With only a day to go until the premiere of the much talked about and much anticipated Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, promotion is at a fever pitch. After our two exclusive reviews of the story mode scripts, we had a chat with the writers of those scripts, Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray. If those names sound familiar, then you’re no doubt a comics fan who has been into the medium anytime in the last several years, as the writing duo has taken the comics world by storm. Palmiotti, of course, had already established a career in the comic world, but now with Gray they have tackled some of DC’s longest running characters. Now they tackled the big dogs, along with some of the best-known characters in video games. Here’s how that happened, and how it went for them.
Newsarama: How did you two get pulled into this assignment? Had either of you worked with video games before?
Jimmy Palmiotti: Oh yeah, spent a good amount of time writing The Punisher game with Garth Ennis and the Ghost Rider game as well. This is my third major game I have worked on and a fourth is on the way very soon.
Justin Gray: This is my first ground floor experience in game development from a creative standpoint and I was amazed at how open and fun the process is.
JP: As far as how we came about the assignment, Justin and I were approached by John Nee and Dana Kurtin at DC because both Midway and DC needed a story person or two to work with the Midway people and make sure they were staying on character with everything. Justin and I flew out to Chicago with a couple of DC folk and met (Mortal Kombat co-creator and lead) Ed Boon and his crew of writers and as we went along we suggested more and more of the story till we were knee deep into working the spine of the story with Ed’s crew and it went from there. It really was an excellent experience to work with so many talented people.
JG: From the moment we sat down with Ed Boon, John Vogel and the guys from Midway there was this instant positive energy. I half expected some abrasiveness due to how complicated it can be trying to marry two licenses for a single project, but there wasn’t any of that. It was as if we all had been working together for a while.
NRAMA: You've also recently ventured into screenwriting. Is writing for a game more like that, or more like comic work?
JP: For MK vs DC and video games in general it’s a bit more like a screenplay, but a hell of a lot more complicated. The thing that I see happening a lot these days are the companies are asking writers to write the games and these writers don’t actually play video games and that’s a big problem when you get past the spine of the story side of the work load.
JG: Which is one of the common threads we shared with the Midway people, we’re gamers, we’re online probably more than we should be.
JP: I like to look at and play every single game out there…my studio has an Xbox 360, a PlayStation 3, a wii and some older consoles and when I approach a new game, especially on the writing end, I like to look at what I don’t see happening in other games and at the same time create new moves and levels that haven’t existed before.
JG: That’s the key I think in approaching a game. The
interactive nature of video games is such an important part of the
process and taking people on a ride that allows them to have a visceral
reaction to the game is very different from other media. You have some
control in the outcome of a story. With a comic book you are an
invested observer because it is static medium. Video games are designed
for multiple outcomes based on the individual player and that’s
something that interests me.
JP: A really fun project Justin and I both worked on recently is Dead Space: Downfall, an animated prequel to the Dead Spacegame by EA Games. It was for us a chance to build on a game property and handle the script like a live action sci-fi slasher film. You wind up bringing all your past experience to gigs like this and it makes for a totally cool adventure.
NRAMA: This game has two storylines that intersect at several points. What was the process for that? Did you work on both simultaneously, or one, then the other?
JP: These had to be planned very carefully because of the number of ways you could access the game and everything had to make sense on every level because of the big endgame we set up, so a side by side breakdown of levels, battles and film in-between had to be perfect.
JG: The fun factor was in combining the two universes and the game play so that they meshed in a way that was both entertaining and logical to the universal laws we established. Working with a large group of people wasn’t nearly as challenging as I thought it would be. Normally writing is a solitary process, but this game was more of a jam session of very different people working toward a common goal – to make MK vs DC kick major ass.
JP: This part of the script writing process was where the Mortal Kombat crew really came in and showed what they could do. I got to say, collaborations can, at times, be difficult, but this was a room fueled with a bunch of people that wanted to show off what they knew and apply it to the game.
JG: We worked out the DC side of the game and Midway gave input and we did the same on the MK side to make sure there was consistency in the characters and the story as told from two different perspectives. I think that makes this game unique.
NRAMA: You know the DC characters pretty well, having worked in comics for quite some time. Was it difficult stepping into the world of MK and those characters heads?
JP: You know, its what I do for a living…every time we get a new book from a company, it’s all about research and what you feel you can do to add to the legacy. At times it was difficult a tiny bit, and that’s where Ed Boon’s crew came in and totally stepped up.
JG: I had a familiarity with most of the MK characters, I’ve played the games, I’ve watched some of the films and that made it much easier to process ideas and dialogue.
