In what must be the smartest profile I’ve ever read about the video game business, Tom Bissell profiles Epic Games designer Cliff Blesinski in this week’s The New Yorker. Blesinski designed the uber-successful game Gears of War, which I received once as a gift. Although I’ve never been a fan of shooters, there was definitely something different about this game. Bissell’s essay puts the game on the level of art and calls in Nathan Englander to help him make his case:
The novelist Nathan Englander, a fan of the game, cites its third-person viewpoint, in which the player looks over the shoulder of the character being controlled, as a key to its success. “In literary terms,” Englander told me, “it’s a close-second-person shooter. It’s Jay McInerney and Lorrie Moore territory. You’re both totally involved and totally watching.” As for the collapsed architecture and blown-open spaces of the Gears world, Englander said, “There’s the hospital from ‘Blindness’ and the house from ‘The Ghost Writer,’ and I know that beautiful, ruined world of Gears as well as either of those.”
What really got me about the piece isn’t just the convergence of video games and literature, but rather Bissell’s location in the game of something—some emotion—that is very mournful and mature and sad that he traces through its advertising campaign:
The advertising campaign for the first Gears was centered on a strangely affecting sixty-second spot in which Fenix twice flees from enemies, only to be cornered by a Corpser, a monstrous arachnoid creature, on which he opens fire. But it was the soundtrack—Gary Jules’s spare, mournful cover of the 1982 Tears for Fears song “Mad World”—that gave the spot its harsh-tender dissonance. This helped signal that Fenix was something that few video-game characters had yet managed to be: disappointedly adult.
Bissell continues later in the piece:
Gears also contains what Bleszinski calls a “going home” narrative: “There’s a sublevel to Gears that so many people missed out on because it’s such a big testosterone-filled chainsaw-fest. Marcus Fenix goes back to his childhood home in the game. I dream about my house in Boston, basically every other night. It was up on a hill.” In Gears of War, the fatherless Fenix’s manse is on a hill, too, and getting to its front door involves some of the most harried and ridiculously frantic fighting in the game. When I told Bleszinski that Fenix’s homecoming was one of my favorite levels in Gears, he asked if I knew where its title, “Imaginary Place,” had come from. I thought for a moment. Earlier, he had made a nicely observed reference to the novelist Cormac McCarthy, and I was attuned to the possibility of an altogether unexpected window into his imagination. Was it from Auden? No. It was a reference to a line from Zach Braff’s film “Garden State,” in which “family” is defined as “a group of people who miss the same imaginary place.” When you start to peel back the layers of the Gears world, Bleszinski told me, “there’s a lot of sadness there.”
Bissell’s accomplishments in this piece are many, but the two most obvious are
- He takes the level of discourse around video games to a whole new elevation.
- He makes me want to play Gears of War.
That second point, I think, is the the height of non-fiction writing about any subject—whether it’s art or sports or technology or business: the writing drives the reader towards its subject.