A Coming of Age Game: Alyse Knorr on GoldenEye 007

Alyse Knorr is an associate professor of English at Regis University and, since 2017, co-editor of Switchback Books. She is the author of the poetry collections Mega-City Redux (Green Mountains Review 2016), Copper Mother (Switchback Books 2016), and Annotated Glass (Furniture Press Books 2013); the non-fiction book Super Mario Bros. 3 (Boss Fight Books 2016); and four poetry chapbooks. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Republic, Poetry Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Georgia Review, among others. She received her MFA from George Mason University.

Her new book for Boss Fight Books is GoldenEye 007. Below, she talks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes about replaying the titular game, researching its development, speedrunners and more.

You’re not new to Boss Fight Books! Your first book was on Super Mario Bros. 3—a Nintendo game, but a very different one than GoldenEye 007. What about this game made you want to dedicate a whole book to it?

I thought that GoldenEye deserved a whole book’s worth of attention because (1) it’s a cult classic and a huge part of almost every millennial gamer’s growing-up story–ripe with nostalgia and lore; (2) it’s a hugely influential game—the first major first-person shooter on a console, and the game that introduced the first-person genre to a whole generation of console gamers; (3) it’s a beautiful, hilarious, messy, and exciting game that broke many design “rules” at the time and remains super fun to play; and (4) it has an awesome development story, in which a tight knit team of ten very young men—almost all of whom had never worked on a game in a professional context—almost accidentally, and against all odds, made one of the most important games of all time. 

I wrote about Super Mario Bros. 3 for much more personal reasons—the game was hugely important in my relationship with my father and brother, and in my understanding of my own gender and sexuality, all of which I talk about in the book. And while I did have some awesome good times with GoldenEye in high school and college, my connection to that game is not nearly as personal/emotional. So I approached GoldenEye from more of a journalistic angle than a personal angle—I knew there was a very cool and important story here and a lot of merit to the game on its own terms. 

Did you replay GoldenEye 007 as you wrote the book? What did you play it on? What was that experience like 20 some years later? Did you rewatch the movie? Did anything stick out there?

I did replay GoldenEye 007—but very badly! I still have the N64 console and GoldenEye cartridge that I played on back as a teenager, so—with the notable exception of my modern television set—my replay experience closely mimicked the original experience, including the fact that I often had to “fix” hardware issues by blowing on the cartridge. My wife, who grew up without video games, thought I had lost it. She also found it hilarious that I kept grunting and groaning my way through levels, sounding—as she put it so beautifully—constipated. 

If you’re looking for a really intense gaming challenge, might I recommend playing GoldenEye with the original single control stick on the N64’s controller after spending more than a decade playing video games with dual control stick controllers? With a dual control stick controller, you move with your left thumb, fire with your right index finger, and aim with your right thumb. But with the N64 controller, as you may recall, everything is messed up. You have to move with your left thumb, fire with your left index finger, and the only way to aim is to STOP, hold down the “R” button with your right index finger, and then aim with the left thumb. It is very difficult to re-train your brain to use the controller this way. And GoldenEye on 00 Agent mode is wickedly, outrageously difficult, so needless to say I did not make it through my playthrough successfully! I also had to remember that you can’t just barrel your way through every level running and gunning and “brute forcing” it. Some levels you really can’t beat without sneaking around covertly—I’m looking at you, Bunker. Anyway, I’m very excited for GoldenEye to get re-released soon (!!!) so that I can play it with two control sticks on my Switch and feel highly skilled at it again. 

Now, what I’m about to tell you about rewatching the movie might be shocking. I had never seen GoldenEye the movie until I started working on this book. And my biggest takeaways in watching it as an adult for the first time were: (1) the game was better, and (2) now I understand so much better all the things that the first Austin Powers film was satirizing. Because while that film in some ways satirizes the entire Bond franchise, in many ways it’s also focused on GoldenEye and the particular moment at which it came out. When GoldenEye the movie came out, the studio was attempting to revitalize interest in the Bond franchise in general, and all the press coverage was asking, “Is this dusty old 1960s Cold War character still relevant or interesting in the politically correct, modern-day world of the 1990s?” And that’s exactly the plot of Austin Powers! This womanizing caricature of the 1960s gets cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the 90s and has to adjust to a new world where he’s a total fish out of water. So yeah, if you’re an Austin Powers fan, make sure to watch GoldenEye and, if you’re a GoldenEye fan, make sure to watch Austin Powers.

