February 8, 2011

Bad Dreams

My life would be so much easier if I only had to show video games to people who had never played them before. People who have remained oblivious to the past thirty years of technical and artistic progress are the most willing to believe that video games are now able to simulate virtual reality perfectly in every dimension. I tell them that you can wander the streets of digital cities, fully populated and replicated in exhaustive detail, or that you can chart the course of an interactive narrative through an array of dramatically different choices, or that you can stand in front of your television and carry out an unscripted, real-time conversation with a computer-generated and creepy child trapped inside. Everything is new, beautiful and full of possibilities, and the only time that I get to see the awed expression of someone who believes in all of that is when the person in question doesn’t know much about video games.
  As easily impressed as these people may be, they don’t write for Game Informer, they write for Old Things magazine. They don’t realize that what they’re seeing is the only possible thing that they can see. The people in the gaming press that I do have to deal with generally don’t suffer from a lack of experience, and familiarity breeds being cynical about my video game.
  Games are most impressive when experienced along an extremely narrow path. Ask the wrong question or try the wrong thing and the game exposes its lack of understanding and capability. You will discover that despite first impressions, you can’t interact with the virtual city in any depth beyond shooting at it, the improvised conversation is a predetermined and performance-enhanced demonstration, and the interactive movie is only truly malleable within microscopic pockets. What was once astonishing turns disappointingly plausible. It’s just an ordinary thing whose brilliance was only ever apparent from one specific angle.
  I have to persuade people that despite all of this being true, what I’m showing them is actually the most amazing thing that has ever existed in the video gaming medium. This is the business of covering up teenagers’ acne for prom night. The presentation is supposed to be so strong that you don’t think about all the ways in which the whole experience is deficient. But most people can tell. The trained eye is drawn to the flaws so readily that the beautiful parts effectively become invisible.
  So the pure, unguarded reaction of the ready-to-believe idealist was the one thing that I really liked about this job, until I remembered that it was predicated on an illusion and then I stopped liking that as well.
  “Tell me why I should be excited about your video game.”
  Today, the question comes from a twenty year old who is wearing a faded Nico t-shirt and looks like he made out with a stapler. I’m pretty sure there are Chuck Taylors involved here as well. I think the implication of the whole outfit and his line of questioning is that he has much hipper places to be than here talking to me. He’s smiling. Does that mean he’s happy with himself for asking the tough questions? In the case of my game company, asking these questions is about as tough as making a punchline out of Andy Dick.
  Twenty years ago, I’m in Portland standing against the station wagon belonging to the parents of the boy offering me a swig from a plastic bottle that smells like paint thinner. He consistently misremembers my name as ‘Maggie’, and it doesn’t say much for me at that age that I never correct him. He pisses behind a tree and enthuses sloppily to me about his high score on a Galaga arcade cabinet in town. He wants to kiss me, but I’m not so into people throwing up in my mouth. My hands are in my pockets where I bury my fingernails into my thighs. To be polite, I ask him why he is so excited about this video game. He belches and tries to explain what it’s like to be the pilot of a spaceship who wields immense power and causes the destruction of many galactic armies. I think: that’s how you sell me on this? I tell him it sounds astonishing, which is just a lie, and then cruelly add that he explained the concept brilliantly. Even under the influence he picks up on my out-of-control sarcasm and his enthusiasm for Galaga and for me collapses, giving way to readily apparent hurt. I want to run out of the woods and crawl under my bed and change my name and move someplace where nobody has heard yet how awful I am. Instead, what I do is phase through college and stumble down the West Coast through a series of communications jobs until I’m doing press for a video game company. My life is about lying to teenagers.
  “We’ve really paid attention to what gamers said about The Third Day,” I say, “and in a lot of cases we actually agree with the criticism.”
  He writes something down: I hope the words ‘refreshingly candid’.
  “With The Third Day, we took a big risk in pushing players outside of their comfort zones, into open-ended, hostile scenarios where their character is significantly disadvantaged. The game left it up to them to figure out a plan of attack. So we learned that we could do that in an action game and still remain engaging overall. That’s an area of focus for us with Dreamland. There’s a major emphasis on that type of gameplay situation.”
  “And that’s what will be exciting to us?”
  I pause. “Well, who do you mean by ‘us’?”
  “I guess I mean anyone.”
  This is a high-maintenance journalist. I’ve told him about our combat mechanics, I’ve told him about our environmental storytelling, I’ve told him about the engine, I’ve told him that one of the voice actors in the game used to be on 24. The world is not enough, right?
  The centerpiece of this interview room is a poster of a female video game character whose blond ponytail spills out of her combat armor. Both of us sit around a table facing the screen of my laptop. Occasionally I show the journalist some gameplay footage that he observes without comment. I don’t think he even likes this t-shirt I brought him.
  I’ve explained how Dreamland is an action-adventure with role-playing elements taking place across a variety of battlefields staged in multiple characters’ dream worlds. He does seem to like the art for the different levels, but I wish that, instead of nodding appreciably, this journalist would ask questions like ‘how many teams of level designers does our company have working on this game’, and ‘how closely do they work with one another’, and ‘how does this information compare to the structure of a studio that makes games people like?’ I can give answers to all those questions and still make us sound accomplished. He’s pursuing an aggressive line of questioning, but his inability to hit upon anything actually incisive suggests to me that his pissy attitude is less endemic of courageous journalism and more about having missed an episode of Fringe. This is more babysitting than an interview. Whatever he’s writing down, I can construct a better preview in my head while reciting our downloadable content strategy aloud. Dreamland, a collection of woefully disparate levels, attempts to capitalize on its lack of unifying vision or strong story through the premise that it is set in a series of eclectic dream worlds, a design decision clearly arrived upon the day after Inception was released. Restless Interactive failed to convince this writer of the game’s promise in a presentation delivered by a horrible piece of garbage. I guess instead of ‘horrible piece of garbage’ I would be okay if it said ‘beautiful spokeswoman’. I could live with that.
  I don’t have any stake in seeing our game and our company burn to the ground but I do think about what that would be like. Shouldn’t he have seen enough games by now to know when something is totally fraudulent? Can he not see right through me? Look at me. Really look at me. Ask me when I started playing video games. Ask me to name my favorite video game. Ask me whether I do play video games. Ask me what qualifies me to tell you or anyone else how to make one. Ask me why I wanted to work in the games industry in the first place. Ask me for how long that has been my dream. Ask me how much longer I want to keep doing this. Ask me why I should be excited about my video game.
  He’s digging deep into that notebook. I don’t want to think about what dirty pictures he is probably drawing in there instead of listening to me. I lean forward and casually rest my arms on the table. “Anyone? To be honest with you, I can’t tell you why anyone is going to be excited about this game. I can’t tell you why you would like this game. I truly don’t know.”
  He finally looks up, a single eyebrow raised, as predicted.
  “Now let me tell you why that is.” I’ve held up the palm of my hand, the international signal for beginning a speech. “Try to remember the last dream you had. It probably had to do with a place you’ve been or a person you’ve met at some point in your life, right? Now try to think of all the places and all the people that you’ve ever dreamed about. Think about every dream where you’ve felt scared or exhilarated or mad or heartbroken. You have to appreciate the sheer magnitude of places and people and themes that you’ve dreamed about over the course of your life, real or imaginary. The only thing that all those wildly different experiences have in common is that they originated from the same place. You know what it’s like to build worlds. We all do.
  “That’s what we’re chasing: the power to build your world, define it however you want and be the person that you want to be. Games give players the opportunity to imprint on the experience that they’re given. But it’s your experience, really. Go anywhere. Do anything. Think big. You can play this game any way you want to. Anything you can imagine is yours.”
  By this point the notebook is a distant memory. He’s even holding his chin in the palm of his hand and respectfully nodding along as he listens.
  “It’s about getting to make choices. Every choice you make affects the characters and the worlds around you. There are consequences. The depth of interaction in this game and the journey that your character will take should surprise everyone. How do you want to play this game? How do you want to solve a problem? What kind of person do you want to be? Are you good or evil, or somewhere in between? Are you a diplomat or a warlord? Who will you align yourself with – or do you work alone? Do you like to talk your way through problems or confront them headfirst with guns blazing? Do you accumulate instant power at any cost or invest in long-term rewards? What are you prepared to sacrifice for the greater good?
  “Why should you be excited about Dreamland? You’re the only one who’s going to be able to answer that. Everyone who plays this is going to have a different answer by the end of the game. We want those answers to be different. This game is about you.”
  Now you’re looking at me.
  “And if you can’t get excited about that,” I laugh, “then it might be time to get out of the video game business.”


* * *


“Hi, my name’s Megan McCarthy.”
  Last year, I received a courtesy invitation to the Christmas party of a third-tier gaming website called GameView. This was, as you can imagine, the highlight of my holiday calendar. My invitation, and that of PR people from other companies, clearly arose from an internal GameView mandate to maintain good external working relationships. For me, it was an excellent opportunity to hover awkwardly in a room full of guys fifteen years younger than me and not say anything, except to obligingly and repeatedly inform people where I grew up and for how long I had worked at my company. One of those guys was a twenty-five year old writer named Eric O’Donnell, about whom I thought absolutely nothing until a month later when I was told he was leaving GameView to join the production team at Restless Interactive. GameView invited me to his goodbye party, so they must have seen something they liked in me at Christmas – maybe how I hated talking to everybody and stole a coaster. I imagined that someone from Restless Interactive showing up to the official GameView Eric O’Donnell farewell event would only make the proceedings even more delicate and uncomfortable, like a catered hostage exchange with Rock Band stations.
  The party is at a GameView editor’s downtown apartment. Before arriving, I had learned that Eric O’Donnell was a ‘multi-year veteran of gaming journalism’, information gleaned from thirty seconds spent on my iPhone. At twenty-five years old, he’s had a career long enough to be considered a veteran. When I was twenty years old, I remember being on my first date, the day after Kurt Cobain’s death was announced. I wore a black headband because that seemed sort of respectful but I don’t think anyone even noticed. My date and I went to a bar in Portland where we scored a table opposite a booth crammed with six or seven people whose voices were strained from day-long crying jags. They were talking about Cobain like everyone else was, but within the first five minutes of overheard conversation it became clear that they actually knew him, either from high school up in Washington or from wherever else he was in the early 80s. They knew him well enough to be telling first-hand stories about Cobain that I had never heard: intimate personal details about his drug use, his religion and his family. I remember looking at the guy I was with and confirming silently that we knew very well what we were hearing. Then we didn’t speak to each other the entire night, and listened carefully to the distraught reminisces we hoped to repeat to our friends as soon as possible. I don’t think anyone ever kept their demons away knowing that they spied on someone else’s funeral. Eavesdropping on that surely cancelled out my headband gesture. I’m wondering a lot lately whether my having done that isn’t just the parasitic act of a Perez Hilton or a TMZ. I also think a lot about how it can be that Kim is the only attractive Kardashian. I never saw that guy again either.
  When I arrive at nine o’clock, the apartment is packed at fire hazard levels. Distressingly, one of the first things I see is a couple of shots being set on fire and hurled into people’s faces. As anticipated, Rock Band is present, and a tiny girl is slurring off-key along with Bad Reputation in front of a massive television. Although the whole apartment is imbued with a bro-ish character, it’s bathed in seriously dim mood lighting, which is a weird vibe not unlike scented candles in the back seat of an SUV. The apartment belongs to a GameView editor whom I told in my first month, as a joke, that if he didn’t give our game at least a nine out of ten I would plant cocaine in his car. Then he wrote that in his blog and I got in trouble. That’s when I learned my lesson about being funny.
  I vaguely recall what Eric O’Donnell looks like, but can only really pin it down to a pair of glasses and too much flannel. When I notice that someone is holding court by the kitchen counter, however, a group of guys hanging on his every word, that’s the only clue I need. Eric O’Donnell is waving around a beer bottle like a presentation aid as he schools these guys on something or other. That short girl is also there, having apparently jumped across the room in the last second. I brush past them up to the counter to find a bottle of wine that I can drain into a plastic cup.
  “I was searching all day for something meaningful I could do that would make my final moment as a video game journalist at least kind of special. I’d done an interview with the BioWare doctors but who on their deathbed wishes they’d spent more time with the BioWare doctors? So while I’m thinking about this, our site gets an email from a grandmother who is asking us, I guess as the first game website she found, what game she could buy her grandson for his birthday. And I think that’s great, I think that would be a great thing for me to do; genuinely helping somebody out. I write back with this detailed, thousand-word list full of game suggestions for the various consoles. And she writes back asking: how would she know what console he has? By then, it’s five thirty and I kind of need to leave, so I forward the email on to someone else who might do something about it on Monday. So that’s as close as I got. That’s my last act of video game journalism.”
  Easing away from the adoring throng, I end up backing into a wall when a couple of people want to move past me into the kitchen. Leaning against the door jamb beside me is a guy also sporting flannel and a beer. I take a cautious sip from the cup. I’ve been standing close to him in silence for so long that either one or both of us is really rude. I breathe in.
   “Hi, my name’s Megan McCarthy,” I say. “Do you work with Eric?”
  He looks blank. “No, I’m Andy. I live here.”
   “Oh, well, I don’t really work with him either. I work for the company that he just joined, Restless Interactive, I do PR for them.”
  “Do you do a lot of writing?”
  “Yeah,” I equivocate, “kind of, what I do is…”
  “I’m in a band.”
  I nod and scan the room for another opportunity. “Really.”
  “Yeah, but I mean I’m still looking for a drummer and a lead guitarist. And someone who can play bass. But I play guitar, and write the songs. I just wrote a song called Checkout Girl which is a ballad about the feeling that you get when you want to drill a checkout girl.”
  “Oh really.”
  “I can’t sing it for you though, you’d really need a Lady Gaga to do that one justice. That’s who I wrote it for. Actually, I originally wrote it for Chris Cornell but I think Lady Gaga would be a better fit for the video. If you imagine Lady Gaga hanging out in the aisles of a Best Buy or a Wal-Mart and when she goes up to buy a space heater, she eyes up the girl at the checkout counter. Then they start making out on the counter, and Lady Gaga drags her ass over the scanner and the readout says something like ‘hot’. And then there’s like a little drop-in in the song where there’s a guy saying over the PA, ‘can I get a price check on Lady Gaga making out with a checkout girl?’ Or maybe she is the checkout girl. It’s just a concept at this point. I’m also writing a song about the recording industry.”
  How far would I have to fall from the window of this thirteenth floor apartment to forget I ever heard that? After extricating myself from the conversation with Andy, I find someone who actually has the faintest connection with the world of video games. I can’t believe that took two attempts.
   “What I’m going to miss the most about EOD is doing podcasts with him. I was always so impressed with how analytical he was about games and how he could isolate all these design elements and make a convincing argument for what worked and what didn’t. He has such an eye for that. Really insightful and so funny.” He notices that I’ve been wincing ever since he mentioned the initials ‘EOD’. “We call him EOD. It’s kind of an in-joke.”
   “Does that stand for Eric O’Donnell?”
   “Yeah.”
   “Oh, I get it.”
  EOD, the man of the hour, takes a turn shredding with the plastic guitar on Baba O’Riley, for which he receives a score in the low sixties. At least he’s good on podcasts. After declining an encore performance, Eric crashes on the couch next to some guy wrapped up in his iPhone.
   “Guess how many posts there are in the thread about you leaving.”
   “I don’t know, seven.”
   “Close: eight hundred.”
   “Seriously?”
   “Let me read them to you.”
   “No, don’t.”
  “Here’s one: ‘This is total bullshit.’ ‘This sucks’ – most of these are of a theme – ‘that guy was the best writer at GameView. RIP GameView.’ I think that’s debatable. ‘This sucks, Eric O’Donnell was basically the only pretense to legitimacy that so-called gaming journalism had.’ ‘What does it say about the future of gaming journalism when the most talented people in it have to find new jobs?’ ‘Eric, your writing about games is literally the best that I’ve ever read. You will be missed.’ ‘Can he still do the podcast? Fuck Restless if not.’ ‘Eric O’Donnell’s writing was always insightful and challenging and I can truly say that he changed the way that I think about games.’ ‘This guy’s writing was what inspired me to get into games journalism. It’s a serious loss.’”
  “Jesus Christ,” laughs Eric, rubbing his forehead, “why doesn’t anyone tell you that kind of stuff before you decide to leave?”
  “This one just says ‘whateves.’”
  “Well, don’t tell me about those ones.”
  I can’t wrap my head around the idea that EOD is apparently genuinely talented and popular within his chosen field and wants to throw all that away to basically do what I do. Here’s how regarded I am by my company: it’s considered a valuable use of my time to drive two hours out of my way so I can pander to a twenty-year old kid for fear that he might make a snarky joke about our video game. Last year, the CEO of Restless Interactive sent out congratulatory letters to the senior design and production staff on account of the success of The Third Day. I didn’t get a letter. I was asked to write the letters. I thought that outsourcing the writing of your sincere, personal thanks made for a pretty weak show of gratitude. One of the people on the design team was my ex-boyfriend, to whom I dutifully drafted a letter praising his dedication and intuition and how the project would have undoubtedly ended up much worse without his significant contribution. He stapled that letter to the wall of his cubicle; he was so proud. Eventually I told him that I was the one who wrote it, knowing it would hurt, because I didn’t want him to think that anybody important ever cared about him. The other day my boss said that I was part of the furniture and I wanted to cry.

“I got more angry phone calls and emails about Eric than any other employee, including a plagiarist and the guy who vomited all over the Nintendo booth at E3.”
  The GameView editor that I had pegged earlier as having a poor sense of humor about cocaine-related entrapment is standing on a chair and addressing the crowd. I have gathered that this is because he was Eric’s boss and therefore responsible for delivering his eulogy, rather than that he is way too drunk and making a fool of himself. There was some debate about whether Eric should be lying prostrate on a table for this, à la The Wire, but nobody volunteered to clean the table for him. He’s standing on the floor like a normal person.
  “I would get harangued constantly by PR guys whenever they thought Eric had asked a question in an interview that was too tough, or given a score to a game that they thought was far too low.” I’ve made that call. “They always told me, this guy is unfair and overly critical. Please assign someone else to this, they would ask, or re-review the game. And I would say no, of course, as I would in any case, but for Eric I would go further. I would argue that Eric O’Donnell was not the attention-grabbing troublemaker that they made him out to be. I always defended Eric, because I was so proud of him and the job he did for us, and I was confident in his talents.
  “But now I concede they had a point all along. I sympathize with those wounded PR agents because now I know firsthand the pain that Eric is capable of inflicting. Eric O’Donnell, in leaving games journalism to go into development, you have revealed yourself as the worst kind of cliché. I can only hope that one day you will be punished for your failure of imagination and your arrogance in betraying those who took you in and loved you. To my brothers and sisters here who have not yet failed me, I ask you to cast out your former colleague. I hope that he burns in the fires of hell.
   “But for a traitor, at least you can write. Salut, Eric O’Donnell.”
  He raises his glass. Obliging applause follows.
  “Thank you for that incredibly heartfelt speech,” Eric says, broadly acknowledging the entire room.
  “Hey, get up on the chair.”
  “No, I’m fine.”
  “Fucking do it.”
  “Okay.”
  They switch.
  “You know, there were times when I felt like my leaving games journalism was in fact the big deal that you’re suggesting. And I’m not gonna lie, when Restless came to me with this opportunity, it was a difficult choice for me to make.” Eric pauses. “For about five seconds. Until I remembered all the things that I’m not going to miss so much. I’m not going to miss press events. Not going to miss being trapped on rented aircraft carriers and cruise ships for hours at a time while I’m being walked through demos of transparently flawed puppet shows. I’m not going to miss being fenced into conference rooms and grazing on a diet of mini-hamburgers and Doritos.
  “I won’t miss having my motives questioned at every turn by the depressingly large number of people who suspect I’ve engaged in a large-scale conspiracy to besmirch the PlayStation 3. I won’t miss the oh-so-high standard of accountability set by people who continually misspell ‘biased’ as ‘bias’. I won’t miss self-important forum threads decrying the death of gaming journalism on the basis that one time in an article I dared to make a joke.
  “I won’t miss being chastised for not being a shit-eating cheerleader for the industry. I won’t miss the blacklisting and the snubs at press events. I won’t miss passive-aggressive developers explaining to me that I may not realize what they do is hard work, and I ought to respect that. I won’t miss the perennial unpopularity of our site despite having the best content of anyone around – won’t miss being the little engine that could to corporate-sponsored hacks who cling to phrases like ‘made of awesome’ as a security blanket. I won’t miss shilling for clicks by churning out turgid lists about the hottest babes in gaming, and seeing the readership for that garbage far eclipse the kind of reportage that actually matters. I look forward to never having to pour my heart out into something only to be told that I’m overthinking it.
  “I won’t miss the insipid, cringe-inducing questions from other journalists at press events. I won’t miss my peers being barely-literate high school dropouts and/or meth heads. I won’t miss the confused faces of every first date I’ve had in the last five years as they struggle to comprehend what I do.
  “I won’t miss getting emailed pictures of dogs. My boss – over there, that motherfucker – knew that I was afraid of dogs, so when I was running up against a deadline he would send me pictures of barking dogs.
  “So, straight up: this is the right thing for me. I’ve done my time and I’m walking out of here with no regrets. I’m looking forward to this so much. Here’s to things getting serious.”
  There’s something about Eric O’Donnell that reminds me of a best friend leaving a mug on a coffee table without a coaster. Once he concludes his formal remarks, he perambulates around the room, drink in hand, soaking up drive-by compliments.
   “What is it you’re going to be doing over there?” he is asked. “What exactly is it that an associate producer does?”
   “You know, we’re figuring that out now,” Eric says. “There’s going to be a range of different responsibilities, a lot of PR and social networking-type stuff and probably there will be a little bit of interaction with the design team. All over the map.”
   “Would you ever consider going back to games journalism? That’s if things didn’t work out for you in development. I mean God forbid.”
   “To be honest, I don’t even see how that’s possible,” Eric tells him. “I feel like there’s such a ceiling on career advancement when it comes to games journalism. Unless I want to actually run my own magazine or my own website, there really isn’t a lot left for me to do. I’ve been doing this for five years and I truly think that I’ve written every kind of story that I possibly can in this job. Where can I go from there? I don’t want to be the boss. Do I just go to another website where I’ll be paid slightly more money for doing the same thing, but where I work with worse people? Or do I try to endear myself as ‘the video game critic’ to a place like Time, where all I’ll be able to do is a story on Halo every three years? This is not a sustainable career choice. I’m not the first journalist to go into development and I won’t be the last. There’s a reason why so many games journalists are so young and there’s a reason why they don’t do this for very long.”
  “So it wasn’t, like, your dream all along to go into game development?”
