January 24, 2010
“What do you think about this: I’ll come to your office for one day, early next week, and we try and chronicle all the important decisions that are made that day, just to give a sense, you know, of how and when these decisions get made, way before they manifest themselves in the final product that people get to see.”
Henry Rich was a young-looking thirty, with thin-rimmed glasses and a mop of thick black hair that bounced against his forehead as he attacked a plate of eighteen pancakes. Rich wore a friendship bracelet and a Vampire Weekend t-shirt, and more or less fulfilled Grant Hayes’ visual expectations of a serious young writer.
Clinking a spoon against the inside of a mug of coffee, Hayes watched the writer eat with mounting skepticism. Hayes himself was conservative in appearance, with the exception of a rough leather jacket intended to bestow a James Dean-like edge. The clothes of Hayes’ would-be biographer, despite his credentials, made Hayes question the future security of his public persona and what a Vampire Weekend was.
“Are you thinking,” said Hayes, “that this is going to be one of those aimless quote-unquote character studies, or is there some greater message or theme here about the industry or the world that I am not seeing?
“Yeah, I don’t know,” said Rich, dabbing at the syrup-stained corners of his mouth with a napkin, “but do you think that they only make these pancakes this small so that people can say they ate eighteen pancakes at once?”
Hayes could not see any problem with this setup at all.
Passing through the glass doors and underneath the massive ceilings and arcing escalators of the Moscone Center, Hayes bent his head slightly. He only did this to throw a lanyard up over his neck, but the gesture might have been misinterpreted as weird genuflection at the building; and if Grant Hayes was a reporter, he thought, this was exactly the odd kind of character detail he would include. Rich stuck close to Hayes amidst the crowd decked out in bright t-shirts and tote bags that said ‘GDC’.
“This obviously is the Game Developers Conference,” said Hayes. “There are other GDCs in Austin, Canada, China, Europe, but this is the major one. People from all over the world come to this show. Living in San Francisco, I have friends that I only ever see here.
“This year there’s supposed to be about fourteen thousand people attending; designers, engineers, writers, producers, artists, plus however many press are here to cover the event, like you I guess.”
Rich by now had a notepad and pen in his hand, in contrast to the ten thousand people currently using their iPhones, and Hayes caught this old-school touch and thought it was worthy of a little respect. Rich dropped his pen and in bending to pick it up, headbutted someone in the back.
“Here’s a place where you can buy a bagel for thirty-five dollars. No? Okay, let’s just keep going.”
Bypassing the massively bored bagel vendor, Hayes and Rich got on the first escalator. Hayes nodded and waved to someone coming down the escalator opposite.
“Obviously I only come here once a year,” he said to the reporter, “but the minute I come through those doors I know exactly where I am and what I’m doing. This place is so familiar. The location is the same, and the people are largely the same, but I mean it in a deeper sense.”
Across from the escalators, long halls stretched out deeper into the first floor, flanking tall placards chronicling every keynote, workshop and presentation taking place that day. The first floor was three times as crowded as below, with a critical mass of guys and no women seated at tables using their laptops or sorting through the considerable junk that came in their tote bags.
“These are the conference halls, and there’s another floor above as you see. This is only one of three buildings, by the way. We’re going to go across the street later as well.”
Hayes turned and offered his hand to somebody.
“Doug, hi, how’s it going.”
“Great. Just heading over to see the McKenna talk.”
“Right; freemium versus subscription.”
“I don’t actually agree with a lot of his ideas. You’ve seen the Gamasutra stories on charging for re-specing builds, and new quest content, but I’m hoping to talk to him afterwards and ask him about his stats on player base and DLC uptake in particular.”
“DLC numbers could be significant. Doug, this is Henry Rich from Vanity Fair.”
Doug looked at them. “What, really?”
Rich stuck out his hand. “Good to meet you.”
“Yeah,” said Doug warily, “alright. Nice to see you, Grant.”
“See you later.”
Hayes scanned the placards. “Ah. We want the next floor.
“It used to be,” he continued, “that in any random place in the world, there’s going to be a minority of people there who play video games, and an even thinner minority who think about games in serious and creative ways, regardless of whether or not they make them. If you are not in the industry, and you are not on the internet, and if you are one of those people, then in your life you will be lucky to meet another person like you.”
A woman dropped her glasses, which Hayes caught and handed them back to her.
“Hey, Jane. There’s an industry shorthand that exists here. You can launch instantly into these high-level, very technical conversations, and even with total strangers here you know that you have something strong in common.
“That over there,” he said, waving a hand at the back of the hall, “is where I did my talk last year. There’s a common subculture, and you know if you ask somebody in this crowd about Bayonetta, they will have an opinion on it, and you didn’t even have to preface your question with ‘do you play video games’.”
“Excuse me, Grant Hayes?”
The speaker was a kid with a hairstyle Hayes couldn’t name, but it looked like something he thought you would probably see on The O.C. when that show was still on.
“Hi, how are you.”
“Hey, my name’s Christian, I’m from Digipen? I just wanted to tell you that I was at your talk last year, about player-driven storytelling, and I really thought it was great and I wish everyone in the industry had been there to see it.”
“Thanks, I hope you’ll like the talk I’m doing tomorrow. This is Henry Rich, by the way, from Vanity Fair.”
“Yeah hi. I’ve actually written some stuff about the same kind of themes that you talked about last year, I mean not exactly the same thing of course, but I think they’re closely related and I was just wondering if you could take a look, you know, and let me know what you thought.”
“Absolutely, I’d like to read it.” Hayes pulled a business card from his jacket pocket and passed it to the student. “My email’s on there, send it along.”
“I will,” he said, “thanks so much, it was nice meeting you.”
Climbing aboard the last escalator, Hayes turned back to Rich. “This is a microcosm of society that exists for a week. It’s the smartest people in the industry in the same rooms with each other and I think the opportunities that arise from that are immense. When you’re here, you see can such a complex mix of personalities and ideas that connect to one another so suddenly, and at the end of the week they fall apart just as abruptly. When everything comes together, though, it’s like no time has passed.
“I did my presentation last year, which was my first time doing that, and it was received incredibly well. That was my fourth GDC, and it was when I went from just watching to participating in this abstract and ongoing exchange of ideas that lives here. This is a dialogue about what games are and what they should be.”
Coming off the escalator, Hayes arrived at the glass wall that offered a full view of the street below.
“The idealism generated here isn’t always practical. But the ideas here, I don’t believe, are necessarily intended to be doctrine. Even before I released a game and gave a talk and people found out who I was, I kept coming back here because more than anything, this place reminds me of what I should be trying to do as a game designer, and more importantly why I wanted, sincerely wanted, to make video games in the first place. It’s scarily easy to forget that.
“3002, this is it,” said Hayes, pausing at the room’s entrance. “Let’s start.”
“In the ten year history of our studio, we’ve learned from our successes and, more importantly, from our failures, and have applied three key principles that have turned us into a dynamic core team that responds effectively and efficiently to the challenges of the economic environment. Since 2007, we’ve operated according to this model: streamline functions, outsource, and react. Let’s look at the slides.”
