Reporting from the front: Marv Wolfman on the chronicling of PlanetSide 2's war

Marv Wolfman
Let's face it: First-person shooters aren't typically renowned for their intricate lore and detailed backstories. When you're mowing through a herd of alien bugs or a room full of terrorists with a plasma rifle and grenade launcher, "story" takes a backseat to "Boom! Headshot!" So why, then, is Sony Online Entertainment making a concerted effort to slather its upcoming PlanetSide 2 with a healthy layer of story?

To answer this, we sat down with famed comic writer Marv Wolfman, who has once again teamed up with the MMO studio to provide the backstory for PlanetSide 2 in the form of several short stories (the first of which can be read on the official site right now). Wolfman, who has been working on this project for several months already, sees story as essential to the game experience. "Sooner or later, you want to know why you're here and doing what you're doing," he explained.

The first PlanetSide had a paper-thin backstory that tended to escape the attention of most of the players, which is why SOE is trying to give this "reimaging" a solid grounding in lore. Sure, not every player cares about it, but for the ones that do, being able to read about the history of the world and the reason behind the conflict is important. PlanetSide 2 isn't just a mindless shooter to the company but a war with depth, meaning, struggles, and purpose. This is where Wolfman comes in to work his wordsmithing magic.

Hit the jump as we investigate the scope of these stories and how you wish you had a history class that covered war in such a cool way.

The right man for the job

Listning to Marv Wolfman talk, you'd swear he has never stepped out of his Brooklyn neighborhood for a single day of his life. The truth is, he moved to California decades ago, it's just that the New York accent never fades. It's the kind of accent that you'd want to hear from a man who's set himself up to be a war reporter for a struggle that takes place on a planet far, far away.

Wolfman's portfolio is a tour down geek lane, dating all the way back to the '60s, when he started writing for DC and Marvel comics. He's best-known for his work on the seminal Crisis on Infinite Earths, the New Teen Titans, and the creation of Blade, the half-human, half-vampire superhero.

However, Wolfman doesn't see himself "just" as a comic writer but as a versatile author who gladly bounces between genres and platforms. He's written novels, worked on several video games, and is involved with his second MMO (following DC Universe Online). He's pretty familiar with telling war stories, as one of his first jobs was associate editor for DC war comics.

"Each [format] being so different from the other keeps me on my toes," he said. "If I write one thing only, it gets boring."

So was it like night and day, going from comics to MMO story writing? Wolfman said yes and no: "No, it's not horribly different from the thinking process from a comic -- you're thinking about characters, long-range stories, short stories, planting seeds in early material that you find out pays off later on. So that part of it is all the same. The writing is different; it's much more like a short story. Comics are dialogue."

PlanetSide 2 soldiers
A blank slate

Tabula rasa isn't just the title of a game that's sorely missed in parts of the Massively offices; it means "blank slate" -- a fresh start. In many ways, PlanetSide 2 is a tabula rasa experience for SOE. Because there was so little story with the first game, Wolfman was given great leeway to write and develop stories for this re-envisioning.

The intriguing part of the project, to him, was that he could cover hundreds of years' worth of history, detailing how the conflict between the three PlanetSide 2 factions began and tracing a path of sorrows, victories, betrayals and defeats over the centuries. In fact, the first three stories that SOE is releasing deals with the birth of this three-sided war, one story from the perspective of each of the factions.

When we asked him whether he grew to prefer writing for one faction over another, Wolfman said no. It was vital to him to establish that all three factions have their good parts and bad, that none is perfect and all have flaws that keep them down-to-earth. So unlike other MMOs, where there might be a "good" and "evil" faction, the three here can all be seen as righteous or demonic, depending on your point of view.

Wolfman's also enjoyed changing styles between stories, sometimes experimenting with third-person, second-person or first-person perspectives, and sometimes penning them as meeting reports. The common thread, he said, is that they're all told through a single character for that story. Many of his protagonists are anti-heroes whose tales take surprising twists and turns -- and cliffhangers aren't out of the realm of possibility. Expect these stories to skew more toward PG-13 than PG, since they're set in war, after all.

PlanetSide 2 sunrise
Chain-reacting tales

Wolfman's short stories lack a single protagonist to dominate them all and are instead written to engross the readers in the world and show the wide variety of characters who have inhabited it before now. As he wrote the stories, Wolfman said that the tales would demand follow-ups and cross-overs. He had no set quota to fill, so he's keeping on writing until it's all said and done.

As the stories unfold, we'll be meeting characters who will age, die, and have kids (although not in that order). "This is a world," Wolfman said, "and as characters interface with each other, some stories can be told in one or two chapters, while some will take place over several of them. We're telling a much broader story, so we can go and bring characters back."

He said that the best way to explain the scope of the project is to think of the history of a country, such as America. In America, we have the Revolutionary fathers, like Washington, and other characters later on, like Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. They might not be living in the same time period, but they are all connected via a common theme and impact each other by their actions.

Wolfman hasn't been working on these stories in isolation but rather has been in constant contact with the team as story ideas and game elements are pitched back and forth. Sometimes what the team is working on has affected his stories, and sometimes his writings have made changes in the development process.

For players itching to get into PlanetSide 2, Wolfman invites them to devour these stories and use them to get a firm grasp of the world as much more than a Team Fortress level. Players may not be meeting any of these story characters in the game (as PlanetSide 2 lacks NPCs completely), but the astute player will certainly pick up on more of the purpose and background of the setting by having read Wolfman's works.

We asked him what he hoped for as his efforts are finally starting to be published online. He thought for a second and then said, "I just want them to be interesting short stories on their own level. Hopefully you'll find the stories fun, that you'll enjoy them!"

This article was originally published on Massively.