Kevin Shortt Interview, James Cameron's Avatar & Storytelling in Games
Written Friday, November 06, 2009 By Dan WebbView author's profile
Granted, the next interview you are about to read - I know you're going to read it because otherwise, why would you even come in here? - is admittedly a bit of a mammoth read, but it sure is an interesting one.
A few weeks back we headed down to London to talk Avatar and storytelling in games with Kevin Shortt, the scriptwriter for James Cameron's Avatar The Video Game, who has worked on previous titles like Lost and Far Cry 2. We touch on Avatar (obviously!), the movie tie-in stigma, storytelling in games and so much more. Grab a sleeping bag, this is going to be a long one... I did break it up with some pretty Avatar sreenshots though because I'm nice like that. Go me!
I think what was great about Avatar was that we just had access to every bit of information that we ever wanted, right from an early stage. That was the unique thing. That we weren’t jumping on after everything had already been done, so we were able to iterate our ideas with them, as opposed to playing catch up. That was a huge benefit to us.
So you had unprecedented access to all the movie materials?
Yeah, we had this thing like an internet tunnel that we set up where we would all just send assets back and forth. We would send them builds of the game so they could try them out – they had their own dev kit in LA, so we’d just send them the stuff. They sent us all the assets that they had and it really was just everything you could imagine. The database that we had is huge, so huge that I still haven’t seen all of it myself because there is that much to go through in terms of text, imagery, video footage, everything. So that helped a lot.
Do the two stories – film and game – integrate somewhat?
No, they share the same universe. That was the key. We wanted them to share the same universe without bumping into each other too much. So what we did was, we set the story in the game two years before the movie, and so in doing that, we made sure that we didn’t spoil the movie for anybody. We want people to feel safe playing the game, to go crazy, and still not ruin the movie experience. You’re not going to learn the plot of the movie from playing the game. That was important to all of us. Also, you get introduced to the world so that when you come to the movie, you are that much more informed. That much more ready for the experience.
By making it two years away from the film, it allowed us to introduce characters you see in the movie into the game. So we have Grace, played by Sigourney Weaver – she’s in the game. Michelle Rodriguez, Stephen Lang, they were able to make appearances in the game because the timelines were so close and it didn’t conflict with the world of the movie.
What was it like working with the movie stars and getting them in the mindset for the game’s characters?
Well it was pretty straightforward actually. Like really straightforward. I think actors are used to doing voice-work, so it didn’t necessarily throw them. It was a new experience. Take Michelle Rodriguez, she plays the chopper pilot, and she says a lot of the same things in different ways, so that was kind of new for her, having different ways of saying, “Are you ready to climb on board.” She had to say that a whole bunch of different ways. So there was that to figure out, but it was really just, she needed an explanation asking, “Why am I repeating this 20 times in 20 different ways?” Once we gave her the context, she was like, “Okay, got it, let’s go!”
They’re stars for a reason, we didn’t really have to work with them tons to get it right. First of all they know the character already. Secondly, they’re just solid actors who know what they’re doing. So it was pretty easy working with them in the studio.
Are they given room to manoeuvre for ad-libbing and stuff?
Absolutely. I was really happy. They pretty much stuck to what we gave them, but sure, if there were worries where they were like, “My character wouldn’t say this!” “Oh ok, so what would your character say?” So then they’d tweak it a little bit, but that’s pretty common. You always get actors of any calibre saying, “This isn’t rolling off my tongue well, can we rewrite it?” “Yes, course we can.” It’s not like, this stuff is the bible and you can’t touch it. No, no, no. It’s a collaborative process.
What was the freedom like with the game itself, did everything have to get passed off by the movie team first?
