At The Crossroads of Text & Code: An Interview With Jay Posey

Written By: Erika Haase

jayposeyheadshot
Jay Posey

Jay Posey has been in the gaming industry since 1998, building worlds, designing narrative, and taking names. Big names like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six franchises. These games, of course, were built and inspired by the work of famous military fiction author, Tom Clancy. In 1996, Tom Clancy co-founded the game development studio Red Storm Entertainment which was later purchased by Ubisoft and became the reason his name is featured on most of the military games you’ve played other than Call Of Duty and Battlefield. It’s fitting, therefore, that one author’s work should beget another.

Enter Jay Posey, who decided to try his own hand at fiction writing with the spectacular Legends Of The Duskwalker trilogy. The first book, Three, was released by Angry Robot in 2013. Outside of the constructs of a video-game, how did Posey’s narrative voice hold up? Quite excellently. From the amazing cover designs by Steven Meyer-Rassow and Larry Rostant (Outsiders), to the perfectly choreographed action scenes throughout, I often found myself wishing that this book would get a chance to become a game. I only found out after completing the first book, that it’s author is actually a gaming industry veteran. The puzzle pieces clicked into place. With the conclusion of the Duskwalker trilogy in 2015, Posey kept on typing and came up with the military sci-fi novel Outriders in 2016. He is currently working on the sequel, Sungrazer which is planned for July of this year.

There’s something special about the Duskwalker trilogy. I describe it often as a sci-fi, post-post-apocalyptic, western. True, that description has lots of hyphens and isn’t an actual genre, but it’s hard to describe it more accurately.

Three begins on Earth in an extremely distant future, struggling to hold on after an undefined calamity. While life for many is centered around the bare bones of survival, the “future” is not lost entirely. Technology and human biology have become integrated at a cellular level and are passed on genetically like any other inherited trait. Brown hair, beige skin, strong Wi-Fi signal, green eyes. Like any good western, Three begins with a tattered gun for hire of the same name, sitting in a rundown bar after haggling over money owed on a bounty. Like any good sci-fi, Three’s world also has a serious robot problem in the form of the mysterious Weir. Pack hunters who claim the bodies of the dead from ravaged cities, and bring their faces back as inhuman, screeching machines. With the Weir operating only in the dark for reasons unknown, humanity is driven to make the most of the daylight, and cower in fear from a screaming, haunted abyss of nightfall when the Weir search for more bodies to build their armies.

outriderscoverIn a complete gear shift, Posey’s latest work, Outriders, focuses on military espionage, space travel, and politics in a much more tangible future. Mars has been colonized and there are political tensions mounting between colonists and Earth. To make things worse, someone seems hell bent on starting a war between Earth and Mars and it’s up to Captain Suh’s group to keep that from happening after a devastating terrorist attack. Outsiders follows the tough choices and grey areas to be investigated by a military ops unit known informally by the book title’s name. On Captain Suh’s first day of the job, he dies, comes back, and is thrown into a special-ops mission with no room for failure. Don’t worry, that’s on the back cover of the book. No spoilers here.

These are the kind of books Jay Posey writes – the spoilers aren’t obvious, the characters are never forgettable, and having amazing cover art is a requirement. For these reasons, and many more, I had to talk to the man himself and find out what it’s like to go from building worlds born out of the heads of others, to creating them from scratch all on his own. Read on for yourself to see why you shouldn’t be missing out on any of Jay Posey’s fictional adventures. Learn a little about what motivates the man behind the keyboard to create the characters he does, what titles he’s working on now with Ubisoft, and even which game he’s been playing for the past eight years.

Welcome, Author & Ubisoft/Red Storm Entertainment Expert Narrative Designer, Jay Posey.

BCG: Hello Jay! Thanks so much for your time. I know you’re busy working on GDC lectures at the moment, so BigCheshireGrin really appreciates you sparing some key strokes for us.

Jay Posey: Hiya Erika! Thanks for giving me an opportunity to chat with you! Always a pleasure.

BCG: First let me ask you – being in the gaming industry since 1998 (an absolutely amazing year for gaming by the way), has it been motivational to see the whirlwind of stories being told and created around you?

JP : Definitely. It’s neat to look back over the past almost 20 (!) years and see how far games have come, how much the industry has learned, and at how far technology has brought us. A lot of the things that I’d dreamed about making as a kid are a reality now, and it’s been fun to have had a chance to contribute to some of those advances.