The speaker paused on the dais for effect and gestured to the projection behind him: a Powerpoint slide that read ‘Since 2007, The Studio Has Operated According To This Model: 1) Streamline Functions 2) Outsource 3) React.’
Rich scribbled furiously in his notebook.
“How long have you been at Lithium Cell?”
“And as a creative director?”
“How old are you?”
“And at Lithium Cell you’ve released one game.”
“Yeah. Blacklisted: Occupied Territory.”
“My grandfather was blacklisted, under McCarthy.”
“Just kidding. Let’s talk more about your background.”
Hayes and Rich were in a sparse meeting room on the third floor of the Moscone Center, close to where the outsourcing lecture had taken place. Hayes slouched in a chair watching Rich, who inexplicably had both his paper notebook and a digital recorder out on the table. Hayes was already beginning to wear out his voice.
“Can we leave today’s interview for later? I saw someone coming out of the lecture who I want to catch up with.”
“I booked this room.” Rich looked hurt.
“Fine, let’s keep going.”
“Your presentation is – actually, let’s look at what you’re up against. Do you know?” Rich looked for his conference program guide in his GDC tote bag, which, again, to Hayes’ confusion, he was still carrying in addition to his regular bag.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Ten a.m. on Thursday, you’re on against…” Rich flicked through the pages of the large, magazine-sized guide at increasing speed. “Why don’t they organize this chronologically?”
“I can just tell you. There’s a panel with a couple of guys on the future of storytelling, Eskil Steenberg on procedural generation, and something on the art and design of AI barks. Then some other things, I guess.”
“What are AI barks?”
“That’s the dialogue that characters in the game have outside of the core narrative. So imagine that your character is hiding from some guards, and a guard says ‘I heard something’ or ‘What’s that sound’, and those pieces of dialogue are chosen randomly from a programmed set that they have. Those are barks.”
“And there’s an art to ‘I heard something’?”
“Your talk is called – here, I found it in the book, finally. Your talk is called ‘You Only Live Twice: Permanence in Interactive Storytelling.’”
“And this talk, you’re giving it tomorrow morning, so it’s all written and you have your slides ready right now?”
The answer wasn’t yes, and Hayes momentarily deliberated on whether he should actually tell Rich where he stood with the talk; that he had completely revised, and was continuing to revise, the material that he had successfully pitched late last year. Since the pitch, Hayes couldn’t shake a deep dissatisfaction with what he’d committed to saying in front of a large crowd. The high expectations set by the glowing reception to his first talk didn’t help, but he felt less confident in the subject, and the conclusions he had drawn felt weak. The closer he examined what he had written, he saw that all he had done was to merely identify an interesting area of game design without contributing anything himself. Was an observation enough to justify an entire talk, he wondered. The talk lacked an ending for this reason. Any possible conclusion felt like a prescription, and when he reached this point he didn’t even care about what he was saying. He was struggling for a way to connect to this discussion. His only anxiety about the impending deadline was that he would have to fall back on what he had written months ago, and its facile, stupid call to arms.
Hayes thought about this and decided that it wasn’t his job to make Rich’s story good. “Yeah, it’s fine.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s based on the idea that games are about infinite chances. You know, nothing’s permanent in a video game; you die and reload. Right? As a designer, I can’t do anything to your character in a game that actually lasts. You don’t like what happens, you reload a save game and go back in time a few minutes if you can. Even if you can’t, then you turn off the game and start again. Nothing permanent can happen to you in a game because you have the power to erase everything at any time.
“I’m sort of examining whether we as designers can have players make choices that truly matter, and are truly permanent, or whether we should be exploring another design path in which we acknowledge the impermanence of the fictional setup, and tell stories that are intrinsically about revisions and multiple chances. About living in a world where nothing matters.
“The difficult thing with that second option is that I don’t think there are many stories that you can tell about those themes before they all start to cover the same territory. For instance, I’ve really been influenced by this 2008 game called Braid, which is made by this independent developer Jonathan Blow, and I think it’s really the first game to explore this area in any significant way. That game’s kind of abstract, but it focuses on this character that literally has the power to rewind time. Like I explained, you essentially have that power in any video game; the power to start again. In Braid, though, you see the effect that complete control over the world would have on a person, and what it would do to his life and his relationships.
“Even though I think this self-awareness is a positive direction for video games, it seems impossible to make a game about those themes that isn’t another Braid.”
Rich nodded and seemed to take this in. “Is this interesting to you?” asked Hayes. “Is this the kind of thing that you’re looking for?”
A knock at the door cut off Rich’s reply.
“Yeah?” called Hayes.
“It’s Stephen,” Hayes explained, and moved to open the door. “Stephen is our associate producer at Lithium Cell.” Stephen was also six foot four, worked out and could easily murder someone. “Stephen, this is Henry Rich.”
“Right, from Vanity Fair.” Stephen shook Rich’s hand. “It’s great to meet you; how’s the story going?”
“It’s going well, thanks. It’s good to meet you.” Hayes looked to see if Rich was wincing from the grip. Didn’t really seem like it.
“Henry, would you excuse us for one moment?” said Stephen. “I have to talk with Grant for a second.”
“Sure, of course.”
The developers closed the door behind them and walked a couple paces down the corridor. Hayes stuck his hands in the back pockets of his jeans.
“Yeah,” said Stephen, “we were waiting for you.”
“Okay,” Hayes shrugged, and by way of explanation, added, “I’m in with this guy.”
“How’s that going, by the way?”
“I have no idea. I’m getting uncomfortable with the setup we have where everything I say is going on some permanent record at this guy’s discretion. I have no idea if this guy is a good writer. For sure he doesn’t know a thing about games. And I can’t write his story for him, you know? Who on earth knows.”
“Just be yourself.”
“Whatever. We need to talk to Lana.”
“What about your writer?”
“Maybe I can get rid of him for a couple minutes.”
“But why not – hold on.” Stephen swung open the door of the meeting room. “Henry, you’ve read your NDA, right?”
“Sure, yeah. I just finished it, actually, I started reading it when I was in high school.”
“Ha ha ha, you’re right, it’s very long, Henry. You’re familiar then with what information you are and are not allowed to publish?”
“We’re about to take a phone call from our producer Lana, who’s just met with our publisher. You can take whatever notes you want but check against the terms of your NDA before you print any of this.”
“That’s fine, but the deal doesn’t prevent me writing something that Lithium Cell might happen to find embarrassing.”
Stephen looked at Rich blankly.
“Vanity Fair,” stressed Rich, “is not giving a publisher’s PR team editorial approval over a work of journalism.”
“Ha ha ha, another good one, Henry. Grant, we’ll take the call in here.”
Stephen laid his iPhone on the table and dialed Lana’s work number. Hayes shut the door and watched Rich shift into an earnest reporter position, pen poised in hand.
“Hi, Stephen?” called a woman’s voice from the iPhone speaker.
“Lana,” said Stephen, “it’s me and Grant here.”
