INCOMING TRANSMISSION, CAPTAIN. STARFLEET HEADQUARTERS PRIORITY ONE:
After our recent announcement regarding the Unreal Engine, we would like to start a new way of bringing interesting facts from the project to you. As the PR team was coming up with ideas, we found it is important for you, the fans, to get to know some of our developers, and we thought there could be no better person than Josh F, our Lead Writer for Excalibur. Here at Excalibur, we focus on bringing great content to the game. From all Star Trek experiences, the story is the most vital aspect of any Star Trek, as it creates the momentum we live in when we enjoy watching TV, a movie, or play a campaign in a game. Without further do, I would like to introduce Josh F, our Lead Writer in Excalibur.
KaneCabal: Hey Josh, thanks for taking time out of your daily schedule! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Josh F: I officially joined the Excalibur team in early 2011, after a long interview process in which applicants submitted writing samples based on prompts from the team’s existing story development materials. Fortunately, they liked my submissions enough to offer me the position of Lead Writer, and even wanted to incorporate some of my generic submission materials into the game itself. At first I worked very closely with Mark Ward (our former Creative Director) to transform the team’s abstract story concept for the Single Player campaign into a fully-developed, structured game plot with a multi-dimensional cast of characters. I have enjoyed an extraordinary amount of creative freedom, a free hand, basically, to craft the story of Excalibur. I can't begin to describe how grateful I am for that level of trust from the team, and I hope to exceed their expectations.
KaneCabal: That seems to be a very awesome way of joining the team. I can even tell myself, its great for you to be on the team! What is your current occupation beyond Excalibur?
Josh F: I live in Los Angeles, California, working as a camera technician specializing in digital cinema systems and high speed photography. That's my day job, keeping the lights burning. In the evenings I work on my writing projects including mostly television, feature film, long form narrative, and (of course) Excalibur.
KaneCabal: Despite working a great deal of time in your daily job and also in Excalibur, which would you say is your favorite game?
Josh F: I'll split my answer in half for Star Trek and non-Trek games. My favorite game of all time would probably be Half-Life 2. I had never really experienced that level of immersion and NPC interaction before, nor have I enjoyed anything like it since (except HL2's episodic sequels). You really come to care about those characters: Alyx Vance, Eli, etc., and you absolutely hate the antagonist. I was just supremely impressed by the quality of the writing. Actually so much so that I jumped at the chance to write for a video game years later, with Excalibur.
As for Trek-related games, I have to say it's a tie between Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force and Star Trek: Armada. Armada was one of my first Trek gaming experiences (not counting TNG: A Final Unity), and it really stuck with me. I appreciated the involvement of original cast members in both that game and Elite Force. Elite Force was just a superb Star Trek experience, as well as having great game design, mechanics, etc. They knocked it out of the park. That was the first (and pretty much only) time I've ever felt like I was inside a Star Trek story (okay, maybe there was a bit of that feeling in Star Trek: Klingon, but that experience was on rails and therefore more limited).
I'm one of the few members of the team who had a more limited experience with Bridge Commander, though I've since done quite a bit of research to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, just to be sure I could capture some of the feel of that game. We're doing our own thing with Excalibur, though we often compare it to games like BC and Elite Force...that's just an efficient way to explain what we're trying to accomplish. Hopefully the end product will be something you haven't seen before, at least in part.
KaneCabal: Myself I can also confirm that I liked Armada a lot. I wonder: How did you get involved with Star Trek in the first place? Shed some light into your journey of becoming a Star Trek fan.
Josh F: I've been a fan since my early years. My mother and I used to watch TOS. Our local library had the entire series on VHS. TNG was still on TV at that time. I watched it voraciously, rented a few episodes on tape, taped episodes from live TV, and wore those out. I can remember spending my own money to buy the (relatively) expensive VHS boxed set of the original films (Star Trek I - VI), which I watched all the time. I remember being incredibly excited when Deep Space Nine came out, and watched that series avidly as well. Some of my first science fiction novels were Star Trek books (TOS, TNG, and DS9).
So you could say I was hooked at an early age. I had the toys, my parents saved hundreds of hand-drawn sketches of starships, schematic style. I used to design everything from ships to hand phasers, even main bridge layouts. I was (and still am) something like a mild-mannered super fan. I only exclude myself from that group because I haven't been to conventions or dressed in costume. Immense respect for those who take it to that level. Star Trek fans are some of the most passionate people on this or any planet.
KaneCabal: Since you have seen everything about Star Trek, most fans would probably ask you this: Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, or Archer?
