I really enjoy Cara Ellison’s casual, funny, rambling tone. Her upcoming book, Embed With Games, is a self-described “gonzo crowd-funded itinerant travelogue” that she wrote about her favorite game developers, which she got to know, it seems, by organizing a globe-trot from slumber party to slumber party. It’s coming out on the 19th of November, which is exactly nine days after Fallout 4 drops. Don’t tell the RPG Codex that I mentioned that. Anyways, in this interview she talks about a VR game in which the protagonist dodges bombs while pregnant, what games she’d choose to populate her personal arcade, and her (ancient Chinese) philosophy of “hugs before dick”. Oh, and she recently finished writing for Dishonored 2 and is currently at toil on several unannounced projects. God bless.
The Existential Gamer: What game would you say you’ve been the most “addicted” to? What was that experience like?
Cara Ellison: Hm. I was very much ‘addicted’ to the original DOTA, if you could call it ‘addicted’. ‘Addictive’ is not a very useful word when talking about games because it has become vague through overuse – it’s like ‘visceral’ or just saying a game is ‘good’ – it doesn’t actually mean anything. Perhaps a useful thing is to say that I found that, in DOTA, the way that you get invested in the close-knit web of systems, economy and team dynamics meant that each scuffle with the enemy was thrilling and had wide-reaching consequences, which in turn made the long, sometimes emotionally exhausting bouts really have resonance; whether you won or lost, the impact of either outcome held meaning because you had invested so much into learning and adapting. And once you had actually invested in that particular feeling – of a gradual progression towards dramatic denouement – it was hard to stop yourself going back to the keyboard to attempt to make it happen again. Coupled with the social contract I had with my friends who also loved it, I couldn’t stop playing that game for about five years and I wrote my very first article for PC Gamer about that experience.
TEG: If you were asked to design a sex-themed game and had access to all existing technology and infinite resources, what would it be like?
CE: I don’t think I’d want to make a ‘sex-themed’ game, specifically. Weirdly, people tend to talk about my online persona and work as if it centers around sex, when that is sort of the wrong way to look at it. I think I’m primarily interested in the ways that people can know each other and relate to each other, and I think sex is one of the most important (and sometimes the most humorous) ways of doing that, and so of course it is involved, but it’s never been the center of it. My work has, for the entirety of it, and before I ever wrote S.EXE (Ed’s note: a column for Rock Paper Shotgun), been centered around relationships. And probably everyone who is a good critic looks at a player’s relationship to a game. Really I’m sort of interested in the before and afters of sex. I’m interested in people who don’t want to have sex. I’m interested in people who know each other. That’s why I’m interested in games: how can you know about people through them? How can you know about yourself? How can you be thrilled or wooed by this weird conversation you’re having with games?
Anyway. Maybe I’d make a stylized third person character-led game that is the Pulp Fiction of games, in terms of structure (Tarantino has his flaws, but he has an interesting way of crafting structure). I want to make a game that involves five intertwining short stories about characters who might have the ability to fuck stuff up for each other. I want it to be funny, violent, awful, surprising and weird. I mean – a lot of Pulp Fiction orientates itself around *almost* sex, or rumors about what foot rubs really mean, along of course with its more violent aspects – but it’s really about what these people mean to each other and how they see each other at crucial moments. One of the most intimate relationships you’ll see is between Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel’s characters in Reservoir Dogs, and it’s particularly poignant because all the other characters in the film seem to hate each other. I mean Tarantino isn’t the only director who does this stuff, but story-wise he’s the only film maker whose work hasn’t directly been pilfered to build a game’s story structure, and I think the last good thing film can give games people is a sense of pacing. Of course I’d write and design this whole thing, but I’d have to finish my current projects. Mainly I would just like to make a game with Brendon Chung, but who wouldn’t.
