If you don't know Rick Remender's name, you're likely not a comic-book head. From his own critically acclaimed titles like Fear Agent and Black Heart Billy to a much-ballyhooed run on Marvel's Punisher—and currently taking on Venom—he's emerged as an over-the-top iconoclastic voice in a sea of superhero sameness. And now he's brought that sensibility to video games as the writer of Bulletstorm, the forthcoming foulmouthed shooter that's already raised the hackles of Fox News. (He was actually a writer on Dead Space as well, but more on that later.) Since we've been enjoying the man's work for some time now and happen to think Bulletstorm's shaping up to be a breath of fresh air in the FPS world, we jumped at the chance to talk to Rick and find out as much as we could about his gaming chops, the beauty of pulp, and how exactly to scare the dick off someone.
You're no stranger to the gaming world, clearly. What’s your background as a player rather than a writer?
Rick Remender: I’ve always been a game player. I grew up in the ’70s and the ’80s. I'm of that generation when my first birthday parties were held at places where they had Pac-Man—that was one of those mandatory things. And it never been stopped. I’ve never been a diehard gamer, and I might not finish them all, but I've always had one game going, and if you follow the big games over the last 30 years, I’ve played most of them. Got into the Final Fantasy stuff, Tomb Raider. My friends and I played the shit out of Twisted Metal, and before that, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. I've always got a game or two going on the PlayStation and Xbox.
Have you been initiated into the seamy underbelly of online multiplayer?
Oh, yes. A large group of the Marvel writers—Matt [Fraction] and a bunch of others—we've all have been playing Call of Duty for some years now. When the zombie end of the game got introduced, we switched over to that, that's what we play mostly. Sadly, as I grew into a middle-aged workaholic, that slowly became my only social time. [Laughs.]
That's gotta be an unbelievably filthy time as far as headset chatter goes.
Yeah, we get to hear what everybody's up to, then the rest of the time we just sit around and insult at each other.
So how did you link up with the crew at People Can Fly?
It’s a strange series of events. Five or six years ago, I started working for EA while i was doing my Image and Dark Horse books. My background is in animation, and I needed to get back into a paying gig while I built my comic book stuff up, so I was storyboarding on the From Russia With Love video game. That led to my book Fear Agent circulating at the Redwood Shores office at EA, which led to my inclusion as one of the writers on Dead Space. I was the middle writer; after Warren Ellis had done the initial stuff, I did seven or eight drafts.
Then Adrian [Chmielarz], the designer at People Can Fly, came looking for me; coincidentally, he was a big fan of Fear Agent and another book I do called Black Heart Billy, which tonally is sort of what I've ended up doing with Bulletstorm. The coincidence came when Adrian contacted Redwood Shores, having no idea that I'd worked on Dead Space. He discovered the guy he wanted for his new sci-fi shooter has worked on Dead Space. That definitely helped in terms of working on another game. It's very difficult to say no when the developer tells you to do whatever you want—when he wants you to make Fear Agent meets Black Heart Billy instead of coming at you with “Speed 2 meets Star Wars VII!”
Has that infected the video game industry, that horrible logline speak?
It’s infected everything. I get it. I’ve even sort kind of fallen into it. If you don't have your logline down, people are so distintererested, and they have an immediate wall up to any idea. If you can avoid "this meets this," you're better off, but yeah, everyone falls victim to it.
When we spoke to Adrian [for our Bulletstorm story in the Feb./March issue], he told us that you'd told him that the game was "shit." Not "shitty," not "the game needs work," but "it’s shit." How accurate is that?
[Laughs.] Pretty accurate. At first, it was taking itself seriously on some level and I didn’t like that. Look, you’re gonna drop me into this world, I've had enough of the serious. You still get the story, and you still get the character and testosterone and bestubbled machismo. We still wrote a three-act structure; I wrote a screenplay for this thing. It still has a good story, but the best thing about a good story is when it’s not telling you it's a good story. On one hand they had this angle where they were former black ops angle and I was gonna get rid of it, and then I was like, “It’s almost so clichéd, it’s great”. And all the cliche things that are in there, like the cyborg buddy and the evil general—people who get it are getting it.
