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?
You can also check out the table of contents here!
This interview was conducted by Jude Griffin.
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.
Rhianna Pratchett is an award-winning, sixteen-year veteran of the video games industry who has wrestled the wild beasts of narrative for companies such as Sony, EA, SEGA, 2k Games, Codemasters, and Square Enix. Her titles include: Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge, the entire Overlord series, and the recently rebooted Tomb Raider. Rhianna also works in comics (notably Mirror’s Edge for DC and Tomb Raider for Dark Horse), film, and TV. She’s currently on scribing duty for Square Enix’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, Rival Kingdoms for Space Ape Games, and two novel-to-screen adaptations. Rhianna is co-director of the Narrativia production company and lives in London with her fiancé and a pair of neurotic tabbies.
Jude Griffin: How did “Creation Screen” come about?
Rhianna Pratchett: A lot of it springs from my time playing World of Warcraft which ran from the beta of the original game right up until Mists of Pandaria. Pandas just didn’t do it for me. I also have a lot of creative love for perspective shifting. One of my other short stories is a haunted house ghost story from the perspective of the house.
JG: How did this story evolve from the first draft to the final version?
RP: I was playing around with the idea of the player-created character being more of a demonic entity. As if something more destructive has found its way into the virtual world and had become trapped. It was looking for a way out and therefore subtly encouraging the addiction. A bit like demonic possession, but via a virtual character. It was inspired by stories like “Come Closer.” In the end it wasn’t working the way I’d hoped, so I played it a little straighter. I still like the idea though and may use it elsewhere.
JG: You combine humor, world-building, action, and object lessons: what were the challenges in balancing all the elements?
RP: When I started thinking about the MMO perspective from the mind of the created character, a lot of dark humour floated to the surface of my brain. Primarily the challenges revolved around how much the player character would know/understand as they go from effectively being born to maturing fairly quickly. In the beginning they have a basic understanding and awareness of themselves (in the way I imagined that a standard “starting character” might) and built the rest from their experiences in the world and being manipulated by their player.
JG: I’m not sure I will ever be able to engage in character creation/gameplay again without having this story in my mind. Has someone else’s story ever stuck with you this way?
RP: That’s what I like to hear! As far as stories that resonate with me go, J. G. Ballard’s work has always had the ability to get under my skin. In particular, one of his short stories—“The Enormous Space”— was adapted by Richard Curson Smith for the BBC and starred Anthony Sher. It’s about a man who suddenly decides that he’s going to never leave his house again and simply live off what is already in his home or what “the house provides.” It’s deeply unsettling, particularly for someone who spends a lot of time indoors. When I left my house to get some groceries after watching it, I felt utterly disconnected to the world. Like I didn’t quite exist. It’s probably why I also keep my cupboards well stocked!
JG: Why do some people fall so deeply into game-playing while others can easily moderate their use?
RP: MMOs create a world where the rules are simple and it’s easy to progress by following them. Time and effort always equals results and from that can come a sense of worth. That can make MMO worlds much more appealing than the real one which is messy and complicated and doesn’t come with rules and isn’t as easy to navigate.
This interview was conducted by Lauren Smith.
Lauren Smith is a South African freelance copyeditor and writes book reviews for her spec fic blog, Violin in a Void.
Andy Weir was first hired as a programmer for a national laboratory at age fifteen and has been working as a software engineer ever since. He is also a lifelong space nerd and a devoted hobbyist of subjects like relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight. His first novel is the New York Times bestseller, The Martian, and was adapted into a 2015 film by Ridley Scott.
Lauren Smith: Can you tell us a bit about yourself as a gamer?
Andy Weir: I’m actually not much of a video gamer. I’m more of a board game guy. However I spent a long time in the games industry as a software engineer. I was one of the programmers on Warcraft II.
LS: The online entity known as Twarrior started out as a tool for playing the BBS door game Trade Wars. What made you choose this type of gaming and the game Trade Wars in particular?
AW: I wanted it to be an entity that had been around throughout the rise of modern computing. So it had to be something initially programmed quite a while ago. A billion seconds is about 31 years, so that worked out well for the start of the story. Programmers often throw huge values in for things they consider boundless.
LS: Twarrior says “i read every book evar” and yet it still uses the sloppy, offensive language of the online cultures in which it first developed. Do you think the internet has such a degrading effect on the ways in which we communicate with each other?
AW: Actually, within the context of the story, Twarrior was developed long before most of that internet slang came about. It has since adopted that manner of speech because that’s what it saw the most of. Really I did that for humor value. The idea of a self-aware entity that thinks and acts like internet culture is funny. To me, at least.
