How Oscar Winner Stephen Gaghan Learned The Art Of Interactive Storytelling On “Call Of Duty: Ghosts”

Stephen Gaghan, the writer behind Traffic and Syriana, joined Activision to create Call of Duty: Ghosts. We talk to him about the process of writing for games, working with developers, and how games will change how he makes movies.

How Oscar Winner Stephen Gaghan Learned The Art Of Interactive Storytelling On “Call Of Duty: Ghosts”

Stephen Gaghan figured out the hard way that writing games is not like writing films. As a screenwriter who is used to crafting layered scenes with revealing dialog he found that such an approach doesn’t always work in the world of games, where the story has to serve the action and player experience.


“You go to your computer and you write in Final Draft. And you are like, ‘I’ve done it! I love this scene! It’s so awesome!’ It’s five pages. It’s so emotional,” says Gaghan. “You wander down the hall and you talk to everybody and they’re like, ‘That’s awesome. Now do it in five lines.'”

Stephen Gaghan

Having written the films Rules of Engagement and Syriana (he also did an early rewrite of Black Hawk Down), the Oscar-winning writer of Traffic has a body of work that served him well for taking on the role of writer for Call Of Duty: Ghosts. The 10th main installment of the franchise, released November 5, centers on a team of special forces warriors fighting a South American alliance known as the Federation.

“You are servicing a lot of stuff,” Gaghan says of writing his multi-narrative films. “And because you are crosscutting between intense things, you don’t have a ton of time to establish who people are, to build dynamics between characters. You have to be really efficient. You are constantly compacting with gestures and making dialogue evocative of who people are in the best way you can. I thought that was really applicable to games,” says Gaghan.

Gaghan got involved with Activision and its monster military franchise–more than $1 billion in sales annually–due to happenstance. Gaghan says, “It was a friend’s baby shower in Topanga Canyon. I found myself in a conversation with Thomas Tippl, one of the top executives at Activision. And I found myself in a long discussion about Call of Duty and games that I played. I was asking a lot of questions about where the technology was going to go. I knew what next gen was going to look like, but I wondered if you were really going to be able to get emotion in the eyes, because that’s what cinema is.”

In what sounds like a typical Hollywood tale, months later there came a series of lunches. First, Gaghan had lunch with Eric Hirshberg, the CEO of Activision Publishing, and talked about video games and storytelling in games. Then later came a lunch with Dave Stohl, the studio head at Activision, and Scott Pease, director of Development at Neversoft, the developers behind Call of Duty‘s Black Ops games.

Out of that conversation about the military game series, he made to trip to see Neversoft and game developer Infinity Ward. He gave a presentation to the leads and designers there about war movies and storytelling. And even later he went in for another presentation, now with most of the studio there, where the tone was quite different.


“It was kind of scary, because that’s always when the rubber hits the road. It was all kind of fun and happy and vague, and suddenly it’s not vague and not fun and not as happy. It’s very specific: ‘If I was working on this, this is how I would think about it, this is the kind of stuff I would try to achieve.’ ” says Gaghan. “It was kind of an audition, mostly for me, but a little bit for them, because I wasn’t 100% sure what I was going to do. But the conversation was really fun and it was exciting. And I liked the people a lot, most importantly.”

So, as he tells it, it happened gradually and then all at once. Lunches, then presentations, and then finally came the proposal. Gaghan said he would love to work on the game and decided to embed himself into Infinity Ward, not unlike a war correspondent embedding himself with an army unit to report on a war. They had initially asked him to come up to the office every once in a while. Gaghan’s response? ” ‘I want an office–I want to be on the floor–and I will come every day.’ They were like, ‘Right. Sure you will.’ So I got this office up there. At first they were like, ‘Oh look, Gaghan’s here! Oh shit, Gaghan’s here again!’ And pretty soon it was like, ‘How do we get that Gaghan out of here?’ I am still there Friday at 9:00, there on the weekends. I just enjoyed it.”

So Gaghan became part of the team. He joined up because he was a fan of the series, because his 13-year-old son was a gamer who loved the Call of Duty games and because he thought he could contribute something. “If you are trying to imagine where a huge antagonist could come out of South America that could threaten America, in a plausible way, I felt like I knew,” said Gaghan. “I had given a lot of thought to American Empire. It’s just something I’m interested in. Syriana was a lot about the nature of American Empire. I had lots of time with and read a lot of books about that stuff.”

