Alain Damasio, a writer of worlds
From Sci-fi To Video Games
You’ve written several sci-fi works and essays, using a variety of formats, such as the novel and the short story. How did you end up working in the field of video games?
It was thanks to Aleksi Briclot, a great illustrator who had really liked my first novel La Horde du Contrevent and who came to tell me he was launching a project with three other friends. They wanted to develop an action-adventure game with a strong narrative component, and they were looking for someone who could build a script, who could carry the story and create an actual world. Since I’m an expert on half-assed projects, I dove right in. We would get together on Tuesday evenings to drink beer and talk about the game.
Originally, Dontnod Entertainement was only made up of five founding members: Oskar Guilbert, the boss who had already worked at high levels in the videogame industry, Jean-Maxime Moris, the creative director who did an amazing job on the gameplay but also on the integration of speculative concepts, Hervé Bonin, the production manager who brought his intuition and his agile work methods, Aleksi Briclot who created an aesthetically magnificent universe, and of course myself.
A miracle took place very quickly: we crossed paths with a billionaire from Bulgaria, a top level scientist, who fully financed the design of the project. A lucky star for sure! Dontnod went from five to eighty employees in two years. For four years now, we’ve been developing a triple A action-adventure game that’s scheduled to be released next year.
« Initially, I asked them to put "Master of the Universe" on my card, but God got offended. »
Your Dontnod business card says that you are "story director". What exactly does one do as a "story director" ?
Initially, I asked them to put "Master of the Universe" on my card, but God got offended and said no. That’s unfortunate. I worked on the game the same way I work on my books. I start from a philosophical concept that I find powerful, with unlimited potential, capable of many variations. Then I make them vibrate and come alive in a very concrete and embodied way, and from there is derived a world that is as consistent possible. From that world, I give shape to a number of characters, and they themselves give birth to the story. It’s a strange process, in reverse order of what is usually done (character, then story, then world).
I totally committed to the adventure but I had warned them: my primary objective was still to write my future novel The Stealthy. So I only planned to be involved with the project for three years at the most, even though I figured the work would take four of five years. I worked alone for almost a year and a half on the bible for the story, then I told the founders that if I wanted to stay on deadline I would need to hire seven part-time writers for eight months. In my little team, there were three sci-fi writers (Léo Henry, Jacques Mucchielli and Stéphane Beauverger, a big expert on video games who subsequently replaced me), screenwriters, filmmakers, and even a dialogue expert.
For eight months, they helped me make the whole world of the game unfold. It was really funny because every week, I handed them assignments on the future: "So this time, you’re going to brief me on ecology in the year 2080, and you there, you’re going to explain to me how people will be entertained in the future, and you over there are going to tell me what people will be eating in 2080, and you are going to tell me about the political system and the resistance during that time period."
The eight of us really went crazy discussing the future, and we were able to come up with the story bible in the timeframe I had given myself. A story bible is a document that condenses, summarizes and structures what the world of a video game will be from a political, sociological, or technological perspective, but it also describes the player and non-player characters, the robots and the monsters; the script. You get everything from the ecology of that world, to the terrorist acts of the resistance groups, the architecture of the different neighborhoods, strange sites, the economic mindset, etc. It turns out that our bible didn’t condense things much because it took up a thousand printed sheets of legal size paper… We had to reduce it to two hundred pages so that the game designers could read it without screaming!
So, to be the "story director" means to put all that into place, with constant interaction, obviously, with the entire body of the videogame field: game design, graphic art, animation, sound, cinematography, etc.
« Video games are huge consumers of cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic worlds, dystopias or space operas: all the sci-fi genres are represented there. »
When you built your team, you chose sci-fi authors. Is there a strong porosity between the fields of sci-fi and videogame?
Yes, very strong. Video games are huge consumers of cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic worlds, dystopias or space operas: all the sci-fi genres are represented there. Artists like Stéphane Beauverger embody that porous quality. He’s a videogame expert who’s been working in that field for over fifteen years. He’s created games and written many scripts, all while having a career as a remarkable writer at the same time, which was rewarded in 2010 with the Imagination Grand Prix. Along the same lines, there is David Calvo, who’s also published at La Volte – it seems our publishing house is specializing in that porous quality.
Speaking of which, could that bible be sold as a book or maybe even in different formats? I’m thinking for example of the format of a prospective study.
A lot of things could come out of that material: comic books, TV series, novels, short stories, maybe even a movie, but the game itself already has a significant power of deployment. Our two hundred pages synopsis presents a futuristic vision of Paris in 2080 which, in many ways, could serve as a prospective study: it’s fiction but fiction that is well documented and supported, fiction that was imagined based on more recent trends and that follows criteria of plausibility, internal consistency, and verisimilitude. In that bible for example, you get a wild geopolitical history that goes from 2012 to 2080, expectations that were chiseled out of control technology, healthy lifestyle, others were based on cognitive changes to come. There were even a hundred pages on awesome architecture and city planning!
