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The PRESS START TO PLAY Interviews! Players Up: Robin Wasserman, S.R. Mastrantone, and Seanan McGuire

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:

IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE! TAKE THIS.

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?

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You can also check out the table of contents here!

All interviews in this post were conducted by Jude Griffin.

About Jude:

Jude Griffin is an envirogeek, writer, and photographer. She trained llamas at the Bronx Zoo; was a volunteer EMT, firefighter, and HAZMAT responder; worked as a guide and translator for journalists covering combat in Central America; lived in a haunted village in Thailand; ran an international frog monitoring network; and loves happy endings. Bonus points for frolicking dogs and kisses backlit by a shimmering full moon.

On with the interviews!


ROBIN WASSERMAN

Robin Wasserman is the author of The Waking Dark, The Book of Blood and Shadow, and the Cold Awakening trilogy. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies, including Oz Reimagined, Robot Uprisings, and The End is Now, and she has published nonfiction in Tin House, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times. She is a former children’s book editor who lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York and has fonder memories of elementary school than this story would suggest. Find her at www.robinwasserman.com or on Twitter at @robinwasserman.

Jude Griffin: What was the spark for “All The People in Your Party Have Died”?

Robin Wasserman: As soon as I was asked to participate in this anthology, I staked my claim—without even thinking about it—on Oregon Trail. It was a reflex, or maybe an instinct. Because although it’s not the only game I have experience with in my life (admittedly, it’s one of embarrassingly few, all of them dating back to the 80s and early 90s), it’s the only one that was really a social experience, and the only one that remains a bit of a mystery. I know why Super Mario was fun; I know why I was addicted to Tetris. But how is it that an incredibly boring educational game about broken axles and fording rivers became a centerpiece of the elementary school experience?

The fun of writing a story about Oregon Trail was that it allowed me—or at least inspired me—to set the story in the 80s, at an elementary school very much like my own, at the point where computers were still these intriguing, mysterious intruders, and much more so to adults than to children. That was where I started, and then I just asked myself: What would it look like if Oregon Trail were to go very, very wrong?

JG: Why did you choose the title you did?

RW: Here’s what I remember of Oregon Trail, of what we all loved most: Naming the members of your wagon party after kids in your class, and watching them die off, one by one, of strange and horrible diseases (most especially cholera). The game carved tombstones for them and offered you the chance to have a funeral (if you decided to bury your comrades without fanfare, the game docked you morale points which seemed to lead, very quickly, to starvation and more cholera). It’s not unusual to die in a video game—although I think it was a lot less usual back then—but there was something about the way you died in Oregon Trail. Not blowing up or falling off a cliff, nothing cartoonish as that. Instead the news was delivered as sober text, an inexorable process, just another thing to go wrong. “You have 100 pounds of meat. “You have a broken axle. “ Oh, and by the way, “Jenny has died of cholera.” “Joey has died of typhoid.” And on, and on, until finally, “All of the people in your party have died.”

I wanted to write a story about this fascination with death, about its inexorability, about how differently that looks from a child’s perspective than it does from an adults, how it can be either comforting or frightening to understand that, eventually, something will always go wrong.

JG: Why did you choose to end the story as you did with Lizzie feeling more passive than ever after making such large decisions (abandoning love, returning to a job she doesn’t love)?

RW: I don’t actually want to weigh in on how passive or active Lizzie has been here, because I think the truth is muddied a bit by her desperate rationalizations. But I don’t think that passivity precludes decision-making. Many of the biggest choices we make in life, are, I think, made through inaction, choosing by not choosing. I think if you asked Lizzie, she wouldn’t say that she chose either of the things that you mentioned—it’s just the way things turned out, and that’s a story she has to tell herself in order to keep going. One of the things that most interested me about Oregon Trail, once I started thinking about it, was this interplay between choice and inevitability, and the reminder that choice dictates sacrifice. Everything that happens in the game is a calculation, and every choice has consequences.

JG: What is the best/worst experience you’ve ever had with a video game?

RW: My uncle worked in computers and occasionally got early versions of games before they hit the market (or at least, before I became aware of their existence on the market). This is how Space Quest entered my life. My home computer wasn’t sophisticated enough to run the program, so I could only play it at my aunt and uncle’s house—many, many hours of huddling at the keyboard with my older cousin, whom I worshipped, both of us desperately and fruitlessly trying to get our little space-man through his Star Wars-inflected adventures. So: best experience because these were very happy weekends. Worst experience because at a certain point, early on in the game, our hero ends up in a small alien town, which he can only escape by buying a spaceship from a used spaceship dealer. The problem with used spaceships is, apparently, that they tend to explode on takeoff. Again and again and again…until we eventually gave up.

Space Quest may be the only video game I ever truly loved, but it’s also the one that taught me I’m very, very bad at video games.

JG: Any new projects you want to tell us about?

RW: I’ve got a new book coming out in May 2016 called Girls on Fire. It’s set in the early 90s, at the dawn of the grunge era and the twilight of the Satanic Panic. Unfortunately, there are no video games in it. But still lots of death.


S.R. MASTRANTONE

S.R. Mastrantone writes and lives in Oxford in the UK. His short fiction has won The Fiction Desk Writer’s award, and featured internationally in venues such as Shock Totem, Lamplight and carte blanche. He is currently working on his first novel. His favourite games are Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, and all of the Oliver Twins’ Dizzy games (except Fast Food Dizzy, give that one a miss); he is painfully aware of just how old school he is on this matter. You can find him at srmastrantone.com and @srmastrantone.

JG: “Desert Walk” ends with more questions than answers: what’s your favorite example of a story that leaves the reader trying to puzzle out what happen/what will happen?

