Interview with Matthew Costello, Author, ‘Rage’


Matthew Costello is the author of Rage, a novel set in the same world as the new action shooter from Id Software – which Costello also scripted. Costello recently spoke with me about what it’s like to collaborate with a gaming studio on a hot new transmedia property,and how he works to ensure both gamers and casual readers enjoy his books.

The first thing that I’d like to do is compliment you on the quality of  your novel. I was only peripherally aware of the game when I started reading, but was quickly sucked in. Do you always try to write franchise novels for a general audience, or are there times when you try to narrow in on the games’ fans? How do you balance all of this out, anyway?

Thanks! As a gamer and game writer/designer, I know that a game is one thing and novel another. So I feel that what a gamer would want would be a compelling story set in a game world, while remaining very much a novel that stands on its own. I think with this writing ‘philosophy’ it means that someone who doesn’t even play games can have a rich story experience, while the gamer will feel that world, the characters, and all the story elements deepen. At least, that’s the goal!

Speaking of writing, I understand that you also wrote the game’s storyline as well. How is that kind of thing done? Is there a collaborative process between the studio and the writers? When were you brought in on the project?

That process was very much one of collaboration. Id’s Creative Director, Tim Willits, and I were working on a previous project when he asked me to come out to see what their new game engine – Tech 5 – could do . Essentially, I saw what its capabilities were, got a feel for some of the storyworld ideas that the team talked about in terms of that engine (very much SF world-friendly, with lots of possibilities for hybrid gameplay, driving, shooting, etc.).

I then started creating the back-story that would ultimately set up that game world (the slate-wiper asteroid, the Ark project, the emergence of The Authority, etc.) working very closely with Tim as collaborator.

Further on, as the team built missions, I’d come in to script areas as new characters and game events appeared. So, it was all very collaborative and, compared to some of my game experiences, visionary on Tim and Id’s part in how to best use a writer in such a large project and new IP.

I loved the concept of the Ark, wherein select people were cryogenically frozen to wait out the apocalypse and later emerge to reboot civilization. I know that this is a trope that has been explored before, but it reminded me quite a bit of an old tabletop roleplaying game called The Morrow Project. Are you familiar with it?

No, don’t think so, although there was a time I played just about every new game released (I used to cover the field monthly for Isaac Asimov’s SF magazine, Analog and Games Magazine.) So the name does sound familiar.

As I tell young writers (and interviewers) ideas come from many places, take different shapes, and in a way borrow from everything, ranging from the Ancient Greeks to the latest YA vampire story. It’s really a matter of finding your own individual and unique story within those universal ideas and themes.

For me, the Rage novel was an opportunity to explore a new and novel post-apocalyptic landscape and find my tale.

More generally, what influenced your story? I would assume that you’ve seen and read your share of apocalyptic media.

I’ve read most of the SF classics, dystopian and not, by the pantheon of major SF writers like Asimov, Heinlein, Silverberg, Gibson and so on. In some cases, I’ve even had the opportunity to write in a few of those worlds, notably Heinlein’s Glory Road and Silverberg’s Majipoor.

But I’d have to say that it is more films that have shaped my interest in the wonderful mayhem and lawlessness of those good old post-apocalyptic days (Road Warrior, for example, and A Boy and His Dog.)

How did you get inside Lieutenant Nick Rayne’s mind? The opening scene in the bar reminded me of a couple of veterans I have known, specifically in their frustration that the world didn’t understand what they had gone through.

Hm. Well, there is this device we use on my planet which allows me to…

Seriously—it is what I think a fiction writer must do. My gospel, as preached to me in an advisory phone call from Harlan Ellison decades ago, is Point of View. I think I tend to walk around my town (and the world) and imagine empathetically what this person is thinking: why that one is angry, why they are exited, confused. So fortunately – or unfortunately – my mind is often drifting into someone else’s.

For me, it is the only way to write. For the character of Raine, it is really a zoning out and tuning in; becoming him. Not as a character, but for real, sitting on that bar stool, imagining his frustration, then being in his skin all the way until the very end when he…

But that would telling. Suffice to say, when Raine faces the mutants, as in the attack when his buggy breaks down, I lived through that. Bottom line for me — POV all the way.

You’ve got a solid background in transmedia storytelling, and by that I mean presenting audiences with a the same narrative across multiple mediums: you can play the game, then read the book, and then watch the movie. In this case, you’ve written the book and the game. Can you talk about some of the challenges when you’re trying to tell a story from multiple perspectives like this?

Games and writing for are very much about some key things. First, games are collaborative; there is a team. That team has ideas. You may shape or control some of the process, sometimes not so much. And for the game writer, it is about building a world that makes dramatic sense, almost a theme park approach. Here’s the asteroid. Look at what it did. Here’s what humans had to do to survive.

And now…what?

And that ‘now what’ recognizes that people will play in that world. It is not a linear story and yet, I feel I still want like to deliver some of that feeling of a tale going forward. What Tim and his team at ID did with the Rage does more than that. It is literally a world that keeps unfolding its wonders and dangers as you game through it.

But in a novel, you actually can build much less of that world, since you will control the narrow thread — the linear tale — that readers will follow. So there are a host of questions that you need not address in a novel that are mandatory in a game.

And, that POV stuff I was talking about above? In a game, it is de-facto POV. The gamer is in the skin of the character. Holding the gun, flooring the ATV’s accelerator, crawling down dark hallways.

The challenge there is to fill the world with events and surprises that make the gamer and the alter ego jump. Having a robust story world and the big story arc can make that happen.

I see that the Rage comic book was written by the very talented Arvid Nelson, who readers probably know by his series Rex Mundi. I saw that his story focuses on another character entirely. Did you take any meetings together to coordinate the presentation of this shared world?

I received the story outlines and was able to make sure that anything I did, especially with the character of Kvasir, matched their very cool prequel events. I think they pair up pretty well.

Do you see Rage as a world that could spawn more than one or two stories? Would you consider returning to this world?

Love to. Both the game and the book set up some strong sequel threads. I’ve mentioned to Tim that I have some intriguing and surprising ideas of what lay beyond the locale of Rage One, things that would surprise even the mutants in the Wasteland. We will see…