I guess women aren’t supposed to do sex jokes a lot (like I refuse to stop doing on my twitter), so I will have to be stuck with the ‘she’s that one writer about sex games’ stuff until Embed With Games gets made into a film and it becomes obvious that in person I am a prudish swot with a gin habit who pines for hugs before dick. Hugs before dick should be my new catchphrase.
… Look what you made me do.
TEG: Are there any unreleased indie titles you’re particularly excited to play?
CE: I really want to play the VR (and hopefully Steam-based) game Routine. I think it looks so atmospheric and I really like how they integrate menu systems and hacking into the environment while employing first person shooting mechanics. It also seems very scary, and though I find it difficult to play scary games, I think maybe if I play it on PC with my boyfriend he could stroke my hair whilst I scream. I’ve had my eye on that game for a while and there hasn’t been any news, so I hope everything’s okay over there. The trailer is wonderful. I’m such a sucker for Bladerunner-like worlds.
TEG: Your book Embed With Games is being released in November. If you could have anybody in the world read it, who would it be, and why?
CE: I would like Alex Garland to read it. Just because I kept thinking about that part of The Beach when I was writing the series, the bit where Richard is in the jungle and all he can think about is Street Fighter II and ‘game over’, and I kept thinking about how surreal my journey was and how stepping out of each airport was like the omnipotent player had ‘loaded’ a level. I really love Garland’s writing and film work, and I particularly love his Dredd script, a work of restraint and excellent structure that I am very jealous of. Now that I write for larger studios, I kind of know how hard that is to pull off. The temptation to write long lines and attempt to make your mark with fancy dialogue is ever present.
TEG: Do you think VR is going to be The Next Big Thing in gaming, and are you looking forward to trying it? What kind of game would you like to experience in VR?
CE: I am into it, although I am concerned about the motion sickness thing, which is something I am susceptible to. They say they have solved that now, but I dunno.
I would enjoy playing a proper VR Myst-like game, an adventure game that contains only traces of characters – it’s like a locked room game or something – and you have to solve it by just reading or investigating things.
Or – this is an idea that I have to say I would really also love to make myself – I’d make a first person game about being pregnant in the Blitz and having to get across blackout London through the falling shells to a hospital. Negotiating shadows, cars without headlights, the black market, shady characters, all whilst in labour – man. What’s the world’s most urgent game timer? One where you are going to have a baby exit your body. Oh hey. A shell just totalled that building behind you. This Call of Duty game is pretty dialed up.
TEG: If you owned an arcade, what would be playing over the sound system? What games would you have available? What snacks would you sell?
CE: People kind of know from my public Spotify playlists what would be playing. Here’s a recent example of me and Alice’s DJ set at the last late night games event and the V&A Museum in London.
I’d put all the games I covered in my book in the arcade, along with DOOM, Street Fighter II, and I think I’d put Gauntlet II in there too. I think Goldeneye, Perfect Dark and Diddy Kong Racing would be in there also. Fuck Mario Kart. Fuck all you people who think Mario Kart is better. Eat it.
Snacks? Roysters Steak flavour crisps. Best in the world.
TEG: What’s next for you? What can you tell us about your future projects?
CE: I can’t talk about any of them, sorry. Maybe next year.
TEG: I notice that many people interviewing women who work in the gaming industry tend to ask questions focused on their gender. What, if any, are your thoughts on this?
CE: Ahahahaha I see what you did there!
Well, my opinion is that it removes focus from women’s work and puts it on their feelings, which means that people will walk away having read about you as a person, but not knowing anything about what you actually do. Which is why you’re interviewing them right? Because their work and their thoughts on their work is relevant to your interests. I read an interview at the NYT the other day where the interviewer condescendingly referred to Nicki Minaj’s term for herself, ‘boss bitch’, as being contradictory, whilst ignoring the fact that intersectional gender politics has moved on from a kind of simplistic ‘stop oppressing yourself, stop oppressing yourself’ mantra. Talk about the breadth of the person’s work. If she wants to address gender issues, leave the gate open. But an interviewer’s job is largely to get the interviewee *out* of a box, not put them in one. Or at least that’s how I thought about my role when I interviewed people.
