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The top five moments of my video gaming life, or, Du côté de chez Questor

Austin Grossman’s YOU has been praised in the Boston Globe as “razor sharp…a smart meditation on the nature of gaming” and by Tom Bissell in Harper’s as “some of the most startling, acute writing on video games yet essayed.” Find it in bookstores everywhere or pick it up from your e-tailer of choice this week! We’ll have a full links post of the great coverage for YOU tomorrow–in the meantime, check out the below guest post from Austin on some of the most memorable moments of his gaming life.

This isn’t a top-five-games list, although there aren’t any bad games here.  Instead, it’s a list of the five best moments video games have given me.

Now that I’ve started writing at length about them, this is the part that interests me most. There’s a lot of debate as to whether video games are art, whether they deliver the kind of emotional or narrative or profound experiences associated with the idea of what an art form is.  But if we’re going to see clearly what video games are, we have to think about not just the “text” of the game, the art and code and game mechanics, but whatever it is that happens when game meets player, the ephemeral, collaborative experience that results.

You could say the same thing about any medium but for obvious reasons it has a special bite for interactive media. The best video games don’t just tell stories, they generate them.

Ritual caveats: It’s not really a top five, of course – I’ve done way too much gaming for that, and had too good a time doing it. I only have so much space. I could talk about Braid or SpyParty, but I think those are significant more because they’re good games than for a personal experience I had with them.

I’m also excluding games I worked on – no System Shock, no Deus Ex, no Trespasser (although I could – go ahead and call me on it).  In that regard I’m letting  Flight Unlimited in on a technicality, because I mostly just worked on the manual, and because part of what I’m writing about is the hardware peripheral.

1. Halo: Combat Evolved, Bungie, 2004

It was a little ways after midnight. I was at a friend’s house in Oakland on the couch. It had been a couple of years since I had a proper gaming console and I was catching up with some Halo.

I’d been a little dismissive of Halo during the opening levels back on the Pillar of Autumn – I felt it was standard shooter stuff – but then I hit the outdoor levels, out on the Forerunner-built pseudo-planetary surface and I got the point.  Tactical combat moved outdoors, dynamically modeled vehicle physics, and glorious scenery of the Halo, the kind of vistas that induce a uniquely vertiginous awe, the Ringworld sublime.

I’d been living there a few weeks, house-sitting after bailing out of a living situation that – well we won’t debate the rights and wrongs at this point, but there I was.  I was still in the first half of a doctorate I would never complete, pretty lonely, and for three or four hours a day I needed to not be there in my head. I played every night until I fell asleep.

I was almost halfway through the single-player campaign, partway through “Assault on the Control Room” and bogged down in one of those endless canyons. Dying and re-spawning, frustrated, bombarded, I was getting tired and lazy.

It was snowing onscreen, my human squadmates were dying, and I felt like the miserable WWI infantryman in a Wilfred Owen poem, getting shot by enemies I didn’t even notice.  It took me maybe forty-five minutes of grinding shooter gameplay to figure out that I could knock an enemy off its vehicle, and – if the vehicle survived the crash – I could get on it myself, and fly.

That was the moment.  Part of it was just one of those satisfying clicks where you realize that the virtual world is simulated more thoroughly than I had assumed, that they had opted to make me, Covenant troops, and vehicles part of the same universe, with the kind of robust interoperability that makes a simulated world feel complete.

But then there was the absolutely unexpected somatic thrill of the ground dropping away, like I had torn free from something. I pulled back on the stick and streaked up along the cliff face momentarily free, above the rainy, slushy mess of dying Terran and Covenant troops, right out of myself and Oakland and regret and all the memories of a wasted year.

Continue reading “The top five moments of my video gaming life, or, Du côté de chez Questor”

How L.A. Noire Changes Everything (Just Not in the Way They Thought it Would)

The Game

There’s some kind of irony to be found in the fact that one of the main pursuits of L.A. Noire is to reconstruct, in exact detail, a few square miles of 1947 Los Angeles, because everything else about the game is so modern. Ahead of its time, even.

