Metal Gear Solid, Kojima, HAWP, Borderlands 2, and Illiterate Dads: 7 Questions with Ashly and Anthony Burch November 04 2014

We've tapped a few of our authors to interview our new Season 2 authors. Today, Jon Irwin (Super Mario Bros. 2) interviews Ashly and Anthony Burch about their forthcoming Metal Gear Solid book.


Jon Irwin: What would you have said on that day in 2008 if someone told you, in 2014, you'd be co-writing a book on Metal Gear Solid? Or in 1998, when you played the game for the first time?

Anthony: “How did you get inside my house, time travelling Jon Irwin”

“Also are the Star Wars prequels good”

Ashly: "OH MY GOD DOES THIS MEAN I GET TO MEET DAVID HAYTER" (spoilers, hypothetical Ashly: the answer is no)

Your videos often veer into the surreal. Hideo Kojima, director of the MGS series, is known for his outrageous storytelling. How have these games influenced your own sensibilities and creative output? Or do you find your existing personalities pushed you toward certain types of games?

Anthony: I  think we naturally share some comedic sensibilities with MGS, and always have. Kojima often breaks his own narrative rules and the fourth wall for no reason at all other than to be interesting, or funny, or surprising. Some of the best moments in the MGS series have a “let’s do this random thing because fuck it” attitude that resonated with us as children and sticks with us as adults. Our writing is definitely full of lots of shrugging “ah, what the fuck”-type gags, because it’s honestly just a lot more fun and freeing than taking yourself seriously a hundred percent of the time.

Ashly: Adding onto what Anthony already said, I think we also derived our love of over-the-top, excessively-cinematic fight scenes and confrontations from the Metal Gear series as a whole. The end of MGS4 literally made us jump to our feet and scream, prompting us to do a SIGNIFICANTLY LESS COOL version for the season 1 finale of Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'

Anthony, you work for Gearbox Software as a writer on the Borderlands series. You also wrote for Destructoid. Compare writing for a video game to writing for an online audience, to writing a book. How different, or similar, are they?

Anthony: Writing for a video game is highly collaborative and structured. You have to work with many different teams to tell a story, and that story must almost always be subservient to the needs of the player and the game design. First, you make sure the player understands what they need to do; then, you have to convince the player WHY they need to do it. Only after you’ve done those two things can you even begin to start getting cute and clever with jokes and characterization.

Writing for internet videos is pretty much the exact opposite. Our scripts don’t have to get approved by anyone other than our small three-person production team. There are no rules for what we can or can’t write, so long as the gags are funny. There’s no consistency, no overall goal, no mission statement other than “be brief and make people laugh.”

Writing the book with Ash has been an interesting mishmash of the two experiences. On the one hand, the book is kind of a freeflowing conversation between Ash and I, and we tend to meander and digress and make jokes about Space Jam. On the other hand, we want the book to feel like A Relatively Intelligent And Readable Thing That Is Worthy Of Your Time Because It Is A Physical Book With Pages And Stuff, so it ultimately needs to feel more like a cohesive whole rather than a bunch of random, internet video-esque nonsense.

Ashly, you began a blog called How Games Saved My Life, collecting testimonials about the positive impact games have had on others during tumultuous or difficult times. We could all use a bit of saving these days. What's the one game you would point to as being most likely to help someone in the throes of anxiety/hurt/depression/toothache/etc.? Any games you try to avoid if feeling overwhelmed by _______?

Ashly: I think the answer to your first question is going to be very different for different people. For some, hopping in a game of TF2 with friends is an enormously cathartic experience. For others, it's immersing themselves in Minecraft. For me, it was playing Harvest Moon 64 and Spelunky. I think the wonderful thing about games and one of the really beautiful and enlightening things for me about curating How Games Saved My Life is that every game speaks so differently to each person that plays it. For some folks, Harvest Moon 64 is a boring farming simulator. But for me, for a little while, it was a lifeline. When I'm feeling particularly vulnerable, I personally avoid games that necessitate high stakes cooperation, like Left 4 Dead or League of Legends, etc. In the right mood, those games are amazing, but if you already feel fragile, they can be pretty hard to get through. 

Your book is pitched as a "celebration/takedown" of a series you feel has lost its way. When did you start to suspect this game, such a large part of your youth, was losing its hold on you? Was there a specific in-game moment when you looked at each other and knew things had changed?

Anthony: Well, there are two big things that I fell out of love with when it comes to Metal Gear Solid: the narrative style, and the game’s depiction of women. I grew tired with the former after playing relatively cutscene-free narrative experiences like BioShock and Shadow of the Colossus.

The feminism angle only dawned on me a few years ago, as Ash and I worked on more directly feminist HAWP episodes and started casting a more critical eye on the media we loved. Slowly, Meryl seemed less like a badass chick who got stuff done, and more like a halfhearted “Strong Female Character” who still gets damseled (and, uh, raped offscreen) halfway through the game.

Ashly: I don't think I realized just how strikingly problematic MGS is in many ways until we revisited it for this book. I had certain memories of odd, sexist moments or clunky dialogue. And any MGS fan is acutely aware of Kojima's affinity for cut scenes, which, like Anthony, I've lost my taste for. But it wasn't really until we started unpacking a lot of the stuff in the game to write our book that I was struck by, not only how sophisticated it is in some ways, but also how wholly immature it is at the same time.

Writing a book is hard for one person, let alone two. How are you choosing to write as a twosome? Will you each have your own chapters, or is it more collaborative and mixed up?

Anthony: Bit of both. I’ve got an entire chapter on gameplay all to myself, but the vast majority of the book is Ash and I batting ideas back and forth, building off the others’ arguments and generally trying (and not always succeeding) to come to meaningful conclusions.

Ashly: What Anthony said! Apart from gameplay, which is Anthony's jam, and feminism, which is my solo chapter, we're sort of sustaining a conversation throughout the rest of the book. 

Not only do you work together as siblings, but your dad also joins the HAWP fun in recurring roles. What was in the water back in your hometown to make you all the way you are? And will Papa Burch show up in your Boss Fight entry?

Ashly: It's funny what a combination of intense boredom and heat will do to a kid. I wrote a lot of Sailor Moon fanfiction. Like, a lot of Sailor Moon fanfiction, y'all. I'm not sure how I made it this far.

Anthony: Arizona is basically a sun-scorched wasteland from which no good things can grow. I think we evolved our stupid senses of humor as some sort of defense mechanism, in the hopes that sufficiently crass fart jokes would help us find a way out of Phoenix. Somehow it worked!

And nah, Papa Burch probably won’t show up. He’s basically illiterate.