Nick Cole is an Army veteran and working actor living in Southern California. When he is not auditioning for commercials, going out for sitcoms or being shot, kicked, stabbed or beaten by film school students, the author of The Old Man and the Wasteland and The Wasteland Saga can often be found as a guard for King Phillip II of Spain or a similar role in the Opera Don Carlo at Los Angeles Opera. His latest novel is Soda Pop Soldier.
by Nick Cole
I’ve been playing video games for a long time. Table top Pong might be one of my earliest memories. I’ve done my time in almost every age of gaming and had experiences unique to each. Like getting owned on Colecovision because the controller was absolutely messed up, unless you owned one and had the time to master its epic wonkiness. I didn’t. Or hanging out at your friend’s house while he played Wizardry. 80’s arcades on a Friday night. Nintendo in the 90’s and shooters in the millennium like Call of Duty.
A few years back, I wrote a novel that was part Hemingway homage and part Fallout the video game. The Old Man and the Wasteland was set forty years after a nuclear war and it was the story of a survivor who only had one book to read: Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I ended up writing two sequels and all three books can be found in The Wasteland Saga. When it came time to write my next novel, I wanted to write something that was fun and exciting. A military action thriller set in the future. Soda Pop Soldier is all those things set in the world of Video Gaming. Crazy huh? But before you go thinking I just wrote a novel and then had the main character strap on a VR (Virtual Reality) rig so the action seemed just like real life, know this: I didn’t do that. Yeah, it’s the future, but I wanted to make it a relatable experience to people who actually play video games today. So, there’s no VR. It’s desktops and screaming eyeballs while hunched over a flickering display for far too long. Just like gamers today. But it’s more than that. The main character, PerfectQuestion, is basically a professional athlete fighting for a major corporation. He gets paid to slaughter his opponents in a digital world similar to Vietnam but using Aliens-style Dropships and automatic weapons. But that’s his day job. By night he gets caught up in the illegal world of the Black. Think Vegas meets World of Warcraft.
So how do you use video gaming to tell a story about video games? Well interestingly, video games have gotten really good at story telling. Max Payne 1 and 2 left me with a profound sense of tarnished nobility and whatever-it-takes resolution. Red Dead Redemption ended on such a bittersweet note that you looked at life a little differently after the final gun battle. So video gaming and story telling have a lot of common ground. But what about the actual physical mechanics of gaming, how do they find their way into the story? Well, for the portions of Soda Pop Soldier that deal with the Black, I used a slow motion video gaming concept called Bullet Time (think most awesome moments in The Matrix). It was a great way to slow down moments of action, create tension, and allow the character a lot of inner dialog within the span of mere seconds of advancing story time.
I drew deep, along with my military experience and my love of noir literature and film, from some very specific video games to tell this story of greed, betrayal and survival. For the modern combat scenes where mega-corporations are slugging it out in a fictional Vietnam called Song Hua, I was inspired by the Battlefield series and the Call of Duty series, both of which I play a lot on console. Both series concentrate on modern warfare. While the Battlefield series takes a big picture, or almost tactical look at modern combat, allowing the players to use jet and tank along with ground combat infantry troops, Call of Duty goes all rock and roll, run and gun. In Soda Pop Soldier I married both of these giants by making the battles big and strategic with players being able to use rocket launching tanks, missile-laden mechs, and lethal dropships, while still having to fight their way across muddy alleyways with bullets whipping by their heads at lethal subsonic speeds.
Then there are the portions of Soda Pop Soldier set inside the Black. The Black is a gothic dungeon crawl where the worst of society competes for prizes amid vice and outright death-based games. The Diablo series was the basis for the World of Wastehavens, where the Black tournament is set. The main character plays a one-handed Samurai who starts out in a dungeon (Like almost every Bethesda Elder Scrolls game, i.e. Oblivion, Morrowind, Skyrim). I wanted to make the World of Wastehavens mournful, doom laden, and lethal. I even tried to describe the settings from a musical standpoint, drawing on many of the great video game soundtracks that are out there and have accompanied gamers on some really great adventures. Of course, Diablo 2 is my favorite.
Along with these major games, there are a number of mini-games throughout the novel that the main character has to solve to unlock prizes. I think many readers will recognize games from their smartphones as the inspiration for these wacky puzzles.
So that’s Soda Pop Soldier. I call the genre GameNoir, and I think it could be a game changer in the world of fiction. Games are becoming very big in our lives. Almost everyone is playing them. Even our parents. Big game launches devastate comparative movie openings in opening day numbers.
I really came away from this experience enjoying writing about, both realistically and with regards to an eye-on-the-next-big-thing, something I am passionate about: Games. I think the stories we are beginning to live out in games: the end games of the big MMO’s, the politics of EVE online, and the way we play our RPG’s, are going to make for some excellent storytelling in the world of fiction. Check out Soda Pop Soldier… and oh, BTW, Game On!