Avatar: The Game Interview (PC)

Three years ago during pre-production on Avatar, Kevin Shortt and his scriptwriting colleagues were presented with one hell of a daunting task. Take the verdant moon of Pandora, which has been throbbing away inside the fertile brainpan of visionary director James Cameron for the last ten years or so and script a 15 hour third-person action adventure game from it.

And with people already dismissing Avatar: The Game as yet another cynical movie cash-in, we thought it would be a fantastic idea to chat to Shortt about the inherent challenges of penning a movie game script and how videogames writers can go about shifting the age-old preconception of great movies being transformed into abominable game adaptations.

Shortt has written scripts for games before including Lost – Via Domus. He’s an energetic and interesting speaker too, giving real insight into how storytelling in games needs to move forward. “I want to be the one who figures out the way to tell a really solid story in a game,” he tells us.

Read on for more…

Strategy Informer: How did you start off the writing process for something as huge and massively anticipated as the videogame tie-in for the Avatar movie?

Kevin Shortt: We had this crazy dictionary – Na’vi to English, English to Na’vi. Na’vi’s the language that the native people speak sometimes, and so the detail is really incredible. Then they said, first thing is, Cameron did not want the same story as the movie. He was like, “my movie’s here and I want you to give me a completely different story,” because his feeling was, Pandora’s such a rich moon and there’re so many stories that can be told there that he just couldn’t fit it all into the movie. He was just saying, “I’ve got two hours. There’s only so much I can fit into the movie. I want to be able to tell more of these stories and the game is the way to show another side of the story.

Avatar's Lead Scriptwriter, Kevin Shortt.
The Ubisoft Montreal dev team had full access to Cameron’s ‘Pandora-pedia’ for the Avatar game.

So right away, I’m just thinking this is fantastic, this is exactly what I want from a gamer’s perspective, because I don’t just want to play the movie, I’ve done that so many times before and it’s just a drag. It’s never as good as the movie – the movie’s always better than anything I’m going to play in the game, so I hate playing that, whereas if it’s a different adventure, then I feel like I’m getting value from this: I’m seeing a different side of the story. Maybe there was a cool character from the movie who I get to follow or just a different section of the planet that I get to see or anything like that. But all the time I was thinking, “Jesus Christ! I have to write for James Cameron!” So, that was kind of scary.

I went away with the two writers I worked with and we just let ourselves go nuts. We just said, “OK, here’s the world, here’s all the rules of the world – so we had everything and we understood the world really well and so we thought we’d really go out there and create some new mythology for the world. Maybe he’ll (Cameron) shoot it down, but maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll go for it. And so that was our one idea, and that’s all we had. We had a bunch of ideas that we narrowed down to one idea, which we took to Cameron. If he says no, then we’re back to the drawing board.

So we presented it to him - which is scary - and he bought into it right away and said, “yeah. I love the idea. This is fantastic. You’ve hit on stuff I’d already been thinking on in terms of the world,” which didn’t surprise me, because of course he’d already told us all about the world and so the mythology we came up with was a natural progression of what was already there. And so he said, “Yeah, go for it.”

Strategy Informer: Once Cameron had agreed on the story for the game, was there subsequently a lot of back and forth between the two of you or were you essentially on your own writing the script?

Kevin Shortt: After that two-day session, once we had agreed on the story, they had said, “go for it,” those guys were so busy on the film, but they were comfortable with the story, so they just let us go and write it and we were left alone for a couple of months just to hammer out the story.

Strategy Informer: Am I correct in thinking that the game started life as an FPS, but Cameron decided he’d prefer a third-person game?

Kevin Shortt: We dabbled early on with which way we wanted to go, and the thing with third-person is, it’s nice when you switch from human to avatar, you kinda want to see it right? So, we were thinking you’d be missing that if it was all in first-person, so in third-person, you can see the switch, which is better. Also in a 3D world, when your avatar is there in front of you, it just pops out really nicely, right? It was just a good fit.

Strategy Informer: Did the chosen genre have any kind of overall impact on the script and the writing process?

Kevin Shortt: Not so much. In terms of the overall story? No. It wasn’t a major consideration, because we just want to tell the best story we can tell, so it didn’t really affect us directly. I think it impacted on some things, like because we’re quest-based, you go talk to somebody and you get your mission and because it’s in third-person, they have a dialogue that way. Had it been first-person, it would have probably changed what we did. For example, had it been first-person, we probably would have abandoned any sort of voice for the character, because in first-person, it feels like it’s you, so it’s kind of weird to hear a voice. Because we’re third-person, we thought, OK we can do a voice for the character. You see the character and the voice fits with what you see.

