Every once in a while, Scottish comic book writer Grant Morrison hangs out with some of his countrymen who make the "Grand Theft Auto" games. They're impressed with him. They're really impressed.
"I've met those guys a bunch of times," Morrison said during a phone interview from his home in Glasgow last week. "One of them e-mailed his friends from my home: 'I'm sitting on Grant Morrison's toilet.' "
Who is this man with the impressive commode? And why, if game developers are so bowled over by him, does he think no one wants to make the video game he designed three years ago? And, oh yeah, aside from that lack of appreciation, could he save the gaming industry from bad video game movies?
Morrison is one of the top comic book writers of the last two decades, author of acclaimed and often bizarre personal work such as "The Invisibles" and "The Filth," along with well-received runs on "X-Men," "Justice League," and currently, "Superman" and "Batman." He's one of the medium's more experimental writers, authoring the strange adventures of characters like the military-made killer pets We3 and the animal-rights-advocate superhero Animal Man — who spent one adventure meeting with Morrison, asking for his family to be brought back to life. Last year, Morrison wrapped up an epic called "Seven Soldiers," a set of seven miniseries about seven members of a superhero team who never meet each other. He does unusual stuff.
A few years ago, he was given a chance to make an impact on video games. He was asked to write a script for the 2003 Xbox game "Battlestar Galactica." Morrison dove in to provide some depth to the tale of war between humans and enemy Cylons. "I had come up with whole storylines and was trying to do more emotional stuff," he said. "The missions were more weird. You had to find an [alien] brain and feed it sugar so it would come alive and tell you where to go next. There was a bunch of weird stuff in it, all based on slightly biblical quests transferred to science fiction. ... I was trying to capture that feeling: the burning bush and prophecy and a young guy's journey through this terrible Cylon deception where they build an alternative planet Earth. And none of that survived. It might have made a good movie, but as a game nothing of the story survived at all."
His work may have been cut, but Morrison got a second chance. Vivendi Universal asked him to flesh out an idea they had for a "Predator" game set in both the gangster heyday of 1930s U.S. and 100 years later. "I added a bunch of stuff about the Predators being nomadic and I made the gangs a bit more weird." He doesn't know what made it in because he was never sent a copy of the final script and he's never played the game through. The game, 2004's "Predator: Concrete Jungle," was panned by the critics.
By the time "Concrete Jungle" came out, Morrison was souring on games. He told interviewers that he would continue to write games, but no one else came knocking and he got the sense that no one in gaming wanted his mad ideas. "Games is a lot more controlled than, say, something like comics where a weird but wild idea can be easily expressed and quite cheap to produce," he said.
Morrison wanted to do more. He'd been playing games since the early '90s, starting with a Sega Genesis and continued to a Nintendo 64 and the full run of PlayStations. He became interested in big-city games, itching for more chances to explore the terrain in the first "Driver," welcoming such expansion in the evolving "Grand Theft Auto" series, but also wishing the places he could play in were just a bit weirder.
"I started thinking it would be a lot more fun if they created a city that was part Edinburgh [Scotland], part New York, where you had something really weird and a lot more dreamlike — which to me would have been much more interesting, to go to those cities you have in your dreams which are a bit more like Gotham City or something, rather than just re-create New York."
So he designed a game that would solve that. He called it "Citizen Death" and describes it as "my own attempt to do my own dream version of what one of these things should be like." After "Predator," he briefly considered shopping it around. "I wrote this huge thing breaking down the whole game into segments and levels. The idea was to create a city that was really immersive. You could go into places and really unusual things might happen if you go into certain stores. You go into one place and you can learn voodoo from the proprietor of the store, and then have to go on missions involving that. The vehicles you could actually get were more interesting, like UFOs, flying saucers and boots that would allow you to bounce around over skyscrapers. For me it was just to stretch all the boundaries of what they do in these games, to make it more like a comic and more fantastical."
He told a couple of people in the games industry about it. They weren't interested. "It was kind of an admission that things were as they were and the money men wanted it a certain a way," he said. "There wasn't a big interest in novelty. They seemed more interested in working on formulas that had worked in the past."
So Morrison the aspiring game maker reverted to Morrison the game player. He's bought himself an Xbox 360 and PS3. He plays PSP. He recently got caught up in the open-jungle action-hero game "Just Cause." Games people haven't been calling. Occasionally he does hang with those "GTA" guys from Rockstar. "When we hang out with them there have been a couple of times when my wife Kristan asks, 'Do you want Grant to write [for the 'GTA' games]' and they say 'Oh, no.' "
So what's a guy to do? He thinks games are important. He sees the motion-control of the Wii and the popularity of online games as signs of human advance and upcoming virtual reality. "Games are just a leading edge of something the human race is about to do, which is like putting a human soul into an electric brain." He wants this soon. "I want lots of sci-fi toys," he said. His "Invisibles" epic wrapped up with the revelation that the story was really one big video-game-style alternate reality, produced in aerosol form and inhaled by people in the future. He fancies that kind of tomorrow.
Morrison remains, however, mostly on gaming's outside. He recently tackled his first game-related assignment in years, working on a film script for the Hollywood adaptation of "Area 51." "They asked me because I was familiar with the mythology of 'Area 51,' " he said. He played some of the game. He watched the "Doom" movie, "which was everything I didn't want to do," as an anti-inspiration. "In a game you don't have to empathize with your character," he said. "All you have to do is play them. In a movie you have to care if they live or die." Morrison wants the audience to care, but he won't divulge details yet about how he hopes that can happen.
Maybe he can help save video game movies. Maybe the gaming world will show some appreciation — at least some of them like his toilet. And for the record, it's not a sci-fi toilet. It flushes. It doesn't do anything special. It's normal.
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