LS: Why does Twarrior keep calling the protagonist a “faggot”?
AW: Because on message boards and forums, especially gamer-related ones, “faggot” is used as an insult so often, it’s basically a form of address.
LS: Your protagonist, Jake, is an unwaveringly good guy even when he could easily be corrupted by the challenges and opportunities he faces. The optimism of it reminds me of THE MARTIAN; is that the sort of story and character you most enjoy writing?
AW: Yes, I have a very optimistic view of human nature. And I think that most people, if given a strange and unexpected power, would try to see how they can use it to help other people. Sure, they’d also want to benefit themselves, but once that’s taken care of their thoughts would turn toward the betterment of the world.
This interview was conducted by Ben Blattberg.
Austin Grossman’s first novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, was nominated for the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, and his writing has appeared in Granta, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He is a video game design consultant and a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and he has written and designed for a number of critically acclaimed video games, including Dishonored, Ultima Underworld II, System Shock, Trespasser, and Deus Ex. His second novel, You, came out from Mulholland Books in 2012, and his short fiction has also appeared in John Joseph Adams’s anthologies The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination and Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom.
Ben Blattberg: Where did this story come from? Do you start with an idea or an image or a format or a title? (And where did that title come from?)
Austin Grossman: It’s all Charlie Jane Anders’s fault. I was at an event called “Writers in Drag” and we were all supposed to write a story outside our usual genre, and I wrote a spy story but I made up a list of other genres/titles I could have done. So it was meant to be a one-off joke but I can’t resist overdoing a joke.
BB: This story begins with the metafiction that these are fragments of an actual game. What led to that decision? Were you thinking of any actual games when writing this?
AG: There so many lost or obscure games, digital ephemera, and sometimes they leave behind iconic images or phrases that stick in your head. The early Infocom games had bursts of really vivid prose that, at the time I played them, generated these overwhelmingly powerful images. Of course playing as a lonely teenager late at night it felt like they were my whole world, or at least a world I’d cross over to if I could.
And of course Gamma World was a real game, and I never forgot the cover of the first edition rule-set: I always wanted to know the story behind it, and of course there wasn’t one so I had to tell it myself.
BB: What are the particular joys and drawbacks of playing with the basic form of the short story, as, for instance, including second-person address and hints of interactive fiction? Can you play with form more or less in a short story than a novel or a video game?
AG: My second novel was called YOU for exactly that reason. There’s something endlessly interesting about that second-person address—it’s a gap in the story that represents you, but what exactly is it saying about you? What is the shape of that hollow space? I can’t stop thinking about it.
That said, it’s much easier to play with in a short story…doing that conceit at novel length is a much harder trick. And video games are fiendishly hard to build (I do it for a living…don’t get me started).
BB: Gamers used to be told that playing games was an isolated (and isolating) activity. (And similar charges have been made against reading.) Yet here, the protagonist is both disconnected from his “real” world and yet discovers a strong connection to this other world that may be just as real. Is there a commentary on connection through our fictions? How can we do that most effectively?
AG: You’re right of course, when the novel first appeared, there was that same kind of panic about unwholesome isolation that video games generate now. And I’m not sure what to say because they are isolating sometimes, but then sometimes they connect you to a part of yourself you didn’t know about, or didn’t have access to in your regular life, which is why sometimes they save you. I wish I knew how to do it better.
BB: Post-apocalyptic fiction often plays with nostalgia for what is and a desire to start fresh (and/or the desire to simply destroy what is). Which seems like a pretty good description of that liminal state of teenagerhood that the protagonist is going through. Did you ever think of sending him into a different adventureland? Can we imagine this character entering Zork with the same attitude?
AG: I think there’s something specific about Gamma World here, something really angry – the fantasy otherworld isn’t just different, it’s a blasted, poisoned, irradiated version of this one. The world of Zork has a different affect, sadder and more wondrous. Gamma World has a particular nostalgic menace, the black-humor dystopia that we Cold War kids were raised to think could really happen.
And I remember reading John Christopher’s Tripod books really early and kinda sorta wishing the civilization was wiped out that way, just for the peace and quiet of the ruins. For me and lots of kids that was our little way of saying we hated the entire world.
BB: What can novels and short stories learn from games and interactive fiction? What can games learn from other forms of fiction?
AG: What can novels and short stories learn? Mostly, “watch your ass and stay relevant.” Indie games like Thirty Flights of Loving and The Magic Circle are pushing new, homebrew storytelling forms that are a lot more interesting than what’s in The New Yorker.