Produced by Team Bondi and Rockstar Games and intended to be part radical reinvention of the point-and-click adventure games of yore, part tech-demonstration for new performance capture breakthroughs, the game also winds up having something that nobody expected: an unprecedented amount of intelligence. I would imagine that the game’s intelligence presented one of Rockstar’s biggest problems when it comes to selling the game to a wide audience. The company’s name has become synonymous with violent, open-world action games. Games that may have grand, sweeping narratives, but also have lots of blood, guts and other “exploitable elements” to keep the more reptilian-brained of their audience satiated.

The bulk of the gameplay is comprised of searching crime scenes for evidence and then interviewing persons of interest. The intimate nature of the interviews is where the game’s performance capture is employed to its fullest extent, as the player is asked to judge the validity of a P.O.I’s statement based on their facial tics and tells. It’s not terribly hard to discern when a character isn’t telling the truth (there’s lots of eye rolling, furrowed brows, etc.) but a player does have to use their deductive skills when it comes to determining whether they have sufficient evidence to prove if a perp is lying or not. Because all the characters a player meets are motion captured by real world actors, expect to be staring down many a familiar face over the course of the game. Either the producers got some kind of package deal or they wanted to capitalize on the warm post-war period connotations of Mad Men, because it seems like the entire cast shows up in L.A. Noire.

Continue reading “How L.A. Noire Changes Everything (Just Not in the Way They Thought it Would)”

As Dark as Broad Daylight

We asked all the contributors to LA Noire: The Collected Stories to tell us about their story in the collection. Read Lawrence Block’s contribution “See the Woman” in LA Noire: The Collected Stories.

Available free (for a limited time) from your eTailer of choice. Amazon.com | BN.com | iTunes | Kobo | Sony

LA Noire?

I have to say it seems counter-intuitive.  After all, it never rains in Southern California, we have Albert Hammond’s word on that, and he’s always been reliable in the past.

Noir is the French word for black, but when we borrow it to categorize books and films, it morphs from color to mood.  It’s been defined in various ways; more often it’s left undefined, and one could say of noir what Potter Stewart famously said of pornography:  he knew it when he saw it.

The definition I like best is Charles Ardai’s.  He’s the publisher of Hard Case Crime, a line of books that is the very epitome of noir, and I can think of no one who’s more at home with the genre.  He defines it as crime fiction written by a pessimist, and the only change I’d make would be to tuck in the words “as if” between “written” and “by,” because the world of a novel does not necessarily reflect the world view of its author.

Dark crime fiction, pessimistic crime fiction.   It would seem to call for rain, or at the very least the threat of rain.  Dark streets, broken streetlamps, shadows in which something—anything!—might  be lurking.

But in Los Angeles?  Noir in the land of surf and sunshine?  Noir in Beach Boys Country?

You’re kidding, right?

Continue reading “As Dark as Broad Daylight”

Pure storytelling, pure action

We asked all the contributors to LA Noire: The Collected Stories to tell us about their story in the collection. Read Francine Prose’s contribution “School for Murder” in LA Noire: The Collected Stories.

Available free (for a limited time) from your eTailer of choice. Amazon.com | BN.com | iTunes | Kobo | Sony

LA Noir is a world that exists in our heads, eternal and universal but at the same time highly specific: Los Angeles, 1947. It’s a world of hard-luck PIs working in dusty offices with pretty receptionists and shifty clients; of gruesome unsolved murders; of crime films not so much about murder as about dark and light, the inky pools of fear in a victim’s eyes and the stripes from a pair of Venetian blinds on the killer’s face. I loved the experience of writing a story for the collection, imagining that place and time and then letting my imagination go wild. Pure storytelling, pure action. An excuse to enter another world without having to stay there very long. Also for me part of the fun was that, purely coincidentally, my son Leon’s company, Truth and Soul Records, was producing a cut for the LA Noire promotional music download, a remix of Gene Krupa’s “Sing Sing Sing.”

