Karen Traviss has a very cool job: she gets to bring the stories in Gears of War to life. When Dominic Santiago finds his wife, Maria, in the Locust tunnels in Gears of War 2, it is a dramatic moment. The intimate, raw emotion of this scene stood out with a power that has kept gamers talking ever since. It was completely out-of-character for the Gears series, which at that point largely conjured images of no-neck, weightlifter-types toting chainsaws on their huge guns and chopping up monsters in gouts of blood.
Gears of War 1 and 2 dripped with a unique visual aesthetic, challenged us with dark themes of genocide and social collapse, and thrilled with Hollywood-esque set pieces and mechanics that balanced on the line between twitch and tactics. While the characters who occupied this rich world certainly had personality, other than Dom’s tragic reuniting with his wife, very little of import was overtly shared about any of them, and the larger story was implied more than shown.
To fill these voids, English author Karen Traviss scribed four novels set in the Gears of War universe: Aspho Fields, Jacinto’s Remnant, Anvil Gate, and Coalition’s End. Traviss has also written several Gears of War comics, including the six-part series Dirty Little Secrets, and her fifth Gears novel, The Slab, hits shelves in May, 2012. The important thing to understand about this material is that referring to any of it as a “video-game tie-in” is to do Traviss’s work an injustice.
Traviss does not interpret the Gears of War universe. She creates it. While Epic may have addressed mechanics and visuals in an attempt to make Gears of War 3 the tightest experience in the trilogy, it’s the characters that may have seen the most improvement. Traviss has spent three years ensconced in the minds of Delta Squad, Colonel Hoffman, Anya Stroud, Chairman Prescott, and all the other characters that make up the rich cast of the series. Therefore, the renditions of these characters in Gears 3 may be considered the most “authentic” versions we’ve seen in the games.
I spoke with Traviss about her history with the franchise and her working relationship with Epic. It was our discussion of the long-standing series question that she will finally answer in The Slab which drove home just how entrusted Traviss has been with the Gears universe. When writers deal with established IP’s, they are often bound by the guidelines of a “story bible” that lays out profiles of the characters, details of the universe, and other information that, to a point, can straightjacket an author. Traviss, on the other hand, was given nuggets of information and the space to practice her craft.
“If you go back and look at the early promos for Gears 1, you'll see just how different the characters were from the actual first game, both in appearance and background,” Traviss told me. “And it's an evolutionary process. The art of storytelling is in development, not factsheets. There are posts you have to hammer into the ground from the start just to get going, but if they don't hold up the house you build, you can change them or take them out.”
Gears 1 opens with Dominic Santiago rescuing Marcus Fenix from his prison cell in order to press him back into military service against the Locust. One of the biggest gifts Epic Games delivered unto Traviss was a complete lack of explanation for why Colonel Hoffman had left Marcus Fenix to rot in the prison known as The Slab.
“The prison thing is just one example of many where there was a scrap of information that sent me off at a tangent even if I changed it completely,” Traviss said. “The document didn't even say Hoffman ordered Marcus to be left behind, just that he did, and there's the cine you see in the first game that indicates there was bad blood over what Marcus did. The few lines in the story bible on the events that led to Marcus trying to rescue his father went out the window completely - by the time I got to fleshing that out, it didn't fit with what the characters' psychologies became.
“I'm a news journalist by background and my first question was ‘Why did Hoffman specifically leave Marcus behind? Why didn't he make sure he was released? What went wrong? What kind of man does that?’ So I could start building Hoffman, who was a blank sheet, pretty well,” Traviss said. “All I had to start with was that Marcus had abandoned his post to save his dad, it had serious consequences for the battle, and that he got court-martialed and eventually jailed instead of executed. That begs the next question: ‘If Marcus is such a hero, such a decent guy, why did he do such a terrible thing to his mates?’”
Traviss comes from a military background, having grown up in a naval port town in England, in a family with a history of service in both the army and Royal Navy, and also having served in the reserves herself. Not only has this provided authentic pattern and rhythm for the Gears’ dialogue in her novels, it also spurred Traviss’s interest in the characters and inspired the depths to which she plumbed their psychologies.
