Interview: Blizzard's Chris Metzen, Pt. 1

Nathan Grayson



Image credit: Lorehound

Whether you know him for his signature sunglasses and booming BlizzCon presence or a trio of obscure series by the names of Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo, you've almost certainly crossed paths with Chris Metzen. While he's definitely not a one-man show, Metzen's gained a reputation as the story guy at Blizzard. Let's put it this way: Without him, there'd be no “World.” The absurdly popular MMO would just be “Of Warcraft.” And it probably wouldn't be anywhere near as popular.

Without a doubt, Metzen's left an incredibly iconic mark over the course of his 17-year career. That said, a lot can change in nearly two decades, and you don't have to tell Metzen twice. And so, after Blizzard's GDC Online summit, I sat down with Metzen for an interview so mighty that one post cannot even hope to contain it. So, in the first of two installments, we discuss Metzen's evolution as a writer, Blizzard's approach to storytelling, inspiration, Star Wars, Avatar: The Last Airbender (seriously!), and more.

PCG: During your GDC Online panel, you briefly discussed the idea of creating stories that last. However, Flint Dille noted that – during his time writing for Transformers – he was hardly trying to create Shakespeare with giant car robots. Yet it endured. So is the very idea of trying to create a tale for the ages counterproductive? Does it just end up coming off as forced?

Chris Metzen: I think that's an interesting drawback. I think, increasingly, I'm feeling that just trying to chase the big new clever hook or a way of looking at some new sci-fi or fantasy archetype no one's ever thought of before... you can't just get caught up in chasing that over and over.

You know, JJ Abrams' Star Trek movie made us look at what mattered about Star Trek. But ultimately, all the contrivances and goofy gimmicks are really not the point. The characters are the point. And you can get into all sorts of worlds and all sorts of world hooks, but even when Star Trek is the example, it was re-looking at all those relationships – and why we care about those people. That was the goal of that movie. It wasn't necessarily the plot of the big space ship breaking planets. We've seen all that shit before. But we hadn't seen these characters that are beloved in that new light. It was a genius re-telling.

In that way, I feel more and more that we have to start drawing on our own personal experience – things that occur in our lives and create an emotional hook within us. We really need to apply that in a clever way to these characters and places. Over the arc of Cataclysm, I really tried to push this character of Thrall as a main new thing and really have this character that was one of our cooler characters [examined in a new light].

Without getting too deep into it, I had a gnarly couple years. A lot of life-changing events went on. And I was just really feeling all that shit. It's kind of like a musician; you want to pour your heart into the craft, and that's how you get the world's greatest love songs or ballads. In a lot of ways, it was maybe mistaken to do so. You know, time will tell.

I just put a lot of my emotional and angst into this character that I've built up over time. Because you can argue that Thrall got into this space where he was just incorruptible. He was Superman, right? And at that level, his context is interesting, but his personal walk is not all that interesting. He never lies, he's always upright, he always does the right thing. Somehow, he pulls it together against impossible odds. We needed that in the Warcraft III era.

But as I started thinking more about the character and my own life experience, it was like, you know, how interesting would it be if we really dig this guy out and find that he's just totally hollowed out. Everything he's fought for and everything he's done – while everyone else looks and goes 'Wow, that's really admirable' – in effect, a gnawing insecurity has pushed him through all these things. That's just a really interesting hook. In that way, the idea that we would engage these characters a really personal level and look at what makes them tick spins back out into the franchise.

Ultimately, in patch 4.3, Thrall has this moment where he becomes this great superhero for the world. But it's so much more poignant for me because he's had to come through this personal siege and rediscover who he is and why he does what he does. I use that as an example of really reaching deep into life experience and letting your own trials affect the fiction. And whether it's really clever or not, you hope that's the kind of thing people walk away from and go “Damn. I felt that.”

It's about as clever as any other fantasy hook. There are plenty of fantasy worlds – books and games – to get into. But I just felt like we needed to start reaching deeper. Same kind of thing with StarCraft. When you have that well of emotionality to pull from, you find deeper gears within these characters. And that's where it starts to become art again. You're not just chasing these contrivances to keep up with every other developer out there with their great characters. I feel there's a truth in that.

PCG: What about Blizzard as a whole? Is that now the company's main priority with story?

CM: I've been in this racket about 17 years, and you tire out. How do you keep your ideas fresh? Well, the one thing that never stops is living. We have experiences. We grow as people. And really letting those experiences come forward – kind of being naked with them – that's the kind of thing people can't compete against. Everyone can come up with a new Trilithium Crystal Warp Drive, but what you can't argue with is a person's experience and the truth of it.

So the trick from a leadership standpoint at Blizzard is to make it OK for these writers to really bring themselves out to affect these quests and characters. Ultimately, that's what sings forward. The clever shit will get trounced in no time. It's like gameplay mechanics. You can put out an RTS with the best mission ever. Well, another company will put out something even better, because we're all learning from each other.

