Greg Rucka: Seeing in the Perfect Dark

by Matt Brady

Taking a crowbar to his already tight as a drum schedule, Greg Rucka found time recently to handle a character that was new to him in fiction, but someone he’s known for about five years. No – we’re not talking about Rucka’s new Queen and Country novel (Private Wars - though we will be talking about that tomorrow, so do come back), we’re not talking about Atticus Kodiak, or any of his other characters. One of Rucka’s two latest novels stars Joanna Dark, the lead character of Rare’s Perfect Dark Zero videogame, which will be one of the launch titles later this month for Mircsoft’s XBox 360.

Rucka himself is, as ever, hesitant to spill on the novel, so instead, we’ll pull the publisher’s ad copy:

2020: Corporations control everything. In the name of domination, these sprawling organizations have recruited their own military forces to fight clandestine battles against one another—a war fought in the boardrooms and won in the shadows, with the public none the wiser.

Ex-bounty hunter Joanna Dark has unwillingly seen the frontlines of this war. Her run-in with dataDyne, the world’s most powerful hypercorporation, has left her with a wound that only vengeance can heal. Daniel Carrington, the charismatic founder of the Carrington Institute, has been locked into an ongoing war with dataDyne for years, and sees Joanna’s deadly skills as the key to victory over their mutual enemy. But Joanna is young and lost, unable to accept her abilities as virtues or fully trust Carrington’s intentions.

But when an explosive secret is unearthed—one which could finally bring down the threat of dataDyne, once and for all—Joanna finds herself thrust back into the fight, one that brings her face to face with her past … and the forces shaping her future.

The novel and game tie back to the original Perfect Dark videogame, developed by Rare, which was released in 2000 for the Nintendo 64 system. The new game, Zero, is set prior to the original game, and the novel…well, let’s just let Rucka talk…

Newsarama: Going back, and pulling the curtain back a little on how long we’ve known each other – I can remember talking to you the day before Perfect Dark came out for the N64, and we were both figuring out how do schedule our work so that we could be at Electronics Boutique as early as possible, to get in the most gameplay for the day…so, safe to say, you’ve been a fan of the property of a while…

Greg Rucka: Oh yeah – and more than that, I’m a fan of Rare’s work. In my opinion, GoldenEye was the killer app for the N64, and honestly to this day, I’ve yet to find a first person shooter that I’ve enjoyed so much. So when Perfect Dark came out…oh yeah. A dystopian, near-future cyberpunk thing? I’m there. How could I pass that up?

NRAMA: And you finished the game?

GR: Yup – all the way. I was the animal.

NRAMA: And also, at that point, without kids…

GR: Yeah, way back when, when I could devote hours of time to playing a videogame. I am no longer that animal.

NRAMA: So how did you go from fan and player to author of the first Perfect Dark novel? Was it a level you could unlock or something like that?

GR: [laughs] It’s a long, long, convoluted story. The quick version goes along the lines of me being at the Emerald City Comic Con, back in the first year of the show. I was signing, and selling some stuff, and a guy comes up and asks if I’m interested in doing any work for hire stuff for a novel. I told him that my agent really doesn’t like them when I do them – I don’t own it, it takes away from the work that I do own, and it generally doesn’t pay my going rate, and that’s bad business. I told him that, given those considerations, it would have to be something really special, and something that meant something to me.

The guy said that he couldn’t talk about it, but did say that he worked for Microsoft and that it would be linked to a game that is related to one that had been out before; he also said that he’d just read Queen and Country, and realized I’d be perfect for it. And I said, “Oh – Perfect Dark?” He said yeah, but he couldn’t talk about it any more. He asked my rate, and said he’d look into it and see what could be done.

I didn’t hear from him for the better part of a year after that. I ended up at a comic book store outside of Olympia, Washington – Olympic Cards and Comics – a wonderful store. I was doing a signing, while I was taking a break, I was with a bunch of guys, and we were talking about storytelling in computer games, and how that has evolved, and how exciting that development was. I mentioned that I was offered a Perfect Dark job, and it never happened. One of the guys I was talking to said, “Yeah, that was me you spoke with about it.” I’d completely forgotten his name and what he looked like, it had been so long – it’s Eric Trautmann, by the way. He’s married to the woman who runs the shop, and told me he was still working on it. Six months after that, it came to pass, and I was set up to write the novel.

NRAMA: Looking at the back of the novel, the book seems to have several fathers. Was it a Rare production, a Microsoft production, a Tor production…what?

GR: Eric was the guy I dealt with, and the book was published by Tor. It was overseen by Microsoft. But Eric was pretty much the lead on it, and he was a pleasure to work with – yet another one of those people that I was separated at birth from.

NRAMA: Once the contracts were worked out – and given the parameters and the fact that the property is a XBox 360 launch title, I can only imagine that the non-disclosure agreements were amazing in their coverage. Did you even know what you were working on?

GR: Yeah, I was NDA’d six was ‘til Sunday.

NRAMA: What, up to the point of Men in Black coming to your office and flashing a bright light in your eyes?

GR: Not that much. Seriously, everyone I dealt with at Microsoft was a pleasure to work with. It was an interesting process, with many, many, many things that could have gone wrong at every step, but all in all, it came out really well. There were a few things that I can notice in the trade edition that’s out, but given how tight the deadline was, and the timeline in which it had to be turned around, it’s a remarkably clean manuscript.

