Sera in the crew’s final chapter on Xbox 360.

What’s it been like to build through the five Gears of War novels you wrote and then conclude with penning the game proper with Gears of War 3?

It didn’t quite happen that way actually because they overlapped. So it had more of a sense of being a puzzle rather than something gradual. It started out with the books, and I was doing the books when they asked me to do the game, and I was still doing the game when they asked me to do the comics – and I was still doing the books. They’re just different facets of one story, and I think that’s very helpful because there’s a tendency to think that one’s just a diluted version of the other. They’re actually all part of the same story but different aspects. Different media lend themselves to different [ways of] storytelling. Novels are unique in that you get inside the character’s head. You can show the world as the character’s seeing it. My novels have got seven, eight, nine individual, very tight third-person views of the same situation, so you get very conflicting views. With a game you have to take a more movie-like approach and present the action outside the character’s head. So you see the bigger picture rather than the intensely personal narrative.

For example, if you’re actually describing combat from a solo perspective it’s a very narrow focus – you’re not seeing a lot of the bigger stuff. With a something like a game, you really literally have to see the bigger picture. With a comic, again, I can do things in a comic I can’t do in a novel. It’s almost a hybrid of the two in that I can show what’s going on in a character’s head but I can also show things that the character doesn’t know going on for some time. They’re not just different aspects, they tell different facts.

Someone said to me earlier that Prescott comes across as a real swine, but I replied if that you read the books and in particular the comics with Prescott’s point of view you see a totally different picture of what happened to him and why he did what he did and why he didn’t say anything – because he’s responding to a situation… You see, I start with the characters and say, “They’re in this environment, what would they do?” And I often don’t know what they’re going to do because it’s not until you get there – there’s been many a time when I’ve had characters and they’ve done something and I’ve thought “You can’t do that! Oh hang on, that’s really what you’d do. Carry on!” And that’s when you know when you’ve really let the character in. The reason I write is the fun of going somewhere I’ve never been before. Some people write to express themselves, but I’m not interested in getting me out on the page – I’ve been writing too long! I want to be someone who isn’t like me, the more unlike me the bigger the struggle, and then you get that revelation moment. That’s what shapes the storytelling, although with games you’re always going to be constrained by what you can do and can’t do within the physics, and that’s fair enough. You’re constrained within any medium, but it’s just easier to explain the constraints with games because they’re physical.

It’s very interesting what you’re saying about being characters who aren’t like you and who you couldn’t be because obviously with the Gears of War franchise these are remarkable larger-than-life characters who none of us could be. Is that what attracted you to the series?

They actually struck me as being very real and ordinary. Forget the muscles and the stylized approach to it. Marcus seems more real to me bulked up like that than in the earlier promos for the first Gears of War when he was very normal-looking. He’s much more ‘Marcus’ now.  They’re ordinary guys forced to do ordinary things, and that’s what makes it so compelling and so real. It’s basically a soldier story with people desperately trying to keep their buddies alive. That’s a very powerful thing to say, and that’s what I do: military fiction from a soldier’s perspective.

The interesting thing is that characters surprise you all the time. I had views about Adam Fenix and Prescott and the sort of people they might be from the start. The more I wrote them and started putting 2 and 2 together and working out who-what-where-when… inevitably to start a game you have place a few markers and start somewhere, but then that commits you further down the line. The more I worked through Prescott – and I am not a fan of politicians, I’ve worked with them too long – the more I thought that he’s actually an unsung hero, the most unlikely unsung hero because of what he did and what he had to do and how he had no choices left. You might not see all that in the game, but you certainly see it in the next book and you see it in the comics, because that’s Prescott’s view of it. Marcus’ view of Adam is not Prescott’s view of Adam Marcus’ view of a lot of people… everyone has a different view and you get to see them all and you get to make your own mind up. But I don’t have definitive heroes; I just have ordinary people responding to situations. Even Prescott is ordinary in his own way.

I can see that in what I’ve played so far – I don’t want to spoil it for our readers and I’m not going any further than Act 1 – but I wanted to touch on the Augustus Cole moment when he’s visualizing himself back in his Thrashball days in the stadium. For me, I wasn’t a huge fan of the character in the first two games, I found him to be too much of a stereotype, but this gave him an extra level. That seems to be a recurrent theme in the game…

You’ll see very different sides of the characters, especially in the books. You’ll see a lot more of Cole in the books and why he’s the way he is. And Baird: Baird’s had a pretty bad background too, and you start to see the real guy coming through. It doesn’t shut him up any, but you start to realize that he’s had some problems. The only normal one is Dom! Dom’s the only normal guy who’s had a relatively normal life, but he’s just had terrible things happen to him. But then everyone has. Everyone on Sera is either dead or has lost someone. There’s virtually no-one left alive, it’s a grieving, bereaving planet. It’s terrifying. That’s where I’ve got to come from and ask myself what it’s really feel like to be a human being in that situation. I occasionally go for a walk and ask myself what it would be like if there was nobody else around, if everyone I knew was gone, dead. How would I see the world? It’s suddenly very different. You start to realize where sewers are in the street and think how the locusts might come up through them. Then I shake myself out of it, you know!

I was once explaining this to an actor at a Star Wars convention and he said, “Oh darling, that’s method acting!” Of course I don’t know anything about acting, but it is, actually, for that brief period. You don’t want to stay as the character. I’ve written some really dreadful people doing some really warped things, characters like Catherine Halsey [from the Halo series]. Do I identify with her? No. But I can get inside her head and see how she justifies herself to herself. She doesn’t see herself as an evil doctor. Nobody does! That’s quite corrupting in a way, because you have to know to never justify my actions to myself like that; that’s a slippery path. Then you go back to being you. I’ve always been a bit of a disappointment to fans because particularly when they see the female characters they imagine I’m going to be like that. When they meet me and realize I’m not, you know… I just invent them! I’m not these characters. I do not wish to live through my fiction. It’s just a job I do. But when I’m in those characters, when I am writing them, it’s 100% commitment.

