Writing is a big part of the development process at Bungie. Most of us write code. Some of us write elaborate design briefs that inform the writing of code. A chosen few of us sit around all day and write outlandish lies. Those writers call their work “fiction,” which is just a fancy word for stuff that is made up
. To see if I could move one of these story-tellers closer to the realm of truth, I cornered him at the concept art wall, where he was foraging for inspiration.
Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie?
Howdy, I’m Dave Mongan, Senior Writer here at Bungie. I’m part of the team that’s crafting the story for our new game universe. Birthing characters. Scripting cinematics and mission dialog. Concocting destination fiction and deep, deep backstory. In a nutshell, I work with the other writers to wrap plausible explanations around everything that players see and do in our game.
Before we delve deeper into the experiences of the Senior Writer, Iet’s learn more about the man behind the pen. What might we find you doing when you are not concocting elaborate fabrications of reality?
Let’s see, what do I do when I’m not slaving away at the office? Lots of “research” – at least that’s what we writers call it. Watching movies, giving into the guilty pleasure of a little TV, and staying up until the wee hours of the morning playing video games (mostly shooters, currently Modern Warfare 3). I’m also an avid photographer, and when Seattle weather permits, I get out and swing the golf clubs. If I ever have extra time leftover, I spend it playing with my 9-month-old little boy, and my lovely wife. (Kidding! If my wife reads this, and she probably will, she’ll kill me for implying that anything’s more important than the Little Dude… especially golf, which I’m really not good at.)
A man has to have his priorities straight. Before you were a man, dreaming about what it would be like to grow up, what priorities did you have for your career?
For as long as I can remember (which is only back to age 13), I wanted to be a TV writer. Then I did it, and frankly, the gig didn’t live up to the hype. The worst part, in case you haven’t noticed for yourselves: Most TV these days is painfully unoriginal! Shows are hybridized, bastardized clones of everything that’s already been done. And the ones that aren’t, well, they’re nearly impossible to sell.
If I knew back then I could write video games for a living instead…? Suffice it to say my path through life would’ve been a wee bit different. For starters, I wouldn’t have wasted 15 years toiling away in the TV world. I‘d have wasted it developing mad gaming skillz so I wouldn’t get embarrassed every time I play with my Bungie coworkers.
Tell us more about your adventures in TV land. The road to writing for television had to have some interesting first steps.
Before that, I was working my way up the entertainment industry ladder for a decade and a half – starting all the way at the bottom as a Production Assistant: making coffee, running copies, taking my boss’s vomit-stained down comforter to the dry cleaner, shuttling Peter Weller to-and-from set while he hot-boxed my car with Cuban cigars. You know, the usual…
Working on-staff definitely taught me how to be a productive part of a writing team, how to give and receive notes with tact, how to write and rewrite scripts (mine and other people’s) inflicting as little damage as possible, and how to swallow my opinion when it won’t make life in The Room any easier. Development, on the other hand, made me appreciate the value of thinking outside the box, all the while keeping one eye inside the box – because you gotta know what’s selling and why if you’re gonna break new ground and do it all better. As for my days climbing the ladder? I learned never to give up.
Your tenacity is inspiring. Is there an education that equips a person to climb that ladder?
I went to USC and double-majored in Film/TV and English Creative Writing. While there, I penned some of the most treacly short stories and poetry ever to grace the page, and produced more self-indulgent student films than I care to admit. Because I knew from the get-go that I wanted to write for TV, I was mocked incessantly by the other film students, the ones who fancied themselves the next George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino or Woody Allen. The worst of the lot wanted to be all three. (Trust me, not a pretty combination.) Luckily, a lot of my professors were more understanding about my aspirations and encouraged me to start writing teleplays. I scribbled out some pretty mediocre specs of “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld” – and a few original gems (okay, stinkers) – before realizing that comedy was NOT my forte. By the time I made the switch to more serious fare, I was out of school and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was firmly on my radar. So I wrote another spec, and rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it again. After about the 11th draft, I thought it was decent enough to show around, and it actually started to get some attention. Didn’t get me any jobs, but it got me to the finals of a pretty prestigious Warner Bros. writing contest, and landed me my first agent. The rest of my education… well, that was mostly on-the-job training. Like I said before, I worked my way from the bottom up, and made sure to learn as much as possible from every writer who would share their wisdom and experience. Some were far more generous than others.
Once you had your fill of cigar smoke and literary theory, how did you make the transition to funneling your imagination into games?
Ironically, Bungie reached out to me via a company called Blindlight in L.A. A TV-Writer friend of mine put me in touch with the guys at Blindlight about writing the next project for Heavy Rain creator David Cage. Bungie saw my credits and my samples and came calling.
That is very much to your credit. It’s rare that we are the pursuer. Of course, no one gets past Jerome without surviving the audition. Tell us about yours.
It began on day one with an intensive writing/brainstorming session with Joseph Staten, interrupted only by a lunchtime grilling with Chris Barrett and Jason Jones. The next day, starting promptly at 9 AM, I was locked in a conference room as reps from practically every discipline came by to hurl questions my way. I met with members of the Cinematics team, Production, Environment Art, Combatant Design, Mission Design, Audio (and probably a bunch of others that I don’t even recall now). By the time my loop was complete – 8 hours later – I’d lost my voice and felt half brain-dead. But I knew one thing for sure: every single person I’d met was immensely passionate about working at Bungie… and I was immensely lucky to be interviewing to join them.