  “No. Nobody believes me when I say this, but it honestly was never my dream to make games. It just makes sense for where I am now. But really, working in games journalism was never my dream either, it was just a decent opportunity and I took it. That’s genuinely all there is to it.” How is it fair for someone to be so good at something that they don’t love? This is like Jennifer Garner claiming that she doesn’t care about the way she looks.
  When Restless Interactive was working on The Third Day, I was occasionally asked by journalists whether I thought this was the game with which the company would ‘make it’. I assume at that point Restless had a reputation as a company that had not yet ‘made it’. The other day I was asked the same question in reference to Dreamland, so whatever making it entails, it must not have been accomplished in our case.
  Last week, a friend linked me to a New York magazine profile of my half-sister Celia. She is twenty-five and described in the article as a New York-based artist, independent film actress, writer and model with aspirations towards her own fashion label, but her most substantive accomplishment to date is having appeared naked once in a television show. The article follows a day in Celia’s life, which appears to be all about lounging around her Williamsburg apartment and various clothing boutiques and Laundromats, surrounded by other trappings of expensive indifference. Laudatory quotes from Brooklyn cognoscenti about Celia’s mysterious talent are interspersed with a full page of Celia draped over a couch as she discusses airily with the reporter how she is attracted lately to outlaw types. The writer labels her ‘one to watch’. The first line of the article, which I re-read in progressively severe stages of disbelief, is: ‘After spending a day in the company of Celia McCarthy-Price, I concluded that she is not the delicate ingénue she initially appears as much she is a force of nature: at turns tempestuous and provocative, gregarious and jealous’. Fuck off. With Celia, I think that the definition of having ‘made it’ is easily confused with paying too much attention to a layabout with narcissistic personality disorder. I last spoke to her four years ago, when I told her that I was going to cut her out of my life for as long as she kept doing heroin, and that I was doing this for her own good. I guess the joke is on me.
  I read the other day that the keyboard cat had been dead for years before the YouTube videos. I wonder if that cat went his whole life feeling like he was a failure.
  Eric O’Donnell has been holding the same bottle of beer for so long that there can’t be anything left in it. Yet I keep seeing him keep bring it back up to his mouth as if there was something there to drink. What kind of person does that? Slouching further into the couch, EOD has an eye on his boss, who gestures animatedly to the handful of colleagues seated around him.
  “Patrick pitched me a feature today – which is impressive enough on its own since this kid is twenty-one and was hired a couple weeks ago and already has the confidence to be pitching features,” Eric’s boss explains to the crowd, some of whom are nodding along with him too enthusiastically to be sober. “Some writers try and stick to reviews for years. Reviews or lists. And these pitches of his are actually well thought out, clever ideas, too. The one today was about looking at different retro-styled indie games and tracing their influences back to actual retro games and then examining the relative importance that those games have had in terms of establishing an aesthetic legacy. I think it sounds promising. It should come off well; he has a great writing style. He has a knack for these clear, declarative sentences – you read it and immediately think ‘ah, I know what he’s talking about’. Which is seriously not such an easy thing to do with something as abstract as game criticism. Really talented.” There is murmured approval from most.
  If it is possible to look both uninterested and actively hostile, Eric O’Donnell manages it in that moment. Standing halfway across the room, I’m in the exact right place to catch the flash of disquiet on Eric’s face as his boss extemporizes on the finer points of Patrick. Even Eric seems to realize it, and he averts his eyes before anyone else notices. While his boss continues, Eric covers for his earlier reaction by directing an intense amount of focus to casually playing around on his cellphone. An hour later, he returns to the Rock Band station. In the middle of Jet, I see him draw back his arms to hammer the shit out of an upcoming chord. It comes out wrong.
  Another beer in hand, Eric is back on the couch with his friends.
  “I don’t know, man, to this day I have never felt once like I need to own a Kinect,” declares one of those friends.
  “Well, you don’t own a car, either, and people still seem to think that those are important.”
  Eric shakes his head vigorously. “The most important trend in 2010 is not going to be Kinect or Move or anything like that, not long-term. It’s DLC, it has to be. That’s admittedly kind of a 2009 trend as well, but it’s definitely what mattered last year.” Eric takes a swig from his new bottle and leans forward. “I mean, I know, obviously, that DLC has been around for years, as long as horse armor at least, and even before then it was still around as microtransactions. I understand why people can still be cynical about DLC – most of the time it’s plainly nickel and diming which is absurd when you consider that video games are already the most expensive single piece of entertainment that you can buy other than a prostitute.
  “But even horse armor – two dollars for a virtual coat of virtual paint that you can put on a virtual horse for virtual people to totally ignore – is not something that I think matters at all. The price was ridiculous, but it was the first time anyone had ever really sold something like that. There’s no baseline there. And Bethesda changed up the value proposition immediately, giving you far more content and even stand-alone experiences for a much smaller amount of money. They deserve a lot of credit, in my view, in helping DLC get to where it is now.
  “I’m in love with things like Lair of the Shadow Broker for Mass Effect 2, or the Grand Theft Auto IV episodes, and Leliana’s Song and Minerva’s Song. Minerva’s Den. These are stand-alone short stories that are viable because they rely on existing assets and gameplay systems from these much larger – and in many cases, aesthetically less coherent – triple-A games. They’re better experiences for that. Remember in 2007 when Portal and Episode Two came out, and everyone lost their shit over the potential of short games? That because of their length and lower cost they were less likely to overstay their welcome or blow their potential? That’s what these DLC packs are to me. DLC is a way to spin off huge blockbuster titles into smaller, riskier, tighter stories. Undead Nightmare, that’s another one.