The idea is that it's a video game—we're not gonna try and sell you the patch-eyed Russian getting the nuke as if he's a real villain, with the melodrama and the music. The fact that people are saying that it's trying to be serious storytelling just shows how stupid they truly are. Because that stuff is so fucking awful. When Adrian had the general as the placeholder for the villain, I was like “That’s it! That couldn't be more perfect!" [Laughs.] The rest of it I went a little crazy with and tore up some tracks, and threw some things in there that are a little more true to what I like about pulp scence fiction, which is just: Don’t explain to me about the dilithium crystal is, just show me a cool alien and put me in a high-pressure situation that keeps moving and is funny.
Some people are getting it, and some people are complaining, whether it's because of these clichés or because of the language, saying it’s misogynistic and homophobic. What’s your reaction to the peanut gallery?
I don’t like misogyny and homophobia in any form. There’s no homophobia in this, other than the classic stubbled Marine types calling each other "lady." At a certain point I will only whitewash what I do for political correctness so far. My dad was a marine, I know how Marines talk. I’m not gonna change it for people’s sensibilities. There's nothing homophobic in there. Like, there’s scene where someone is called “assmaggot” and someone misheard it and thought it was "faggot." I've been very very adamant that that is not a word that I would use. I see that as more detrimental and hurtful than anything and wouldn't throw that casually into a video game.
As for the misogyny, there's one scene where Gray [Grayson Hunt, the game's protagonist] meets Trischka and they're not getting along—another cliché! [Laughs.] It's hard to explain to people why I think it’s better if I lean into very cliché. But at some point they're talking about the plant life being sentient, and Gray says, “The bitch is a botanist." Once I heard the recording, I realized I hated it. It was misogynistic, and it made Gray ugly on some level—and this is a guy who I've already written as a debaucherous space pirate who's already fairly ugly. I’m not sure if it was taken out, but I made a real case to take it out. I wanted to evoke more than anything that Sam Raimi bouncy style of insanity from Evil Dead 2 in this. Like instead of saying “Boo-ya!” they say, “Take that, birthday bear!” But after I heard him call her a bitch once, it was so offensive and offputting to me that it made me hate him as a character. It made him this sort of despicable bro-jock. It’s no longer like watching Kurt Russell in Big Trouble In Little China, where he's a caricature that I might want to watch.
In your work on comics, you’ve both created comics and you've been handed existing Marvel characters to work with. In your experiences on that continuum, how much of the game do you feel like is yours?
A good bit. You can’t control everything. I hear things a little more campy, and what's delivered is more self-serious, but it's still drenched in irony and over the top. People are gonna think we’re not aware of that. Given the pure insanity of it, I don't know how anybody could. In terms of the tone I wanted to bring and my sensiibiity, it’s a good 80% still in there. The game is so much fun, we wanted to make sure something was happening where you cared where things were going. without being "we have to get to the nuke or else all the orphans are gonna be evaporated.” It’s never easy. It’s very difficult on some level for me to adapt to having things I don't control. It's my job to make sure I gave the director and the producer and everyone what they wanted. With any big job like that, that's gonna be the compromise. I’m very proud of it, and from what I've seen I feel like there's a lot of my voice in the game.
So there’s one word from the demo that stands out to people: "Dicktits." It's just...glorious.
[Laughs.] It’s so weird that that's the one that people seize on. When people play it, there’s a thousand more words like that in there.
Where did that word come from?
[Laughs.] I’m gonna be very vague here because I still know people who know this guy. It was a guy who I might’ve worked with that might've had large-ish nipples that poked out of his T-shirt almost like little dicks. And we might've, behind his back, called him Dicktits. And that might've been the origin of that.
Are there other words that are any of your favorites that are waiting to be discovered?
Oh yeah. Swearing is an art form to me. I really love swearing, but don’t wanna be just another guy saying “fuck”—I'd much rather find a way of doing it that gives people a chuckle. It's been a lot of my life coming up connecting 2 words that don’t belong together. Or just switching things so instead of “You scared the shit out of me," it's "you scared the dick off of me." If you can’t tap into your inner 12-year-old, you're probably not gonna enjoy that. That's a big part of my brain where I live, and I think there’s a lot to be said for in these forms of entertainment speaking to the 12-year-old, but also the 30- or 40-year-old. And hopfully you can get something smart underneath that's drenched in pulp insanity, and juvenile language on top.
