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.

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Author Eric Nylund.
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.
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.
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.
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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