Josh F: Picard (Sorry, Jim). While I loved William Shatner as Kirk, and his was the first captain I ever watched on TV, I was so young that there seemed to be some kind of gap between TOS / Original Feature Films and The Next Generation. I really latched onto TNG, and subsequently Picard always felt like the quintessential Starfleet officer to me. I also enjoyed watching Sisko and Janeway, though I was not as invested in DS9 and VOY as I had been in TNG. I love Scott Bakula, but I never really felt he was the best choice to play a starship captain though. Frankly, I think the writing and overall creative decision-making during the production of Enterprise were contributing factors (beyond his control). But each to his or her own. There's no accounting for taste, after all.
KaneCabal: Since you do have very good understanding about story, how would you say Star Trek has changed within the last few years? Do not limit yourself to just movies.
Josh F: Obviously we've had the J.J. Abrams-helmed "se-boot" and its own sequel, and that creative vision has basically taken center stage since 2009. Enterprise ended in 2005, which means we've gone without a Trek series on television for a decade. After Activision lost the video game licensing rights, we also saw a huge gap in commercial releases which is why I think so many mods and fan projects have cropped up in that vacuum. Games, fan films, fan series; All of those are a product of an incredibly loyal and passionate fan base providing themselves with the sort of entertainment they continue to crave. There aren't any shows on TV right now that even vaguely resemble Star Trek. That's how much things have changed.
I was fortunate to have grown up during the golden age of Star Trek games, movies, series, toys, the whole deal. The Simon & Schuster era, when they published things like the Enterprise-D Interactive Manual, of all things. We just don't have access to detailed products like that anymore. Everything feels far more superficial. And that frustrates me. It's as if Star Trek has gone entirely mainstream, concerned only with its sense of style...like it's supposed to be a fashion statement.
I believe Star Trek was always meant to stand for something more. A way of looking at our own world, our own trials and tribulations through the lens of a distant future. An environment in which we could explore the mysteries within ourselves and each other. With space battles. That was Star Trek, to me. I hope to see it again someday. Perhaps that's why I joined Excalibur in the first place, and why I've stayed with the project through all the tough times. Excalibur is aiming high, trying to recapture that original vision of the franchise that the fans are still valiantly keeping alive in their own way.
KaneCabal: Speaking of J.J. Abrams' version of the Star Trek universe, do you think it has certain story aspects that might be interesting for your own story in Excalibur?
Josh F: In abstract ways, perhaps. Their focus on character interaction, on conflict, is something that any story needs to have. And I felt their humor, while perhaps a bit too pervasive, was well executed. There's a lot of humor in Star Trek. I think some fans tend to forget that. I appreciate those aspects of Star Trek (2009). The sequel (Into Darkness) felt like it hit the reset button for the characters...all their growth in the first film seemed to have vanished by the start of the second. At least, that was my personal reaction.
I know I'm not going with J.J.'s "mystery box" approach. That's not how I think in terms of storytelling, but I do feel I can draw some inspiration from "new" Trek. Just don't expect to see direct story tie-ins. Excalibur is set firmly in the Prime Universe, and our timeline does not take us nearly as far as the Hobus Supernova (2387), so there will not be opportunities for the two universes to intersect in any meaningful way. Any future J.J.-verse content would rest solely on the shoulders of the fan community.
KaneCabal: Let's go back to Excalibur: As much as I know what you do, tell the fans what you do regarding the Excalibur project.
Josh F: I am the Lead Writer, and head of Story/Character Development. That basically means I am responsible for all story, character, and lore development for the Single Player campaign, and any ancillary game modules, whenever needed. I not only create characters for the principle and supporting casts, but also NPCs (Non-Playable Characters), and the dialogue for those characters. Ideally I will be able to expand the size of the writing team when we hit full speed development on the SP campaign, allowing me to focus on the main story while other writers flesh out the many NPC and procedural elements we hope to feature in the finished game.
As I said before, I've been given a great deal of room in which to work concerning the Excalibur Single Player campaign and its characters. The interesting thing about writing for an interactive medium has been the degree to which story and gameplay depend on each other. I had never worked on anything so interrelated before. While it can be very difficult, it's also a great challenge, and I've enjoyed having the opportunity to contribute to game design beyond simply putting dialogue on a page, or crafting biographies for original characters. The Excalibur team is also very, very flexible and open to suggestions from all its members when it comes to overall game design. That's another reason I think so many of us have stayed with the project for so long.
