A Classic Quest: A Conversation with Benjamin Kinney

Benjamin Kinney lives and writes in Marquette, Michigan, where he earned an M.A. in English from Northern Michigan University. Prior to that, he was a middle school teacher in the Tampa area. He has published reviews on the  Ploughshares blog and  Heavy Feather Review, and nonfiction in Walloon Writers Review. He has an infrequently updated blog at benjaminkinney.com.

His story, “Words Fail Him,” appeared in our  Next Gen Temple Issue. Below, he talks with editor William Hoffacker about brevity, RPGs, spending money, and more.

Why did you choose Chrono Trigger as a subject for fiction? What special qualities does this game have that inspired your writing?

From the first time I played it (and I’ve played it like fifteen times now), I cared deeply about the heroes and felt like their world was an actual place where the non-playable characters went about their lives even when I wasn’t looking. The time travel element made the world seem limitless. At the same time, the game only takes 20-30 hours to complete, and at some point the player is flying the airship around and realizing they’ve done everything they can possibly do in the game—that nothing new remains. For a game this beautiful, this realization is hard-hitting, and my piece was inspired by the desire to hang out there a little longer.

I admire how many specific, world-evoking details are packed into a compact space in your piece. Do you normally work in such a short form? What are the challenges of achieving this economy of language?

Aww, thanks! I tend to be long-winded, so this piece was an anomaly. In my M.A. program at Northern Michigan University, we had a lot of faculty who stressed economy of words—I took a workshop with Matthew Gavin Frank, and he could spend an hour critiquing one paragraph of an essay. NMU was where I began to always ask the question, “Is this word or sentence helping the piece?” Even though I write mostly longer stuff, my final drafts tend to be about thirty percent shorter than early drafts. My biggest fear in writing this way is that some of my voice—and even some of my message—gets lost. I want to believe that there’s a place somewhere for all my adverbs and random asides, but I’m starting to fear that there isn’t.

Beyond Chrono Trigger, what is your history with video games? Any favorites you care to mention? Do you play often?

Gaming was a formative part of my childhood. I have a brother who is five years older than me, and when I was in kindergarten I would sit on his bed and watch him play Final Fantasy VI on the Super Nintendo. I believe my early interest in RPGs is the reason I’m so interested in narratives to this day. I must have played every RPG on the Super Nintendo, and I gamed almost daily throughout high school and college. My favorite games are Final Fantasy VI and VII and Secret of Evermore. I think about certain things differently because I played so many video games. The Harvest Moon games influenced how I conceptualize life in general and especially making and spending money, a topic I’m still obsessed with today. Every time I do anything even remotely adventurous, I pretend I’m Lara Croft from Tomb Raider. When I graduated from college, I stopped playing as often, though about one game a year still catches my interest. Just a few days ago I bought a PS4, so I might be reentering a period of playing frequently.

If you could adapt any literary work into a video game (of any genre, any scale, with no limitations), what work would you choose, and what would that game look and play like?

I think Stephen King’s Dark Tower series would make an excellent RPG—it has a memorable cast of characters, a classic quest, and plenty of villains. Hell, it’s pretty similar to the Wild Arms games for the Playstation and PS2. I love games where I can level grind and where the main storyline never gets inundated with a bunch of side crap, so if the game fit those criteria (and if Oy was a fully playable character), I’d be happy. I haven’t seen the Dark Tower movie, but a lot of my friends hated it, so somebody just needs to tell Stephen King that the truest adaptation of this work is a video game!

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I have a ton of new ideas that I’m always starting and then abandoning, and for the past few years I have been writing fiction and nonfiction equally. But one project that has stuck with me for about a year now is a novel about, basically, how we spend money and how that comes to define who we are. The idea was partially inspired by video games. Spending all my “leveling up” points or what have you in RPGs is always really stressful for me—what if I spend all my ability points in pursuit of becoming a self that, in retrospect, I don’t like very much? (This is an issue that plagues me in life as well. I’m gradually coming to terms with the fact that I’ll never do or own exactly what I want.)

What have you read and/or played recently that you want to recommend?

I reread Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives this summer. It’s such an intricate, detailed novel, and I have a weird feeling that one of the deep truths of the universe is hidden somewhere in its pages—someone smarter than me just needs to tell me what it is. It is a great example of a work that manages to be long and complex without any part of it feeling unnecessary. A friend also turned me on to Blake Bulter’s There Is No Year with the promise that Butler was a lot like David Lynch (my favorite director), and I’m midway through the novel and loving it.

Last year I played Undertale on my computer, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. The world needs more great small-scale games, and Undertale delivers both with gameplay and story. I would say a game’s story is even more important than its gameplay, and Undertale seems to understand that. Also, I’ve just started Final Fantasy XV. It has a sense of light-heartedness and fun that the previous few installments have sadly lacked, and there is this delicious homoeroticism going on between all the male characters. And having not gamed for a while, I’m floored by how beautiful graphics are in 2017. I was used to playing my old PlayStation games and trying to figure out what half the polygons and sprites were supposed to be.