JP: The Mortal Kombat characters are pretty clearly defined by
all the past history, but the Midway crew understood the way they speak
like we knew how the DC characters sounded and together I think we have
a game that will satisfy both fans of DC Comics and the Mortal Kombat
fans as well.
NRAMA: As scriptwriters on a game featuring two franchises, how
much freedom did you have? Did Midway give you a general direction or
plot, or did you get to start it from scratch? Is the level of freedom
about the same as in work for hire comics work, or less?
JP: Well…this is a multi million dollar project, so there were guidelines and formats and points we had to hit because this was a license deal as well. Midway had a general idea and direction when we got there and we just put ourselves into the mix and changed and added a lot of things that would make sense to the DC characters and overall we were looking for something big and over the top, so with a room full of people, ideas flew around and I think everyone came to the same conclusion that the game people are going to play this week is the best effort by everyone involved. This is completely different from a comic because of the approval factors and the different limitations they both have.
JG: Given the fact that we came in much later to the project we did have a surprising amount of input to the overall story and approach. The main thing was that we were asked for ideas on the best way to keep the core integrity of the characters and how they could work in the game. Everyone has his or her own idea of who Batman is, but what we hoped to do was keep the most modern approach, while also making it work for anyone playing the game even if they weren’t fans of the DC heroes.
NRAMA: As for the story itself, there are elements familiar to both franchises, with merging worlds and magic influencing characters. How did you find the aspect of merging these two? Did they fit well together?
JP: They fit together perfectly…and that’s what is so cool about these distinctively different properties. You never have to guess what world you are on because of the obvious designs and when they merge, the game takes on an extra level of cool all around.
One thing you have to remember when tackling a project like this is
that it isn’t and shouldn’t be designed exclusively for comics fans or
Mortal Kombat fans. A project like this needs to hit those points and
definitely meet expectations of existing fans from both sides of the
game, but it also has to be accessible to someone with no prior
knowledge of either. A wider audience approach sometimes means that you
have to bend a rule or two for the greater good of the project. In the
end we bent very little actually.
NRAMA: What story elements can you tell us about? Perhaps a little more about Kombat Rage, and how it fits into the story?
JG: I think Ed Boon would kill us if we spoiled too much or anything about the game. You’re looking at a story that is epic in scale and scope, yet it still allows you to have fun interpersonal character moments that make it a richer experience. You know, if you get tired of using Batman or Liu Kang to beat the shit out of people.
NRAMA: Was the game experience a good one? Would you like to go, or have you already gone back to video games? (perhaps a full Painkiller Jane game, Jimmy?)
JP: I would write a Painkiller Jane game in a heartbeat. Hey game people, the license is available. I would also want to write a Jonah Hex game, a Power Girl game, a Back to Brooklyn game and so on. The possibilities are endless and having a number of creator owned projects, the opportunities are endless. The experience was a fantastic one and promoting the game in San Diego with the Midway crew and Ed Boon was a highlight of my career. No kidding. I would work with Midway again in a heartbeat, and any game company that has the vision to keep trying something new. I really enjoy this work.
JG: Absolutely, this experience cemented the fact that I want to be a part of crafting video games, working with the kinds of people that understand the experience can be so much more that we know it now. Like I said earlier, video games are interactive, you’re not watching the hero you are the hero, you have a hand in the outcome of the story and that interests me greatly. The prospect of being able to work on existing properties or create new games from original ideas that both Jimmy and I have would be fantastic.
NRAMA: Do you play games yourselves? If so, what're some current or all time faves? If not, do you plan to play this one at least?
JP: Are you kidding me…I am going to play this game till its done and on fire in my console. And yeah…I play a ton of games. The two I have on right now are Dead Space and SOCOM U.S. Navy Seals Confrontation. I do enjoy the fighting and shooting games.
JG: I was a Halo junkie for some time, but the server lag on Matchmaking games has gone beyond my ability to enjoy playing online. Dead Space is the best survival horror game on the market right now, I was amazed at what EA had done with the game play experience. I’m not just trying to plug Dead Space because we were involved in the animated film; it really is an amazing game – I love stomping corpses with gravity boots. I can only hope that if there’s a second game that EA will get it online. I need to get my ass to the shop and pick up Gears of War 2. GTA4 was fun, but an open world game like that requires so much time that I usually space those out and end up finishing it long after other people. Call of Duty is always fun, Madden because I’m an NFL junkie, I liked Amped 2 much better than 3. Farcry…we’ll be here all day.