23 min read

Language Is A Virus: A Talk With Pandemic's Tom Abernathy

In this in-depth interview, Pandemic Studios’ senior writer/designer Tom Abernathy talks about writing for games such as the Destroy All Humans! series, the genesis of the studio's upcoming Saboteur, and... the surprising connection between Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire?

Writer William S. Burroughs once said, “Language is a virus from outer space”. Well game writer Tom Abernathy has written plenty of dialogue for aliens, including those in the Destroy All Humans! series, and some of it is pretty way-out-there.

At Austin GDC -- prior to the Electronic Arts buyout of Pandemic and BioWare -- Gamasutra had a chance to talk with Pandemic Studios’ senior writer/designer, whose credits include Heavy Gear, both Destroy All Humans! titles, and the upcoming Saboteur, as well as numerous film, TV and theater projects.

We chatted to Abernathy about Destroy All Humans!, Australia, Pamela Anderson movies, and -– oh yeah -- writing for games:

Are you based in Los Angeles?

Tom Abernathy: I am based in Los Angeles. Contrary to popular misconstruance at times, I am not based in Australia, although the team who made the [first] two Destroy All Humans! games is based in Australia.

Good then. You don't sound like you're based in Australia.

TA: No, in no way. Although I did get to visit a couple of times during those processes, and that was a lot of fun.

What's the development scene like down there?

TA: Interestingly, Brisbane is the center. It is the hot spot of game development in Australia, which is kind of weird, because it's not one of the three or four largest cities, I don't think. You would expect Sydney or Melbourne, but no, it happens to be Brisbane, which is kind of wacky, but that's the way it is. Actually, there's a fair amount of game development going on down there. There is an Australian game industry. They have their own awards and organizations and sort of thing. Our Pandemic studio down there has a very preeminent place among the independent developers in Australia.

Destroy All Humans! is kind of an odd thing, though, because it's a game that THQ didn't market hard, I think, in Australia -- not like they did other places. The funny thing is, the first game came out and was a pretty decent-sized hit here, and the guys on the team over there really had no idea. It wasn't like it is for some of us here, where for a while surrounding your release, you're seeing some TV ads or print ads.

They weren't seeing anything, and so they had no sense of it being a success. So one of the things I got to do when I went down there was to be able to communicate to them just how well it was doing. We would get some fan mail, oddly enough from kids a lot, 12 or 13 years old -- probably the ones who get into the potty humor aspect of Destroy All Humans!, which there is a little of. Well, not potty, so much as crude, juvenile sexual stuff.

Destroy All Humans image The original Destroy All Humans.
Pictured: throwing cows around. Not pictured: stuff.

There's also throwing cows around and stuff.

TA: Right. Exactly. And the farting stuff. Parenthetically, you haven't lived until you've heard a voice actor who specializes in cows and chickens do a cow farting. The man can do Hamlet as a cow and you would understand it, I swear to God. Incredible. But anyway, I was able to show them the fan mail and tell them about the letters we were getting and that the game was really scoring with some people, and that really made them happy. The second game I think got a little more recognition down there.

Yeah, because they're kind of isolated from the rest of the universe. It's something of an island!

TA: There's something of that, yes! It's an interesting place, because I think we think of them being very culturally related to England, but they think of themselves as being almost not culturally related at all to England. They think of themselves as being much more culturally related to America.

In a way, they are. We're both colonies and refugees of the Queen's country.

TA: But they're flabbergasted that Americans could confuse their accent with an English accent, because to them, they just don't see that similarity at all.

Americans aren't always that smart, either.

TA: That's true.

They give us too much credit.

TA: Perhaps. I always like pleasing Australians and New Zealanders by being able to tell the difference between those two, because New Zealanders hate being mistaken for being Australian, and probably vice versa. But they are sort of isolated in weird and interesting ways. I mean, they have four channels of television. It's funny, because there are a lot of ways in which they are very much like America, but there are other ways in which they're clearly hungry for American culture in a lot of ways. A lot of guys down there, they'll download Battlestar Galactica off of iTunes, and all that kind of stuff. It's not a totally different thing, but it is different.

