Rick Remender is a busy man, but he likes to have fun. With a history in animation and video games, not to mention a history of a foul mouth and some over-the-top ideas, he was the perfect man for the job when Epic Games and peoplecanfly needed someone to help write their new IP Bulletstorm.The game has caused controversy before even coming out, is getting rave reviews, and takes archetypes to the max in a way that only this current "king of the 90s" comic can do. With Punisher, Uncanny X-Force, and Venom in his recent and current arsenal, that nickname seems like it may stick.
We spoke with Remender about writing the game, writing games in general, and a couple of big shocks in his comic work as well.
Newsarama: This isn't your first video game, or even your first game with EA. Warren Ellis was the "public" writer of Dead Space, but you did some work on that too, right?
Rick Remender: Well Warren didn't write Dead Space, he did the concepts- cooked up the universe for them basically. He set the stage, and once they had that stuff from him I came in and took his beats and character stuff and concept, and I wrote 6, 7, 8 outlines; I wrote the game out, the ending, a lot of the stuff in there, then Antony Johnston came in, and took the next step. He did all the dialogue and the final script writing, all of that stuff. Antony was the guy whose voice came across the most, for sure.
Nrama: Bulletstorm isn't exactly a psychological scare fest like Dead Space was though. When did you decide that over-the-top and even kinda goofy was the tone you and developer peoplecanfly wanted for the game?
Remender: It just kinda happened naturally! After I came up with the concept for the Space Pirates, I leaned into some of the ideas that [Creative Director] Adrian Chmielarz already had in place. He had this placeholder that just said "The General." And I said "Well we need to work on that, we can't just have him be a mustache-twirler."
Then as we got working, and I was writing the dialogue for Gray, the main character, as a space pirate, I wanted him to sound like a Space Pirate. Even in serious situations, he was someone who wanted to sound aloof and dirty and foul mouthed, just classic high-adventure stuff.
So as I was writing it and I got a couple levels in, I realized that "The General" was perfect. You know, "THE GENERAL" (laughs)! I just fell in love with the fact that this guy would not be a three dimensional character. he would not have a second side. He would just be a mustache twirler. I mean, I spend my life fighting the urge to write characters that mustache twirl, and I had an opportunity to lean into these guys becoming that way. And he was a joy to write! General Sarrano is just evil. He's just a bad, racist, sarcastic a-hole guy, and that was a treat.
Then we started leaning in that direction for everything. The more I would write Gray I was putting him into the story and dealt with the pathos and some of the things he was dealing with, but peppered it with the dialogue I write in books like Black Heart Billy and Fear Agent, creator owned things where I'm left to my own devices. That tends to be where I turn. Fortunately, the folks at peoplecanfly and Epic Games really responded to it. Around that time I flew out to Poland and spent 8 days where we locked ourselves in the writers room, and spent 12 hours a day beating the story up and cooking everything up, putting together a 3 act structure and getting everything good to go.
I think it was just a natural sort of growth. One thing that Adrian told me when i started was that it was a blank canvas, and to destroy or take off the board anything that I wanted to. They had these placeholders: the tough marine, the cyborg sidekick fighting his computer side, the general; it's wild, because I started thinking of ways to not have a cyborg, "God, how many times have we seen that?" But then I realized, that's why we do it! That's why he's got a cyborg buddy, then I started realizing I put cyborgs in almost everything I do, how could I back away from this? I apparently have some sort of a fixation on cyborgs, and it's clearly strictly from a visual place.
But the story kept building and the more I leaned into those archetypes, and tropes, and embraced the idea that this would be a joyful, grindhouse, pulp explosion - which is really what I like to write - that is the tone that got set! So we just kept working in that direction, and I hear it's doing well and the reviews are great, so fortunately it has paid off.
Nrama: What freedom does writing for video games offer over comics? What limitations?
Remender: Well, you have creator owned comics and you have mainstream work. Creator-owned I'm absolutely untethered and can go wild and spin around and go crazy. Last Days of American Crime or XXXombies would be two books in my career that have wild twists and turns in them that you don't expect, and went to some pretty seedy places in both of them. I can't obviously do that in a Marvel comic, but it's my job then to find ways to make things equally as shocking, and suspenseful in less seedy ways.. I like a story to punch me in the stomach every once in awhile and go "Hey, you don't know what's gonna happen!" That's how I like things to be when i read them so I make sure when I write them that I try and give everything I do a few punches to the stomach, always when they are natural; can't just go for shock value. It has to actually have a structured story.