Strategy Informer: We know that Cameron’s been thinking about Avatar for over a decade and obviously he was already in production when work on the game began, but was there anything from the game that has managed to find its way into the film?

Kevin Shortt: Yeah. There’s one example of that. In terms of the mythology we added, no. We got the shooting script, so when we were going, they were shooting – there was no time to really add anything whether they liked it or not. But there was one instance, where we wanted a vehicle that you could drive or use the gun at the back and it didn’t exist in his world, so we took it to Cameron who thought it was perfect, he loved it. So, he took it to his guys in LA - who had designed all of the other vehicles – to design it so it would fit with the world. Once they’d designed it, it came back to us and it got put in the game and I’ve since heard that while it can’t get into the main story, the guys are still working on digital effects and so on, so it might get worked into the background, so I’m going to watch out for that!

Strategy Informer: It must be a great feeling when someone like James Cameron who excels in his field is clearly paying attention to your work and tells you that you’ve come up with a great idea.

Kevin Shortt: Yeah, it’s fantastic. It’s not surprising in a way. Of course the guy is where he is because he’s smart enough to know to take the good ideas and use them, but still, you’re right, it’s great. He’s on board with everything we’re presenting him and that’s what you want to do.

Strategy Informer: What was the most challenging thing for you as a scriptwriter? Were you ever in disagreement with Cameron over something he might have insisted on for the game?

Kevin Shortt: There was never a point where we came to a head and we thought we had to fight for something. I think we would have if there were some things we felt pretty strongly about, but they’ve always been great with that. Anytime we’ve said we want this and this is why we want it, they’d look at it and say, “OK go for it.” There were some things where he’d say, “you can’t do that because it doesn’t fit with the world,” and he’d explain why and we be like, “OK. It’s gone.” It was actually a pretty good relationship. We never walked away thinking, “damn, we really lost that one.”

Ripping into Pandora’s indigenous flora and fauna while strapped into a giant robot is great fun.
Is there scope for more Avatar games in the near future? Maybe. Will Cameron be involved? Who knows?

Strategy Informer: Has Cameron played the game yet? If he has, have you had any feedback from him?

Kevin Shortt: I don’t know if he’s played it from front to back. In fact, I doubt he’s played it front to back, because the guy’s really busy scrambling to get his film done, but I know he’s played segments of the game and he will at some point play the full game.

Strategy Informer: What’s his favourite part?

Kevin Shortt: I don’t know! I haven’t seen him play the game yet, but all I know is he says he loves the game. We’re happy with that. That’s enough for us! (Laughs).

Strategy Informer: You had to write two different narrative strands for each race. Which of the two races did you find yourself empathising with more?

Kevin Shortt: We talked about this at the beginning and we agreed between us – me and the other two writers - we have to make sure that whenever we’re tackling these stories, we have to find our sympathies for whichever path we’re writing and make sure that we believe in them entirely. Because otherwise, we were running the risk of turning it into good guys/bad guys and so whoever was going down one path would get into the frame of mind and understand why this is the right way and why they’re doing what they’re doing and try to tackle that. I can see why both are doing what they’re doing.

But, I probably enjoyed writing the RDA path a little more, mostly because Sigourney Weaver appears in that one a lot more and it was just really fun to write for her.

Strategy Informer: Do these two separate storylines mirror each other at all?

Kevin Shortt: You’re Abel Ryder who is a signals specialist called up to Pandora to help the RDA find the sacred site, which they want because they’re trying to stop an insurgency by the Na’vi. The RDA is already there because they’re trying to mine the planet for resources to send back to Earth and the Na’vi are getting in the way. The Na’vi find out the RDA want the sacred site so they can control the planet, which can’t happen so they need to find the sacred site before the RDA do.

When the player reaches a critical choice at the end of the first act of the game, you’ll have a sense of who’s who, why people are doing what they’re doing and have a sense of the gameplay so you can then decide which way you want to go. Once you make that choice, the goals are the same, so they’re both trying to find the sacred site, but the way you get there, the people you meet, everything is different. They don’t mirror each other at all. We thought if we’re going to go down this path, let’s not just have this location and change your avatar. Who cares about that? We wanted to make sure that if you play the RDA path and finish it, you’ll then want to try the Na’vi path and it had better be different. It had better be completely different! And it is. The only time they meet up again is right at the end, when they get to the sacred site.