“We’re also here with Henry Rich from Vanity Fair,” Hayes added.
Lana paused at the other end of the line. “Mr. Rich, you can take notes on whatever you want here but check against the terms of your NDA before you print any of this.”
“We just said that,” said Hayes. “What happened at the meeting?”
Hayes let Rich in on his look of disgust; a briefly considerate act on his part, he thought.
“What do they object to, Lana?” asked Stephen.
“They’re worried about the terrorism connotations. You play a character that accepts money from underground organizations to blow up buildings and assassinate foreign leaders. You know they were always going to hate this.”
“Do they realize,” said Hayes, “that it is the whole idea that your character’s actions are transforming him into a bad guy? He ends the game as a terrorist. The game is not condoning acts of terrorism. We’re saying blowing up buildings is bad, and that you’re a bad guy for doing it.”
“I explained that and they don’t think that distinction is going to matter to a lot of people. There’s a part in the game that would let the player blow up a plane in mid-flight, and it doesn’t matter to them what the theme is as long as players are allowed to do that and get away with it.”
“Lana, are they giving us any room here?” asked Stephen.
“They say it’s absolutely out.”
Rich was taking notes. Hayes sighed. “Anything else?”
“They are still adamant about a Christmas release.”
“Are you serious? They just vetoed our entire design.”
“They want it.”
Hayes looked over at Stephen. “That means outsourcing the multiplayer. Lana, I want you to go back to the publisher. I want you to fight them on this.”
“I’ll call them today.”
“Thank you. Stay in touch, I need to know what’s happening.”
“Yeah. Remember you have your two o’clock. At the meeting, Suzanne told me she’s going to be there.”
“And she wants you to talk about Blacklisted 2.”
“What? Why? This interview is just supposed to be a general post-mortem kind of deal. Why would we want to talk about the game this early?”
“Suzanne says it’s the right time to start a buzz for a game that will be coming out in Christmas 2010.”
“She’s going to start setting up a lot more of these for you in the next couple of weeks.”
“Yeah. Talk to you later.”
Stephen ended the call, and the three men stared down at the table in silence.
“You’re allowed to blow up a plane in Rockstar’s games,” offered Rich after a moment.
“Vanity Fair? No fucking way.”
Hayes had made a good-faith attempt to introduce the seven developers sitting around the table to Rich; but he could see Rich struggling to keep up with who was who, and realized that all seven of them were destined to be quoted as anonymous colleagues in Rich’s eventual piece. Hayes pried the lid off a plastic tray containing a ham wrap and pasta.
“What have you written?” asked a Seattle-based level designer called Shawn.
“In the last year,” said Rich, thinking about it, “I was embedded in Afghanistan for the New York Times, I did a piece on Cat Power for Vanity Fair, another piece on Conan O’Brien, and I did a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, for New York magazine.”
“Outstanding,” said Shawn.
Hayes threw back a gulp of bottled water and narrowed his eyes at Rich. “How do you know who Rockstar is?”
Rich shrugged as though there was no possible verbal response to that question.
“Do you have a degree in journalism?” asked Shawn.
“Yeah, from Columbia.”
“So you live in New York City?” said Dylan, a lead programmer at an Electronic Arts studio. Hayes thought about the synonyms Rich would eventually have to come up with for ‘a developer colleague’.
“Mm-hm. Yeah. Lower East Side.”
“Are you married?”
“Why are you asking him if he’s married?” Hayes protested through a mouthful of ham wrap.
“I’m not married.”
“Grant!” exclaimed Jason, a fellow game industry professional, “this is, like, a real guy! Why is he writing about you?”
“I can’t say I understand the interest,” said Hayes, “but it’s very flattering.”
“Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever met?” asked Shawn, leaning forward.
“Oh jeez,” said Rich, “probably Chuck Schumer. Or Alec Baldwin.”
“Have you ever met David Bowie?”
“Have you ever met Amy Poehler?”
“Have you ever met Larry King?”
“Have you ever met David Bowie?”
Hayes tried and failed to skewer a piece of green penne pasta on a biodegradable fork. “This is the same pasta they had last year.”
“Why didn’t you want to write about an interesting designer?”
Dylan swallowed his food and climbed an inch onto the table with his elbows. “Grant’s very interesting. I have an interesting Grant story. Henry, do you want to hear it?”
“Sure,” said Rich, smiling.
“This was a year ago,” said Dylan, “after Lithium Cell released Blacklisted, and me and Grant and a couple of other guys were over at someone’s house having a couple of drinks, you know, and after a couple of hours one guy asks if anyone has ever done cocaine.”
Hayes stared at him.
“So one guy said, yeah, I did a little cocaine once, and I was so wired that I stayed awake for three days. And someone else said, yeah, me too, I did some cocaine and I couldn’t piss. And everyone laughs and then Grant says, man, one time I was so buzzed on cocaine that I fucked a dog.”
“Just kidding,” shrugged Dylan. “Shock humor. Sarah Silverman.”
Hayes’ phone started ringing and he fumbled around for it in his jacket pocket while trading bitter looks with Dylan. He answered it without checking who was calling.
Hayes’ stomach turned. Not now, he thought, before he had time to really think about it, and he was embarrassed by his reaction.
“Hold on,” he said, getting from the table. “Guys, I need to take this over here.”
Hayes walked away from the table with the phone pressed into his palm, and he felt Rich staring at his back.
Nobody seemed to bother walking through this back corridor that bridged both wings of the third floor of the Moscone Center, and however inexplicable this was, it didn’t bother Grant Hayes, slouched down on the floor, alone, lowering his voice to a murmur.
“You’re a celebrity now,” said Jill Hayes.
“Is everything okay?” said Hayes.
“I’m fine; is something going on?”
“No, I wasn’t expecting you to call, is all.”
“You asked me to look up this guy Henry Rich, did you want to hear about that or not?”
“Yeah,” said Hayes, “tell me.”
“I found this old issue of Vanity Fair from November,” said Jill, “we had it in the living room. It has Penélope Cruz on the cover. Penélope Cruz! Are they going to put you on the cover?”
“No one has brought it up yet, believe it or not.”
“Why did they want to interview you then if you they didn’t think you were fashionable? Anyway, I don’t want to tell you where she’s putting her hand. It’s obscene.”
“Penélope Cruz. And it says ‘va-va-voom’ on this cover. Grant, it says ‘va-va-voom’.”
“Did Henry Rich write anything in the issue?”
“No, he didn’t, I was really just calling to tell you about the cover.”
“Okay. The conference is going well. We saw an interesting talk about level design. I picked up a lot.”
“Isn’t level design what you do?”
“No, I’m a creative director. It’s something different.”
“Oh, right,” said Jill, and waited for a second. “I think I found an apartment today. In LA.”
“Can we talk about this later?”
“How long do you think you can avoid having a serious discussion about this?”
“Maybe until I stop having a guy following me around and writing down everything I say; how about until then?”
“Please don’t be cute with me.”
“Can I talk to you later? I’ll call you tonight.”