Definitely. What we had were these milestones where we had to – they weren’t hard milestones, but we all made sure we checked in at certain points. In terms of the story, we knew that we wanted to come up with our own story and we were kind of just left with it... “Here’s the material, come up with a story.” We were like... *laughs* Okay... So me and two other writers I was working with, came up with a story and then presented it to James Cameron and his people. Once they bought off on it – and they did, it was a quick process – we started iterating on what specifics we wanted in the story and how that would work. Once that got going, we were kind of left on our own to write it out for a long period. There was just a lot of heavy lifting before it would be in shape to show them again. They gave us that time, they were like, “Yes, go do it, we’ve got our film we’ve got to figure out, you’ve got your game,” and then we would keep checking in. They would always have notes, sometimes it would be like, “Looking great, keep going.” Other times it would be like “No, no, no, you’ve got to change this, you’ve got to change that.” It was a process that I think everyone was really happy with – everyone our end [Ubisoft] was really happy with it.
Was there anything crucial that you had to change where maybe you were heading down the wrong direction, and they we’re like, “Oh no, can we head this way?” Maybe inaccuracies of any kind?
That was the main thing. We never got into a situation where they said, “You cannot do that! Stop!” Instead, what we got every now and then was, we feel like... because nobody wanted to give away movie stuff, you know, the game is coming out before the movie, so we didn’t want to do that. So there were times when they were like, “You know, this is getting a little too close to touching on some of the movie storyline, so can you just pull back on that,” and we were like, “Sure, we can.”
What exactly is the plot of the game then? You have this moon Pandora, but how has everyone got there, what’s the purpose of it?
So the Na’vi are the indigenous people on Pandora, which is a moon, a moon of a giant planet called Polythemis. It’s like 5 light years from earth.
So not down the road then?
No, exactly! If you’re going to Pandora, you’re going for good I guess.
So the Na’vi, are in perfect harmony with the world. Everything is in balance; the animals, the plants, if one thing dies, another thing is born. It’s all perfect and it’s been like that for 20,000 years, and suddenly the RDA arrive. The RDA are like a virus and their mission is... the earth is a planet that is in desperate need of resources, so the RDA arrive, on the moon and they’ve found a resource there that is much, much more valuable than gold. So they start mining for all this stuff called Unobtainium, but in doing so, they’re also bulldozing through the moon to get all this stuff, so naturally, the Na’vi are like, “What the hell!?” And that’s where the conflict comes in between them.
So then, in the game, the RDA say, “Okay, we can’t have the Na’vi keep doing this, they keep trying to disrupt us, we need to somehow take control of Pandora.” They have a theory that if they get a hold of this sacred site, they might be able to take control of everything. So they need a signal specialist to help them locate it because they don’t know where it is. They just know the theory that it’s somewhere on the moon and that’s why they call you up.
No, it’s not the first contact, in fact the Wii version takes place several years before our game and that also touches on early contact with the Na’vi. In fact, if I’ve got it right, they’ve been there about 30 years. So it’s been a long time before either game. I think there is a whole other story to be told there about when they first arrived, but where our story takes place, they’ve already established themselves, they got some bases up and running. The infrastructure has already been set.
What it’s like crafting two different stories for each faction of the game [Na’vi and RDA]? Does it dilute the two stories maybe and detract away from telling one strong story? Is it hard to get two strong characters coming through?
I feel like we did that. For us it was interesting because we were able to really explore some of the characters and different sides of some of those characters. In the Na’vi path, you meet a character named Beyda'amo, he’s like this Na’vi warrior, he’s very fierce, and he’s not sure about you and is challenging you the whole way, but when you meet him in the RDA path and he’s like this vicious warrior that you have to take on; it’s a completely different character. That happens throughout... all the characters we have throughout the game, we tried to make sure we were showing different aspects of them and showing them in different lights, depending what choice you made. That was kind of fun actually, to be able to explore the characters a little further than we might have be able to had we just done one storyline.
It was a lot of work, that was the one thing that was daunting; two storylines and we wanted to be faithful to the characters in both storylines. That was tricky, but that’s why it helps having three writers, because we were always able to challenge each other. I’d read something that someone had written and I’d be like, “Is that how it would be?” Then we’d end up with a dialogue about that and a lot of that went on, and I think it helped us come up with a stronger storyline.
So do you see the same story from two perspectives then, or can we expect totally different experiences and paths?
They both have the same goal. That was our way to anchor it all. We didn’t want them just going off in two different directions, we wanted an anchor... they’re both trying to find this sacred site. How you get there and the story that is told along the way to get there, is completely different.