Francine Prose is the New York Times bestselling author of A Changed Man, which won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Blue Angel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and fourteen other books.

Betty Short and Norma Jeane Baker Alive Again

We asked all the contributors to LA Noire: The Collected Stories to tell us about their story in the collection. Read Joyce Carol Oates’ contribution “Black Dahlia & White Rose” in LA Noire: The Collected Stories.

Available free (for a limited time) from your eTailer of choice. Amazon.com | BN.com | iTunes | Kobo | Sony

Writing ‘Black Dahlia & White Rose’ was an unnerving experience. After Blonde, my novel about the doomed Marilyn Monroe, which was published in 2000, I had not anticipated ever returning to the heightened and intense world of Los Angeles circa 1946-7. But here are ‘Betty Short’ and ‘Norma Jeane Baker’ alive again, living out cruelly prepared scripts in which they have no hand and of which they can have no awareness. That these beautiful and vulnerable young women are ‘Hollywood sisters’ of a kind seems absolutely right to me–in fact, inevitable.

Joyce Carol Oates is the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, the winner of the National Book Award, and the author of over fifty novels.

My Own Dark Places

We asked all the contributors to LA Noire: The Collected Stories to tell us their thoughts on why Los Angeles is so associated with noir. Read Jonathan Santlofer’s story “What’s In a Name?” in LA Noire: The Collected Stories.

Available free (for a limited time) from your eTailer of choice. Amazon.com | BN.com | iTunes | Sony

When Rockstar asked me to put together an anthology to accompany their darkly beautiful video game, LA NOIRE, I pounced. Having been enamored with noir both on the page and on the screen since my brooding teenage years, my mind was spinning Chandleresque tales before I wrote a single word or asked another author to contribute. I wanted to invite a hundred writers but it ended up a small collection, every story burnished black as ebony, all jittery gems that invite the reader to trespass along those sunny/seamy LA streets. For my own story I slipped into the mind of a killer and had fun mixing fact and fiction, bringing in shadowy underworld figures I’d only read about, like Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stompanato, real life bad guys who seem quaint, almost harmless, compared to my fictional psychopath, a true noir creation inspired in equal parts by the game LA NOIRE, postwar Los Angeles, and my own dark places.

Jonathan Santlofer is the editor of LA Noire: The Collected Stories, as well as the author of 5 novels. He is the recipient of a Nero Wolfe Award for best crime fiction novel of 2008, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and has been a Visiting Artist at the American Academy In Rome, the Vermont Studio Center and serves on the board of Yaddo, the oldest arts community in the U.S. He is co-editor, contributor and illustrator of the anthology, THE DARK END OF THE STREET, and his short stories have appeared in every top mystery/crime anthology. He is also the artist behind Ken Bruen’s serial novel BLACK LENS.

Noir Seal of Approval

As a contributor to LA Noire: The Collected Stories, we asked Andrew Vachss to give us his thoughts on noir. Read Andrew Vachss’s story “Postwar Boom” in LA Noire: The Collected Stories.

Available free (for a limited time) from your eTailer of choice. Amazon.com | BN.com | iTunes | Sony

I learned, a long time ago, that people can read for entertainment and come away with enlightenment, so long as the vein of truth runs throughout and doesn’t detract from the narrative force. I understand there are those who believe “noir”—or “hardboiled,” or whatever term they prefer to lavish upon themselves—writing shouldn’t be cluttered up with “that other stuff.” As if littérature engageé is only acceptable in “magical realism” novels translated from original Incan scrolls. All these “outlaws” who want me to live by their rigid little rules … good luck to them. I understand I am too “pulp” for the literati, and too “literate” for the pulpsters. Lost a lot of sleep over that. I’d rather burn a bridge than crawl over it, and genre- worship isn’t one of my disabilities. Apparently, as with all religions, some people believe they can dictate definitions. I don’t ask these self-appointed high priests for the “Noir Seal of Approval” that only they (think they) can grant.