“Not too late?”
“Not too late.”
Hayes ended the call and smacked the phone against his forehead.
In the three minutes that Hayes was away from his friends, everyone had left save Rich and Shawn; perhaps having been put off by the enthusiastic hand motions Shawn was currently making to a rapt Rich.
“Grant,” exploded Rich as Hayes neared the table, “Shawn is telling me about this amazing guy called John Romero. He’s this wild, trash-talking rocker-type guy who runs away from his abusive parents to live with his friends on a boat. And they decide to make a video game, and right there on that boat they make the Doom games. Doom is a huge hit, making Romero a millionaire, and so he retires from games to go into property development. But after a number of years, he gets bored, and so uses his largesse to fund his lifelong dream. He forms a heavy metal band: Red Faction. Did you know about this?”
“Yeah, it was quite surprising when that happened to John Romero.”
“Grant,” said Shawn, “you are so lucky to have this guy who is the epitome of a classic reporter. He really listens and observes the world around him.”
“You know we have to go soon,” Hayes pressed Rich.
“Well, I’m just about to finish the story,” said Shawn.
Rich’s face went abruptly solemn. “Shawn was just coming to the part where John Romero is cruelly murdered.”
“Some people say,” said Shawn, confidentially, “the body was never found. Also, after this, I want to tell Henry the Ballad of Allard.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to deprive him of that pleasure. I’ll find you later.”
While thinking about how Rich ever managed to sustain a physical relationship, Hayes moved out into the corridor, past people filing into conference rooms, past a man hissing into a payphone, until the corridor opened up and he watched the crowd come up and go down the escalators, pause at the placards, sit down, stand up, move to the left and to the right, and he wondered how long he would have to stand here and watch this before anyone in this crowd started getting creeped out by his presence. This train of thought was perhaps answered by a hard shove from behind that pushed him forward a step, and he turned around to see an assailant who herself was jumping back, a whirlwind of dark hair covering her face and which fell back revealing the biggest, stupidest grin he’d ever seen.
“Kirstin Lynch!” he yelled, pulling her into a hug while she laughed hysterically right into his ear. “When did you get here?”
“Last night,” she said, still grinning as she pinned her hair back.
“I honestly did not even expect you to show. You know it wouldn’t be GDC without you.”
“I didn’t want to miss your talk,” said Kirstin. “Are you ready?”
“Absolutely. Yes. Yeah. Not really.”
“Oh, come on. You get it together.”
“I do? I get it together?”
“Yes. You are together.”
“What does that mean? What are you even doing here?” He whispered the last part, not being entirely sure why he did it, and Kirstin, raising an eyebrow, didn’t seem to understand either.
“I just came for the conference. I’m not on a panel this time, I’m not doing anything; I just wanted to see everyone. I came for the show. I came because it’s GDC. And I wanted a break from making a game and I wanted a break from New York.”
“This is your vacation?”
“Yeah. I guess that’s true.”
“What a sad vacation. You know there’s a lecture going on right now about Facebook games. Make sure you take plenty of notes.”
“I don’t know, Grant. I like it here.”
Hayes smiled at her like an idiot before a relevant thought entered his head. “Hey, you know what? You are not going to believe -- here’s something that’s really going to impress you…” Hayes trailed off at the sight of ace reporter Henry Rich sidling up behind Kirstin. Kirstin and Rich exchanged small, confused glances.
“You know what?” Hayes concluded. “I’ll tell you about it later. I’m supposed to go do an interview with a magazine.” He looked at Rich to clarify, and added, “Not you.”
“I want to catch up,” said Kirstin. “Call me later.”
“I will,” said Hayes, waved goodbye, and without speaking to Rich further, led him away from Kirstin and down the first of the escalators, not looking back at either of them.
“Hey, how long have you been married?” Rich asked on the escalator.
“Was that your wife?”
“On the phone, before.”
“Where do you guys live?”
“How long have you guys been married?”
“What’s her name?”
“What does she do?”
“She’s an accountant.”
Mister fucking questions, thought Hayes.
The interview took place in a mood-lit hotel room that the publisher had rented out for press demonstrations of another of their Christmas 2010 releases; a futuristic racing game called Chase City: No Limits. Hayes was not enthused by the sudden prospect of having his game share a marketing budget with something called Chase City. Aside from the console hooked up to the television, and some Chase City-related literature lying around, the only other prop in the room was a basket of chocolate chip cookies. Hayes took the liberty of offering the cookies to his two interviewers: Rich and David Close, a writer from an industry enthusiast magazine.
“I had all these questions ready about your last game,” said Close, eating the cookie, “but Suzanne called me and told me I can ask you Blacklisted 2 questions.”
“Yeah, we’re ready to start talking about it now,” Hayes lied.
“Just the campaign,” added Suzanne Meyer, a representative from the publisher, sitting behind Hayes and keeping an eye on their conversation, “we’re not doing multiplayer questions yet.” Rich sat beside Suzanne, reading a Chase City one-sheet.
“That’s great; we’re all really excited to hear about what you guys have come up with. I have a question about Blacklisted 1, though, and you can tie this into the sequel if you like. A few months before Blacklisted came out, you said that: ‘there shouldn’t be a fail state in a narrative game released in 2009.’ And in the case of Blacklisted, there were fail states.”
“Yeah. That was a goal that we didn’t have time to fully implement in the first game,” said Hayes, emphasizing the word ‘time’ for Suzanne’s benefit. “I haven’t changed my perspective, and we’ve made some progress this time that will allow that to work better. In Blacklisted 2, even if you didn’t pick the right loadout and you’re stranded deep in enemy territory, there will still be a way for you to complete the mission. We think that players who do it that way might actually have a more interesting experience, as opposed to the player who zips in and does everything perfectly.”
“Is that something you’re applying across the board; giving the player a shorter leash?”
“Yeah, it is. If the player’s going to be empowered to make his own choices, we’re going to have to give him a greater freedom to interact with the gameworld. That was something we wanted to do with Blacklisted 1, but again, we didn’t have time.”
“Okay,” said Close, offhandedly, glancing up from his notes to Rich and back. “What do you think – I’m sorry, before, when we came in, did Grant say you were from Vanity Fair?”
“Henry is writing a profile on me for Vanity Fair.”
“On the game?”
“No, on me.”
“And so he gets to follow you around all the time like this?”
“Well, for a week.”
Close looked back at Rich. “Do you have any openings?”
“I’m freelance, I don’t really know.”
“Alright. Well, I should get back to the questions; I only have ten minutes. Let me just ask: there’s no chance I could get a release date out of you?”
“You know, we haven’t pinned it down yet,” said Hayes, and took the opportunity. “Probably in 2011.”
Take that, he thought, and finally he began to enjoy the interview.
“How long does it take to make a video game?” Hayes and Rich were back on the third floor of the Moscone Center, alone on the floor, while, in a nearby conference room laughter and applause periodically erupted from the evidently hilarious powerhouse occurring behind the doors.
“It’s usually about two or three years.”
