Q&A: Eric Nylund tells tall tales

The author of Halo novels <i>The Fall of Reach</i> and <i>Ghosts of Onyx</i> talks about X06 news and working with Cliffy B on Gears of War.

Author Eric Nylund.

The Halo universe has moved well beyond the Xbox, with Bungie's top-selling property branching out into movies, novels, and Peter Jackson's "interactive entertainment series." While Bungie hammers away at the storyline for Halo 3 and Peter Jackson develops his versions of the Halo universe, Microsoft and Bungie trusted one man--science-fiction author Eric Nylund--with filling in some holes on Master Chief's backstory and fleshing out the Halo-verse.

Nylund penned 2001's Fall of Reach, which detailed the Spartan program and was a prequel to Halo: Combat Evolved. He has since written First Strike, which bridged the two Halo games, and will be releasing the third book, Ghosts of Onyx, later this month.

Now employed as a writer by Microsoft, Nylund was also crucial in the development of the story for Gears of War, the Xbox 360's flagship title for this holiday season.

GameSpot recently chatted with Nylund about writing in the gaming business, his future projects, and, of course, Halo.

Halo Wars was announced at X06.

GameSpot: There was a lot of juicy news out of X06 last month. Can you tell us which of those projects you are working on?

Eric Nylund: Wow! There was tons of the coolest stuff...a few things even took me by surprise, and I have a reputation of being in the nexus of the secret communication center here at Microsoft Game Studios. Gears of War made another smash showing; I heard they had to pry the controller out of peoples' hands playing the demo--that's the kind of reaction I live to hear about!

Okay, so what am I working on? Sure! I'd be happy to tell you all about it. There's--never mind. Sorry. I've been "reminded" that MGS is working on a bunch of very cool titles, some of which have been announced in detail, some of which have not. It might, or might not, be inappropriate to talk about them at this time.

GS: Can you at least tell us if you are involved with one of the new Halo projects?

EN: "Involved," huh? There are many types of "involvement." Officially involved; unofficially involved; involved as in an emotional relationship; involved like a sports fan on the sidelines, cheering his team on. What precisely do you mean?

GS: I can see getting information out of you is going to be tough. Here's a question that you can answer. Do you think the new Halo projects (the real-time strategy game Halo Wars, the new Peter Jackson project) are good moves for the franchise? Halo fans are just as fanatical as anyone out there. How do you respond to hardcore fans that say the Halo universe is just cashing in?

Some Halo-related schwag.

EN: First, let me caveat my response by saying that I'm not calling the shots for the future of the Halo franchise and this is only my personal opinion.

If Bungie was "cashing in," there'd be tons more product, pumped out at light speed. There hasn't been. In five years, the major product releases have been two games, four novels, a dozen or so action figures, one graphic novel, a calendar or two, and a few posters--all of which has been top quality.

In the future? All that has been announced with any near-future release date is an RTS from Ensemble and a Peter Jackson-produced movie--this for one of the biggest game/entertainment phenomena EVER.

Come on. The Bungie crew has shown amazing restraint by not opening the floodgates of license products--lunchboxes, Grunt shot glasses, Elite boxer shorts, bedspreads, and so on--(ahem) like some other famous intellectual properties.

GS: With the Halo novels, you were given some guidelines with which you could write. There was already a universe laid out that Bungie created. As a novelist, was that difficult?

EN: Not really. There was a vast amount of material already determined for the Halo universe. But writers like me love to fill in the blanks, and where there are none--they like to grab pry bars, shove, wrench free, and make a big space to write in.

GS: Are you single-handedly responsible for creating Master Chief's backstory?

EN: Yeah, I am. I also came up with the MJOLNIR armor thingy. The Ringworld--that's mine too.

Just kidding.

Much of the groundwork was done for me, but a lot of the details are mine--the young Spartans and their training, the mutations, how the Spartans work and fight as a unit, their personalities, the Keyes Loop, and so on.

GS: Briefly give us an overview of Ghosts of Onyx.

EN: Ghosts chronicles a long-secret ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) project running in parallel to a certain very high-profile, and now-public, military operation. This top-secret endeavor spans almost the entire human-Covenant conflict and brings back many old characters that the fans love, and introduces many new ones as well.

GS: Can we expect any of your material to be reflected in Halo 3?

EN: Heh--you almost got me with that one. No spoilers here, sorry.

Epic games' Gears of War.

GS: Now you've moved on to helping Epic write Gears of War. How much of a different experience is this than the Halo novels?

EN: They're night and day. There are similar elements: In both you're trying to tell a compelling story. But in a game, it's a real team effort. You're not free to just write anything. It's got to mesh with level design, gameplay, and art. Words you put down on paper can impact 60 other guys on the team. You have to be flexible.

GS: Much of the attention to Gears of War has been on slicing up dudes with chainsaws, but we don't really have an idea of the scope of the story. Are gamers in for some big surprises?

EN: Absolutely. There will be a few good twists and turns.

GS: How is it writing the story of a brand-new property--is there too much freedom? Does Cliffy B. keep the reins loose?