Once he was in house, the marked difference between the process of creating a game and a film really hit him. There was no all-powerful director who determined everything. He realized that game creation is more like a collaboration between entire troupe of indie filmmakers. “A designer comes up with their own idea for a level, something that came to them in a moment of inspiration. And so they are building it. You are helping them in a way, ‘What about this or what about this? Or here’s the macro of what we are trying to achieve,'” says Gaghan. “So you are working with 25 auteurs. They are writers/directors and they are making something. And you have to find a way to collaborate.”

Then there were the practicalities of writing for an interactive medium. It requires being short and precise with dialogue. You had to be serving the action. And the levels flow quickly, with a lot happening each time the game loads the next section. Gaghan says, “I know what happened in Black Hawk Down. I sat with the Delta guys that were there on the ground. I talked with them about their experience. And I talked with people that were right along side the guys that got the Medal of Honor. The entire experience of Black Hawk Down would be like half a level in Ghosts.”

And then there is the storytelling challenge that comes from the fact that it is a first-person-game, controlled by a player who decides what she wants to see. “In filmmaking language, you’d say, ‘The film is going to be subjective, so you seeing the film through the main character’s P.O.V. And now we are just going to let that guy look at whatever he wants and run wherever he wants,'” says Gaghan. “Pick any great movie, like The Fugitive. Harrison Ford has decided he is not going after the one-armed man. He’s decided to go to Brazil and go surfing. You can run off in different directions. That’s the single greatest challenge, to have that freedom for the player and that kind of excitement that comes from being able to make those decisions, but also have them inside a world that is cohesive.”


That freedom means a game’s narrative has to rely on redundancies. “You can’t be 100% certain the player is going to look at the clue you want to deliver. You can’t be certain they will hear it in the violence of battle. You have to say, ‘We are not going to get it all in this one spot; we are going come at it in five levels, in nine places. So we are going to have a brushstroke here and a brushstroke there.’ The accumulation of that will hopefully give you a more meaningful character and a more meaningful ride through the game,” says Gaghan.

Despite the complications of putting together a game narrative, Gaghan says the immediate nature of creating a game appealed to him. After the glacial pace of developing a movie, then filming, and then post-production and distribution, working on Ghosts was just … fast. “The average length of development for a Hollywood film is nine years. This is quite different. You have an idea at 9:00 in the morning, you put it together, you go into a theater at 11:00. There are video storyboards being projected for the idea, there are 30 people troubleshooting or calling bullshit on the idea or saying that they love it. And three days later you are looking at it. That’s exciting to me. I’ve never been involved in a process like this,” says Gaghan.

Gaghan’s enthusiasm for the gamemaking is palpable. And he wants to do it again. He says he has an idea for a game that came to him over the course of working on Ghosts. But first, he is thinking about how to make his next movie. He really enjoyed the collaborative mood at Infinity Ward and the trust everyone gave to one another.

“In most of the creative experiences I’ve been involved in, it’s been a vertical experience, in that there’s a hierarchy. There no hierarchy here. It’s more of a big playing field. People are working really hard and things are rising all across the field. It’s really invigorating. It’s also fraught with peril: an enormous amount of communication has to happen to make sure that everybody’s best ideas fit into the best game,” said Gaghan.

Next, Gaghan will be directing Candy Store, a film he wrote about crime in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. He plans to make this one differently. “I think that movies can learn from games by fostering independent inspiration and having room for more people to have a bigger impact. I am going to make a movie in the spring and I am going to empower the production designer, the cinematographer,” said Gaghan. “I am going to leave a lot of room for those guys to really bring me their best thinking, instead of having a preexisting gameplan that I tell everybody. Maybe their ideas are better than mine? Let’s use those ideas.”

Gaghan speaks of his time on the game almost wistfully, like an experience he never wanted to end. But inevitably, the birth of the game happens and then your children leave the nest. Gaghan says, “I always feel the weird emotion of, ‘It’s over. I can’t believe it.’ I have a 13-year-old boy and right now he’s at school running amok doing something. I don’t quite know what, but I hope it’s good. That’s how I feel about it. They are going to grow up and do their own thing. I wish them well. Hopefully they are having a really good time.”


At least his own son will finally be able to enjoy something made by his father. “I’ve made movies and TV shows. I have an Emmy; I have an Oscar–didn’t even register on my son’s radar or his friends’ radar. Didn’t even mean anything,” says Gaghan. “Then it was like, ‘Oh my god! You are going to Infinity Ward! Holy shit Dad! You matter! You are like, actually interesting!’ I can’t even tell you the impact that landed in my son’s life.”