"Swearing is an art form to me."
Is there anything in particular you feel is missing from gaming as a whole?
You read so many people that want it to be an art and want it to be smart. Make something smart, but make something that speaks to your sensibilities and have fun with it. It seems like there’s a need to present yourself as more of a marketing package than anything else. Bulletstorm isn't self-serious, but we worked damn hard on it all the same. And comedy is much harder to write than anything else. Melodrama is easy. Whether my comedy writing succeeded remains to be seen.
In comic books too, there's a whole population of people that want everything to be seen as soooo smart. I don’t give a shit; I'd much rather turn The Punisher into FrankenCastle and tell a story that's smart, but also drenched in big, fast, fun, and beautiful artwork. Everybody needs to quit worrying about what the squares think about 'em. Video games, comic books—these things need to be smart and captivating, but they need to be fun. When we get to a point where everything is built around trying to manipulate the perceptions of others—"I sit in my house and play smart games!” Yeah, dude, you’re smart, we get it. But quit concerning yourself without how others perceive you and your industry.
Comics, as popular as they are, don’t have the same level of scrutiny on them as video games. Dealing with some of the backlash against Bulletstorm, is this new for you?
Yeah and no. I’ve done shit in comic books that’s a thousand times more offensive than anything in Bulletstorm. In XXXombies, a book that I did with Tony Moore from The Walking Dead and Kieron Dwyer from The Avengers, there was a grindhouse, pulp turn on the zombie story. It's basically Boogie Nights of The Living Dead. It’s the perfect kind of awful. But there’s a scene where a nun who’s never had sex puts a gun to an 18-year-old boy’s head to pull out his member and let her service him. That's gotta be a little more offensive than blowing out the asshole of a mutant. That’s sort of the great thing in an underground industry like comics. Look, I like shocking moments. I don’t care if it’s smart or not. If it fits the story and it's a big "what the fuck!" moment, I like reading those. I get very bored easily. I like things I don’t expect. In terms of this game, this is well watered down from what I could’ve done. I pushed for a lot of this stuff in Bulletstorm. So if this fails, there goes my video game career.
Judging from the reception the demo's gotten from players, you probably don't need to worry.
The game itself is so fun. Once you have the leash and can grab dudes from across the screen and slide into them? We went back to playing Call of Duty and it felt like slow-motion drudgery. I want to get a guy from far away with the leash, but then it’s like “Oh, I have to wait to kill him. I have to hold the sniper rifle and sit here and hold it steady, and—oh, somebody stabbed me." [Laughs.]
In the past year or so, a lot of high-profile writers have done video games. Do you have any hopes for a writing renaissance for video games?
The difficult thing I find is that if you’re writing a story for the sake of writing a story, it might not be a fun video game. Working on Dead Space and Bulletstorm, the story has always taken the B and C chairs to the A chair of gameplay. If this were Fear Agent fiction, it wouldn’t play out this way. But for a video game it works. I’ve played games that were critically acclaimed games and people tell me the story is so good, and there are points in those games where I’ve been bored out of my mind. And there have been super-fun games where the writing makes you wanna turn the volume off. But at the core of it, these things need to be hooky and fun.
Are there any kinds of DLC or plans to continue the universe of Bulletstorm?
There are lots of conversations happening. The fact that the game has gone gold and orders are as strong as they are and reaction is building as well as it is bodes well. Obviously, the game could come out and people could hate it, it could falter, and all these conversations could be for naught. At this stage, there's lots of talk.
In the meantime, have you been approached by other companies for other projects? Anything you want to announce or unveil?
I can’t. I’ve turned down everything that's coming at me now. If there were to be more Bulletstorm, I would want to set aside some schedule time for that. I truly enjoyed the process and working with everybody. It’s been tremendous. Between this and Dead Space piled on each other, I didn't ever anticipate that I’d have a big career writing games.