Its strength is that it brings together visions of the future from eight creative minds with personal cultures and different visions. Even though I gave them targeted instructions, the seven narrators never stopped anticipating in other ways and expanding on my postulates. Namely, I had a major political focus – based on anthropological-technological hunches that I’ve been thinking about a lot, what I foresee with the evolution of digital technologies and social networks, with the desire to control citizens, with the traceability of this desire, which involving modes of resistance that are pretty new and subtle. Resistance was often my central focus. But I gave the writers a lot of freedom to refine, open up, resist. When I read pages that surprised me, it was enjoyable. I love being betrayed – when that betrayal is intelligent and goes beyond what I was able to anticipate.
« As a result, there is a massive loss of narrative material in the black hole of graphic art and game design. »
In order to go from a thousand to two hundred pages, you had to make massive cuts in the original text of the story bible. What is left when, in the end result, it becomes the script for the video game?
Oh wow, virtually nothing ! Maybe twenty percent of the characters, one robot and one enemy out of ten, and okay, let’s say probably one fourth of the original script! What is really sad, or rather really constraining and therefore frustrating for a story team when it comes to video games, is that at the onset they have tremendous creative freedom, which is going to be reduced drastically during the cooking process. Because a game is a game, first and foremost, not a story or a vision of the future, no matter how rich it might be! With video games, the heart of the medium is the game design. The game designers develop game devices and these devices impose incredibly strict constraints on all branches in the field. As a result, there is a massive loss of narrative material in the black hole of graphic art and game design. But the way I see it, the original concept was maintained and that’s already a lot.
In the end, I figure maybe five percent of the things established in the story bible – which we were so happy and proud of – are really visible and active in the game that’s going to come out. So you have to accept the fact that you’re going to give the game designers and concept artists a huge amount of material and then tolerate seeing only a tiny part of that being kept.
What is great and rewarding at the same time is that the game designers, the 2D illustrators, the 3D modelers, the animators and so on, often loved being fed such a deep wealth of material. They were able to use this narrative material to create images, characters, even gameplays. They sorted out, vetted, cut, based on technical constraints and their own artistic sensibilities, and that I respect completely.
And how does the process work for going from the literary description of a world to its graphic rendering as part of a video game?
It’s difficult! The concern is that sometimes the visual construction of that world remains a bit un-correlated to the story construction originally laid out. Then the whole problem of convergence emerges, of similarities in vision and of the synergy between that graphic sphere that is going to conceive a highly visual world and the narrative sphere that offers directions that are at times abstract, at times very concrete instead, and which are all the more inconvenient for unwittingly interfering with the artistic direction.
For me, that was a big source of disappointment. I’ll use the example of the main character we developed for the game. Just like with my novels, I developed a very elaborate character backstory, in which I described the character’s background, environment, quest, personality, look, and body language. I also described the way he views the world, his relationship with himself and with others. Then, I deliver this to the illustrators who are going to draw him and then hand him over to the 3D modeler, who is going to give him volume. Then, third betrayal or third "interpretation", the animators take over to give him movement.
In the game, the main character that was developed bears little resemblance to the one I had built. Sometimes, it borders on total misinterpretation. Yet you have to accept this appropriation of your imagination by graphic artists who come on board with their own visions, desires, and choices, and who will have final say anyway since they create the image that you will play. You propose, they dispose… And sometimes… indispose!
« My visions vibrate more through body language, in what is vague, in energy and movement. »
You created a character for a video game, and the characters from La Horde du Contrevent are going to be animated for an up-coming film adaptation. What is difficult for you, in both cases, about reconciling your imagination with the images of the creative teams?
I function in a very literary way. Inside me, words and the very rhythm of a sentence generate an imagination that is mobile, that moves and vibrates. I also feel and am convinced that imagination is more powerful than images. It’s rare for me to get more out of an image in a movie than a lofty philosophical concept or a great literary text. I have a perspective of the world that is more fluid, that is less static and framed than an image, which to me has something frontal about it, which acts like a wall, or a screen, that blocks imagination. My visions vibrate more through body language, through what is vague, through energy and movement. Images block me, dry me up. They don’t allow me to develop what I imagine, they reify it for me. Yes, that’s it: they reify my imagination!