What’s interesting to me is that many interviewers don’t read around their subject enough. They don’t read what has already been asked of that person, so their interview is just the regurgitation of things that have already been asked, just for another platform. Isn’t the point of an interview to try to get information out of a person that illuminates more of them, not go over the same parts of them again and again? In particular, there are a small number of rock star developers who are asked the same questions over and over again by the games press, year after year, because they worked on famous games, and often I wish that they were asked much more interesting, more broad questions about their hopes for the future, the ways engines and platforms have changed, the books they read, how culture has changed their opinion of games, whether genres are still useful, that sort of thing. Give them a chance to not be that one thing you heard about. I mean, I tried when I did interviews to give people the opportunity to be the unexpected and I found it to be the most exciting part of the whole process. Even better, interview a person who is making an interesting first game. They’re going to be the Brenda Romero of the future, after all.
TEG: Over the last ten years, how has your attention span changed, and how has your consumption of the written word, video content, and games changed?
CE: Oh man, a friend of mine is going to be so glad you mentioned content. I love content. Well, in 2005 I was studying English Literature at the University of Edinburgh and I had largely stopped reading anything about games then. I played Neverwinter Nights, DOTA, Medieval Total War, and Counter Strike, and I was super in love with someone, and love used to be the biggest damn writer’s block for me. This one state of gaming bliss and never writing anything apart from the bare minimum of my course essays carried on for a number of years. All my opinions on games writing before that period had been formed by reading PC Zone, an irreverent UK games magazine that revolved around poop, sex and fart jokes, sometimes with pictures of tits thrown in. (Actually, it did all of that whilst analyzing the design of games in a way that was fascinating and instrumental to the way I approach my own analysis of games. I haven’t actually been brave enough to make the scatological jokes but everything else is still my territory, it formed the way I write.) I still kind of would rather be a staff writer for ’90s PC Zone than anything else. Hey ’90s PC Zone, call me.
When I left university I still wasn’t reading anything about games, though I was playing them pretty much all the time. I started working at Rockstar Games in 2007, and people forget to tell you that most of your time for playing games dries up when you start making them. So that did slow down quite a bit. I played a bit of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, which left a big mark on me because NPCs lied to me in it, and Bioshock, which was beautiful and involved great level design, even though I’ve always wished the overarching narrative had been differently crafted. Then I moved to Japan to live there for two years, and the most significant experiences I had with games during that period were of course with arcades. I think I started to prefer games that were big and showy and loud and had a bit of novelty to them, rather than games that tried to be gritty. I still wasn’t reading anything about games then. I think it was around that time that my ex-boyfriend sent me a Tim Rogers article and asked me what I thought of it. That’s when I became aware that you could be paid to write about games. I went to meet Tim Rogers in Tokyo, where he was living at the time (perhaps it was 2009 then?). He seemed to regard writing about games for money as being what Brits might call ‘a piece of piss’ so I reckoned I could do it from then on, if I wanted to. I started to read Kotaku a bit more, though I still wasn’t particularly interested in pitching anything. Kotaku seemed terrifying to write for, and it still seems that way, even though I’ve written there a few times by now. I think I became aware then that the internet wasn’t just a flimsy thing, that you could survive by writing for it. I blogged a bit, but everything I wrote was garbage that I can’t even remember. I was way more interested in writing movie scripts in Final Draft then, as a way of telling myself I wasn’t entirely lonely in the middle of nowhere Kyushu.
