It took a while for the mainstream to realise on a larger scale that video games can tell a "real" story just like a movie or a book can, and we're seeing increasing crossover between those respective spaces. Over the years we have seen several movies based on popular video games, but also books. Probably the most famous Gears of War books are the five novels made by Karen Traviss, with their story focusing on the original Gears of War trilogy.
Things are moving on, though, and Gears 4 and 5 have told new stories from the perspective of a new generation. On the other hand, recently released XCOM-like Gears Tactics, takes place before the events of the first Gears of War game. The main character here is Gabe Diaz, the father of Kait Diaz (the main character of Gears 5). And with a whole new story and fresh characters comes a new set of novels as well. Published by Titan Books, Jason M. Hough's previous work includes Gears of War: Ascendance, and now we're getting Gears of War: Bloodlines, a prequel to the recently released Gears Tactics.
Gamereactor: Have you played any of the Gears of War games and, if so, which ones? How did you familiarise yourself with the source material before starting to write Gears of War novels?
JMH: I've played through Gears of War 4 and Gears 5 several times. When I was first approached about writing these books, though, I hadn't played any Gears games, so my first step (before agreeing to do it) was to watch a YouTuber called TheRadBrad play through all the games. Watching instead of playing let me focus on the story and characters.
As for expanded universe material, I deliberately avoided reading the other Gears novels because I didn't want to subconsciously mimic their style.
GR: Why did you decide to write about Gears of War? How did it happen?
JMH: My editor at Titan Books thought I would be a good fit for the project because it's similar in some ways to my Dire Earth series. We had worked together already on Mass Effect, so when Gears came up, he called me right away.
GR: What is your process when transforming a video game story into a novel?
JMH: For me, it's all about trying to capture the tone and spirit of the games. I want the books to feel like you're reading a novelisation of a part of the game that was never released. So, the process for me is getting in tune with the games themselves and doing my best to stick closely to that. There is temptation sometimes to take things in a new direction or do something that the games would never do, but for me I want game-based novels to give me the same fizz I get when playing the game itself.
GR: How does writing a Gears of War novel differs from your previous work, for example, Mass Effect: Andromeda Nexus Uprising or The Darwin Elevator?
JMH: The biggest difference compared to Mass Effect is simply that I'm not co-writing the Gears novels, so there's definitely a difference in style and process. I'd say the Gears books are similar to my own novels, like The Darwin Elevator. The process differs mostly in where the lore comes from: with Gears I'm constantly looking at the source material or bothering the lovely folks at The Coalition for information, as opposed to just making stuff up!
GR: Has your second Gears of War novel been easier to write compared to Ascendance?
JMH: I think it was harder. With Ascendance, I had a clearer idea of what to do. It's worth noting that although Ascendance was positioned as a prequel to Gears 5, in many ways it was more of a sequel to Gears of War 4, picking up immediately where that game left off. The point is, Ascendance had source material on both sides to guide me, whereas with Bloodlines I had only a small amount of info on what was happening in Gears Tactics (which Bloodlines precedes), and essentially nothing on what happened before Bloodlines. It also takes place in a time period of the Gears War that I was less familiar with, The Pendulum War. To top that off, I did most of the writing for it while the Gears development team was heads-down trying to finish Gears 5, so I had to make things up more often and revise them later if needed (and it needed a lot!).
GR: How much of the story in Gears of War: Bloodlines is your own, and how much of it was suggested by Microsoft or The Coalition? How much creative freedom did you have?
JMH: Quite a bit of freedom, actually! I was basically just told, "here's where Gabe Diaz needs to be at the start of Gears Tactics - your job is to get him there".
GR: Do you think it's possible to read your Gears novels as independent works, or do you need previous information provided by Gears of War 4, Gears of War 5, or Gears Tactics?
JMH: I try to write in such a way that a reader unfamiliar with Gears could infer what I'm talking about, at least to get the key ideas, but it's a conscious decision for me not to explain everything in detail. The readership of these books is going to be almost entirely made up of Gears fans, and I want to avoid frustrating them by constantly explaining things they are already intimately familiar with.
That said, you definitely don't need to know anything about Gears Tactics to read Bloodlines, as it takes place entirely beforehand.
GR: Do you intend to write more Gears of War novels in the future?
JMH: So far, we've been doing these one book at a time, and at the moment I'm not contracted for more. As far as I know, Microsoft and Titan evaluate each book on a case-by-case basis to decide the right author to tackle it. I'm certainly open to the idea, though!
GR: What is your personal writing process like? A certain number of pages every day? Only when there is a burst of inspiration? How do you mentally prepare yourself to write about Gears?
JMH: Once I have a chapter-by-chapter outline I get a gut feel for the number of words I think the book will be. For reference, my Gears books so far have been about 90,000 words. It's a rough number that gets more accurate with each book I write. Then it's simply a matter of dividing that number by how many days before the deadline, and I have a words-per-day target which I try to hit. Some days I don't get there, some days I go way over, so it averages out. This is the only way I can keep on track and avoid being late. If I only write when I have a burst of inspiration, I'd get very little done.
As for mental prep, once I've started writing all it usually takes is re-reading what I've written in the last few days to get me going. And, while writing, I listen to the Gears soundtracks in the background.
GR: A large portion of the world is now stuck at home because of the coronavirus outbreak. They are playing video games, watching movies and reading books. What novel would you recommend our audience read during these difficult times?
JMH: I always recommend gamers read You by Austin Grossman. It is essentially a murder mystery set in a small game studio in the mid-'90s. Not only is it a great book, but it also does a wonderful job of capturing what it was like to be a developer in that era (as I was).
Other's I've read recently and enjoyed: Velocity Weapon by Megan O'Keefe, Fever by Deon Meyer (which might be a little too close to reality in the COVID-19 era), and Black Sun by Owen Matthews."
Gears Tactics is now out on PC and is coming to Xbox One later. You can read our review right here. If you want to read Gears of War: Bloodlines head over to Titan Books. And finally, we would like to give big thanks to Jason M. Hough for giving us some insight into his creative process.