What can games learn from other forms of fiction? That there are new levels of craft to reach, that they are nowhere near mastery of their particular medium. And that there’s more to life than the fucking Hero’s Journey.
This interview was also conducted by Ben Blattberg.
Charles Yu is the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine. He received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award for his story collection Third Class Superhero, and was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award. His work has been published in the New York Times, Playboy, and Slate, among other periodicals. His latest book, Sorry Please Thank You, was named one of the best science fiction/fantasy books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle. Yu lives in Santa Monica, California, with his wife, Michelle, and their two children.
Ben Blattberg: Perhaps because of the way we’re placed into the universe—riding this protagonist’s confused consciousness—this story moved seamlessly for me. What was the process of writing it like?
Charles Yu: That’s a good way to put it—I was very much going for the feeling of being placed into a universe. And that’s how it got written, too—I just sort of dropped into the matrix a little bit. Which is not at all my typical experience. Usually I really struggle with beginnings. Maybe it’s because I’ve logged so many hours in video game worlds, but this felt natural. More natural than when I try to do it with a real live human consciousness. I’m a little bit afraid to think too hard about what this might say about my writing in general.
BB: Last time we talked (for “Bookkeeper, Narrator, Gunslinger” in DEAD MAN’S HAND), you mentioned that one of your recurring themes was about belonging, finding one’s place. This story definitely seems to be in that vein, but it’s also suffused with gaming tropes. Did you have any particular inspirations for approaching this theme and these tropes?
CY: Well, Wreck-It Ralph was so well done. I loved how many tropes they used, but not just to make winking references or in-jokes, but to really find a way to find the resonance of those tropes for the characters and to craft the story.
I’ve really wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a background character for a while. I’ve messed around with the idea in different contexts. I have a story about a minor character who doesn’t realize he’s in a movie about someone else. I wrote a story about a third class superhero, way back when I first starting writing fiction. So it’s been kicking around in my head for a long time, and when the editors were kind enough to invite me to submit something for consideration in this anthology, it felt like a great opportunity to try it in a video game context.
From a storytelling perspective, an outsider protagonist allows the reader and the writer to explore the world through new eyes. And being a small fish, like our Hero NPC in this story, also sets up, I hope, a kind of baseline for tone and emotion—the world is a big place, even (or especially) some video game worlds, and the small protagonist, trying to make it through without dying, that is, I think, a feeling that a lot of people can identify with.
BB: This story has so many in-jokes about games, from the illusory scarcity of the iridium to the NPCs bumbling into walls to the hypersexualized woman soldier. Were there any jokes or tropes that you wanted to talk about but couldn’t fit in? Are gaming tropes (and parodies of gaming tropes) any different from tropes in other media?
CY: Oh, there were tons, but I knew other people had done it and will continue to do it and do it much better than I ever could. So I went the other way, trying to just keep it focused on this one character and his story (or non-story, to be more precise).
BB: Have you ever heard D&D adventurers referred to as “murder hobos”? In a lot of RPG games (ahem, that I’ve played in), it fits: incredibly powerful character wanders the land, killing whoever they want. There seems to be a strain of that in here, with the players engaging in casually anti-social behavior. What do you think about games and the space they provide for players to engage in this sort of murder-hoboism? Does it differ from the space offered by literature? (Oh, and, let me tell you all about my character.)
CY: Haha. I haven’t heard that. I played D&D in middle school and a little bit beyond, but I guess the term “murder hobos” hadn’t yet made its way to my corner of the D&Dverse back in late 80s. But yeah, that’s a great phrase that captures the disconnect that you’re talking about, the jarring incongruities and absurdities that arise from separating minds from bodies. The flip side of it, that gets at some of the potential humor, are those commercials (I think maybe for some credit card company) or fun YouTube videos, where you have super-fierce warriors and horrible looking orcs and they’re like having coffee and talking about their 401k plans or whatever.
BB: What do games offer players that literature doesn’t? Is there more agency in games and more immersion in literature? Or vice versa?
CY: Oh boy. I’m not smart enough to answer that question. Also, it’s a trap! No matter what I say, half of me will regret it as soon as I do. There are Ph.D. dissertations being written about this very topic, I’m sure. And there are probably some amazingly brilliant discussion board threads out there, too. My two cents would be this: there are so many diverse fields and ways to approach the study of the two, separately and in relation to each other (evolutionary psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, to name just a few, etc.) and my hunch is that the reason why it’s such a fascinating tangle of interest is that literature and games are cousins, in the family tree of narrative. They share the DNA of story, whatever story is.