Eventually when I moved to London I sat down next to Kieron Gillen at a pub once and that was it, I was in a conversation about games that has lasted the rest of my career so far. It’s a pretty small world and editors are desperate for smart, entertaining writers that will work for whatever small fee. People started to expect me to write thoughts about games down, and Unwinnable was the first place that asked me to write for it. I had really good company there in Jenn Frank and I started to read Rock Paper Shotgun because of Kieron, which seemed like a pretty cool place. I think largely I had become part of a community that thrived on good games writing on Twitter, and the conversations had there were really interesting, and I wanted to be part of them. Eventually I was brave enough to ask for money for writing about games and I was kind of shocked that people liked me so much. I wrote myself through a really bad period in my life. In a few ways, I don’t think I’d be here now if I hadn’t had writing as a kind of therapy for what happened to me in London. Life was so unstable at that time, I think of it as a kind of trauma in itself.
Largely I think I’ve always pined for the 90s-era PC Zone days, and I’ve always been surprised that people regard my work as sometimes caustic, juvenile, or even vulgar for referencing the things that I do, mainly because I am still stuck in an era where all of these things were okay and the only way you could register your outrage at how many curse words I wrote was by writing a letter to the editor. I guess I have learned over the years what the internet does and does not respond to, and toned down my exclamatory tone to be more of a thoughtful one to pass, frictionless, through the average (American) commenter’s brain. This is a huge, huge pity. I loved beginner Cara. I loved being the Cara that said whatever she liked and brought a lot of joy to the page. I loved the Cara who wrote ‘fuck’ fifty times a paragraph and thought that she could refer to bodily functions as a way of describing how she felt about a game. I really liked being the person with the most unusual use of language, the one who seemed hurt or afraid or terrified or drunk in her prose. But what helped me to improve was listening to the people who had good constructive advice: much of my gender essentialist language has been eradicated, I now think more about issues of race and sexuality and how to include my readership in my opinions. When I make a joke, I always think about whether it’s one that everyone can laugh at. I try to eliminate my own stubborn usage of the word ‘dumb’ and by replacing it with the word ‘silly’ so that people know I care about them and want them to come on a ride with me. Everything about writing for the internet is a language exercise, a great big puzzle of expression. The more constraints you put on yourself the more fun it can get. It’s just the other stuff, the stuff that you don’t deserve, that gets you down. The comments that tried to cut off my spiky parts and make my writing fall in line with what I saw as a dull way of talking about a game: ‘graphics, gameplay, graphics, gameplay, gameplay gameplay gameplay’. I wanted to try to explain games in ways that would make the coolest girl at school (Louise Kemp, it used to be) (who knew nothing about games at all) smile at me.
All in all, the last few years on the internet managed to make me sad and exhausted in a way I am not sure I would be if I’d been around in the magazine years. But then again, I wonder if I’d be employed at all in games writing if it hadn’t been for the internet – after all, I wouldn’t have become part of a community that encouraged me or asked me to write for them if the internet hadn’t have existed. The internet has allowed people who used to find it hard to connect with a readership to thrive, and for that I’m pretty grateful. Ian Shanahan, of New Games Journalism fame, dropped me an email to say he liked my work today, and I was so delighted that my work even got that far thanks to the internet. And I’m not sure how many little girls would have thought to write PC Zone asking for work experience. I certainly wouldn’t have.
Now I don’t manage to play many games or read many games articles, and I’ve never had time to watch Let’s Plays. I find that my work is better when I do things that aren’t games related: I try to follow in Will Wright‘s footsteps and read books about people, architecture, works of fiction and about how the world works. Maybe one day I’ll think of a game as good as SimCity if I just read enough. I guess now my attention span has become shorter for playing games, longer for making them, and longer for spending time with other media.
TEG: How and when do you think the world is going to end?
CE: I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t end before I make the greatest and most popular game in the world, and my childhood bullies will have to come crying to my feet and beg my forgiveness whilst also imploring me to sign the game box. I really hope it doesn’t end before that moment. In fact, I hope it ends on the precise moment that my childhood bullies see the look of peaceful contentment in my eyes, and I exhale in satisfaction.
Actually, I am very content now. That’s what leaving games journalism can do for you. From content to content, you see.