Interview: Blizzard's Chris Metzen, Pt. 1

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!