“You’re making this one in less.”
“Is that going to be difficult?”
”It’s always difficult to make a game.”
Although Rich was trying to catch the designer’s eye, Hayes appeared busy making diagonal swipes across the screen of his iPhone. He appeared this way because in actuality he was staring at a text message from Kirstin Lynch, and the finger motions were an attempt at diversion.
“How many hours do you put in a day?”
“It varies. But when it’s really crunching it’s not unusual for us to do twelve, thirteen-hour days for weeks at a time. Including weekends.”
“That seems excessive.”
“It is. But there’s no other way to deliver a game at the quality level that people expect without making it a top priority and putting in those hours.”
“Does that mean you think Blacklisted 2 will be compromised if you have to finish it by this Christmas?”
“I don’t know yet,” he lied.
“Are the hours hard? I mean; hard on your personal life, your family?”
Hayes wondered how he could duck Rich to go and see Kirstin. Not – he caught himself – that there was anything about his friendship with Kirstin that he was embarrassed about. There were areas of his life in which he was simply not comfortable with the presence of a third wheel, especially one who was relaying everything he saw to the entire world.
“It can be. Yeah. It is.”
“The reason I ask is…”
Hayes looked up from his iPhone to see the gaunt, button-down but nonetheless menacing frame of Andy Blakely suddenly looming over the table. “Grant!” said Blakely, and stuck out his hand.
“Ah,” said Hayes, having his hand shaken vigorously, “hi, Alex.”
“No, it’s Andy.”
“Oh, right. Andy. I don’t know where my head is. Andy, this is Henry Rich from --”
“Vanity Fair, yes!” Blakely flicked his gaze down onto Rich, shook his hand, then went back to Hayes. “Grant, I had heard a rumor that you were being written about for a profile piece in Vanity Fair.”
Hayes could not believe that that was an actual rumor. “Yes.”
“Well, I think it’s great,” said Blakely, sliding back a chair and sitting down. “Henry, I’m Andy Blakely.” He whipped a business card out from a shirt pocket and offered it to Rich. Rich shot Hayes a look conveying his apprehension about whether it was a smart idea for him to do the same. Hayes gave him a non-committal nod and Rich found a card in his wallet.
“I think it’s a truly important milestone for our medium to be recognized by such a prestigious mainstream media organ. There is so much smart, accomplished work being done in our medium that I think is really going to be of interest to your audience.”
“Yes, and let me tell you about some of the work that we’re doing over in New York.”
“What a great idea,” exclaimed Hayes, skipping up out of his chair. “Andy, you and Henry should talk, don’t let me get in the way, Henry, I’ll call you later.”
Turning his back on Rich’s death mask, Hayes walked at a quick step towards the elevator, bathing in the laughter cascading out from the room behind them.
Kirstin Lynch sat on a concrete step outside the coffee place at the Yerba Buena Gardens, sunglasses on, hands pressed between her knees, staring into the wind. “They almost wouldn’t sell this to me,” said Grant Hayes, taking a seat next to her and handing her a chai latte, “because they said that only girls are allowed to order this.”
“That must have been super fucking tough for you,” said Kirstin, taking the coffee as she dug into her purse, sliding out and lighting a cigarette. “Do you want one?”
“I have lights,” she offered, producing a second pack from her purse.
“Why do you carry around another pack like that?”
“For girls,” she said, shaking a cigarette out into his palm.
“You’re a weird person,” he said, letting her light the cigarette for him.
She smiled at him as he inhaled. “Hey. Did you know I’m not seeing Justin anymore?”
“No? Oh, that’s too bad.”
“Shut up! You don’t care.”
“No. I can tell you this now, though,” said Hayes, “one time when we were all out for dinner I saw him steal a fork from the restaurant.”
Kirstin paused and took another drag. “Very strange.”
“I’m sorry about your break-up if it’s something that you actually are upset about.”
“It’s fine. I don’t care. He didn’t respect what I did. I’m getting to a point in my life where I don’t want to surround myself with people who don’t take my job seriously. Remember what we used to say? ‘I don’t want to come home at night to someone who doesn’t understand what I do.’”
“Well. Mazel tov.”
They sat for a minute.
“What were you saying before?” She turned to him. “What was the thing that was going to impress me? Were you going to tell me about the Vanity Fair guy who’s writing about you?”
“How do you know about that?”
Kirstin shrugged. “I saw it on Twitter. Everyone knows.”
“Everyone knows? Good lord.”
“That must be crazy, huh? Having someone follow you around all day with a notepad?”
“It is. Yes. I’m glad you think that. It’s weird having to moderate everything I say and having to decide what information I want to share with the rest of the world. I don’t know if going through all that is really going to be worth it.”
“Of course it’s worth it. It’s Vanity Fair.”
“I’m also really wondering why anyone who writes for a magazine like Vanity Fair would ever say: Grant Hayes, yeah, he’s the guy. Why am I interesting to Vanity Fair?”
“Because you’re fucking smart.”
“To you, maybe. To the people at GDC, maybe. To Vanity Fair? Who am I to Vanity Fair? I think he knows something I don’t.”
Kirstin flicked the ash off the tip of her cigarette. “Just be honest with people,” she said.
“What this whole profile has made me realize,” Hayes continued, “is that I’m public now. There are real consequences for not living up to expectations, and so many different people have expectations of me that I can’t even keep track of them all. Am I supposed to be this genius with great ideas coming out of me automatically? Am I supposed to act like the fascinating subject for this Vanity Fair profile?”
He looked at Kirstin. “Wasn’t GDC supposed to remind me of why I liked games? This is my panicking face. I’m serious. I don’t even know if I want to work in games anymore. So far, my game’s release date has been pushed up to Christmas, where it will ship as an insipid, rushed product and get killed commercially anyway, and our publisher doesn’t even want us to use of the interesting ideas that would make a sequel worthwhile.
“I don’t have the luxury of failure this time. What do I have in this industry? I have one hit and I have a speech. This new game doesn’t work out and I have nothing. I have nothing to fall back on. People forget, Kirstin. I’m not going to be remembered for those.
“And,” he said, “I still don’t have an ending to my talk.”
Kirstin slipped off her sunglasses with a finger and hooked them onto her shirt. “You know what I think you should do?”
“Come to New York already!” She smacked the back of his head. “Christ! You would not have to worry about any of this shit in New York. You would be great in New York.”
Hayes laughed bitterly. “I might be moving anyway.”
“To New York?”
“No. Considerably worse.”
Kirstin sighed and stubbed out her cigarette on the step.
“Man,” said Hayes, hearing his iPhone beep from his jacket pocket, “I should get back to this Vanity Fair guy. Are you coming to the Lithium Cell party tonight?” He threw away the cigarette.
As he got up to leave, Kirstin grabbed his hand and stared into his eyes with more sincerity than Hayes was accustomed to. “Seriously. Come to New York.”
Hayes touched her hand, looked at her, and smiled. “No.”