I know this book took you many years to write! I’m curious as to how you initially envisioned the shape of the book and how that shape changed over time as you did your research, interviews, and writing?

My book Super Mario Bros. 3 was much more memoir-driven—it’s about personal relationships, and it explores major events in my life like awakening to my queerness as a kid (thanks for that, Princess Toadstool!) and moving to Alaska after grad school. Because Nintendo is so famously tight-lipped, I couldn’t get access to any of the people who worked on Super Mario Bros. 3 and so, for that reason, I relied a lot more on memoir, playthrough, and other journalists’ and scholars’ research into things like video game nostalgia, “game feel,” gender and gaming, etc. Although I have a chapter or two on how SMB3 was made, the book as a whole isn’t a linear development story but rather a collection of meditations on different elements of the game and its impact, such as its worlds, its marketing blitz, its legacy on platformers, etc.

For GoldenEye, my process was the opposite—I got to talk to almost everyone who worked on the game, which meant that this book turned out to be much more of a documentary development story about how the game was made, from start to finish. Because the developers are so generous and forthcoming about talking about their work on the game, there’s already a lot of GoldenEye lore out there in the form of interviews, oral histories, and many, many “Ten things you didn’t know about GoldenEye” listicles. But I’m a bit of a completionist, and it bothered me that all these wonderful puzzle pieces to GoldenEye’s story were all just scattered around in different places on the internet. The story of the game’s development is so wonderful that I wanted to bring all of those pieces together into one cohesive, scene- and character-driven narrative. 

So a lot of my research was about collecting, organizing, working out timelines, and then going to my interviewees to help fill out the picture a little more. I didn’t want to ask the developers the same things they’d already been asked a million times before, so instead I tried to ask them questions that would allow me to render the entire era—and all the people in it!—in rich narrative detail. I asked what they brought in their portfolio to their Rare job interview. I asked what they ate for lunch every day on the Rare campus. I asked where they all went out for beers together after work. I wanted colorful details to make it all read more like a story, in the vein of Boss Fight’s NBA Jam by Reyan Ali or Masters of Doom by David Kushner. So basically, I envisioned the book as a linear narrative, and it ended up being that and much more, thanks to all my wonderful sources! 

My biggest surprise in the process was just how incredibly generous the developers were throughout this whole process. I knew they were nice guys, from having heard them in other interviews during my research process, but I really had no idea just how generous they were until I actually got in touch with them. They talked with me over Zoom, patiently answered all my questions (even the very weird ones like the ones about lunch, haha), asked about my life, and then sent me photos, old notes, art mock-ups, and even lines of original game code! Then, when I had a draft of the book ready, I sent it to them so that they could each check their quotes and how they were being portrayed in the book. Instead of just writing back with “I approve,” or “Looks good,” most of them wrote back copy-editing notes, catching factual errors, inconsistencies, even typos. As it turns out, coders make excellent editors—it’s that attention to detail! So I am profoundly grateful to them for all their support. I recommend following all of them on Twitter if possible. 

A consistent thread between both your Super Mario Bros. 3 book and this one is the intense nostalgia people have around these games. How do you see the nostalgia around GoldenEye 007 being unique? 

I think that the nostalgia around Super Mario Bros. 3 is around a cultural moment or era, because Super Mario Bros. 3 permeated so much of American childhood all at once. There was a Super Mario TV show and cereal and Happy Meal toys and a major motion picture (The Wizard). There weren’t a ton of games out when SMB3 came out, so everyone played it and it was just everywhere, in the air, at all times. It was also part of a much larger franchise, so some of the SMB3 nostalgia gets lumped in with nostalgia for Super Mario Bros. or Super Mario Bros. 2 or even Super Mario World, which followed SMB3. In other words, I think SMB3 nostalgia is basically a nostalgia for early childhood gaming—or just early childhood in general—itself. 