Are you sure they don't download it off of BitTorrent?

TA: Some of them do, some of them do. Yes.

Australia aside, what is the writing process, in your experience at Pandemic?

TA: In general, or for a specific game?

Do you have a general, like -- "Here, we've got pre-production and we're going to build up the story and universe, and now we're going to write!"

TA: Here's the thing -- Pandemic, like a lot of developers, is just starting to warm up to the idea that writing needs to be an integral part of what they do. That's why I was hired -- to help facilitate that process and presumably to help them understand from the writer's point of view how we can best be used. After the first Destroy All Humans!, which I wrote as a contractor, I had some conversations with them about that -- suggestions how they could use writers to better effect, moving forward. As I said, I think that was one of the reasons why they became interested in hiring me.

So, for some games, say, Star Wars: Battlefront, there's not a writer involved, really. The director of those games is himself a screenwriter, and has some writing chops. Other people on that team, as frequently happens, have some kind of conceptualizing ability and that kind of stuff. But that's a game that is obviously not story- or character-driven. The universe is already well understood by the people playing the game. It's not a lot of work for a writer to do, necessarily.

For the first Destroy All Humans! I was brought in as a contractor fairly late in the process -- about six or nine months before the original ship date, which ended up being pushed back a bit, so it ended up about being a year before it shipped. And a lot of choices had already been made. The idea at first was -- as the situation is with most game writers -- I was there to rewrite designer dialogue. Happily for me and all involved, that evolved pretty quickly into something more substantive, because what I was able to bring to it went beyond that.

When I talk to people in the game industry about how writers can be vital to what they do, the word I keep coming back to is "tone." It's sort of an ineffable thing. A lot of people don't really understand it, or understand what it is, or at least how to craft it and maintain it. It's not something, to be perfectly honest, that most game industry professionals and development people are used to thinking about. Programmers and even designers... most of the time, that's not something that they're thinking about, at least in those terms. A good writer is completely steeped, hopefully, in training and experience crafting, conceptualizing, and executing tone, in all aspects of what they're writing. Story, characters, dialogue, universe of the thing, theme -- which is not a word that gets tossed around in games a lot.

The consistency of it, too.

TA: Absolutely. I think what I sort of just instinctively did -- I didn't intellectualize the process -- what I brought to Destroy All Humans! that it didn't have before I became attached to it was a specific and focused kind of tone that was sort of satirical, kind of Simpsons-y, a little Monty Python-influenced... some social satire, some political satire that was just sort of me looking at what they had done and picking that ball up and running with it. It helped that game, I think, to find its voice, in a way that was maybe a little unusual in games. I think it was a more polished, crafted kind of voice than you sometimes see in games, just because, again, there's nobody really paying attention to that.

The process for Destroy All Humans! 2... I had just begun working full-time at Pandemic, and I had begun working on Saboteur as well, so I was doing those two games simultaneously. With Destroy All Humans! 2, the first time I had met with the Australian team -- and there was a new director at that point -- they had actually done a significant amount of plotting, and the concept of the game was already pretty set in stone. The lead designer had sort of joked months before at the end of the first game's process about what we might want to do for a sequel, and almost jokingly, we said, "Well, we have to go to the '60s, right?" And he said, "Yeah, and I want it to be like James Bond. Crypto becomes James Bond." And I said, "Yeah, that's great! That's funny." So whatever, right?

Destory All Humans 2 image

So then they show up for E3 in 2005, and it's all there. The levels, the places the game is going to go to, a significant degree of the plot, and the idea that Crypto is spoofing James Bond movies to some degree because it's the late '60s, England is a big part of it -- they were hungry, I think, to get out of America and get into other parts of the world and all that kind of stuff. So I did get to have some input into all of that, but still not as much as I think is good for a game process. But I was certainly involved from that point forward in continuing discussions of game characters and plot -- particularly for the second half of the game -- and of course for dialogue and that kind of stuff.

