Gaming Today’s Exclusive Interview with Author Orson Scott Card
It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Orson Scott Card. The “Ender’s Saga” series of novels is among my all-time favorites. Needless to say, when I discovered that Mr. Card was willing to sit down with me to answer a few of my questions, I was elated.
My elation soon turned into anxiety. How do I interview someone I hold in such high regard without sounding completely idiotic? My first instinct of screaming “YOU ARE SO AWESOME” would be the start, and end, of the interview. Luckily, Mr. Card was kind enough to indulge my fan-boy rantings to answer a few of my questions.
In this interview, Orson Scott Card reveals a progress update for the upcoming “Ender’s Game” film, brand-new information regarding plans for video games based on the beloved “Ender’s Saga” series of novels, and his thoughts on the current gaming industry. We want to extend our sincerest thanks to Mr. Card for taking the time out of his busy schedule to speak with us.
Gaming Today: While our readers certainly know your work from the acclaimed Alvin Maker and Saga series of novels, what they might not realize is how often your works have shown up in the gaming world. (Titles like Advent Rising, and smaller parts in The Secret of Monkey Island among others.) How did you get involved in writing for video games?
Orson Scott Card: The writing I did for projects with LucasFilm Games (as they were then called) began when I was invited to visit “the ranch” (back when they were still in the carriagehouse) and look in on some of the games. I loved what they were doing and learned a lot; I’m not sure of the value of my contributions, but I did come up with the insults for Monkey Island (with the help of my kids, who drew on their grade-school experience to create the lame starting insults).
Later, I was hired to write dialogue for two games, one of them “The Dig” and the other a side-scrolling shooter that I’m not sure was ever published, since it was coming out just when first-person shooters completely took over the genre. However, for that game I came up with the slang that I later used in battle school in the Shadow books and in the movie scripts I’ve written for Ender’s Game. Nothing gets wasted.
With Advent Rising, the creators of that game, then at GlyphX (now at Chair Entertainment) invited me to take part early on. The collaboration did not work as we had hoped – I ended up coming in too late to be part of the story development – but I wrote much of the dialogue and established the character relationships. It was a productive partnership, because I later wrote my novel Empire based on the situations created for their game of the same name (not yet finished).
See the rest of this exclusive interview after the jump.
GT: I read an interview where you described your experiences of a “gaming addiction with the PC game Civilization 2. (I can relate, as I am still having Civilization 4 withdrawal) What do you think it takes to create a great video game, and are there any games you are addicted to currently?
OSC: After I went cold turkey on Civ II, I have deliberately avoided ANY game of that type. There are nuisance games that I’m semi-addicted to. (“Nuisance games” are the ones that sit on your PC and keep nagging you to play them, because after all they only take about three minutes. The problem is you play them forty times.) My list is: Spider Solitaire, Cruel, TaiPei, Tetris, Hearts, Jezzball, WordZap, and the Hoyle Backgammon game. (Am I the only one who deeply resents MicroSoft removing the LAN option from Hearts and forcing you to an online situation? We used to play on the various computers in our house; now we have to get online and play with idiots. So instead I just play solo.)
The games that I was addicted to, in an opium-morphine-heroine kind of progression, were Romance of the Three Kingdoms, then one of the early Ultimas, followed by whatever Sid Meier was doing: Colonization, Civilization, Railroads. I would devote days at a time to each game, and could only break one addiction by replacing it with the next.
The odd thing is that I never liked them as programmed. I wanted to play a different game, and with Civ II players were allowed to access and revise the values tables. Basically, I made it so combat was a trivial matter, and what was fun for me was creating the cities and eventually filling the whole world (except for one rival city that knew to keep its head down) with my marvelous, high-level cities. The only thing that kept me from going broke because of never writing was that I reached a point where I would only play to 210 A.D. and then stop. Sometimes I was even building a spaceship by then.
The weird thing was that even when I wasn’t playing, I felt a tremendous anxiety. I had responsibilities – there were cities waiting for me to tell them what to build! Now, I’m not insane. My conscious mind knew that it was just a game, and when I wasn’t running the program, nothing was happening at all. But I invested so much tension in the playing of the game that it didn’t go away when I left the computer. The call of duty was still there.
These games were so much a part of my life that I still feel a little stab of excitement when somebody mentions (often in a book) one of the towns that were British rail stations in Sid Meier’s Railroad game. And I still remember the names of my favorite Chinese generals from Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Sima Yi, Cao Pi, Zhang Wei.
I tried some of the other games that thought they were similar, but they weren’t. Either they were too combat centered – it was all about staying alive by fighting all the time – or the city-building felt like meaningless task management instead of something creative. I don’t enjoy playing games that feel like just a job, with nothing to show for it.
In fact, in CivII I really missed one of the features of CivI: The replay at the end of the game, where the whole history of the world was played out on a miniature map. That was so great!
