Zak Penn on the New X-Men Game & Movie

Screenwriter Zak Penn knows his comic books. At least you would hope so, considering how many comic book movies he’s been involved with over the last few years, from X2: X-Men United to Elektra, Fantastic Four and the upcoming X-Men: The Last Stand, all of which he wrote in some capacity or another. (Marvel recently enlisted Penn to write the sequel to the 2003 Hulk movie.)

Just two weeks before the release of X-Men: The Last Stand, Activision will release the latest game starring the Marvel mutants, X-Men: The Official Game, which allows players to go through the game as one of three movie characters: Wolverine, Iceman or Nightcrawler, experiencing events that lead up to and beyond the upcoming movie.

Penn wrote the storyline and dialogue for the game with veteran “X-Men” writer Chris Claremont, who created and developed most of the characters while writing the Marvel comic books on-and-off literally for three decades.

Superhero Hype! had a chance to talk with Penn, an avid gamer, about the new “X-Men” game and how it ties into the movies and the comic books.

Superhero Hype!: Can you tell us what the player will experience while playing this game, compared to watching the upcoming movie?

Zak Penn: Yes, the game is much different from the movie. It’s actually very different from the movie in the fact that it draws more from the comic book world than the movie is able to. It has a much bigger scope than the movie because when you make a video game, you don’t have to worry about hiring 200 crew members to be on location. Also, all video game experiences are really different than movie experiences. For example, a video game doesn’t really have the emotional impact of a movie but a movie doesn’t immerse the viewer into a reality the way a video game can.

SHH!: How different is it writing a video game than writing a movie screenplay? Do you come up with a lot of the gameplay or just the story and dialogue in between?

Penn: Well, gameplay is created by the people who create the video game. Writing a video game is more similar to writing an animated movie or a television show, in that you’re much more involved with the day-to-day changes in the game, environments and characters, than you are in a movie. When writing a movie you write the first draft of the script or the 15th draft of the script, as it works in Hollywood. And that has to serve as the blue print for the entire movie so that people can go out and find locations, and plan accordingly. Changes made during the movie are usually pretty minor. A video game is constantly evolving. Writing for a video game is actually a lot more complicated, and in some ways, a lot more work.

SHH!: Is it harder to flesh characters out for a video game than it is for a movie?

Penn: There’s no question that it’s harder to develop characters in a video game than in a movie. Video games can be repetitive but in movies, repetition is bad for a character. If I wrote 15 movie scenes of Wolverine slashing guards to pieces, and each time gaining more strength, you’d walk out of the theater, because you’d be so bored. Overall, repetition is bad for character development. In video gaming, you have to try to get around that, so there’s no question that it is much, much harder to create real characters in a video game than in movies. That said, the way that you play a video game should change how a character reacts/acts as you go along. There is a lot of character progression in “X-Men: The Official Game.” I really think that the experiences are so different that sometimes people get caught up in trying to find what’s similarly good in a movie and a video game. To me, that is a mistake because people should go to the movies for character development and play video games to enjoy themselves.

SHH!: Since you’re obviously a comic fan, how was it working with Chris Claremont and how did you two work together on the video game?

Penn: I was incredibly excited to work with Chris. I was probably more excited to meet him than almost anyone else involved in the project, because he created and wrote the comic books that turned me into a science fiction fan, and in a lot of ways, he’s responsible for me becoming a writer. When I was 10 years old, the “Dark Phoenix Saga” is what inspired me. Because I was working so hard on the movie, Chris is far more responsible for most of what you’re going to see in the game than I am, and you’ll see that there are a lot of references to things that aren’t in the movie, as well as things that are in the movie. My contribution was more trying to catch Chris up with what was going on with the movie, because security was so locked down on the script, the only way he could find out what was actually going on in the movie was to ask, which I thought was ironic since he created the characters.

I’d like to say that it was the two of us sitting in a room a lot but it really wasn’t. It was more like I came in and did a bunch of work on the game script and then handed it back to him and he rewrote everything back into the world of the game. It was a pretty smooth process, but it was hard, because the movie was so secret, there were so few people let in on it. They had to start creating the game before the movie was made. What became tricky was figuring out how we could do something crazy, have outlandish events with Sentinels, for example, and then some how get us back to the point where you believe where we are at the beginning of “X-Men: The Last Stand.” That was the really tricky part, and a lot of the work got dumped in Chris’ lap. I kind of told him here’s what you need to do. It was a weird feeling, like “Here, Chris, go fix my problems for me.”

