This Man Lords Over Tom Clancy’s Expansive Fictional Universe
Richard Dansky is the master of the late author’s creations at Ubisoft
by MATTHEW GAULT
Richard Dansky once set his desk on fire while listening to prog-rock and writing about ghosts. Now he’s the guy who helps video game company Ubisoft maintain order in the late Tom Clancy’s fictional, technothriller universe.
Dansky was also the lead writer for the near-future multiplayer shooter The Division. He’s had a strange career.
Clancy, who died in 2013, is the most popular military-thriller writer of all time. He wrote dozens of books, co-authored many more and lent his name to more than 50 video games. Millions read his books and millions more play his games. Caring for this expansive legacy is, to say the least, an intimidating task.
Ubisoft’s Clancy-expert is an author in his own right. Dansky started his career working at White Wolf, a publisher of horror-themed tabletop role-playing games. White Wolf spent the 1980s and ’90s churning out dozens of games featuring vampires, ghosts and werewolves — all set in the same fictional universe called the World of Darkness.
The World of Darkness games were like the Dungeons & Dragons games, except for kids who read H.P. Lovecraft instead of reading J.R.R. Tolkien. I was one of those kids.
“The White Wolf offices were in this converted warehouse in suburban Atlanta and we all worked absolutely insane hours,” Dansky told me. “But the thing that always drove us was people were enjoying doing this. We want to make it the best as possible. I would be there at two in the morning a lot — and I would not be alone.”
Dansky primarily worked on Wraith, a game about ghosts — and one of the grimmest in the World of Darkness. He said he was so distracted by the writing that he once accidentally set his desk on fire.
“I was fond closing the curtains and turning off the lights and lighting a large pillar candle on my desk … and just going to a dark place to find my writing groove,” he told me. “If it looked like the candle was about to go out, I’d blow it out and start a new one. That was the depths of my artistic extravagance in those days.”
He was in the throes of writing when he got a call. Another writer in the office wanted to hash out the plot of a novel he was writing. Dansky left his office, but forgot to blow out his huge candle.
“All of a sudden a voice comes on the P.A.,” he recalled. His voice dropped and he did an impression of a gravely voice booming over a speaker. “‘Richard Dansky, please come back to your office. Your desk is on fire.’”
He said he rushed back to his office to find his pillar candle had collapsed, spreading hot wax across his desk and setting alight a book of matches. “I was a little more cautious with candles after that.”
Speaking with Dansky reminded me of a my childhood in suburban Texas, playing card games at local comic and hobby stores. Some pretty intimidating adults and teenagers lingered in those haunts. Many of them were quite cruel. Most smelled pretty terrible.
But there were always a few stoic, pleasant folks who were really knowledgeable about the complex games … and patient with younger gamers like me.
Dansky reminds me of these kinder souls. He’s careful with his words, patient with silly questions and happy that people enjoy his work. No wonder Red Storm Entertainment — the North Carolina-based Ubisoft studio that handles Clancy’s properties — snatched him up.
“I had hit a point in World of Darkness where I felt like I had said everything I needed to say,” Dansky said. Dave Weinstein — Dansky’s friend and, at the time, a Red Storm employee — knew the writer wanted something new and pressured him to apply to Red Storm.
“Dave is very, very, very persistent,” Dansky said. “So I sent a resume up and — lo and behold — it happened.” He was at an RPG convention when he got the word. “So I … announced I was leaving tabletops for video games and one of my peers looked at me and said, ‘You’ve leveled.’”
Clancy co-founded Red Storm Entertainment in the mid-’90s as a development studio for video games based on his work. It’s responsible for the popular Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon series of games. Ubisoft bought the company in 2000, just after Dansky joined the team.
“They brought me on to do design and writing,” he explained. His first project was a game called Shadow Watch that was based on Clancy’s Power Play paperback series. “There were dialogue trees that needed organization.”
Afterward, Dansky began to do design work on Clancy games and was the lead designer on the mission packs for the original Ghost Recon. He floated between teams, supporting the writers and designers where he could. Then Ubisoft bought Red Storm. “There was a need for some institutional knowledge about the Clancy brand,” Dansky explained.
Clancy’s universe is … complicated. The brand encompasses millions of words, thousands of characters and crisscrossing storylines set in the past, present and future. It’s hard to keep straight. Ubisoft wanted to take full advantage of the Clancy brand, but it also didn’t want to dilute it.