Yeah, I know, I sound like an ex-drinker talking about all the good times I used to have on my alcoholic binges…
My cold-turkey stop was because, and I’m serious here, it was costing me a shocking amount of money and depriving me of a home life with my family. Here I am, a self-employed writer, and I never had time for my family because I had this GAME that was waiting to seduce me whenever I pretended I was going to the office to work. I estimate there are about twenty novels that were never written because of computer games. Now, there are those who think that’s a blessing to literature, but at the very least it was costing me money because I wasn’t getting paid as often as when I actually complete the books that are under contract.
GT: Video games are notorious for having mediocre storylines, which I suppose can be blamed on the gamers themselves. I certainly am guilty of frantically trying to skip monotonous video game dialog, hitting the start button until I can get back into the action. As a writer, how do you go about facing the challenges inherent in writing for such a dynamic medium?
OSC: Games CAN’T have the kind of storylines that movies and books have, or they wouldn’t be playable. You are correct to skip the tedious, badly written “scenes” that are usually a pathetic job of trying to paste story on top of a game. What makes a game work is the opposite of what makes a story work. In a story, you are seeking to find out what really happened – why people do what they do, what the results of their choices are. You identify with the character(s) but you do not control them. Instead, the author has the ultimate authority. When a movie is made from a book and the script changes key events, the readers are usually furious. Why? Since the original events weren’t real, why not change them? The answer is simple: Even in fiction, what the author put down on paper is “the truth” and anyone who fiddles with it is “lying” or “wrecking it.”
In a game, the opposite illusion must be created. Even though most games absolutely force you to follow preset paths, the gamewrights try to give you the illusion that you are making free choices (even though you are actually, in almost all games, still being channeled through certain puzzles with fixed solutions).
There is no question about character motivation. The lead character is you, and your motivation is to beat the enemy and win.
It’s like golf. Sure, you could put on a World War II uniform and pretend that each ball was a bomb that needed to be dropped down into the underground bunker of some Nazi generals, and call it “Golf: The Dirty Dozen,” but the GAME is about you and your contest with the obstacles placed in your way by the course designer. You can compare your score with other players, but the things they do are completely irrelevant to your game. It’s just you against the golf course designer (and, of course, the groundskeepers).
In most videogames, you’re still just playing golf. The story exists only to justify cool new gameplay features. Yes, we respond to greater and greater realism; yes, there’s an element of escapism and power fantasy and all that crap that we hear about from psychologists – but lousy games have those just as much as good ones. What makes a difference is the degree of challenge and freshness in each new game. Everything else is window dressing. You’ve got to have it, but nobody should ever get confused and think that the window dressing IS the game.
The “story” elements of game are the window dressing. No wonder you skip them.
To the degree that the game is fixed – the outcome predetermined – the game is a story. But to the degree that you SEE that the game is fixed, it becomes less fun to play! You want to have the feeling that you can also explore the world a little, maybe find stuff that has nothing to do with gameplay. Since when do you do that in a novel or movie? You can do that on a golf course, because the world is just a little bigger than the fairways and greens. But when you’re choosing weapons in a shooter, you’re just telling the caddy to give you a nine-iron instead of a wood.
I wish sometimes that I were so rich I could just finance the development of the games I want to play. The gamewrights would report only to me instead of pinheaded executives from the game publishing companies. Once I was happy with a game, then we’d release it to the public, and if nobody else likes it, screw ‘em. I’m happy.
GT: I’m sure you are asked this next question constantly, but our readers would kill me if I did not ask. How is the development process for the Enders Game movie coming along? I would imagine that turning such a beloved story into a tangible script is a pretty daunting challenge.
OSC: Ender’s Game is in turnaround right this minute, which means that the scripts that were written to the previous director’s specs were unfilmable. Nothing against the writers – they did what they were told. But in no case was it remotely like Ender’s Game. The only scripts that came close to duplicating the effects of Ender’s Game on the audience were mine, and even THOSE aren’t yet where they need to be. It finally became clear to us all that what the Warner executives wanted was never going to be close enough to Ender’s Game to satisfy what I would allow to be done to the story.
And yet … in the process, my own scripts have come closer and closer to being what we need. I’m about to start yet another revision that will, I think, take us over the top to a movie that works as a movie, but is also true to what is most important about the book. Meanwhile, we’re talking to other studios and other directors, and I’m optimistic enough to say that I believe that the actor who will play Ender Wiggin has been born.
It’s worth keeping in mind that if you just filmed the book, you would have a completely lousy movie. The book takes place in Ender’s head; the movie can’t take you there. Without Ender’s thoughts, he just looks like a violent little kid. So with the movie scripts, I’ve been doing the things that are necessary to make it work as a movie. That means eliminating things that don’t play on the screen. The whole Peter and Valentine subplot is gone, for the simple reason that all they do, on screen, is sit at computers and type. you can’t SEE what they do. Also, the action has to be compressed in time so that instead of taking seven years, as the book does, it all takes place in one year – so that all the kid parts can be played by one actor each! No way can you expect an actor to fake aging from six to twelve. And no way can you expect an audience to accept two or three changes of actor for the same part in the same movie!
