Writer/Gamer Q&A: Berit Ellingsen

This week’s contributor, Berit Ellingsen, wrote “Every Thought, Every Motion,” which took us along with a globetrotting special forces operative on a mission that was both functional and existential.

Ellingsen has stories in SmokeLong Quarterly, UnstuckBirkensnake, among others, and has published both a short story collection, Beneath Liquid Skin, and a novelUne Ville Vide. She can be found online or on Twitter.

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

Berit Ellingsen: I just finished Sniper Elite 3, a third person tactical shooter with stealth and somewhat realistic bullet physics. It’s set in Africa 1942 where you do missions behind Axis lines. Sniper Elite is probably the biggest sniping game series, but I haven’t played any of the earlier games. I have, however, played the other sniping game, Ghost Warrior 2, which I enjoyed a lot more because it had much better written characters and dialogue. Sniper Elite 3 was horrible in that aspect.

Also, for some reason, sniping games have an aiming help, which is just silly to add after having tried to create bullet physics in the game. To switch this aiming help off, you have to play without almost any other tactical aid, such as radar and health bar. (And stop with the bullet camera, it’s macabre and unnecessary.) In addition, on the last levels it seemed that stealth, which is what you do in the previous levels, suddenly isn’t allowed any longer. The world needs more games that allow stealth throughout, not just action games with a half-stealth approach tacked onto it.

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

BE: The first system really played games with was Playstation 1. I borrowed a PS1 and some games because the people who owned it didn’t figure out how the 3D view and controller worked and got bored with it, so I was allowed to borrow it and played parts of The Seventh Guest and Tomb Raider 1.

Tomb Raider 1 had discovery, adventure, fantastical locations, puzzle-solving, and for the time, beautiful graphics. I had never seen a game like that before and was smitten. Those are still some of the characteristics I like best in a game. Later I got my own PS1 and played through Tomb Raider 1 and 2 and several other games. 

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

BE: Early on in Tomb Raider 1 you find a lush, hidden valley deep in the Andes mountains. Suddenly, the game starts playing one of its stings, a short music track to warn you of traps or impending danger. The composer, Nathan McCree, did an awesome job, his music adds a lot to the game. You hear heavy steps, turn the next corner, and there’s a Tyrannosaurus rex barreling straight at you! It runs much faster than Lara, so you must fight it. The sting lasts exactly so long that when it’s over, either Lara or the dinosaur is dead.

I’m not sure what I expected when I heard the sting the first time, but definitely not a dinosaur! I was so surprised, I screamed, totally fumbled the controller, and of course, lost that first encounter. That was a fantastically well made moment, which to me really demonstrated the power of the interactive nature of games.

CL: Care to list your top five games?

BE: 1) Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Before this spring I hadn’t played any stealth games. I happened on SCB because I once tested one of the former Ghost Recon games for a review and enjoyed it a lot even though it was not the type of game I used to play. Via Ghost Recon: Future Soldier I happened on some SCB videos and the stealth/silent attacks gameplay looked so fun I decided to try SCB instead. I stumbled my way through the intro thinking this is going to be awful, but once I got into the game, something literally clicked and I enjoyed it so much, the sneaking, the puzzle process of progressing through the maps, the sticking to the shadows, the hiding, luring, confusing, the dark protagonist, the beautiful graphics, the fact that you can play all non-lethal if you want to. It’s the first game I’ve enjoyed so much I played it all on the highest difficulty. I will definitely play the next Splinter Cell game when it comes out.

2) Silent Hill 2

One of the greatest game narrative of all times. From that incredibly somber start, to the scary setting, to the either horrible or cathartic ending, depending on what you do in the game, Silent Hill 2 makes a deep impression. I bought the game with the Playstation 2 and had it sitting on the table for several hours before I dared start it up and play. It was tense, but I loved it! I was alone in the house and playing in the middle of the night because it was summer holiday.  I remember going down a long ramp to a decrepit museum in the game and being so happy because it was so scary AND fun! Before that I hadn’t taken game narratives seriously, but Silent Hill 2 showed that it was possible to tell a moving and mature story with games.

