John Milius

It turns out not all video game companies have their heads in the sand. John Milius was hired by EA to work on their WWII game Medal of Honor 'European Assault'.

Here's the interview from G4.

Ten Minutes with John Milius

written by Coury Turczyn

The Director of Conan the Barbarian Enters the Video Game Arena with Medal of Honor: European Assault

John Milius earned a Hollywood reputation as a true he-man film director and writer, co-writing the screenplay for Apocalypse Now, and directing the ‘80s classics Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. ("Wolverines!") He was also the fellow who coined Dirty Harry’s signature catchphrase: "Go ahead, make my day." And now he’s entered the video game industry by consulting and writing for the latest chapter in the Medal of Honor franchise, European Assault. A hardcore World War II history buff, Milius was the perfect choice to bring historical authenticity and a cinematic viewpoint to the popular FPS series. In this interview, Milius talks about how writing for video games is different than screenwriting, and why future video games will be more like novels than movies.

How did you get involved with Medal of Honor: European Assault?

I was working for EA on another project. I had written a very detailed script for it, and they decided to put it on hold. And that’s about the time that this game started, really. They said, “Gee, we’d like to have him work on Medal of Honor.” So they took me over there and I jumped right in.

Had you played any war games previous to this?

I can’t do those things on my own—I don’t have the computer skills. The only war games I ever played were board games when I was a kid, like Avalon Hill and those kinds of things. Of course, I’m a guy from the ICT: the Institute of Creative Technology, which is like the Rand Corporation, a think tank. We did very, very complex war games there for the Pentagon, and we still do that. So I did know a little about this.

What was your goal on the project?

My goal was just to make it interesting and try to bring real history into it—give people a sense of the things that happened. If you’re going to go through World War II, don’t go through it in a really fanciful and unnecessary way; go through it in a way that gives you a sense of the shape of World War II and what really, historically happened and what things influenced others.

What’s the scenario behind European Assault?

The player will be introduced to the main character, (U.S. Army Lieutenant William) Holt, who’s an OSS man. Very early in the war, he’s sent off to the British to participate in one of the most daring commando raids of World War II. And in that commando raid, he finds things that lead them to other theaters of operation. Originally, it starts with following up the development of the eighty-eight artillery piece, which leads to more dark and sinister things. And by doing that, you’re able to have him go to different theaters and key events in World War II.

How did you tackle the balance between gameplay and historical accuracy?

I was always for historical accuracy, and they had to tone me down. If I was to do a game, it probably would be boring. There are certain things you can’t do. Like, I wanted to follow an armored assault, but they decided that they didn’t want to have people be in tanks. They wanted to follow ground combat with squads because it worked better for the game. I would like to see all different aspects to the event, which eventually you’ll be able to do—you’ll see it from the point of view of somebody in the air, somebody in an infantry unit or a tank, or a civilian. There’s no doubt that games will eventually come to this.

Do you think that games will ever be able to truly simulate the experience of war?

Yeah, I think games will be much more like long novels in the future; they will be much more story oriented than they are now. They’re headed that way. They’ll be very story oriented, and they’ll take a long time. So you’ll have an experience that’s a real experience. Last summer, I read War and Peace, and it took me a long time to read it, so I was immersed in Russia from 1805 to 1813 or whatever—the events of the Napoleonic Wars and the lives of the different aristocratic families in Russia. And because I was immersed in it for a long time—and because Tolstoy is a very good writer, too— I probably got a much greater feel for that period, certainly much better than if I would have seen a movie. And a game can do the same thing. I can imagine somebody doing a game that takes a month to complete in which you would have all kinds of emotions, and follow all kinds of stories.

Working on this particular game, did you try to inject drama as you would on a movie script?

I tried to do that often. But I’m just a consultant. They told me what I could do and what I couldn’t. It was sort of interesting to do it that way—just to come in, sit there, and throw my stuff out there. They used what they wanted, other stuff they didn’t. I had no ego about it. I wasn’t sitting there saying, “This is the way you should’ve done it,” because it’s a game, a different thing. And it was a relief, in a way. It was sort of a nice way to work.

