"Avatar" is the story of an ex-Marine who finds himself thrust into hostilities on an alien planet filled with exotic life forms. As an Avatar, a human mind in an alien body, he finds himself torn between two worlds, in a desperate fight for his own survival and that of the indigenous people
WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank and occupation!
I'm Kevin Shortt, and I'm a story designer for James Cameron's Avatar: The Game.
WP: Since you're the story designer, how much did they tell you? James Cameron is notoriously secretive about his projects. Were you given a quick story treatment, or did you get to read the script?
KS: Before I officially signed on, I had an interview with the producer. We both knew that we wanted to work on this together, but I really didn't know a lot at all, and they couldn't tell me anything because I hadn't officially signed any releases. I didn't get a lot of information at all, apart from knowing that it was Cameron's next project, which is intriguing in itself right there. I did my own research online, but I quickly realized that the online research was kind of thin and didn't have a lot of info.
WP: Story-wise, you said earlier that you're building up a separate story line from the movie. What inspired you to go off in that regard rather than just turning the movie into a playable experience?
KS: There were two reasons. One reason was that Cameron didn't want us to just repeat the film. He wanted to expand the universe of Pandora. That was what was most important to him. He felt that Pandora and the whole universe had so many possible stories that just telling one would not be valuable or engaging for players and people in general. The other reason is that being James Cameron, Cameron will have his unique way of telling that story that'll just be spectacular and amazing, and for us to try and duplicate that in a game, we would probably just fall flat from whatever he would create. We felt that it was better to tailor a story to a game, something that would work for a game and also show more of the world.
WP: The Wii version of the game acts as something of a prequel and happens before the events in the movie. Do the PS3 and X360 versions happen in parallel with the movie, before the movie or after the movie?
KS: The next-gen version happens two years before the movie happens. If you placed us on a timeline, you would have the Wii game first, and then it would be the next-gen game and then the film. None of these are prequels. One doesn't necessarily lead to the other and then the other. Instead, it's about expanding the universe of Pandora. The moon has so many regions, so many possible stories, and each one of them shows one particular story.
WP: Will we see any crossover in characters, or is the game totally self-contained?
KS: You definitely see crossovers between the game and the film. The reason we set it two years apart was because we didn't want to give anything away of the movie, so two years is a good distance that we aren't going to cross over, but it also allows us to introduce some characters that you know from the film into the game. We've got Sigourney Weaver, who plays Grace Augustine. She's one of the first people you'll meet in the game, and you meet her throughout. We've got Michelle Rodriguez, who plays your chopper pilot in the game. We've also got Stephen Lang, who plays Colonel Quaritch in the movie; he also appears in the game.
WP: Going through the single-player game, there are two divergent modes. You start out and then you choose to play on the side of the RDA or the Na'vi. Will those be two distinct game experiences so that you need to go back and replay? Or do you go back and forth, like StarCraft, where you play as all the sides but still have one story progressing?
KS: When you make a choice to either go with the RDA or the Na'vi, you make a choice and the story line splits. You get basically two stories. If you choose the Na'vi, you're following that story line all the way through till it finishes. Then — and you're right — you can then go back to that choice moment and try the RDA path, and then you follow that path all the way through. We felt that this way, we could kind of give the full, rich experience of what it's like to be a Na'vi or RDA on Pandora. Because they're fully separated, they're unique in every sense: location, gameplay and story.
WP: Story-wise, having seen the trailer and seeing some of the gameplay demos, I've got to ask if you're playing as the Na'vi in an Avatar body, what's to stop the RDA folks from knocking on your little Avatar coffin and knocking you out right there?
KS: That was certainly one of the things that we had to consider, but we definitely do consider it. I don't actually want to give away what it is, but for sure, that is answered. In fact, as soon as you choose to be a Na'vi, that kind of becomes one of the first things that you have to do very quickly. Now you're a Na'vi, somebody's got to go get your human body before they disconnect you, or else it's game over. Yeah, it gets addressed in the game.
WP: What about moving in visually? How were the assets reworked and redesigned? Was everything by the development team pulled over from the original movie artwork, or were things designed from scratch to work on the PS3 and X360?
