In What Are You Playing This Weekend? we discuss gaming and such with prominent figures in the pop-culture arena. We always start with the same question.
Fred Van Lente is a popular and critically-acclaimed comic book writer whose credits include Cowboys & Aliens, Hulk: Season One, Marvel Zombies, the Amazing Spider-Man, Action Philosophers and many others. His Comic Book History of Comics is in bookstores now. The debut issue of Archer & Armstrong hits comic shops in August.
The Gameological Society: What are you playing this weekend?
Fred Van Lente: I’m playing Borderlands all the way through for the third time. I had never played the role of the Hunter before and it’s my all-time favorite game. I thought I would do the entire thing. I got the Game Of The Year edition really cheap on Amazon, so I’m playing it straight through. With Borderlands 2 coming out, I assume I’ll have this done before September rolls around, but that’s definitely my all-time favorite game.
Gameological: Big Borderlands fan. That’s a super fun one. Have you played anything else from Gearbox? Are you familiar with their games?
Van Lente: I tried playing Duke Nukem—I’m a big fan of that video game franchise—but I couldn’t get very far into it, I’m afraid.
Gameological: I don’t think anyone blames you for ducking out on that.
Van Lente: It made me sad, long story short.
Gameological: Unlike a lot of writers these days—who have taken to the decompressed method of storytelling—your comics seem to be very densely packed. You still have the character moments, but the pacing feels tight and moves with consistency as if they were the set pieces of Modern Warfare.
Van Lente: I can enjoy games like Mass Effect, which are clearly trying to be half-movie/TV show, half game, but I tend not to prefer them as much to stuff where I just want the writers to shut up and let me play. I get it, this is very important to your phony made-up alien species, I get it. I just want to shoot it in the face. I don’t need to know [every detail]. There are these things called books that I can read. [Laughs.] But now I’m starting to write games, and I definitely appreciate a lot of the challenges that writers of video games have. As a gamer, I would much rather play. The Arkham series is the perfect example of this, when it blends action and storytelling well.
Gameological: That makes sense because it’s handled by a popular Batman writer. You’ve got Paul Dini writing those games.
Van Lente: Maybe it’s because I’m older. As a kid, I grew up with pixelated tanks in a 2D environment, when I was a very small child. So I’m not used to video games as a long-form storytelling medium. That said, my other two favorite games of all time are the Fallout franchise. I love Fallout, particularly New Vegas, and my all-time favorite Rockstar game is Red Dead Redemption, which I think is a terrific game.
Gameological: Redemption was beautiful.
Van Lente: I guess what connects all those games and makes them separate from the more heavy narrative games like Mass Effect or L.A. Noire is the sandbox aspect. The non-linear aspects are as important as the linear ones. That’s why I like it.
Gameological: While I love the whole Rockstar thing, I kind of suck at shooting. And so I appreciate that L.A. Noire’s a detective game, and it’s more about talking to people and questioning. You really get a vibe for the writing of it all.
Van Lente: But that game I found to be too linear as well. You have each case you have to follow, and there’s challenges along the way. And I would have preferred long-form detective games. The extreme example would be something like the Homicide TV show. Even though each episode never broke from the real detective show genre, they would have cases, but the cases wouldn’t necessarily close at the end of the episode. For some of them, the cases would be murdered, and they would have to go out and deal with that. I think you could make a great sandbox detective game, or at least a cop game, that was a little more non-linear.
Gameological: There was no sense of cohesion. It’s very episodic.
Van Lente: Yeah. Or The Wire. The Wire’s almost a bad example because it’s one long case over an entire [season]. The structure of Homicide would make a terrific video game.
Gameological: You mentioned the Batman games, which are written by Paul Dini, and that you now are writing games. Is that a source that you’re looking at as an influence? You’re primarily writing games for Marvel, right?
Van Lente: My game is a completely different format, but I definitely look to that for inspiration.
Gameological: I imagine there’s a mandate from Marvel to keep the continuity strictly to the games, or tie it to the movies. How are you dealing with that?
Van Lente: I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to talk about that. A lot of the continuity has been established in our Facebook game, Avengers Alliance. And there’s a module attached called Marvel XP that’s going to be very important in moving forward. Anything beyond that and I think the Mouse will have me whacked. [Laughs.]
Gameological: In your tenure at Marvel, you’ve written both short stories and comics set in the Halo universe. Were you familiar with the Halo lore before that gig came along?
Van Lente: I wasn’t, but those guys sent me a bunch of books, the art of Halo books, and provided Frances Portela – the artist – with computer models that they’d been working on, stuff that I think never appeared in the game. That was really awesome. They’re very supportive. They’re very intent about the structure and integrity of the universe in a way that in comics, the fans are very anal about the game’s continuity, but we have this brand, which unlike Halo which has had a handful of games and novels, Marvel universe has hundreds of titles publishing every month. It’s a little bit more challenging to make things consistent across the board and Marvel has a long tradition going back—you know, Stan Lee at one point was calling Peter Parker “Peter Palmer,” and Bruce Banner “Bob Banner,” and confused everything.
Gameological: It’s easy to lose these things.
Van Lente: I was interviewed by one of the big Halo fan-sites before the book came out, and I didn’t know too much. I was a PlayStation person up to that point, so I went back and got an Xbox, got the Halo games, and was like “Now I’m a 100-percent Halo fan!” What killed me was in the comments section of my interview all the fans were like, “What’s he’s talking about?! 100-percent Halo fan? I own this, this, and this! What am I, an 80-percent Halo fan?!”
Gameological: There’s this unnecessary competition on the internet.
Van Lente: Like, “You take this really seriously. I’m not speaking directly to you through the computer, it’s a general statement!” So I will say I’m a 72-percent Halo fan. I’ve learned my lesson.
Gameological: Amadeus Cho, from Incredible Hercules, very much feels like a character that speaks to video game nerds.
Van Lente: When Greg [Pak] conceived him, he was running around with a Game Boy as his universal tool. So I can definitely see that. One of Archer’s abilities is he is literally a walking encyclopedia of physical skills, so I bet he could give Mozart a run for his money on the piano. Doing dueling pianos à la Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Gameological: So we have a scene with four of them in an old Western saloon, two at the bar and two at the piano.
Van Lente: Right. Then Hercules would have to fight Mozart, which would be a whole new realm of nerdery.
Gameological: Well there you go, your next title: Action Composers.
Van Lente: [Laughs.] Why not?
And now, we put the question to you. Tell us what you’ve been playing lately, and which games—video or otherwise—are on your playlist for the weekend.