From the beginning, I thought of Eamon, an old fantasy game with limited options (but so cutting-edge back then!) This leading line: “It has three pockets, all empty for now,” cemented it for me, and I could immediately engage with this story. Were there particular games (ones you despise or love) that you had in mind?
I love games of all sorts—it’s funny because a couple months after I had written this story, a friend told me to play Oxenfree, and I did, and I loved it . . . and there were a lot of instances of me going “holy shit, are we on the same frequency here . . . ” (It’s a fabulous game. I recommend it!)
One of the first long-form RPGs I remember playing on computer was Exile II: Crystal Souls (Spiderweb Software). We had the game on an ancient Mac and I played that thing so many times. I loved it: the little pixelated square icons for your characters, the ridiculous sound effects, the challenging nature of the quests and puzzles. (I don’t think I ever got through some of those doors, though. Never did find the passwords.) The textual nature—you had to read all this text in these tiny screen boxes to understand the game—wasn’t quite as fun as stealing everything possible from castles and caves, and casting fireballs to take out enemies. But I do remember the format of “you are going on an adventure” quite vividly and it has remained one of my favorite modes of storytelling (second person).
If I started to list every game I love, I don’t think this spotlight would ever finish but . . . anything that lets you eat food, set things on fire, and lets you swipe stuff from everywhere is worth playing for me. (I’ve probably mentioned before that Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is one of my all-time favorite RPGs. I also love the Witcher games, the original Mass Effect games, Dishonored franchise, Shadow of Mordor, the BioShock games, Dragon Age series, Elder Scrolls, and on and on . . .)
As for games I’m not super fond of? Well, I enjoy watching survival horror—like Outlast—but I get frustrated when I can’t set things on fire. (JUST BURN THAT PLACE DOWN AND RUN, BRO.) I’m also not a fan of puzzle games. I hate puzzles. Haaaaate. I will try a puzzle maybe once before looking online for the solution. I don’t got time for this bullshit, Skyrim. I have cheese wheels to eat and dragons to fight.
Second person can be a somewhat tricky or controversial storytelling technique for some writers. Were there particular hazards with using it, or things you did to make it work?
I knew this story needed to be told for the majority in second person because of the format and the concept: It’s a video game. And, as mentioned above, I wanted to harken back to the old RPGs I loved with the “you are dungeon crawling . . .” type of vibe. I adore second person, and also it felt the most natural to show the progression of a game in an immersive POV. When playing games myself, I often find myself describing them as “I tried to change my outfit and then FELL OFF A CLIFF AND DIED OH MY GOD” or framing it in second person when discussing with other people (“so when you find the Magical Artifact of Doom, do NOT try to eat it . . .” where the “you” is the game character, and also the player). Also, because this is very much a metafictional story, no other voice or point of view quite clicked for me.
For me, as the story progressed, I felt myself sink into Alex’s character, as if the story grows more personal as it goes along. Is this an intentional effect? There’s also an interesting juxtaposition from the transition of the “you” form to the initial Prologue, which has a kind of distanced third person in its “there is a girl” framing . . .
Definitely! While I wrote it with the ending in mind, I always try to allow the reader emotional investment in the characters and story. That’s what makes tales worth reading and playing, you know? Getting to know or inhabit the characters’ lives and, in a way, examine our own from that lens. It’s fascinating to talk to people who will not do specific options in games because it feels wrong; and that’s legit! We all come to games from our own perspective and needs and wants from the narrative and mechanics. There’s no wrong way to play a game you are experiencing for entertainment.
(When I play games, I need to try every option and see what happens. It’s particularly satisfying when you find mechanics and storytelling that rewards trying different options, such as the chaos system in Dishonored or ways you can get different endings in The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine depending on how you make Geralt interact with various people.)
In the story, you explore a sense of strict control. Alex is given specific choices, and as she grows in awareness, she defies her imposed limitations. I thought about the ways in which we tend to only give ourselves limited options in given situations, and I also thought about the ways in which the world can actively try to hem us in. Can you talk about the meaning of this for you, especially as it relates to this story?
