VGL Classic: John Scalzi and the Old Man’s War

This article is from the original batch of Video Game Librarian articles I wrote for Gaming Target between 2005 and 2007. It was originally written on May 26, 2006.

I first came across John Scalzi’s name in Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine. I nearly did a spit take when I was thumbing through the Spin section of the magazine and saw what I initially thought was my own name listed as the author of the DVD and music reviews. I did a little digging (who was this man who almost had my name after all?) and found his Whatever weblog and became a fan.

Fast forward a few years and I see Old Man’s War sitting on the shelf at the library. It has been in my pile of books to read almost since it was released. But when my fiancee showed me that the sequel (The Ghost Brigades) had just come out, I figured it was time to get cracking on the original.

While I’ll be the first to admit that the name thing was part of the reason why I first picked up Old Man’s War, I also thought the premise of the book was different. You see in the future, humanity has colonized the stars. But colonies will always need soldiers to protect them from native people who may not want to be colonized and from other worlds that might want to challenge your claim to a specific piece of land. That’s where the Colonial Defense Force (CDF) comes in. The CDF knows the value of an experienced soldier. So if you so choose, on your 75th birthday you can join up and the CDF will give you a new body and send you to the stars to fight for the colonies.

What follows is a fast paced and humorous sci-fi yarn through old age, new life, action, adventure, boot camp, bug hunting and just plain fun. But I don’t want to oversell it. What I want to do is mention that in addition to thinking it’s an amazing book, I also noticed that Old Man’s War has the potential to be a huge video game. Now if you had plans to read the book, I suggest you hit the Back button on your browser right now because I’m going to be diving pretty deep into the plot here.

Still with me? Good, let’s move on.

While sending senior citizens on an interstellar bug hunt might make for some high comedy, it would make a very short sci-fi adventure. So Scalzi needed a way to make the old folks young again and to do that he puts them in modified humanoid bodies that feature the full superhuman options package. And these options would make any Old Man’s War video game a very fun place indeed.

Starting at the most basic level, all soldiers in the CDF have enhanced strength, speed, stamina and sex appeal. The modifications mean these recruits no longer have blood coursing through their veins; they have SmartBlood, a chemical compound that instantly clots wounds to keep up battlefield readiness and carries twice as much oxygen to the brain compared to a normal human for extended underwater tours of duty.

When on the battlefield, their weaponry is standard hero star soldier stuff along with one awesome gun. Each soldier is equipped with a nanobot-mesh suit that absorbs enemy fire so they can take a licking and keep on ticking. But while body armor is standard fare for most sci-fi, the MP-35, the standard issue rifle of the CDF, is in a class by itself.

Most gamers will tell you that the big problem with any first person shooter is that the main character can carry eight different guns and still move like he only had one. Even if you’re blasting the denizens of hell or Covenant soldiers, that’s just plain unrealistic. The MP-35 solves this problem by using an “ammo block” of nanobots that can turn the MP-35 into a rifle, shotgun, grenade launcher, rocket launcher, flamethrower or a Microwave Laser on the fly. Scalzi even includes a conversion chart in the book to show how the ammo block can be distributed between the six weapons. But how do you control such a weapon? That’s where the BrainPal comes in.

The BrainPal is an organic computer implanted into every soldier’s brain that places a Heads-Up Display (HUD) in front of each soldier that includes an aiming reticule, highlighted targets, distance markers and mission information. It’s mapped almost perfectly to every FPS HUD out there. It is also a mini-computer, a communications device between you and your squadmates and an alien translation device. It and the MP-35 are almost every gamemaker’s dream for an explanation of why things work the way they do in a game.

But it’s not all small details and similarities that make Old Man’s War a great book for an adaptation. Like most military novels, the narrative moves forward in a video-game like way. First you have your Basic Training/wargames, then you have your early battles where you’re just a cog in the machine and then comes the ultimate test of a soldier’s resolve and training. These battles take place against a variety of slimy (and not so slimy) aliens that would make George Lucas proud.

