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Old 08-01-2009, 09:15 AM   #1
Bandango
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Writing Black Prophecy: An Interview with Michael Marrak



For me, the thought of ‘writing’ a videogame has always been a nebulous one. Where do you start? How does it all come together? At what point does creativity end and the hard fact of coding begin? Add three letters to the game’s tagline (particularly m, m, and o) and suddenly the already daunting task of keeping a player engaged with a story becomes far more complex.

Michael Marrack, the German sci-fi author and illustrator tasked with penning Reakktor’s upcoming Black Prophecy, appears supremely enthusiastic about his current project, and from what he has to say about it, he has every reason to be. Having an entire universe brought to life from the corners of your imagination would be any writer’s dream, and having a group as dedicated as Reakktor behind the realization of that universe could only lead to good things. For those of you who don’t know, Black Prophecy is a spacebound MMO that promises emphasis on action and PVP, complete with good looks and what sounds like an awesome story. I was lucky enough to get the chance to ask Mr. Marrack a few questions about his experience writing for the game. If you have any interest in Black Prophecy, or writing for video games in general, check out what he had to say.



The speculative mind imagining Black Prophecy, Mr. Marrack

Immortal Machines: Judging from the timeline on the Black Prophecy website, you have created an extensive back story for this game. How much of it was for yourself to aid you in writing the actual story and how much of it is for the player?

Marrak: It’s difficult to draw a clear line there, so I have to say: both equally. To get myself mentally into the story, I write lots of texts, which I also want to communicate to the player/reader. However, in Black Prophecy there is no knowledge or educational constraint. Therefore we will have several archives the player can access if he/she is interested in learning more about the backgrounds.

The timeline was created before I had written a single line for the actual game. By playing a sci-fi game you enter an alien futuristic world and probably ask yourself: “Where the hell am I and what happened the past 500 years that renders this future so desolate?” Before I started with the actual missions I worked for weeks on things like the game’s background, the story of mankind, its expansion into space, its motivation for the creation of new human races, its fission and the resulting race wars and different technical concepts about future technology like weapons, engines, etc. This went right up to topics like string theories, non-Euclidean geometry, tesseracts and Minkowski-metrics.

In addition to this there is a considerable timeline/chronology of the alien race, though this timeline starts 200 thousand years prior to the human timeline. While you can see the human timeline as Black Prophecy’s foundation, the alien timeline builds upon it. Overall there are about 700 pages of manuscript material. 300 pages are about missions, while the rest contains the timelines, story background, research and templates for the game design.


Immortal Machines: Will a familiarity with the background of the universe be necessary to enjoy the in-game narrative?

Marrak: No, that would be too much. The players do not want to learn Darwin’s evolutionary theory or hear details about the Thirty-Year War; they just want to play. The Black Prophecy universe is based on a solid scientific foundation and the “what would it be like if” aspect, which is a common target motive of sci-fi literature. The scale of information absorbed from the background, the time line and other sources is completely up to the player. In some dialogues, plots, allusions or hostilities, the events are based on the fictive history. However, there are no comprehension or knowledge restraints. It will definitely be enriching to pay attention to the overall context and to keep this in mind if you are interested in the whole picture. On the other hand, you will also have very pragmatic players who will set their focus on points, ranks and their status instead of being enticed by lots of text and gray theory.

For those who are interested in learning the details, there will be a steadily growing database and set of archives that cater to their curiosity. However, you will not come across the situation where it is necessary to read a specific text to continue your progress in the game.

Immortal Machines: In addition to being a writer you are also an illustrator. How did your experience as an artist influence your work with Black Prophecy?

Marrak: I had a clear vision of what I wanted to write. Audio-visual thinking is an enormous advantage when you’re creating a complex game universe whereas my ambitions as an illustrator are rather bound to other genres like dark fantasy and horror.


© by Michael Marrak 2009

Since I decided to earn my daily bread as an author more than 10 years ago, I produced only a few illustrations and title pictures sporadically. Most of my design templates are oral or written descriptions. I delivered the ideational but detailed framings, like the ships of the Restorers, whereby I oriented myself on designs of modern compound and re-curve bows. I could name many other examples but I don’t want to spoil any more information in the current production stage. The graphical implementation was then passed on to other hands that know more about modern game design than I do. They tried to meet my visions with as much ornamentation that was implementable and as many deductions that were necessary to maintain the game flow.


© by Michael Marrak 2009

It doesn’t matter if it’s an illustration, literature or a computer game; the zeitgeist is a dandy and is on every author’s or development team’s tail.

Immortal Machines:
Were you directly involved with any art direction for the game?

Marrak: Yes, from the very beginning. It’s very unusual for many of the German authors to see their ideas shaped into a nearly cinematic experience – and this at a quality for which any sci-fi director would have sold his soul 20 years ago. I have tried to illustrate my picture of the game as far as possible to the appropriate people, and all races, most of the space ships, the planets and other fantastic locations were created in close cooperation with the artists and game designers. Unfortunately, I am unable to give you more details in this current production phase.

On paper you have lots of crazy ideas about locations and events but it’s in the nature of computer games development that you can’t implement every single idea one-on-one. Sometimes concessions have to be made as the possibilities are still somewhat limited, even in these times of high performance computer technology. However, our coders are doing their best to implement my ideas as accurately as possible. They definitely deserve the highest credit for working night after night to get all the crazy things that my mind has bred up and running.

As an author you should have a clear vision of what you write otherwise it will become simply ridiculous. If I compare the finished missions with my scripts and references the results are far more impressive and bombastic. The term “Next-Generation-Game” is quite an abstract term but then I see the mission cut scenes and think: “Wow, this is how it looks like!”

Immortal Machines: How does the process of writing for a computer game differ from writing prose?

