In 2009, ’10, and ’11, the people behind the Gears Of War games released three novels that chronicled what happened in this military sci-fi saga between the end of Gears Of War 2 and the beginning of Gears Of War 3. With the new (and excellent) Gears 5 picking up weeks after the end of Gears Of War 4, the good people at The Coalition who made these sci-fi shooters have again turned to the written word to fill in the blanks. In the following email interview, writer Jason M. Hough talks about what inspired and influenced Gears Of War: Ascendance (paperback, Kindle), and whether he took any cues from those previous gap-filling stories.
Let’s start with an overview of the plot: What is Gears Of War: Ascendance about, and how does it connect, narratively and chronologically, to the games?
Chronologically, the book begins pretty much the moment Gears Of War 4 ends, with Kait placing the last rock in a wall built to seal Reyna’s tomb.
Primarily, the book is about Kait’s journey, not only to come to grips with what’s happened to her mom, her Uncle, and the rest of her Outsider village, but also if she should deal with those things, or follow her friends and stay focused entirely on the threat of the Swarm.
Whose idea was it for Gears Of War: Ascendance to chronicle the time between the end of Gears Of War 4 and the beginning of Gears 5?
When I first met with [The Coalition’s Studio Head] Rod Fergusson, he was clear from the beginning that I could do whatever I wanted. I’d come to that meeting with an open mind, though, because I was worried about showing up with an idea I was already fixated on, only to find they wanted something else entirely.
So we brainstormed various options over dinner, and it was Rod who first mentioned that there was a gap in time between the two games, and there might be room for an interesting story there. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea, and so I ran with it.
What was it about this timeframe that made you think it could be good for a story?
There were many unanswered questions after Gears Of War 4, and when Rod mentioned Gears 5 would start several weeks after, it just instantly leaped out at me as a great timeframe to explore. Given what all the heroes had just gone through, the chance to keep the camera rolling, so to speak, and tell the story of the immediate aftermath, really appealed to me.
And then who came up with the actual plot for Gears Of War: Ascendance?
The core of the idea was mine, but we brainstormed many of the details together. There are also several subplots that were born from discussions about where the characters were at the end of Gears Of War 4, and where they would be at the start of Gears 5.
Where did you get this idea from, and how, if at all, did the plot change after you pitched it to The Coalition and then again after you started writing it?
The core idea actually came from a single throwaway line of dialog in Gears Of War 4. There was this sense at the end of that game that Kait had lost everything, and thus could now go on to throw all her energy into fighting The Swarm. But I noticed there’s a hint much earlier in the game that implies she didn’t actually lose everything, that a few members of her Outsider village might have survived. To me, that presented a fascinating moral conundrum for her.
When I brought the idea of up Rod, he liked it quite a bit. There was apparently some problem in that the survivors I mentioned were already slated to be used in one of the comics (I think), but Rod liked my idea enough that he said to roll with it and they would change the comic.
So how much of Gears 5 did you get to see either before you started writing Gears Of War: Ascendance or after you started writing it?
I was shown a very early, very rough cut of all the cinematic sequences, many of which were still just sketches at that point. They talked me through the whole thing, though technically it was only the first few minutes that were important for my book.
Did seeing these scenes give you any ideas for Gears Of War: Ascendance?
Not really. It did help with fleshing out some of the character’s personalities for me. But many of the new enemies, weapons, and tech were being saved for reveal within the game. Perhaps subconsciously it helped me put certain characters on the right trajectory for their next adventure.
Obviously, every major plot point in Gears Of War: Ascendance was approved by The Coalition. But aside from signing off on things, what was their biggest contribution to the story?
The whole process was highly collaborative, and it’s hard to single out one thing as a big contribution. Honestly, the biggest was probably just the sheer amount of review and feedback they gave me. The care and attention they put in during the revision process was remarkable, especially considering how busy they all were with the game. It was extremely helpful.
Did they ever say to you, “We need you to change this…and we can’t say why”?