BCG: Tom Clancy has become more than a name at this point. I think a large number of gamers who’ve never read his books might not realize he was an actual human, who passed away in 2013. I imagine you got a chance to meet him in your time at Red Storm Entertainment? Do you remember your first impressions, or can you tell us anything that stood out over the years? Was that what brought you to Red Storm Entertainment in the first place?

JP: Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Clancy myself. By the time I came aboard at Red Storm Entertainment, Ubisoft had already purchased the company, and Mr. Clancy had less to do with the day-to-day functioning of the studio.

I was a huge fan of Rainbow Six (the game) when it came out, though, and I harbored secret hopes of getting to work on that kind of game one day. And when Ghost Recon came out a couple of years later, it cemented my love for the tactical-shooter genre. That was really what drew me to Red Storm, and it was an amazing opportunity to get to help make games in a franchise I loved so much.

BCG: When you finally decided to write your first novel, what was the final nudge that made you step out of writing for other people’s worlds and say “I’m going to make my own?”

JP: Game development is an incredibly collaborative process and I was surprised to discover just how little creative say I actually had over my own work. After a few years of working in games, I recognized that a lot of the creative freedom and fulfillment I thought I’d find in that job was actually being stifled by the realities of how games are actually made.

I’d also started my writing career with screenwriting, and though I’d had a couple of close calls with offers to write for Hollywood, nothing ever materialized. So I think between the creative frustration in my day job, and the lack of fruit from all the screenwriting effort, I finally settled on the fact that the only person who could prevent me from writing a novel was me.

It still took me a little while to get myself out of my way. 😀

BCG: You mention in the acknowledgements at the end of Three your thanks in getting the book to be more than a “really big text file” on your computer. Had it been in that state for a long time before you went forward as an author? Did you have more than one of the books written already, because the sequels came out very close together!

JP: I think it took me between 2  ½ – 3 years to write Three, though there were big gaps in there where I didn’t work on it at all. I was actually very fortunate once I completed the manuscript; Angry Robot was the first publisher I submitted to, and they offered me a two-book deal. So the sequel did come out fairly close, but that was only because I was on deadline for it, and couldn’t sit around procrastinating too long.

I put the bit about the “really big text file” in there because when I first sat down to write Three, it was purely with the goal of finishing something. I wasn’t necessarily expecting to publish it. I had spent a number of years off and on trying to write an epic fantasy and hadn’t made much headway on it. I kept rewriting the first several chapters over and over again, instead of getting towards the end. So I decided to put that aside for a time, and work on a novel solely with the intention of actually finishing it. Once I did reach the end, I was really glad that Three found a publisher and made its way out into the world, instead of just hanging out with all the other bits on my laptop.

BCG: So – confession time, when I first read Three, I had no idea who you were. I had no idea you’d been in the gaming industry for so long, but unlike many other books, as I read these, the conversations, the imagery of the Weir, the desolate and hollowed out cities on Earth, my brain started seeing them almost in the form of a sci-fi Witcher or cut scenes with dialogue options ala Mass Effect. Was that happening to you as a writer?

JP: Not so much for me, no. I never really thought of Three as being a video-game-in-book-form or anything along those lines. I can certainly understand people with a background in gaming making those connections, but for me the creation processes were completely divorced.

I wasn’t actually a game writer first, even though that’s usually what pops up in my bio, so I think probably there’s a common assumption that my work in video games led to my novel writing, when it’s something more of the reverse.

BCG: I think your military game narrative writing experience really paid dividends in all of the tactical ops scenes in the second and third books of the Duskwalker trilogy. When we get introduced to Gamble and company, I had the distinct pleasure of never being “lost”. I, and many other readers I’ve spoken with, often have that annoying feeling of not knowing how Character A got from point X to point Y in a fight scene. Or too many things happen at once and you need to read it three times and draw a mental map. Not so with your writing. Had you identified that as something you really wanted to perfect, or was it already second nature?

JP: That’s certainly something that I was concerned about while writing the novels, and I absolutely leaned on prior experience in my attempts to get it close to right. For my day job, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a number of special operators and at times observe them training, so that has undoubtedly helped quite a bit.

I tend to be a kinesthetic learner, so I’ve done a little bit of training over the years to try and understand physically what it’s like to, say, clear a room. I’ve done some practical shooting competitions as well, to get experience with moving and shooting and general weapon manipulation under (very mild) stress. And I’ve also studied a variety of martial arts.