There’s the Consu, humanoid aliens with two arms, two legs and actual shoulder blades that extend out of their necks like a scorpion’s tail. The Salong look like humanized deer that fight against humanity because they think we taste good in hamburger form. The Rraey are birdlike aliens that also have a penchant for human meat. The Vindi are giant spider-like creatures and the Gandalians have big guns, big wings and big fangs… for eating humans.

If all the human eating didn’t clue you in, Old Man’s War also has a pretty wicked sense of humor, one of the things that I think is greatly missing from video games. Perry himself is a pretty funny guy and he even named his BrainPal “Asshole”. While it might take an M rating to get most of the humor into the game, it would be worth it.

So between all of the action, the aliens and the humor there’s a base for a pretty good game here. I recently talked with John Scalzi about his thoughts on Old Man’s War and how it might work as a game, among other topics.

Video Game Librarian: A lot of reviews (and your own acknowledgements) have mentioned the influence Heinlen had on Old Man’s War. But did you also find any inspiration in your video game collection?

John Scalzi: Not directly — which is to say that there’s no particular video game that I “borrowed” from for the story or for the action. However, one place where video games inspired me was in their kineticism — the idea of a whole bunch of things happening all at once and the soldiers in the stories having to adapt to the changing situations on the fly. Anyone who has played a first person shooter (with any success) understands what it is like to draw down information from the entire environment and react it instantly — my wife has seen me play Unreal Tournament Team Deathmatch and finds it (no pun intended) unreal that I will target an opposing team member who is only a few pixels on the screen and move on to the next target in rapid order while she’s still trying to figure out what’s going on.

This video game analog of combat is not necessarily what happens in real combat, of course. But when is trying to create a fast-paced action scene for readers, it’s one model of combat orchestration among many to draw on.

VGL: The MP-35, body armor and BrainPal all seem to be patterned after some common game concepts. Was this a concious choice?

Scalzi: No; their direct antecedents were from literary science fiction rather than video games. Body armor, for example, has been a staple of science fiction since Starship Troopers and John Steakley’s novel Armor, and video games took those ideas from there (as well as from other sources, most notably anime and film) and made them staple metaphors. So it’s not surprising there are similarities. One thing I did try to do, in fact, is not to have the analogs in the books exactly like what we’re used to in video games. The BrainPal doesn’t map precisely to a HUD, for example, and the unitards of the CDF soldiers look nothing like the body armor of Master Chief.

I will say that the MP-35 was in a small way inspired by video games, in that it’s my solution to the video game improbability of one player lugging around a rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher, grenade launcher, flame thrower and BFG and still being able to move. There are some games that address this by limiting your weapons, but it’s still a common thing in FPS’ even in ones that are otherwise reasonably realistic (Half-Life 2 comes to mind here).

VGL: Has anyone ever approached you (or your agent) about the possibility of optioning the rights to Old Man’s War for a video game?

Scalzi: Not yet, but that’s not too surprising. The book has done pretty well for a debut science fiction novel — it’s hit a few best-seller lists and it’s been nominated for some awards — but it’s still a debut science fiction novel. We’re still in the process of people discovering that it’s out there. There are other SF authors out there with best-selling military SF books which have not been made into games; if I were a game developer looking to license a game I probably start with people like Orson Scott Card, John Ringo, David Drake, before getting back to me.

Anecdotally, SF books don’t seem like a really prime resource for game developers; I’ve seen a couple over the years (starting with the Infocom version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) but in all not a whole lot. The ones that *do* get turned into video games tend to be so only if there’s a movie version somewhere; a good example of that is the Starship Troopers game, and that’s based rather more on the movie than the book. This is a shame because there are a lot of excellent universes out there in the book world, which would make really excellent video games.

That said, I would be more than happy to entertain offers.

VGL: Is there any developer out there that you’d prefer to try their hand at an adaptation?

