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The PRESS START TO PLAY Interviews! Players Up: Chris Avellone, Marc Laidlaw, Micky Neilson

John Joseph Adams, who, along with Daniel H. Wilson, edited the brand new Press Start To Play anthology has kindly asked us to share a series of interviews with the authors that have stories in the book.

Here’s the synopsis:


You are standing in a room filled with books, faced with a difficult decision. Suddenly, one with a distinctive cover catches your eye. It is a groundbreaking anthology of short stories from award-winning writers and game-industry titans who have embarked on a quest to explore what happens when video games and science fiction collide.

From text-based adventures to first-person shooters, dungeon crawlers to horror games, these twenty-six stories play with our notion of what video games can be—and what they can become—in smart and singular ways. With a foreword from Ernest Cline, bestselling author of Ready Player One, Press Start to Play includes work from: Daniel H. Wilson, Charles Yu, Hiroshi Sakurazaka, S.R. Mastrantone, Charlie Jane Anders, Holly Black, Seanan McGuire, Django Wexler, Nicole Feldringer, Chris Avellone, David Barr Kirtley,T.C. Boyle, Marc Laidlaw, Robin Wasserman, Micky Neilson, Cory Doctorow, Jessica Barber, Chris Kluwe, Marguerite K. Bennett, Rhianna Pratchett, Austin Grossman, Yoon Ha Lee, Ken Liu, Catherynne M. Valente, Andy Weir, and Hugh Howey.

Your inventory includes keys, a cell phone, and a wallet. What would you like to do?


You can also check out the table of contents here!

This batch of interviews were conducted by Georgina Kamsicka.

About Georgina:

Georgina Kamsika is a speculative fiction writer born in Yorkshire, England to Anglo-Indian immigrant parents and has spent most of her life explaining her English first name, Polish surname, and South Asian features. When she’s not busy writing or walking her dogs, she can be found lurking on Twitter as @thessilian.

Now, on with the interviews!


Chris Avellone is the Creative Director of Obsidian Entertainment. He started his career at Interplay’s Black Isle Studios division, and he’s worked on a whole menagerie of RPGs throughout his career including Planescape: Torment, Fallout 2, the Icewind Dale series, Dark Alliance, Knights of the Old Republic II, Neverwinter Nights 2, Mask of the Betrayer, Alpha Protocol, Fallout: New Vegas, FNV DLC: Dead Money, Old World Blues, and Lonesome Road. He just finished working on inXile’s Wasteland 2, the Legend of Grimrock movie treatment, and the FTL: Advanced Edition and is currently doing joint work on Obsidian’s Kickstarter RPG: Pillars of Eternity and inXile’s Torment: Tides of Numenera. His story was inspired by the fine Infocom game, The Lurking Horror, one of the first games to ever frighten him.

Georgina Kamsicka: You mention that was inspired from the Infocom game, The Lurking Horror. Your story touches on a number of fears –isolation, helplessness, stagnation, death. It speaks to readers on a very intimate level. What of your own fears did you put in the story?

Chris Avellone: I’m glad the fears in the story hit home, it was a personal experience, and it sticks with me to this day. One of the most terrifying things about The Lurking Horror was how little you could do and worse, how much you could imagine when something was crawling after you–the limited options, the claustrophobia of the interface, the sheer lack of freedom to move (and more importantly run, because boy, did you want to run screaming out of that game), all of these things were pure nightmare fuel. The reminder of feeling trapped by the program parameters (literally, the text fields and directional movement) kept resurfacing after playing the game and really touched on what drove my anxiety in that title—and that’s a testament to the strength of the game.

Over the years, I would sometimes catch myself examining my surroundings from an adventure game verb-noun format, and I blame The Lurking Horror for leaving that emotional scar. The short story was a perfect way to express that terror and anxiety from someone experiencing the reverse—the protagonist, Warren, is only “free” when immersed in the game, and the story explores all the dangers that holds for him.

GK: The heart of the story is with Warren and his struggle to escape. The reader is holding their breath anticipating what might lie ahead in these scripted worlds. The resolution to the story was a real surprise. Was Warren’s story always going to end this way, or did it evolve as you wrote the piece?