Not that I have anywhere near the level of experience of an actual professional or anything, but I’ve certainly tried to be diligent about familiarizing myself with the subject matter. I think that all helps me when I sit down to write action scenes.

But clarity is certainly something I have to work at, and I’m very glad to hear all the effort seems to be paying off.

BCG: My husband talked about visualizing several scenes in Morningside Fall as a mix of FPS, 3rd Person, and RTS perspectives when it came to soldier movement, so it definitely wasn’t just me picking up the video game vibes. Do you have a system of keeping your military movement organized while you write?

JP: I wouldn’t say I have a system, necessarily. Typically, though, I try to make sure I have a very clear idea of the environment in any scene before I go too far in writing any of the action. Sometimes I’ll sketch out the basics on a scrap piece of paper so I can maintain consistency and not end up changing the scenery in the middle of a gunfight.

In team scenarios, I might also keep notes on formation as well. In the scene in Morningside Fall, for example (MINOR SPOILERS!), when Gamble and her team are escorting Cass and Wren out of the city, I remember jotting down who was where in line, and what role each person was playing; who was taking point, who was close protection, that sort of thing. That way, when the action kicked up, I had specific reasons for each character doing whatever they needed to do, based on their position relative to the others and the role they were playing for the team overall.

BCG: Outriders is a very different tone than Duskwalker. In Duskwalker, technology is rarely fully explained, simply because its existence is accepted as the infrastructure of the world. It also focuses much more on the individuals, even while telling a bigger picture that these characters happen to be in at the time. Outriders, however, is very tech and big-picture centric. Politics galore. Were you excited to make this leap? Was it difficult?

JP: Outriders was actually something of a return to more of my comfort zone, given my background working on Clancy properties. With the Duskwalker trilogy, I’d purposely wanted to get away from the big picture, and just wanted to focus on a small story in a larger world. So, as you said, in Duskwalker the big world events are all just background.

Outriders, on the other hand, felt like it needed the larger context to support the existence of the team in the first place. Both stories had their challenges, but I actually felt like I was on more familiar ground with the Outriders. 

BCG: You’re good at writing female characters. Without giving anything away too much, Cass from the Duskwalker trilogy undergoes a kind of Sarah Connor-esque transformation although, I’d say she’s way tougher at first than Sarah Connor was in the first Terminator. Did you get some outside female consultation on this? Are there women you’ve met in your life who served as a basis for such strong personalities and character models?

JP: Hey thanks, I appreciate that. I will take the easy road and say all the women I’ve met in my life served as the basis. But most especially my wife! 😀

It was interesting for me to write Cass. On one hand, I was at times concerned about whether or not I was writing “A Good Female Character”, but that was generally when I wasn’t actually in the middle of writing. Whenever I was actually sitting at the laptop, writing Cass, I just treated her the way I treat all my characters, and let her lead the way. I think the more I let her be herself, the easier it became for me. At some point I stopped worrying about whether or not “a woman” would do such-and-such or think a particular thing, and I just tried to write what seemed to be true for Cass and who she was.

She was particularly tricky, because I knew she was a very strong woman, but when we first meet her, she’s literally at her weakest, most vulnerable point. Ultimately, I just tried to follow my gut with what felt right for her, and in the end I was content with her arc. I felt like her transformation over the course of the trilogy really let her become the woman she had been longing to be, a more complete woman in some sense, and that was pretty gratifying for me.

I still feel like she did most of the heavy lifting, though. 😀

BCG: This question is a little more complicated but seems to be an inherent theme in your work – gender equality. I saw a few people nit-pick in GoodReads reviews how games, books, and movies lately try to insert female operatives into spec-ops units. Rainbow Six: Siege for instance has a female Navy SEAL, of which there are currently none.  One reviewer went so far as to call Outriders “pushing the bad ass female warrior empowerment trope.” In Outriders you have two female members of the 519th Applied Intelligence Group (The Outriders), and a host of others in various military support roles. In Duskwalker, Cass and Gamble immediately come to mind as female soldiers. How do you feel about the difference between the reality that IS, versus the reality we WANT – and how technological enhancements could make actual physiological differences between genders irrelevant anyway?