EN: Cliff and I hooked up about two and half years ago. He had all the main concepts sketched out, but he has been very open with respect to changes in the story. You have to be when you're writing for a game. Things change, levels and mechanics evolve. You're always aiming for more fun. Writing has to change along the way or you end up with a game with 10 hours of cutscenes that no one cares about.

GS: Did you ever worry the story was getting a little too grim for comfort?

EN: Nah. There are many things I'm not comfortable writing about (which I'm not going to list here). Gears has none of that stuff--just a bunch of guys with guns and chainsaws fighting for the survival of humanity. And there's nothing wrong with that!

GS: Cliffy B. hasn't ruled out getting Gears turned into a movie down the line. Do you think that's a possibility, and would it be the same sort of large endeavor that the Halo movie has been?

EN: It would be wonderful if that happened. Is it possible? Sure. There's material for several movies in the intellectual property. The scale and production details? I'm not so sure about that. No one has talked to me about it, and I suspect no one at Epic is thinking about this right now. They're heads down, trying to get to zero bug count!

GS: Early drafts of the Halo movie script have it taking place, in part, during the events of The Fall of Reach. Is that true?

EN: Do you really want spoilers? Do you realize what the Halo fans would do to you if you posted that kind of stuff? I can't tell you. It's for your own good. Trust me here.

GS: Have you been consulted on the Halo script at all?

EN: No Comment.

GS: Are you working with Peter Jackson on any of the new Halo products Wingnut Interactive is making?

EN: See above.

GS: Jackson promised at X06 that the games he helps make at Wingnut Interactive won't be traditional games, more of interactive stories--what do you think he meant?

EN: Isn't the art of interview evasion a fascinating one? How someone can seemingly answer a question, but not? I bet these techniques evolved from ancient torture-resistance training given to Hun raider scouts. I should start a Wikipedia entry on this.

GS: Do you see the importance of narrative increasing in games?

EN: Not really. It's always been important (and many game developers have always taken it seriously). Now, however, everyone else is starting to see the financial upside to building a good story (that is, increasing the odds of a blockbuster franchise) so now more game developers are trying to do it right, and heaven forbid, actually spend money on it.

GS: What else are you currently working on?

EN: I'm working on a new novel called Mortal Coils. It's for everyone who enjoyed Harry Potter but has grown up and now has more sophisticated and dark tastes.

GS: Any more details on this "mystery" sci-fi comic project you signed on for?

EN: It's friggin' cool. When I was first approached to do this, I was flattered; it's one of my all-time favorite science-fiction properties. But I told the publishers that there was really only one thing that I wanted to do and that the licensors had to have it all mapped out (it's the most awesome, and most obviously untapped, part of their property).

They told me to pitch it. I did. And the licensor said--go ahead and do it! That's all I can say right now. I'm under a nondisclosure agreement until it's announced. Soon, though.

GS: On your blog, you really reach out to aspiring writers, offering tips and giving a rundown of how you operate. How important is this to you and who did you learn from?

EN: Self-taught writer here. Anyone can do this--you need talent, drive, and/or a great deal of luck. On my Web site, I'm just trying to help some up-and-coming writers avoid some of the many mistakes I've made.

GS: Last, if you could offer one bit of sagelike advice to those out there trying to write for games or create their own fiction, what would it be?

EN: Write to please yourself first. If you're not producing material you enjoy, your audience will be able to tell, and you'll be miserable. Just have fun.

GS: Thanks for your time, Eric.

EN: No problem and thanks for taking an interest in me and my work!

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Discussion

87 comments
blackngold29
blackngold29

Good interview. His books are great too. I really hope they get around to novelizing Halo 2 and 3 someday.

soccerthing590
soccerthing590

I loved the three books, but i would like to know wat happens to Kelly, Dr. Hallsey, and the other survivors...First strike leaves that hole at the end when they are on route back to earth after the Covenant Battle station is destroyed. i really wished Bungie would put the other spartans into halo 2 and since they didnt it would be even better if they put them in Halo 3. The books storylines are soo much more powerful than the game's in some respects.

ryanverse
ryanverse

Gives an interview as well as he writes, very good!

Omnis-Arcanum
Omnis-Arcanum

iv just finished first strike i liked it, a bit like Andy McNab in space

granposho
granposho

Man, that's the very first book fight I've seen... Anyway, already read the first 3, time to get my hands on the third!

DarioD04
DarioD04

Haha I haven't read any in the series yet. Maybe I should. Bad interview though.

Riverwolf007
Riverwolf007

lmao, ok, i just saw the Alexgangur comment you guys were talking about Nothing is worse in the world than a PRETENTIOUS NERD Alex why are you wasting time on reading non fiction at all if you are such a big frikkin intellectual, the subject here was a paperback book adapted from a VIDEO GAME what the hell do you expect war and frigging peace? Is the light ok for you to read by up there on your high horse? Most of us can name plenty of books to read that perhaps will develop your intelect or make you question your place in the universe or add something to your personality for the better that we may lack but we are not talking about those here. What i would strongly suggest to you is that you take George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series and beat yourself over the head with it to knock out some of the smug intellectual bullshyt that you are aparently afflicted with.

