Mike Drucker Interviews Matt Margini about his Red Dead Redemption Book May 01 2020

This is the first in our author-vs.-author Boss Fight Q&A series. Both Mike's book on Silent Hill 2 and Matt's book on Red Dead are funding now on Kickstarter.
You're writing a book on a game that is both inspired by and subverts tropes found in traditional Westerns. What was your previous experience with the genre? If you had little experience before, what about Red Dead Redemption made you interested in the Western setting?
Honestly, my experience with the Western was limited before I started thinking about this book. I suspect a lot of people my age absorbed the genre from their boomer dads via osmosis; mine was not the biggest Western fan. But The Searchers has been embedded in my brain ever since an eccentric old lefty named Mr. Loose showed it to us in high school film class, freely throwing around terms like "phallic symbol" and "miscegenation." He really showed us how you could look beneath the surface of the genre to find the values undergirding it (American exceptionalism, gruff machismo, gun culture, etc.), and his head kept reappearing in my mind like a foul-mouthed Obi-Wan when I sat down to play Red Dead for the umpteenth time. It seemed clear to me that the best way to understand what Red Dead does, as a game and as a narrative, was to delve into the source code of the genre that it tries to emulate, cannibalize, and ultimately outdo.  
[RDR1 SPOILER IN THIS QUESTION AND ITS ANSWER] Red Dead Redemption ends in the death of its hero. As someone who also wrote about a game with a sad ending, how do you feel a game protagonist's death affects the "interactivity" of the form? How does it clash with regular gameplay in which a death outside of the narrative is curable with a restart?
To me, Marston's death scene might be the most interesting moment in Red Dead -- the way Dead Eye blankets the screen in orange and makes you scramble furiously to pop off headshots, only to watch him get pumped full of bullets. I think it's amazing because both Red Dead's game genre (open-world action game) and its narrative genre (Western) let you indulge in a fantasy of lawless freedom, yet it ends with this death that clamps down so brutally on both the character and the player. Other games have tried to wag their finger at you and be like, "No no! Not so fast! You're not so free and powerful after all, gamer! Heeheehee!" -- but because Red Dead makes you feel so free, because it has GTA in its DNA, because it makes you inhabit a cinematic and literary genre that has meditated in so many ways on the promise and meaning of freedom, the moment lands in a way that feels authentically tragic. I think the interactivity of the form makes his death a hundred times more effective as an ending. And then "respawning" as Jack, doomed to continue the cycle of violence and run into the same Big Government buzzsaw -- that, to me, is authentically tragic, too.
We both went to grad school for English, although you got a PhD and I most certainly did not. How did your academic experience reflect on your view of the game? How did it reflect the way you approached the book itself?
Somewhere on ProQuest is my 350-page dissertation on Victorian literature and the concept of species. This is not that book; this is nothing close to that book, which I think only 4 people will ever read. But I guess one thing that really fascinated me when I was doing my degree was the way that we (and by we I mean 21st-century Americans) keep returning obsessively to the Victorian era as an aesthetic touchstone: e.g. steampunk, Assassin's Creed Syndicate, these Vox sickos from a few years ago who decided to live like Victorians by bathing with a bowl and pitcher and using a letter opener made from a taxidermied deer foot. To me, steampunk Victorian England and the "West" are two sides of the same coin -- the Western is the rugged, American version of the same idealized 19th century, just as packed with stereotypes. I think my academic work made me predisposed to question why we keep returning to that period, and what we get out of reimagining it over and over.
Despite the massive success of Red Dead Redemption 1 and 2, games set in the Wild West are few and far between. Why do you think that is? What do you think are the challenges of the setting for other games?
I have some theories. First of all, Westerns dole out violence at a slower, more deliberate tempo than other movie genres. They're all about tension and release -- the quick, precise revolver shot. There's nothing about that rhythm that's impossible to translate into gameplay, but it needs to be done properly, and when done properly I think it translates into gameplay that has a more niche flavor. The closest analogue I can think of is something like Sekiro, which borrows from another prominent movie genre (Samurai flicks) that isn't replicated faithfully by games as often as you would think. In a true Western video game, bullet sponges of any kind should be illegal; XP systems and skill trees should be heavily frowned upon; damage in number form -- any kind of damage that isn't completely binary, kill or no kill -- has no place. In other words, a lot of the basic design principles of modern AAA games besides the open-world don't really gel with the Western. 
But also, the genre isn't the towering cultural behemoth it used to be. Critics used to say the Western was "dead" every 10 years or so, and they were always wrong; the last time it "died," which was around the mid-90s, after Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves, it just ended up migrating to TV (Deadwood, Westworld), along with a bunch of other genres that used to fall within the category of mid-budget prestige pictures for adults. But it is true that sometime around the late 70s, after Star Wars and the original Superman, the Western lost its pride of place as the premiere form of pop-cultural American mythmaking. Sci-fi and superhero blockbusters superseded it, both in terms of box office and in terms of cultural importance. And those are the genres that videogames borrow from, more often than not. 
If you couldn't have written about Red Dead Redemption for your book, which other game would you have chosen? Why?
Someday I will write the definitive critical study of Banjo-Kazooie and everyone will laugh at me for defending collectathons and toilets with googly eyes. But by God, I will do it. 
Rockstar games has been criticized in the past for its working conditions, especially during crunch. While this is a common problems in the games industry, how does this knowledge affect your view of the game? 
It's a problem throughout the industry, but what gets me about Rockstar's particular brand of crunch is the level of irony and complete lack of self-awareness. Every Rockstar game -- including this one! -- has snarky things to say about evil corporations, capitalism, and an authoritarian state bureaucracy that consumes and coerces ordinary people. Every Rockstar game starts to seem a wee bit hypocritical when you peel back the curtain and look at Rockstar itself. I generally try to keep that curtain in place when I think about games, because I tend to look at them -- like books or movies -- as cultural artifacts. But it's impossible to ignore the disconnect between the values Rockstar espouse in their games and the values embedded in their corporate culture, and that disconnect casts a shadow over the games themselves.
Pre-order your copy of Red Dead Redemption by Matt Margini.

