AUSTIN GROSSMAN INTERVIEW
WRITER OF TRESPASSER- THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK
September 4th, 2014
Austin Grossman was the writer of Trespasser. Its fantastic script and audio recordings, with actor Richard Attenborough, are what make up Jurassic Time's Hammond Memoir. In this exclusive interview, Grossman looks back at the experience of working on the game, and shares with us precious details never heard before.
Grossman is an author of several novels, including writing that has also appeared in Granta, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. He is also a game developer. His first job after college was as a writer and video game designer at Looking Glass Studios. Some of the games he worked on were: Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, System Shock, Flight Unlimited, Trespasser: Jurassic Park, Clive Barker’s Undying, Deus Ex, Tomb Raider Legend, Epic Mickey, and Dishonored.
Derrick Davis: How did you get involved with working on games in the first place? What exactly is your role with them most of the time?
Austin Grossman: I started way back in 1992, when PC games were a much much tinier deal - it was supposed to be a fun little stopover before I got a real job. But of course when I got there I realized it wasn't a goof, it was right as an amazing new medium was taking off. At the start I was more a jack-of-all-trades designer - writing, level design, interface, whatever needed doing. Over time I've specialized in writing and interactive story design.
Derrick: How did Trespasser come about? What was asked of you by the creative team at DreamWorks?
Austin: Seamus Blackley and I started at Dreamworks Interactive as a two-person R&D department to build demos and prototypes. But when they were gearing up production on The Lost World we saw the chance do something really interesting - outdoor gameplay, dinosaurs, a great story. We knew we wanted to build our own little corner of the Jurassic Park saga and Dreamworks gave us an amazing amount of support and creative freedom.
Derrick: What were the most challenging aspects of adapting your own sequel from the Jurassic Park/Lost World story? What did you decide needed to be kept, added, and changed from the original stories?
Austin: We knew we wanted to strip things down and do a solo story - no human NPCs, no conversation interfaces to stop the action or take us out of the 3D world, the same way System Shock was designed (which Seamus and I both worked on). From there the outlines came together - the idea of the abandoned island was the compelling thing for us, a modern ruin that tells the story of the people who built it. We focused on John Hammond who seemed to carry the real passion of the Jurassic Park dream.
Derrick: How involved was film director Steven Spielberg?
Austin: Steven was pretty hands-off, him being busy with film and all. I only met him once. He's clearly super, super smart.
Derrick: An early walkthrough of the game was recently discovered. If you contributed to the layouts of the game's levels in terms of story points, what sort of things do you remember changing as they went?
Austin: Sad to say the big changes were all cuts to make the scope manageable - from the start Trespasser was a massively ambitious project and we were doing a ton of new things at once. So nearly all the changes were just about getting to the finish line.
Derrick: Trespasser seems to be a mixture of elements from both the novels and the films. A lot of this is evidenced in the dates that are said by Hammond; which more closely match the novels. Was this a decision on your part, and why?
Austin: The films are brilliant of course, but they have to breeze through some of the details. I really wanted to delve into the fictional world of Jurassic Park and John Hammond in particular and the novels went much deeper into the backstory. Michael Crichton does just masterful worldbuilding there.
Derrick: Writing a memoir from John Hammond's perspective must have been an exhilarating challenge. It adds a unique side to the character never seen in the novels or films. Beyond the source material, what did you draw from to create his tale?
Austin: It's a tough question because one never quite knows where the ideas come from. The impetus was definitely Richard Attenborough's performance in the films. You could imagine a lesser actor doing a cardboard mad-scientist performance, but Attenborough created this soulful, slightly sad, incredibly human individual. I just had to know his story.
Derrick: Was it always a sure thing that Richard Attenborough would be reprising his role for Trespasser? What were the recording sessions like?
Austin: It wasn't a sure thing but we heard early - I wasn't in in the decision but I'm quite sure Steven Spielberg must have twisted his arm a little. You can imagine how nervous we were going into the recording with Richard Attenborough. We were desperately jet-lagged, the taxi driver got lost, and to add to the insanity it was at Twickenham Studios where The Beatles and every other famous British person ever had recorded. But then we got there and he put everyone at ease. He was relaxed, incredibly kind and funny (he made us call him "Lord A" the whole day). The truly stunning thing was how attentive and respectful he was to us, a bunch of random game developers. Here was this legendary actor going carefully and thoughtfully through every line of our script, treating us like colleagues. It was an unforgettable lesson in decency and professionalism.
Derrick: The original script from the recording sessions for Hammond featured many unrecorded blocks of dialogue. Was there only a small window of time Attenborough had to record?