SHH!: Was Chris happy with the story you came up with based on the X-Men stories he originally wrote?

Penn: He told me he was. I hope he wasn’t lying. I kind of handed the video game back to him and just said do what you want to do, so I assumed he was okay with it, except where he made changes. Frankly, I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had a chance to examine what he changed from the last time I wrote it, but Chris is a pretty easy-going guy and he was very, very understanding. For example, he came and met with me and Simon once or twice during the course of production and he would say to us, “This is your movie, so make it what you want to make it.” I think part of it is that comic book authors have to write so many stories using those characters that the more they write with them, the less militant about their portrayal they become. If I write a screenplay, I sit there complaining the entire time about every little production change made to the screenplay. Comic book writers have written 400 issues about their characters, so I think that they develop a thicker skin about what’s going to happen to those characters in the movie. Except Alan Moore… he hasn’t developed a thicker skin.

SHH!: Who decided which three characters to feature in the game and how much of the comic book versions of the characters will be brought to the game?

Penn: We decided by putting a big board up of all of the different characters and I just threw darts. Whichever character I hit was who we developed for the game. No, the characters had been decided before I became involved. I would venture to guess that the decisions were completely based on who would be the most fun to play. There’s no question that Nightcrawler is in the game because he is a great character to play in the game. I think that was what most of the decision-making process consisted of, but you’d have to ask the guys who designed the game.

SHH!: What part of the comic book version of the characters has been incorporated into the game?

Penn: We tried to keep the characters as true to the movie, as possible. That was my big contribution; to make Bobby sound like Bobby in the movie, Wolverine sound like Wolverine in the movie, and to not use the characters as they were in the comic book, but rather to stick with the movie characters. The place where we got into the comic book world was in the story and in all the peripherals, like the Sentinels, Hydra and all sorts of things that I don’t even know if I’m allowed to tell you about. All the different elements in the video game are things that we couldn’t have in “X-Men: The Last Stand.” So, a lot of them went into the video game. The characters are really true to the movie. I think that’s what makes this game different, the fact that you are not playing Wolverine from the comic book, you’re playing Wolverine from the movie.

SHH!: Were there any advantages to writing both the game and the movie?

Penn: I signed on thinking this is going to be great, because I can create one continuous narrative from “X2,” which I worked on through the game, and into “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Very quickly, the problems of both productions and also the problems of the video game became apparent that it wasn’t going to be one fluid experience. You’re not going to watch “X2″, pick up the video game, play it all the way through and then watch “X-Men: The Last Stand.” It’s not going to work as perfectly as that, which is just the nature of the beast. There’s no way to make it that consistent. Frankly, the game needs so much content, that you have to put in more than you could possibly put in the movie. That said, having the overview of it, allowed me to say to Chris, “There were things in the movie we never had a chance to set up. Could you please set it up in the video game?” so it gave me this weird power to help explain things that were in the movie.

SHH!: If you had a choice of which characters to include in the game, who would you have added?

Penn: To me, whatever plays the best is what I want to play. It doesn’t matter how cool they are on screen, I want to play the character. Nightcrawler would have been my first choice, definitely. Maybe Beast, whose design hadn’t been done by the time they started the video game, would have been cool. One character that’s pretty cool in the movie that they never could have put in the game, because we didn’t even come up with it until half way through, is Arclight. I’m not going to tell you what her power is, but when you see the movie, you’ll understand why she’d be a good character for a video game.

SHH!: In prepping yourself to write this, did you go back and play a lot of the previous X-Men games?

Penn: It was really important for me to do a lot of video game research, so I spent hours and hours playing video games every single day. I did play X-Men Legends, believe it or not. I went out, got it and played through it. I played through X-Men Legends II as well. I would be lying if I said that it was all for research, I like to play video games too. But I did check it out and this game is really different than those two. I mean that’s one thing to keep in mind is these are very different games. I don’t even know what game to compare it to because the perspective is totally different. You know, it’s more like a first person game but you can play as three different characters, so it’s really very different.

SHH!: What feature of the game do you think that X-Men fans will like most?

Penn: I am biased, because to me a game is 99 percent how it plays. You know, I’m a big gamer and play a lot of video games. No matter how great the writing is, or the cut scenes or the voiceover, it really comes down to how the game plays. And I can tell you, I’ve played this game and it is really, really cool. So that’s really what it’s going to come down to for true fans. It isn’t the work that I did that will make the game great; it is the work from the people who created the game. I’m like the icing on the cake.