Moscone North, in comparison to its larger counterpart, opened up onto a relatively small floor, with game kiosks and a bar, with escalators leading to a wider area downstairs. Hayes found Rich at one of the kiosks, wrangling a mouse and keyboard to pull his avatar in the game Crysis out of a rocky crevasse.
“Hey,” said Hayes, “looks like you’re having some problems here.”
“Mmm. Who is Kirstin Lynch?”
Hayes blinked. “What?”
“Kirstin Lynch. Didn’t you just go talk to her?”
“Yeah.” Hayes wondered why he should even bother being surprised by anything Rich said or did. “She’s a game designer from New York, she’s at a studio that does a lot of casual and social networking games.”
Rich nodded blankly.
“You ready to go downstairs? There’s a lecture in ten minutes that I want to see.”
“Yeah, alright,” said Rich, stepping away from Crysis, “I’m never going to kill this guy.”
Riding down the escalator, Rich asked Hayes: “How do you and Kirstin know each other?”
“We started in the industry together, here, as testers. Later she moved out to New York to form an independent studio with some other people. She does, in addition to whatever puzzle game that goes for a dollar on the iPhone app store, some progressive and experimental stuff that is clearly more what she is interested in. She’s been trying to recruit me for years to work on that kind of thing. It’s artier, you know, than what I’m doing now.”
“Do you think that you can’t do progressive and experimental work within the commercial framework you’re in now?”
“Absolutely not. It’s harder in my position, for sure, because I’m responsible for a larger team, and their families, and a publisher’s cash. I don’t have the luxury of just doing whatever the hell I feel like. But it’s not impossible to make something significant or interesting. If I thought that it was, then maybe I would be with Kirstin in New York.
“At the same time, though, I am envious of people like Kirstin, or Jonathan Blow or Jason Rohrer, who have the relative freedom to make very personal projects.”
“Jason Rohrer, right, who did Passage.”
The two men stepped off the escalator. Hayes waited for Rich to turn and notice that he was staring at him.
“How on earth do you know who Jason Rohrer is?”
“There was a profile of him, in Esquire. Written by Jason Fagone. He also made Gravitation and Between, and he consulted with Electronic Arts on a Steven Spielberg project that I think now is cancelled. Do you know what I’m referring to?”
“Yeah, I do,” said Hayes, a little stunned. “Let’s go in here,” he said, leading Rich towards the Expo Hall on their left.
“Weren’t we going to a lecture?”
“We’re just going to hang out here for a minute.”
The actual size of the Expo Hall was concealed by the thick crowds surrounding booths loudly proclaiming patent-pending advances in computer technology. Hayes and Rich passed by bodysuit-clad dancers, who moved in tandem with wireframe representations of themselves on a monitor above. Next to another booth, models dressed in what appeared to be steampunk train costumes attempted to hand out flyers. Rich looked at one of the girls who had a cardboard steam train engine bolted onto her chest.
“Do you want to know more about Cryptic Signal’s new particle effects solution?” she asked in the most laconic of all possible California accents.
“No he doesn’t,” said Hayes, pulling Rich along by the shoulder.
“Why is she dressed like that?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
They stopped by the Nintendo booth, where evidently the person at the kiosk had accidentally thrust the Wiimote into the attendant’s face.
“Who have you written for?” Hayes asked.
“Apart from Vanity Fair? The New Yorker, the New York Times, GQ, New York Magazine, the Believer, the Village Voice, the James Madison Standard.”
“What is the James Madison Standard?”
“It’s a high school paper. My high school paper.”
“No college newspaper?”
“What did you do in college?”
Something in the independent games area caught Hayes’ eye; a bloom-saturated take on a side-scrolling shooter. Hayes took a step toward the game developer, a student hanging out by the game stand, but someone else cut in and began a conversation with the student. Hayes decided to forget about it.
“Why are you writing about me?” Hayes asked finally.
“How do you mean?”
“The guys at lunch had a point. There are people in this industry far more interesting than myself, and I wonder why it’s me you’re writing about instead of them.”
“Like who? Like John Romero? Like an extended obituary for John Romero?”
“No, not like John Romero. I think, in the mainstream, there’s Jordan Mechner, who I find curious for only occasionally working in games and yet having one of the sharpest designer minds out there. Harvey Smith, who came to game design through an unusual career path, including a stint in the army. Seamus Blackley isn’t in design anymore, but had this wildly absurd career, and is just a fascinating guy with great stories. And people like Keita Takahashi and Hideo Kojima who both seem like individualistic and slightly crazy guys who make very idiosyncratic, iconoclastic games. These are all people who I find personally interesting for reasons beyond the games that they make. I’d want to read a profile of those guys.”
Rich seemed to think about this for a moment. “I think that there is something interesting about you. I understand if you don’t see the same thing. We don’t look at ourselves the way other people do. We don’t write about things in exactly the way that they happen to us. My job here is to put together the pieces in a way that is interesting and make sense.”
“Well,” said Hayes, thinking about how no one had ever spoken about him like that before. “That’s nice of you.”
Rich and Hayes turned to see Andy Blakely, again, to a mutual lack of enthusiasm.
“Henry,” said Blakely, striding across the show floor, “good to see you again. I have some people I want you to meet.”
Hayes tapped his watch. “We have to get to a talk, Andy.”
“Yeah, hi, Grant. Henry, this will only take a minute.”
With a hand on Rich’s shoulder, Blakely beckoned at two tall, dark-haired guys standing nearby, neither of whom looked that into meeting a Vanity Fair reporter.
“Henry, this is Adam Barrett, he’s an independent developer who made a game in 2007 called Magnetic North. It was nominated for an award. Adam, this is Henry from Vanity Fair.”
Rich and Barrett exchanged pleasantries.
“And Henry, this is John Romero.”
Hayes decided that this profile-writing process was probably worthwhile, all things considered.
“We make things that challenge us. We make things that visually and sonically surpass contemporary cinema. We have made things that reinvented the music industry. We make things that bring people together. We make things that talk with the audience, and show them what they only dream about. To the notion that games are lesser and that games are a promise yet to be fulfilled, I say that video games are the most creative fucking medium in the history of the world.
“This is the wrong slide. Hold on a second.”
They left the Moscone Center at five o’clock to get some dinner before the Lithium Cell party. Hayes began to run down the considerable list of area restaurants for Rich’s benefit, and then after walking one block, Rich pointed to the Denny’s on Mission and insisted to Hayes that this would be a good idea.
“I like the lighting in here,” said Rich of the establishment’s supernova fluorescence, “it’s better for my eyes.”
Rich laid out slightly damp notebook pages in some kind of sequence along the table, while Hayes ran his finger over the laminated menu. A waitress asked to take their order.
“Just coffee,” said Hayes, handing her the menu.
“I’ll have a chai latte,” said Rich.
Hayes narrowed his eyes. “They don’t have that here.”
“What do they have?”
“Just coffee then.” The waitress left, probably, Hayes realized, less than impressed with his joke. Maybe she didn’t mind. Maybe it wasn’t worth thinking about anymore.
“You still have questions to go?” Hayes asked. “We’re doing this for another week, how long is this article?”
