Salvatore Pane

Tag: Tom Bissell

Culture Death Match #2: Tom Bissell vs. Sarah Vowell

What’s that? You read Culture Death Match #1 in which Amy Whipple and I talked Batman and Golden Girls and you’re dying for more? BEHOLD! Amy Whipple and I chat up Tom Bissell, Sarah Vowell, and who is assigned writerly authority and why that is exactly. It’s like a thousand Christmas mornings up in this bitch.

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Earthbound: The Best Meta-Satire of 1994?

(Note: this is the first in a series of posts examining formally interesting video games. Check the second–about 1998’s Metal Gear Solid–here.)

Last month, Oscar Villalon wrote a piece on The Rumpus echoing Tom Bissell’s sentiments that many members of this generation do not catalog their lives by albums or movies, but through video games. Of course, I made a few remarks in the comments section. One responder said that while interested like Bissell in thinking about the new narrative opportunities afforded by video games, she doesn’t actually want to play them. In fact, she wouldn’t even know where to start, and instead, she offhandedly hoped that somebody would make a gaming mix tape for those whose only introduction to the form is Tetris.

BEHOLD THY MIXTAPE.

I thought that I might cover a couple video games over the next few months with the same literary lens I’ve been using to look at comic books. And the first one I’ve decided to go with is Earthbound, a 1994 release for the Super Nintendo. That should come as little to surprise to Earthbound veterans, but I’m imagining that most people who read this blog, even some gamers, aren’t aware of this relatively obscure game. The first thing we have to talk about right out of the gate is the box.

The box is bigger than my head.

That shit don’t mess around. And when you’re a ten-year-old boy wandering around the local Electronics Boutique, that giant face-sized behemoth is going to stick out. The box is so big because the game comes with its own strategy guide and a John Waters-esque pack of odorama gross out cards. Imagine me in 1994 utterly captivated by this box, so foreign, so alien, the sleek golden curvature of that figure on its front practically demanding a purchase.

So what’s the premise? Earthbound is about a group of kids who band together to fight hippies, eat cheeseburgers, break up Heaven’s Gate style cults, beat people up with frying pans, put their souls into robots, and ride the Loch Ness Monster. It’s a Japanese Role Playing Game, and for anyone not unspeakably nerdy enough to know what that is, JRPGs are text based narratives where your only method of interaction is steering the avatar (the figure the player controls onscreen) and selecting actions from a text box. Think Myst fused with Dungeons and Dragons. And up until 1994, these games for the most part followed the same formula. Dragons and magic and swords and castles. Plucky young hero watches his village destroyed by an evil empire, then has to fight them to save the world.

What’s so noteworthy about Earthbound is that it takes place in the present (199X to be exact), and the avatars are average kids with yo-yos and baseball bats for weapons. They drink soda, not potions, to repelnish their health. They get money by using their fathers’ credit cards in ATM machines, not collecting golden coins from fallen enemies. They fight crazed neighborhood dogs, not dragons.  They pal around with the Blues Brothers.

 

In 1994, this blew my fucking mind.

The aforementioned would be enough to make Earthbound noteworthy, just one in a line of excellent JRPGs released during the Super Nintendo era. But what pushes Earthbound over the edge from obscure gem into groundbreaking classic is the fact that it’s a satire, and it’s actually funny. Most people who play games acknowledge the fact that they’re funny. But games are rarely intentionally so. Games get chuckles when they have awful translations, not because of in-game jokes. Earthbound breaks that rule repeatedly. Sometimes you discover a trinket called “Insignificant Item” that does absolutely nothing. Other times you knock at someone’s door only to hear the hushed quotations of Beatles’ lyrics. If you approach a character called The Annoying Old Party Man you get one of these two messages: “The Annoying Old Party Man/Reveler grumbled about today’s youth” or “The Annoying Old Party Man/Reveler lectured you”. Mr. T makes a cameo. Sometimes, when fighting hippies, the game literally gives you this message: “The New Age Retro Hippie used a ruler! Now he can measure things more easily!” I’m not doing the game’s humor justice, because text can’t do the game justice. Its combination of offbeat soundtrack, Norman Rockwell-cum-Nintendo visuals, and insane story and dialogue in tandem are what make this game so truly bizarre and set apart from all the other deadly serious RPGs.

And did I mention the meta aspects of the game? Earthbound begins when an alien named Buzz Buzz (yes, Buzz Buzz) crash lands in the protagonist’s sleepy American town and explains to the young boy that he’s the inheritor of an important prophecy. This is typical JRPG crap, but Earthbound plays it off with style. Buzz Buzz alerts the player that he is critically injured and about to die, but after hearing his speech about what the game is about, he tells you he can explain it again if necessary, and in fact, can explain it an infinite amount of times despite being only seconds away from death. Multiple times throughout the game, the action will stop and a character onscreen will call to you (the real life sitting at home player, not the avatar) and ask you to take a picture of the avatars. At one point, they even ask you for your real life name and hint that they’re curious to know about the person who’s controlling them (again you) like a god-like figure in their 16-bit “lives”. And in the finale, the game asks you to send all your good karma to the protagonist so that he can defeat the final boss.

