Whittacisms: Interview With Game And Film Writer Gary Whitta

by Ben Reeves on Jun 06, 2013 at 01:30 PM

Gary Whitta knows storytelling. As the writer for films like After Earth and The Book of Eli as well as one of the writers for Telltale's The Walking Dead, Whitta has been able to explore a variety of storytelling techniques. We talked with him about these experiences, what he thinks about the future of storytelling, and how he got involved working with Will Smith for After Earth.

Are you playing any games right now?
I just finished BioShock Infinite. It took me a little while to get through because we have a 9-month-old here, which severely restricts your ability to sit down and do anything. So I kind of had to play in 45 minute-to-an-hour chunks. But I loved it, I thought it was great. I thought Ken Levine did a really amazing job with it. Storytelling in video games is something that obviously I’m very interested in. To be able to tell a story that rich and that deep and that intelligent without using cutscenes was a really remarkable achievement. Obviously the game is a lot of fun to play as well.

How have games like Bioshock informed your writing style?
I think what’s interesting about storytelling in games is, if you look at The Walking Dead and Bioshock Infinite as an example, you really see just how many varied and different approaches there are to telling a story in video games. There’s only so many ways to tell a story in television and in film. But with video games, because there are so many vastly different genres the way in which the story is told is dictated by the manner in which you play the game.

The Walking Dead is very heavily story led. It’s actually more of a story experience than a game experience. And so we were able to kind of put the story first and foremost and tell the story almost in a kind of conventional way. The Walking Dead almost feels like playing an interactive television series. Whereas with something like Bioshock Infinite I think it can be much more of a challenge to find a way to deliver story in the middle of all that action and chaos. And finding the right balance gameplay and action and story— when those two things are often competing for the players’ attention, that’s a real challenge and something we’re still figuring out how to do.

You were recently in the writer room at Telltale, helping them work on The Walking Dead. How was that experience?
Most of my writing experiences so far have been on the film side, which is often a very solitary experience. But on The Walking Dead it was almost more like working on a TV show. We do have a writers’ room. And you’re kind of conceiving the project collaboratively in a room with a lot of different people who all have ideas. And I love working in that kind of environment. It reminds me a little bit of when I used to edit video game magazines. And when I transitioned from that into working in film, I realized just how much I relied on having other people around me for my own creativity. Suddenly you’re sitting in a room on your own, pacing up and down, trying to have an idea and you miss those other creative voices around you. The great thing about working the guys at Telltale is there’s nothing but creative voices. They’re all incredibly talented guys very, very invested in story. They all just want to tell the best story possible. Sometimes I wondered if they even really needed me because they’re very, very smart.

Are you still working with Telltale?
I’ve been working with them on something new up until quite recently, which I can’t talk about yet, but I think they’ll be announcing it pretty soon. And then, beyond that, who knows?

I’ve heard Ken Levine say that game writing is an involved process, and good storytelling only happen if the studio is flexible enough to accept changes. Did you find that was your experience as well working on The Walking Dead?
With The Walking Dead maybe it was a little different. I felt like story was always the number one priority. It focuses more on story-based dilemmas and story-based situations than traditional adventure game type puzzles. I understand what Ken is saying, though, with a game like Bioshock where it always has to feel like a game that you’re playing. It can be more of a challenge to figure out how to make the story fit. I think we’re still dealing with a little bit of resistance from the audience in the sense that, I think a lot of gamers love that games are evolving and growing up as a storytelling medium. We are figuring out how to tell better and more interesting stories in video games. There are still a lot of people out there that still just want to shoot stuff and just want to hammer through the cutscenes, not look at any of that stuff and just play the game without any kind of narrative context. I think that eventually is going to die out and people are going to realize that everything is better when there’s a story attached.

What are some of the other games you've worked on in the past?
Prior to Telltale, I did some work for the original Gears of War game in its very early conceptual stages. I worked on Prey, I worked on Duke Nukem Forever, one of the many, many earlier iterations of it. I’m in the credits of the final game somewhere, but it’s not something I generally tell people about because it didn’t really come out that well. But I worked on a really, really, early version of it many years ago, and I’ve done some work since The Walking Dead which I’m not able to talk about yet.

Have you felt like any of your experience in games has transferred over to film? Have you learned things that have benefited you in other areas?
Having one foot in both worlds, I’ve been very very fortunate to basically be able to make two careers out of the two things that I grew up really loving, and being enthusiastic about as a kid. As someone who has a little bit of a resume as a screenwriter, I’m able to go in and help with some video games because people know that I also have a video game background, and maybe speak that language a little bit more fluently than someone else might. There have been some unsuccessful attempts with bringing in traditional Hollywood screenwriters to help on video games. They didn't necessarily understand the specific limitations or opportunities that come with telling a story in interactive format, and it wasn’t a good fit. I’m at least able to come in as someone who has played a lot of games over the years and, has a fairly good understanding of what’s possible or what’s appropriate in a video game context. I’ve also been able to take that back the other way and do some work on film adaptations of video games. I worked on the World of Warcraft movie for a while, and part of what got me that job was the fact that I knew the game mythology, very very well.

You also just had a film come out, After Earth. Is there anything about that that you feel particularly appeals to a gaming audience?
I think it’s a really good example of original science fiction world-building. I think video games have always been really great, fertile breeding grounds for original sci-fi ideas. Whether it be Halo, or Gears of War, or BioShock, there’s a lot of great science-fiction storytelling and original world-building that happens in video games. One of the things that attracted me to After Earth was the idea that a lot of what goes on in Hollywood these days are sequels, and adaptations, and remakes, and comic book stuff. It’s very, very hard sometimes to get an original idea through the system. But when you work with someone like Will Smith, obviously a lot of that difficulty goes away, and suddenly it becomes economically viable. And so Will had this original idea that had the opportunity within it to do a lot of geeking out, which is the kind of stuff that I love to do; I like to sit around and figure out: ‘What are the rules of this universe?’ ‘How would this really work?’ ‘What are the cool science fiction elements of this world?’ The idea of the movie essentially being set 1,000 years after mankind has been forced to evacuate Earth, and we live on other planets know, we’ve colonized other worlds. And now accidentally, through a crash landing, two people have to go back to this planet that we abandoned 1,000 years ago. And to see how much it’s changed over the course of that 1,000 years, there’s a lot of opportunity there to figure out what that would look like, how that would work, how the ecology of the planet had changed, how human society and civilization had changed over the course of the last 1,000 years, what precipitated the evacuation from Earth in the first place? All of this kind of stuff is, for someone who grew up watching Star Wars, and Star Trek, and reading Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov, it’s just a great opportunity to just sit around and geek out and think about all those cool little details.

To hear Gary Whitta talk more about video game writing, check out our feature The Writers' Room: Revealing The Art And Science Of Game Writing.