Riverwolf007
Riverwolf007

lol comeon orcbuster if Pratchett wrote halo Master chief would be what? Like an IRS agent thats a private detective part time wizard going thru a divorce or something, might as well let Neil Gamien write it. I'm a huge fan of mindless head candy sci-fi paperbacks tho so i will mos def read this at some point. Btw book guys while i'm here what the hell ever happened to Piers Anthony that guy still alive or what?

doolive
doolive

Yes, I'm very much looking forward to seeing that novel/book in the Wal-Mart near me! I agree with a lot of you, Eric is very talented and he's climbing the ladder fast.

orcbuster
orcbuster

No matter how good he is, he can't beat pratchett :)

willardeugene
willardeugene

Get your head out of your butt alexgangur. You don't like Halo and I don't like fantasy. Sorry not everyone has the same interests as you...

pXxJoSexXp
pXxJoSexXp

a Gears of War movie would be awesome

Andrew0824
Andrew0824

"too bad halo and gears of war suck compared to Half-life " Wow, you got to play Gear of War before it's even finished! Luck y you. Loser.

enoslives7
enoslives7

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Spartan1017
Spartan1017

eric nylund is quickly climbing the latter of my fav writers, he's reaaly good. and his last 2 halo books were great.

peeweeshift
peeweeshift

First Strike was amazing. The story was grat but they didn't mention any of the other spartans in halo2 and inoticed one peculiar thing that contradicts what cortana said about the covenant's fleet

SuperHunter
SuperHunter

I really liked the Fall of Reach beacuse I felt like I got a better feel for Master Chiefs character. Looking forward to reading more of his work, whether it's in the Halo universe or else where.

Paceydre
Paceydre

Book 1 by Eric: a very good book Book 2 NOT by Eric: not so good Book 3 by Eric: A very good book, but a little bit better than book 1 Book 4 by Eric: Looking forward to read this book! Just keep the books coming and I will start to become a bookreader ... maybe better for the eyes too under good lighting conditions.

cschaedel
cschaedel

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

msb2009
msb2009

I enjoy his books. It would be cool if he made a few Gears of War books.

hemakm3
hemakm3

I enjoyed his books.

alexgangur
alexgangur

Dante200X: And a huge-ass 'Amen' to that. Oh and if you people are going to bother reading, read some decent non-fiction, like George R.R. Martin's "A song of ice and fire" series, It's bloody fantastic. Look it up on the internet book database, its in the top 3 series I think, and book 3 is rated no. 1. Probably the best modern fantasy I've ever read, and I swear it absolutely craps on the Halo novels.

Dante200X
Dante200X

Halo's even more over-rated than it's ever been

bobreturns
bobreturns

the flood was good i know it was written by william c dietz the reason i didnt read it all the waythrough was because i knew exactly what was gonna happen next cos i have completed the game

JDO
JDO

The Fall of Reach is a great book as well as the last Halo book written by EN. I am so looking forward to Ghosts of Onyx. I also LMAO at the "I should start a Wikipedia entry on this" comment. :D

trovello
trovello

The novels are great and make you yearn for a game based on them.

drangel_jam
drangel_jam

I still gotta read the books but I already sympathize with the author

Sydwynder
Sydwynder

I really liked the books, they made me go back and play through both games yet again. Can't wait for Ghosts of Onyx

_Sam_
_Sam_

Are the novels good? I haven't read them

King_Of_Wolves6
King_Of_Wolves6

Eric Nylund is a genious. His writing style is perfect and I WILL be getting Ghosts of Onyx as soon as it comes out.

iori666
iori666

This guy is an awesome writer. I can't wait for the next halo novel.

bobreturns
bobreturns

yeh true there are 3 but he only wrote 2 of them fall of reach and first strike. The Flood was written by William C Dietz i think that is how you spell his name so the ghosts of onyx would be eric nylunds third book

Apocalypse224
Apocalypse224

One problem with this article, there are three Halo novels out so far. Fall of Reach, the prequel; Flood, the tie-in with Halo: Combat Evolved; and First Strike, the bridge between the two. Therefore, Ghosts of Onyx would be the fourth book.

Sanguis_Malus
Sanguis_Malus

Both games should be fantastic, as for any films that get made, well, lets just wait and see how true they remain to the source material..

ZosoFan
ZosoFan

Awesome. Halo and GOW will be awesome games

Rja-360
Rja-360

Yeah you have to resist so you dont spoil anything of the story Eric Nylund

Flakor
Flakor

You have to remember, everything that has to do with the Halo Universe has to be kept under lock and key information wise, to make sure someone doesn't say too much. I understand why he appears to be wasting time, I've gone through something like it before.

Lost2017
Lost2017

I Respect Eric Nylund as a writer but I was wondering if he would make a novel for Gears Of War just as he did for Halo.I would definitely read it!

mirlegend
mirlegend

awesome stuff. his next book should be great. guess il have to use ebay if i want to see it this year in the uk.