It is not a stretch to say that the God of War franchise was a landmark in the history of game narrative. The ambitious storytelling, putting the player in the sandals of tragic vengeance-obsessed warrior Kratos, exploded the scope of game narrative, and still stands as an industry benchmark. Marianne Krawczyk was the one who breathed life into Kratos, which alone would be enough to secure her place in game writing’s own Olympus. She’s also worked on projects ranging from the Shank series to the most recent Star Trek adaptation. Now a key part of the team developed the highly anticipated The Long Dark, Marianne was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions. Here now are her thoughts on tragedy in game narrative, Sweet Valley High in space, what happens when Kratos walks into a bar, and more.
Who the heck are you?
I’m Marianne Krawczyk. Writer of games and things. Thanks for having me on your show.
Your current project is The Long Dark, a survival game set in a post-technology world. Why do you think post-apocalyptic game stories are resonating so much now?
Do you remember when it seemed our (The citizens of the United States) biggest problem was Monica Lewinsky? I do, too. It feels like we are a long way from that blissfully ignorant world. With climate change, revolutions starting every other day, youtube beheadings, corporations being recognized as people, massive oil spills, etc, etc, etc., I think it’s very easy to feel small and powerless. So one take on why the post-apocalyptic world is resonating with people is that it’s a reflection of our own troubled times and, more to the point, the lack of control that we have over what is happening. It just seems like it’s a matter of time before we are there in some way or another.
Then there’s the optimistic outlook. While it’s not the Roddenberry vision of the future, at the core, post-apocalyptic worlds are about survival and the hope that, in spite of the darkness, there is an answer. Call it the Anne Frank point of view. While I am quite aware that things didn’t actually work out well for Anne Frank, I do think that kernel of hope rests in all of us.
Ultimately, that might be what post-apocalyptic worlds are really about - a reflection of that unsettled place between hope and fear that lives in all of us. When we take this very human condition and manifest it in a world where you get to play, shoot stuff and take back some of the control that we currently lack, it makes sense to me these games/stories resonate.
In a lot of ways, The Long Dark feels like a very “quiet” story. Compare that to some of your other high-profile work that’s featured gods, massive explosions, and so forth. What was the appeal of working in such a different setting?
It’s funny, because I think my job is to find the quiet parts of the story. I work with insanely talented people who are brilliant at creating gods, monsters and explosions of all sorts, so I leave that to them. My job is to figure out what makes characters tick, while simultaneously finding the emotional sweet spot for the player’s experience. Of course, sometimes that quiet, human stuff gets sacrificed or lost in the spectacle that is a video game, but it never stops me from trying to find those emotions.
In The Long Dark we deal with that same quiet in a more direct way. I think it’s in the quiet times when we are alone that we really discover ourselves. It’s like I said above, there is a lot happening in our world and a lot of information coming at us nonstop. In short, a lot of noise, but not a lot of signal. The Long Dark sets out to stop the noise so we can actually deal with the signal in a meaningful way. Don’t get me wrong. I still love gods, monsters and explosions, and will continue to look for, and work on those projects. But what we are trying to achieve in The Long Dark is really special, and I’m thrilled to be working on it.
Most video game narratives follow the well-trod path of the Hero’s Journey. Kratos, on the other hand, got to star in what can only be described as an Aeschylean tragedy. With so many games, especially in the AAA space, being about relentless improvement and triumph, what was the thought behind adopting a narrative structure that is explicitly about the hero’s ultimate failure?
You bring up a point that might be the bane of all game writers, and that is how do you raise the stakes for the character (often done through failure), while still offering victory conditions to the player. Kratos never fails in his mission. A few times he has failed when we need him to end up somewhere – like in GOW 3, where he can’t hang on to a branch and falls into the underworld – but usually he is steadfast in his goals, and he uses any means necessary to stay on task.
For the ultimate answer, we’d probably have to ask one or all of the franchise’s many directors. They might be able to tell you if there was any thought to adopting a narrative structure that is explicitly about the hero’s ultimate failure.
My 2 cents is that we could say it’s because Kratos is Greek, and that’s kinda where tragedies were invented. His story feels like a natural extension of that ancient world, but I think it goes a little deeper. Kratos’ entire story just felt organic to the desires and flaws of his character. There was simply no other way to go with him. I think it would have felt false to try to make Kratos classically heroic or talk about the triumph of the human spirit with his story. Kratos has always had this resonance where he is telling us his story rather than us trying to foist goodness and light (or anything else) on him. And you know, he’s a big guy with crazy-ass weapons. When he speaks, we try to listen.
Another one of your most famous characters is Shank, who, like Kratos, is an honorable badass looking for vengeance in a morally confused world. Is there a particular appeal to writing that character type? More importantly, if Kratos and Shank met in a bar, would they get along, or would they start a brawl and trash the place?
Interesting characters are born of morally confused worlds because that’s where the hard choices come from, and, to me, it’s appealing to write for those conflicted people. I get that, when playing, it’s really fun to have the choice clear and the morality set before you, and there’s nothing wrong with that kind of story/game. For me, though, it’s a more interesting route to deal with those shades of gray, both as a writer and a player.
If Kratos and Shank met in a bar, I imagine they would leave each other alone. Shank because he’s smart and would want to stay out of the way of the God of War. Kratos would probably keep to himself, too, unless he needed Shank’s dead body to complete a puzzle on his way to reap vengeance on a pantheon of gods. Otherwise, there really is no reason for the Spartan to engage. Besides, Kratos could probably use the dead body of the bartender to complete the puzzle and continue his pursuit of vengeance.
The problem would come when that one drunken a-hole in the bar wants to mess with a badass and a god. I could see a brawl breaking out from that scenario. The upside, of course, is that Kratos would then have lots of dead bodies to complete his puzzles.
Before getting into games, you worked with numerous other entertainment properties, including Sweet Valley High. How would you pitch a SVH game today?
For some reason I keep seeing a stiletto (the shoe/heel not the blade) shaped spaceship, so I’m assuming it’s a futuristic space opera of some sort, with family torn asunder.
Elizabeth Wakefield, Queen of planet TBD, reaches out to her estranged twin sister, Jessica Wakefield, Queen of a rival planet. Elizabeth needs help. A super villain has captured her boyfriend, Todd. Jessica immediately denies assistance to her sister, still feeling scorned by Todd’s romantic rebuff and subsequent choice of Elizabeth. It’s not until Jessica learns of the super villain’s twisted plan to make the universe wear only bright yellow jump suits that she springs to action.
Once reunited, the twins become a co-op pair. Elizabeth’s style of gameplay includes cool logic, puzzle solving and one-liners that would make Dorothy Parker smile. Jessica, on the other hand, would be responsible for a medusa-like power, where blindingly brilliant fashion cripples the villain upon sight. To level up, the Jessica player would have to continue to make the fierce fashion choices for the power to reach its full potential. Jessica is also equipped with the Heels of Chaos – a Louboutin style shoe that acts as a ninja star/boomerang, as well as absolutely stunning footwear.
Together, the sisters find victory by rescuing Todd, defeating the villain, and freeing the jump suit masses to pursue their own unique look. This dual character arc would allow the sisters to mend their broken relationship, give Elizabeth a much-needed makeover and teach Jessica that reading a book every now and then is actually a good thing.
And so ends my short career of making SVH a video game… or does it?
Many thanks to Marianne for taking time to share her thoughts. You can find her work in the upcoming The Long Dark, from Hinterland Games.