Richard Morgan interview: writing Syndicate, the Altered Carbon movie adaptation and more

Ahead of Syndicate’s release later this month, here’s our interview with sci-fi author Richard Morgan about writing the game, the Altered Carbon movie and more…

For avid readers of science fiction and fantasy, Richard Morgan will need little introduction. Having gained immediate attention with his first novel, Altered Carbon, an ice-cool mix of detective noir and violent cyberpunk, Morgan’s carved out a reputation as one of the UK’s foremost genre writers.

It’s little surprise, given the technological themes and hardboiled style of Morgan’s fiction, that he’d be chosen as lead writer for Starbreeze Studios’ reimagining of the ultimate 90s dystopian videogame, Syndicate – everything from its mind-control themes to its tooled-up cyborgs in trenchcoats dovetails perfectly with Morgan’s darkly futuristic style.

Ahead of Syndicate’s release later this month, here’s our interview with Morgan, which covers everything from his personal taste in videogames, the process of writing for the medium, industry snobbery, to the exciting prospect of the long-mooted Altered Carbon movie…

Are you a fan of videogames? Had you played the original Syndicate from the early 90s?

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I came quite late to gaming, I didn’t start playing until 2002. Prior to that, I was an EFL [English as a foreign language] teacher so I had neither the time nor the disposable income to indulge. As a result, I missed out not just on Syndicate, but on the whole isometric thing. But once I was a published full time author that all changed, and I hit the consoles with a vengeance.

My earliest experiences of the form were PS1 re-issues of things like Quake and Doom, and then Max Payne and Timesplitters 2 when I upgraded to a PS2. Since then, I’ve been a crazy enthusiastic but very selective gamer – I tend to stick to a small number of high quality games and play them over and over. All time favourites are The Suffering, Doom 3, Max Payne, FEAR, then, more recently, the Dead Space and Uncharted franchises, Bioshock and – my one grudging concession to open world games, which I’m not a big fan of – the very brilliant Red Dead Redemption.

Syndicate is the second videogame you’ve written, after last year’s Crysis 2. How does the process of writing for games differ than, say, planning a novel?

In fact, Syndicate is technically the first game I worked on. I started there at EA’s request, and then got asked aboard with Crytek about a year later on the strength of the treatment I’d written for Starbreeze. In the end, of course, we wrapped up Crysis 2 first, but to all intents and purposes I was working on both games more or less in parallel.

As to the differences between game work and novel writing, well, obviously the former is a lot less lonely – you’re in and out of meetings all the time, bouncing stuff back and forth with the level designers, the art department, the animation team, so forth. And the work is a lot more chunked – a cut scene here to introduce character x, a raft of in-game lines there to take care of NPC faction y, some radio chatter here, a speech to set up a new level there…

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You take on these tasks, and a couple of hours later, chunk! You hand it over for sign-off. There’s a pleasant job-done gratification to working like that, something you don’t get in novel writing until you’ve penned your last line, which can be anything up to a couple of years. That said, obviously you own a novel in a way you can never own a game – it’s yours from start to finish, for better or for worse. With a game, you’re only one part of a team, and what emerges at launch is very much the culmination of the whole team’s efforts. You can be proud of playing your part, but it doesn’t ever belong to you.

How easy is it to integrate the designers’ ideas into your own, and does the creative process work both ways? For example, do ideas in your writing inspire the designers to add new elements to the game?

Yes, it’s very much a two way process. For example, I was given the chip-based gameplay as part of the existing furniture, and came up with Dart 6 in all her psychopathic glory as a result. Then again, I gave the dev team La Ballena to play with, and we ended up with some really cool nautical dynamics in that level as a result.

For me, some of the most intense creativity comes when something has to change for technical or design reasons, and you’re trying to find a way to make it fit the fiction. There are a couple of really cool scenes in Syndicate, stuff I’m really pleased with, that came about as a result of re-sets like that.

How early in Syndicate’s design process did you begin to write its story?

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I came in towards the end of 2008, at which point the game was still in the early conceptual stage – there was some artwork lying round, some sense of what the gameplay was going to look like, a few ideas for characters, but still no narrative as such. And my brief was very specific: start with a clean sheet of paper; if existing material could be incorporated, all well and good, but if not, it could be scrapped. Really, that’s an ideal position to be in – it means you already have some grist to work with, but you aren’t bound by any of it.

