DB Weiss is the author of 2003's Lucky Wander Boy, a critically acclaimed fictional story dealing with obscure video games. Born and raised in Chicago, he has a Masters of Philosophy in Irish Literature and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing.
He's currently living in Los Angeles, where he is writing the latest version of the screenplay for the Peter Jackson executive produced movie Halo, based on Bungie's best-selling game franchise (following on from an initial draft by Alex Garland), as well as a screenplay for Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game along with David Benioff.
GameSetWatch managed to reach Weiss via email to quiz him about his well-received piece of game-related fiction, as well as his current work as a screenwriter in Hollywood, with particular reference to his current work dramatizing Halo for the big screen.
(Click through to read the full interview.)
Lucky Wander Boy was praised by many people for doing the unthinkable and combining contemporary fiction and gaming culture - why do you think this is so rarely done, and what inspired you to attempt it?
I’m glad they liked it, wherever these people are. I think it’s probably a natural thing that videogames are a relatively new subject for fiction, being the youngest popular artistic medium. I wanted to write about them because they’ve permeated my life, along with books, music and movies. As more people for whom this is the case come of age, I think we’ll see more videogame cross-pollination.
What sort of feedback do you receive about the book?
Generally very favorable. I do get a fair number of emails about it, and it’s gratifying to know that something you wrote means something to someone you’ve never met. There are some people who don’t love it, of course. I take them seriously too. I think that, if I were to write it again, now, it would be better. But I have no plans to do that.
How much research about the history of gaming went into Lucky Wander Boy?
More than I expected. When I realized the character had to be a lot more obsessed with gaming than I actually was, I went back and read books by Steven Kent, Leonard Hermann, lots of others… I also did a lot of “research” playing emulators, and looking at pics in Van Burnham’s excellent Supercade videogame art book from MIT.
How seriously do you take criticism?
If it’s useful, I listen to it, definitely. I mean, "THIS GUY SUCKS ASS" is not useful. But "THIS GUY SUCKS ASS *BECAUSE*...", sometimes that’s someone tell you something you ought to know.
A while ago you said that you would be working on "quasi-journalistic stuff about games, sooner or later". What has come of that?
Nothing, unfortunately. Too busy with other stuff.
What is your own history as a gamer?
I played games obsessively between the ages of about 8 or 9 until maybe 15 (Atari 2600/Intellivision through NES). Then I took a pretty long hiatus, only really picking them up again when I was in my 20s. Now, it depends how much work I have to do. Whenever I have the time, I play. A lot of handheld stuff now, DS, PSP – they tend to swallow your life a bit less.
What are you enjoying most at the moment?
New Super Mario Bros. on DS and Lemmings on PSP. (What am I, eight years old?)
What are you working on at the moment?
I write for film now, mostly – appropriately enough, I’m currently adapting Halo for producers Mary Parent, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. I’ve got another novel finished that needs a second draft – and maybe someday, I’ll be able to work in games. I certainly hope so.
That's pretty exciting - I know you mentioned being a fan of the game's multiplayer mode a few years back, but were you attracted to the storyline of the single player game back then?
Yeah, I’m pretty excited about it. And I did always think there was a lot more to the Halo universe than most games -- I remember switching to “Easy” mode on the first game, so I could plow through it more quickly and find out what happened next.
How did you become involved with the project? It wasn't anything to do with an interview you did where you said:
"Far more work went into the LWB screenplay excerpt than any other section of the book, except possibly the end. I think someone ought to hire me to write terrible, techno-mystical action screenplays. I think I have a knack."
That’s pretty damn funny – I’d forgotten about that. Let’s hope that, except for the “terrible” part, I was right!
Actually, it came to me in a far more prosaic way – producer calls agent and mentions project, agent sends sample script to producer, I go meet producer and we really get along, etc.
How far along with the screenplay are you?
Just starting in on an entirely new second draft.
[NOTE 07/19/06 - DB Weiss pinged us again and said he wanted to make sure this was made clear: "When I said I was starting "An entirely new second draft," I meant *my* second draft. I didn't mean to imply that there weren't many elements of the Garland draft in it, which of course, there are, in both drafts I've written."]
How long have you been writing for film, and was this something you wanted to accomplish from the beginning?
Yeah, it’s something I’ve always kept a hand in, so it’s very gratifying that it’s finally starting to work out. I was writing scripts for years, sometimes even for extremely small sums of money -- but I’ve only been working in Hollywood proper for around two years.
Going back to your views on criticism, you must realise to some degree that the screenwriting projects that you've taken on will inevitably attract criticism from some elements of their associated fanbases - does this worry you?
Not really. I do think about it, but it’s inevitable. There will be the 5% on the fringe of any hardcore fanbase that get angry about any change you make to the source material. The truth is that novels, games, comics, and what-have-you are not usually ready to be slapped up on screen as-is. If you did do a 100% faithful version, 999 times out of 1000 it would be a mess, and even the 5%-ers would recognise as much.
What can we expect from your new novel?
17th century, 30 years war, lots of weird stuff with alchemists...really have to get back to that...
Finally - regarding your desire to work in games, Ron Gilbert recently criticised the state of storytelling in videogames, saying:
"Honestly, I have not played anything in a long time that I thought was doing a particularly good job at telling a story."
Is that something you'd agree with?
Well, I loved Psychonauts and think Tim Schafer's story is smart and a lot of fun. God of War was great too...but in general, I think Ron is more or less right.
There are a lot of writers in film (and presumably in fiction as well) who love games, but I’m guessing that many of them get caught between stations, in a way. What I mean is, maybe they don’t feel comfortable with the world of games to try to kick-start their own game projects as a creator -- which is a nightmarishly difficult process anyway, probably much harder than getting a movie made -- but on the flipside, there’s no equivalent of the spec script in gaming, to the best of my knowledge. Honestly, even in film, the role of the original script has shrunk to almost nothing. And if they’re lucky enough to be working for film...well, it does pay better.
Still, I think that games will inevitably up their game in the writing and story departments, they’ll have to, if they really want to be mainstream. All the "games are bigger than movies" talk is ridiculous, of course, total 'lying with statistics’ type stuff. The truth is, for better and for worse (very often for worse) movies make so much damn money because lots and lots of people go to see them. They’re made for everybody. Hardcore gaming audiences exert a lot more influence over the direction of games than cineastes exert over the direction of film. But a move in a mainstream direction is inevitable, from a business point of view. Which, alas, is usually the point of view making the decisions.