3) Dragon Age Origins

The first Bioware game I played. I had heard a lot about Bioware’s games and DAO turned out to have a solid world, good narrative, awesome characters, and interesting player choices. At the end the player is given a big choice and then gets a finale corresponding with that choice. I loved the hero ending, it really made the whole game for me. The DLC Dragon Age Awakenings was really good too, almost better than parts of DAO.

4) Lord of the Rings Online

The first part of this massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMO) is fantastic. You follow the rangers that are assisting the fellowship and other characters in the background in the fight against Sauron and his forces. The setting and the beautiful, expansive landscapes made this game version of LOTR just fantastic. But the recent expansions have been repetitive and the game now looks and plays very outdated. Nevertheless, when the game was new, the community was mostly new players learning to play an MMO together, and that was a great experience.

5) Uncharted 2

Just an incredibly well made, beautiful-looking, fun game, from the betrayal at the start to the entanglements in the middle, and the cool ending. One of the most polished and most entertaining games I’ve played, apart from the fact that you’re fighting an evil, megalomaniac warlord by killing hundreds of people. Ahh, the contradiction of mainstream game narratives. But since protagonist Nathan Drake is one of the funniest and most well-written game characters around, that contradiction is easily forgotten.

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

BE: After grad school I realized that there were two things I would keep doing no matter what I worked with or did as a hobby, and that was writing and gaming. For a while I combined the two by writing game reviews and articles about games. That eventually led to writing about science, which is what I do today, apart from writing fiction.

I started writing fiction because while playing MMOs I was trying to create a narrative with the character within the very narrow confines of those games. After a while it got so frustrating being locked inside a game narrative with minimal variation and leeway, I stopped playing and started writing instead. By that time I had been a reader of both fiction and non-fiction for years, but hadn’t tried my hand at writing fiction. It’s the best thing I’ve done.

Some time ago I read up on bullet physics for a novel I was working on. That led me to play Ghost Warrior 2, which turned out to have some very nice gameplay, a decent story and awesome dialogue.

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

BE: Always get some writing or reading done before gaming, and write/read more often than you game.

Since my day job also entails writing and text, I find games very good to relax the language processing parts of the brain and to use the visual parts more. I think that’s part of why I like gaming so much, it’s a nice balance to writing and it’s less passive than watching TV or movies, for example. Of course it’s more passive than crafting, decorating, exercising etc.

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

BE: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino would be fantastic to see as a game, even more mindblowing than the book itself. Maybe as a series of series of cities or internal states (or both) which the player could explore. But it might also be near impossible to do because of the fragmented structure of the work and the great number of cities described in it.

The Magic Mountain (by Thomas Mann), In Search of Lost Time (by Marcel Proust), or even Against Nature (by JK Huysmans) might be easier to adapt to games, as those have a more coherent plot and conflict/yearning. I suspect they would all play as indie games, maybe just point-and-click, or some kind of odd role-playing game with mostly of dialogue or internal monologue. If there were any test of wills, it might be in the form of witty repartee, comeback, or creating intrigues and gossip about the other characters. Maybe with a historically correct duel as the only fighting. That would have been an interesting role-playing game to play.

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

BE: The game of my life would have to be an MMO. But instead of a standard MMO, it would be a meta-biographical game that would emulate the MMOs I’ve played, all in one big, weird world. One quest line would be what I did in MMOs, other quest lines might belong to the of people I met in the games, or players would be free to just play their own stories. There would be classes and professions, of course, and the option to do what I did in my first and only attempt at playing The Sims; set the character to write novels. There would also, built into the game, be the frustration and waiting that is common in MMOs, and if you’re following the meta-biographical quest line; grinding, power-leveling, alt’ing, raiding, gleefully launching yourself from a rocket onto a raid boss, going to the graveyard at night while bored to get scared by creeping zombie arms etc. Maybe some meta-biographical parts would set in our world. It would probably be more than a little weird.