Acclaimed sci-fi writer Richard Morgan has made his name with a series of hardboiled, visceral cyberpunk tomes, of which his initial 2002 breakthrough novel Altered Carbon has been bought up for film rights, for a cool million dollars. He’s also Lead Writer for the reboot of Peter Molyneux’s 1993 isometric point-and-click classic. I stole 20 minutes with Richard and pried into the process of the reboot, the art of being a videogame lead writer, and what we can expect from the Starbreeze’s new baby.
If you could, please summarise the story of Syndicate in a nutshell.
Syndicate is about what happens when you plug into consumerism, in the deepest sense of the word. When you allow your dreams to be satisfied through a consumer matrix, and what you lose along the way – and what happens when nothing matters except the bottom line.
How did you get involved with developers Starbreeze and the Syndicate reboot project?
It was really flattering. I got an email ’08 from John Miles at EA saying he was a great fan, and asked if I wanted to write for him. We shot the breeze, and the next thing I know I’m on a flight to Berlin to meet Starbreeze.
Tell us more about Starbreeze – developers of the original The Darkness.
What they bring to the table is a total lack of American morality – you know, that instinctive flinching from ambivalence, anything that besmirches your hero – all the stuff that stamps over blockbuster film making, making it fit consumption for 12 year olds. They’re quite comfortable with dark - maybe it's a Scandinavian thing.
How does the Lead Writer fit into the production process?
Varies from studio to studio – I worked on Crysis 2 and have consulted on several games. The first draft of Syndicate was originally written late ’08 and I was given a blank sheet of paper. The story I wrote was a long way from what was floating around. It’s revised along the way to suit gameplay dynamics and cut scenes. There’s a sense that you’re writing to order – an initial treatment, and revisions that will take several hours and then your done – very different from writing a novel where its more of an organic hole without that ‘job done’ feel. I don't tend to write my novels with much of a plan, unaware of where the second half is going. With age and wisdom, I’m trying to be less obsessive/compulsive about writing – you have to know when to draw a line.
The move from isometric 3D shooter to FPS for Syndicate is a controversial one…
The FPS genre is a good fit - my books are very protagonist driven which works with the genre - and I’m a big fan of FPS’s. When I write a novel, I write the type of novel I want to read. Same with games, I’m writing the type of game I want to play.
Have you always been a big gamer then?
Before I was a full time writer, I was an English language teacher. I don't know if you're aware, but it’s a pretty miserable way to scrape together a living. Very much something to do when you’re young and don’t realise that you’re broke. I had neither the time nor the disposable income to play videogames. So when I got my big break movie deal, book deal – suddenly at the end of 2002 I had acres and acres of free time. 2002-3 I just jumped in with a PS1 and then graduated to PS2. The isometric 3D era of games was totally under my radar.
My first experience was of things like Crash Bandicoot, Croc andWipeout. I was blown away, as I was seeing these science fiction possibilities acted out. I wanted to hop over the barriers of Wipeout and explore. Quake and Doom had maps that look primitive now, but they had hidden areas, things you may not ever see. I’m still blown away on a regular basis – and I love the form.
How do games reach the same cultural acceptance as film?
If you give secondary importance to storytelling in developing, it won't work as a package. The problem is attitude - you have to give a shit. There are far too many people in game development who just don't. Why would you turn in an inferior product? Some developers go ‘This game is about the game play’ and the storyline becomes a secondary element to give structure. Uncharted works so well as Naughty Dog pour heart and soul into their story and the structuring. By the end I want you to feel torn away from my characters. As Roy Batty says in Blade Runner “I’ve done questionable things” – and I want this to be hanging over the player throughout. To question what does it means about the individual, and the way I’ve melded with the characters, and to ponder what is happening.
What are your thoughts on the likes of Skrillex and Digitalism soundtracking?
I’ve got a spot in my heart for indie-rock, but I think it’s great – perhaps everyone was expecting a languid minimalist backdrop with so much visual direction drawing from the Blade Runner pot. The story is about guys with computers in the heads, being filled with chemicals, doing unpleasant things. The edgy, upbeat feel complements this perfectly.
Syndicate is undoubtedly going to labelled as ‘Cyberpunk’ – is this a spiritual return to the Takeshi Kovacs series? (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Woken Furies)
The ‘cyberpunk’ phrase has almost become a cliché. There’s a memeplex around the genre territory that I used in those Takeshi Kovacs books, and it was more a question of revisiting this memeplex. The towers in the night, the sense of alienated loners, cyborg assassins, empowered corporations and dirty deeds. Market Forces is probably a close match for Syndicate in the sense that it’s about how corporations run wild without any government oversight. I think it was Bruce Sterling that said cyberpunk was “high tech and low life” and that's pretty much what you’re looking at. There are no good guys – everyone is good, but from their own point of view. You bring your own morality to the fiction - it’s not up to the writer to drop moral pointers, and this behaviour is something that disappoints me a lot in film and writing.
Syndicate is out on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on 24 February