SHH!: Is there any particular character from the movies that you would like to reinvent or to change?

Penn: I’ve worked on both “X2″ and “X-Men: The Last Stand,” so I’ve already gotten my chance to do that and gotten that out of my system. Even in “X-Men: The Last Stand”, I really wanted to push Magneto in the direction of quasi-terrorist or revolutionary leader as opposed to evil super villain who has a lair and an evil plan. The good news is that I got to do that. I always wanted to reinvent Dark Phoenix too and I got my chance in the movie.

SHH!: What other video games do you like playing?

Penn: I play way too much Halo II for my own good. I also play Call of Duty Xbox 360 and I thought the Incredible Hulk game was awesome. I played Grand Theft Auto, until my kids got old enough to figure how to walk into the room while I was playing and I also play Burn Out Revenge on my PSP. My dirty little secret that always gets the video game people angry is I skip over all the cut scenes in the games I play because I just don’t care. I write cut scenes for a living, I don’t want to watch them. I just want to play the game. In fact, I skipped over the cut scenes when I was playing “X-Men: The Official Game,” even though I wrote them.

SHH!: Why do you think some of the other video games based on movies aren’t doing so well?

Penn: I believe that some movie video games have not done well because the nature of the game is repetitive gameplay, which isn’t good story telling, but part of it does have to do with the quality of the movies. In general, most movies are not good, just like most things in general are not good, so in almost any art form, the majority of it stinks.

SHH!: Do you think it’s important to have the talent from the movie involved in the video game, too?

Penn: I think movie talent voice over involvement in a video game makes a huge difference. Ideally, a game would have all the character’s voices from the movie, particularly if you’re basing those characters on the movie characters. If you’re playing a game like X-Men Legends, it’s not as important as a movie game, I think. But if you’re in a game like this, the ideal would be to get the voices of the movie characters. And I’ll leave that as a cliffhanger.

SHH!: Why do you think it’s harder to get emotionally involved with a video game as opposed to a movie?

Penn: Well, I think it’s the nature of the media. When you play a video game, it’s a totally different psychological experience. It isn’t a passive experience. When you go to a movie, you get caught up in the story and become a passive observer with an audience of the events that are unfolding. A video game is a visceral reaction. It can make you nervous; it can make you scared; it can make you excited. It can do all of these things. It’s very difficult for a game to pull emotion from you in the same way a movie does, but that is the nature of the experience. I think everyone is now talking about being on the cusp of a new kind of video game, where if you can get movie-level detail, quality, writing and everything into a game that it will feel just as emotional. I’m not convinced of that yet. I’m not convinced that there’s not something about the form that’s different than the form of filmmaking, but I could be wrong.

SHH!: Do you think that the next generation of consoles such as Xbox 360 and PS3 will be able to offer enough quality that maybe it can bring the same level of emotions?

Penn: I think video games are going to try, and it would be cool if they succeed, but I’m not sure that there isn’t something intrinsically bound up in story telling, in traditional story telling, that is not reachable in something that also has to be playable. Here’s the thing, in a video game, no matter what they say, the main character is you. You start to become the character. Inherently, it’s a different experience when you watch a movie. You don’t become Wolverine if you are watching “X-Men: The Last Stand,” and I think that the separation does something. As video games provide some sort of visceral first person experience, where you the player are the main character, you will always have a difficult time getting the same emotion out of it, as you would in a movie.

SHH!: Do you have any other projects going on in the video game field?

Penn: I’m actually producing and writing a project for Fox that’s about kids playing massively multiplayer online games. So, I’m completely immersed in the world of video games, even in my screenwriting career. I’m also going to be working on two more movies from Marvel, so those will definitely have video games tied in with them. It’s the very early stages, but my goal would be to actually build the game, have people play it and then when it appears in the movie have people say, “Oh my God, that was the game that I’ve been playing!” To me, the exciting future of video games and movies together is where you’ll create a game and when it turns into a movie, you’ve all ready planned it out. I can’t really give away the concept of the movie; that would explain a lot about what we’re doing to link the two. The idea is to create a video game where you already know what the character’s story is, so that when you turn it into a movie, it won’t suck. Like most video games, they come up with the engine first. They come up with the gameplay and then they try to tell the best story they can within that gameplay. One of the things I’m trying to do is take a story that I already have in my head, build a video game around it so that when I actually get to writing the movie of the video game, I have a good story to tell.

