Released next week, Crysis 3 is the eagerly awaited conclusion to the first-person shooter trilogy that began in 2007 with Crytek’s cutting-edge first installment and continued in 2009 with Crysis 2. When the first award-winning game was released for PCs it was lauded as a benchmark title so ambitious that it demanded the very best hardware, and when the sequel was released across multiple platforms it gained a similar reception, though some decried the linearity that was a sharp contrast to the open nature of Crysis 1. Will 3 capture the same magic for fans of the series? New writer Steven Hall certainly hopes so, and spoke exclusively to Starburst about his experience writing Crysis 3. Hall is the author of 2007’s best-selling, mind-blowing novel The Raw Shark Texts, in which the protagonist struggles to protect his sanity from the attacks of a conceptual shark that at times you can see swimming through the pages of the book!
Starburst: The Raw Shark Texts met critical acclaim when it was released and we’d imagine that it appeals to a pretty wide cross-section of readers, but there was very little to suggest a gun-toting action story. What was the path that led you to Crysis 3 from your first novel?
Steven Hall: The type of story is very different, but some of the ideas that interested me very much in Raw Shark are ones I’m coming back to again here. Identity, loss of self, what makes us who we are - these were some of the core concerns of my first novel, and they’re at the core of the Crysis 3 story too, although the toolbox is very different this time out. This certainly is an action story, but I think it’s more than that too. We’ve worked hard to bring the characters into the foreground for this installment. Prophet made some harsh calls in the previous games, and we’ll be seeing the consequences of those.
As for how I got here, I’m not sure there’s a path that leads directly from Raw Shark to Crysis because I haven’t moved from doing that to doing this, it’s just that I like to try different things. Storytelling in games is such a young and dynamic field, it’s still so new and everything is still up for grabs. That’s tremendously exciting to me. And Crytek, the people behind Crysis, make probably the most beautiful games on the planet. So there was the opportunity to tell a story that whole teams of world-class developers, designers, artists and directors would not only put onscreen, but make playable, and this story would then go out to millions of people and into millions of homes around the world. They asked me if I wanted to do that and I said yes, of course I did.
That’s not to say I’m any less invested in books though. Books are always going to be at the core of what I do. My second novel is a monster that I’ve been battling with every day since the release of Raw Shark. A long time now. I wanted to challenge myself with it, to attempt something I wasn’t sure I was capable of. It’s certainly been a challenge, and the monster isn’t beaten yet, but I’ve discovered along the way that I work best if I’m concentrating on more than one thing, because I’ve got the kind of brain that gets hopelessly bogged down in tiny specifics if I’m not careful and let my focus get too narrow.
So, there’s been Doctor Who, a secret project with the National Theatre, my screen adaptation of Stories for a Phone Book, and now Crysis 3 all keeping me sane and counterbalancing this second monster book, which is going to be called The End of Endings once it’s all finally down on paper.
Do you consider yourself a gamer? What are a few of your favourite games?
I do. I’ve played first-person shooters ever since GoldenEye on the N64. Actually, it goes further back than that, probably to Castle Wolfenstein. I’ve always loved games and that love of interactivity is there in all of my work. It’s certainly there in The Raw Shark Texts.
Tell us a little about the nuts and bolts of writing a game like this: How many of the ideas come from the developers, how many from you, and how much crossover is there?
Crytek had a plan for what they wanted to do with the game overall, and I got a lot of freedom within that. The entire process was very collaborative, lots of back and forth, refining and developing each other’s ideas or coming up with better alternatives. I’ve found that collaboration can either be a joy or a nightmare, depending on your collaborators, but this was a really productive experience. There are some smart story people over at Crytek – Director of Creative Development Rasmus Højengaard, is a story guy through-and-through, Animation Director Steven Bender is passionate and knowledgeable about the Crysis universe and Tim Partlett, who did some fine writing for Psycho on Crysis Warhead, was back onboard as a key part of the story team too. So yes, collaborative in a very fruitful way. I’d imagine the overall experience isn’t a million miles away from writing a Hollywood movie.
We get the impression that Crysis 3 will be heavily-scripted, with little scope for influencing the plot. Is there a part of you that wishes you'd had the opportunity to branch the story off in different directions?
