Thursday, June 19, 2014

DESTINY: A Future That I Don't Own, Part 1

The odyssey began four years ago.

An email came looking for me.  I didn't recognize the author, but there was a friendly tone attached to a Tor account.  So I took notice.  Eric said that he was an editor working for my old publisher. But this wasn't about my novels, no. He was contacting me with the possibility of doing work for another company.  The prospective employer wasn't in the book business, at least not directly.  What the company was building was a very specific product with science fiction overtones.  Did I have any interest?

Interest is an easy reflex.  I gave Eric my phone number.  And then I calmly warned myself this would never pan out.

That takes the pressure off, the sense of unavoidable failure.

And here's another relaxation trick:  Strangers on the phone aren't real.  Discussing feelings and business with human beings can be difficult.  But sharing the same words with a conspiracy of software and electrons dancing along copper...well, that’s a lot easier game.

A voice called, and he said that he was Eric. And after some forgotten pleasantries, the voice asked if I knew anything about the game industry.

Like Monopoly?

No, he was thinking about video games.

I had played a lot of Civilization, I confessed.

He wondered if I’d ever played a shooter game called Halo.

The name sounded familiar.  At least that’s what I told him, trying to be polite.

What about Bungie?  Did I know that name?

I thought of bold young men, bare-chested and leaping off bridges.

No, he explained. Bungie was the company that invented Halo, and after buying their freedom from Microsoft, those bare-chested boys were inventing a new game.  And for some reason or another, I was on the short-list of SF authors who might fit in.

Again, I told myself that this would never work.

And then I asked for details.

Which Eric couldn't give me.  He said that he wasn't the person to do this.  Because he didn't know that much.

Who did?


So I had to talk to Joseph.  Except first, I had to deal with a wave of non-disclosure forms.  It makes a man feel special, putting his signature to a venture so important and so mysterious that it wears a special code name.

Knowing nothing, I was suddenly part of Tiger.

Joseph called.  Or some synthetic voice born from a digital ocean.  Really, anything involving the game industry should be looked upon with suspicion.  At some point, the fakes are going to rule the flesh.  That much is inevitable.

Anyway, Joseph called.

Eric had implied that there were five candidates for the position.

But there weren't.  According to Joseph, there was me, and if I said no, then the others would get their calls.

A salesman's pitch or truth?

Probably a little of both.

He gave me nuggets about the embryonic game.  He said that we should meet.  I might have been a bit wishy-washy about when I could travel to Seattle.  My daughter was still in elementary school, and my wife worked most evenings.  But right away, Joseph claimed to be eager to fly to Lincoln and meet with me.

It was spring, 2010.  I steered Joseph to the best hotel--a newish Embassy Suites across the street from the downtown Y.  He flew in late at night, and we met the next morning in his embassy suite.  Very friendly guy, but with a x-ray laser focus on the assignment.  His equipment didn't play with the room’s television, so using the small laptop monitor, he showed me concept art and schemes from Tiger.  A gamer would want to know about the functions of playing, the weapons and rewards.  Not me.  I loved the artwork and I was curious about the aliens and worlds, but I kept warning him that I didn't know anything about any of this game stuff, and don’t count on me to ever play it.

But I wasn't being hired for the game part, no.  I was going to help them with Story.


Sketched out before me was a future history, complete with a timeline and illustrations.

On my own, I would never have written this history.

But I could appreciate its roots and vision.

Bungie had cobbled together a complicated universe, vivid and immediate in places, barely born in others.  I was introduced to monsters and heroes, big god-like objects and transformed versions of our familiar local worlds.  This was a shooter game tied to an epic.  There were continuity concerns and an overarching story to put together, and a lot of my questions were answered with admissions along the lines of:  “We haven’t quite figured that out yet.”

After a full morning, we broke for lunch.

The Oven, a downtown Indian restaurant.  Nice time.  And I learned a lot about games and movie making and the like.

Then back to work.  Except poor Joseph was dealing with a man in his 50s, and I was getting over a head cold, and even on my best day, I can’t focus on someone else’s dream for eight hours straight.

The info dumps had their effect.  And I was pretty obviously out of fuel.

So our meeting ended early.  But I was interested, even a little passionate about Tiger.  Joseph flew home, and some pleasant negotiations followed.  An agreement was made about pay and duties, triggering another wave of non-disclosures, along with contracts defining who-owned-what from my work.  (Hint:  Bungie.)  And then as summer began, the relationship was consummated with the delivery of a laptop--the first laptop that I had ever used.

I’d like to report that it was a state-of-the-art beast.  Isn't that what you’d expect from a triple-A company?  But no, it was a low-powered plastic fellow that gave me fits and then died.  But the next machine proved far more capable, although I managed to screw up the power cord and expense out a replacement.  And there were unending issues with security codes.  My machine kept forgetting where it was and who I was, requiring help from invisible IT people.  But at least I had the means to write, and Joseph and nameless others seemed happy enough with my efforts.  Mostly, my job was to contrive SF reasons and suggest plot twists and then invent settings for the far future. Oh, and I did a lot of work on the central villain too.

It was a fun, lucrative summer. My head was happily dancing with an unexpected partner, aiming at goals that I would never have imagined without prompting.

Aliens and high-tech and magical-tech wrapped around the future of mankind.