“It's a really massive thing for a professional soldier to abandon his post, you see, and it's taken me four years to reach the stage where I fully understand in psychological terms why [Marcus] did it,” Traviss said. “It's so out of character for Marcus that Rod [Fergusson, Epic Games’ Director of Production] and I debated it for ages, because I initially felt he'd be the kind to try to do both – rescue his dad and do what he has to do in the battle, but fail, being maybe overconfident like his dad – but in the end there was no avoiding it; he did something terrible that just wasn't him at all. But after ‘living alongside’ Marcus and the cast for four years, I got to see how psychologically damaged he would be (and how much worse he was getting) behind that tight-lipped facade, and what would tip him over the edge into doing something he would never have believed himself capable of and that he can never forgive himself for.”
While Gears fans will have to wait until The Slab is released next summer to finally get the definitive answer as to why Colonel Hoffman left Marcus Fenix to rot, Traviss’s exploration of Anya Stroud’s character in the novels may have born more immediate fruit. Anya had previously served only as Control for Delta Squad in the first two games, feeding them information and organizing their movements from safety. She is now armored and Lancer’ed up, ready to fight as a playable character in Gears 3, and it’s fair to suggest that Traviss’s exploration of the character played a leading role in this evolution.
“Anya's character description – each character has a brief outline in the bible, although we didn't stick with parts of it – mentions her mother as being a decorated soldier killed in the Pendulum Wars,” Traviss said. “My immediate thought, seeing this wispy little blonde thing in high heels in Gears 1, was what kind of relationship they had. I imagined a gung-ho, hard-charging woman and her timid daughter being in her shadow, and then wondered how she'd get out of it.” Anya first takes up arms in the second novel, Jacinto’s Remnant, and throughout the series grows into the frontline combat Gear we see in the third game.
While Traviss has been a story consultant for Epic Games on the Gears series since the first novel, Gears 3 is the first time she’s been given the reigns on writing one of the video games. Hearing about her relationship with the team at Epic, even without her prior experience on the novels and comics it feels like the most natural of partnerships.
“The first time I spoke with Mike Capps [President of Epic Games] and Rod Fergusson, it was instantly clear there was a meeting of minds and we just locked completely. I've never experienced anything quite like that instant shared vision with a team before or since,” Traviss told me. “It's a once in a lifetime thing. It almost became a hive mind effect that was sometimes pretty scary – how the hell did we end up thinking and seeing exactly the same things? We don't even come from the same cultural background or demographic. They refer to TV shows and music and histories I don't even know about. Whatever the cognitive process is, though, it's worked fantastically well for us.”
The key to Traviss’s success in fleshing out the Gears universe so vividly is this melding of the minds at Epic, combined with the room she was given to creatively maneuver. “If I can sum up the way story worked between me and Epic, it was like this, and it won't necessarily make any sense to someone outside the industry, except maybe a cognitive psychologist. They could show me a single piece of concept art or play a single line of existing dialogue, and the entire Gears universe was implied in it down to the smallest detail that didn't actually even exist at that stage,” Traviss said. “Even without any discussions or facts, I fully understood and knew the world, the vibe, and the people in it. And so did they. And neither of us knew how.
“Don't ask me how they could communicate that or how I could receive it, especially as – quoting Rod Fergusson – they didn't even know it yet themselves, but it happened. It was as if this world was real and we'd all lived there in the past, but we'd completely suppressed the memory until one photograph or sound released it all like a floodgate. It was almost disturbing, but it also explains why I had this experience of what I can only describe as corporate love at first sight. The Gearsiverse was instantly and completely compelling, yes, but it was that weird way I meshed mentally with the Epic team in a few seconds that really did it for me.”
Reading the Gears of War novels prior to playing Gears of War 3 lends context to events like the fate of Captain Michaelson, or the destination at the end of Delta Squad’s search for Colonel Hoffman. One doesn’t need to have read the books to enjoy these moments, but the benefit of bringing Traviss on board to write Gears 3 is the dismissal of any doubt that her previous work in the “Gearsiverse” was primary creation rather than a series of “tie-ins” or “based on” stories. Now there is a rock-solid bridge that ties the novels in particular to the video game franchise, the latter being the canon which may be all that some fans care about.
If you appreciated the depictions of the characters in Gears 3, give the novels a try, and then go back and play the first two games in the series. When that Gear mentions Aspho Fields to Marcus in the Raven at the beginning of Gears 1, you’ll understand why Marcus reacts the way he does. When Dom finally finds his wife in Gears 2, you’ll understand just how much weight his decision carries.
In the here and now, if Gears of War 3 is considered the best game in the franchise, Karen Traviss will have played a huge role in delivering that experience.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelancer from Boston, MA. His weekly video game opinion column, First Person, is published by Village Voice Media. He occasionally blogs at punchingsnakes.com, and can be followed on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.