Scalzi: I have no particular preference toward developers other than to note that the shop I would think has arguably the best grasp on what it would be like to adapt a science fiction book to a game may be Valve, because Half-Life and Half-Life 2 were written by a science fiction author (Marc Laidlaw), and both games have a story and detail density that shows that pedigree. I’m fond of saying to people that I go back and “re-read” the Half-Life games quite a lot. But there’s no reason another shop couldn’t do the same thing.

VGL: Do you have any thoughts on what you’d like an Old Man’s War game to be like?

Scalzi: I’d want it to be a first person shooter, because I think that’s a natural fit. I’d also like it to reflect something that I note in the book, which is that because so many of the alien species the soldiers fight are so different from each other, they need a whole range of skills to fight them all, and the techniques that work against on species wouldn’t work against others. I think that’d offer a lot of variety in game play and would help make the game stand out from other FPS games.

VGL: You’ve contributed three books to the Rough Guides series. Have you ever thought about penning The Rough Guide to Video Games?

Scalzi: Not recently. One of the challenges to a book like that is the platform-dependent nature of games; unlike old movies or old music albums, a lot of old video games are now practically inaccessible to the average player (not everyone knows how to open up game ROMs through MAME, etc, or has an old 3DO system moldering in the closet). And of course given book publishing deadlines, a book focusing on current games would be outdated almost immediately. I think there’s a way to write a guidebook to video games so that it’s useful, but at the moment I haven’t spent much time thinking about it myself.

VGL: You always seem to be working on eight things at once. What’s on your plate right now?

Scalzi: Yes, it looks like I’m working on eight things at once, but I’m actually working on ten! At the moment I’m writing the third book in the “Old Man” series, researching the novel I’m writing after that, prepping two non-fiction books (the writing is done, but there’s still editing), writing up an article on LEGOs for a magazine I freelance for, putting the finishing touches on a science fiction magazine I’m guest-editing, writing up columns for Official US PlayStation Magazine and for my local newspaper, serving as the “mayor” of AOL’s blogging initiative AOL Journals and writing for my own site, The Whatever. The reason to do all these things is that as a freelance writer, one has to be doing a whole lot of things at once or the mortgage won’t get paid. That’s marvelously motivating.

VGL: Did you see anything come out of this year’s E3 that really amazed you?

Scalzi: I’m really interested to see how taken people are with Nintendo’s Wii. I think a lot of folks are suffering from PS3 sticker shock, and suddenly the cuter, cheaper Wii looks like a whole lot of fun. Ironically, I take the currently minority position that Sony is right that $600 is not too much to spend for what it is offering (a game system and a next-generation DVD player), and I’m interested to see how Sony positions this between now and November. As for games: Look, I just want to get me some of that Unreal Tournament 2007 action.

VGL: Finally, are there any books you’ve read recently that you think could be turned into great games?

Scalzi: Ironically, I’m not reading a whole lot of military SF at the moment (I tend not to read it when I’m writing one of my own books in the genre), which is the segment of SF I think most easily maps to video gaming. Having said that, one book I’ve read recently which I think might make a cool 3rd person RPG would be Paragaea by Chris Roberson. It takes places on a world that looks back to the worlds imagined by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which means there’s a lot of opportunity for game designers to go nuts building the world. That would be cool.

VGL: So there you have it. John Scalzi is a man among geeks and I want to thank him for his time and encourage everyone that’s reading this to go out and buy all of his books. You won’t be disappointed. Unless you are. But remember to yell at him (Scalzi with an I) and not me (Scalzo with an O). The third novel in the Old Man’s series, The Last Colony, will be released next year.

More on the M-Rated Barrier
In the last Video Game Librarian, I remarked that while libraries in my area weren’t buying Mature-rated games yet, someone was going to buy 24: The Game because they would never guess it was M-rated. Well, a week after the article was posted, another library did just that. So now that the M-Rated Barrier has been, inadvertantly, broken, is anyone up for some GTA?