  “That’s a big part of why Mass Effect 2 was my game of the year. That game has such a great infrastructure, the way it’s set up to add more and more content to its spine. To me, that game is about standing on the bridge of a spaceship, pointing somewhere on an inter-galactic map and, you know, on this planet is this story and so on. And it might be paid DLC or a companion sub-plot or an unannounced side mission but it’s all about small stories. A chain of little experiences all branching out from home base.
  “You know, what genuinely irritates me, though, about Mass Effect 2 is this character Kelly Chambers. Which is a shame, because on the face of it, it’s such a cool concept for an RPG hero to have a personal assistant, which is what she is. In every RPG, your character is the most important person in the universe, so why wouldn’t you have someone who keeps track of your emails and screen your calls?
  “Mass Effect 2 treats its characters with such obvious care – the story is entirely about pulling a team together – and given that, there’s something a little ugly about how it treats Kelly Chambers. She’s this young, pretty, earnest person who works for you, and because this is a video game you can work things out so you’re fucking her. You can do that whether or not your character is male or female, and the problem with that is it reveals that Kelly wasn’t written to be explicitly bisexual or into women or into men. She’ll respond exactly the same no matter who you are, so the conclusion you draw is that Kelly Chambers was just put there to be yours. She’s player-sexual. What’s more, the game files her away as a little fling that keeps her mouth shut and won’t interfere with any of your other, meaningful hook-ups, the ones you get an achievement for if you make it to third base. What am I, Don Draper? And – and! The worst thing is that if you don’t act fast enough in the endgame, you witness Girl fucking Friday suffer a gruesome demise. She’s the only person in a game about shooting things that you’ll ever see die horribly. Kelly Chambers is there to give you an erection or make you throw up. It’s like Hollow Man. I think in that respect the character’s background as a psychology student is ironic.
  “There’s a whole article in there about games evoking inappropriate emotions. I’ve wanted to write something about Gears of War ever since I rewatched that ridiculous trailer with the Mad World song. That game is so perfectly represented by the image of a chainsaw-mounted assault rifle that its designer announced the game’s sequel by bursting onto a stage holding with a replica of it. It’s, like, the quintessential space marine game and its place in the wider culture is in the background of an Entourage episode. And yet its trailer is footage of a mournful space marine walking through a ruined city set to fucking Mad World, a song that was only ever meant to be the soundtrack for a fifteen year old boy’s first breakup. It’s actually really striking imagery for an action game, and it shows the guy looking morose and running away from his enemies – but in the game, the character is a type-A badass who’s so happy when he kills someone, and if you ever tried running away from a fight someone over Xbox Live would shout you down for being a faggot. Gears’ audience would make fun of the game’s own trailers. I don’t let the game off the hook for its fans either, because it completely sets the tone. Gears, at least the first one, doesn’t affect any kind of profundity or emotional nuance beyond, you know, death is sad, if you’re not one of the bad guys.
  “I don’t want to say anything mean about Tom Bissell, because he seems like a good guy, but I have never not been confounded by that New Yorker article he wrote about how Gears of War has this beautiful, melancholic, soul. He has Nathan Englander testifying to the game’s literary merits and gets Cliff Bleszinski to go along with this absurd explanation of how the game is emotionally sophisticated and fundamentally sad and even autobiographical. The game where you get an achievement for curb stomping a hundred dudes! There’s an achievement named after the canon of Ted Nugent. And Bleszinski genuinely does seem to think that the game is sad at its core, but what is it ever even saying? When does it pretend that war is anything other than fucking rad?
  “All of that seems more designed to repackage the game for the New Yorker audience than anything else. And the image I can’t get out of my head is that, is that…”
  “Eric, hold on one second.”
  “No, the image I have in my head is Gears of War being sponsored to go and hang out at the Algonquin Round Table with Dorothy Parker and her buddies talking shit in iambic about uh, uh, Katharine Hepburn, and Gears of War is sitting there struggling to play along and think of an anagram for ‘eat shit and die’. And I think Gears of War does want to be sad, a little bit, but how can it be within the confines of what it is?”
  “I have to tell you something.”
  “It’s not going to make players feel bad about killing anything because everyone knows that killing things is exactly what they signed up for.” Eric’s leg is bouncing up and down so much that it hits the underside of the coffee table.
  “Eric. Eric.”
  “The thing that I wanted to say, I mean, what I wanted to write, is that – let me finish – that there is an anagram in ‘eat shit and die’. If you try and make an anagram out of that, you get ‘death’ and ‘sad’… and with a couple of letters left over that don’t spell anything. Those extra letters, to me, represent what Gears of War hasn’t figured out yet. That jumble of letters is the gap between what Gears is and what people want it to be. That’s what it means to me. And don’t you think that, more than anything else…”
  “Eric.”
  “What?
  His colleague pointedly taps his wristwatch. “Dude, it’s midnight. It’s Saturday. You’re not a journalist anymore.”
  For a second, Eric looks genuinely thrown off. He holds an uncertain pause waiting for his train of thought to catch up with him. Then he throws up his hands and smiles in an exaggerated show of defeat and sinks into the back of the couch. As the others resume control of the conversation, I pay attention to the smile on Eric’s face and the way it gradually hardens and then collapses entirely. Whatever it is that they’re talking about is so obviously washing over him, and you wonder if he even knows. When I see his eyes flicker around briefly and then turn down to the floor, I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach.

I’ve been so concerned about not driving home drunk that I’ve had one glass of wine in the last three hours. People have been steadily filing out of the apartment since midnight, all exchanging goodbyes with Eric that are of varying degrees of tenderness. By now, I’m alone in the kitchen. Someone asked me what I had planned for the weekend and I invented something about a friend’s birthday party. Is that what a psychopath does? I grew up thinking that psychopaths are bad people.
  “Keep in touch, man,” Eric tells one of the guests, hesitating somewhere between a handshake and a firm pat on the shoulder.
  “Definitely. Are you on Facebook?” He arrives at the shoulder.
  “Yeah.”
  “Okay, I’ll find you.”
  “I’ll be there.”
   I’m finally thinking about leaving when Eric walks into the kitchen to grab another beer. I hope someone is driving him home.
  “Hey,” he says, looking over at me from the counter, “Megan, right?”
   “Sure, yes, we met at the Christmas party last year.”
  “I’m really glad you came,” he says, shaking my hand, “I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk.”
  “That’s fine.”
  Eric knocks back the bottle. “Dreamland, right? I’m excited, man. Game development, shit, that’s the big time. I feel like I’ve finally made it.” He laughs.
  “You know,” I say, tipping my head slightly in a minor gesture of confidentiality, “please don’t take this personally, but I wanted to say that I thought the farewell speech you gave was probably too harsh.”
  Eric stifles a burp, not very well. “We’re just giving each other shit.”
  “I know. I just think some people might not have liked it, is all.”
  “Like, what part do you mean?”
  “I don’t think people really appreciated how you were so dismissive about journalism. Everyone is here to say goodbye to you because they’re so sad you’re leaving and then you get up there and you make them feel miserable about their jobs. I don’t think that was a cool thing to do.”
   “It’s just bullshit.”
   “It’s not bullshit, though.” I have to say, I assumed I could give Eric more credit than this.
  Eric lowers his head. “What do you want from me?” he says evenly.
  “Well, I personally don’t really like how you’re so cavalier about closing the door on something that you’re clearly very good at. It’s not like everyone is so lucky to be the best at what they do, and you are, and you decide you want to throw all that away to go and shill for a middling game company. You can’t get a Pulitzer for writing a press release, I don’t know if you realized that. You’re at the top of your field and you set an example, and the example you set is that everyone else in the field is wasting their time. That people in games journalism today might as well be wiping up after zoo animals for all the good it will do them in the future. I hate that. I mean, I don’t understand why you don’t seem to care about journalism at all? You’re ending something. That’s such a horrible message to me.”
  Eric snorts. “You know, it’s not absurd to think that people make decisions about their careers based on what’s best for them. What I had in games journalism was a good job, but this is a better one. It just makes sense. Also, not to mention that I’d like to at least try doing some different things. Why does it have to be any more complicated than that?”
  Why doesn’t he understand this? Can’t he see where this is going? I’m coming up against a brick wall and it’s aggravating. “Does it not even matter to you that you are good at this?”
  “What matters is what I want to do. But wait, hold on a second, really, because what you said is so strange and I have to ask: in your world, am I suffering under some kind of delusion? Seriously? If I understand this right, you want me to be a games journalist for the rest of my life? Yeah? With no opportunity for career advancement and for no more money, you want me to cap out at twenty-five doing something that I don’t love and that I never really wanted to do in the first place? To basically retire? And all of that for… what? What is that worth? You want me to do that because of people on the internet – people I don’t know – who you think like my writing? All you are doing is asking me to make a bad decision.”
  Okay, I want this to be over. I want to be home now. I want to scream at him and run out of here. I want to smash my hand through a window.
  “I’m sorry that you seem to think that I’m a role model,” he continues. “but even if I am, Jesus Christ, I don’t think that being practical and sensible is such a bad thing to teach. You’re being unrealistic.” He takes another drink. I can’t believe how angry he makes me.
  “Have you thought this through?” I ask. “Do you realize that you won’t get to talk honestly about games anymore?”
  Eric glances out into the hallway. Don’t look away. I can feel my cheeks burning. There’s something caught in my throat and as I cough, the words come stumbling out.
  “Do you realize that you’re not going to be able to do any real writing the way that you’re used to writing?” I say. “Have you realized that you won’t get to say what you really think? Do you know that you’re not going to have an audience who knows who you are? Do you realize that you won’t have an internet forum talking about how great you are anymore?”
  “I’ve thought about that,” Eric says, “and I want to try this. I think I owe it to myself.”
  My skin is on fire. “This is a mistake for you.”
  He regards me coldly. “You’re wrong. I don’t know how else to say it to you. You’re not thinking clearly.”
  I glare at him. Why am I shaking? “They’re going to leave you,” I tell him. “Everyone at this party who worked with you. Everyone on the internet who said how much they love you and that games journalism is dead without you. They are going to forget about you. They will find some other writer to take your place and you are going to hear everything about him and how he is the best thing. You don’t understand how fast that is going to happen. And then you’re just going to be another guy in an office who nobody looks at and who nobody talks about.”
  Now you’re looking at me. I stare back into his eyes. And I can tell.
  “You know it, too,” I say. “You know it.” I say it like the words have always been there.
  After I say it I inhale sharply. Eric doesn’t react but I know that he feels something. I wish I were taller. My head is fucking drowning. My heart is pounding; I want to punch myself in the heart. Eric says nothing. I make myself focus. I make myself think about every breath. I make myself center on his face. I need to hear what he says. I’m here now. I don’t know where I am. I am ready.
  I look at Eric, and he walks out of the room.
  Of course, I wonder briefly about what he might have said then. Maybe he feels now like he’ll never even speak to me again. But I can probably tell what it would have been. I’ve been here so much longer than him.

For me, the worst part is that it’s already been Saturday for two hours. When I go home I am going to fall asleep, and in my dream I am going to imagine myself in a different place and convince myself that I have lived my whole life differently. Then I am going to wake up and it will still be this day. Before I leave the apartment I stop in the one of the bedrooms to check my cellphone in private. The room is microscopic, and in the dark I hit my foot on some heavy crap lying on the floor and curse under my breath. It’s dismaying how little light there is coming through the window from the street, but I can’t be bothered to figure out where the light switch is. I have no missed calls or text messages; I don’t know why I couldn’t have guessed that sight unseen. With the orange light filtering through from the street, I can make out that there’s an open notebook lying on the desk. After glancing at it, I lean in closer and run my finger down the page as I read.
   Checkout girl, I’m checking you out
  I’m not old enough to buy cigarettes
  But I’m old enough to want you
  Around and around
  Up and down
  Round and round
  Hey, checkout girl, I want you
  Don’t you want me too?

  This goes on for… pages. It’s even worse than I imagined. How long is this song? He’s written down the guitar tabs and everything. The middle section of the book has hypothetical set lists.
  “Hey,” calls a voice from the doorway. “How’s it going?”
  I turn around, and of course it’s Andy. “Is this your room?” I ask him, as if that book and this room would belong to anybody else.
  “Yeah. Do you like it?”
  I flick idly through the pages of the notebook, which is overflowing with draft lyrics that have been crossed out and revised multiple times. “How long do you spend on this?” I ask him.
  “All day, pretty much. After I come home, I work on this for hours.”
  I come close to the end of the book and decide to leave it alone. Getting my things together, I pick up my bag from where I dumped it on Andy’s bed, and fasten my coat around my waist. Standing near Andy in the doorway, I hesitate and then look up at him.
  “I think you’re awesome.”
  “Ah, really, you think so?”
  “Yeah, I do.”
  I take the elevator thirteen floors down. Thirty years ago, I came home from school one day and told my dad that when I grew up I wanted to be the first female senator. He looked at me and said that there had already been at least a dozen of them. So now I do this.

11 comments:

Michael Peterson said...

I... just... agh. Like I've been hollowed out. Just ouch.

Ariez said...

Powerful.

So powerful. The only flaw is that until the very end, the narrator is masculine. Reading your male mind as it's inhabiting a female one is fascinating from beginning to end.

Chris Remo said...

Goddamn.

Andrew said...

The checkout girl guy was fucking hilarious. This was amazing.

Jan said...

Brilliant. Thank you.

pianoreduction said...

By far the best LSH yet. I'm so glad you're actually continuing!

juv3nal said...

awesome!

Jo said...

This affected me much more than I thought it would. Excellently done.

Erlend Grefsrud said...

This makes me very happy that I went from game journalism to entrepreneurship. The notion of heading into P-fucking-R was always surreal.

Great piece, felt painfully familiar and so ... heartbreakingly trivial. Like there's no great party in the sky, anywhere.

brendycaldwell said...

Amazing. "I read the other day that the keyboard cat had been dead for years before the YouTube videos. I wonder if that cat went his whole life feeling like he was a failure." That's a brilliant line. And this piece is full of them.

che said...

Fun stuff. Imagined a novel where phrases like 'been around as long as horse armor' go unexplained and the entire book is littered with all these references to different cliches in the games industry. Maybe you should write one. Also enjoyed the blurring of reality (Bioware doctors, Cliffy, Kinect) and fiction (the names have been changed to protect the innocent, apparently).

One bit that didn't work for me was when Megan started getting angry beyond what she should have been capable as the PR person of the studio. I have met and befriended many PR types and none of them would ever lament the loss of talent from a departing game journo. EVER.