It’s something I’d love to do at some point, but I think branching narratives would’ve been a bad fit for Crysis 3. This is the third part of a trilogy, the final act of Prophet’s story. Events here need to be definitive, because people will want to know how it all ends.
How influenced were you by Crysis and Crysis 2 when you were writing?
Massively. And not just influenced, it was a case of continuing and completing the same story, evolving it towards a conclusion I was excited about that was also completely logical and faithful to everything that had come before. It’s a tricky act to pull off because the Crysis 2 story stepped away from Crysis more than you might expect. So my job was to find the narrative strands that would pull the previous two stories back together and then pay the whole thing off in the third act. Crysis 3 is written as two games. It’s going to be accessible for new players, but this is absolutely the conclusion of the same story that began when Raptor Team landed on Lingshan in Crysis. It began on Lingshan and soon you’ll be able to see where it all ends. I’ve tried to be very faithful to everything that came before. This is a continuation and an ending to that entire story.
Can you elaborate a little on the path that Prophet has taken so far, as you see it, and hint at how a journey like that might end?
Okay, here's the story so far: In 2020, Prophet was simply the call sign of a special ops soldier named Major Laurence Barnes, but the name would go on to be a lot more than that. Barnes and his team were equipped with experimental combat exoskeletons known as nanosuits. The suits allowed Prophet and co to perform superhuman feats of strength, speed and healing, and gave them an active camo mode, which made them virtually invisible. This equipment made them super-soldiers, but what Prophet and his team didn't know was that the nanosuits were actually made from a mix of extremely advanced technology and genetically engineered alien material. The suits became increasingly symbiotic as time went by, bonding to their users and Prophet discovered that they could be upgraded too, allowing existing flesh and bone to be traded for more technology and alien upgrades. This gave Prophet more and more power, but each upgrade cost him more of his self, more of his identity and humanity. Eventually, Prophet sacrificed what was left of his original human body inside the suit and replaced with a dying marine named Alcatraz. For most of Crysis 2 the player thinks they are actually playing Alcatraz, but what's happened is that Prophet has made the ultimate physical upgrade - Alcatraz's flesh and blood is gradually amalgamated into a 'post-human' entity that's now gone beyond being Laurence Barnes or Alcatraz, and is simply known as Prophet. For a short while, both personalities survive, but Alcatraz becomes hopelessly corrupted in the last battle of Crysis 2, leaving Laurence Barnes as the only ghost inside the machine.
That’s the back story, but you don’t need to have memorised all of that to understand Crysis 3! We were careful to open with a very graspable set-up - at the point the third game begins, Prophet is an ultimate war machine that's just holding on to the last remnants of his humanity. It’s no coincidence he’s been locked away for 20 years. His allies are just as scared of him as his enemies, because he's so close to losing control and tipping over to the Dark Side. Now Prophet has the internal and external battle of his life ahead of him - he’s sacrificed almost everything he had and everything he was for more power through alien parts and technology, and deep down, he knows that can’t keep happening. He’s almost out of time…
What are your general feelings about tightly-scripted games? There seems to be a school of thought that characters should be a blank canvas for players to impress themselves on, and another school that want that kind of Metal Gear Solid heavy-scripting.
I think that, even if you start with the former, all ongoing stories need to shift closer to the latter over time. Playable characters act upon the world – usually in a very big way - so as any series continues, there has to be consequences and repercussions for those actions. This means that the playable characters can’t help but become more rounded and more defined as you go on. You can’t keep those characters on the outside looking in, because increasingly they’re dramatically tangled up in the history of that world. I’m really glad we’ve gone this way in Crysis. Prophet has a lot to answer for at this stage, and his old mate Psycho certainly hasn’t forgotten it.
If you had complete freedom to follow up Crysis 3 with a remake of or sequel to any existing game, which would it be and why?
You know, I’d really love to see some classic literature adaptations. Hollywood mines books but it’s something I haven’t seen as often as you’d expect with games. Can you imagine the original 1898 novel War of the Worlds brought to life with the CryEngine? God, I’d love to work on that. That’d be amazing. Or Don Quixote. Yes, I’m putting my name out there to adapt Don Quixote, if anyone’s brave enough to attempt it!
CRYSIS 3 is released on Xbox/PS3/PC February 19th (US) and February 22nd (UK) (pre-order HERE). To read our full interview with Steven Hall, check out STARBURST Issue 385, available below...
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