JP: This is a great question, and probably dangerous for me to answer. But I’ll do it anyway! This is probably a terrible idea! (And I’ll probably make everyone mad!)

First off, as an author I recognize that every reader brings their own experience and perspective to a book, so sometimes material pushes certain buttons that I may or may not have intended to. That’s just part of the gig. (It’s also part of why I don’t read reviews.)

As far as gender equality in my work goes, I don’t know that I can really say much other than, I’ve just always tried to treat all my characters with the same dignity, whether they’re main characters, side characters, male, female, good, bad, or whatever. (I was, for example, a little surprised at how much people seemed to love Dagon in Three, who most certainly was not a good guy.)

I guess I would push back a little bit on the notion that I’m advancing a particular trope about female warriors; I prefer to think that I’m just accurately reflecting the reality. You can read about people like Lt. Ashley White Stumpf, who was killed in action during combat operations as a member of a Cultural Support Team attached to a Joint Special Operations Task Force, (https://ashleywhitestumpf.com/ or the book Ashley’s War) or Sgt. Mary Dague, who gave both of her arms serving as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician. Or check out the composition of the YPG Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in Syria right now. Or read Kameron Hurley’s award-winning essay “We Have Always Fought”.

The reality is that women participate in combat, and have done so quite capably for pretty much all of history.

That being said, it’s an entirely different conversation when you start asking, for example, whether or not the Navy SEALs should be open to women. That’s not something I’m qualified to answer. What I do know is that the way the SEALs select their personnel, the way they train, the way they operate is all based on hard-won lessons, often paid for in the blood of their brothers. I’m not about to sit here as a civilian author, never having served in the military, and pretend I have an educated opinion on the subject.

And that being said, I will point out that yes, two of the five Outriders are women. And I’ll also point out that the 519th Applied Intelligence Group’s role isn’t primarily direct action … it’s not an infantry unit. The team’s primary function requires a certain level of flexibility and adaptability, and I believe the composition of the Outriders is actually relatively authentic given their mission focus.

When the US Army found a need and called for volunteers, Lt. Ashley White stepped up. And she gave her life to her country, shoulder-to-shoulder with the men with whom she served. I firmly believe that in the future, whenever a critical need is identified, there will always be women willing to fill any gap.

Hopefully I’ve angered everyone equally with that response. 😀

Bottom line: I’m a fan of women. I’m also a fan of the US military. I don’t think those two things need to conflict.

BCG: Have you seen an overlap in your own experience of gamers who love your work, or readers who are also gamers? It certainly isn’t odd for game developers to have favorite authors as influences, but many times gamers can be a little screen-centric. What has your experience with the two mediums been since you’ve become an author in your own right?

JP: I’ve definitely seen some overlap, but I don’t think I’ve heard from anyone who purchased my books because they found out I had written a game they’d played. For the most part my author-life and my game-developer-life seem to be largely separate.

BCG: Do you think you’ll ever want to see your books as games, or do you want to keep those worlds separate? I was serious about wanting that “Three’s Final Bullet Collector’s Edition” if you remember me saying so in a Twitter message way back when, haha.

JP: That’s a tough one. I wouldn’t necessarily want to make a Duskwalker game featuring Three and Cass and Wren, but I think that world is big enough and rich enough to support all kinds of interesting stories, and could be cool to wander around in (as long as it was light outside!).

In general, I’d be happy for my books to make their way into the world of games, if it could be done without losing the heart of what makes them special to me. Knowing how complex game development is, though, I’m not 100% confident that either of the properties could survive contact with the process. 

BCG: This question is also a little complicated, but easy questions are boring. You mention your personal faith in the acknowledgements of every book you’ve completed. I always found this interesting in the best possible way because a) you don’t try to force a message of religion down any one’s throats in your writing and b) you explore interesting topics for someone who believes in a higher power. In Outriders, again without giving too much away, life and death, and the meaning of “what happens when you die” are made scientific and technical. This is touched on, as well, with the Weir in Duskwalker. With Death being so prevalent on the battlefield in real life, and your ongoing support for our troops through Hope For The Warriors, how does this impact you on a personal level? If we could really achieve what is done in Outriders, does that still leave room for religion and the idea of a soul?

JP: This is a neat question, thanks for asking!

I think my faith in Christ drives me to contemplate the big questions in life, and part of my way of processing those thoughts is through the stories I tell; certainly it impacts the kinds of stories I choose to tell, and the themes I explore throughout them.