SHH!: Since you’re such a big fan of comic books, would you ever think about creating your own comic universe?

Penn: Yes, I’m actually creating my own comic universe. I’d been negotiating for quite a while to take an old screenplay of mine, which almost got made into a movie, and make it at a different studio, but I decided I’d rather make it into a graphic novel. I love graphic novels; I think it’s a fantastic art form, so I’m supposed to do that next year. I have also talked to Marvel about taking over one of their characters for a while when I get some time. If I did something for Marvel, it would probably be one of the characters that I’ve worked on for a movie, although I realize that’s a lot of them. It would either be the Hulk, X-Men or Elektra, but I don’t know yet. It depends on which titles already have writers and artists working on them. Brian Bendis and I were going to collaborate on something about Jean Grey as a little girl, but we never got around to it. That’s the closest I can come to telling you which characters I would work on.

SHH!: These days, we’re seeing a lot more comic character brought to life in movies and video games, so why do you think there’s all this interest in them?

Penn: Here’s the dirty little secret of comic books: some of the best stories that have been told in the last 50 to 75 years have been in comic books. Period. Some of the best writing that’s been done in the last 25 years has been in graphic novels. I had dropped comic books for 10 years, because I got a job and started a family. In the past two years, I’ve picked up a lot of the Marvel Ultimate titles, and I’m shocked at how good the storytelling is. It’s better than the storytelling in movies. That’s one of the reasons why comic books translate so well to video games. When people were creating Doom, they weren’t thinking, “We’re going to tell an epic tale that’s on the level of George Lucas.” They were thinking, “Let’s make a movie where we get to blow sh*t up!” One of the reasons comic books are gone back to over and over again, is the fact that the stories are incredible. Great authors and people with great minds read comic books and see important themes and fantastic characters in them. Hollywood will take whatever they can get, and that’s why you’re seeing comic books spreading out into other media, just because there’s this enormous backlog of fantastic work that has yet to be exploited. Whereas, every Jane Austen novel has been made into a movie, a number of times, and frankly, won’t make such a good video game.

SHH!: You were involved with the early stages of writing “X2,” so when you saw the final movie, how did it differ from what you originally had in mind?

Penn: The biggest differences were that a couple of big plot changes, like the Sentinels, were in the draft right before I left. I’ve worked on 20-something movies and the weird thing about Hollywood is that I never know what I’m going to get credit on when it gets arbitrated. I see the movie and it looks pretty similar to what I had in mind; Nightcrawler, Magneto’s breaking out, the attack on the mansion, the teaming-up of the X-Men and Magneto, all of that was in my draft. It’s just I guess a lot of the details were changed. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, but there are times where I sit there and say, “You know, I had to watch X-2 about 25 times this year while we were writing ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ and I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t gotten screenplay credit of some sort.” It feels pretty similar to me, honestly.

SHH!: Are you still involved in the movie based on the “Spy Hunter” game?

Penn: I am not involved at all with that project. I did one draft and then I was gone. You know what’s funny: once you get listed on those things you can never escape. By the way, Spy Hunter is an excellent example of something very difficult to work on. It is a really, really fun game, but coming up with a story for it is not easy.

SHH!: Going off on a bit of a tangent here, but I’m big a fan of your movie “Incident at Loch Ness.”

Penn: Awesome. Wouldn’t that be a good video game?

SHH!: Yes, that would be an awesome video game. Have you ever thought about writing a superhero movie starring Werner Herzog?

Penn: You know, it’s funny you mention that. I don’t know if you caught the news but one week Werner Herzog was shot in the stomach. He didn’t even go to the hospital for the wound, and then the next day he saved Joaquin Phoenix from a car accident in the hills. We were all joking he’s like a super hero. It sounds crazy but I was thinking about doing a graphic novel about Werner but I don’t know about a video game, although that would be pretty awesome if you could pull the boat over the hill and fight with Klaus Kinsky. It could be a fighter.

SHH!: How are things going on your Vegas poker movie? Is that close to happening?

Penn: I literally have a production meeting gathering downstairs in my office, as we speak.

X-Men: The Official Game hits the street on May 16. You can check out the trailer here and pre-order the game here. X-Men: The Last Stand opens everywhere on May 26.

Source: Edward Douglas