How close do you think European Assault came to what you envisioned?

Well, I didn’t really envision a total picture. I just envisioned what I could help with. It’s not like a screenplay or a story, where I envisioned a beginning, middle, and an end. A whole story is a much different thing, especially when you write a screenplay and direct it.

How was it different working as a video game writer as opposed to being a film writer?

Well, in video games, there really isn’t “a writer”—there are a lot of different writers, and a lot of different aspects that go into it. So the story voice you’re trying to make is subject to what can be done and what’s exciting gameplay. Gaming hasn’t really reached the level yet where the story is very important or that you’re following the events of the story very carefully. It’s like a broad over-story. It’s very, very different in a movie where every line is important, and there’s the whole concept media dramaturgy. But this is kind of fun. It’s still in a very crude stage; this is going to change a lot in the next year—and in the next five years, it’s going to be unrecognizable. If it continues the way it is, in five years games will be extremely sophisticated and much, much different from what they are now.

Are you planning on doing any more video game projects?

Yeah, I love doing this. It’s really a lot of fun because it’s a certain kind of creativity without pressure. And everybody loves to live in a world of fantasy, so to speak—to go back in history. That’s why we have re-enactors.

Is there any information you can divulge on King Conan?

Well, King Conan is pretty well on hold. Warner Brothers decided they’re going to do their own version of whatever they want to do with Conan. They’ve sort of put it in deep, deep freeze. I don’t know. You’ll have to talk to Warner Brothers and ask them what their wisdom is. They’ll probably do an animated, kid-friendly Conan.


Anonymous said...

Milius is indeed a strange creature. A loud, boorish and very talented chicken-hawk. An asthmatic who smokes cigars. A far better writer than director. Now dancing in the world of games. Interesting.

There is a strong corelation between film and gaming and the lines between the two are rapidy converging and dissolving. Yes, the experiences are radically diverse but I trust Ebert will eventually come around as the medium of games evolves further and becomes increasingly capable of expressing drmatic narrative.

That's always been the issue with me and games. I jumped into the deep end of that pool in the late '80's while creating "interactive storybooks" and experienced first hand the frustrations and limitations inherent in the medium. The proslelytizers for the form were practically foaming at the mouth with the advent of everyone becoming a Shakespeare as tey weilded the power to determine the outcome of a story.

Unfortunately, we're not all Shakespeare and the author/programmers certainly weren't capable of investing these game/stories with all the random possibilities that could even remotely begin to allow a use the capability of rendering a narrative experience akin to Willy The Shakes.

As you know, Mark, a large part of the writing process is discarding. Pondering, considering, evaluating ideas and making an informed or inspired choice of what stays and what goes. That's what lies at the heart of any "development hell" experience for a writer, where they are forced by production/broadcast pinheads to wade through a fetid swamp of painfully obvious wrong choices that have already been successfully dealt with - all with the purpose of satisfying the "players" with the perception that every stone has indeed been upturned and that they have indeed been given the opportunity to piss on every corner of every rock in defint proclamation of their "authroship" of the material. It's amazing there aren't more "postal" events involving writers blasting the alleged brains out of the thick skulls of production executives.

I've gone a bit off topic here and Karen is tapping her foot at teh doorway ecepecting me to stop NOW and go off for dinner at a great Thai restaurant. So I'll leave it with this:

Games are indeed becoming a new force in dramatic narrative. And as they adapt to the entrenched form of storytelling - storytelling itself is adapting to meet the new kid on the block.

More later.


Mark said...

I think there is a huge issue of time. Unlike the long narratives like the novel, film stories are slaves to time. A video game is trying to incorporate the long narrative into a much leaner medium. Sure, you can approach the long narrative in a way like Lost or 24 but even those live in one hour chunks with three act structures within each.

Time is less an issue for video games so the cut scenes do feel like they are tagged on and not necessary to complete the game. You may get more out of the experience by paying attention and not skipping the scenes but they are rarely needed to complete the game.

I suppose the truly interactive game will be one where the player creates the narrative within the context of the world they are in. It seems to me that this would require a much greater version of artificial intelligence than is available to programmers today.