“Yes,” said Rich, focused only on the notes, “I wanted to ask you this before tomorrow morning. Where did you get the idea for your talk?”
“Yeah. About infinite chances.”
Hayes rotated a saltshaker between his fingers and spilled some on the table. “I was thinking about this since the last game. If video games are intrinsically about anything, I think it’s being about having infinite chances, and the chance to be a different person. What’s universal amongst every kind of video game? Action, sports, puzzle, simulation games; these things have so little in common, except for impermanence. Unlike every other kind of media, what happens in front of you is not final, decisions do not matter, and you as a player can always do better.
“And what does it mean to make video games? What do we do as game designers? We iterate on something over and over until it becomes successful. That’s why we’re doing a sequel. We remake it and improve it until it clicks. Until we get it right.
“With that idea in mind, I was thinking about why games don’t appeal more to really hopeless, desperate people. Real fuck-ups, failures, people who have made huge mistakes, people with bad judgment, people who are compulsive fixers because they’re also compulsive losers. Like, what an attractive thing the endemic premise of a video game is. You get to do it all over. You lose something and then you can get it back again. You get endless chances to improve yourself and erase every mistake you ever made. Video games are a forgiving universe. There is always another chance.
“However, by and large I don’t think that’s who we have in the games industry. There are some weird dudes, drinkers, divorcees, and I think when they close the book on Jonathan Blow, he will be revealed to be a lunatic. But this theory doesn’t make that much sense when you think about it, because game design as a field is about precision, and it’s extremely budget-conscious, but philosophically, emotionally, it seems like such a perfect fit.
“This has nothing to do with the talk. The talk is about video games. But you asked where the idea came from, and that’s where.”
Rich finished writing and the waitress came back with the coffee.
Hayes took the cup and thanked her. “Did you like my joke about bacon?”
“WAIT,” a voice shouted at Hayes, “THEY DON’T LOVE YOU LIKE I LOVE YOU. THEY DON’T LOVE YOU LIKE I LOVE YOU, MAPS, MAPS, MAPS, MAPS, WAIT, THEY DON’T LOVE YOU LIKE I LOVE YOU…”
In an effort to have his voice heard over the general volume, Nick screamed this directly into Hayes’ ear. This was the bar Lithium Cell had booked for the party, located a couple blocks down on Mission, and surprisingly full, Hayes thought. Scanning the room, in the low light, he spotted about six Lithium Cell employees who evidently had invited about thirteen people each.
Hayes physically pushed Nick back an inch. “Just because you know the one song doesn’t mean you have to sing it.”
“You’re right!” yelled Nick, “this is the one song they’ve played that I know.”
“Is this in Guitar Hero?”
“I think it’s in Rock Band!”
“I think you’re right.”
Hayes and Nick, who was one of Lithium Cell’s younger designers, leaned against the bar itself in the center of the room. Hayes held an untouched glass of beer in his hand without much enthusiasm.
“Can I buy you another drink?” Nick asked.
“I can’t stay long,” said Hayes, “I’m supposed to call Lana back.”
Nick snapped his head around. “Lana’s not here?”
“In this place? Lana has a life, come on.”
Nick looked genuinely hurt. “Hey.”’
Hayes slapped Nick on the shoulder and tried to push forward left through the throng of people. “I gotta find someone before I go.”
He moved around the bar, shooting glances left and right, taking the occasional sip of his beer, occasionally brushing asses with someone in the crowd but not stopping to worry about it. Towards the back of the room he spotted Kirstin, her jacket removed and draped over a barstool she was standing beside. She stared out into the crowd, swinging a Corona back and forward between her thumb and forefinger, and moving slightly in time with the music. Hayes watched her, watched the dark strands of hair slip off from her bare shoulders as she moved, and took in the warm, expectant smile on her face. Hayes took a step back, then stepped forward again, and finally, painfully, decided he didn’t want anything to do with Kirstin Lynch right now.
A guy that Hayes didn’t know approached Kirstin, as Hayes turned away. Working his way back to the bar, he downed the entire glass of beer in a couple of seconds and spilling all over his shirt in the process. When he caught up again with Nick, he had been joined by a couple of the other, newer hires. Hayes, though he’d never admit it, would have trouble putting names to faces normally, and the alcohol didn’t help.
“Grant!” said Nick, “you’re back. We’re just about to do these shots. You in?”
“I don’t know.”
The bartender slapped five shots of a semi-translucent liquid on the bar.
“These are called – Darren? What are they called? Oh yeah, Grant, this drink is called Montezuma’s Diarrhea.”
“Whatever,” said Hayes, “let’s do it.” Hayes grabbed one of the glasses and almost instantly regretted it once the caustic purgative plunged down his throat. He slammed the glass back down on the bar.
“Yeah,” he said, “okay, yeah. Nick, I have to go talk to someone again, and then I’m out of here. Have a good night.”
Hayes moved forward again, in the opposite direction and with a certain clumsiness in his step this time, he noticed. Eventually he found Rich, sitting in a booth against the wall talking animatedly to someone. As he came out of the crowd and his field of vision improved, he saw the other person in the booth: some blonde girl he didn’t know, wearing a low-cut blue dress, looking totally thrilled at Rich’s every word and gesture. Stumbling towards them, Hayes kept his eyes focused on the girl until he put a hand on Rich’s shoulder.
“Hey,” he said, “I’m getting out of here. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” yelled Rich, “you alright getting home?”
“Fine,” said Hayes, “see you later.”
Making a conscious point not to look at the blonde girl’s face, Hayes slowly left the bar, pushing through the crowds of people dancing and making out until he burst out onto the pavement, hands on his knees, gasping for air.
Hayes was sprawled out on a queen-size hotel room bed, a phone cradled between his shoulder and his ear, and a packet of minibar peanuts spilled out over the sheets. An aborted attempt at a rewrite of his presentation was evident by a notebook, drenched in red ink, lying on the bed.
“Christmas 2010 is a done deal,” said Lana over the phone. “No movement.”
“This year is going to be horrible, Lana,” said Hayes, throwing a peanut into his mouth.
“No movement. They need it for Christmas.”
“We’ll deal with it. How about the content?”’
“They’re willing to have a discussion. To be honest, I think they need to hear the case from you.”
“They trust you. You gave them a hit. They just want to know you’re sure about it.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Persuade them. Challenge them. This is what you do the best. If you want to go down the route that you do, then you need to fight for this. If this is what’s important to you, then you have to fight for it. There’s going to be a lot more of these meetings, Grant. But start with lunch tomorrow.”
“Okay. Lunch tomorrow.”
“Twelve thirty, probably. I’ll call you tomorrow to confirm.”
“Twelve thirty. Thanks, Lana. Sorry for calling so late.”
“I work in the games industry, Grant,” she said, “I’m used to it.”
Hayes hung up, and dialed the second call he had been putting off all day. The hotel phone still used a cord, and Hayes found himself drunkenly delighted at this particular piece of antiquation.
Whatever anticipation there had been in Jill’s voice upon answering the phone immediately flattened. “Hi.”
“I know it’s late, but I promised to call you every day.”
“I was getting ready for bed.”
“What did you do tonight?”
“Nothing. I just put the dog to sleep.”
“You killed the dog?”
“No, you idiot. I physically took him outside and put him in his kennel. What is wrong with you?”
“I’m sorry.” Hayes rubbed his forehead. “It’s been the weirdest day of my life.”
“Did anything happen with the game?” Jill asked. “Did you get a release date?”
She sighed. “Grant.”
“I know. It’s not what I want, I swear to God.”
“This is just – I’m not going to do this again.”
“I know, but if that means… I know you want things to be different and I am promising you that they can be. Here. I don’t want to go to LA. This is my home.”
“How can it possibly be different? I don’t want the long hours. And don’t think I’m acting entitled when I say that. How can you demand anything of me? Considering what we have been through, I think you have a lot of nerve making me anything other than your first priority. I should be your focus. You make me feel horrible for having to say this.”
“You are my priority.”
“Yeah,” she said, “right.”
“I know the work is not going to be different this year. But I’ve done this before, and this time I know what it will be like. It's going to be hard, I know it. But I know what I’m dealing with now; I can handle it. Please trust me. I know there is a way to make everything work. I am committed to making this work. I am not going to let this get in our way.”
Jill said nothing for a long moment. “Do you want to meet for lunch tomorrow? At about twelve thirty?”
Hayes pinched himself. “I can’t do lunch.”
He sat straight up. “Wait. Yes,” he said, “yeah, I can. Let’s do lunch. Let’s do it.”
“Okay? Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I am.”
“Okay, then. Call me tomorrow morning.”
“Goodnight,” he said. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Hayes hung up the phone and never felt so good and bad about himself at the same time.
Henry Rich greeted Thursday with a second Vampire Weekend t-shirt, which, in Grant Hayes’ eyes, lent the reporter a sad and heretofore undiscovered Charlie Brown quality. In a room set up to accommodate about a hundred people, Hayes and Rich sat at the front, lounging around behind the dais-mounted table. The table flanked a podium that in five minutes Hayes would get behind to address the crowd.
“You know you can’t stay up here,” Hayes reminded Rich.
“Get down there! They’re going to be completely confused about who you are.”
“I’ll go in a minute.”
The audience had begun to filter into the room, accepting feedback form cards from volunteers at the door, and then promptly discarding them. Hayes toyed with the Powerpoint remote; the projector currently displaying the title card of the presentation.
“What if I’m not interesting?” he asked Rich.
“You know what fascinates me about you? How sometimes you seem to be so clued-in beyond what I would have expected, like you know who Jason Rohrer is, and then at other times you are perfectly willing to believe that John Romero’s body was never found. It’s so unclear to me how much you actually know. You seem to be veering in and out of the area of total competence, and so I don’t know which part of you was in control when you decided to write this profile of me. You’re a writer. You’re a creative guy. What if you’re wrong? What are you going to do if you go through all this only to end up with something disappointing? Your name’s going to be on it. How would you deal with that?”
Rich nodded. Hayes was surprised by the considered, thoughtful reaction to this challenge.
“I don’t know why you think that because I write for Vanity Fair I know something you don’t,” said Rich. “I’m writing a profile of a game designer and that’s all I’m thinking about. I’m not trying to think about whether it will win a Pulitzer or even if you’ll like it. If I finish it, and I don’t think it works, then I move on with my career and do something different. Isn’t that what you do?
“We try things, you know? This profile of you isn’t definitive. Why do you think so many different biographies get written about famous people?”
“Yeah,” said Hayes. From the front row of the audience, Kirstin Lynch waved and gave him an exaggerated thumbs-up. “I guess in general I like a little more certainty in life than that.”
The conference volunteers pulled the doors closed and took their places standing against the wall. The general chatter in the room began to subside.
“It’s official, by the way,” said Hayes, as Rich stepped down to join the audience, “the game is coming out in December.” He paused. “This is going to be a very long year.”
Hayes cast an eye over the crowd and checked the clip-on mic attached to his shirt. Throwing back a gulp of bottled water, he took the podium before the silent room.
“Thanks everyone for coming. Can everyone make sure that their cellphones are off,” and, waving a feedback form, “make sure you fill out your form at the end of the session, they are important.”
Hayes clicked the remote, calling up a screenshot from the game Mass Effect. In the middle of the image stood the player character in mid-conversation, surrounded by his team members and other allies. A dialogue wheel at the bottom of the picture displayed three options for the player’s selection.
“This could be anywhere,” said Hayes, pointing at the image. “This could be like any other place in a video game where you are asked to make a choice, and you are told that your decision will matter. These characters and this world have been set up to respond to whatever you select here. They’re waiting for you. In this case, the decision you make will ultimately determine whether this character on the left or this one on the right will die. Only you’ve been here before, but these people don’t know that.
“That’s your advantage. This could be your second, third, fourth, fifth time in this exact position. You’re here again because you failed the first time, or because you want to do or say something differently, or you feel you could have done things better, or because you’re simply curious about the potential variation. Whatever. You’ve been in this spot before, these same circumstances, and because of what you know now, this time is going to be different.
“The first time you were here, you made the wrong choice. Your second chance puts you back here at the point in time where you can change everything, and that second chance gives way to endless chances until you get it right.”
Hayes circled the non-player characters in the image with a laser pointer. “Nobody else in this fictional world knows any of this, because as designers we don’t build them that way. None of these characters, then, are capable of recognising your avatar for what he is: superhuman. You go into every game, every dilemma, knowing that your chances are endless. There are no consequences. Nothing is permanent. You know this. They don’t. And this is power.
“Your advantage in this situation can be a drawback, because you forget how valuable the second chance truly is. I mean the second chance where, afterwards, that’s it. We here in this room know what’s great about a second chance. It’s being lucky enough to get one last shot at something that ended, something that you screwed up, something that you know you could do so much better if you could revise history a little. You know what you lost and you can get it back if you work hard. The second chance is the feeling of: this time, everything matters. This time it has to work, because there is no next time, and so you devote every part of your being to the achievement of success. This is a surge. It’s incredible.
“It’s just impossible to convey that in a game. This is a weakness, but it’s not debilitating. Think about what we have instead. Infinite chances, infinite lives, infinite variability: these things are such powerful conceits that belong to no other medium in existence. This is ours.
“This can be anywhere. A game can make you look like any kind of person, but it’s always going to be you. A game can take you to any setting imaginable, but it’s always going to be a game. And we know how games work. The rules are always the same. We know that nothing is real. We know we are in control. So maybe we haven’t been to this exact place before, but we have been here.”
Tapping the remote rapidly, images lunged across the screen: video game representations of apocalyptic wastelands, medieval castles, fishing villages, savannahs, jungles, the streets of New York, Hong Kong, Paris, Osaka.
“In all of these worlds, and as all of the characters who inhabit them, we are the same person.”
“This is who we are.”