S.R. Mastrantone: I am drawn to stories with a certain amount of neatness, where all the important threads are tied up and little is wasted. But I enjoy these stories even more when they leave me at least a little bit of homework to do. The storylines on Curb Your Enthusiasm are good examples of this: their set-ups are so strong the ending only needs to be implied—they don’t need to even show it. I think implied endings work particularly well for scary stories, your own imagination is probably the best tool for terrifying you. While coming up with an absolute favourite example of such a story is too hard, I did love the ending of Stephen King’s relatively recent novel Revival. I’m still recovering from the horror a year later.

JG: Lots of stories use the hyper-reality of virtual world gaming to ask questions about the line between reality and pixels: why did you choose to use an older game with very little real-life fidelity to explore the same question?

SRM: I think there is something a little more unsettling about something like a game nearly managing to represent the world, rather than it accurately representing it. The way a child’s drawing might be unintentionally creepy in its crudeness, or really old cartoons are slightly sinister. The technology in the past didn’t allow for the incredible real-life landscapes we now see in games, so what we saw was the best possible given the tools available. So the backdrop of an older game seemed a good fit for a troubling story like “Desert Walk,” especially as the game foreshadows the existence of those later games that more greatly resemble real life.

JG: What excites/worries you most about the future of gaming?

SRM: Maybe I worry about the idea of us all one day being plugged into Robert Nozick-style experience machines, and perhaps that is the worry Lorna expresses in the story. But I do often question that worry, particularly if the news headlines are particularly harrowing of a night. Are real pleasures better than unreal pleasures, like Nozick thought? If it would eradicate suffering, would living life in a computer game be so bad? I actually don’t know, but I don’t mind telling you that sometimes, when I watch The Matrix, I do find myself occasionally sympathising with Cypher when he decides to give up on reality and live in the machine world.

JG: If you could invent a game, what would it be like?

SRM: I like games where the quest is unusual in some way. Like, maybe you’re a werewolf, and on each of the 12 levels the full moon will soon rise but you’re stranded in a location where there are lots of people (a shopping mall, a zoo, a ferry in the middle of the ocean). The aim of the game is to eat as few people as possible by dodging the moonlight and chaining yourself to things. Or maybe I could work on the games mentioned in “Desert Walk”? Means of Production might be fun.

JG: What’s the weirdest/creepiest experience you’ve ever had gaming?

SRM: Playing Doom II with headphones on was always a very scary time, although, strangely, the creepiest experience I ever had was playing a sports game. A friend and I just lost in the World Cup Final on Pro-Evolution Soccer in some ludicrous fashion we weren’t best pleased about. The commentators on the game, usually limited to repeating stock phrases and player names, were waxing lyrical about the glorious achievements of my opponents. I threw the controller down in a huff, and one of the commentators said something like: “It’s not surprising he lost when he’s the sort of person who throws his controller.” My friend and I just looked at each other wide-eyed. I’ve never figured out how or why that happened, although I’ve always told myself it must have been some little Easter egg in the game. Still, at the time it felt like I was in that Michael Douglas film, The Game.


SEANAN MCGUIRE

Seanan McGuire was born and raised in Northern California, resulting in a love of rattlesnakes and an absolute terror of weather. She shares a crumbling old farmhouse with a variety of cats, far too many books, and enough horror movies to be considered a problem. Seanan publishes about three books a year, and is widely rumored not to actually sleep. When bored, Seanan tends to wander into swamps and cornfields, which has not yet managed to get her killed (although not for lack of trying). She also writes as Mira Grant, filling the role of her own evil twin, and tends to talk about horrible diseases at the dinner table.

JG: How did “Survival Horror” come about?

Seanan McGuire: “What inspired you to write a story about…?” is a pretty common anthology question, and I always feel sort of bad when it comes up, because, well. I am a child of the fanfic mines. I did prompt exchanges and fic-a-thons for years, and at this point it’s literally an automatic reaction. Someone says “I need a story about X,” and I have one five minutes later. So “Survival Horror” came about because John Joseph Adams asked me for a video game story, and I loved The 7th Guest, and it was this or a Pokemon story.

JG: The story is set in your very rich and detailed Incryptid world sometime before the short story “IM” takes place. What were the challenges when writing a short story for an audience for whom this might be their first encounter with the Incryptid world?

SM: Making sure I gave enough detail for the story to make sense without giving so much detail that pre-existing readers got bored and wandered off, while also making the story “unnecessary” to the main plotline. All stories are in-canon and hence make a difference, but I also can’t demand that all my readers buy every single anthology I’m in. It’s a delicate balance to strike.

JG: Are hidebehinds ever going to get an entry in the Field Guide?

SM: Probably not, since I don’t think there’s ever going to be a clear picture of a hidebehind, and without that, it would just be a wall of text.

JG: I liked the way Annie and Artie escape the game—via a totally unexpected tactic. It reminded me of the Harrison Ford scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where he shoots the swordsman instead of engaging in a prolonged swords-to-whip battle. Was confounding reader expectations part of your strategy or did it seem like the only logical choice for two people trying to out-think a known predator and its unexpected allies?

SM: Back when I was playing a lot of PC games, my sessions almost never ended with me beating the game. Instead, they ended with me being called to dinner, or to do my homework, or whatever. I wanted to sort of capture that feeling of both “the game never ends, the game will devour all” and “it’s very rare that you’ll actually see the final screen.”

JG: Do you worry about leakage between worlds when writing in more than one at a time? (I once read that some scholars thought they could tell which play Shakespeare was acting in when he wrote a play because of the occurrence of certain words shared between the two.)

SM: I do not! For me, writing in different worlds is sort of like watching different television shows. When I switch between the two, I go to a whole new narrative, with a whole different cast. I’m sure there’s word overlap of the kind you describe, especially in the first draft, but that’s what revision is for.

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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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