Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Writers Who Love Video Games

When I was in first grade something weird started happening. Kids were getting taken out of class in groups of three or four, and when they returned they were … altered. I was pretty sure that the time had come, and we were finally being replaced by our replicant doubles, and I just hoped that when it was my turn I would meet my fate proudly and not beg.

Instead when it was my turn we were taken down the hall and down the stairs into our school’s fallout shelter (yeah, yeah, I’m old. Saw me in half and count the rings, why don’t you) and ushered into the presence of this:

This was a Commodore PET computer. (PET stood for Personal Electronic Transactor!) As a replicant double it wasn’t a great likeness. But it did play games. Specifically it played Hunt the Wumpus. As a result of this electronic transaction, I became a gamer.

(This is only partly true. We got Pong around that time too. But anyway somewhere in there I became a gamer, which is my point.)

I often get a surprised reaction to the fact that I’m both a books guy and a games guy. They’re supposed to be mortal enemies, fighting it out for a slice of the unexpanding pie of our entertainment hours/dollars. But then I’m surprised at their surprise. I mean, come on, you were introverted and socially anxious when you were a kid, right? Right? What else did you do besides read books and play video games? Where does this schism come from?

What, were you out there playing kickball? Jock.

Those early games were more book-like than games nowadays, in a way, in that they were so bare-bones and low-res that you had to do a lot of imaginative work fleshing out the world yourself, the same way you have to fill in the visuals yourself when you read. What was in those “lodes” that the Lode Runners were running, and why were they risking their lives to run them? You worked it out for yourself. You told your own story about it.

It’s hard to explain about games to non-gamers, because we have a way more evolved critical vocabulary for talking about books than we do about games. But they do something non-trivial to you. I’ve tried to reproduce some of the feelings games stir up in me in my writing — the sublime vistas of the Clan Wolf intro to MechWarrior 2; the way bodies decomposed and left little bleached skeletons in Command & Conquer, evoking a kind of Bergsonian awareness of the passage of time; the lumpy aerial topographies of Myth: the Fallen Lords; and on and on. A lot of Codex came out of stuff like this, and out of my experiences in the Quake modding scene in the late 1990’s. The Neitherlands of The Magicians owes a lot to the destructible dream-scapes of the obscure Xbox import Otogi.

During one of the worst years of my life, I drew solace, as much as from any book, from regularly visiting the swamp level of Beyond Dark Castle, a video game for the Mac. You had a little helicopter-backpack, and you just motored over this desolate bayou throwing rocks at bats in the darkness and silence. There was a sense of stillness and peace there that I still refer back to in my head.

(If you landed on the jetty at the end, and didn’t move, nothing would attack you, and you could just stand there and take in the ambience.)

Then there’s a recent game like Portal 2 (I’m just plucking examples out of the ether here). I played through it a few weeks ago. Look at the tightness of the plotting, the economy and discipline and humor and sharpness with which they sketch out the characters. These are things we usually look to novels for. But by those standards Portal 2 is the best novel I’ve read this year.

The opposition between books and games feels fake —  like something built up by people who either don’t read or don’t game. I know there are other fiction writers out there who game. My brother for one (he actually designs games in his copious spare time). Tom Bissell. Iain Banks. Hm. Anybody else?

12 comments on “Writers Who Love Video Games

  1. Ben says:

    Kieron Gillen, current writer of Uncanny X-Men for Marvel Comics, cut his teeth as a writer (to one degree or another) writing for PC Gamer and about video games at large. To do this he was — and I assume still is — a prolific gamer.

    Not fiction, but essayist and television writer (including horror/comedy Dead Set) Charlie Brooker is a dedicated gamer, and considers games to be within the scope of the media he both consumes and mocks.

    And I would be shocked if novelist and futurist Cory Doctorow (of BoingBoing) wasn’t a gamer. His newest YA novel For The Win is about video games, and his last, Little Brother, prominently featured XBox 360s as a plot point.

    I know that there are others, but that’s the first jumble off the top of my head.

  2. Jeff says:

    John Scalzi is a pretty avid gamer. And I’m sure Charles Stross must be, as well.

  3. Lev Rosen says:

    Most specfic writers I know are gamers, and plenty of librarians, too. Or maybe it’s just writers named Lev.

  4. Jaimie says:

    I can’t finish Portal 2, it keeps making me dizzy. I have to take a break every 15 minutes. I get nauseous. I didn’t use to be this way!!!!! And I’m only 24!

    My nostalgic video game childhood memory… fishing in Ocarina of Time. That music…

  5. dougfort says:

    Have you seen that Conrad Barski’s ‘Land of Lisp’ has an updated version of Hunt the Wumpus (Grand Theft Wumpus)?


  6. Saoki says:

    Comics writer usually like videogames as well. Beside Kieron Gillen, there’s Anthony Johnston (he wrote the plot for Dead Space, by the way), Brian Lee O’Malley (of Scott Pilgrim fame) and I’m pretty sure Brian Wood games as well.

  7. My daughter’s two consolations in this life are books and video games. They take on a greater, more vivid reality than anything that goes on around her in this world (physical, humdrum, middle school). Watching her navigate the mazes of narrative, choice, will, and characters in both of them is like watching an ant-farm version of someone becoming a writer.

  8. Mike says:

    “I often get a surprised reaction to the fact that I’m both a books guy and a games guy. They’re supposed to be mortal enemies, fighting it out for a slice of the unexpanding pie of our entertainment hours/dollar”

    If you haven’t, you should check out the Myst series (and it’s free, open source MMO, URU). There is also a trilogy of books, I highly recommend The Book of Ti’Anna.

  9. David Olsen says:

    I believe your brother worked with my friend Jeff at Looking Glass. But to your main point, I agree that I’m confused why there’s even a schism. Of course, when it comes to RPGs, I tend to be too narrativist for the game-ist types and too game-ist for the narrative folks, which usually leaves me the odd guy out. Fortunately, I’ve found a good D&D group that shares my aesthetic taste in blending the two.

    By the way, you might enjoy a project by some friends of mine, called Choice of Games. I wouldn’t call them novels per se…maybe short stories or novellas, but it hearkens back to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” format, except they’re longer, better written, and thanks to technology, past choices can affect future choices so even if you play it twice and make the same decision, you could have a different outcome due to different past decisions.

    Anyway, I think they’re decent distraction at the very least if you’re looking for a break.

  10. Little My says:

    Oh my goodness, Pat Rothfuss is a huge gamer, of both the video and RPG types. And he often uses his blog to meditate on the comparative merits of various games. (It all goes over my head; I never got much past Pong, myself. Aside from a brief kick of Katamari almost a decade ago.)

  11. Christopher B. says:

    Rothfuss and Abercrombie both avid gamers and have been know to have a rant or two on their blogs about the latest game.

  12. Marisa says:

    They will reward your company devotion with some good coupon bargains.

Leave a Reply