Austin: We had one morning and one afternoon session and needed to get everything done, so I marked the plot-critical lines first and we barely made it though those.
Derrick: There also seems to be two exceptions to the unrecorded dialogue as marked: the "Ozymandias" poem, and the line "Creation is an act of sheer will. Next time... it will be flawless!". What were the reasons for these two blocks of dialogue getting recorded after all? Was it something you wanted at the last minute, or something Attenborough saw and wanted to do?
Austin: Now I can't remember! It was the end of the day and we had a little time left over. The "Ozymandias" was an extra but I definitely wanted to see if we could use it. [And] why "Ozymandias"? Because they used it in the Avengers comic book (Avengers #57), and I never forgot how well it worked. Here's the page:
Derrick: What exactly was going on in the diary entry of Hammond from the 1950s where he describes the dinner party where he met that woman who ended up giving him the cold shoulder? Why did it hurt him so much?
Austin: I wanted to give some hint of how Hammond ended up where he does in Jurassic Park - I didn't want to overplay it but he's clearly a guy who invested his whole self in this improbable childhood dream. When it goes haywire he's left alone and I wondered, where are the other people in his life?
Derrick: Anne, the "player" character, voiced by actress Minnie Driver, seems to have less dialogue that tells a story and more of just reactions to what goes on around her. Was there ever meant to be more of a story to go along with her character? Does she even have a last name?
Austin: Again we took our cue from System Shock - we didn't want to hand players a large amount of backstory that they may or may not identify with? It felt more natural to leave things blank. I think she'd have a slightly funny last name? Something non-adventurous like Kowalski.
Derrick: Were you also involved with the recording sessions with Minnie Driver? What were they like?
Austin: I was less involved here - Seamus took the lead on that one. Honestly it's weird to have actors record your own writing, the line readings are never what you expect? With Richard Attenborough it was an established character that made more sense.
Derrick: There is one line of dialogue by Anne, where she says, "Yay, scary toy clown". There is no toy clown found in the retail or beta versions of the game. What was the purpose for this dialogue, and what was the setting for this toy clown to have been?
Austin: I really, really wanted a toy clown to show up somewhere random in the game, just to make you wonder how it got there and why it was left behind in the evacuation. I can't quite remember why it didn't happen. Life has its disappointments!
Derrick: What did your research consist of in writing the descriptions of the dinosaurs? The script mentions Gallimimus, which seems to have been cut from the game; were there any others? And what is your favorite dinosaur?
Austin: Lots of research - dinosaurs and genetics mostly. Was the Tyrannosaurus Rex a hunter or a carrion eater? How social were dinosaurs? When were all these things alive? (The truth is would have been accurate to call it "Cretaceous Park" - doesn't have the same ring.) My favorite dinosaur is Ankylosaurus, which sadly didn't make it into either game or movie despite its obvious coolness.
Derrick: So, you have to tell us... what is the deal with the crates?
Austin: We definitely had a lot of running in-jokes about crate overpopulation on Isla Sorna. Although it's hard to do better than the classic Old Man Murray article and its "Start to Crate" review metric, rating games on how long it takes from starting the game to finding your first crate.
Derrick: What was your favorite idea or line of dialogue that you contributed to the entire Trespasser story?
Austin: "The raptor preened itself, utterly confident of its right to be there. Absolutely no consciousness that it was not the sovereign ruler of this earth." I love the way the reborn dinosaurs have zero respect for the upstart human race.
Derrick: Having recently looked at your original script, and heard Hammond's memoir again through "Jurassic Time", was there anything else you recall missing from your original vision of the story that didn't make it?
Austin: Mostly we cut regions of the island which were very time-intensive to build, but the major story elements were shifted around rather than cut. So the things I most valued, we got in. Still a little bitter about that clown though.
Derrick: How did various team members get along?
Austin: It was a pretty grueling development process, lots of crunch time, and no one got through it without some frayed tempers, especially when it came to deciding which parts of the game got cut. But we came together at the end, which I'm proud of.
Derrick: What are your thoughts on the musical score that Bill Brown composed for the game?
Austin: I met Bill Brown once - he was amazing. We told him, "Give us John Williams," and he did, just like that.
Derrick: What were the reactions of you and the team when the final product was released, and the reviews started pouring in? What happened with you and your career after this (leading up to present day)?
Austin: Clearly some tough moments there - it was an ambitious, flawed game and the reviews were honest about that. A lot of the team stayed together to make Clive Barker's Undying (still underrated in my opinion). For myself, I needed a break from full-time game development and went off to study English literature at Berkeley and began writing novels. But games are too exciting to stay away from altogether - I went back to the industry as a contractor on Deus Ex and have been doing part-time work ever since.
