The Star Wars movies are rarity when it comes to sci-fi; not only do they appeal to the hardcore geeks of the world, they’ve also managed to make hardcore fans out of many a skeptic (myself among them) through their combination of strong stories, powerful visuals, and a romantic sense of adventure.
In the creative industry, however, the Star Wars films offer something more. Science fiction authors from around the world struggle for the honor of contributing to the Star Wars Expanded Universe; and those who work in the games industry try to leave their own mark, often creating critically acclaimed, best-selling games in the process – which brings us to Drew Karpyshyn.
For those unaware of Karpyshyn’s rather spectacular résumé, he’s the Lead Writer at Canadian gaming giant BioWare and has worked on every BioWare release since Baldur’s Gate 2, including Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. If being a primary contributor to an award-winning developer wasn’t enough, Karpyshyn is also an accomplished novelist, having written books based off BioWare properties, in the Forgotten Realms fantasy setting and, of course, his two Star Wars novels: Darth Bane: Path of Destruction and Darth Bane: Rule of Two. Not a bad effort for someone that didn’t really know where his career was headed.
“Honestly, I was looking at becoming a university professor,” Karpyshyn tells me during a recent interview. “I had tried a number of different careers, and nothing really interested me. I wanted to be a writer, but I figured I needed a ‘real’ job to fall back on, so I went back to school to continue my education. However, the only things that interested me were English and other Fine Arts programs … not the best ways to make a living, unless you’re willing to teach. It wasn’t my ideal career, but I didn’t see any other options at the time.”
That other option came about thanks to a fluke case of being in the right place at the right time: “I was working on my master’s degree in English at the University of Alberta when I noticed a small ad in the English Department newsletter. All it said was ‘Edmonton-based videogame developer looking for writers to work on Forgotten Realms (Dungeons and Dragons) roleplaying game.’ At the time I hadn’t heard of BioWare, but I had played videogames and Dungeons and Dragons during my younger years, so it sounded like an interesting opportunity. I was also under contract to write a Forgotten Realms setting novel for Wizards of the Coast, so it seemed like a natural fit.”
“I expected to find six guys working in a basement somewhere,” he laughs, “and all I was hoping for was a few weeks of contract work to earn some extra spending cash. Instead, I discovered a company of nearly 100 employees with the first Baldur’s Gate game already under their belts. Naturally, when they offered me a full-time job I jumped at the paycheck, dropped out of school and here I am.”
After working as a writer on Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadow of Amn and its expansion pack, Throne of Bhaal, Karpyshyn became Lead Writer for Knights of the Old Republic, considered by many to be the definitive Star Wars gaming experience.
“We knew right away we wanted to explore something new in the Star Wars universe,” Karpyshyn replies when asked about the unique setting of KOTOR. “We also knew that if we created a game set before the movies we’d have more creative freedom, so we began exploring existing Old Republic settings. We did a lot of research, and finally came up with a spot on the timeline that gave us the freedom we needed, but also fit into the existing Star Wars universe.”
“Working with James Ohlen [Lead Designer] and Casey Hudson [Project Director/Producer] we developed the entire main storyline – as well as the main characters – for the game. I also wrote the critical path and several party members, and I worked with the other writers [David Gaider, Peter Thomas and Luke Kristjanson] to make sure we maintained a consistency of style throughout all the different worlds, areas and events of the game.”
Many players (myself included) were blown away by the “big twist” in KOTOR – that the main character was also the villain of the story. I asked Karpyshyn how this concept came about. “The basic core – you as the player were actually the main villain – was there very early on. I’m not positive, but I believe it was James Ohlen who first came up with that idea. But the details evolved very slowly over time: We considered a Sith ritual gone wrong, a cloning experiment and finally settled on the Jedi ‘reprogramming.’ In the end we knew – as with most ideas – it was all about how it was set up and presented that would make it work.”
Interestingly enough, the idea of a “cloning experiment” as the main storyline couldn’t go ahead due to the fact that LucasArts felt the concept was too close to that of the as-yet unreleased Attack of the Clones. This highlights one of the key difficulties of working with someone else’s intellectual property: playing by their rules.