 

So meta. SO META!

And the ending? The ending. There’s no cut scene that finishes the game. The player has complete control and you’re free to roam around the massive game world where people thank you for playing or offer investment opportunities or chide you for missing school. There’s no true end other than turning off the power. And in 1994 this was truly memorable shit. Earthbound was the first game that made fun of itself for being a video game. Earthbound was the first game whose characters understood that they existed in a video game world, and they frequently commented on that fact.

I can’t imagine many people are going to rush out and play Earthbound after reading this (unless, like me, they’ve already played through it countless times). But like Bissell argues in Extra Lives, I think it’s important for the literary set to look at games and think about their narrative potential. They require a level of active participation that a book can never have (and that’s not a judgment on either medium). Bissell focuses much of his work on newer games, but my only true access point to gamer culture is fueled by nostalgia. Earthbound is the first game that truly made me aware of the storytelling capabilities within the video game, the first that made it clear that not everything had to follow the tired and culturally outdated “save the princess” plot line. And when I open up my Earthbound strategy guide and smell my Master Belch odorama card? Yeah. That’s a straight snort back to what it feels like to be ten-years-old again.

This reference is not lost on ten-year-olds.

Do I lose my writer card if I call Earthbound the Infinite Jest of 1994 Super Nintendo Japanese Role Playing Games?

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Dispatches From a Creative Writing Camp and the Strange Allure of the Nintendo Novel

This is my second week teaching at the Young Writers Institute, a University of Pittsburgh summer writing camp for middle schoolers and high school kids. I’m teaching 7th and 8th graders, and although I’ll undoubtedly write something longer about the experience later, there are a few things I want to discuss now. First off, it’s amazing to me the type of writers these kids respond to. Last week, we took them to the Carnegie Library and I managed to get a bunch of them interested in Flannery O’ Connor, Tom Perrotta, Stewart O’ Nan and Belle Boggs. One even picked up Kevin Wilson all on her own. Today we went through a bunch of the superb exercises in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I expected Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl, and while the kids do all seem to like these books (can you believe current 7th graders were born after the release of the first HP book?!), they also seem to be drawn to “serious” “literary” fiction which is a promising sign.

But that’s not what this post is going to be about. One of my students reminds me a lot of a younger me. He’s unreasonably tall and built like a matchstick. He spends much of his day talking about Nintendo and always arrives earlier than anyone else. Usually, he has a new chapter from the novel he’s writing for me. What’s it about? It’s a sequel to a video game I never heard of, a Japanese Role-Playing Game that involves a bunch of Nintendo characters, including everybody’s favorite Italian stereotype, Super Mario.

For those unware, Japanese RPGs are extremely text heavy video games. They usually take 30-60 hours to complete, and much of that time is spent watching cut scenes or reading dialogue, the exact opposite of Tom Bissell’s beloved luddonarratives. Typically, these games are standard fantasy fare, i.e. knights and wizards. But in the nineties, things began shifting towards steampunk. When I was kid, RPGs were my favorite type of video games. And although I haven’t played one in a few years, I can relate to my student’s desire to ape this narrative style. A group of warriors and wizards are thrown together due to an extreme crisis. They band together and travel a fantastic world learning new abilities. They save the planet. I can relate to wanting to write in this style, but I don’t understand it.

As a child, I wrote many Nintendo novels, hundreds of pages of material following the typical RPG path. What I don’t understand is why this was the major type of story I, and apparently many others, tried to emulate. I was exposed to countless comic books and read a ton of young adult sci-fi and fantasy. Yet I never tried to recreate or sequelize those worlds. Why is that? Is it because they were more fully fleshed out? Because the worlds and characters of RPGs are only ever suggested and never fully realized? Is it because the stories of RPGs were inherently simpler than kid novels from writers like Bruce Coville, and thus, more easily copied? I’m not really sure. But I’m wondering if others out there tried to write Nintendo novels as kids. I’m wondering if anybody has any thoughts on why.

Review (Essay?) About Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives

Guys. This is easily the best review I’ve written. At three pages, it’s more like a mini-essay. As Amy Whipple would say, I have a lot of feelings about Tom Bissell’s meditation on gaming, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.

Summer Reading List

A few days ago on HTML Giant, Christopher Higgs posted his summer reading list and asked readers to do the same in the comments section.  I’ve been constructing elaborate summer reading lists for awhile now. Check out this stack that I (mostly) devoured over a three week period last summer.