PCG: What initially drew you to writing about games, of all things – especially since you started back when technology was still pretty limited?

When I was a kid, I was a huge GI Joe and Transformers fan. I remember the name Flint Dille flashing across the screen and wondering who that was. What a trip that life would lead me on a course where I'd get to meet him – let alone become good friends with him. But I grew up in the '80s, and we had a hundred flavors. Where commerce meets young minds, right? It was the craziest time post-Star Wars, because all these action figure companies realized they could be putting 22-minute commercials on TV, and all these executives didn't give a damn what it is, so long as it made their product look cool.

So guys like Flint created these narratives that – while not super deep – were super exciting. There was always a new hook and always a new episode to let your mind fall into. I grew up at a time where I just imprinted on all these ideas, and it's all I ever wanted to chase.

That was refined by getting into things like comic books and Dungeons & Dragons – two very different media types, but nonetheless these big expansive worlds. I love Marvel comics because it's this big shared universe where you have all these separate characters and storylines, but they all live in the same town. One month in Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four would jump in. I love the idea that all these people inhabited the same place, but they had their own vectors.

And so that really started to cook in my head – this idea of big, shared universes. Whereas Star Wars was its own gig – Star Wars did not meet the Thunder Cats – in Marvel comics, all these folks could hang out. And then it graduated to Dungeons & Dragons. While they were obviously closed worlds, they were these big, Tolkien-like places that you could run around in.

As a kid, I had never seen anything like that. It wasn't moving pictures. You had to inhabit that space in your own imagination. So my friends and I would just chase this shit down, and I'd be drawing pictures of all these characters and losing my mind in these spaces that really only existed through the lens of your imagination. So you kind of owned it uniquely as a group.

I look back on the work I've been fortunate enough to do with Blizzard constructing these meta-spaces where a lot of these characters share these universes, but like, the Horde has a very different vector than the Alliance. And you and your friends experience all that as a group. We can go through it together. In some ways, I look at something like World of Warcraft, and it starts to look like a fusion of these TSR worlds I grew up with and a comic book universe – where there are different characters and different factions.

I think I over-answered your question.

PCG: Aside from, you know, life, are there any particular works that are inspiring you now? Like, you looked at them and immediately went all artistic He-Man? “I have the pooooower – to create !”

CM: It's a constant stream. I mean, I still probably spend just as much on comics as when I was 12. That's been a consistent burn all my life. But – and this is gonna sound really funny – I've been doubling down on animation lately. I really consume cartoons. I mean, I've got kids now, and it's a thing we can do to kind of jam. My rugrats are peripherally interested in the stuff I loved as a kid, but it doesn't necessarily translate one-to-one. But some of it really does. So to have my kids and re-look at these ideas, it's like “I totally get that.” So instead of my peers and brothers at Blizzard – I know what they all think – but looking through the eyes of little kids has been totally eye-opening.

We powered through Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I swear to you, I haven't had this much fun with an idea [in ages]. Their world-building and the humanity of those characters and the themes the creators fearlessly chased... I don't know how they got it made. With this cynical world we live in and the way children usually develop in terms of TV, usually it's just a marketing ploy. But these guys created something that was just a poem from start-to-finish. A love letter of story and character and family and love.

It was just overwhelming to me. It had me tearing up every other episode. And to be able to share that with my kids [was incredible]. And to look at how much I imprinted on GI Joe or Marvel or Transformers, the idea that my eight-year-old daughter's imprinting on Airbender? There's so much more depth than anything I was chasing as a kid. It staggers me to think about where her little imagination will be when that's her base. It's just got so much heart and conscience, but kicked ass too. Those final episodes were just ridiculous. Ridiculous! It was just a staggering piece of art.

I was telling a buddy the other day that I hold it up as [Pink Floyd's] The Wall of animation. You look at music, and The Wall that just... talk about transmedia. It's a piece of art for all time that you're experiencing at, like, five different levels. And I look at Avatar, and – while a wildly different kind of expression, far more commercial – I don't think I've ever seen a serial animated piece that sang like that. Or at least, not an American piece.

I look at everything Blizzard does, and you look at the state of the world; I want to be tapped into what that show made me feel. Character, conviction, redemption – that show just sang to me, and I love that my kids got to see it in this day and age. I mean, our culture can get a little cynical. Especially hardcore geeks – God help George Lucas, right? Boy are we merciless, right?

But you can't be merciless to George. Prequels or not, he's changed the world. Kids in Calcutta know what Darth Vader's helmet looks like. We get so pissy when things don't match our expectations, but then something like Avatar comes out. It's like “Wow, people are still slugging real ideas with real heart.” It's not about being clever. It's about sticking to your guns. It's about saying something to the world – being part of the discussion. Not just some cynical marketing ploy.

Check back tomorrow for part two!

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