Games are often criticised for their rather lacklustre characterisation and stories. Do you think more novel writers or screenwriters should get involved in the games industry?

Well, I think more talented writers should get involved in the industry, yes, of course. But that doesn’t pre-suppose that those writers have to be novelists or screenwriters. There are some truly excellent game writers out there – Amy Hennig, Dan Houser, Sami Jarvi (Sam Lake), Ken Levine, Richard Rouse III, and that’s just off the top of my head.

None of those guys were hired out of another form of writing, they’ve all made their names within the industry. That said, there is indeed a huge amount of very poor story-telling in games, and I think this derives from the fact that story is always going to be – and rightly so – a support structure for the gaming experience, rather than the core of that experience.

It takes a certain kind of talent to understand that fact but still give a damn about the story for its own sake. It’s a balancing act. And those guys I just mentioned are all so successful because they can walk the beam and keep the balance. But maybe this is also why there’s been a recent leaning towards hiring outside writers – specifically because guys like me come in with the respect for story pre-installed. It’s our primary function after all. And I suppose the assumption is that we can then acquire the humility that’s required to balance the load – which, I have to say, is also something of a specific talent in itself!

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Is there a certain sense of distrust or snobbery directed towards the games industry, do you think, by some writers?

I imagine there must be – there certainly is in society at large, and writers are no more immune to snobbery than any other profession. But then again, I haven’t run up against it personally – most of the authors I know are actually quite enthusiastic about gaming. They’re all working within the SF or fantasy genre, true, and they’re all my age or younger, but still. Maybe some of the older, crustier mainstream literary authors are less enthusiastic – dunno, you’d have to ask them.

With your involvement in Crysis 2 and Syndicate, and Graeme Joyce’s involvement in Doom 4, do you think we’re gradually working towards a time where it’s no longer unusual for respected authors to cross over into the games industry?

I’d say we’ve already reached that point and gone beyond. Again, just off the top of my head, you’ve got Joyce, myself, Clive Barker, Alex Garland, Karen Traviss, Mark Laidlaw all already in the mix, and I personally know of a couple of others who’ve been asked to get involved with upcoming game projects too. There’s really no question – the barriers between media are definitely coming down. And good talent is wherever you find it.

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Given the collaborative nature of making games, and the sheer amount of content the average game contains, is writing one as time-consuming as writing a novel?

That will depend very much on the studio in question and how they choose to develop their game. I guess if I was made responsible for every single line of dialogue in a game and every single piece of textual visual detail, every sign or piece of grafitti, then yes, I think that would be comparable to the time and effort required to write a very long novel indeed. But of course that’s not generally how it works – no lead writer is ever going to be responsible for the totality of content, and especially not one hired in from outside. An outside writer is a pricey asset, after all, and if you’re smart you’re going to be very selective about how you use that writer’s time.

Game studios have talented in-house writers on staff (or they should!), and one of the tests of how good a lead writer you are is how well you co-operate with those guys. That said, the collaborative nature of those relationships does mean an awful lot of meetings, so even with a judiciously selective role, lead writing a game is still probably comparable to turning in a decent mid-length novel, yes.

There’s been talk for a while now about their being a film adaptation based on your Altered Carbon novels. Is that project any further along?

Altered Carbon has been picked up for development by a very well known Hollywood production company in collaboration with a very well known Hollywood screenwriter. I’m not currently at liberty to divulge names, but I have been told to expect a formal announcement in the Hollywood trades this month, so things are certainly moving forward there, yes.

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What’s next for you? Do you have any more videogame stories in the works?

Well, currently I’m working on my next fantasy novel, The Dark Defiles, and I’ve got an outlying idea for a comic-book sequence for which I’m doing a bit of research. I’m also waiting on next steps in the movie development of Altered Carbon and another of my books, Market Forces – though my involvement there is likely to be fairly marginal.

As for videogames, I’ve got a bit of lull on that front right now, while we wait and see how Syndicate does, but I’m already mentally clearing some space for the sequel. I purposely set up an open question at the end of the game, and it’s just begging for the narrative to be taken further. So, fingers crossed and watch this space!

Syndicate will be available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows on 24th February.

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