Yeah, so, having grown up in a biblically conservative environment when I was a tiny!Merc, I think I turned a lot to fiction and games as a way to have choices that were missing in life. There were all these expectations (be a girl! get married to a guy! have babies! go to church! never have ambitions!) that were suffocating and confusing and I didn’t know how to cope with. There was always the illusion of choice presented (you can choose which cishet male you want to marry) when in fact it was not choice at all. It becomes toxic: You can see options, but none of them feel attainable or allowed, so you stay in your tiny box and accept the non-choices given.
(I mean, I didn’t. I’ve never married, I got the hell out of that environment, and I am happily an ace/aro single queer nb robot living their life.)
In terms of narrative for games, I understand part of it is storytelling and part of it is mechanics, but I often get frustrated when there is a lack of options. (See: a lot of games that only allow straight romance, or make you play as one gender, or don’t let you customize your hairdo.) And one of the most terrifying things is to be trapped in a narrative that doesn’t allow you choices.
So I wanted to take that horror and frustration and rage and give it to Alex and let her make her own life and change the world (and worlds). It’s not easy to break, or break from, systematic oppressions and narratives. It’s really fucking hard. Yet one of the beauties of fiction is that we can show the possible. We can give choices. We can change things.
You wrote briefly in a prior Lightspeed Author Spotlight (Dec 2015, issue #67) about bio-machine consciousness, morality, and emotional intelligence. Alex is driven by survival, as each phase of her existence ends in destruction—not only of her, but of her sister, her family, and her “world.” Ultimately she is determined to save herself and, by extension, her world, but is less concerned about the ramifications for other worlds. She even sends the monsters into the world of her creators—an act of revenge. How did you come to this particular ending? Does Alex end up here because of the trauma and violence of her experiences (recreating the violence she has experienced, to a degree), or is it the only escape she sees? Does morality necessarily stem from experiences, is it a logical conclusion to input, or can results vary depending on the individual consciousness? (Sorry—that’s, like . . . three questions!)
The ending was the first thing I wrote, actually. (This started as a flash fiction piece, with just the final scene—in a much different execution, if still in second person—and the idea of the game world affecting the “real” world in a spectacular fashion.)
It stemmed from the sort of terrifying idea that, given what we put game characters through, what would they do if given the power to push back or change things? It’s also somewhat learned, I think, on Alex’s part. She has been shown that to “win,” something must be destroyed. In the developers’ version, it was her world that got unmade. In her version, she unmakes their world. She doesn’t really see other options. Is she going to wait for the developers to make a patch, or erase her, or change the rules so she can’t win? They set up a burned Earth finale and Alex learned from that.
On the other hand, at the end, Alex and her sister know a subtle exuberance in the line, “You’ll both remember what it is to live now,” and somehow a sense of triumph on the final words: “You should know. Your name is Alex”—not only a triumph of action/plot, but perhaps by implication, a deeper victory in taking control of who she is. Does this ring true to your intentions/ feelings about the resolve?
Yes indeed. Despite the horror worked through the entire story (the lack of choice, the choices she does make, the final outcome for the developers’ world), I also wanted this to be grimly satisfying. She’s been through so much and she finally won. She’s fought for her survival and that of everyone around her; if she’d learned different parameters from her own game, perhaps things would have ended differently. Now, at least, she has a chance to live—regardless of what she had to do to get there.
Congrats on your recently published collection with Lethe, So You Want to Be a Robot! What else do you have coming for us that you are really excited about?
Thank you! While it hit some potholes (mostly me falling off the face of the planet in terms of mental health needed to write and code), I’m still very much excited for my Choice of Games project, Galactic Bounty Hunter—hopefully in late 2018 you can play an unlucky bounty hunter who is drawn into a web of political and botanical problems.
I’m also co-writing a story about DINOSAURS with Elsa Sjunneson-Henry for the Uncanny special issue, slated for spring 2018. I’m very excited about this!
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