Writing my tie-in novella for the Wasteland 3 video game

No Way Home was written as a companion to the Wasteland 3 video game by inXile Entertainment, and explores a beloved main character’s adventures between W2 and W3. (Available as part of the Digital Deluxe Version of the game through Steam.) The other two novellas you get as part of this package are written by Matt Wallace and Ari Marmell.

Cover art for all three novellas by Brissia Jiménez

I’ve gone back and forth about when to post this for a couple of months now. On one hand, I’m impatient and excited to talk about this project. I originally got the contract in 2019, and the finished novella was accepted by my editor last November, so I’ve been waiting over a year to share the details. I couldn’t even tell people I’d worked on this specific game – inXile’s third installment in their foundational post-apocalyptic video game series – until it was released at the end of August 2020. But that was 3 months ago, so why did I keep waiting?

Spoilers, and an NDA.

In order for me to talk about the writing part of this writing project, I have to talk about the games themselves, the lore and history, which means potentially spoiling the game for people who hadn’t played it yet. Because my novella is set between W2 and W3, I have to talk a little about the game that just dropped and a lot more about the game that came before. Wasteland 2 was released in 2014, which should be plenty of time to ensure that most people who want to play it have played it, right? Well, maybe not. See, there’s some people who didn’t grow up with Wasteland, who learned about it when they heard game 3 was coming out, and who just this year started playing game 2 to prepare.

Plus, Wasteland 2 has multiple endings. I’d played it through different ways before I was even hired to write for inXile, but I still hadn’t gotten the exact ending the studio considers to be canon history for going into Wasteland 3. So when I talk about that – which I will, in this post – it’s likely to surprise at least a few people, even on a game that’s been out for six years.

I love gaming. I wouldn’t want to anyone to ruin all the surprises on a new game for me, so I definitely don’t want to do that for anyone else. Plus, I signed an NDA when I was being considered for the job, which means I can’t say anything that isn’t public already. Because of that, I had to wait until certain plot points became public knowledge, or risk breaking my contracts (which I’d never ever do). To be safe, I waited three months after the newest game became available, and when I do talk about possible-spoilers later in this post, I’ll warn you first.

The original Wasteland game came out on computer in 1988. It’s a post-apocalyptic shooter based on tabletop RPGs, giving it a turn-based fight system and experience-based stats. You play a member of the Desert Ranger’s, a ragtag militia based out of Arizona, telling yourself that you’re the last remnants of the official US Army… even though you’re acting as judge and jury out in the wasteland…

I got my hands on a copy in the early 90s (including a print-out of the game’s “lore book”, a literally book of the encounters and dialog that you had to refence as you played the game). I’d grown up on arcade games and the original NES my mom got for me and my sister to share. I loved Castlevania, Gauntlet, Galaga. Compared to those, Wasteland was dark. It was violent and depressing; you could gain NPC teammates but they were just as likely to ignore your orders as they were to die, leaving you short on whatever essential skills only they had mastered.

And of course, the game was hard to beat. Resources were scarce, the desert was a tough place to be, and once you got into what’s left of Las Vegas, the scale of devastation post-nuclear war was obvious. Your goal was to stop a madman from helping a rogue AI to finish off the remainder of humanity, but even if you managed that, there was no happy ending. Just more desolation.

It was great.

It also lead to one of my all-time favorite console game series: Fallout. Short version of the story is that Interplay – who’d re-released Wasteland in the 90s – couldn’t get the rights to the Wasteland name from EA – so they created Fallout instead. (There’s a ton of hints and references throughout the series to back this up.) EA ended up selling the name back to Brian Fargo’s new company inXile in 2013, which let them restart the Wasteland series… Fallout is still going, so while they games are no longer connected, they’re like cousins in a way. If you like the story and themes of one, you might like the other.

Even though I’d long moved to Xbox as my console of choice, I got Wasteland 2 on PC in 2014 because I had to have it right away. Once again, you’re playing as part of a team of Desert Rangers – in fact, you’re working with some of the Rangers from Wasteland 1. Vargas is now the group’s leader, Thrasher took over as librarian/historian, Angela is guiding new rangers through the basics, and Ace is running missions… until he’s murdered, just before the start of the game. You play as a new Ranger, guided by Angela as she helps you find Ace’s killer. Along the way you discover a new AI threat, deal with local problems, travel to Los Angeles, and get yourself caught up in all of their problems too.

SPOLIERS AHEAD

No matter how you finish the game, at some point Angela gets sent out to LA to investigate ahead of you, and her copter gets shot down. When you arrive, it’s too late – bad guys have already gone and there’s casualties. There’s no version of the ending where you get Angela back; her gravestone appears in the final scenes. There’s multiple ways to defeat the last boss, but all of them end with one person sacrificing themselves for the greater good.

This is where I came in. inXile was finishing up Wasteland 3, which is set 2 years after W2, and they wanted to put out of a set of tie-in novellas to go with the game, same as they did when they released W2. I got a message from a writer friend who knew I was a big gamer – was I interested in applying for this job? Of course, yes, absolutely. By the end of the day, he’d passed my name on to the editor, who was able to find samples of my writing on my website, and contacted me to set up a meeting.

