Call of Juarez Q&A - Writing for Polish Westerns
Hollywood screenwriter, playwright, and game writer Haris Orkin talks to us about this gritty, Western-themed shooter.
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Call of Juarez is the upcoming Western-themed first-person shooter from Poland's Techland, and yes, it does seem a bit ironic that a European company is working on a game set in America's Wild West. Still, Techland did its homework, and drew upon classic themes to create this story of loss and redemption. Inspired by iconic Hollywood movies as well as gritty comic books, the developers crafted a tale blending two conflicted characters. They also turned to Haris Orkin, a Hollywood screenwriter, playwright, and game writer, for assistance.
GameSpot: Without spoiling too many things, what can you tell us about the story? Or, if it's easier to answer this way, how would you finish this sentence: "The story in Call of Juarez is..."?
Haris Orkin: Call of Juarez brings many great themes of the West together in the conflict of two iconic characters. Reverend Ray is a reformed gunfighter who found religion and is now making amends for his past sins by preaching the word of God. Billy Candle's a brash teenager who ran away from home after a knock-down fight with his stepfather (Ray's brother). When his parents are murdered, the evidence leads Reverend Ray to believe that Billy's the guilty party. Ray's sure that God wants him to be his instrument of justice, so he straps on his old Colts and tracks Billy across south Texas. It's a story of spiraling violence, greed, lost treasure, lost souls, and redemption.
GS: How did you get to know, or go about creating, the characters in Call of Juarez? Did the developers provide you with detailed background info for everyone in the game, or did you have to come up with backgrounds and motivations for the characters?
HO: The characters and story were created by Pawel Selinger at Techland and he did a fantastic job. I was incredibly impressed with the depth and themes and wanted to help bring the story to life for the North American audience. I did create my own backstory for both of the main characters. This helps me figure out exactly who they are and informs the dialogue. Ray brings the fire and brimstone of the pulpit to his quest for justice, spewing passages from the Bible as he blasts bad guys with his hoglegs. Billy uses stealth and guile to solve the mystery of his parents' death, and in the process learns to become a man. The gameplay is totally intertwined in who the characters are. I saw the demo of Call of Juarez at E3 last year and immediately realized (as a hopelessly addicted, hardcore first-person shooter player) that this was the Western game I always wanted to play. The shooting is very precise, and the weapons have a very satisfying sound and action.
GS: Did you consult a lot with the creative team continually, or did they give you some outlines and ideas and let you run with it?
HO: As I mentioned, the story was entirely Techland's, but I shot them a whole lot of questions, pretty much picking it all apart and probably annoying them to a tiny degree. As a screenwriter, that's my training, to look at a story and character from all angles and make sure it's clear and logical, emotional and compelling. I did add a few small details of my own as we e-mailed back and forth. (I'm in Los Angles and Techland's in Poland.) But what they had to start with was already very strong.
GS: What sort of research did you have to do for the game? This is, after all, a game that involves spirit quests, gunfights, and more. We understand that you're a fan of the era, but did you have to do a lot of research for the story?
HO: I wanted to make sure that everyone sounded absolutely authentic. I've been a Western buff for 20 years. I've read a lot of American history and Western novels and have watched countless classic Westerns, which is why I was so excited to work on this. I have a pretty good library of Western history and I called on that when necessary. Also, the Internet is obviously an incredible resource. My brother's wife is from Mexico. So she helped me make sure the Mexican slang was accurate and appropriately naughty.
GS: What would you say are some of the influences in the story? Are there any true stories that you were inspired by? Or are there any fictional inspirations in there in TV, movies, or novels?
HO: Hollywood doesn't make very many Westerns anymore, so I saw this has a chance to help develop a game with the depth of a classic Western. I'm sure Pawel was influenced by many of the same great Westerns that influenced me. Call of Juarez brings to mind the themes and characters of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven and Pale Rider. Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith. John Wayne's character Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers. They're all stories about violence and vengeance and what it does to people's souls.
Pawel Selinger: Reverend Ray is a character much more media-based than Billy; his traits were derived mainly from cinema and modern culture. As [for] the movies, first, in fact, is Will Munny of Unforgiven, with his revoked past. But I took inspiration mainly from characters portrayed in Garth Ennis' comic books: Pilgrim of Just a Pilgrim and Saint of Killers of Preacher. Those works influenced [the] psychological aspect and visual appearance of Ray. The biggest influence, however, was Carl McCoy, singer of [the] gothic band Fields of the Nephilim. That voice, the majesty...
Billy, for me a key character of the story, is more usual but at the same time more lifelike. He is derived from the outsiders and rebel idols of American cinema as much as its creations are derived from [our own emotions].
GS: Were there any characters that proved easier to write for than the others? Would you say that the characters are fairly black and white, or do they have shades of gray in terms of their motivations? Or will we simply see a bad guy wearing a black hat and a good guy wearing a white hat?
HO: They're very multidimensional characters with lots of shades of gray. Your allegiance shifts back and forth between them as the game progresses. I found both characters a lot of fun to write, but I think I especially enjoyed the righteous fury of Reverend Ray. You're rooting for both of them and by the end the player is in for a pretty big surprise. Both major characters change over the course of the story. This is typical in movies, novels, and plays, but very rare for characters in games. There's also a lot of dark humor with villains and supporting characters. But then, the best action and drama is always leavened with a little levity.
GS: Finally, as a scriptwriter, what would you say are the main differences and challenges that you encounter writing for a game rather than a conventional movie or television show?
HO: Writing a game is a very different process than writing a movie. However, there are similarities. The process of character development is still the same. But each medium has its own requirements. Game scripts are usually written in an entirely different format than movie scripts, and there's usually far more dialogue than in a film. The technical requirements are such that voice actors rarely get to record together. You also can't use the actors' faces to help tell the story. Much can be said with an expression, and depending on the game and the visuals, you can't rely on that the way you normally would. The dialogue has to be a little more explicit, and that takes some getting used to. (Of course, that's changing. The faces and expressions in Half-Life 2 were amazing.) So being a good screenwriter isn't really enough. It helps if you're an avid gamer as well. You need to play games to be able to write for them. It's important to have a good understanding of the medium. Also, I really believe the story needs to serve the gameplay. If you're a player, you don't want the action grinding to a stop every five minutes for a cutscene. Techland did a great job of integrating the game story with the game.
As a gamer, if I have to choose between a crappy game with a good story or a great game with a so-so story, I'll go with the great game every time. If you can have both, well... You have yourself a home run.
GS: Thank you.