GoldenEye, for a generation of millennial gamers, came during the middle school/high school/college years. It’s more violent and gory, obviously, than the cute cartoony SMB3. And yet it also came out just before Columbine and just before 9/11—the sort of last moment of our collective innocence. So I see GoldenEye as a coming of age game. The nostalgia around it is associated with coming of age and it’s also heavily associated with friendships and socializing. Even though SMB3 has a multiplayer option and GoldenEye has a single-player campaign (which personally I adore), at the end of the day SMB3 is essentially a single-player experience, while GoldenEye’s fandom and nostalgia are all wrapped up in its amazing multiplayer mode. What most folks remember about GoldenEye is playing it all night at high school sleepovers or drinking beers and eating pizza while playing it in college with all your friends on the couch. And so I think that social aspect of GoldenEye is a much bigger part of its nostalgia than with Super Mario Bros. 3.

The sort-of thesis of your book is that the team working on GoldenEye had the best of all worlds in creating this game: they had the backing of video game giants while also being a small, focused group more akin to an indie developer; they had nearly full access to the Bond franchise yet the creative freedom to reimagine the design and functionality of foundational game elements and mechanics; they didn’t have to design the game in a vacuum but instead had playable versions early so they got to play it and make tweaks from there. Do you think this sort of confluence is reproducible? Or must we really rely on the magic of coincidence to produce the sort of innovative and foundational genius that is a game like GoldenEye 007?

I think that many of the GoldenEye developers would tell you that some of these environmental factors can and should be reproduced. For instance, they would emphasize the importance of iterative game design—playing, then revising, then playing some more and revising some more. They would also certainly emphasize the importance of creative freedom and of studio execs leaving developers alone to do their work instead of smothering them with deadlines, meetings, progress reports, etc. At the same time, a lot of what made this sort of environment possible at Rare in the 1990s was the timing. You could still have just 10 people working on a AAA title, so you didn’t need all those meetings or email chains. Bethesda’s Starfield has more than 500 people working on it because the technology is just too complicated for anything smaller! I won’t pretend to be an expert on the games industry or how to best promote creativity within it, but of course amazing games are still coming out all the time, so things are going right in many other places. 

I think the question is less “How can a developer capture lightning in a bottle again the way they did with GoldenEye?” or “How can GoldenEye’s development process be reproduced?” and more: “What was so special about the exact moment in gaming history when GoldenEye came out, and what can we learn about the evolution of games design from it?” And for me, the answer is: it was just on the verge of this tipping point in games development from teams of a dozen or fewer people to teams of hundreds of people. It also occurred just between the era of couch multiplayer and online multiplayer, between hand-drawn level maps and AI-generated environments, between the challenges of constraint and the challenges of maximalism. GoldenEye existed right at this huge transition point in games design and development, so it’s really cool to see how it worked in a historical sense.

My favorite question to ask: what’s something you learned and loved but didn’t make it into the book?

I learned so many cool things about the very active GoldenEye fandom alive today, including GoldenEye Source players, GoldenEye modders, and GoldenEye speedrunners. I wish I could have included it all! The GoldenEye speedrunning community in particular has so many fascinating stories: legendary players, contentious controversies, and epic upsets. The game actually has more active speedrunners today than it has at any other time since its inception in 1998. These folks will spend thousands of hours practicing runs that last a matter of seconds. They’ll exploit glitches like throwing grenades under their feet to propel themselves forwards, or looking down at the ground or up at the sky constantly so that the game isn’t rendering as many polygons and the whole level runs faster. You can check these out on YouTube or Twitch!

One of the coolest stories I heard from Logan West, a speedrunner who talked to me during my research, was that around 2006, this speedrunner came into the scene and took the entire community by surprise. He started posting incredible times on the record board and claimed to be a 10-year-old boy from Pakistan. No one believed he was legit until his brother posted a video of him doing one of his runs, which proved he really was who he said he was, and his times were real, too! His name is Rayan Isran, and he’s still something of a star celebrity speedrunner for GoldenEye and Perfect Dark.