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The PRESS START TO PLAY Interviews! Players up: Django Wexler, Hugh Howey, and Ken Liu

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 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.

Now, on with the interviews!


Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not writing, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts. He is the author of the military fantasies The Thousand Names and The Shadow Throne, and the middle-grade fantasy The Forbidden Library. His website is

JG: : What was the spark for “REAL”?

Django Wexler: Funnily enough, the idea for this story is a very old one, dating back to my fan-fiction days. I wrote a version of it then that never quite worked in the fan-fic context, and I was happy to revisit it when, much later, Nick Mamatas asked me for a story about Japan. When he didn’t end up taking it, I sent it to JJA for Nightmare as a dark fantasy piece, and since it ALSO featured games, he asked if he could use it in Press Start To Play. So it’s been a long and winding road for this one!

The idea itself I think took a lot from Watchmen, which I was reading about the time, and some bits about belief-powered mythology from Terry Pratchett (especially Moving Pictures) and others. It’s been so long (more than ten years) that I have a hard time really remembering!

JG: Have you been to Tokyo? The detail about the columns in the izakaya stood out for me as the kind of detail a writer holds onto from experience til the time comes to use it in a story.

DW: I have! Kabuki-cho is a famous red light district near Shinjuku station, and on my first trip to Japan we ended up staying there all unawares, because the hotels were strangely cheap. It was an interesting experience–the thing about Japan is that even in a sleazy area, there’s no sense of danger, because there’s almost no street crime. There’s definitely little bits and pieces like that which come in handy—the way all the buildings are tall but incredibly narrow, for example, contributes a lot to the feel of the city. I’m very, very far from knowing it well, but even a tourist’s experience can be helpful. (Especially when writing someone who is, basically, a tourist.)

JG: I loved the line about heroes and monsters at the end—how accurate do you think this is in real life?

DW: It’s at least kind of accurate. In the stories we tell ourselves, movies and TV and so on, we have these ever-triumphant heroes who always beat the bad guys. But if you look at news media, what we think of as “real life,” what sells is fear. Everything is scary and coming to get you! Which to me says: we like the escapism of heroics, but when it comes to what we believe about the real world, we’re much more negative. I’m not sure if this is US culture particularly, or just the human psyche, but it’s definitely there.

JG: What do you think about individuals and corporations trying to pull off an evermore persuasive hoax on the public? (Does the balance tip toward encouraging innovation and creativity? Or does it teach people to trust less and less in what others say is the truth? Or …?)

DW: This is actually a really tricky topic. On the one hand, I’m a geek, and alternate reality games (ARGs) are awesome. The idea that you can do something like that is so cool! On the other hand, the potential for abuse is rising along with our capabilities. There’s a wonderful bit in Charles Stross’s Halting State where it turns out actual spy agencies are using spy ARGs to get real spy work done, and it’s totally plausible.

What worries me a little more is social media firestorms, though. In terms of hoaxes, you hardly have to do anything really persuasive anymore—just a little bit of ground work and a post that makes people angry, and you’re off to the races. You could totally ruin someone’s life with a few well-placed falsehoods, and that’s kind of terrifying. The book Trust Me, I’m Lying is an eye-opener in that regard, along with Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Someday I will combine the two into a techno-thriller, if real life doesn’t get there first.

JG: What do you find most exciting/concerning about the future of gaming?

DW: When real augmented-reality tech gets here and becomes ubiquitous (a bit like it does in “REAL”) there’s going to be some really awesome stuff that becomes possible. Games with both physical and digital components, for example—something like Golem Arcana, which uses a stylus and a tablet, is like an early, early version of that. Remote in-person gaming—I can put on my goggles and see my buddy at my game table, even though he lives a thousand miles away. And of course the kind of social ARGs the story described, which hopefully will go a little better!

In the near-term future, the growth of the non-AAA gaming segment really excites me. Of the games I’ve loved in the past year or two, almost none of them were $60-from-Gamestop sort of games—I got them from Steam, or on iOS, etc., at price points ranging from $5 to $40. That variety makes a lot more interesting things possible, especially for someone like me who isn’t a fan of genres like multiplayer shooters that dominate the AAA market. Increasingly, there’s something for everyone, and a chance for developer to make things they want. I hope this keeps up—we’ll see.

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

DW: So far, just what you’d expect—The Forbidden Library book three, called The Palace of Glass, comes out next year, and I’m hard at work on The Shadow Campaigns book four!


Hugh Howey is the author of the acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel Wool, which became a sudden success in 2011. Originally self-published as a series of novelettes, the Wool omnibus is frequently the #1 bestselling book on and is a New York Times and USA TODAY bestseller. The book was also optioned for film by Ridley Scott, and is now available in print from major publishers all over the world. Hugh’s other books include Shift, Dust, Sand, the Molly Fyde series, The Hurricane, Half Way Home, The Plagiarist, and I, Zombie. Hugh lives in Jupiter, Florida with his wife Amber and his dog Bella. Find him on Twitter @hughhowey.

