In What Are You Playing This Weekend?, we discuss gaming and such with prominent figures in the pop-culture arena. We always start with the same question.
Dennis Cooper has authored dozens of acclaimed novels, poetry collections, and works for the stage. His most recent books include The Marbled Swarm, Ugly Man, and The Weaklings. His 2005 novel, God Jr., is the story of a man who, stricken with guilt over the death of his son Tommy, explores a video game once inhabited by his son and is pulled progressively deeper into his own psyche through Tommy’s saved games.
The Gameological Society: What are you playing this weekend?
Dennis Cooper: I’m trying to finish off Epic Mickey, which I had started playing early last year, then put aside, along with gaming in general, because I was in crunch mode completing my last novel. When I’m in that mode, basically everything else I’m playing, reading, and watching has to go because I have to get my thinking really airtight. I’m about halfway through the game right now, I think. It’s really such a more interesting, peculiar, and self-conscious game than its brand name signals. It has a kind of honeycombed architectural mainframe, and italicized Disney classic graphics, and these roomy but locked-down levels, and a slightly meta narrative that make it quite a trippily claustrophobic, cave system-like way station that’s sugary, but in a weird way.
Gameological: I’d argue that some Disney games are downright subversive. What are some of the better games you’ve played recently?
Cooper: Well, I feel like I should say that I’m pretty much exclusively a Nintendo guy at this point, except when friends go out of town and drop off their Xboxes at my place for the duration. I mostly play games for their graphics and builds and spacial organization, so I gravitate towards games wherein you get to wander around imaginatively while having mind games played with you, and wherein fighting and battles, which I completely suck at, are minimal. Anyway, I would say my favorite recent games were probably Lost In Shadow, And Yet It Moves, and Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Gameological: I imagine you’re pretty busy with all the novels, short stories, poetry, and playwriting. Where do you find time to play games?
Cooper: It’s not easy, and my game playing habits are pretty random. I’ll hardly play for a while, and then it’ll be all I do for weeks. But I always look to games for ideas that I can transpose to or reinvent in some way in my writing, and so I think of them as areas of research. Playing is a way to study games’ methods of holding onto and fooling around with an audience’s attention span for me, and certain games have influenced my fiction a lot. So I don’t see games as places to totally get away, and I don’t get hit with guilt very often when I’m prioritizing them.
Gameological: In your book God Jr., a depressed father named Jim tries to reconnect with his dead son Tommy through old saved video games. How did this video game world become more real for Jim than his real one?
Cooper: I guess I saw Jim’s real world as kind of the raw materials on which the game was based, and I guess I made him feel that way too, although perhaps without his realizing. From his job at a company making children’s clothing and his cartoonish fellow workers, to the monument he was building in his yard that was basically a giant souvenir of the video game, to his flat, almost programmed interactions with his wife and others. I wasn’t thinking about The Wizard Of Oz at all, but maybe Jim’s real world functioned mostly as a supplier in the way that Kansas did relative to Oz. The dead son was much more important to the game—to the point where his presence and decisions as a player totally damaged and reinvented it—than he had been to his real life, in which he’d barely registered. I guess that, in a way, I was trying to create the equivalent of a video game where a player would actually give a shit on an emotional level if Link rescued Zelda.
Gameological: Link needs a new girlfriend. As a writer, how do you feel about the state of character development and plot-driven games? Is that, in your opinion, a conversation even worth having?
Cooper: I don’t really care about characters and plot very much, either in games or in fiction, including my own. I think of the characters in my work as just configurations of the prose that have more power over the reader than the fiction’s other components. I just try to make them charismatic and twisty and secretive in a compelling way. The only characters in video games that ever involve me are the tragic ones. Even the lowest zombies who get slaughtered in Resident Evil games create more emotional attachment and confusion than any protagonist in any game I can think of. In Epic Mickey, for instance, you occasionally come across these dismembered, barely alive Donald Ducks and Goofys and so on, who plead with you to find their missing body parts, and they’re kind of haunting. I think maybe game designers would be wiser to concentrate on creating blackly comedic, arch characters who only flirt with players’ sympathies rather than continue trying to finesse the gaming equivalent of Academy Award winners. And as far as plot goes, I would love to see more fucked-up experimental through-lines like you used to find in the weirder CD-ROM games back in the early ’90s, but, otherwise, I can live with dumb plots as long they’re circuitous enough.
Gameological: Is that game you describe in God Jr. based on any real life games? Or is the story of Tommy’s real-world monument a cautionary tale against co-opting Nintendo’s intellectual property for your own use?
Cooper: The game in God Jr. was heavily based on Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel Tooie with some Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Eternal Darkness mixed in, basically. I did wonder and sort of worry if Nintendo might think “hmm,” or worse, but the novel didn’t go viral to the degree that they know it exists, as far as I can tell. There’s a God Jr. movie in development, so I guess I may yet get in trouble. In the original version of the novel, I was actually going to have Jim track down and meet the game’s developer and wind up interacting with a thinly veiled Nintendo-type company, but I chopped all that stuff out.
Gameological: Jim thinks of level four as “a Saudi Arabian bazaar meets Boy Scout jamboree set in a stripped-down, weirdly glistening desert.” This reminded me of a recent game called Journey, where you run around in the desert with a random person from the internet. They just pop out of the sand and travel with you for as long as either of you likes. Have you played this game?
Cooper: No, I haven’t played that game. It sounds really interesting. Desert-scapes with interfering and/or helpful inhabitants is one of the tropes of the Mario and Mario-like games that I seem to play a lot, so I was just riffing off those constructs.
And now, we put the question to you. Tell us what you’ve been playing lately, and which games—video or otherwise—are on your playlist for the weekend.