Call of Duty: Ghosts Written By Oscar-Winner Stephen Gaghan

The quality of behind-the-scenes talent is no guarantee that a game will be anything other than a strict, convention-hugging moneymaker. The more popular the series, the more urgently publishers need to ensure that each new iteration is precisely the specific experience people pay for and nothing more. This is especially true when it comes to series as important to the financial health of its publisher as Call of Duty.

But occasionally, a developer will make a decision that almost prompts cynics like me to briefly consider the possibility that someone original might be on the way. Such is the case with the reveal at last week’s Activision E3 preview event that Academy Award winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan is Call of Duty: Ghosts’ lead writer.

Considered one of the progenitors of the Hyperlink Cinema film genre, Stephen Gaghan is most notable for his work on Stephen Soderbergh’s 2000 ode to the fiasco of the American war on drugs, Traffic, for which he won his Oscar, and his similarly acclaimed directoral effort Syriana. Both films offer a biting critique of the idea of America’s self-evident greatness, and flipping between interwoven stories and multiple protagonists, they also defy the attention span of audiences.

That’s a style well suited to the conventions of video gaming, which makes sense when you learn, as we did during an interview with Treyarch’s Mark Rubin, that he’s also a very enthusiastic gamer who brought that enthusiasm into his work on Ghosts. “We’ve worked with writers before,” Rubin told us. “Get a Hollywood writer and create a contract; ‘Okay, you have to work four weeks out of the year and do two pickup days.’ And they come in for their hours, and they get into the story while they’re there, but then they go off and do movies and stuff.”

Gaghan was significantly different. “[He] has been really, really invested in this. He is way over what we put in any contract, for sure. He is in the office every day. He has his own office, he comes in, he stays, he eats dinner with us, he plays Ping-Pong — he is a part of the team, and he’s there every day. And he sits there in the level reviews, the gameplay reviews, he’s there all the time. And honestly, I have not seen that in my career — that kind of dedication from an outside person.”

How, precisely, Gaghan’s trademark style will affect the storytelling in a Call of Duty game is not yet known. Rubin was circumspect about that, likely to avoid spilling any plot details about the game. “He’s writing it alongside our team. We have some of our internal guys who are writing it as well. So I think we’ve affected each other.”

Obviously, that kind of interplay should be taken as a given. Rubin was, however, bullish on Gaghan’s contribution to one important aspect of the play experience. “I think the really great part of it is he’s helped us focus in on the player, and the player’s emotions… I really feel that — we introduced the idea that the world is a character. And what a character means in a story is that it has an emotional impact on another character. If it’s a fanciful world, that’s really cool and it’s visually interesting and it brings you into the world, but if it doesn’t affect the characters of that world emotionally, and be a part of that emotional ride and emotional experience, then it’s not really a character, it’s something else. It’s just backdrop.”

“[T]his is all [Gaghan] helping us with this,” Rubin told us. “He helped us focus in on this idea that the world is going to be a character, and it’s going to have an emotional impact and an affect on the players, and on the characters you’re playing with. One thing we didn’t mention was that your brother is actually part of the squad with you. So we start of the prologue with you and your brother before this event, you get to experience this event, and then we kind of go forward 10, 15 years after you’ve grown up and gone through this event, in this new changed world, and you’re still fighting alongside each other. So there’s that sort of idea that that world now, that you grew up in, has had a material affect on who you are as a person, before we even started really playing them.”

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