Recently, I was offered the opportunity to go in undercover - like a ghost, if you will - and interview author Nate Kenyon to ferret out information regarding the recently released Starcraft novel, Starcraft: Ghost: Spectres. It wasn't easy. A Zerg rush nearly crippled my initial efforts, and Protoss Templars seemed to watch and haunt my every move as I made first contact with Blizzard.
Truly, I was in dangerous territory with this interview. I was in over my head. But like the book's heroine, Nova Terra, I would press on. I would complete this task. I would get you this interview, dear readers! And so I have. My life for Aiur-- I mean, Destructoid!
Destructoid: So let's start off with the first question then, just kinda talking about how you got into the project originally, and I also saw on your website the upcoming Diablo novel, so I was just kind of curious about how that starts rolling and how you get contacted and what that experience was like for you?
Nate Kenyon: Yeah. I'd never done any tie-in work before so this is all new to me. And I wrote a science-fiction novel called Prime, short novel called Prime, and it was well-received and the Pocket editor read it and liked it and contacted my agent at the time and asked if I would be interested in working with Blizzard on a Starcraft project. And Blizzard had of course read it too and they really liked it and were really enthusiastic about my work so I had a couple conference calls to sort of talk it over and talk about the story and what they wanted to do.
We really clicked right away, I think. Really got excited right off the bat talking to them, they're just so passionate about what they do and the story they wanted to tell and really enthusiastic about my work and I think it was a perfect fit because they really wanted to go kind of dark with the story, and there are a lot of horror/thriller elements in the story which is a lot of what I have done in the past.
So they had no problems taking it in a dark, creepy direction in a lot of ways and that was something that I love playing with. So that's how it happened and I went out to visit them and had a fantastic day-long creative with them and hashed out a lot of fun ideas and then took from there and worked on getting the outline right and I went on from there.
Everybody was thrilled with this book, so that lead to Diablo which is my newest project that I just finished and that's gonna be a really big book sometime early next year. Really, really excited about that one. Great story to it and it was a lot of fun to write and I think we all had a blast kind of playing in that universe. Yeah, I'm excited about both these projects.
Yeah, and the Diablo one, not to go too far away from the Starcraft one, but the Diablo one I'm kind of curious about. Because that's very high fantasy, you know medieval sort of setting, which is kind of a lot different than your other books. Am I right in saying that?
Yeah, yeah absolutely. But at the same time it's funny when that's one of the reasons that they really got the experience they had working on Spectres with me; I think that they really wanted to take Diablo in a bit of a different direction and kinda reboot some of the – from a fiction perspective – reboot and re-tell some of the backstory for new fans as they get ready to launch this new game and kind of take it in a – you know, obviously it's still set in the same time frame and has a lot of the same elements and everything – to really play up the horror elements, the thriller, creepy stuff part of all that and up the stakes there.
So I think I was good for that, and I approached both projects very similarly: I really just immersed myself in the worlds for both of these new books and you know, spent several months just reading everything I could get my hands on, reading wikis, talking to fans, talking to Blizzard lore team, and just really learning every possible detail I could about the entire lore history of both of these franchises so by the time that I got to the point of writing I felt really comfortable. Like I was just in part of that world. So all that stuff kinda came alive for me.
Okay, well that's cool.
Yeah, it was fun.
It's good that you had an enjoyable experience because this, like you said, is your first kind of tie-in working within an established intellectual property as opposed to your own. And speaking of that, can you talk a bit about how your process changes or maybe doesn't change on the difference between working with an established IP versus your original stories?
It definitely changes. I by nature, most of my original stuff I'm more of a seat-of-your-pants kind of writer. I think there are two different kinds of approaches, two different kinds of writers. There's sort of the more logical, outlines, takes detailed notes so we know every step, every chapter, and then there are those like-- Stephen King's kind of famous for saying you get an idea, it sparks an idea, he takes some notes, he just is off and running and sometimes he doesn't know exactly where the story is gonna take him. He may know the beginning, he may know the end, and a point or two between. That's the way I used to write. This requires a very different approach. And I was surprised actually to find that I really liked it.
Before this I thought that you were hard-wired, you're a kind of writer and this is just the way you approach a story and it was what worked for you, and I changed my opinion on that. Or at least hey, I can write either way and in some ways writing with an outline and with collaborators and brainstorming and everything is even more rewarding and a better experience. I didn't write myself into a corner with these books for the most part, because I had a real good idea of where I was going. And the experience of writing with a team like Blizzard, and the enthusiasm they have for story and the talented people they have there, and just get on the phone and brainstorm these ideas and throw an idea out there and have somebody either go no, that doesn't work or suddenly have it click and everybody kind of gets excited, you feel the energy building, “Yeah yeah, that's a great way to take that,” and it's just a real high and a real fun experience to work that way.
And then of course you have to take all that and hunker down in your office by yourself and write. But you know, that really carries you through I think in a lot of ways. And I think we got creative in ways with the story that I might not have without those brainstorming sessions. They certainly had a lot of plot points they wanted me to hit and great ideas and stuff too that they brought to me in the first place. And then, kind of developing that from there and coming up with things together was really a lot of fun.