But a curious thing happened when fall rolled around: I didn’t delete the reading list file on my hard drive. I just kept adding to it and adding to it, updating with way more titles than I could consume in any given month. And now, with a new summer upon us, I have a list that has ballooned to 33 separate entries. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a huge problem, but reviewing has taken a big chunk out of my reading for pleasure time. Oh, and this doesn’t even include all the graphic novels I’ve saved up for the summer (I have a different file for those with only 18 entries).

Prose

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
God Jr. by Dennis Cooper
After the Workshop by John McNally
Samuel Johnson Is Indignant by Lydia Davis
Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Feast of Love by Charles Baxter
Something else by Jay McInerney (not Bright Lights, Big City)
The Half-Known World by Robert Boswell
Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
Something else by Joe Meno (not The Great Perhaps)
Dalva or Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
Emperor of the Air by Ethan Canin
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Morre
The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter
Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
A Common Pornography by Kevin Sampsell
Something by Paul Auster
The Terrible Girls by Rebecca Brown
This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell
We’re Getting On by James Kaelan
End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy
A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley
Solar by Ian McEwan
Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin
Stories II by Scott McLanahan
American Subversive by David Goodwillie

Comics

The Nightly News by Jonathan Hickman
RASL vol. 1 by Jeff Smith
Young Avengers vol. 2 by Allen Heinberg and Jimmy Cheung
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple
The Flash book 1 Blood Will Run by Geoff Johns and Scott Kollins and Ethan Van Sciver
Fantastic Four vol. 1 by Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo
Daredevil vol. 1 Ultimate Collection by Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack and Alex Maleev
Daredevil Born Again by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Black Summer by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp
Batman Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
New X-Men vol. 1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely and Ethan Van Sciver and Leinil Francis Yu
Global Frequency vol. 1 Planet Ablaze by Warren Ellis
Marvel 1602 Premiere HC by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert
Superman/Batman vol. 1 Public Enemies by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness
Wolverine: Enemy of the State by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. and and Kaare Andrews
The Middleman: The Collected Series Indispensability by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine
I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Niimura

Obviously, this list is way too ambitious for any human to complete in a single season. But I’ll take a crack at it. I imagine that most of the graphic novels will fall by the wayside as I already read three or four comics a week each Wednesday. However, if you think I’m missing something absolutely crucial, please let me know. And feel free to post your own lists in the comments sections.

Why Super Mario Bros. Will Affect the New Generation of Writers

A few years ago I came across a story of Tom Bissell’s in Best American Short Stories 2005. I can’t remember everything about “Death Defiers”, but I’m pretty sure it involved an American photojournalist in the Middle East who gets swept up in some sort of bizarre, familial poison plot. The details are fuzzy, but what I recall quite clearly is the final paragraph: a beautiful piece of prose describing the protagonist stepping on a mine and flipping through the air. I’m not doing this story any justice whatsoever, but I liked the piece enough at the time to add Bissell’s name to my “To Read” list.

I’m sure all writers/readers have similar lists. Mine’s in the back of whatever moleskin notepad I’m keeping my writing notes in at the time. The list comprises every book or writer that I need to read. Sometimes I make it through these lists in their entirety, but most of the time I do not. In the intervening years between first reading Bissell’s short story and now, I’ve seen essays of his from time to time but little else. Then yesterday, over on HTML Giant, I read that he was publishing a collection of essays about his addiction to video games (and flirtations with cocaine) called Extra Lives. They linked to an excerpt at The Guardian.

HOLY SHIT!

Finally, someone is looking at gamer culture with a literary (and serious) sensibility. Interestingly enough, the same Best American with Bissell’s piece also contained a short story about a World of Warcraft-esque human slave labor camp. But outside of that and Justin Taylor’s fantastic flash fiction Tetris/End of the World mash-up, I haven’t really read much that looks at gaming with a seriousness of intent. I was particularly drawn to this section in The Guardian excerpt:

What have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories. Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that pointed not toward but at something. Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough….

It turns narrative into an active experience, which film is simply unable to do in the same way. And it is moments like this that remind me why I love video games and what they give me that nothing else can…

Niko [the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto IV] was not my friend, but I felt for him, deeply. He was clearly having a hard go of it and did not always understand why. He was in a new place that did not make a lot of sense. He was trying, he was doing his best, but he was falling into habits and ways of being that did not reflect his best self. By the end of his long journey, Niko and I had been through a lot together. (Bissell)

What I love about this essay is that it recognizes that video games offer a textual experience wholly unique. Literature and film require active participation to a certain extent, but no matter how much you contextualize movies or visualize the scenes in books, you can never have a  literal direct effect on the chain of narrative events in the way you can with video games. Even comic books, which require more active participation than film or books by having white space segmenting the action which forces readers to play out the missing moments of time in their minds, cannot match the interactivity of a video game.