In video games, it's that plus playability. Basically, the first 45 minutes or so, until you crash on the planet, that was all pitched by me. They had the "crashed on the planet" angle and they had some tracks on the planet that you were going to go through, but didn't have the character interaction. That was an exercise in "every three minutes we're going to do something crazy and keep you excited as hell," and then we're gonna cut to a flashback years earlier, and you're walking on the side of a building in gravity boots…
I just did the thing I do in comics where I just started throwing these ideas and then sifting through and seeing which ones would be fun video game aspects. I'd recognize things that would be cool-looking but weren't' fun to play. The other stuff was spaceship fights and things, which peoplecanfly and Epic turned into these grand moments.
More than anything you have to consider how it plays. If you're pitching to the developer, in terms of story, that this is not a movie. As much as you want to focus on "this" or build character "here," you have to really try and focus in on the good ideas that are also fun video game moments.
Nrama: So as a fan of shock moments, you must've been thrilled with the skill shots in the game…
Remender: Yeah, Well, it's fun, right? You know a lot of these first person shooters, they're stressful. I had a couple friends watching me play Call of Duty and just saying "Man, this is a stressful thing to do!" (laughs) and it is! But this is just joy. You're sliding on the ground and kicking people with boots, and infecting them with a time-displacement so they start floating in the air like a piñata. Then you sit there and you have 150 different ways to kill them and depending on how creative you get, you get better weapons to wreak more havoc and have more fun.
The names for the skill shots that peoplecanfly came up with work perfectly in tandem with it all, and it all pays off.
Nrama: So FoxNews ran their story saying you will increase instances of rape and violence with this game…What do you do when someone just takes something completely out of hand like that?
Remender: I just don't think that you can pay any attention to it. There's that famous and wonderful "Treehouse of Horrors" episode of The Simpsons where the billboards come to life, and that's analogous to this sort of thing. I don't think responding to nonsense is a good idea, I think ignoring nonsense is the way to go. Some people have come up with some really nice and long responses and that's great. As far as being the creator on the other end, I believe in freedom of speech and artistic expression, and these are ideals that are American.
Nrama: You have some ridiculous quips and one-liners here. How did you come up with these over-the-top-lines and insults?
Remender: Well people who have read my book Black Heart Billy, it's sort of my personality. I try to not take myself too seriously. I find people that do take themselves too seriously to be a bummer, and a drag. For me, I think the thing is to let your work speak for you and the quality of your work, the time and energy you put into it. Rather than tell someone what a genius you are, I'd rather challenge them with a great story and beautiful artwork that's also peppered with juvenile concepts or Saturday morning aesthetics. That stuff to me is fun. I think that self-serious melodrama has for too long been seen as a "higher road" over everything else in video games. I think that the readers/players are smart, and that the stories will speak for themselves, and if they're peppered with juvenile language and a fun sense of humor… that stuff is much harder to write and I think it's why I've done as well as I have. You know, it's juvenile, for sure, but under it is a real story and a sense of fun. I prefer that to something pushing its contrived, self-serious, melodrama down my throat. Having the opportunity to just cut loose with it in Bulletstorm and just write the sort of filth with a weird cadence, and the strange amalgam of words mixed with "dick" (laughs) was amazing.
Nrama: Were you just flipping through the dictionary and pointing?
Remender: Yeah, you know? "Dickblood" "Dicknuisance" "Dicksoftware"… "Dicksoftware" that's not a bad one. (laughs)
Nrama: To demonstrate the "skill shots" of the game, you also got to write two (extremely NSFW) shorts featuring the legendary Lee Ermey and very funny Brian Posehn in which you got to repeatedly kill them both. What was that process like?
Remender: Well, they contacted me to write some short commercials before that, with Cliff Bliezinski at Epic that were sort of "Jack Handey" goofs, so I did that for them and they were happy with them, and came to me to write these spots. This was before they even had an actor in place.
I'm personal friends with Brian Posehn, from way back, we've been buddies. I drew his comic The Last Christmas, another book that people should go out and buy, cause it's amazing, mostly for the art (laughs).
So I suggested Brian and the producer suggested Lee Ermey, and we started cooking up this "Full Metal Jacket" parody thing. Man, that's gonna be a high point of my career forever! I got to write Lee Ermey and Brian Posehn insulting each other for 4 minutes. And the thing was, it had to really focus on the guns in the game and on showing you what the guns do. That was the only thing that was a bit of a challenge, cause I really just wanted to keep them yelling at each other with no anything, but then I had a nice special effects budget and you get to show these weapons, so…
The end result is a commercial that I think you don't realize you're watching a commercial, and that's always kinda the goal in a way.
