Writer/Gamer Q&A: Robert James Russell

Today in our Writer/Gamer Q&A series with past contributors, we have Robert James Russell, whose story “Get Over Here” pulled us out of the trend of pieces inhabiting game worlds and back into our own. There was “blood codes” and copies of Game Informer, and kids reluctantly playing basketball, and it was all fantastic.

Russell co-founded and runs the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP, and his work has been published in Pithead ChapelWhiskeyPaperCrime FactoryGris-GrisJoylandThe CollagistThunderclap! Magazine, and LITSNACK. You can find him online at robertjamesrussell.com or on Twitter: @robhollywood.

Cartridge Lit: What games are you playing right now, if any?

Russell: Just downloaded Metal Slug 3 for my phone and it’s as wonderful as the original.  I’m also playing through Hotline Miami again because—wow—that game is badass. If you haven’t, you need to check it out. Also: killer soundtrack.

Cartridge Lit: What was your first video game system? Did you love it or hate it or feel something completely different about it?

Russell: Commodore 64 and I loved it. I only ever played Jumpman, Jungle Hunt and Pitfall, but they were the greatest things ever. I mean, playing as a jungle explorer! A jumping man! Sure, they were frustrating as hell, but that was when I first realized games allowed me to play as these characters, become them even for a moment, and, cheesy as it is, I loved it, that escapism. It was incredibly productive for my imagination. 

Cartridge Lit: Most nostalgia-laden memory from your video game history?

Russell: The Sega Channel. I mean, before the internet, before everyone had a modern household computer, this thing was incredible: a bunch of new games delivered—via the cable box!—to our Sega Genesis each month. It sucked when the game you were playing went away at the end of the month, so you always had to play your heart out just in case. But man, it was something else. Also, it was a great excuse to have people over. It made me feel cool.

Cartridge Lit: Care to list your top five games?

Russell: Of all time? That’s tough. But I will say these five hold a special place in my heart for various reasons: the 1992 X-Men game, River City RansomShining Force IIResident Evil and Super Dodge Ball.

Cartridge Lit: How has your writing life interacted with your gamer life? Has one inspired or influenced the other?

Russell: Gaming bolstered my creativity (and still does). I was always into drawing and writing when I was a kid, but games helped me visually see my stories, how they can/should be paced and viewed, which gave me a better sense of the words I was putting down. I still remember playing Resident Evil for the first time, in the basement with the lights off, being scared out of my mind, realizing I was playing a masterpiece. The writing, the world creation, the ability for me to feel fear from pixeled shapes and perfectly-timed scares was just unbelievably powerful. I mean, this started as a story—that’s what I told myself. Reminded myself. Games helped me to be stronger at visualizing my own stories, my own characters, which has stuck with me ever since. I still remember designing my own fighting game, designing the characters and backgrounds, creating the rules, and daydreaming of it being a reality some day. Similarly, I look for games now with strong stories. Games with great graphics are cool, sure, but I want something that’s going to take me deeper in and give me an emotional reaction to it. Inspire me to feel something, whatever that might be. The Last of Us was the last game I played to do that—to put the story absolutely first, in my opinion. And it was incredible. And I try to remind myself of that: that storytelling, in any form, in any medium, can be a powerhouse.

Cartridge Lit: Any tips for how others out there can balance a writer’s life and a gamer’s life?

Russell: Like anything—do it in moderation. Games are addictive, and I’ve found they can easily distract me from the stuff I need to be doing, so I try to limit myself really getting into one game at a time, playing only after I’ve finished some sort of self-imposed assignment. But I definitely think there’s room—personally, I need to be playing some game in some fashion for my own sanity. Just helps me think, tune things out, put things together and think about my own writing in a constructive way I can’t duplicate by any other means.

Cartridge Lit: What novel would you like to see turned into a game? What genre would it be? How would it play?

Russell: As I Lay Dying as an 8-bit side-scroller where you play as Cash and have to gather supplies at the end of each level to make Addie’s coffin. Level bosses include: a psychotic Darl, the thick dark river, Anse, and the ghost of Addie. Seriously: I want to play this game.

Cartridge Lit: If someone made a game about your life, what genre would it be? How would it play?

Russell: A platform-puzzler in the vein of A Boy and His Blob. Basically, you’d collect different micro-beers that would transform your sidekick/dog Chewie into different objects to help you beat the level. The final boss would be that guy from when I was a kid who had no nose and wandered all over town and scared everyone. And there would be no sewer level. I hate sewer levels.