I also think that the contact I’ve had with veterans has made me more sensitive to ideas of legacy and living each day with a sense of purpose. We’ve lost so many outstanding men and women. But we have so many more still with us today who quietly sacrificed years with their loved ones and opportunities to advance in careers, and who endured great hardship on our behalf. I think that’s left a mark on me that helps me lean towards gratitude for every day I get.

When it comes to death, I do think there’s a misperception that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is primarily concerned with what happens when you die. Certainly that’s a part of it, but it’s an unfair reduction of faith to think that all it offers is a convenient answer to that question. I won’t go too far down the path here (unless you want to ask a follow up!), but suffice to say that if the claims of Christianity are true (and I believe they are) then that truth must permeate absolutely every facet of life. Every action and every thought, from the most mundane to the most profound, must ultimately be considered in light of that reality. (Probably not all at once, though, which is likely why so many of us Christians are still a jumbled mess of confusion and contradiction.  😀 )

I would, then, in fact argue that if the technology we see in Outriders and the Duskwalker world were to become a reality, faith would become even more relevant; that the longer our lives extend, the more we as humans must confront the capacity both for good and for evil that exists in each of us; the greater the need for us to recognize what is in fact true, and what is mere illusion, what is temporal, and what is eternal.

But I’m not under any illusions that people pick up a sci-fi book because they want to get preached at. I’m always happy to discuss my faith when asked, but I don’t think I need to inject it into every conversation I have. I hope that the life I’m living is a good testament to my faith. The same holds true for my writing … I’m doing my best to put good things out there into the world, even if I’m not quoting Bible verses at my readers every other page. 

BCG: A little less esoteric of a question this time, what are you playing now? What are you looking forward to? Are there any Ubisoft titles coming out you can talk about having lent your writing talent to?

JP: This is an awfully convenient set of questions, because the answer is the same for all of them. I just started playing For Honor, Ubisoft Montreal’s relatively new release pitting Knights and Samurai and Vikings all against one another. I’ve only played the introductory mission, so I’m really looking forward to diving in deeper to that and seeing everything it has in store.

I actually wrote the world bible for the game (or at least a version of one!) so it’s going to be very interesting to me to see what parts of my work survived and what the team did with the material after I handed it off. I think the development team worked for another 2+ years after I finished my contribution, and I know there were some significant changes over that time, but I’ve already seen a couple of places where my work was intact, so playing through it is going to be an interesting time of adventure and discovery.

(I’m also currently wrapping up work on our VR game Star Trek: Bridge Crew, so I’m looking forward to getting that in the hands of fans and seeing the general reaction.)

BCG: Final Question: What would you say is your favorite game and why?

JP: Gah! Why would you end on such a brutal closing question? Can’t you ask me an easy question about something like gender equality or faith? 😀

This, of course, is pretty much an impossible question for me to answer, because there are so many great games, and they are all great for different reasons. As soon as you asked I probably had five or seven instant contenders.

If I were forced at gunpoint to choose ONE AND ONLY ONE, though, I think I would say, after a great deal of protest about how unfair it all was and you might as well just shoot me now, that Left 4 Dead 2 is probably the one I come back to the most. It really is a master class in game design, and the level of execution on everything from the gameplay to the storytelling is just excellent all around. I have one buddy that I play co-op with regularly, and even after all these years (it’s almost 8 years old!), playing at Expert is still an absolute blast.

BCG: Thank you so much for your time! It’s been a pleasure going back and forth with you, and I really look forward to the continuing adventures of The Outriders. Any final plugs you want to give for our readers?

JP: Thanks again for letting me stop by! If you don’t mind me pushing my wares, I’ll just mention that the sequel to Outriders is coming out from Angry Robot this summer, July 4th, and is called Sungrazer, so if any of your readers want to buy all the copies of that, I’d appreciate it! And if people want to keep up with me and what I’m up to, you can find me on Twitter at @HiJayPosey, or find a ghost of me haunting my poorly maintained website at http://jayposey.com .

Jay Posey’s upcoming book Sungrazer can be pre-ordered right now through Amazon and Barnes & Noble in paperback as well as digitally on Kindle and Nook.

Note: Links to information about the currently active, injured, and fallen veterans mentioned by Jay Posey as well as to Kameron Hurley’s essay were provided by myself and not the author. 

/BCG

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