Interview with a Gamer: Daniel Greenberg November 20 2018

One of our favorite Kickstarter traditions is the "gamer profile tier," in which one of our authors interviews a Kickstarter backer. Today, Gabe Durham (Boss Fight's editor and author of Bible Adventures) interviews Daniel Greenberg about his gaming history.

Gabe and Daniel did the interview in person from the Portland Retro Gaming Expo. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity by Michael P. Williams. Enjoy! - BFB


Gabe Durham: What got you into video games?

Daniel Greenberg: When the NES has its worldwide launch in 1986, we couldn't get one for a while. It was kind of a novelty... My brother, who is about eight years older than me, had a Commodore 64, which my was father could afford at the time. When I was old enough to be able to crawl up into the seat and mess with it and play with it, I think I was playing Test Drive and Kickman and whatever else I could get to boot. We also an old Atari 2600, and this was when you could get the games for literally nothing: KB Toys had bins that were like three for a dollar.

G: So you benefited from the Atari Crash.

D: Oh yeah. And by the time we could afford an NES in 1988, there was plenty out to pick and choose from. We ended up getting some great games by sheer luck. With those covers, there was no way of knowing what you’d get! Games like Bubble Bobble, Mario, Zelda, Marble Madness

G: Oh, that was a big one for you?

D: That was the only game I could get my father to play. He held the controller upside down. I have no idea why he did that to this day.

G: What do you think made you stick with gaming over time?

D: Probably the shared memories. I remember playing the first Final Fantasy with cousins, one of whom has since passed away. We’d all huddle around the TV at my grandmother’s house and play Final Fantasy or Championship Bowling. A lot of people remember running around outside and playing with friends as popular characters like Ninja Turtles, but for us it was video game characters. It was just so familiar to us. So when I moved away, which was not quite in the age of online gaming, we were able to stay connected by talking about the games were were playing on the Nintendo and Super Nintendo.

G: How has your taste in games changed over time?

D: Part of it is my ability to play them. When I was young, for example, I loved the music in Ninja Gaiden, but little me never had the skill to get far enough in that game to actually enjoy it. Whereas Bubble Bobble’s music was a 40-second loop, and we could get all the way through that, so that's burned into my head forever.

G: Oh man, that song!

D: As you get older, you get into longer-form stuff like strategy games and RPG. I got into Civilization when I was at an age to be able to crunch the math and appreciate what was going on behind the scenes. Civilization for the PC wouldn't have appealed to me, with the traditional war-gamer and utilitarian user interface, but the polished-up version with the mouse interface for the SNES made it really accessible.

G: How has your career intersected with games?

D: When I got older, and was interested in computer programming—and I’ve programmed for a number of different companies—I always appreciated the code and complexity that goes into game design. My second undergraduate degree at George Mason University was in computer science, and I’d see students working late at night on game projects in the labs. As I’d help them debug their work, it occured to me very quickly that the projects they were assigned were way more fun than my own assignments! I pivoted over to a degree in applied computer science in game design degree, and followed through to a master’s, and then into teaching as an adjunct professor of game design at George Mason, teaching game history and game design, and working closely with first- and second-year students to make sure they know the fundamentals and work from a common lexicon.

G: How do you put together your syllabi when there are so many resources out there? What are the fundamentals?

D: You can lost in game history, so you need to look for the touchstones. One of my favorite books is Tristan Donovan’s Replay, which takes a slow, segmented approach from the Festival of Britain in 1951 all the way to the end of the 20th century, offering a controlled window into some key events. And his storytelling really makes it work: I don’t care for games textbooks that read like social studies texts, listing just facts and figures. I find it doesn’t engage college-age students and it doesn’t stick with them either.