NRAMA: Speaking of that, was it tighter time-wise than your other novels?

GR: Oh, God yes. There’s this thing going on called Infinite Crisis – so I was working on that, and was caught up in all of that at the same time as I was trying to find time to write this book. I think it was, all in all, written in about three and a half weeks.

NRAMA: And that’s with normal human processes like eating and sleeping?

GR: Obviously, not a lot. It’s weird though, because I’ve found that there are times when, if I have to write under that pressure, there isn’t a lot of time to second guess what you’re doing. If you can keep your focus, you can get a really good product very quickly. There’s no garbage that your mind can put in front of it – it’s got to be written, and that’s that. Frankly, I think it’s a very good book…and I have to confess to being mildly surprised. Not that I was planning on doing bad work at all, but there were a lot of delays to the start date, both on my end, on the Tor end, and on the Microsoft end, but once it got going; this thing wrote and wrote well. It was a great experience, and as I said, I had tremendous people to work with.

NRAMA: Let’s talk story then – this is set when – before the first N64 game, right?

GR: Right. Perfect Dark Zero is the 360 launch title, and is set three years before the events in Perfect Dark, and Initial Vector is set roughly six months after the events of Perfect Dark Zero. That said, and I want this to be clear – it’s not the same story that’s in either Perfect Dark Zero or in the N64 game – it follows the character of Joanna Dark after Zero.

NRAMA: So no game hints?

GR: No game hints.

NRAMA: So how does one go about writing a novel that’s set before a five year old game, and spills out from a soon-to-be released game that’s under pretty tight security with it known that the novel will come out before the new game?

GR: Good question. We wanted to write a novel that certainly was self-contained, and that you could read before you played Perfect Dark Zero, and wouldn’t give away too much of the story about Perfect Dark Zero, and at the same time would continue to grow the universe. So – taking all of that into consideration, it was pretty interesting. But again, I think it turned out pretty well. I really think that even if you haven’t played either game, you can still pick up the book and like it. If you’ve played the first game, you’re going to get a huge treat, because a lot of stuff that happens in Perfect Dark, we set up in the novel. Cassandra De Vries, for example, is a pretty important character in Perfect Dark, but you don’t get to see much of her, or know her very well in the course of the game. She’s the major character of Initial Vector.

And also – just being able to write about Joanna is very cool. She’s a character who I think has the potential to become iconic, both in videogames and other media. Depending upon how the character is handled and elaborated upon, you’re going to get some pretty cool stuff. They have long terms plans for her, and, based on just what I know, it’s cool, cool stuff.

NRAMA: Going back to the parameters you were given, did they say, “Here’s Joanna at A, get her to Z…go!” or was it more flexible in terms of coming up with the timeframe, setting and plot of the story?

GR: Eric came in and said that they were looking at doing a series of books, set after Zero, but before Perfect Dark. To these ends, they had the story bible for the universe and some ideas of what I could do. I read all of that, and we talked, and he had written literally one sentence in the bible about the timeline. Perfect Dark is set in 2023; Zero is set in 2020, so the novel is set in late 2020. So he’s got a future timeline that he had worked out, and he had one little note in there about something that happened in 2016...and that was a whole book.

The great thing about living in Portland on something like this is that Seattle is just three hours away, so Eric came down, and we spent an afternoon breaking the story down, and that was how we wrote an outline for the novel, and started things from there. And we kept going on ideas, and pretty much worked out what a next novel would be with Joanna, so if I can do the next one, that would be cool. Eric’s a tremendous editor.

NRAMA: That said, this specific project seems to have cleared away a lot of the worries you had with doing creator-owned novels…

GR: Yeah, but I did the No Man’s Land novel for DC, and Grendel: Past Prime for Dark Horse. It’s weird when I do end up doing them, but I’m glad I’ve done each one. This one – I actually think this is a smart thing that I did this one, despite it being on top of everything else – it was fun, it was enjoyable. I’m lucky that way – I get to enjoy what I do.

In many ways, and this isn’t to overstate it, it’s like they said, “We want you to write 12 months of Superman.” Okay – I’ll do it. Sure, it’s work for hire, but I’m engaged by Superman, and I want to tell stories about Superman, and I think I have something to say with Superman. With this, I’m not just engaged by Joanna Dark, but also by the whole world that Rare has created. They’ve done an amazing job of it.

NRAMA: From what you’re saying, it sounds like this was, despite your initial hesitation, a breath of fresh air – something that was different enough to serve as a clean break from your other work…

GR: It’s funny – no matter what I say about them, all of these work for hire novels have been very good experiences. But the thing is, sometimes the collaboration in work for hire is better than it is at other times, and this was one of the best collaborative experiences that I’ve been in. The support I got was outstanding – to such an extent to be flattering.

NRAMA: So if the call does come and they want you to be the go-to guy for the Joanna Dark novel line, is it something now that you would make room for in your schedule?

GR: Yeah, at this point, yeah it is. They’re planning to do two more, and the only thing that’s preventing me from committing to them right now is my schedule – it’s nothing on their end. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that I’ve got the room on my schedule.

It’s also the feeling of investment – I don’t want anyone else getting their dirty mitts on her [laughs]. I set these things up, so I want to execute them. We’ll see.

Perfect Dark: Initial Vector is available in bookstores now. The 350 page novel retails for $12.95.

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