Okay, so you were working then pretty closely and frequently with a team to kind of help keep track and make sure that the story was... you know, very... for lack of a better word to describe it, it was very, very “Starcraft” or very “Blizzard.” And keeping track of that, you were working pretty closely then?
I worked very closely with them initially, but with both these books what happened is we'll work together, we'll have some conference calls, they brought me out to Blizzard campus for both of these books for sort of a day long kind of brainstorming session. And then I work on the outline and based on what we've talked about I'll shoot it their way and then we kind of back and forth to hammer out more details and everything, and then I kind of lock myself away for three, four months or something and hammer out a draft.
And you know, I'll be in touch with one or two folks usually off and on during that process by email or whatever, just if I have a question that I really need answered before I can move on or just to let 'em know how they're going or whatever. So it's really an intense process in the beginning, getting going, and then I kind of do my normal, you know, shut myself away, lock myself up, come out bleary-eyed and weird then or something, you know?
Oh yeah. [laughs] Definitely.
[laughs] And then of course there's another collaborative part beyond that which is when they get the draft, you know, working on revisions, working on changes to the story. That's a whole other challenge and another kind of fun thing to do because the stories always tends to go off in slightly different directions than you think and then some things might have worked on outline or if folks at Blizzard might see a point that needs to be slowed down or speeded up or changed or whatever or something's changed in the IP, you know all that stuff happens and then there's the process of where they'll give me detailed notes and talk about all these things and have another conference call and rewrite everything and get it closer and closer to what we all really want.
Yeah. I think if I was in your shoes, I would be panicking I guess because I'd be thinking, “Well I want my character to have a conversation with so-and-so but how do I know that so-and-so would be available at this time?” Because the Starcraft and Blizzard universes are so fleshed-out and technical that I just figured there was a lot to kind of keep track of in that sense.
There is a ton, yeah. [laughs] And Diablo is just... You know, I think one of the reasons they wanted to do this book and the way that we did it was because I think a lot of people, even the hardcore fans, may not know that there's so much backstory to Diablo, so much lore developed from day one of creation. There's so much there that is great and rich and tradition and ideas. So yeah, it's daunting and initially, since Starcraft is the first one I did, I was frozen.
But once I started writing and I just let myself rely on all that research I'd done and just... really living, breathing Starcraft for like three months, once I allowed myself to relax and just depend upon that, just fall back on that, you know I know this stuff, I know these characters, I know this world now. Everything was fine, and then of course the outline was there to guide me along and keep me on track.
Cool! So, speaking of outlines and everything, I wanted to ask how much of the story for Spectres was taken from the game Ghost that sadly – so sadly! – never made it and how much of that factors into Spectres the novel.
Yeah. I'm actually not really sure, honestly. Certainly, Blizzard had a pretty detailed story for this book, but I also in working with them took the story in different directions from some of the things that were too drowned and that was all fine. You know, I'm not familiar with detail after detail of the Ghost game itself, certainly I know the elements and everything, but I don't know exactly where they were taking the story moment to moment.
So all I can do is tell you the story certainly fleshes out that world and that timeline and explains the spectres, which is obviously a big part of everything, and Nova's story and what happened and why. So certainly some of it's there. Some of it's there, I just can't tell you exactly how much.
Oh okay. Well it was a game that was kind of mysterious in its own right, so I don't think anybody really knows too much more than everybody was looking forward to it.
[laughs] Yeah and I think – I hope – that fans will give this book a shot. I hope it satisfies some of that and I think the story itself is killer, I mean it's really fun. And all the elements are there for great conflict, tension, dark thriller stuff, science-fiction stuff, the idea of the spectres and the whole clash between ghosts and super ghosts if you want to think that way or whatever. That whole tension, that whole clash is epic and fun and I think this book plays it out well.
Yeah, and that goes to one of my questions that I sent you: Without giving any spoilers – if you can – can you describe one of your favorite scenes in the Spectres novel?
I love that question. I was thinking about it and I um... there's so many! [laughs]
I don't know, obviously I'm partial cuz you know, I like the book and everything and I had a lot of fun writing it. But there's some really great, great scenes in this book. You know early on, right off the bat, there's the opening scene where Nova has been drawn to this wasteland of a backwater planet and the Zerg are there and right off the bat there's just this epic battle which I spent a ton of time researching and making sure I was getting everything right and illustrating you know, all the different kinds of aliens, and the ways they could attack and having fun with that. I just wanted to sort of start with a bang and just kind of blow up everything and have a blast with it right off the bat and that scene I think is one of my favorites.
There's some other great scenes, there's some interactions with Leo and Kat, you know, it's very kind of creepy scenes on more or less abandoned space stations and environments like that that are fun. There's a great scene in sort of propping up the center of the book you know with ghosts versus spectres in the middle of a very important city. [laughs]
That's a lot of fun, you know playing with their powers, and how would they set each other up and how Nova reacts to all that is a lot of fun.