Derrick: Have you ever played Trespasser since its creation? Do you plan to try it again anytime soon?
Austin: I've gone back to play the demo area, which was constructed with a better sense of how to take advantage of the physics engine. If they ever remake it for an updated engine I'd definitely check it out.
Derrick: If you were to be involved with a remake of the game with today's technology, would you make the story less linear? Perhaps multiple ways off the island (fixing up a boat, fixing up a radio to call for a chopper, etc.)? Do you think it would be more successful?
Austin: I think I'd do two things with a remake. I'd set up a tighter, clearer plot for the backstory, with more specific details for how the island was built. When I wrote it that first time I was more concerned with getting the language and the character voices right. I'd definitely take advantage of updated engines to give it a more sandbox feel. Introduce vehicles, water, more developed AI - like what if you could feed a dinosaur and bond with it? I specifically remember playing Far Cry 2 and wishing we'd had that kind of tech to play with. Far Cry 2 plus dinosaurs? That feels like a hit to me.
Derrick: Did you ever think a fan creation, like my audio presentation of Hammond's Memoir, would have been made after one of your own works?
Austin: I never imagined we'd get something like that. I'm really genuinely humbled and grateful.
Derrick: Back in 2007, you wrote the awesome, first-person, superhero/villain novel Soon I Will Be Invincible. This novel was written in very much the same way the Hammond Memoir was, and even borrowed dialogue directly from it for not just one, but at least two chapters involving Doctor Impossible's villainous island. Beyond being a fun reference, was there any other reason for doing this?
Austin: When I was writing Trespasser I got so fascinated by the mad scientist archetype I felt I had to do more with it. I was being a little mischievous when I borrowed that Trespasser dialogue - I wanted to show (myself, mostly) that game writing wasn't this inferior thing - that I could take writing directly from a game and put it into this ambitious novel and it would hold up. Possibly not worth risking getting sued? But fortunately very few people noticed.
Derrick: Well I was a big fan of the book! Any word on a sequel? Also, with all of the movie industry being so into superhero films these days, any chance of a film version in the near future?
Austin: The Invincible film is still in development, and we have sworn a solemn oath to get it made! It needs the right combination of cast, director, and (let's face it) budget to be the film it can be - a lot of factors have to align but we're determined to do it right. There's something so interesting about telling a supervillain's story, I feel sure it has to happen. After a long time away, I'm now in the early stages of writing a new novel set in the same universe [...]. There was so much in that universe I can't resist going back.
Derrick: In 2013, you published another novel, YOU, which seems to be loosely based on your own game-making experiences, wrapped around a fun fictional plot. While I haven't read this one yet, can we expect any more Trespasser references?
Austin: Parts of YOU are very definitely based on the experience of making Trespasser. That dream of making as realistic game as possible, and the way a simulation-driven game is fascinating but also gets out of your control - when a physics engine runs your gameplay sometimes it feels like the game is in open rebellion. And the psychological experience of crunch mode, the team dynamics - very much borrowed.
Derrick: What are the next projects, be it games or novels, that you plan to do next? I know you recently finished a new novel. Can you tell us anything about it?
Austin: The new one is a total departure, the true confessions of Richard Nixon [titled: Crooked]. It's a whole alternate history of his administration, how early on he stumbled onto a dark conspiracy behind the Cold War, and his public crimes were all about concealing the truth and keeping supernatural horrors from overrunning the Earth. It all makes sense if you think about it.
Derrick: Finally, what can you say for yourself was the best and worst thing you learned from the entire Trespasser experience? And if you could, would you do any of it differently?
Austin: Best thing: taking our demo to the 1997 E3 in Atlanta. We had basic physics running and a high-res bump-mapped Tyrannosaur, and no one had seen anything like it, ever. We felt like kings! Worst thing was just the exhaustion of crunch mode. Everyone gets cranky and sleep-deprived and it's really hard to remember you're doing something fun. I admit I'd do things differently. We were packing a lot of new, experimental ideas into one game and immediately started building on a very large scale. We should have started with a small prototype and got a sense of how combat and puzzles and outdoor environments all worked together before we went big. But I've never been sorry we tried new and ambitious ideas rather than playing safe. Rich Wyckoff wrote a very accurate account of what went right and wrong for Game Developer magazine.
Derrick: Thank you, Mr. Grossman, for your time and thoughtful recollections.
Check out the latest on Austin Grossman by visiting his website.
Interview conducted by Derrick Davis. This article was originally published on the former version of this site by the author, with participation of TresCom. It has been modified and updated with additional content to be more concise and relevant.
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