JG: Have you ever played a game that rewarded unusual game choices? Or tried to break out of the prescribed play options?

Hugh Howey: I’m a huge fan of Easter eggs and glitches. I remember playing Metroid as a kid and figuring out how to get trapped in a doorway, and press up and down real fast to travel through walls, and at first it was just this crazy glitch. I thought I’d broken the game. But then I popped into a room that could only be accessed via this glitch, and it made me realize the developers were aware of this and decided to reward it, and that was so cool. It was like they let me in on an inside joke. Or a secret. And as a kid who idealized video game creators, this was like having the cool kids say, “Hey, you’re okay, kid.”

JG: What makes an unexpected story ending work?

HH: That’s easy. When you realize at the end that you should’ve seen it coming all along. But you never did.
(Bruce Willis is a ghost.)

JG: What do you see as the most promising directions for video games?

HH: I think video games are going to continue to grow and expand as a viable storytelling medium. When video games first came out, they were about reflexes and coordination. It was the spin of a pong paddle or who could maneuver their tank and get off a ricochet shot a hair faster. The first story I saw unfold in a video game was the cut scenes of Ms. Pac Man, and I was riveted. Then there was Q-Bert, one of the first characters I enjoyed as a living and breathing bundle of pixels. Since then, we’ve seen video games become more like interactive novels. Or films that we get to direct. That’s exciting stuff. Humans are storytelling animals, and we’re developing ways of telling wholly visceral stories.

JG: Why did you choose the title you did?

HH: The title “Select Character” has two levels of meaning. “Select” can mean to choose. It can also mean of the highest caliber. And “character” can mean a game avatar, but it can also mean our core ethical values. The character select screen is a common trope in fighting and war games. You get to pick what kind of destructive force you want to be. But what if instead of “select” as in “to choose,” and “character,” as in avatar, you had someone electing to have the highest form of ethical values? We face this decision every day. How do we most often choose?

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

HH: I just wrapped up a series that expands on the theme of “Select Character.” It’s called Beacon 23, and anyone who enjoyed this short story is sure to enjoy the Beacon series. They were released as five individual short stories, but I’m also collecting them into a single novel. I think it’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever written. We’re already getting swamped with film inquiries. I haven’t had anything resonate with readers like this since Wool, so that’s been very cool.


Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, he has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts. Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a silkpunk epic fantasy series, was released in April 2015. Saga will also publish a collection of his short stories later in 2016.

JG: What was the spark for “The Clockwork Soldier”?

Ken Liu: I’ve always loved interactive fiction, and I wanted to write a story in the form of a classic text adventure. But no idea ever seemed quite right.

Then my friend Jake Kerr proposed an interesting collaboration: he wanted to see if it was possible for a set of writers to work from the same ending and write several different stories—and the ending would be presented first. Though the collaboration didn’t end up happening, the story seed he proposed—having a main character’s revelation of their true identity be both the first and last scene of the story—ended up inspiring me to write this story.

JG: What does PKD stand for?

KL: Philip K. Dick, who, probably more than any other scifi writer, shaped my view about the metaphorical potential of science fiction.

JG: The characters engage in debates about morality: did you find it challenging to balance this with the story arc and pacing?

KL: I think the trick is to not think of pausing from the story to have characters engage in some moral debate; rather, the moral debates are embedded in the actions the characters take and in the emotional arc they undergo. In “The Clockwork Soldier,” the “game” itself is the most important part of the moral debate, and the positions and arguments are presented as an integral part of character development and plot. I tend to think that’s the only way to make fiction work.

JG: A frequent criticism of scifi is that the idea is primary, with the side effect of weak characters: the idea as hero. You balance characterization so nicely with the ideas, but to your mind, is there a hero (character or idea) in this story?

KL: Readers tend to be most invested in a story if there’s a hero they can latch onto, but the hero doesn’t have to be human, or even a character. One of the most unique things about scifi is that it can make the reader so invested in an idea that it becomes the hero of the story.

Having said so, “The Clockwork Soldier” isn’t one of those stories. The “hero” of the story is of course the princess in the embedded game, and it is the vehicle by which Ryder convinces Alex to see things his way.

JG: Where you do come down on sins of omission/commission? On not enabling sentience when it is possible?

KL: I don’t have a position on this in the abstract. For me, moral distinctions between omission and commission are resolved in concrete cases. I’m still working out what the right answer is in the case of endowing machines with sentience when that capability exists. I suspect that it is one of those issues that will have to be debated and worked out by each of us in the future.

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

KL: I’m working on the sequel to my novel, The Grace of Kings, and I’m excited to share it with readers when ready. Meanwhile, I’m preparing for the launch of my short story collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, in 2016, as well as my collection of translations from contemporary Chinese genre fiction, tentatively titled Invisible Planets.


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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