Marrak: In the beginning there is not much difference. Both start with lots of notes and research, followed by the creation and development of the universe and the plots. However, for many authors the work on a computer game is already done after delivering an extensive exposé.

In a novel, I do not have to consider if the things I write are implementable by coders or artists or if they exceed the performance of the game’s engine. If I say that tens of thousands of robot mines are attacking, they simply do that. In a computer game, this could have fatal consequences, making it unplayable in the worst case. With prose I do not have to consider if specific things are implementable or not. In a novel you can have smooth phases in which the plot is slowed down, where the protagonist can be alone with his thoughts to sum up the previous events. In an action computer game the player would probably fall asleep or shut down the computer.

In its structure, the actual mission script is very much like a screenplay or a stage play with plot descriptions, dialogue and stage directions. In addition it contains information for the graphic artists and programmers. Yet the biggest difference is that what's written experiences a metamorphosis and transforms into a different medium– from the written text to animated, nearly cinematic pictures. The author's mental cinema becomes an audio-visual experience for the masses.


Immortal Machines: As an author, does it excite you to know that people will be interacting with your fiction instead of simply reading it?

Marrak: It is definitely interesting to contemplate the idea of thousands of people spending days (or rather nights) trading, communicating, hunting or fighting each other within the universe I have created. However, I have not spent too much time thinking about this yet as I have to fight with far more mundane problems, and the release of the game is still a while off. We will see how things develop once it has been released and what kind of surprises the future will hold for us.

Immortal Machines: I have noticed that your work is nearly impossible to find as an English reader. Do you hope that Black Prophecy will draw a new audience to your fiction?

Marrak: Most of the German sci-fi and fantasy authors are aware of the difficulties gaining a foothold on the English-speaking market. To achieve this goal it is crucial to have considerable sales success, and to a certain extent quality criteria play a lesser role in this context. To publish a novel in the United States the style and story has to work for the U.S. market. You have to provide a common mental ground or at least an acceptable overlap. The same difficulty exists for the European market. A Russian book rarely works on the German market, or a German book on the French market and so on. A book that is a big success in Germany does not automatically delight the American reader and vice versa. Sometimes an author just receives an uncomprehending head-shake from both – or if globally published – from all sides. However, the main criterion is: Why should a U.S. publisher spend large amounts of money to translate books from German authors if they have enough (and sometimes even better) English-speaking authors?

Immortal Machines: Are there any plans to translate your books into English?

Marrak: Not at the current time. My sole English translation is a short story I wrote in 1998 called “Astrosapiens”. It was published in early 2009 in the U.S. as part of the anthology “The Black Mirror” (Wesleyan University Press). “Lord Gamma” would be the only novel I could imagine to be published in the U.S. But an evaluation is up to a U.S. publisher, who knows the American market intimately, as well as the preferences and aversions of its readers. However, there is this idea of a Black Prophecy novel haunting the corridors of Reakktor’s offices which would probably also be published in English language. So, who knows…?

Immortal Machines: From the timeline on the Black Prophecy website,

“In 2389 Paust Garwan scores the longest hole-in-one of all time at the 18th quantum golf championships on Irata IV with his drill of a class one singularity over 0.488 parsec."

What can you tell us about the rules of quantum golfing?

Marrak: That’s difficult to put in a nutshell because some rules are different for each species. Unlike terrestrial lawn golf, “Qualf” is not played with the ball but with the hole. Instead of golf clubs, the Tyi use common black hole blasters of different classes, while the Genide prefer to use hyper-space cleavers. More important than the proper playing device is the escort crew and the equipment.

A “Qualf” crew consists of a paradigm changer, a parallax cleaver, an andronic cannoneer master and a quantum bunny with a gravity brake. The equipment consists of a tank with dark matter, as well as a set of revolving accretion discs in different sizes, temperatures and velocities. In quantum golfing the wormhole cascade is the supreme discipline which can easily prove fatal to inexperienced and slaphappy players. It often happens that the equipment has to end a running game without the player because he accidentally transported himself and his crew beyond the event horizon. Quantum golfing is the same as many things in life; the way is the goal.

PS: Paust Garwan was the greatest. Unfortunately he didn’t survive the game.

Immortal Machines:
Can we expect similar bits of humor in the game itself?

Marrak: This is my dearest wish. In a dark universe, like we have in Black Prophecy, I definitely see the need to have a healthy portion of grim humor and irony. However, you need to approach this matter carefully as many people who take themselves and the world too seriously have problems with this kind of humor.

The humor in Black Prophecy turns up in many dialogues but also in the output of our news broadcast “Stellarvox”. In addition you will often meet odd and over-the-hill characters. The junk dealers, for example, are quite funny and cynical people, just like the brothel owners. Then there is this strange race that is constructing an enormous trumpet in the orbit of their planet. Nobody really knows at all why they are doing this but they have claimed all ore-rich planets within a radius of 500 light years in order to provide the metal for this 30 thousand km long trumpet.

Immortal Machines: Any final thoughts?

Marrak: Timme!


Thanks to everyone involved, especially Michael Marrak.

Michael Marrak's homepage-
http://www.michaelmarrak.de/

Black Prophecy Website-
http://www.blackprophecy.com/

Black Prophecy Community Forums-
http://forum.blackprophecy-game.com/
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Old 08-02-2009, 01:50 AM   #2
Ghostbear
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Great interview, I just signed up for the beta, here's hoping I get in.
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Old 08-03-2009, 08:30 AM   #3
DangerousDaze
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It was great to see some of Michael's own artwork included. Although I'm fairly intimately acquainted with Black Prophecy I'd never seen Michael's artwork before. Good stuff!

As for qualf, I play off a |α|^2 = β^2 + γ^2 handicap myself.
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