True story: I first met Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon scribe Lucien Soulban in a howling snowstorm while trying desperately to chase down a box of RPG supplements that had mysteriously been diverted to Pittsburgh, along with my pants.
Despite that, he’s still speaking to me, while at the same time laying down an impressive track record in RPGs (Orpheus, Vampire: The Masquerade), fiction (Desert Raiders, The Alien Sea) and of course, videogames (Rainbow Six: Vegas). It is my pleasure, then, to take my ridiculously talented old friend and put him on the hot seat. Here now are his takes on writing for media licenses, the missing member of the ’80s action movie pantheon, and the most impressive burger metaphor ever used on this blog.
Without further ado, Lucien Soulban.
Who the heck are you?
Lucien Soulban is who the heck I am – a Lead Writer at Ubisoft Montreal. My alter egos include a tabletop game writer and a fiction writer. By my narratives powers combined, I am First Lieutenant Planet, though I’m told my papers are coming in for a promotion to Captain.
You come from a background in tabletop RPGs. What’s the difference between writing those and writing for videogames?
If I were using a thick paintbrush to draw the comparisons? The stakes involved in both influence the process. Videogames start as a passion for an individual, but companies spend a lot of money to make money. So creativity is scrutinized with the same lens used to divine programming and level design, making it creatively challenging for writers and artists, but the payoff is financial stability, a wider audience and being on the forefront of interactive storytelling, which is exciting.
Tabletop games start as a passion that must grow more intense to keep you in the game (so to speak). Companies don’t have the same bankroll, so the tradeoff to less financial security is that companies give us writers more leeway to explore and embrace ideas. We also don’t have to worry about curtailing themes or subject matter because of potential translation issues.
With a finer brushstroke, tabletop RPGs are creatively liberating because we’re encouraged to trigger the player’s imagination and are then rewarded for it. The worlds we write about are limitless and we do more to encourage thinking outside the box. The AI we face is that of another player’s imagination. Videogames are limited by technology, and that can create some hard borders. Where videogames shine, however, is in more than just graphics- and gameplay-related areas. They shine in telling a story while tabletop games shine in providing the playground of a mythology.
A lot of your early videogame work was in writing for games based off other media licenses. What’s the difference between working on a license like, say, High School Musical, and then moving to a license that originated in games, like Far Cry?
You really had to go for High School Musical. [Author’s note: Yes. Yes, I did.] You couldn’t have asked me about Kim Possible or Enchanted or any of those. Okay, all right… media license games were a fantastic starting point for getting credits under the belt, and they were liberating. The voices and the plot were already there. I just needed to watch the shows and be true to the experience. Essentially, I was smoothing out the transition between existing chapter titles. But they were also deceptive. I was brought in late in the design process and I had to write to spec. I knew enough to ask for the Game Design Document so I could figure out how to smooth the gameplay objectives into the text, but it was mostly dialogues.
Fast forward to AAA titles like Rainbow Six: Vegas and Far Cry 3, and I’m in the trenches. Just writing dialogue is no longer enough; you need to contribute to the team. You need to take intentions from every corner and make them cohesive, and you need to make your voice heard without being obnoxious about it. I love it. It’s a big old mess of production, like a fat burger dripping with juice and ketchup and mayo, and every bite is a gourmand’s money shot. (Can I say that?) Working on media tie-ins, I was alone. Working on AAA games, I’m on a team making contributions in ways I never would have guessed. And those contributions echo across the industry. It’s a heady feeling that I’m being heard in an industry grossing more than Hollywood.
The standard videogame protagonist is a mid-30s stubbly-bearded brown-haired white guy with a raspy voice. As an openly gay man working in the industry, what do you think the odds are that we’ll get a mid-30s stubbly-bearded brown-haired white guy with a raspy voice who is gay as a lead character in a AAA title?
Oh boy. I think the real question is, When are going to get a gay/lesbian AAA hero(ine) who isn’t a one-off joke? You look at Javier Bardem in Skyfall, his character’s sexuality was total shtick to satisfy one scene. Otherwise, he was a narcissist with mommy issues, and a pedophile to boot. His “seduction” of Bond was nothing more than vanity because Bond was his reflection, the new “him.” Yay. So it bothers me when I hear people using his performance as a benchmark for diversity in entertainment, and I have heard it being bandied about.
So when are we going to see that gay protagonist in a AAA game? Not for a while, I suspect, because of fears that it’ll impact sales. So either we’ll see a bait-and-switch like the original Metroid with Samus Aran where we’ll find out damn near after the fact (PS: And Dumbledore was gay), or it’ll come out of left field with Rockstar, Valve, Naughty Dog or Telltale, perhaps. But when it happens, I hope it’s a serious take on it and not played up for jokes.
Are we at a place where we’ll start seeing more gay and lesbian characters in games? If not, what’s it going to take to get us there?
We’ll definitely see more of them, and I think it’s happening quietly. Look at the choices offered in Mass Effect II & III, or Fable III, or Dragon Age II or Skyrim, the gay characters in Borderlands 2 who mention it without much fanfare, etc. Videogames have stopped “announcing” gay characters. They’re introducing them without much fanfare in an effort to say, Yeah, it’s there and pretty normal. Call it: We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re busy working.
Last question: Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon – on a scale of Jack Burton to Snake Plissken, how awesome is it?
It’s like you threw an Eighties-themed party and everyone showed up dressed like Arnold, Sly, Kurt, Biehn and JCVD [Jean-Claude Van Damme], or with costumes from Robocop to Aliens to Terminator to Predator to Cobra. In fact, at the 2012 Halloween, the team costume photos included characters from our game, Mad Max types, me in a Skeletor costume and the Creative Director Dean Evans dressed as Hobocop (Robocop + noteworthy honorary addition to the ’80s ranks: Hobo with a Shotgun). It was all your Saturday morning cartoons rolled into one, and it would have been a perfect cartoon series… if you pulled out the swearing and the ripping out of cyborg hearts. I’ve never had that much fun making a game in a team setting. I got to relive the best parts of my childhood and justify every VCR tape and action figure I ever bought.
Many thanks to Lucien for sharing his thoughts with us. You can follow him on twitter at @luciensoulban.
Read up on Richard Dansky’s videogame writing tips in his other Write Stuff columns: