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.
Michael J. Nelson has spent the better part of his comedy-writing career talking to screens. He started out as the smart aleck everyman trapped on the Satellite Of Love with Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo in Mystery Science Theater 3000. Now, he mocks movies along with the voices of those old puppets, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy respectively, in his comedy group Rifftrax. They recently performed a live, nationally broadcast show of Starship Troopers thanks to a recent Kickstarter campaign and are gearing up for a Halloween show featuring the George A. Romero cult classic Night Of The Living Dead. Nelson took a much needed break to talk to us about his addiction to word games and the importance of shutting off your mind, especially when your job requires you to watch all five of the Twilight movies.
The Gameological Society: What are you playing this weekend?
Michael J. Nelson: It’s so pathetic, but I’m playing, as I usually do, a game called Word Play, and I just do it on my phone, and it is the simplest game on the planet. It’s basically a word search game. So to get away from typing words into a computer and to escape from that, I type words into a computer and try to beat my own score. So I don’t know what compels me, but it’s my Solitaire, I guess.
Gameological: Does it feel like when you’re not writing words that you need to be battling words in some other way?
Nelson: It’s probably similar to a friend I had whose dad worked for the US Mint. He would crunch numbers all day long and in his spare time, he would memorize the lifetime batting averages of every baseball player who ever played. I thought that is the strangest thing, and I find myself doing something pretty similar. It’s just something that occupies your mind, but also it’s a different way of playing with words.
I was obsessed with playing this little handheld Scrabble game. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them. You can find them at garage sales and stuff, and I think they still make them. It had levels from one through four and then five was just, it cheated and you could not beat it. That was my obsession: to play that and of course, I would personify the computer like it was this person out to get me. So this seems a little more relaxing than that.
Gameological: Does Word Play offer turn-based multiplayer?
Nelson: It can be, but I like to labor under the illusion that I’m the smartest guy around and would never want to challenge myself against someone else.
Gameological: So you never play against someone else?
Nelson: I don’t know why I’ve always had an aversion to not knowing who is on the other end. I guess I can play Words With Friends and stuff, but I just know it would turn bitter because I want to win at everything.
Gameological: Are there any games in the Rifftrax office that you and the other writers play?
Nelson: We have a shuffleboard table, like a real, professional, super long one. Not like the chintzy ones that you see in bars that are all hacked up. Everyone at Rifftrax is an expert at shuffleboard so the tournaments are very hotly contested.
Gameological: What kind of escape do games provide for you?
Nelson: I think there is something about the writing process that is so solitary for one thing. Even when I was in more of a writing room that was more traditional, with a bunch of people sitting around. We had a ping pong table for awhile when I worked at Mystery Science Theater 3000 and essentially, writing was just killing time until we could play ping pong. Then when we got the PlayStation, it was the same deal. It’s just a thing to look forward to because writing is so hard in its way, not that other jobs aren’t, but there is something about shutting it off and doing something kind of mindless that you really crave. Another thing we used to do was a couple of guys and I would just immediately go out and play catch, just anything that exercises a different part of your brain.
Gameological: Are you still working on the Night Of The Living Dead show now?
Nelson: A lot of different things, but Night Of The Living Dead is starting to come into focus for us, and we’re looking forward to that. We’re also going to do a Christmas show, we think. It’s not for sure yet. So a lot of live shows and a lot of new products. There’s always this cranking out the writing and because it’s so solitary, it’s fun for us to do the live shows because you get to crawl out of your basement, stop staring at a computer, and meet actual humans. It’s a wonderful thing.
Gameological: Now that video games are practically on the same production level as movies and even the same level of cheesiness in some cases, have you ever thought about riffing on a game in some way?
Nelson: We have experimented with this. We did something for IGN. We did a little snippet, and I think it was one of the Gears Of War games. We did some cutscenes for the Joystiq people once. They pulled together some really funny stuff. So we’ve dipped the toe in, and I think it works just as well.
Gameological: Is that something you’re looking to expand into or was it just one time experiment?
Nelson: I think we probably will do more. It’s not solid at this time, but we’re talking to a few people about it.
Gameological: Is it harder to make fun of games or is there no comparison between Gears Of War and The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy?
Nelson: [Laughs.] It’s similar to doing a blockbuster movie or something like that. I think the biggest challenge for us is the variety of games. We don’t spend as much time playing games. I’m probably the most familiar with them out of all the guys from Mystery Science besides the younger guys, but I don’t think even they play as many games, so it would require for us just as much research and time as we put into a movie—sort of screening it. I think the challenge is just being familiar enough with the characters to make good, informed jokes.
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.