There were a whole set of issues that came out of that choice, to put it in the '60s and make it a James Bond spoof, that I touched on in my panel yesterday that in and of themselves are an interesting discussion. But with Saboteur, that's been much more the kind of process that I think it would behoove game developers to use. That is, the writer is brought in at the earliest stages of development. At that point, there was an idea, and a little demo had been made by the Mercenaries team that bore no relationship, virtually, at all to what the game is actually going to be. A sort of proof-of-concept thing. I think Tom French -- the lead designer -- had done about a page and a half of rudimentary ideas.

We had the idea of... Andrew Goldman, our CEO, saw a book at the bookstore in the New Zealand airport coming back from Australia, about William Grover-Williams, who was a Grand Prix auto driver in Europe before the war who got recruited into the Special Operations Executive and was an SOE agent who sabotaged German operations behind the lines in France, and ended up getting executed by the Nazis, as a lot of SOE agents did. It turned out, there were a couple of other auto racers who had done this, and it just seemed like a really fascinating idea.

That's weird, yeah.

TA: Exactly. It's not the sort of thing you would ever come up with, but it's true! Andrew, I think, said, "Wow, this is great. I want to make a game out of this." So that was where the idea started, which is really cool that you could do that. It wasn't market tested, particularly. He just thought it was a great idea, and everybody else did too. Whenever anybody would be told the idea, everybody was high on it. So Tom had done a page and a half of brainstorming on who the character might be, what his backstory might be, and how the game might begin. Stuff like that.

That was where it was when I came on, and from that point forward, I was part of the core creative team building the game from the ground up, conceptually, brand-wise, and everything else that has to do with anything a writer would involve himself with. I think that's been a tremendously fruitful process, and I think everybody involved realizes and agrees with that. I think to some degree, the fact that it has been fruitful was born out by the fact that as we move forward and people from our [then] parent company VG Holdings and Elevation Partners would come in and we would present to them where we were and the things we were thinking and all this kind of stuff.

Bono and John Riccitiello and Greg Richardson -- people like that would really without exception, and our marketing people too, they would come in and listen to what we had to say and they would get really excited about the character and about the story and the world. And not for no reason -- they were thinking, "This seems to us like it has franchise possibilities that are significant."

You think about characters like Lara Croft and Sam Fisher and characters that franchises can be built around... nowadays of course everybody's thinking not just in games, but in TV or movies or comic books and all sorts of things. Everybody wants to become a total entertainment company, and there's no reason why you shouldn't be with an original IP. If you're going through the trouble of developing it and doing it right, exploit it in every way you can.

But everybody in every stage responded so well to the work that we were doing in that way that before too long, it became clear that this is what we feel was the strength of the game, and the thing we wanted to hang the marketing on. To us, this is what makes Saboteur somewhat unique and cool and interesting, and is the hook that we think people are going to be into. That's writing.

There are a number of hooks that the game has -- for example, the “will to fight” stuff that the article in Game Developer talked about, which is incredible, and Tom French and Chris Hunt were the brainiacs behind that. I think it's so brilliant, and did from the first moment I heard it. They had that, actually. They knew that already by the time I came on, and had been thinking about it for a while.

There are a number of hooks in the game that we hope will really intrigue people -- and some of them are game mechanic-oriented -- but more of them than usual, by far, are oriented around who this guy is and what his story is and what's going on. The fact that the corporate powers that be above Pandemic have enough confidence in what they're seeing come out of this process that they want to make that the foot they lead with in trying to make people interested in , Saboteur -- I think that says volumes. That says all you need to know about how fruitful the process has been.

