British writer Antony Johnston is known by comic fans for his Wasteland series and his work with Alan Moore. He also wrote several Dead Space games and comics. We talked about that with him.
First of all, your Wikipedia page says that you worked on the first Dead Space game but to be honest I don’t remember your name on the credits. So is it true ?
It is true, and yes, all you’ll find in the credits is a "Special Thanks" to me. The issue of credits in videogames is a prickly one. Almost everyone in the industry is unhappy about them, for one reason or another. And writers often get screwed out of proper credit. Luckily, many companies are changing their attitudes and starting to give writers more prominent credits. In fact, EA was one of the publishers spearheading this movement a few years ago, in response to some of the comments around Dead Space. But it’s a slow process, and something we’re still fighting for.
What was your role exactly ?
I was the scriptwriter. Warren Ellis and Rick Remender both worked on the game before me, developing the background and plot, in conjuction with the producers. Then I wrote the game script, and also helped out with continuity tracking between the game and other media, like the comic book, the anime, and so on.
How do you get involved in the video game industry and more specifically working on Dead Space ?
Dead Space *is* how I got involved in the industry. EA wanted to do a prequel comic, and Warren recommended me to write it. I had several talks with the game producers, and it was clear we had similar attitudes to horror and games, with many of the same favourite horror stories, so I agreed. Then about halfway through working on the comic script, they asked me if I wanted to write the game as well. It was an easy decision for me — I’ve been a gamer since I was a child, and often lamented about the terrible state of games writing over the years, so naturally I’ve always wanted to do it myself.
You wrote the first Dead Space comicbook with Ben Templesmith. Did you have a lot of freedom in this work ? Or was it more like ’Please write the story of Aegis VII and the Necros invading it’ ?
Ben and I had a lot of freedom on the comic, yes. All we knew at the start was that it had to be a prequel, because EA didn’t want to give away the game’s ending. But nobody had decided exactly what it would be about. During discussions with the producers, I suggested a story about the planetcracking colony — it made the most sense to me, because that’s where the Marker was found, and where the story really started, even though Aegis VII wouldn’t feature much in the game. And of course doing a story like that meant I would have a lot of freedom to create new characters and situations, without needing to worry that something in the final game might contradict me !
This first comic appeared as an animated comicbook on Xbox Live. Did you have that in mind when writing ?
No, I had no idea the comic would be animated until I’d already started writing it, and I didn’t take it into consideration at all. I was concentrating on writing a good comic, nothing more. I couldn’t let concerns about the animation influence how I wrote. That was someone else’s responsibility.
Is it different to imagine voice acting, animations ?
Yes, it’s very different when you write a script knowing that other people will read and act the lines, and even more people will animate the characters and edit the whole thing together. It’s a very different skill, and just something that you have to learn and practice like any other form of writing.
Then you worked on the Wii game Dead Space Extraction. How did you approach that kind of work ? I guess writing for a game is not the same as writing for a comic book. How does it differ ?
There are many differences, but there are also some similarities — I’ve given talks about this subject, including one at the GDC writer’s summit a couple of years ago. The main difference is that you’re writing for an interactive medium, and so you must remember two things. First, a player’s decisions can change the narrative ; second, most players aren’t going to be paying 100% attention to the writing in the way that they would if it was a film, book or comic. The similarities, on the other hand, are to do with the skills involved — you must keep dialogue short and snappy, you must remember there will be visual elements involved, and ultimately how the story is presented will be down to an artist. All of these skills are used in comics, too, which is why I think we’re seeing more and more comics writers working in games.
Finally you worked on Dead Space Ignition...
Well, "finally" is a bit severe ! For one thing, I later wrote the mobile Dead Space game, which won a bunch of awards last year. And also, I’m working on many other game titles apart from Dead Space — I wrote Sega’s Binary Domain, which comes out next month, I did some work on the new X-COM which comes out soon, and I’m also working on more games that I can’t yet talk about...
Sorry ! So how did you feel about writing this ’interactive comic book’ ? Wasn’t that too hard to deal with the ’Oh-God-something-to-unlock-again’ flow of the game ?
No, it wasn’t too hard at all. Like I said, I’ve been a gamer almost all my life, and my first professional writing was for role-playing games and campaign books. So working a story around that kind of "progress-puzzle-progress-puzzle" design comes fairly naturally. Once I’d established the characters and scenario for Ignition, it was only a matter of coming up with the challenges and scenarios in which to place those puzzles. I know Ignition wasn’t very well received, but from what I’ve seen, that was mostly down to the incongruity of a horror story matched with the "casual puzzler" mechanics. I’m still proud of the story, and I’ve heard from many people who really enjoyed it, but couldn’t really get into the gameplay. Ironically, it perhaps would have performed better on mobile platforms as a hidden-object game or something...
What do you think of interactive comics in general ?
Well, that depends exactly what you mean. There are very few interactive comics like Ignition, where the comic is static but then you interact with puzzles. There are some where the comic plays out, and then you make a choice to decide which direction the story will go in, and I think those have potential, but they’re not common. And when you say "interactive comic", most people think of simple "motion comics" like the first Dead Space comics on XBLA, as you mentioned before. But they’re not interactive at all, really. I think the main problem is that animated and interactive comics feel like they’re neither one thing or another — instead of combining the best features of both media, they feel like they’re not dong either medium justice. If someone can crack that problem, then maybe we’ll have a whole new medium on our hands.
You weren’t involved in Dead Space 2, right ? Did you play it ? What did you think of the game or its plot ?
Actually, I did some very early concept work on Dead Space 2, and I was delighted to see a couple of my ideas made it through to the final game. I liked it, and thought the story was good — it was very different to the first game, with more characters, Isaac speaking, and a more action-orientated plot, but I know Jeremy (Bernstein, the DS2 scriptwriter) and all the guys at EA worked very hard to make it just as scary as the first despite the new style.
Do you play a lot, I mean apart from Dead Space ? Do you have favorite games ?
I don’t play as much as I want to, because I’m too busy ! But yes, I play as much as I can. I’m a big fan of narrative-focused games, as you might expect ; Myst, Silent Hill, Uncharted, vintage games like Loom and Monkey Island, and I thought Red Dead Redemption was the best open-world story game for many years. But — and this often surprises people — my other great love is arcade racers like Burnout, Split/Second, WipeOut and SSX. In fact, I’m really looking forward to the new SSX game coming out in February ; I’ve been eagerly waiting and hoping for a next-gen SSX title for years, and I can’t wait to play it...!
Any regrets or proudness about your work on Dead Space ?
I’m very proud of everything I’ve done on Dead Space — yes, including Ignition. *Non, je ne regrette rien*, as Édith would say...