Note: the following discussion includes many spoilers for Heroes V, Hammers of Fate and Dark Messiah -- proceed at your own risk. Special thanks go to Marzhin, Kareeah Indaga, theLuckyDragon and Elvin, whose questions were reprinted in this article.
Can you tell us a bit about you, your previous works and how you came to work on the Might and Magic series?
Richard Dansky [RD]: My name is Richard Dansky. I'm the Central Clancy Writer for Ubisoft, and I've worked on games including Far Cry, Cold Fear, Splinter Cell: Double Agent, and a few others for Ubi. Before coming to Ubi, I worked for White Wolf, and contributed to Exalted and the World of Darkness. I've published four novels, including a fantasy trilogy, and have another one coming up from Wizards of the Coast. I think it was that combination of having done world-building, fantasy writing, and game writing that brought me to the Might & Magic project.
Jeff Spock [JS]: My name is Jeff Spock, and I've been involved in all of the M&M titles that Ubisoft has done plus a few other games (primarily the Ghost Recon series). I come to game writing from speculative fiction writing; though I have been an avid gamer for decades (!) on both tabletop and computers I had never tried to combine both of those passions before. Ubisoft auditioned a number of writers for the project, and they liked what I did.
Jeff Spock, proudly holding a copy of the Heroes V Collector's Edition
Have you played the previous games of the series?
[RD] Not all, but a good many, and when I was added to the project I went back and replayed them so I could really get a handle on the feel and tone of those games.
[JS] The same as Richard, basically. Heroes III and IV are the ones that I know best.
With Heroes V, Ubisoft created a new universe for the M&M series: Ashan. As the writer for Heroes V and Dark Messiah, did you take part to the conception of this setting?
[RD] I was very much a part of the re-imagining of the world, which was really tremendously fun to do. The goal that we had from the beginning was to create a universe that could support a wide range of stories and games, one that felt like a real world instead of a color-by-numbers map. We really looked to more mature fantasy as our inspiration - George R.R. Martin, P.C. Hodgell, Michael Moorcock - and worked hard to come up with a world where everyone had a believable agenda. In Ashan, orcs and elves have rational self-interest - they're not just generically "good" or "evil".
[JS] When I came on board Richard and Erwan (Le Breton) had already done quite a bit of the world building. They had some exceptional ideas and created a strong backbone with the world timeline. Since then we have been filling in the details, deepening the histories and cultures of the different factions, etc. I hope to end up giving the players a world that has both wit and weight, along the lines of tales by Neil Gaiman, Jack Vance, and Roger Zelazny as well as the "pure" high fantasy authors that Richard mentioned.
We know Ubi has already thought of the future evolution of the world of Ashan. What freedom Ubi gave you for creating the story for Heroes V? Were you supposed to follow an already-defined synopsis of some sort?
[RD] It's always a balancing act between making sure the needs of the world get met - in this case, making sure the stories for Heroes V and Dark Messiah linked up properly - and having the sort of creative freedom that makes the job fun. Overall, I think we hit a pretty good balance.
[JS] The story for Heroes V was well defined before I was brought on board, though I spent a lot of time trying to tweak it. The same goes for the Heroes V single mission maps - about all that I did there was touch up the English.
The main campaign had an interesting story line but it revolved around a few people, their personal goals, and their friends and enemies. The scope of that kind of story seems to me to be more fitting to an FPS or RPG than a strategy game where you need to conquer cities, build armies, and collect resources. Because the story was sometimes distant from what happened on the adventure and battle maps, it took lots of cutscenes to explain what was going on.
I tried to change that for Hammers of Fate by creating a story line that couldn't exist without conquering territory and having large pitched battles.
My goal is to have the gameplay objectives and the narrative as tightly woven as possible.
Are there particular elements in the story (places, characters, events?) that were brought by you specifically?
[RD] I spent a lot of time arguing with Erwan about including the elf pirates, so they're a particular favourite. The part of the world history I like best, though, is the rebellion of the orcs. In so much fantasy, the orcs are just the generic bad guys, so to have them stand up for something and be punished, brutally, for doing so - I think that's interesting and powerful, and there's a lot that can be done with it.
[JS] The things that I created that I can really point a finger at are characters and dialogue rather than the world or history. I had fun making Markal an over-the-top evil moustache-twirler, turning Agrael into a frustrated and stressed leader who makes snide comments about the elves, making Zehir an impetuous genius and giving him Narxes as a sidekick, etc. By the way, for those of you who play the English version you may notice that Findan occasionally speaks to himself in haiku.
With Hammers of Fate I had more leeway. I made Freyda a tougher character than I was able to do for Isabel, plus they let me kill off Godric, create the schism between the Dwarven clans, etc.
Isabel and Agrael, two central characters of the new Might and Magic universe
In terms of writing, what's the main difference in working on a strategy game like Heroes V and an action title like Dark Messiah?