KaneCabal: While writing the main story, what inspirations do you take to create the story? Do you draw more on canon series like The Next Generation, or more unofficial story aspects?
Josh F: I rely on screen canon first, and secondary or tertiary canon second (or third, respectively). That means you'll definitely see familiar elements and references from TNG and DS9 (and perhaps VOY, where appropriate) in the Excalibur story, but don't expect to encounter Mackenzie of Calhoun (as we're essentially ignoring that "other" U.S.S. Excalibur, and her adventures). I've gone all the way back to the original Constitution-class U.S.S. Excalibur featured in TOS to create the lineage of the ship. I've also spent a great deal of time creating her command crew, as if I were planning the principle cast of a "sequel" series for TNG. This approach will hopefully help us to revive that feeling of camaraderie and family that the Trek television series embraced, only now with a clear interactive component to the fan experience.
Having said all this regarding canon, we do plan on incorporating elements of fan design into the game. One key example of this is the selection of the Century-class for the U.S.S. Excalibur, with the blessing and support of the Century's creator, D. J. Curtis. So, bottom line, while we care deeply about canon and staying true to the spirit of Star Trek, and Gene Roddenberry's vision, we aren't afraid to move the ball down the field, so to speak. To channel Q, the alternative (playing it safe) would just be...boring.
KaneCabal: Just recently the team announced the switch from Evolved to Unreal. How does this switch affect your story writing? Are there any new tools that you can use to create a more immersive story?
Josh F: I've decided to briefly pause story development while I evaluate the greater degree of creative freedom we are anticipating with Unreal Engine 4. As I said before, writing for a video game requires a great deal of interactive design consideration, and with a new engine come new design features and tools. There are so many dialogue system options, for example, already available as plugins that could greatly expand our ability to execute the story as written, not to mention custom game elements we are fully capable of developing on our own...I have no doubt we'll be able to realize an immersive, original Star Trek adventure. Assuming, of course, we can recruit enough developers as we move into active development of the SP campaign.
Frankly, I don't think that will be a problem. The community has been incredibly supportive of this transition, and the project as a whole. I think potential developers will be excited to get involved in the implementation of the story of Excalibur once we're ready to bring it to life.
KaneCabal: Let's take a look at your writing part. As you probably know, most writers have some sort of a writers block. Does that happen to you when writing the story?
Josh F: It happens. But it's usually not so much a block as various paths...only one of which is the correct way forward with a particular plot element or character arc. Determining which choice is correct (especially in an interactive story with many potential choices at various points in the overall plot) can be difficult, and take time to resolve. The trick is to keep at it and not give up. Or give in to discouragement. Eventually you always find a solution to a problem if you look hard enough.
KaneCabal: Now, not trying to dig too much into here, but is there anything you can tell us about the story, or are we in danger of being assimilated by the borg, thrown into a brig, condemned by Section 31, or even worse, get a delivery of tribbles?
Josh F: *laughs* Well, I can tell you the Borg aren't in it, so I think you're safe as far as assimilation is concerned. That may disappoint some fans, but the team and I felt that the Borg have been featured so many times in Trek gaming that their inclusion in Excalibur's story might too easily become a crutch. We wanted to avoid that. The game is predominantly set post-Star Trek: Nemesis (though not terribly long after the events of that film). There will be framing sequences set during the Dominion War, which are crucial to the audience's understanding of the protagonist and his relationship to other major characters and events in the game. I can give you a basic premise:
The U.S.S. Excalibur and her captain are ordered to lead a joint Federation-Romulan mission into the Neutral Zone to investigate the disappearance of the U.S.S. Titan, which was on a diplomatic mission to Romulus before vanishing on her return journey. The fragile new Romulan civilian government, propped up by its military, has proven more open to strengthening diplomatic ties with the Federation than ever before, even accepting outside humanitarian aid for the first time in history. We begin to understand just how extensively Shinzon's coup d'état weakened the Romulan Star Empire as a whole, and how precariously balanced its power structure remains. Our protagonist is dropped right in the middle of this seething political cauldron, faced with not only a potential tragedy and interstellar incident, but also the prospect of a broader conflict that could threaten the entire Alpha Quadrant.
That's sort of the dust jacket synopsis. There's a lot more to it, and I can't wait to see it really come alive. After almost five years of writing and dreaming, I feel like we're finally getting close.
KaneCabal: Josh, thank you so much again for taking your time to take part of this interview. I believe the fans and I have a greater understanding of who you are, what you do, and what your role in Excalibur is. I better let you get back to writing an immersive story.
Let us know, you the fans, what you would like to hear about!