One Player’s Guide: A Conversation with Sam Martone

To help celebrate the publication of Sam Martone’s chapbook, An Object You Cannot Lose, we fired off some pixels to the author, and he lobbied some others back in return.

Justin Daugherty: What was the initial impetus behind this project? What made you want to tackle a book-length collection inspired by a video game? 

Sam Martone: I started writing these pieces when I’d just moved across the country to Arizona and, without internet or friends yet, I spent a lot of time avoiding the 118 degree heat and playing my Nintendo DS. The first piece (“Open Water”) was really just intended to be a one-shot. Eventually I wrote a second, which Lauren Becker took for Corium, and her very kind acceptance letter made me feel like I should keep working on them. And so I did. For years before, I’d always liked the idea of writing a novel in the form of a player’s guide, but could never figure out how to go about it. Then about ten pieces into this project, I realized I was probably doing it.

Joel Hans: I wanted to ask you about Arizona, because it has a strangeness to its environment that feels almost game-like to me, having recently moved here from the Midwest. Saguaro cacti and dirt and all this heat—everything is threatening at best, but most likely deadly. Did you feel that at all while crafting these pieces?

SM: Oh yeah, Arizona and its climate are definitely driving forces in these pieces. The summer I moved here I kept thinking to myself, “Who would build a city in the middle of a desert?” But it is really beautiful, too—I’ve lived in a number of places, but Arizona is unlike anywhere else. Arriving here felt like entering a totally alien landscape. Even after three years, it’s surreal to look past the buildings and see mountains along every horizon.

JD: What does the intersection between literature and video games mean for you?

SM: For me, I’ve always been more into video games for the story than anything else (even when those stories aren’t particularly good). I’ve never been good at games that require, say, quick reflexes or aiming or what have you, so for me it’s always been a vehicle for exciting, compelling, if not totally coherent, story.

JH: To step away from your writing for a moment—how are you relating, based on this preference, to the game scene of today? Do you feel like there’s a lack of the kinds of games that you’re interested in, or are you just focusing your time into a genre that’s not your absolute favorite?

SM: Well, up until recently I didn’t even have a console from this generation (or last generation for that matter), so my connection to the current game world was purely through the Nintendo DS and 3DS, which I don’t think are particularly representative of some of the most popular kinds of games right now. I think the limitations on handheld games, even though those limitations are becoming fewer and fewer, still preserve a lot of the simple, solitary, strange experiences I most appreciate. I have very little interest in online play—I was so disappointed when Dragon Quest X was essentially online only. That’s not really what I want from a game, though that seems to be the way the culture is going as a whole.

JD: This type of writing responds to a pop cultural artifact, but must be it’s own animal. How do you think a writer makes it new? How did you approach the writing? 

SM: Well, I think that previously mentioned incoherence in story also lends to what makes game stories compelling—video games, especially older ones when designers were more limited in terms of what they could do/show, have such strange internal logics, making for totally unfamiliar, surreal narratives that I don’t think could’ve arisen in traditional fiction (the same way film opened up all sorts of doors for stories, too). My favorite video game writing tries to transfigure that experience into something that can happen on the page—it necessarily has to change, given the medium, but is still forged from the essence. That exchange is really cool to see happening in the work of a lot of young writers right now (and of course I hope video games start taking more cues from fiction!). For me personally, since I was imitating the form of the player’s guide, I had a pretty strong foundational skeleton, but I knew it wouldn’t make for interesting stories to simply take the reader through the story of the game. Thus, the overblown melodrama of the pretty standard “hero’s journey” is set against the more mundane real world details, which, in the world of the game, are the character’s dreams. This made it a lot of fun for me to look at what a character in the game might find disturbing or unsettling about the logic of our world, and my hope is that it makes the mundane, everyday images suddenly strange and unfamiliar.

JH: Video games are a little bit like fairy tales in that way, no? Strange internal logics that go unexplained, and ignore causality? A hero’s journey, as you say? Many of the classic SNES-era RPGs could be classified as fairy tale-like, if not more explicitly—Super Mario RPG, anyone? I’m curious if you have much of a history in fairy tales, or if this genuinely is a parallel that one could develop, via video games, near or completely separate from the origin material.

SM: I think a lot of the pop culture things I’m interested in have pretty clear roots in fairy tale and myth (video games, superheroes, etc.), and I’m always compelled by the various repackaging and reconstructing of those stories (the comic book Fables, for example). I think it’s pretty impossible for anyone to NOT have a history with fairy tales, and so I don’t really know that you can really untangle any story, video game or otherwise, from those roots, given just how much we’ve repurposed artistically and culturally, over and over again. I also don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing—just seems to me to be the genetics of storytelling.

JD: Is there other pop culture writing you’re interested in? Any other pop culture writing that really stands out to you right now? Who’s writing cool stuff? 

SM: In general I tend to be interested in pop culture writing, though a lot of my other stories outside of this project avoid it. A lot of literary fiction has a tendency to shy away from real-world pop culture artifacts, possibly because of the way it dates the work, but on the other hand, it’s hard to write about the real world right now without including pop culture and brand names and celebrity twitters, because that’s real everyday life for a lot of us. There is a weird challenge in figuring out how to include those things to where they function beyond cheap references, but I kind of find that part of the fun. As for stuff I’m reading, there’s a lot of really fascinating work being written about pro-wrestling right now (like from Brian Oliu, without whose video game writing I probably wouldn’t have even considered games a possible subject for my own), and it’s a really different experience because I’ve never been into pro-wrestling, so I’m on the outside of that particular slice of geek culture. I just finished W. Todd Kaneko’s Dead Wrestler Elegies and that, along with Oliu’s work, actually makes me want to watch WWE.

JD: One of the things that makes video games so big as a cultural obsession, I think, is the immersion that occurs between player and game. There’s a certain fantasy in myth realization. What makes video games so important to you? 

SM: Yeah, I think that’s definitely true about immersion and fantasy enactment. We’ve watched movie and TV and comic book heroes all our lives, it makes sense that a medium that puts us in the heroes’ shoes would be so enticing. For me, I think it is that sense of immersion and escape—I usually play to decompress after a long day or just when I’m stressed—but there’s also an essential social aspect to it, be it playing with people or just being part of the cultural conversation (the same way we talk about television shows, books, etc.). One of my favorite games, Super Smash Bros., has been a catalyst for friendships throughout my life. I definitely think playing a match of Smash against someone is a quick way to getting to know them, in all their unfiltered, swearing at the screen, trash-talking glory. As someone who’s never been great interacting with groups of people I just met, this is really important to me.

Part two of our interview is alive now. Before or after reading that, a play-through of Sam’s chapbook is mandatory.