And here you are, as a member of our team. What is the best thing about that?
Coming up with the craziest ideas imaginable – then making them crazier – then pitching them to other members of the team and having them embrace the insanity.
Tell us a story (a true story) about a day in the life of a Senior Writer.
Usually, I roll in around 9 AM. I hit the kitchen for a cup of coffee, a piece of fruit, or maybe a protein bar if I’m feeling particularly peckish. I walk the maze that is our open bullpen, shouting-out hellos to the gang, making sure to pass by our wall of amazing concept art for a boost of inspiration. Finally I arrive at my station, where I boot-up my system and launch all my go-to programs, especially Final Draft.
I like to get started by reading whatever script I was working on the previous day – a task which often leads to a quick bout of self-loathing, and deletion of said script. But then an even deeper bout of self-loathing strikes, and the previously-deleted script gets un-deleted. Eventually, I realize it’s wisest to take a moment away, so I catch up on email, laugh at some Photoshopped pics of Marty O’Donnell on email, check a slew of industry websites as “research,” then pay a visit to the cinematics folder on our network to see if there are any new cuts of scenes. (Not strictly in that order, of course.)
Somewhere along the way I’ll revisit my scripts with a slightly more constructive attitude – usually just in time to start attending meetings for the day: story planning meetings, notes sessions, table reads, motion capture shoots, fiction syncs with the world teams, playtests…
When lunchtime hits, the work stops and we break away from the office to grab food from one of the “delicious" dining options within walking distance. The afternoon is often a repeat of the pre-lunch routine: re-check email, get a good laugh at Marty’s expense, sit-in on a meeting or two, then get back to hating my scripts ‘til quitting time.
Bungie tries pretty hard to make sure that quitting time is not the best part of our day. Is there something that we do to make this studio a great place to work that stands out in your make-believe-addled mind?
Oh man, there are too many to list. But since I’m a lover of words, I’ll list a bunch anyway. Favorite perks: the never-ending supply of red apples, Red Bull, and Red Vines in the kitchen. Oh, and the beer fridge that’s fully-stocked for team meetings. Oh, and I can’t forget Pentathlon day, when the entire studio shuts down to play games together, all in the spirit of morale-building. All in all, pretty sweet.
How does that morale best manifest itself? Can you describe that one moment in which someone appreciated your work, and assured you that you belonged here?
I definitely think the best is yet to come. But if I have to give an answer, okay… Remember what I said before about pitching crazier-than-crazy ideas? Well, there’s one particular zinger that comes to mind – an idea so hair-brained that one of the other writers, Clay (aka The Mouche), laughed out loud in my face. In all fairness, it was a laughable idea. But there was a kernel of something super-cool there. So we talked it over a bit more, amping the cool way up, and toning the absurd way down. And eventually when I pitched it to Staten, he loved it. Then we started sharing it with other members of the larger team… and I’ll be damned if they didn’t love it too!
It’s good to know that you are challenging us with levels of craziness that we can’t anticipate. How does Bungie challenge you to grow as a writer?
I analyze story in every way possible. Whether I’m watching TV or a movie, playing a new game or reading comic books, I’m actively breaking down the plot and characters… much to the chagrin of my very patient wife and co-workers. Because in truth, “analyze” usually means “complain about ad nauseum,” or gripe “I should have thought of that first!” It’s amazingly cathartic and educational to see how other writers build their stories – what they do well, and what they royally screw up. Not only does it help you learn and grow as a writer, but occasionally it makes you feel much better about yourself.
All of this back-breaking, mind-bending labor must sound like candy to many of our readers. What would you tell them, so that they can steal your job someday?
This may sound kinda touchy-feely-granola, but it’s true: set your intention, then do whatever it takes to make it happen. That includes getting the necessary training and education, spending long hours honing your craft (yes, writing is 99% re-writing!), putting yourself out there even at the risk of rejection, and not being afraid to work your way up from the bottom. The long hard slog from chauffeuring Peter Weller to helping create Bungie’s next big universe builds character, and arms you with a lot of ridiculous, sometimes embarrassing stories to share with the rest of the writing team.
Final Question: Experience, Work Ethic, or Talent? Rank them in order of importance to your role.
Work ethic matters above all else. Assuming you have a modicum of talent, and at least a little experience under your belt, it’s all about the right attitude. In short: Don’t be an ass. Be confident, but for the love of all that’s holy stay humble. I’ve known a lot of talented writers in my life, and more than a few who’ve felt some perverted sense of superiority, entitlement even – as if they were god’s gift to the written word and opportunities should be laid at their feet like virgin sacrifices. News flash: You have to earn things in life. It’s a universal truth. Unless you’re one of those lucky bastards who has insanely good fortune just drop in your lap. If that’s the case, a) Screw you; and b) Buy a lottery ticket, don’t jump into a field where you’re surrounded by insane creativity as far as the eye can see. Because at the end of the day, we’re all working our asses off together to make the most kickass new game imaginable… and if everything goes to plan, paving the way to world domination.
We should have known that a writer would be so generous about sharing the story that led him to Bungie’s open bullpen. Thank you for dispelling the myths about your gig, Dave. Not all of these features are this long, but all of them cut equally close to the truth. If you would like to know about all the disciplines that go into Bungie’s next project, and how people come to practice them, our Breaking In
archive is always available to provide you with some lighter reading.