ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Chana Joffe-Walt introduces us to "Halo's" game designer turned novelist.
CHANA JOFFE: Isn't gaming all just like shoot them up? Why do you need a story?
JOSEPH STATEN: I think to understand why stories are important in games, you need to actually play them and see.
JOFFE: So Staten takes me to this room at Bungie Studios, something he calls a conference room. It's really just a gaming play land with office-like furniture to hold up all the Xbox consoles. "Halo 3" flickers to life in front of us.
STATEN: So this is the main screen. And you can hear the music in the background. There is this vista of a destroyed human city with alien ships hovering the sky, this tempest storm with lightning hitting the ground. There is very little hope. There's room for one savior to come and rescue us from this horrible fate. And that's you, of course, the player, as it always is.
JOFFE: That's it, right there, the entire "Halo" story. Not your typical beginning, middle and end story structure, but if Staten told you all that flat out, you'd have no reason to play. You see, writing for a first-person shooter game is about creating a skeleton, an environment that holds the potential for other stories to be created. But in order to deliver this universe - the space marine allies, the bluish gray aliens - Joseph Staten has to develop a lot of back story.
STATEN: Really figuring out what makes this group of aliens species stick together, how is that even possible. We really do go into a lot of detail to figure those things out ahead of time. So the games are just this little subset of facts that we pull out from a much bigger context and present to the player.
JOFFE: But all those other facts, all those details about each of his complex and treasured characters, Staten hates that they all get left out of the videogames.
STATEN: I always felt as though we shortchanged them. We don't have a lot of time to tell a story while the bullets are flying. And every time you stop the player from shooting to tell him a story, you need to be really fast, really efficient - make it cool but quick. And so characters in the games end up being caricatures, really.
JOFFE: Do gamers read?
STATEN: I hope so.
JOFFE: It appears he hopes right. "Contact Harvest" made both the USA Today and New York Times best-seller lists. Will Tuttle, editor of GameSpy.com, says that's not surprising when you consider that more than 20 million "Halo" games have been sold. Tuttle says books are somewhat new to videogaming franchises, but it makes sense because videogames are increasingly focused on story.
WILL TUTTLE: I think as consoles are getting more powerful, we're seeing a lot more narrative-driven videogames that aren't necessarily just go from point A to point B and shoot stuff. There's a lot of talk and there's a lot of exposition and back story. And you can sort of unveil things as you're going. You know, I think the days of hopping and shoot stuff are - may be coming to a close.
JOFFE: Gamers love "Halo" and are interested in the story. So Staten knows he's blessed with a somewhat guaranteed readership. But he says that does not mean gamers are easy to write for. These are some exceptionally barbed critics.
STATEN: When you play a game, you have the ability to look at everything for as long as you want. You can become an expert on the source material. So when you're writing a book for a bunch of highly literate gamers, you need to be very, very careful about stuff that you throw in, if you're dealing with this Internet-connected, very savvy audience.
JOFFE: Geeks, in other words. You're dealing with geeks who do not like it when the book presents, quote, "factually incorrect information." But we're talking about religious aliens with god-like(ph) technology, it doesn't matter. Staten crossed his hardcore gaming readers a few times, but he was mostly forgiven his trespasses thanks to his "Halo" cred - 10 years at the franchise, "Halo 1, 2 and 3." Staten even appears in the games as a crustacean, little, bluish, alien Grunt character. Just listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOGAME "HALO")
STATEN: (As character) He's going to kill us all.
JOFFE: That's you?
STATEN: That's me, yup.
JOFFE: He's going to kill us all.
STATEN: It's a very odd experience to be running through this universe populated by enemy mes and gunning them down viciously.
JOFFE: For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt in Seattle.
NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.