I asked Karpyshyn to elaborate on the pros and cons of working with an established IP versus your own universe: “The biggest positive is the built-in audience. It gives you a safety net, both financially and creatively. We were all Star Wars fans, so we knew what the SW audience was looking for: We understood the kind of emotional experiences that would resonate with the fans. This allowed us to craft the story to hit those emotional triggers – it helped us stay focused.”
“In contrast,” he says, “working on an original IP like Mass Effect comes with much greater freedom; you can do anything you want – including killing off key characters – and you don’t have to worry about stepping on the toes of other projects that may be in the pipeline. However, there is a greater risk, because you’re never exactly sure what elements of a new IP will click with the audience.”
The limitations of working with someone else’s IP haven’t hurt Karpyshyn’s writing career. Besides writing Revelation and the upcoming Ascension, based in BioWare’s own Mass Effect universe, Karpyshyn has also written novels in Wizards of the Coasts’ Forgotten Realms setting (Temple Hill and Throne of Bhaal) and, of course, in the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
Considering that writing in the Expanded Universe is a privilege granted to very few writers, I asked him just what it was he had to do to get his foot in the door: “I actually approached Lucas Books and asked them if they had any openings for me. My experience on KOTOR, plus my two Forgotten Realms novels … convinced them that I could deliver the quality they were looking for, so they added me to a list of potential authors. When they decided to do a new novel set in the Old Republic, they figured I was the logical choice. That led to Darth Bane: Path of Destruction, and the fan reaction was positive enough that they asked me to write the sequel, Darth Bane: Rule of Two.”
For those who don’t know, the titular Darth Bane is the old Sith Lord that came up with the “Rule of Two,” the rule that shaped the events of the Star Wars movies by only having one Sith Master and one Sith Apprentice (the obvious example being the Emperor and Darth Vader) – pretty important stuff by anyone’s standards!
Karpyshyn expressed his surprise over being given such an important character to work with in his first Star Wars novel: “Originally I proposed a much smaller story focusing on an otherwise anonymous character within the Sith … I didn’t actually think they’d let me use anyone as important as Darth Bane except in a minor role. But when my editors saw the proposal, they asked me if I could come up with something that was more epic – they wanted a story that helped change the galaxy forever. Of course, I was thrilled to be given so much freedom, and Darth Bane was the logical choice of protagonist.”
The obvious question to ask someone who is both an accomplished game writer and novelist would be: How does writing for the two mediums compare to each other? It’s a question close to Karpyshyn’s heart, and he answered it in some depth. “I find there are a couple major differences between the two [media]. The first is in the final product: Games – at least, BioWare games – tend to have a much broader and far-reaching scope than any novel. Take KOTOR: we had nine major characters who could join the party, hundreds of people you could meet and roughly 500,000 words of dialogue – about the equivalent of five full novels. However, because the player is in control of major sections of the story, a game is forced to deal with things on a more superficial level.”
“We don’t know what order players are going to visit our worlds,” he continues, “or which choices they are going to make. Because of this, we sacrifice complexity to maintain control of the story. Conversely, in a novel the author has complete control. Every move by every character is known well in advance, allowing the author to spin a very complicated, intricate story that digs way, way down into the core of the major characters. In short, games are wide and far reaching but the story tends to stay more on the surface, while novels are much more limited in focus but incredibly deep.”
The other major difference is in the creative process itself. “A novel is a very individual effort: the author sinks or swims on his or her own merits alone … in the end the book is quite clearly a reflection of my own personal vision. A game involves creative input from hundreds of people [and] the end product is a reflection of a group vision, with every person contributing in their own way. In a game, you sacrifice some creative control for the sense of community that comes from sharing and building your ideas with other talented and creative people.”
Whether talking about his award-winning work at BioWare, his best-selling efforts as an author or the indelible mark he has left upon the Star Wars Expanded Universe, it’s impossible to deny that Drew Karpyshyn – former truck driver, loan officer, and almost-English professor – has become a Jedi Master of his craft.
Tim Sweeney is a burgeoning freelance journalist, author, and lover of everything “geek.” His personal blog, “The Evil Wombat’s Lair,” can be found at http://evilwombat.wordpress.com