In anticipation of the upcoming Captain America film, Sega and Punch-Out!! Wii developer Next Level Games have released the movie tie-in game Captain America: Super Soldier, a title which leverages real Marvel expertise to do justice to the classic hero.
Seasoned comic writer Christos Gage signed onto the project to pen the title's story and dialogue, with the intention of capturing the spirit of the character and giving the game a distinct comic book flavor.
Gage has worked with a number of Marvel properties, such as the X-Men, The Hulk, and even the Avengers, a series that happens to feature Captain America himself.
In addition, Gage has written for other media such as film and television, though Captain America: Super Soldier marks his first time working on a video game.
Gamasutra spoke with Gage to discuss his thoughts on how writing for games compares to working with other media, his approach to doing justice to the Captain America universe, the current state of comic-based video games, and more.
How did you become involved in this project?
Christos Gage: T.Q. Jefferson from Marvel Studios -- who's in charge of video games -- approached me and he knew I could write for comics, and he also knew I had experience writing for actors, so he asked if I'd like to be involved and I said "sure." So I actually went up to Marvel Studios and read the Captain America movie script. Even though the stories are different, they're set in the same universe, with the same kind of narrative consistency. And then I went up to Vancouver where Next Level Games is based and we talked about what they already had at that point.
When i got to Vancouver there were some things they already decided on, because they had to start way in advance. The setting is a medieval castle that has been turned into a factory for weapons of mass destruction. They said to me, "So what do you think? We should include some classic villains, add some storyline, and such," so we talked about that. They were very collaborative and I had a good time on it.
What is the biggest difference you've experienced working with video games, compared to working on television or comics?
CG: Well, I find video games to be sort of a middle ground between the two. With comics, you have an unlimited budget in a sense; you can do anything you can imagine, but it's all just on the page. With screenwriting, you are more limited in what you can do, but you do have the advantage of actors. In video games, it's not unlimited, but you have a pretty expensive budget, and you also have voice actors. So it's sort of a middle ground between comics and screen writing.
How much does this budget act as an obstacle to your creative freedom?
CG: It's an obstacle in the sense that you can't always do whatever you want. When I first started writing comics I was like, "Hey, here's a bunch of panels we can put in there," and people said, "That's great, but we can only print a certain number of them." So that's the limitation. I mean, in a movie it's very expensive to blow up a mountain, but in a video game, it's easier. So the budget restrictions are different, but they're there.
Did you change your approach to writing at all, bearing in the mind that the story and pacing for the game wouldn't play out in a linear way like with television or comics?
CG: Yeah, that's exactly right. I mean you have to approach it differently, because at the end of the day the purpose of a video game is interaction, to get the player to drive the action. If you get too heavy-handed with it, players get bored. So what you're trying to do is give them a story that's entertaining and motivates their actions, but also be very economical. I mean we don't want it to be where people just click through the cutscene and go to the next action scene, you know?
Did writing for a game alter your approach to dialogue, specifically? With a comic, you don't control how a reader interprets a written line, but in games you often have voice acting to reinforce tone and emphasis. Do you approach writing dialogue differently when you know that actors will be delivering the lines?
CG: Yes, because in comics, you have to try and put a little more emotion in the words. Good artists are excellent in making the characters feel alive, but at the end of the day, excellent voice inflection and things like that you just can't reproduce. But you don't want to have too much dialogue in comics either; you have to be more minimalistic when you're writing. It was a really interesting experience when my wife and I sat at what's called a table read, where the cast of a show sits at a table and reads the dialogue. And it's amazing when you think you've written very sparse and short lines, but then you actually hear real people saying it, you go, "Oh my god, that's too long!" So you have to just do more with less.
In terms of visual style, do you tend to write comics with a specific look or style in mind?
CG: Well, in comics, if you know who your artist is going to be when you write the script, you try to tailor to that artist's strengths and what they like to do. But you don't always -- sometimes you write a script and they haven't hired an artist, so you just kind of decide for yourself how you want it to look and communicate with your artist.
How did that work in the game? Did you know, roughly, what the game would look like?
CG: I had seen concept art from the movie and then I had seen a lot of concept art from the game, and they has also started working on some of the locations. And they animated the cast somewhat when I first went up there, so I kind of knew what it was going to look like.
Were there any restrictions that came with writing for the game? For example, were you told, "We have to include all the major characters from the film," or anything like that?
CG: No not really, but we kind of want to, just because it's fun, you know? And that's also going to be the version of Captain America that players know that they're going to be familiar with. In the comics he's been around for 70 years so we don't only want the people who have read the comics to understand the story, although I have put in a lot of Easter eggs and stuff for longtime fans like myself that I think that they'll recognize. But really it's set in the movie universe and it's about Cap when he's young and discovering his abilities, and getting to know a lot of the supporting characters as well.
So when you're writing the game, did you write it differently knowing your audience wouldn't necessarily be a hardcore Marvel comics fan? How did you try to make Captain America more accessible to somebody who might not know about his history?
CG: It was easier due to the fact that it takes place in World War II -- this guy has just recently got his powers. So you don't have to get into his history with The Avengers or things like that. So that wasn't that hard, but at the same time it was more like I was telling an accessible story, and then when possible I wanted to put in things that long time comic book fans would appreciate. And there are also references to villains that might not be in the game, but you'll still see the bad guys developing their weapons or powers.
In your comics, you've written primarily about the modern day Captain America, right? What was it like to write for this World War II-inspired Captain?
CG: It was interesting because like you pointed out I'm used to writing the veteran Captain America, the leader, the guy who's seen and done it all and this is...I think he's very capable and highly trained, but he's young and he's discovering what he could do. And he's exuberant, a little more emotional, you know, like he's the same guy but you have to sort of reconfigure your perspective more.
In terms of your own personal life, are you a big video game player?
CG: Well, I have a bit of an impulse control problem when it comes to video games, like I have to play obsessively until I finish the game. So I try to limit myself to certain very special games and sports games, things you can play in smaller chunks -- like a sports game, Madden, stuff like that.
Do you ever play comic-based titles?
CG: Oh yeah. I try to get the comic games when I can and when I have time to play them. So yeah, I played Arkham Asylum, and loved it. I heard Dan Slott wrote the story for Spider Man: Shattered Dimensions. I have that game, but I haven't cracked it open and started playing because I have too much work. [laughs] But I will!
So as a comics writer, what do you think those games get right or wrong in terms of representing their respective characters and worlds?
CG: They've gotten a lot of stuff right; I think they've got just about everything right. It's only when developers aren't familiar with the characters and the stories that you go, "Hey! He wouldn't do that!" or, "That's not consistent with the character," but that hasn't been much of a problem recently.
Do you think avoiding these character inconsistencies is the key to making a good comic-book game?
CG: Yeah, absolutely. And you know there may be things that don't work. In terms of gameplay, I mean that's not what we as scriptwriters do. But you know at the end of the day, in a comic book video game you want to feel like the character. So if you're, you know, the Hulk, you want to be lifting up tanks and throwing them. If you're Captain America, you want to be throwing the shield or bouncing off enemies and having it come back to you.
Overall, what sort of lessons have you learned when it comes to writing for a game?
CG: Probably just that it's about delivering information without getting in the folks' way -- thinking about and finding ways to do that. You also have to find ways to have characters say the same thing in different ways. You know, there are times where you have to do in game dialogue like for instance, write seven different things Captain America would say after he beats someone up. So it's been a very good form of writing, it's like doing exercises with different writing muscles. And I think it makes you a better all-around writer.