[RD] With an action game, the dialogue really helps to guide the player through the game, so it all has to be done in conjunction with the timing of the gameplay. That creates a very different set of constraints from a strategy game like Heroes V, where you have more of a formal space for the story and the dialogue.
[JS] Exactly. In Dark Messiah, a player is running around large levels completing them in the order they want and with the gameplay they like. It's hard to ensure that they still get the right story elements and gameplay clues in the right order. Not only that, but you often have to give the information in brief one-line dialogue snippets.
In a strategy game, the story and the dialogue can be a little richer because there is more control over the presentation. Unless of course, the player skips the cutscenes…
Lots of gamers and long-time fans of Might and Magic felt the story of Heroes V was sometimes a bit awkward, with some disturbing plot holes. For instance, Freyda simply vanishes from the story at some point, making most of players to believe Markal actually killed her, thus her return in Hammers of Fate was a bit strange.
[JS] True. In Heroes V Markal says:
"Now I can fly straight to Hikm to chat with Godric. Perhaps I'll bring his daughter as well -- after I kill her and resurrect her as a wight. Or perhaps not. It takes time to do these things properly."
Markal was in a hurry at that point; his grand plan was coming to fruition and he was more focused on that than on his personal entertainment. Freyda was no longer useful to him as he had already neutralized Godric, and he had better things to do than involve himself in petty vengeance - he's wasn't a petty character!
Biara seems to manage to be everywhere at the same time. How long exactly Queen Isabel's war lasted?
[JS] The history books will say that the war lasted only a year or two, though the events of Heroes V are not necessarily linear (in particular, campaigns 2 and 4 run somewhat in parallel to campaign 3). Throughout the story Biara has an important role. In fact, to a certain extent the whole history of Heroes V and its extensions revolves around complications created by Biara. Though the Demon Sovereign is the antagonist, it is Biara's peerless execution of his orders that causes most of the problems for the heroes.
It is not clear if Isabel is still pregnant or has already gave birth at the end of the game...)
[RD] Sareth is just about 20 when the events of Dark Messiah occur. So if you do the math…
[JS] Oops - it's supposed to be clear. Isabel was kidnapped and impregnated by the Demon Sovereign, who accelerated her pregnancy and then stole the child.
We know of Sar-Antor, founder of the Blind Brothers, Sar-Badon, founder of the Dragon Knights, and Sar-Shazzar. Who were the other 4? And what happened to those two orders?
[RD] This is one of those things where I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you. You'll be finding out more about the hidden orders, as well as the disciples of the Seventh Dragon, in the future. But I'm not allowed to tell you yet…
After the Ritual of True Nature performed by Tieru, Agrael turns out to be a dark elf, and it is hinted it is what he was all the time, under this red armor. But if he was actually an elf, how could he be a spy in the human Griffin Empire?
[JS] Easier for a Dark Elf than for a Demon! Part of the cosmology of Ashan is that Demons, being creatures of chaos, cannot stay on the surface of the world for extended periods of time. Because of this Agrael was a perfect tool for the Demon Sovereign. Being a Dark Elf he was skilled in stealth and subterfuge, and being a mortal of Ashan the Demon Sovereign did not have to worry about complex rituals to keep him alive.
Is there any reason for adding references to old characters (Sandro, Crag Hack, Solmyr) ? Some fans thought it was... inappropriate.
[JS] I was given that as part of the brief for the cutscenes - to drop in a few names of old characters as a sort of wink-and-nudge to those who were long-time fans of the series. We were certainly not out to annoy anyone.
Why does Ashan have three moons and what is their story?
[RD] One contains the slumbering Asha, who is recuperating from her battle with Urgash. At some point, she will awaken, which is going to make things very interesting. The other two? That would be telling, but I can say that the rumor that both of them are filled with dark chocolate and creamy caramel is probably not on the right track.
I recall Tieru says he saved Alexei's (Nicolaï's father) soul. That probably means Tieru was present when Alexei was killed in Sheogh, but how did he get away from the citadel of the Sovereign? (Elvin)
[JS] In fact, there were a number of armies and leaders present at the citadel when those events occurred. There was also Cyrus, king of the Wizards, who thought the attack was ridiculous and did not participate, as well as Alaron, king of the Sylvan Elves, who was too scared to join it. As a powerful druid, counsellor of the king, and authority on the demons, Tieru was certainly there to help in the war. He stayed with Alaron outside the citadel, however, and did not take part in Alexei's suicidal attack.
Finally, Jeff, your portfolio site mentionned that you were working on a new fantasy game. I know you probably can't tell us about it, but do you think this future game has potential to interest the M&M community?
[JS] This is one of those things where I could tell you, but then Ubisoft would send Sam Fisher after me... Let me just say that the M&M community will not be disappointed!