The game industry is a juggernaut.
Oh sure, a few people still read novels, and a few more pay too much to sit through two-hour light shows that pretend to be movies. But nothing today builds passion and a following like popular electronic games. Millions of butts fill the seats, often for days at a time. This is what makes gaming a vibrant, many-billion-dollar industry--the heart of today's entertainment universe--and this is the industry that hired me to help with their half-born game.
Think of me as a girl. Not pretty, not unpretty. I'm just that mousy little thing sitting in Organic Chemistry, and Bungie is the school's starting quarterback. Bungie asks me out for a date. Maybe he wants me only because I can help with his homework. I'm not an idiot. I can see his brain working. But still, the big Bungie took me out for pizza and some Red Bull, and I can tell you this, I know one girl who has never had a better first date.
I was hired as a part-time consultant to the Destiny project. (Though the game was called Tiger in those remote times.) My job was to build SF rationales for their gorgeous, disjointed artwork and to offer suggestions for story lines and grand strategies. Most days, I'm a 5-cents-a-word tradesman. They paid me a lot more than 5 cents, and quite a few words were generated in those first months. But only pieces and slivers were used. Which I understood going in. The bosses might ask for 10 ideas, and I'd give them 23 notions, plus a couple wild speculations for free. Data is cheap; I guarantee they kept have everything. But most of my stuff got dumped, which was probably a blessing for everyone.
My first Destiny experience ended with an intriguing assignment. An object needed to be destroyed. This object is not exceptionally big, not in terms of the entire universe or even our modest-sized galaxy. But it was a substantial something, and to make the challenge more difficult, the destruction had to be achieved with technologies only a few centuries more advanced than ours.
When I write, I write for success. A worthy solution for a story problem must be elegant, and I have to believe in it. Reaching past my comfort zone, I invented some perfectly acceptable high-science nonsense full of tech-words and a smattering of reality. In my mind, success means that the job is done. The unnamed object was doomed. But of course that tragedy couldn’t happen. If my one beautiful, awful plan came true, Bungie's game would come to an end, and the company would fold, its former employees having to find work with Microsoft or some other corporate dung hole.
But the disaster cannot happen. That’s why Guardians stand on the front lines, doing the heroes’ work.
Guardians exist to keep my imagination from becoming true.
With that, our first date was done. Bungie thanked me for my work, fed my bank account, and offered vague promises about calling me in the future. But the future is a very big place. The universe might last another trillion years, give or take. It was easy to sit at home, watching my phone not ringing, watching my e-mail fill up with crap and distractions. But why complain? I was well paid once. I had some fun. That’s probably the mindset of the mousy gal who helps the quarterback find his camphor in the test sample. In reward, she gets three slices of pizza and an hour of pleasant talk from the best guy on campus.
“I’ll call you,” he says, giving her one good kiss.
Time passes, and I gave up. I had to give up. Life generates all kinds of excuses for hope. Far fetched dreams rise every day, and humans chase the good dreams. Wonders happen on occasion, or nothing changes. Then one day, more than a year after the first Bungie experience, a new e-mail arrives, tucked between the usual clutter.
“What Remains” was written late in my first Bungie go-around. It’s a rambling piece wrapped around one of the game’s protagonists. The character in question happens to be a god. This particular god has seen better days, and my assignment was to try and give the deity a voice and a distinct personality.
Smart writers tell you that you should never use the second-person POV. Second-person never works, or it’s too hard to write, or it’s pretentious, or it’s just stupid. But most writing never works, and it is hard to do, and it’s often stuck up and stupid at the same time. My POV claims that a great deal can be accomplished with the “you do this, you do that” perspective. Second-person has the advantage of being different and often unsettling, and just as important to me, it carries no hard sense of gender.
“You are a great mind gazing at the universe. You see All. You see the beauty and the misery. You see Yourself drifting in the chaos. And with Your great mind, You count the millions of errors made in Your long, flawed life.”
“What Remains” brought me back to Bungie. This time I was working with Eric, the one-time editor at Tor Books who had helped get me my first gig with Destiny. My task was simple enough: Rewrite my old piece into a new form. There was a plan in place. The plan involved music. (A plot twist that I never saw coming.) I met with the composer and others. This was the first project that was described with chords as well as imagery. And of course I said, “I might be able do this.” Although I couldn't be sure about anything at the time.
I was in the home office for a day and a half. I watched neat new videos from the evolving game. The Traveler was hanging low in the sky. The City was underneath it, temporarily safe. And the solar system was being populated with odd, gorgeous images.
Eric took me out for coffee in the end, and then the limousine picked me up and carried me to the airport.
I work at home. I don’t work well in strange places. That is, unless the strange place happens to be inside my skull.
For several weeks, there was nothing inside my skull but one wounded god. The original “What Remains” wasn't exactly spacious. Hundreds of words, not thousands. Lumped together, these new pieces would be larger but not mammothly so. Think poetry. Geeky neutronium-dense poetry. There was an overarching theme and a musical skeleton to the whole business. Eric was great to work with, but I was testing limits, warning him that I wanted to keep up my 2nd person POV. Fine, he said. I said that I might want to invent new content. Great, he said. The physical act of writing wasn’t time consuming, not in the final tally. What mattered was building a long-viewed logic and a sense of story that would map out my writing before it began.
In "What Remains," a wounded, despairing entity comes to the Earth, trying to save what remains, including Itself.
Back in 2012, I owned a Nook Color. Cumbersome, heavy. Quick to lock up and die. But the upgrade had come out, the Nook Tablet, and I was tempted to buy.
One day, I wrote what to me is the pivotal scene for “What Remains”. A god is plummeting out of the stars, moving too fast and desperate to slow down. Its godliness and its helplessness had to be shown, and I came up with a solution that felt both dramatic and reasonable. Of course this would happen, I thought. Of course, of course. I wrote the scene and then got up and drove to the nearest Barnes and Noble. I bought the Tablet--lighter, much quicker, and far less temperamental--and I gave the old Color to my daughter, triggering more than two years of relentless reading on her part.
I don’t know if my imagery will ever be used in the game.
But as far as I'm concerned, Bungie is the only place that has a production team capable of making this vision come true.
That second date proved brief. I heard about other work, and sure enough, a follow-up assignment was in the works. Eric contacted me out of the proverbial azure, and we had some nice chats about little stories that were to be wrapped about gun battles and such. Again, I was the girl in chem lab, and my quarterback was wondering if I was busy after class, and I canceled everything and said that of course I was free, yes, and then…
My quarterback didn’t call back.
Eric still works at Bungie. But there have been changes among the other faces, and huge transformations of the game’s story. The dialogue you hear on the screen was not written by me. But some of what I wrote has survived, including my second “What Remains”. Only it doesn't appear in the form that was intended.
From my POV, my words are in a better place.
They cut them up and buried them inside the game.
Pretty neat, huh?