CA: I envisioned Warren’s journey to be gradual, fearful steps toward the point of no return—into an obsession that’s gone too far. The most important part was that Warren still had a chance, and the choice was his, no matter how his own world hemmed him in. I have similar emotions concerning gaming today—the idea that you’ve put so much commitment into a title, whether as a developer or a player, it’s hard to step away – sometimes it’s the hardest thing of all. There’s a wonderful horror in the repetition. As a reader, I wanted Warren to make different choices, to try out different options. It felt hard to watch as he made mistakes, that I couldn’t interact to fix them for him.

GK: Did you consider the horror of taking the choice out of the readers hands, or was that a happy coincidence that upped the tension?

CA: I wanted the reader to feel the same as Warren—confined and trapped—so that when the contrast of the freedom of the game environment occurs in the story the reader can empathize with the appeal and why this might be seductive. (And it may also perhaps a slight critique of my own frustrations with text adventure games in the past.)

GK: You’re most well known as a creative force for games. How much of a twist was it to write fiction about a game this time?

CA: It was a rare opportunity to indulge prose from that perspective—this anthology was the first one I’d been a part of that that not only allowed you to focus on gaming themes, but embraced them. Sharing a story like with non-game aficionados has challenges—and not many would understand the parsing and its significance. With Press Start To Play I wasn’t afraid of that reception, I knew the reader was going into the story aware of the “gaming” direction and the nature of the content—it was liberating.

GK: What games are you playing, or books that you’re reading at the moment that you would recommend?

CA: Had a chance to play Beamdog’s Siege of Dragonspear (the latest tale in the world of Baldur’s Gate in D&D’s Forgotten Realms) and enjoyed it very much—they do some admirable things with storytelling in the game, including setting you against an antagonist, not necessarily a villain that many players may have come to expect.

As for books, there’s a bunch—am going back through some familiar works I’ve loved in the past. I am re-reading Getting Things Done by David Allen for non-fiction and general life improvement (I try and read it every few years), fiction-wise, am re-reading Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series for inspiration for quests and ambiance in inXile’s Torment: Tides of Numenera.

In addition, I just finished Save the Cat, which teaches lessons in scriptwriting but they apply just as well to game writing, imo—the techniques and approach that Blake Snyder recommends are pragmatic and smart for anyone in the entertainment industry, from games to movies.


Marc Laidlaw is best known as one of the creators and lead writer on the Half-Life video game series, but he initially got that gig on the strength of his short stories and novels of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. His novel The 37th Mandala won the International Horror Guild Award for Best Novel. A writer at Valve since 1997 (currently working on for the online game, Dota 2), his short stories continue to appear in various magazines and online venues.

GK: “Roguelike” starts with the familiar, slightly overblown seriousness of a game introduction. Despite that, the story soon evokes lashings of humour, unlike the majority of my ‘deaths’ in roguelike games. Was that humour always your intention or did it evolve as you wrote the story?

Marc Laidlaw: It was always intended to be a humorous piece, although it took a few drafts (and an editorial suggestion) to get the punchline in place. Most roguelikes tend not to take themselves very seriously, and I believe that games in which you die a lot had better make sure that death is entertaining.

GK: As someone who always uses ridiculous names for characters in games, I loved your revolving door of protagonists and their names. Can you tell us a little about the Agents and your approach to a protagonist in this story.

ML: I had wanted to title it “The Story of @,” but once I realized it was going to be the story of many, many players, I had to give up on that idea and concentrate on coming up with names that looked either visually amusing or simply random.

GK: Your use of simple ASCII really brings the story into focus. How conscious were you of your presentation and its effects upon the story?

ML: ASCII was the whole point of the story: a simulation constructed from the cheapest possible graphics. Some of the classic roguelikes, such as Nethack, score each round by displaying the manner of the player’s death on a plain ASCII tombstone. I hope I don’t sound like I’m bragging when I say that my tombstone design is even cruder than Nethack’s.

GK: How did the original idea come about? What inspired you to write it?