KS: Primarily, the assets all came from Lightstorm Entertainment. Everything that they had, they sent over, so the world that you're seeing in the game is the world that Cameron created, but of course you're up close. Nevertheless, there were moments when we needed specific things that were just better tailored to a game and a game experience. I can give you an example where there's a vehicle called the Swan. It didn't exist, and we felt that we needed this vehicle in the game, and so we approached Cameron and asked, "Here's the idea that we have. Can we add this to the canon of Pandora?" He said, "Yes. Better yet, I'm going to give it to my designers who created all the original RDA vehicles. They're going to create the Swan for you so that the visual style stays true." So that got inserted into the game, but likewise, the last I heard, Cameron was trying to get [the Swan] into the movie, in the background somewhere so that if you looked carefully, you'd be able to see this.
WP: Speaking of James Cameron, he has a well-deserved reputation for being a perfectionist. He drives himself just as hard as the drives his team. What kind of interaction did he have with you and Ubisoft when working on the story? Was he very hands-on during the whole process? Or was it more of you doing your thing and you then send it over to him and then comes the fierce criticism and you go back for revision?
KS: He really just said, "Come up with your story. There are all the assets; there is the world of Pandora. Come up with another story that will fit that world." Then it was up to me and my writers to figure out what sort of story we wanted to tell. We came up with our story, validated it with the game design team because we've got to make sure it works as a game, and then came presenting it to Cameron and John Landau, the producer, and making sure that they signed off on it. They did. They signed off on it right away, which really surprised us. It was the only idea that we went to them with. We had one idea that we were sure on. We tried a whole bunch, but we settled on, "No, this is the idea," and we were pretty sold on it. If he'd said no, we would have had to go back to the drawing board, and we were prepared to do that, but we were confident that this was the story, and he bought into it as well. I've got to give him credit for that because the reason we nailed it so well is because he gave us everything about that world so everything we presented him fit with his world because he'd already given us the information that we needed for that world.
Throughout the whole process, we didn't deal with him. I was not dealing with him on a regular basis. The guy was making the movie, right? He was a super, super busy guy so my main contact was John Landau, the producer for the film. We kept getting notes, though, throughout the whole process, back and forth. His notes were very to-the-point and very clear, but they were always right on. We never felt like, "We don't like that note." We always felt like, "He's right." He hit the issues right on, and they were easy to adapt to.
WP: What kind of timeframe did you guys have to work on all this? A lot of movie games have gotten a deservedly bad reputation over the years for being rushed in order to make a movie release date. The Avatar movie has obviously been in the works for quite a few years, but how much time did the game have?
KS: The movie started pre-production about three and a half years ago, and as soon as they started that, James Cameron called us up and asked when Ubisoft started. Right from the get-go, we'd established this digital tunnel and started sharing assets, so that was a big difference than what I've seen before and my experience. It didn't feel as rushed. With that said, I still came on to the project much later. I came on to the project about a year ago, so the world had been created and they were following assets that Cameron had created. We were still scrambling a bit to get the story in the timeframe that we had, but I think we pulled it off.
WP: You've seen the game, and if you haven't seen the movie, you've at least read the script so you know how the two interact with each other. If you had to sum it up in two to three sentences, what really makes James Cameron's Avatar a game that's worth playing and not just another movie game?
KS: There are a couple of things that I think will make Avatar stand out from other "movie games," as you term it. It's a rich extension of the world that Cameron has already created. It's not just a rehash of what you've already seen; we really found a way to explore the world of Pandora up close and in detail. The other reason is the 3-D. The 3-D, frankly, is the first of its kind that's done 3-D to this extend. It's not just quickie red-green glasses and let's see what we can do. It's cutting-edge 3-D that people are going to look at and realize that this is the way that games have to go.
WP: Do you think that there's a risk to the team putting all this effort into making the 3-D look good? I mean, 3-D televisions are still in the $3,000 to $4,000 range, so only a very small percentage of the consumer population may get to see it. What were the thoughts on that?
KS: If you look at all the developers, and as we're creating the game, we're all sitting in front of 2-D screens. We all aren't wandering around with our 3-D glasses and doing everything on 3-D. We were primarily making it on a 2-D environment. We always knew that the main consumer's going to be checking it out on 2-D. It's important to try 3-D because it's about pushing the boundaries and being innovative. We strongly believe that 3-D is the way that things are going to go, so we wanted to prove that this can work, and this is going to be what's coming. That's why we went ahead with it, but we had to make sure that this game has got to stand up and kick ass for everybody — me included — who's going to go home to his 2-D TV. I don't have a 3-D TV; I'm going to be playing it in 2-D, and I guarantee that people will be very impressed with the 2-D version as well.
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