I’m not sure where this line of thinking will carry me, but it’s something I’ve been dwelling on a lot recently as video games factor into the novel I’m very close to completing, The Collected Works of the Digital Narcissist. The protagonist is a gamer nostalgic for the 8-bit games of yore and often embeds images from those games into the text. During a trilogy of scenes which take place during the early nineties, he describes his devotion to all things Nintendo via the following:

If you’ve only casually played video games, then you can not comprehend the inner depths of their joys. You don’t know what it feels like to give yourself up so completely to an alien world of colors and sprites, of repetition and absolute safety. You are no longer yourself. You are an avatar. Super Mario, an Italian plumber tumbled through the looking-glass. Link, the boy knight on a magical crusade to rescue Princess Zelda from the terrible Ganon. Samus Aran, the intergalactic bounty hunter tracking down alien eggs on a world controlled by space pirates. This becomes more “real” than the “real” world…

And so I began my descent into the world of microchips and immateriality. And so I began to fear the natural world. Because when you are represented by an avatar, you are no longer Michael Bishop, a skinny child with a broken arm and sharp ribs that push against your polar bear t-shirt. You are not weak and loathsome and oh so frightened that some threat lurks around every corner existing only to dismember you. I lost myself in those games for hours at a time, refused to leave the safety of my house and that monolithic Nintendo. I feared forests and lakes and birds and wind and most of all people.

The digital!

My first true love!

(Pane)

What’s interesting to me about all of this is echoed in Paste Magazine’s review of the aforementioned Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever. Reviewer Charles McNair writes, “Justing Taylor’s first short-story collection artfully captures the view of the 200s from the perspective of a twentysomethingSeveral of his stories bear the unmistakable, bloggy influence of the 2000s. Do we sense some sort of new fictional frontier? Time will tell.” This is the first generation to come of age raised on video games and technology more advanced than the Atari 2600 and the Apple II. Will that have an effect on the writing produced by those writers? How about blogs and Facebook and Twitter and cell phones? I say overwhelmingly yes. Our sense of narrative has been irrevocably shifted by technology and it only makes sense that not only will the platform literature is disseminated through change, but the very writing itself.

Two brief personal examples to illustrate a point:

1) This is my actual Nintendo collection.

Over the past six years, I’ve managed to track down about 150 Nintendo Entertainment System games, 50 Super Nintendo Entertainment games and 20 GameBoy games. I don’t play newer systems very much because I’d usually rather spend my free time reading, but also because I know that like Bissell I have an addictive personality and remember all too well the days in high school when I would play Japanese Role Playing Games on the original Playstation for disgusting stretches (during one horrible summer before ninth grade, I played Chrono Cross every day for three weeks for at least eight hours at a time. I became so addicted that I only stopped to hurriedly eat a sandwich in front of the pause screen). Since college, I have been content to play the games of my childhood. Super Mario Bros. Chip N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers. Maniac Mansion. Blaster Master. Fun games with marginal narratives that only take about a half-hour to complete.

All that being said, how can I not be affected by video games? Even if I don’t play much now, so much of my life has been spent glued in front of a television screen controlling digital avatars that it wouldn’t be realistic to clam my sense of narrative hasn’t been deeply impacted by these digital worlds. And I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in this.

2) I went to college for creative writing. The program is very serious compared to other undergrad institutions and the teachers treat their pupils more like graduate students. I often bailed on the work in my other classes to work on fiction and cnf, and this was certainly not frowned upon by the real working writers who taught us. The books lifted up for us to worship were all written by the ’80’s dirty realists and their predecessors. Carver. Dubus. Wolff. Ford. Pancake. Munro. Bobbie Ann Mason. Richard Yates. And don’t get me wrong. They all still number among my favorite writers, and my devotion to Yates borders on the religious.

Unfortunately, after many years of writing each and every day, I eventually came to realize that I will never be a master of domestic realism. I don’t have it in me. My instincts naturally strive for the geeky, the nerdy, and it’s hard to hit that aesthetic in the parameters of sparse Carver minimalism. I wrote a very bad, failed novel a few years ago in the style of domestic realism. The characters were all working class, and the subject matter included decaying mines and the folly of local politics.

It was breathtakingly terrible, and after wonderful advice from a mentor of mine, I packed it away in a drawer. Since then, I have written something much more successful, and my work has begun to be published in very small publications. While working on my new novel, I found myself referencing Nintendo, putting up screen shots, using Twitter feeds, implementing blog posts, inserting web comics and even writing an entire scene in script format. People ask why I made these narrative decisions and I can only respond that it’s what felt natural and “right” to me at the time. Like Bissell, I feel incredibly affected by the prevailing technologies of my era. To deny that by reverting to a mode of writing three decades old is akin to denying myself, something Bissell and Taylor are very clearly aware of.

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