I did add a small epilogue very late in the editing process, which was directly from a request they made. I was only told to have a certain character utter a certain word, and that it would lead directly into the game’s first mission, but what that word means I still have no idea.
And was there ever an instance when you mentioned something you were doing in Gears Of War: Ascendance and someone from The Coalition said, “That gives me an idea…”?
I can’t think of anything like that, no. Other than, perhaps, they liked me idea about those Outsider survivors enough to change the other story they were slated to be in. For the most part, Gears 5 was already written and quite far into production when I was writing, so there wasn’t much opportunity for that sort of thing to happen.
Gears Of War: Ascendance is not your first novel. It’s not even your first video game-related novel, which we’ll get to in a moment. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on Gears Of War: Ascendance but not on anything else you’ve written?
Not especially. I think everything I read influences me in one way or another, no matter what I’m writing. I will admit I was reading a horror novel called The Ruins by Scott Smith while writing Ascendance, so there may have been some subconscious influence there. But personally I try to avoid any conscious effort to imbue someone else’s style.
What about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or video games other than the Gears Of War ones; did any of those have an influence on Gears Of War: Ascendance?
One of the things I wanted to capture was the great over-the-top action sequences that the Gears games are known for, and there’s plenty of examples of those around. The Uncharted series is one example, and also films like the Mission: Impossible series. As Rod explained to me, in the games they shoot for “reality plus twenty-percent,” which is a mantra I wrote down and pinned to the wall by my monitor while I was writing.
Along with Gears Of War: Ascendance, there’s also a comic book, Gears Of War: Hivebusters, the collected edition of which will be out November 19th. Did you have any conversation with the comic’s writer, Kurtis J. Wiebe, about making sure that your story and his were in alignment?
No, unfortunately we didn’t have any contact. The team at The Coalition handled making sure our stuff was in alignment. Hope to meet him at some point, though.
Prior to you, Karen Traviss wrote five Gears Of War novels, three of which — Jacinto’s Remnant, Anvil Gate, and Coalition’s End — are similar to yours in that they explain what happened between the end of Gears Of War 2 and the beginning of Gears Of War 3. Were her books an influence on Gears Of War: Ascendance?
I hadn’t read her books when I wrote Ascendance, mostly because I was worried they would be overly influential. I wanted to write my own take on Gears, and went into it with only the games as my source material. I’ve since gone back and read them, though, and they’re wonderful, but I think it’s okay that she and I have a different style and approach to the material.
To be clear, I was not asked try to match her voice or continue in her style. Both Titan [the book’s publisher] and The Coalition were keen for me to write it the way I wanted to.
So is the plan for you to write more Gears Of War novels?
I’m honestly not sure what I’m allowed to say at this point, other than yes, I’m currently working on a second book.
Cool. As I mentioned earlier, Gears Of War: Ascendance is not your first video game-related novel; you previously co-wrote Mass Effect Andromeda: Nexus Uprising, which was, obviously, connected to Mass Effect Andromeda. How was writing Gears Of War: Ascendance different from writing that novel?
Two main differences, really. One is simply that I didn’t co-write this one, so that gives the book a very different personality. Second is that I had a lot more say in what the story would be with Ascendance. The Mass Effect team came to us with a specific plot in mind, so there was less opportunity there to do what we wanted to. It was a much less collaborative experience. This is not a knock on the team at Bioware, by the way, it was just a different situation with different constraints.
And if the opportunity presented itself, what other game would you like to write a novel about? Aside from Gears Of War and Mass Effect, of course.
I’d love to use these game tie-in novels as a way to dip my toes into other genres. Something like Hitman, Dishonored, Uncharted, The Last Of Us, or even Grand Theft Auto, would be awesome to take on.
Finally, if someone enjoys Gears Of War: Ascendance, which of your original novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
My Dire Earth series is the most similar to Gears, so I think readers would enjoy that (starting with The Darwin Elevator). But if they like my style but want a different kind of story, I still maintain that Zero World is the best book I’ve written, and would love to see more people pick that up.