Yeah, and speaking about Nova, she was this kind of character that... again, since Ghost never came out as a video game, she was this character that a lot of people thought was really cool, but people didn't actually really get to know her until the novels and the graphic comic, Ghost Academy. And female leads are kind of becoming a thing in gaming, more so I would say than they have been in the past probably five years I would say is when they've kind of started taking off? And I just wanted to get your perspective on writing Nova, especially because a lot of times female characters get criticized as being too emotional and I would say that Nova certainly has her emotions and everything, but for good reason.
Yeah. You're absolutely right.
Yeah, and could you just talk a bit about writing Nova as a character?
Yeah. I love this character. I absolutely love her. She's so much fun. And part of it is just the setup with who she is and you know, the constant battle-- the entire premise that she willingly goes into the ghost academy, the ghost program to forget who she is, where she came from, the things that happened to her, that's just fantastic and great drama for a character.
And then in this book, being able to start to pull all that back and dump it on her while she's trying to deal with you know, the actual events that are happening and the danger around her and you know, everything she has to deal with and being able to kind of draw those elements back in and have them-- and Blizzard and I talked very early on about bringing those elements back like flashbacks, you know like hallucinations almost, things that just flash in her mind and they're so strong that she can barely even do anything, can't react to anything else, just really overwhelming, and that idea of these things coming back on you whether you like it or not is just fascinating to play with from a character perspective.
And I think you're right on about she has emotions, absolutely she has emotions, but being able to play with her wanting to bury those and yet having them come back up again, and yet here she is this kick-ass heroine who's got these incredible talents and you know, she's one of the most powerful, talented ghosts that ever lived and being able to play with that and at the same time kind of draw out her vulnerability a little bit and have her battling some of those demons from her past was so much fun. She's a fantastic character, one of my favorites that I've ever worked with.
Well cool! I'm glad that you had fun writing with her. I kind of found that it felt-- and I'll be honest with you, I have not had a chance to read any of your prior material, but reading up on the things that you've written before and the characters you've written before, I'm very interested in Prime and Sparrow Rock and all those. But the sense that I got from Spectres, and I don't know if this is something that is a constant in your writing, and maybe you can tell me, is that there was kind of a sense of like a mystery thriller kind of conspiracy theory thing going on. Like it just felt almost spy noir, was that a switch for you or how did you switch up your style if you needed to for Spectres?
Yeah, that's a great question. Yeah, I think that's definitely part of what I try to do. And this fit perfectly. I think that's why it all came together so well and I felt like I was a good fit for it and Blizzard and Pocket did, because I think some of the stuff I've written before, the characters I've written, the plots I've written, they resonate with this book too.
And yet at the same time of course it's completely different, it's in a completely different universe and everything, but you know I always feel that story is about the characters and the major plot elements that drive them forward, and everything else around them is a shell to tell that core story about a person or people and what happens to them. And this is the same thing.
Absolutely there are some similar elements and things that I love to play around with and I think my second novel, The Reach, has a very strong female lead and a little girl in that book that's telekinetic and it's very much sort of techno-thriller type of read. So I was trying to write Firestarter as Michael Crichton might write it: realistic and science-based approach to telekinesis.
So that experience, which is one of my favorite books that I've done, that experience informs Starcraft and Nova very well too. So I felt comfortable writing that type of lead, that type of story and making it feel as realistic as possible, and as epic as possible.
Yeah. Well I just have one more question. I just wanted to ask you Nate, I know you're not a gamer from some earlier interviews I've read that you've done, but I wanted to ask kind of what your thought is on video game storytelling, and if you think that they can be, will be, or already are as compelling as the other forms of artistic expression like a novel, or a movie, or that?
No question. Absolutely no question, they already are. You know, you just look at the level of interest and the depth of story that comes now in these games. You know I'm not a hardcore gamer, I certainly play off and on various universes and stuff, I'm familiar with Starcraft, I wasn't a hardcore player or anything, so there was a lot to catch up in that universe since I hadn't played in a long time... But yeah, there's no question. There's no question.
You know, how far we've come in such a short amount of time, you know from Pong, where there was no story at all, it was just a very simple game that this stuff now is just as rich and developed as anything... you know, even having some idea of what was out there already, diving into this, the Starcraft universe, talking to Blizzard, reading the backstory, playing the game, just made me... I was blown away by it and how much more there was than even I realized to the backstory, to the universe, the characters. At the same time, it also made me realize how much there was to tell. Which is really exciting for a novelist, because you've got all this stuff to play from, to work with, but there's still definitely stories that are just kind of glossed over or just mentioned briefly that there's all these pockets within the timeline that have fantastic stories that you can write, you can develop, within those kind of tight circles.
You know, as long as you play within the lines of the larger lore within those tighter circles, there's often a lot of leeway to develop things that are yours and characters that are yours and things like that. So that's exciting. But to your original question, there's no question that they are just as rich, just as immersive, just as interesting and just as much as a story as any other form of storytelling.
I think you'll find a lot of readers that will agree with you, so I'm glad that you feel that way! [laughs]
Well thank you very much for your time!
Absolutely, thanks so much for talking to me. I had fun!
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