G: Is a lot of the study of games also the simultaneous study of games history? Learning how to do it by how people did it?

D: My students typically take the two classes "History of Computer Game Design" and "Basic Game Design" concurrently. “Basic Game Design” is about understanding the shared language and common patterns, and since this is usually their first time designing games, we focus on simple 2D experiences in GameMaker or Construct and help them get a few games under their belt. One thing we absolutely must have them do is develop a portfolio by the time they finish the program. We encourage them to go to game jams like Ludum Dare or Global Game Jam and work in the student programs like the Game Analysis and Design Interest Group we have at George Mason. In a few weeks, we’re going to be doing a 24-hour livestream to benefit Extra Life, but in addition to playing games, they'll also be making games for the stream.

G: So then they’ll watch the streamers play the games that they just made.

D: That’s the hope, yeah!

G: Is that one of the most satisfying things for your students, when they've completed a game and can watch someone else enjoy a game they had made?

D: When they’ve finished their first midterm, and they’ve finished their first thing—it’s not really a complete game, but they’ve seen that they can do it. And that's huge. The inertia of getting there is a big problem. When they first come into the program, you ask, “Who has an idea here for a game?” And everyone will raise their hand. Everyone comes in with their golden baby, and we have to give them two options. Either try to make it while understanding where you are in your skill development, or take the “James Cameron route”: Wrap up that game, set it aside, and work on other stuff until you feel like you’re ready for it.

G: Oh, the old Avatar treatment!

D: Exactly. He’s said how he wrote that in high school. “Unobtanium,” right? I believe him when he says he wrote it in high school! So if something is precious enough to you, and you don't want to damage it with amateur efforts, you’ll work on other things until you get to the point that you can make it.

G: Are you working on any of your own projects?

D: A few! I’ve been a writer for a few years. I’m currently working on Pat Contri’s Super Nintendo book with a group of other writers. I’m also part of a group called Winterion Game Studios currently based in Maryland. It's sort of a creative clearinghouse for me and my friends. I had bought all of this video equipment when I was a graduate student, and my friends and I decided to use it to make let’s plays, which we’ve been making for about three years now, focusing on older titles. It gives us a chance to do post-hoc analysis where we sit down and experience the game as accurately as it was intended. There’s something to be said for taking a single work, breaking it open, and getting some context for it. That’s why I wanted to back Boss Fight Books for Season 4. I hadn't even realized it existed until then! I appreciate the format and the concept: deep-diving into games, getting out and interviewing people. Those are time-limited things: There are amazing anecdotes from people in this industry, and we’re not going to have the opportunity to talk to them in 50 years, 100 years. The people and events behind the games, the context, the development, the marketing, what's going on in the world at the time, all form interesting and crucial stories.

G: Absolutely. I think many people have started realizing this as people in the industry have started to retire, or get older.

D: We just had Nolan Bushnell spend some time with us at George Mason as a game pioneer in residence. He was able to explain his time at Atari in the 1970s to our students, and that was invaluable. The students have read the history in books, but to hear it from the source was so good for them.

G: Speaking of books, tell me a bit more about your work on Pat Contri’s SNES book.

D: We had the stack of over 700 games made for the system to write for. No one is champing at the bit to review Dirt Racer or Bébé's Kids or some other dreaded games, so we just split the games up as made sense. I had a good set-up for Super Scope games, so I tackled a lot of those. You also don’t want to give somebody twenty RPGs, because some games are going to be longer to digest.

G: How does Super Scope hold up these days?

D: Surprisingly well! The device’s accuracy is pretty good, so as long as you’ve got a good receiver and a light gun. We’ve also got a nice Sony Trinitron TV that we’ll play on. But for the games themselves, there’s not a whole lot there. A few are fun, but by and large it was a novelty. A lot of rail shooters.

G: What in gaming tends to excite you the most?

D: I’m always compelled by what my students, present and former, are doing. We have a program called the Virginia Serious Game Institute, where we given students some office space and the time to work on their ideas. Some of the people I’ve worked with are doing UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) flight simulators, and others had a great simulation program for training firefighters: It’s a lot cheaper to practice 100 times in a simulator than set a real building on fire and then rebuild it! We’ve also had a program for the State Department for diplomats to simulate emergencies in VR renditions of embassies. It can be invaluable training.

G: Is there anything else we should know about you?

D: Gaming helped me meet the love of my life! When I founded Winterion, I started getting into discussions on Twitter about older games, and suddenly Alex and I are talking back and forth about The Legend of Kyrandia, a lesser-known point-and-click adventure series from Westwood. She knew it, I knew it, and before I knew it, a few months later we’re going to see Madame Butterfly together at the Kennedy Center. And now it's been a wonderful year-and-a-half together and counting!


Check out Daniel's projects below!