Saboteur screenshot
The bleak world of Saboteur

So I assume you're looking at possibilities of expanding the universe, and if so, would you be able to be involved in that?

TA: I think it is safe to say that we would be very happy if that becomes a viable possibility, business-wise, and I certainly would hope to be involved in it any way I could, and presumably would be particularly in terms of game sequels. Stuff in other media is less certain, but there's some precedent for that.

In Destroy All Humans! there was a time for awhile while we still had that IP with THQ where we were talking about doing a half-hour 3D animated television series of it. I was involved in a lot of the meetings with that and in helping the potential show runner who was brought on to develop that concept. Which is great, because he is a writer. He's a guy named Jim Dauterive, who's a consulting producer on King of the Hill. He's a writer, and he loved that I was a writer, and we understood each other, and he could talk to me about things that I had done in the game and in the IP. So I would love to play a role in stuff like that. But that probably isn't a decision that's up to me.

So you were planning to work with Jim Dauterive?

TA: Well, I was involved with some of the meetings.

I mean you as a company.

TA: Yeah, we were. That process, as far as I know, is dead. I don't think that ever went anywhere.

I know. It's just cool because I think he's cool.

TA: He's very cool. And from Austin, I believe, as are most of those King of the Hill guys. I adored him, and I thought he was a really wonderful guy, and I adore that show. I just think that show is brilliant. It does not get the recognition it deserves. But it was great just to be in the room with him. A lot of times, I was the only one sitting in a room full of suits from THQ and agents from Hollywood who wanted to get their piece of the pie out of all of this, and I'm the guy he wants to talk to, because I'm the guy who knows the things about the Destroy All Humans! universe that he needs to know. So that was exciting.

What do you see as the advantages of being in-house at a developer, versus being freelance and being able to work on different projects?

TA: At this stage of the game, they are two-fold. One is that it's a stable job. As in any profession, having a salary, having benefits, knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, and having a structure that you can perhaps ascend in are things that have a certain value to them. They're not things that everybody necessarily wants. I have friends who are still contracting game writers, as I used to be, who don't want to do what I'm doing. They're younger, they're not married or have kids like I am, and their needs are different, and they like the freedom.

They like being able to work on two or three different projects at once. They like having time to work on their screenplays or whatever on the side, which I most of the time don't, in dividing time between work and a two-year-old. And I totally understand that. And they can, at least hypothetically, make more money, but of course they have to buy their own health insurance, too, and all that kind of stuff.

For me, it made a lot of sense because of the point of my life I was in, and having a new child on the way and feeling like that would be something that would be good for my family. But the second thing -- and this is the more important of the two for me -- is that process that I described as having the writer be involved early on. A game company's not going to pay a writer for that length of time. They weren't going to pay me as a contractor for my hours of work over three years, because that would be a lot more money, quite frankly, than they're paying me as a salary.

What I wanted more than anything was to have the opportunity to get into a company full of smart, forward-thinking people who were willing to have their eyes opened and help them learn -- as I learn, because I'm still learning it too -- how the writer can be incorporated into the process from the very beginning in a totally integral, totally vital way. I did believe with every fiber of my being that was true -- that it was no question that a good writer involved from the earliest point could make any game better. Even Star Wars: Battlefront -- a game that isn't really writing-driven.

That's certainly true. I've worked on a couple of things, and there's certainly a large difference between coming in at the end of a project and coming in at the beginning, in terms of not only your ability to direct the project, but in terms of you being perceived as integral.

TA: Right! That's right. That's absolutely true. One of the problems that we have in the industry still at this point is that it's not an industry that has traditionally used writers until fairly recently, and they're not convinced that they need us. But you know what? Programmers weren't convinced that they needed designers. It used to be two guys in their garage made Space Invaders or whatever. This is the way art forms and media evolve, and I firmly believe that writing is emerging -- I think has emerged, but is still in the birthing process of emerging -- as a totally integral, vital game development speciality, in exactly the same way that programming, design, and art are.