So when people ask me if I’m happy to finally see a character or the city from the video game being drawn, or even Golgoth, a character from La Horde du Contrevent, I reply "no". It doesn’t do anything for me, I would even say it takes something away from me: it makes me prisoner of an image and I don’t take any pride in that. On the other hand, I’m very attracted to sound and putting things to sound, which, in my opinion, doesn’t impede imagination but rather expands it. I was recently involved in a work of sound design on La Horde du Contrevent* at the Radio Grenouille studios, and to me that was ten times more involving than an illustration of my worlds.
Compared to the process of literary writing, where you really direct the story and are completely responsible for the world that unfolds, what did you like about writing a video game?
What I loved about video games is precisely that it’s about a completely collective creative process. It really does away with ego. It makes you accept others for their differences, their instincts that are opposite to yours, their personalities, their own creativity. But I don’t for that matter want to give an idyllic vision of it: there are tensions, conflicts, times when you argue and yell and, at the same time, with hindsight, that’s what I liked, that’s the part that was the most enriching to me.
We weren’t in a wimpy consensus mode, we were in a dissention mode, but it was dynamic, and driven. We had to work in a context of frequent dissention, work with ways of thinking that were sometimes at odds with each other and yet you still have to produce, you still have to move forward… And it does move forward! Sometimes, you have to give up certain things, sometimes it’s the other person who lets go of a direction that was important to him, sometimes we’re in perfect synergy and it’s awesome… I really like that contradiction dynamic, which, in the end, gives life to a creature that has the DNA of all of us.
« Even though the gamer follows a predetermined story, he still enjoys a great amount of freedom through which he is going to experience the story his way, at his pace, at his own speed. »
Speaking of giving things up, isn’t directing the story of a video game ultimately about accepting that it slips away from you little by little, from being put into images by the creative team to being put into motion by the players?
Ah, of course! The more the project moves forward, the less the story belongs to us. Even though the gamer follows a predetermined story, he still enjoys a great amount of freedom through which he is going to experience the story his way, at his pace, at his own speed. In my opinion, that’s where you find the greatest difference with literary writing. When I write a book, I see it as pre-stamping – namely thanks to the style – a sort of reading bio-rhythm, which has to do with the punctuation, the syntax, and the flow of the sentence. Of course, the reader can always interrupt his reading or read at a more or less quick pace. Despite all that, once he is in the sentence, he’s going to adopt the rhythm you established and feel the sensations that the written and sound material encapsulate.
Video games are also pre-guided by the scriptwriting context but, overall, the story flows at the tempo decided by the player. Another distinction: the flow of information that a gamer is able to assimilate is far less than what will be absorbed by a filmgoer who came to the movie theatre for the specific purpose of seeing a film, or the reader sitting in his armchair who is fully available mentally to read you. The reader has a very strong and very fresh perception of what you give him. He’s going to absorb a hundred percent of what you try to convey and even more, because he also invites sensations linked to sound, to the shape of the letters, etc.
With a video game, the player is active and when he’s active, there’s a big part of his mental and physiological availability that is taken up by playing, fighting, climbing, handling the joy stick. Thus we can only bring him a limited amount of information, or at least information that is a lot less complex than what is conveyed in film or literature. It’s a real challenge and the great strength of Stéphane Beauverger is his ability to handle that delicately, in the best way possible.
As an author, what drove and motivated you personally to take on that challenge?
I didn’t say this at the beginning of the interview but my desire to delve into the videogame field was motivated by the fact that it is currently the big popular medium, the one out of which kids today develop. Video games are now more popular than movies, for example. It’s also the most popular immersive hobby, which generates an intense intimate experience and which leaves traces.
At one point I said to myself: "You claim to write political work, you claim to have a vision of a radical left, you claim to try to provoke thought, reflection, and a certain desire to rebel in people. You now have the choice: either you stay with your elitist literature, read by highly educated people who find your style fabulous, blahblahblah, and so there; either you come down into the ring a bit and get your hands dirty."
The challenge I gave myself – which we gave ourselves, along with the founders – was to see to what extent we could twist this popular medium, which is always simplistic thematically and very, very mainstream, in order to bring interesting things to it, things with a bit more depth than usual and which in any case, would lead people to think about the times we live in.
After four years, I’m starting to get a pretty clear vision of that the game will be like. There are things I’m very happy about – such as the fact that the original concept was respected (thank you game designers!) and that the game leads to reflections on the way technology changes and reinvents the human beings that we are – but I find it sad that we had to dumb down the script to such an extent, as well as its world, and that we had to reduce its political dimension.
The medium is always more powerful than the message, it is the message – play! – but that is something that a little bit of culture could have warned me of…
* put to sound by Tony Regnauld and Floriane Pochon, as part of la Nuit de la Phaune #7