Andrew Vachss has been a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a social-services caseworker, and a labor organizer, and has directed a maximum-security prison for “aggressive-violent” youth. Now a lawyer in private practice, he represents children and youths exclusively. He is the author of two dozen novels, including The Weight, his latest. To read an excerpt from this crime-fiction novel about Sugar, an old-school professional thief, visit http://vachss.com/weight.

The Edge of Nothing

We asked all the contributors to LA Noire: The Collected Stories to tell us their thoughts on why Los Angeles is so associated with noir. Read Megan Abbott’s story “The Girl” in LA Noire: The Collected Stories.

Available free (for a limited time) from your eTailer of choice . Amazon.com | BN.com | iTunes | Sony

Noir in both fiction and film has taken rich advantage of cities like San Francisco (Hammett) and New York (Spillane, Himes). No city—or region—truly owns noir, which is a mood, a feeling, a set of universal principles (no sin goes unpaid for; desire will doom you).

But, for me any many others, its deepest roots lie in the lush turf of Los Angeles. No other place evokes, with such extremity, noir’s foundational opposition: that there are two worlds, the world of daytime—of family, respectability, business, progress—and night—of crime, corruption, danger.

In his book City of Quartz, Mike Davis terms this opposition “sunshine vs. noir,” capitalist utopia and urban nightmare, land of “milk and honey” and city of “seduction and defeat.” And, maybe most of all, no other city has Hollywood. From Sunset Boulevard to L.A. Confidential to L.A. Noire itself, noir offers up countless tales of failed starlets and shattered dreams. Not a physical location, not even an industry, Hollywood stands as a bright symbol of limitless promise that gives way to decadence and ruin.

Los Angeles is, by geographic fate, the dropping-off of the American frontier. Manifest Destiny at its endpoint. You reach your dream here or you’ve lost it forever. Raymond Chandler, L.A. noir’s founding father, once said, “I have lived my life on the edge of nothing.” The edge of nothing: that is where Los Angeles sits, precarious, beautiful—a femme fatale waiting for her kiss.

Megan Abbott is the Edgar-award winning author of five novels. She has taught literature, writing, and film at New York University, the New School and the State University of New York at Oswego. She received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University in 2000. She lives in New York City. Her new novel The End of Everything will be published in July 2011. Start reading on Facebook and follow Megan on Twitter.

Now Available LA Noire: The Collected Stories

Today is the publication date for LA Noire: The Collected Stories a series of short stories some of which are based on characters and cases from the world of L.A. Noire, Rockstar’s new magnum opus of video gaming.

Throughout the day, we will be posting short vignettes by the contributors to the collection. Contributors include Megan Abbott, Lawrence Block, Joe Lansdale, Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, Jonathan Santlofer, Duane Swierczynski and Andrew Vachss.

For now, download the collection for free from your eTailer of choice. Amazon.com | BN.com | iTunes | Sony

Mulholland Books and Rockstar Games

We’re thrilled to announce that we will be publishing, in conjunction with Rockstar Games, a series of short stories some of which are based on characters and cases from the world of L.A. Noire, Rockstar’s forthcoming new video game. “L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories” will be available for digital download on June 6, 2011 through all major eBook retailers.

Authors with stories in the anthology include such renowned writers as Megan Abbott, Lawrence Block, Joe Lansdale, Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, Jonathan Santlofer, Duane Swierczynski and Andrew Vachss. 1940s Hollywood, murder, deception and mystery take center stage as readers reintroduce themselves to characters seen in L.A. Noire. Explore the lives of actresses desperate for the Hollywood spotlight; heroes turned defeated men; and classic Noir villains. Readers will come across not only familiar faces, but familiar cases from the game that take on a new spin to tell the tales of emotionally torn protagonists, depraved schemers and their ill-fated victims.

Read Megan Abbot’s story “The Girl” on Rockstargames.com.

Read the full press release here.

Preorder from BN.com | iTunes | Amazon