“The idea of having a central repository for that knowledge became a more and more appealing idea,” Dansky told me. After some interviews, Ubisoft decided he was the person for the job. “I could respond to stuff quickly, I had the writing background and I was familiar with the Clancy material. I had read most of [the books] and, once I got the job, I finished off the rest pretty quickly.”
Dansky said he loves the job, but he admitted that it’s an odd one. He’s the gatekeeper for the video-game version of the Clancyverse. And just as Marvel’s cinematic universe is informed by, but not behold to, the comics, so is the video-game Clancyverse not directly tied to Clancy’s novels.
“One of the things to understand is that we really built our own universe that has its own history, legacy, character and villains,” Dansky explained. “Our universe is really informed by the spirit of Mr. Clancy’s books.
“It’s very easy to read a Tom Clancy novel and understand the things that make something ‘Clancy,’” he continued. “You always look at the cutting-edge technology. The phrase we like to use is, ‘Tomorrow, not the day after tomorrow.’ There’s always a clear and present danger. There is always the use of military to achieve a very specific end.”
Clancy’s world always has an ethical rigidity, Dansky added. The geopolitics may be murky, but right and wrong are always perfectly clear. “You’re not going to see a lot of exploitative material in those books or in the games that are derived from that.”
Using those guideposts, Dansky is the arbiter of what is and is not a Clancy game. “You put those together and see, does this story fit and if not — if it violates [a] tenet [such as] the technology isn’t there or the clear and present danger isn’t there — how can we bring it back into the golden circle of what makes something Clancy?”
“I like to think of myself as a resource,” Dansky said. “We have a lot of teams in a lot of countries working on this stuff. One of the great things about Ubisoft is that the teams get an incredible amount of creative freedom to take brands and take them to new places. So I’m here as a resource. As a gut check. They can call me and say, ‘Hey, can we set something in Rio De Janeiro?’ And I say, ‘Well, we kind of blew it up in H.A.W.X.’”
Just after Red Storm hired Dansky, he got a chance to meet Clancy. “I … had a fanboy moment,” he said. “I was completely star-struck and gobsmacked. My father was a huge Tom Clancy fan and he’d gotten me into it.”
After he finished talking to Clancy, Dansky rushed to a phone. “I called my dad and went, ‘Oh my God, do you know who I just talked to?’”
Dansky said his favorite Clancy novels are The Hunt for Red October and Without Remorse. “Hunt … really went to a new place in terms of military thrillers,” he told me. “It felt incredibly immersive. I had been reading science fiction novels and fantasy novels and God knows how many H.P. Lovecraft knock-offs. [Hunt for Red October] landed in my lap and it was something completely different.”
Without Remorse — the story of anti-hero John Clark — helped Dansky bridge the gap between his love of horror fiction and the dark geopolitical possibilities of Clancy’s world.
“[It’s] the strongest character study and really gets into the motivations of some of this stuff in a way that underpins the most interesting elements of what Clancy was writing about.”
“If you look at a lot of what I consider the best popular horror and you look at what Mr. Clancy’s novels were, they’re both about the everyman or everywoman faced with impossible circumstances and rising to the occasion,” Dansky said.
“It’s true of Tom Clancy novel the same way it’s true of a Stephen King novel,” he continued. “Whether you are looking at the threat of nuclear annihilation of the threat of vampires overrunning a small town in Maine, it’s the same essential approach where you have to stand up and do something about this threat. You have to actively resist it — and you will be tested in doing so.”
I asked Dansky if he had ever thought about making a horror game set in the Clancy universe. “That would be a dream project for me,” he replied.
Dansky said he spends his days answering emails, taking phone calls and writing, always writing. He has an office in Durham, North Carolina where he responds to questions from Ubisoft’s global video game team.
“I wouldn’t say I’m in charge of it,” he said of Clancy’s legacy. “I feed it and I water it and other people take it exciting places. Sometimes I go along. Sometimes I wave as it goes. It’s a great thing to be a part of and it’s a great thing to collaborate with so many teams and so many studios that bring different perspectives to it.”
Dansky was the head writer on The Division, Ubisoft’s popular online shooter set in the Clancyverse. “We had an absolutely fantastic team that was scattered over multiple countries. We all came together and produced something that was really, really good — and being able to collaborate like that is a great feeling above and beyond just working in games.”
Dansky said he doesn’t just work in video games. Old habits and old fascinations die hard. The people behind Wraith successfully Kickstarted a 20th-anniversary edition of the old tabletop RPG. When I spoke with Dansky, he said he’d been up till 2:00 the night before working on it.
He did not burn down his desk this time.