Our story’s set two years before the movie, so we’re not conflicting with the movie’s story. It was also critical that the game doesn’t ruin the movie in any way at all, so when we were writing characters, whatever their story arc was in the movie, couldn’t be hinted at in any way.

Strategy Informer: Do you think that telling new stories as a prequel like this is a positive step towards dispelling the preconception that all movie games are bad?

Kevin Shortt: Yeah. I think that’s a start. The reason we get these crappy remakes of movies is partly a consequence of…it’s the developer’s fault and the filmmaker’s fault. The filmmaker makes the film and suddenly someone goes, “hey! We should have a game!” So within a year they need to get a game made. What kind of a game do you want? Games take a long time to make. If you want a really good game, you can’t just make it in a year, so usually they get given the movie script and they have to adapt it as quick as they can. They scramble to make a game based on the film, there’s no time to iterate, so what ever they come up with, that’s what’s going out. That’s it. That’s the big problem, so with us, Cameron started pre-production maybe three and a half years ago and he knew he wanted to make a game, so we were right there with pre-production.

We had an assets tunnel set up between LA and Montreal, which made a huge difference as we could develop along with the production. As things were changing there, things were changing here and vice-versa. Yeah, that made a huge difference.

Strategy Informer: And I guess the movie creatives involved with most movie-related games aren’t actually particularly interested, whereas Cameron was on board from day one. That must have been a massive plus.

Kevin Shortt: Yeah, for sure. I think that the creatives try to get involved to some extent, but it’s the level of input that makes the difference. Sometimes maybe they’ll review it and say, “yeah, it looks good. Change that, change that, “ and then they’re gone. Cameron and John Landau (the movie’s producer) were involved a lot. They came here to Montreal. John Landau’s great because he gave us so much input. He came to Montreal with 30-minutes of movie footage, rented out a theatre downtown and took all of the Avatar team to see this section of the film.

Strategy Informer: Do you think Cameron might consider doing more videogames and would you be confident that with the relationship you’ve built, he’d come back to Ubisoft?

Kevin Shortt: Sure. I don’t know what he’s got planned, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he continued with games. We’re like that here at Ubisoft – we can see that this is the way things are going.

Strategy Informer: The relationship between movies and games still seems very much a one-way thing – a lot of creatives come from the movie industry to support games, but it rarely seems to happen the other way round. Would you consider writing a Hollywood movie script?

Kevin Shortt: Well, I came from television so I’ve already sort of gone that way. Would I go back? Sure I enjoy that, but from my perspective, film has already figured out how to tell good stories and now they’re just trying out different ways of improving it. Basically, they’re really good at shorthand and telling so much with so little. A single shot of nothing can make you feel like, “oh my god, that’s so beautiful,” right? It doesn’t take much. We can’t do that in games. It’s really hard to pull that off and we’re still trying to figure that out.

I always enjoy writing film, but for me, what I really love about games is that it’s still very fertile ground and we’re all trying to figure out a solution. Someone’s going to crack it and I want to be the one who figures out the way to tell a really solid story in a game that’s compelling, moving and melds with gameplay really well – it just does all the right things. But there’s a whole language to figure out first.

Shortt tells us that the dev team came up with this jeep especially for the game. We’ll have to keep our eyes peeled to see whether it turns up in the movie though.
Shortt and his scriptwriting colleagues had to write two separate scripts for both the Na’vi and RDA factions. Phew.

Strategy Informer: Avatar’s world is huge. Therefore, is there potentially scope for another game?

Kevin Shortt: Yeah. You’ve got a whole moon there, but we haven’t started thinking about it. We’re just taking a breath now after this one. Who knows? I honestly don’t know what’s coming up down the road. It’s a huge world. The movie hits one little corner and we hit one little corner – it’s like telling a story in London and Tokyo – you’ve still got the rest of the world, which is full of stories. But I loved it – I loved getting immersed in that world.

Avatar: The Game is out for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on December 4th.



By BlitzKrieg (SI Veteran Member) on Dec 01, 2009
Wow and wow the graphics i can see here are amazing! Im looking forward to this(including the movie) :p
By lichlord (SI Core) on Dec 09, 2009
just saw on TV its a movie too