And I got to write Lee Ermey walking around in a shirt with a nametag that says "Dickfart" on it (laughs). They can never take that away from me.
Nrama: Back to your shocking moments, over in the comics world, you first arc on Uncanny X-Force ended with a bit of surprise as to who wound up being the most ruthless of this new crew. Where did that come from with Fantomex?
Remender: I can't tell you! I will say that the first 17 issues are one story. I have a lot of people that are like, "I love the Deathlok thing but I wish that you'd have connected it to the story!" I just say, "Man, you haven't seen where it goes it yet." Most of these people are people that haven't read a lot of my other work. If you read Punisher you'll see things in issue 1 that pay off in issue 18. If you read Fear Agent issue 4 will pay off in issue 12 or 20. I like writing big episodic stories, like an HBO series on paper. People will say "well I hopped in on your Punisher in issue 10 and was confused… was that his family he was torturing alive?" and I just don't know how you can do that! It's like saying "I hopped into The Wire season 3 episode 4…" "I say "That's issue ten, that's not where you start! Is it that hard to find issue 1?" But the stuff going on in X-Force and Fantomex's motivations with killing the kid - and he did kill the kid - that wasn't a misdirection, that was a kid with a bullet in his head. For sure. Absolutely. That will not be changed. But there are other things going on, there are other things afoot. It's gonna build into some stuff I think they'll be announcing soon.
Nrama: I've seen a lot of critics saying this is the first time Fantomex has been "right" since Grant Morrison played with him for too short of a time during his run…
Remender: Well that's the nicest thing anyone can ever say to me. That's like saying "you've managed to make Spider-Man feel like Lee and Ditko are back on the book." It's someone else's character, I mean, it's owned and part of the Marvel universe and exists in this space, but it's a character that Grant clearly created in the "Grant Headspace." And that's a headspace that I naturally am drawn to and has elements in common with my own voice. Someone insinuated once that I was trying to be "too Grant", and it's something that I took offense to only because I would never write in anyone else's voice. The thing that Grant does using very silver-age sounding explanations for science, that's stuff I've been doing in my work for a long, long time. While I'm inspired by Grant, that isn't in any way me borrowing from his vocabulary.But, in terms of Fantomex it is very important to me. The character is very much about tone and how you handle him is very much about tone. I re-read those New X-Men issues to really get into the head of Marvel’s international man of mystery. I think you should never trust a thing Fantomex says, but you should really want to. I think that's sort of the way I come to him.
Nrama: And now we've seen the official introduction of the new Venom prior to your new series. What's the one thing you're most excited about seeing with that comic?
Remender: The one thing? Every issue! The whole thing! When you're coming into something like this, that's going to have so many eyes on it, and is going to be a huge blockbuster in sales thing, you have to consider "how do you keep people excited to be reading every issue?" For me, that is: keep the most condensed, fast-paced story that is highly interesting, still builds character, still establishes pathos for Flash Thompson, while not giving readers one second to consider "well do I want the next issue." If you ever consider on any book "do I want the next issue" we’ve failed. You should never have that clear exit ramp where you can jump off. What we want to do with Venom is make every issue such an event, such an interesting, crazy scenario, and so fast paced, that you're just enthralled and you just can't wait for the next issue.
Tony Moore, Jerome Opeña and I, and the friends that I have that I work with, we all want to give people in one comic book what they get in three other comic books. And I think we do. I'm usually pretty self-deprecating, but I'll take a stand on that one. In terms of what we give you for your money, we make sure there's not one wasted panel, that we get the character stuff and the action, and that we give you a compressed, enthralling tale. Given that you're paying so much for these things anymore we want to make sure the bang for the buck is there. As for the big fun, We’ve got Kraven, Jack O’ Lantern, Spider-Man and some other huge characters showing up. we've got a new Spider-Man character coming in every issue leading to something I can't say a word about.
After that, there is some stuff coming up that is so crazy that I'm cooking up with another writer at Marvel to integrate Venom even further into the Marvel Universe in a story that I don't think people will ever anticipate.
For anybody who is on the fence about it, the creators are taking 3 years of story and putting it into one year.
Bulletstorm is in stores now for Windows PC, PS3, and Xbox 360. Remender's ongoing runs of Uncanny X-Force and Venom from Marvel Comics can be found at your local comic shop, along with his copious creator-owned works.