On the other side, what Gears of War 3 brings to the fore which the other two games didn’t really are the female characters…

That wasn’t me actually. I can’t remember who wanted them, but I didn’t put them in. I would’ve been happy working with male characters as I am with the books. But it’s interesting…

How was it to write the female characters into Gears of War 3 because in the first two games Sera comes across as a male-dominated world?

It didn’t even register for me because I think I’m used to writing female soldiers as well. This is a highly opinionated statement and your mileage may vary, right, but I what I hate seeing is people who think you write a strong woman by making them mouthy. They are not. A strong woman does not have to be a shrew. I see a lot of writers do that, male and female, and I think that they don’t know what strength is. Strength is about your reaction, not about how much yap you’ve got. There are a huge number of stereotype yappy female characters around with sassy attitude. For God’s sake, go out and look at a real human being, male or female. This whole thing about men can’t be this too – I think men get as badly portrayed in fiction; people first, gender second.

Alright, obviously Sam’s got designs on Dom, which is a bit sad, but with Sam she never knew her father. Sam came about – and I can’t remember if I was even told who decided to have her in – but Epic came to me and said they wanted a female playable character in Gears of War 3. The name we picked was Sam Byrne because we had a naming convention where they had quasi-male names. I’ve got a huge list I’ve made of all the names like Frankie that I could’ve used. That’s a peculiar Western culture thing, actually, because in other culture there’s no real distinguishing between male and female names, so it’s a bit odd anyway. So I said, “OK, if she’s going to look like that, can I have her in Anvil Gate [the third Gears of War novel] because I need someone’s who in the Kazakhstan-type area who’s the daughter of this guy and so on, can I introduce her and get players used to her?” and they said, “Yeah, fine.” So I did the whole back-story for her. It was really that pragmatic – “We need to do this.” – “Oh that’s great, can I use that in this?” There was a lot of that.

Like Anya, she goes from teetering on her high heels, and my first reaction is “Don’t get on a helicopter in high heels you silly cow!” That’s such a great part of the story because she’s the desk jockey and she really does get on helicopter in high heels, and that’s really not good because you’ll get stuck in things and all that. So how does she become who she is in Gears 3? Well, it’s really obvious, because what else is she going to do? She’s either got to shape up or compartmentalise, but her genetics play in and she becomes hard and feisty. You haven’t got time to explore that in the game, but you can explore it in the books. In the game, people will see her and go “Boy, Anya’s changed. What’s happened to her?”

I definitely agree with what you’re saying about female characters. With your knowledge of the industry, would you say they’re depicted more poorly in games than in TV, film, and so on?

I couldn’t really say. I think the big difference in all fiction is whether or not you can look at a character and think, “Yeah, I can imagine him doing that or myself doing that,” that they strike some sort of resonance with you that they’d do that in that situation. As you say, with movie and TV it’s particularly bad. Scriptwriters tend to fall in love with the words on the page and don’t actually step back long enough and think how that would feel like when the you’ve actually got the actor doing it. Would anyone have that conversation in real life? Admittedly, everything’s got to be slightly larger than life for fiction, but it’s this whole business about strength and about what makes a strong person.

Take Marcus. People are scared of Marcus. You can explain why in the books, you should be able to see why in the games, but you need to explain it in the books. Not only is he huge… and people underestimate the physical scale of things. Like with Halo, just how tall are the Spartans? Once they take the armour off, if you’re sat next to someone who’s a foot taller than you, you’re going to react, that’s human nature. If someone’s really built like a brick wall, you give them a bit of space anyway. Marcus doesn’t say anything. He has that expression – which funnily enough wasn’t initially deliberate because I was talking to the guy did the animations – but you’ve got this guy who you can’t read. He’s huge, he doesn’t say much, and he’s got a chainsaw. And he’s got those weird blue eyes. Dogs can have very pale eyes – I did a lot of research on dogs for the books – and these dogs get very aggressive reactions from other dogs because you can actually see the pupils so they’re more conscious that you’re looking directly at them. So this guy’s got really pale blue eyes and he stares, and it’s like: “Are you looking at me, pal? – “Please don’t hurt me, Marcus!”But he isn’t like that. He has a terrible temper and we’ve seen that flare up a couple of times. But this isn’t a guy who goes around punching people up; he doesn’t need to. If you’re doing a lazier sort of fiction he would be a cigar-chomping guy thumping things, but he just has to stand there and wait for others to leave.

Bringing it back to Gears of War 3, and bearing in mind how the end of the Gears of War trilogy is a huge thing for the fans, what’s it been like to close out the series – and can you give us a teaser without spoiling things of what those fans can expect from the final chapter?

It’s only just started to dawn on me today, really – because I’ll be continuing the books and the comics and I’ve been thinking how that’s the game finished and it’s time to get on with the other stuff – but for Epic to trust me with basically their IP and especially give me such a great game – the first game they’ve ever written – that’s faith and I’m bloody grateful for that. In terms of how it all ends, there are no happy endings but there are hopeful endings. It is emotionally hard on the player. We don’t pull any punches. Gears players are smart, and they’ve come this far with us, and they can definitely take the ending.

Thank you very much, Karen

Thank you, it was a pleasure.

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  • Rich

    What an awesome interview and a really interesting lady. Everyone needs to read this!