I think it's just as important if you want to not just make a game that's good and has a complete and immersive fantasy, but if you want to compete, as we have to, in this market with peoples' time and money with movies, television, the Internet, and all the other things that people could be doing to divert themselves -- not to mention the pub crawl on 6th Street -- we have to elevate the kind of experience we're presenting to make sure it's something that can totally compete with those kinds of experiences. And we have some tools that none of those things have. We have interactivity. There are things we have already that give us advantages, but good writing can absolutely help you do that, and is essential to help you do that, I believe.

One thing I've been wondering about is how important writing will be perceived as. Writing is coming up, in terms of peoples' perception of it right now in games, but also the rival faction that's coming up is user-created content and putting all the tools in the hands of the player. So, the thing I've been wondering is, will story-driven games continue to be equally important? Will the role of the writer shift out, or will it shift in to creating more content that people can piece together in a user-created style?

TA: That could well be. Games are such a broad category of experiences, and I do think that writing, properly viewed, is part of the design process in some ways. I know people who think really it's a subset of design, and that's certainly one way to look at it. The thing that I think speaks to the question you're talking about is what I've pushed for at Pandemic, and what I think we as a group of people and a community should be pushing for, is for game developer professionals to stop thinking of us as people who write words that come out of characters' mouths, and start thinking of us as people who create content.

Can that be content that we put in the users' hands to mash up in any way that they want to? Absolutely. The fact that anybody can now take video with their phone and get on their Mac and use the tools on there to make it into a movie and upload it to YouTube... that has not -- at least thus far -- stopped people from going out to movies, or participating in other media that are more traditional, where the content is delivered to you, and you're sort of a passive recipient of it. It augments peoples' experience of that, I think, to some degree, and those things can and probably will coexist. So I see no reason why writers can't be involved in all of that somehow.

There are different levels of experience that people want to have, and different types of entertainment that they're going to go for.

TA: Right. Honestly, sometimes you feel like sitting back and -- as William Hurt said in The Big Chill -- letting "art wash over you." And sometimes you want to be in there and making games happen and doing something creative, and there's no reason why you can't have both of those experiences. I think that the kind of content generators that people with writer minds are, are useful in both of those contexts, it seems to me.

Yeah. Certainly people sometimes want that escapism, or something different from the world that they're in.

TA: Honestly, I don't want to change Casablanca. No offense, but I don't want to get in there and start messing with what they did, because I love what they did. It's perfect for me.

That's where you get remakes.

TA: But here's the thing: in a way, Saboteur is our Casablanca. That's one of the movies that we used as reference in a lot of ways for Saboteur. We wanted a lot of the elements of that, and now we are taking it and mashing it up into something different in a different medium.

Well, a re-envisioning is different from a remake.

TA: That's right.

If you were playing through Casablanca note-for-note but you did different actors and you gave everybody cell phones and stuff it would just be...

TA: Exactly. Well, they tried that. Did you ever see Barb Wire?

I did not see Barb Wire, no.

TA: That's what it was. I'm sitting there watching it, and it's about 20 to 25 minutes in, and I suddenly realize there's a club, she's there, there's a guy she used to be with, she owns the club, she's apolitical, there's a guy she's involved with who's on the run who's a rabble-rouser, and I suddenly realize, my God, it really is Casablanca. That's what they did. It blew my mind. And they totally wrecked it, but you know.

That's okay. At least they called it Barb Wire.

TA: That's right.

At least you knew what you were getting into because Pamela Anderson was in it.

TA: Yes indeed. I think we all got what we needed out of that.

Nobody was confused about what they were watching.

TA: Not at all. That may be the first time Barb Wire was ever referenced in an interview on Gamasutra.

I think it could be! Yeah, they should've just made that into a game instead.

TA: Yeah. It would've been a good game, actually.

Possibly. Well, it would've been at least a sensationalist game and good for some people on some level.

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