ML: I love roguelikes, and they’ve been enjoying a renaissance recently, with the core gameplay showing up in a lot of new games. They appear deceptively simple, but there is still lots of room for innovation in the form. At times I am seized with a desire to gain enough coding skills to make my own roguelike, as a hobby, and tinker with it forever; but then I hit the wall of my own limited intelligence and give up the crazy idea for a while. “Roguelike” gave me the opportunity to pretend I was finally making one of my own. The idea of setting a roguelike in a tower (rather than a dungeon) occurred to me as a way to distinguish my game from the classic roguelikes. Much as I love the classics, it wouldn’t have worked to have my Agents killing gnomes in a dungeon.

GK: What’s coming up next for you?

ML: I have another game-themed story called “The Ghost Penny Post” that will be appearing in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in the near future, and a weird horror novella coming out from PS Publishing as a chapbook in late 2015, called White Spawn.


Micky Neilson is the Lead Writer in Publishing at Blizzard Entertainment, where he has worked since 1993. Micky’s game-writing credits include World of Warcraft, StarCraft, Warcraft III, and Lost Vikings 2. Micky’s first comic book, World of Warcraft: Ashbringer, hit #2 on The New York Times bestseller list for Hardcover Graphic Books, and World of Warcraft: Pearl of Pandaria reached #3. In 2014, his Diablo III novella, “Morbed,” was published, as well as his long-awaited novella “Blood of the Highborne.” With the support of his wife, Tiffany, and daughter, Tatiana, Micky looks forward to continuing his writing adventures for years to come.

GK: What aspect of “RECOIL” first came to you? What inspired you to write it?

Micky Neilson: The first thing that popped into my head was a theme: someone who plays first person shooters, who blasts away at virtual enemies without so much as a second thought, who is then forced into a situation where the danger and the gunplay are real. Suddenly this person is holding an actual weapon for the first time, pulling the trigger for the first time and experiencing everything that comes with that. A fairly heavy theme, but I couched it in a light tone and tried to have a lot of fun with it.

GK: What was the most challenging aspect of this story for you to write?

MN: I found the climax with the mercenaries to be difficult. Everything else flowed and came fairly easily but the final showdown was tough. I wanted it to feel realistic and satisfying. I won’t say that I’m one hundred percent happy with the result, but every writer reaches a point where they have to abandon their baby and move on. Hopefully it works!

GK: Jimmy is a great character; I loved him recognising their accents from a game he’d played, and his quick wit and ingenuity. It makes a nice change from the often negative stereotype gamers see in the press. Was it your intention for a gamer–a first person shooter gamer at that–to have him do something positive?

MN: Thanks! Yes, I wanted to communicate a positive message with Jimmy. I do believe that video
games can enhance useful skills, and I think the next generation is going to develop aptitudes through technology that we can’t even imagine. I grew up with foster parents who believed that comic books and video games would “rot the brain.” Good thing I didn’t listen to them! Comics, games, D&D, and Saturday morning cartoons all laid the groundwork for who I am today and were integral to my success.

GK: I loved the descriptions of the world, especially with the rich ending. It seems ripe for follow-up stories. Do you anticipate returning to Jimmy or this world in the future?

MN: How much fun would that be? I could see an entire series set in a future of Factions, of Enforcers and Peacekeepers, where neural interfaces are used to explore myriad combat and non-combat scenarios. It would be a blast to develop Jimmy’s character further and introduce a whole new host of heroes and villains. In short, yes, I’d love to revisit this world!

GK: Do you have any new projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?

MN: I’m writing the Overwatch graphic novel for Blizzard, which is beyond cool. I also have a werewolf series that’s being shopped around, along with a noir graphic novel, and… knock on wood, we may finally have funding for a vampire comedy movie I co-wrote with “Samwise” Didier. For updates folks can sign up for my newsletter at, and you can find me on Twitter and Facebook!


About Kristin Centorcelli (842 Articles)
Kristin Centorcelli is the Associate Editor at SF Signal, proprietor of My Bookish Ways, a reviewer for Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, and has also written for Crime Fiction Lover, Criminal Element, and Mystery Scene Magazine. She has been reviewing books since late 2010, in an effort to get through a rather immense personal library, while also discussing it with whoever will willingly sit still (and some that won’t).
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