Friends, you should always have samples of your work on your website. I have free fiction here, a page with links to all of my published non-fiction here, and published fiction here (most of which is free to read at the publisher’s site). It saves time and lets people know you’re experienced and professional, before they even meet with you.

By the end of the video call, I had the job. I got it because he liked my writing, I had a reference, I had played the game – it wasn’t just one thing, and it maybe didn’t need to be all of those things, if I had more experience in writing for games. (Because I didn’t, I think I needed all the help I could get to book the job. Your mileage may vary.) I still didn’t know much about what I’d be writing. I got an NDA, a contract, and another meeting with my editor…

Over the next few weeks we worked out the story. I bought the Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut edition for Xbox, to play through the exact timeline I needed to have the right backstory. There were going to be three novellas total, and the other two focused on giving a history to the new game. Mine was to be the bridge between them, picking up after the events of W2 and getting certain characters to where it’d make sense for them to be in W3.

My editor gave me the canon history of Wasteland 2, and told me where my novella needed to end. Bookends aren’t a story though, so I had to figure out the rest.

BIG SPOILERS AHEAD (seriously, stop reading if you don’t want to know)

In the official ending of W2, General Vargas sacrificed himself to save everyone and end the game. The Mannerites are revealed to be cannibals and disperse. Veronica took over Hollywood. By the start of Wasteland 3, Lt. Woodson has taken over the Arizona Rangers; Pistol Pete and Brother Thomas (among others) have put together a Los Angeles version of the Rangers, though the two groups lost touch with each other. The 3rd installment of the game was taking place in Colorado, a state most folks in Arizona weren’t sure still existed.

And Angela is still a prisoner of the remaining synths down in Seal Beach.

My job was to get her out alive and help her build a team to take to Colorado.

Luckily, I knew the game. I knew the map. If it’s Angela’s story, I wanted to start with her. Not just a damsel in distress, but an older, experienced, battle-hardened soldier – with a major physical disability that she didn’t have at the end of Wasteland 2. If she was going to get out of Seal Beach, I wanted her to have a hand in it. So she needed to escape, not just be rescued. And if that happened, if she had to get from Seal Beach to reinforcements in the greater LA area, across the desert, and back to her Ranger friends in Arizona, I had a pretty good idea of the path she’d have to take.

I wrote up an outline and sent it to my editor. He got back with some notes, I revised, sent it back, rinse and repeat. I only had a couple of months to write the book so the bulk of feedback came in the outline stage. I’d suggest ideas, and sometimes they were brilliant. Other times, they directly contradicted a bit of canon plot that hadn’t been true for me when I played through the game (since there’s so many paths to the end). And once in a while, I’d suggest something my editor didn’t think was possible, until he went back and checked with other writers on the game to find out I knew some bit of lore he’d forgotten or never knew.

After I had an approved outline, I started writing. To move as quickly as possible, I sent my editor every chapter to begin with. He’d come back with notes or questions, or ask me to insert another character from the game, and I’d keep writing. As we went along and he trusted my work, I could send a few chapters at a time. I still got notes, mostly when I’d inadvertently write in a conflict for some secret in the new game that I didn’t know. (A lot was on a need to know basis, revealed only when I hit the point where I, you know, needed to know.)

Every time my editor sent me a note, one of two things happened:

  1. I explained why I wrote it that way. If it made sense in the context of what happened in the next chapter, for example, or if my editor verified that I was right about a bit of game history, it could usually stay. If he didn’t want it though, I changed it. Or…
  2. I just changed it without discussion.

That’s it. There wasn’t a 3rd option where I pouted or flounced or insisted. It wasn’t my book. I wrote it, but No Way Home belonged to inXile (and their parent company, Microsoft). My editor even came up with the title before I got the job, and part of my job became making that title work. I didn’t have the total creative control that comes with writing for yourself. I didn’t have “final say” over anything.

I did have a nice paycheck, and if anyone reading this wants to hire me to write this kind of thing again, please note that I am very happy with a nice paycheck, thanks.

Ultimately, I did write my book the best way I could, and no one else could have written what I did. I loved the final product. I got to write a kickass 40 year-old woman in a post-apocalyptic setting, who doesn’t get sexually assaulted or fridged, who’s allowed to have messy complex feelings, who isn’t always likeable or easy to know. Horrible things happen to her because her whole life is war, but she not only survives them, she decides how she wants to live her life (particularly with regard to her disability & prosthetic.) She’s awesome! As a disabled woman in my 40s who’s also sometimes messy but definitely awesome, I was thrilled to write Angela’s story.

And I got to expand on a world I’ve known from video games for a couple of decades. I got to humanize and give depth to characters that otherwise only existed as some admittedly-cheesy lines of dialog on a screen. I was allowed to make sense of a few plot points that never quite connected in early versions of Wasteland, to revisit characters I liked from W2, and I really did feel like I had a lot of freedom along the way.

In the end, No Way Home doesn’t read like a collected of plot points forced together to connect two different video games. It could have, if we weren’t careful. But you can read my book without having played any of the games, and I know you’d still enjoy it. I’m proud of this project, I’m glad I did it, and I would absolutely do something like this again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.