Then with summer done, I climbed aboard a primitive Boeing jet and went west to see the Bungie boys, and a very few Bungie women.


While at home, seemingly every day that summer, I would sign onto the network to talk to Joseph and get various warnings. Apparently Bungie had epic parking problems.  People were always leaving their vehicles where they shouldn't be, and helpful photos came with the threat of being towed. If this was my vehicle, I read, then I’d better get it out of there, preferably ten minutes ago.

Funny.  A piece of me was always checking for the blue CRV.  Wouldn't that be something?  My car decides to drive all night, on its own...well, that isn't the most unlikely future, and probably in another 10 or 15 years.

But I digress.

The parking problems were solved just before I reached Seattle.  I was put up in the usual Bungie hotel, but the company itself had left for larger quarters.  The hotel driver--a nice retired military man--drove me to the new address.  But he had never been to these offices, and he didn't know where I should go.  It was raining, of course. And it was early in the morning by game-industry times, probably before nine.  But I had a Starbucks in sight.  I thanked him and got a Vendi, and then I made an inadequate search of the nearest office building.  Bungie wasn’t advertising it’s suite number, that much was apparent.

What to do?

The rain kept coming.  I was dressed for a Nebraska drought.  But a couple young fellows in t-shirts were marching my way, holding their own Vendis.  The Seattle rain was a cliche, and they looked like cliched gamers.  I approached and threw out some names, and one of them said, “Joseph?  Joe?  Yeah, we’ll take you right up.”

The Bungie headquarters used to be a multiplex.

It’s been gutted and remodeled.  A small city could survive with just the electricity streaking under the false floors.  The main room is a huge space wearing darkness, save for the little lamps down below, and the giant monitors.  Think of Jack Bauer and 24, fighting terrorists. There were a little more than a hundred workers, if memory serves.  (There’s more than five hundred now.)  For the next two days, I was shown videos and charts, and game design was explained, and I learned that I would never master anything important about the care and feeding of games.

Everybody was very busy.

Every meeting had to be squeezed between other meetings.

I met people.  Jason, for instance.  I had lunch with people.  But it wasn't until a big lunch with Jason and others that I got a half-clear sense of why I was hired.  It was because of my Marrow universe, in part.  They liked the Great Ship quite a bit.  I had sensed as much long ago. But what surprised me was the passion for SISTER ALICE.  Alice Chamberlain was a long-ago invention of mine, a character who ended up serving in five novellas, all published in ASIMOV’S SF.  Later, I pulled those stories together into one novel.  But the book was crippled with a lousy stock-style cover--not the fault of the illustrator, I heard subsequently.  SISTER had little push in the market place, which also hurt.  Plus as everybody knows, story collections fail to sell.  And when an author’s sales drop, he is finished in the business and must be killed.

ALICE was one reason why Tor Books gave up on me.

Yet my Bungie fans didn't see failure.  They had found an author with a strong visual sense and a gamer’s taste for colorful violence.

Alice Chamberlain, a goddess who builds living worlds, earned me work with Bungie.

I’m riding a future that I never would have imagined.


Specifics.  I can’t talk specifics.  What I have done for Bungie, or what I am doing now.

There are legal reasons, and more importantly, there are the ancient needs of a writer to keep the twists out of easy view.

And frankly, there’s only so much that I truly know about the game.

Which is called Destiny, by the way.

I wrote a lot of words.  Invented scenarios.  Built explanations for the beautiful, often ill-matched images that I had seen.  And I used voices of game characters too.  With my own work, I often forget the details, particularly after several years.  (Did I write that?  If you say so.)  Most of what I have done in my professional life has been left behind.  That’s the way of creativity. Purposeful carnage. It's that way in books and in bookkeeping, and it’s even more that way with Bungie.  I had to write things that were good enough for me, but then the words had to pass through others too.  Writing for Destiny was like landing on Omaha Beach.  A lot of your best soldiers had to drown in the surf, without any sense of drama.

After all the security pitfalls, I had one sweet moment of revenge.

At the mentioned lunch, people asked about Marrow and the Great Ship and what would happen next.  Jason asked.  Did I have plan for the epic?

Of course I had a plan.  A very clear plan, I lied.

(Now I do, pretty much.)

Anyway, in a loud voice, I asked if they’d like to hear my secret plan.

Boys in t-shirts leaned across the round table, waiting.

“First,” I said, “you need to sign nondisclosure forms.”

That brought laughter.

And a nice distraction. Because in the end, I escaped from having to tell them anything significant.


What else can I mention, while revealing almost nothing?

Let’s try this:

During my Seattle visit, almost four years ago, I saw various mock-ups of a central character in the Bungie universe.  The character was always round, but with different exteriors and interiors. Different sizes and set in various points above the earth.  And out of all those possibilities, there was one piece of artwork that just sang to me.  That’s what I told Joseph.

“This is the one that gets my heart pounding,” I said, or words to that effect.

And that happens to be the direction they went.

I don't know if I had any role in the final decision, or if like minds move in the same directions. Either way, the Traveler floats close to the Earth that it protects, enigmatic for now and maybe for always…


  1. I've always loved the Sister Alice stories. Had to track down old Asimov magazines on eBay to put the story together before the book came out. Now I have the book and I try to get other people to read it.

  2. My favorite author and favorite game developer collaborating. Dream come true.