Crispy Gamer

War Stories

Like some TV and movie screenwriters these days, Jesse Stern -- a writer and co-producer on the CBS drama "NCIS" -- has been splitting his time between the picket line and playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Unlike his fellow scribes, though, Stern not only knows how the game ends, but as one of its co-writers (with the developers Infinity Ward), he knew long before the strike even started. But as he explained in a recent break between protesting and pumping people full of lead, writing for videogames and writing for TV is a lot more different than, say, a World War II first-person shooter and a modern-day one.

Crispy Gamer: How did you first come to the attention of Infinity Ward?

Jesse Stern: When I signed up with [the talent agency] CAA a few years ago, there was an agent there named Larry Shapiro who was very active in the videogame world, and the first thing he did was hand me a copy of Call of Duty 2. He said, "If you have any interest in doing videogames, let me know." And about a year later, after playing it, I told him, "Yeah, I'd be interested in doing a game, how does it work?" So he set up a meeting with Infinity Ward, and it was right when the guys were starting work on Call of Duty 4.

Crispy Gamer: Had you heard of Call of Duty before your agent gave you the second one?

Stern: I knew about it, but I hadn't played it. I used to be a really hardcore gamer but had to give it up when I got serious about writing for television because it was eating up all my time. I was still paying attention to it out of the corner of my eye, however, so I had heard about the first game.

Crispy Gamer: Did you come up with the game's original story, or did they have one in mind?

Stern: When I went in to meet with them, they had a kind of outline of the story they wanted to do, but said they were somewhat stuck because there were some discrepancies within the team about which way to go and how best to tell it. So I went home, read what they had, and sent them a two- or three-page treatment of what I would do. "I'd lose this part, I'd move this part later," stuff like that. But then I didn't hear from them at all. I actually thought it was kind of funny; I was thinking "Okay, I guess that didn't work." Five or six months later I got an offer from them: "Okay, we're ready for you now." It's funny, I've come to realize that's the way things work in the videogame world: You either hear from them a lot or not at all.

Crispy Gamer: How much of the script did you actually write? Did you write every bit of dialogue for the single- and multiplayer modes, or did you just write the main story?

Stern: It was actually a group effort. For example, a lot of the lines that people throw out in the background came from [Lead Designer] Steve Fukuda. We'd have screening sessions where they'd play the game the whole way through, and there'd be places that needed a little something, so people would just pitch lines. It was usually me, [Studio Head and CoD4 Project Lead] Jason West, [Lead Designer] Mackey MacCandlish, Steve Fukuda, [Lead Designer] Zied Rieke and [Lead Multiplayer Designer] Todd Alderman. Usually, when I'd go in, it would be, "This is what we're struggling with this week." Much of that came out in testing; they were testing this game constantly. It was a pretty unique challenge.

The thing that these guys kept telling me was that they wanted to tell the story in a more cinematic way. So we'd have these really long sessions in which we'd debate everything, and usually it would end up two vs. two with one guy on the fence. In the initial meetings, I'd look around, wondering who'd settle this deadlock, and then one day I realized, "Oh, that's why they hired me: to settle these things."

Crispy Gamer: You said you had quit playing games to concentrate on your writing. Did working on Call of Duty 4 get you back into them?

Stern: Yeah, well, until the writers' strike started, I felt like I had gotten a little more stability in my writing career since I began working on "NCIS," so I've been doing a little catch-up [with games] since then. What's funny is that there would be times when I'd be talking to the Infinity Ward guys, and they'd be making references to games I'd just never heard of, so I was constantly trying to get them to talk about older games, like GoldenEye.

Crispy Gamer: How did the other writers on "NCIS" react when you told them you were working on the game?

Stern: It's funny, I asked around before I got the gig -- I had some friends who'd written things like the Spider-Man game -- just to get a general idea of what the gig would be like, and most of them felt that the role of a writer in the videogame world was not well-defined, and some had actually been frustrated by their experiences. But then again, I was a lot more excited about it. I don't think any of them had fantasized about writing a videogame when they were kids, which is something I'd done a hell of a lot.

Having said that, most of the people on the writing staff were excited, but they also thought it was funny that writing for videogames was something you could do. As a writer, it's not something you hear about a whole lot.

Crispy Gamer: Have any of your fellow striking writers asked you how to get involved in games since CoD4 came out?

Stern: Oh yeah. The strike has kind of been like "This Is Your Life;" you're constantly running into people you haven't seen for years. And I kept having friends ask me, "Did you write the new Call of Duty?" "Yeah, how'd you know?" "Well, I just cleared it and saw your name in the credits. How did you get into that?"

Crispy Gamer: How long had you been working on "NCIS" when this game came up?

Stern: I had the meeting with the Infinity Ward guys in the summer [of 2006], and took the job at "NCIS" in the fall, but I had actually written some episodes of the show earlier on. So working on the game was kind of a moonlighting gig, though it never interfered at all. The hours weren't all that brutal on either side.

Crispy Gamer: With the writers' strike going on, you're not allowed to work on anything "NCIS"-related. Does that mean you've been looking for work in the videogame realm?

Stern: Well, I hadn't really considered it before the strike started. I'd work with the Infinity Ward guys in the second, but I hadn't thought of working with anyone else. The strike definitely made me think about it and start looking for opportunities, and there have been some because I've been getting some credit for the success of the game -- which is shocking to me because the work I did on it compared to the work those guy did was very small.

It's a little sticky, though, because while videogames aren't part of the Writers Guild, there are some games that are connected to a struck company. I was talking to a friend of mine who's an executive producer on "Grey's Anatomy," and they were developing a "Grey's Anatomy" videogame before the strike happened. But when the strike started, he told them he couldn't work on the game, anymore. That was something that hit home with me. This strike is absolutely crucial and essential to maintaining the industry that we all love.

Crispy Gamer: Do you think videogame writers should be in the Writers Guild or form their own union?

Stern: In my experience, bringing in an outside writer for a game was very much like bringing in an outside consultant. You are bringing a story sense to the game, but in a very macro way; I had nothing to do with the gameplay or the multiplayer. So the role of the writer in videogames is still undefined and loose and, I imagine, probably changes from job to job, so I think it's a little early for the WGA to get involved.

In fact, the only way the WGA is involved in games now is that they do awards. So they asked us to submit our script. But we never really had a script. The closest thing we had were two- or three-page versions of the cut scenes, some notes, an outline and storyboards of what happens, and a computer file with all of the dialog. We didn't have anything as structured as what you would have with a movie or TV show.

Crispy Gamer: So have you been asked to write Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2: Electric Boogaloo? Which is what it should be called, by the way.

Stern: As far as I know, those guys had been working around the clock for two years and they're now taking the opportunity to take a break. But I think we're going to talk soon about what they want to do next.

Crispy Gamer: Has there been any talk about an "NCIS" game?

Stern: You know, there hasn't. There hadn't, I should say, because we were jokingly talking about it on set not long ago. Michael Weatherly [who plays Agent Anthony DiNozzo] had some ideas about it. We had some fun, making stuff up. But it wouldn't be a bad one out of which to make a game. If they're making a "Grey's Anatomy" game...