And the movie has to take about two hours. The book, filmed scene for scene, would take four times that or more. It’s not easy.
But I’m optimistic. We’re getting there.
GT: Whenever I bring up “Ender’s Game” to my friends, all we seem to talk about is how amazing the novel would translate into a gaming experience. Are there any plans for Ender’s Game to be developed as a video game?
OSC: Part of the deal with Warner Brothers was for them to develop the many videogames that are possible from the book, without waiting for the movie. They never fulfilled that – which was the only part of the deal with Warner Brothers that actually made me angry. Movies are hard to make – but to make many good, profitable Ender’s Game games is a no-brainer.
Don’t look for one “Ender’s Game” game. Look, instead, for games bearing the Ender’s Game brand. Here are just a few:
The Battle Room. I see several game modules here, using the same graphics base but with quite different game play. There’s the game where you’re an individual soldier; the game where you’re a toon leader; the game where you command.
Then there are three radically different space war games. There is the game based on the first Formic War (i.e., Earth itself is attacked and must fight back with a jerry-rigged fleet made up of non-combat or non-space vehicles and weapons), the second Formic War (where Earth’s forces are grossly outgunned and outnumbered, but they must find ways – and not just Mazer’s trick way – to win or at least stay alive with enough force to engage in the next round of combat), and finally the Third Formic War, which is the one where Ender and the kids on Eros command the fleet. Within each of these are several modules, again depending on whether you’re an individual pilot, a small-group leader, or a commander of a larger fleet.
Then there’s the story-based game, in which there’s a character named Ender and another named Bean – arguably, those are two separate games, if they’re based on the books Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow! These would be your standard movie-adaptation games, where you control the hero character and have to solve puzzles. In the Bean game, there’s a lot of gameplay in the air-conditioning system – I suspect it would actually be more fun than the Ender game. Ender didn’t get much chance to goof around.
Then there’s the multi-user online game called Battle School, where players are organized in armies and actually progress through the whole Battle School sequence, graduating by being assigned to tactical or pre-command or other assignments.
Then there’s the “mind game” or Fantasy Game from the novel. This would be the hardest to design, since there are so many areas where free-association would need to be rewarded. But it would also be the most fun to explore!
Then there’s the game “Hive Queen,” set in the days before the Hive Queens began to cooperate. Instead they are rivals on the original home planet, struggling to compete with the other queens while building up techno advantages in their wars, while fending off the problems caused by the birth of new queens from time to time. This one is implied by Ender’s Game, but never explicitly enacted. It’s what SimAnt should have been, but wasn’t – because you play the Hive Queen, not an expendable worker, it actually matters whether you live or die and you have time to accomplish something before you had the baton over to a successor queen who, having all your memories, is in many ways simply a continuation of yourself. This game, like Civilization, could be a multi-thousand-year saga.
And then there’s the post-war war: The war among Earth nations struggling to get control of the IF after the formics are defeated. This is like a huge game of Risk with only a few real-time days in which to carry out whatever you’ve been able to conspire to set up.
You get the idea. Probably the Battle Room game would be the most popular and yet the cheapest to develop each module for, so we’ll certainly start there, though I think the First Formic War will also be a terrific and popular game. We’ll see what happens.
GT: The topic in the news seems to be the effect of violent video games on children. This sort of nature vs. argument represents itself in some aspects of the Battle School in Ender’s Game. Does simulated violence alter an individual capacity for real violence? What is your take on this issue?
OSC: There is rational evidence that exposure to or participation in simulated violence has a brief halo effect – that for a short time afterward, people tend to act out the attitudes of the game. But this has not been shown to have a long-term causative effect: That is, games do not take nonviolent people and turn them violent. Rather it seems that exceptionally violent games attract people who are already heavily violence-prone, so that, as with pornography, they are a symptom and an exacerbator rather than a cause.
Also, players, like audiences, are able to distinguish very clearly between cartoon violence and real violence. Grand Theft Auto provides real-world scripts; Coyote-and-Road-Runner cartoons do not. Playing Space Invaders may make me more likely to shoot rows of aliens attacking slowly from above, but it is not likely to cause me to drive more aggressively or beat people up. To say “video games cause violence” is stupid in the extreme, like saying “novel reading causes teenagers to have sex” just because SOME young-adult novels are perhaps more sex-centered than is helpful. The question is always: Which videogame are you talking about?
Here’s the parental-control switch that is truly needed: Built-in clocks, which parents can set to say that at exactly one or two or three hours, the game shuts off (saving your exact game state) and cannot be restarted for at least twelve hours. This would be called the “get a life” switch, and I certainly have needed to have such a switch under the control of my wife. Games ARE addictive; it is hard to stop playing without outside help.
GT: Finally, what other projects are you currently working on?
OSC: I’m starting up a new fantasy novel that I hope will be as compelling and successful a world and story as Ender’s Game has been. But then, I always hope that with all my projects …
We want to sincerely thank Mr. Card for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to check out Orson Scott Card website for more information.