Do you try and get them to sympathise with both parties?
I think, yeah, that’s right. We didn’t want one party to seem like the villain and one party to seem like the good guys. We wanted... it’s not so much to sympathise, we wanted players to at least understand why the choices were made along both paths. Why the RDA is doing what they’re doing and why the Na’vi are doing what they’re doing. I think a player will sympathise with whoever they want to sympathise with, but at least they’ll have an understanding as why things are happening the way they are.
I think in any game, in the ideal world, the two of them are speaking together. Gameplay is always going to be key, that’s why we play games, right? To interact, but I think that the more we can make sure the story is not just an add-on, but feels compelling, the more it feels integrated. It helps with a player’s immersion. No one wants to be told a story. No one wants to necessarily have a story hammered on them. An example I was using earlier was Portal, and how that game just gently eases you into the story. That’s ultimately what you want a game to do. You don’t want it to be imposed on you, you just want to realise it’s there around you...
So to be a part of it, more than drive it?
From my perspective, you always want to feel like you’re driving it, but I think, we still also want to be told a story. That’s my perspective anyway, and I think people have a different philosophy on that. My sense is, people don’t necessarily want to write their story, but they want to feel like they’re guiding the story and feel like they’re being given a unique adventure.
Story in games is often criticised because it’s not up to par with other mediums like books and films. Do you see that changing in the future? Or will it always take a back seat to gameplay?
It’s a tough one and it’s a valid criticism. I think the main reason we’re struggling, is because, film, books, they’ve all figured out their language of storytelling. They know how to tell a story within their mediums. Books and films are very different in terms of how they tell their story and they both work and they both know what they’re doing. We’re still figuring it out in games, we haven’t even got our language, we still haven’t even got the basics of our language of storytelling, so how can we tell a story that’s on par with film?
What’s it like from your perspective trying to shake the movie tie-in stigma?
I think it was something we were aware of, it wasn’t something that we were like, “Okay, we have to stop this perception.” It was more just, we already felt like we were out of the gate in a really solid way, just the very fact that we were brought on so early. That right away made us feel like, “Okay, we’re in good shape here!” The studio, Ubisoft, the whole way, this was a triple A title for us, always considering it as one. This is one of big releases this year [for Ubisoft], right? That attitude has just driven us. We haven’t been so focussed on it. It does come up, we’re not freaking about it, we’re more focussed on, “Let’s put out a solid game.” That’s the main thing we’re trying to do.
Where do you even start in creating a moon the size and detail that Pandora has? It’s different with films because you don’t have chance to explore like you do in a game...
The assets we got from them was a huge help. We got everything and then it came down to the art director and the level designers to sort of figure out how we structure this world. It was definitely challenging because you’re right, the film just has to show you this, and that, but we have to create every little bit, every way around... if you want to go over that hill, there will be something there. So for sure, there is a lot of planning.
Because we had all the assets though, it really just came down to making sure that we were giving an exciting path that the player is going to enjoy. Different paths... cause we try to keep it, as much as possible, we wanted each of these locations to feel pretty open, so that you aren’t just going on rails through the game. You’re able to explore. That’s the whole idea right? We want the players to be able to explore it. For sure, it was challenging, but it was lots of different versions of each level that helped us get there.
Can we see more open environments, it’s quite corridor –esque from what I’ve seen at the moment...
Early on, that stuff you’re seeing is very much to...
Hold your hand through the basics?
Yeah, if you look around there are lots of ways to take on those paths. The demo was definitely very much, this is your path through, but that was for the purposes of the demo. Each of the levels, each of the maps, I think is 1km by 1km. They’re quite big, so while we’ve got specific objectives... you’ve got to go here, or here, or here, the way you get there is pretty much up to the player. I think there’s kind of an optimum way through, but really you can go any way you want. The way we want to encourage that more, is with the sector challenges. We want people to check out different parts of the levels.
And it’s out end of November, beginning of December?
Yeah, a couple of weeks before the movie comes out.
You must be pretty happy with the slippages?
*laughs* If they want to do that, it’s their choice. *laughs*