Joseph Sale sits down and has a chat with Nate Crowley, author of ‘100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed) They chat about MMO’s, zombies, writing, gaming and much more!
Joseph Sale: Hello!
Nate Crowley: Hello!
Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview, especially considering how early in the day it is.
Hey, no problem, these are my best working hours.
Your time of greatest productivity!
I like to start at the end, so let’s talk about your most recent work. 100 Best Video-Games (That Never Existed) is modelled on a Twitter-thon you initiated, tweeting fake video-game premises in exchange for likes, and then, when it became ridiculously popular, for donations to a charity that would save frog habitats. What inspired you to begin tweeting these premises?
My short attention span? I can’t remember what I was meant to be doing on the day I started, but I’m willing to bet there was a deadline on it. Most of my twitter activity happens when I’m trying to distract myself from something else, but in this instance I don’t feel too guilty about it because we raised a couple of grand for frogs and I got to do a book.
I think what took a lot of people by surprise is that a lot of the Tweets were not only funny but also sounded like really awesome game ideas. I wanted to play half of them! Do you think that reflects a hunger for more creative and innovative gaming experiences?
A bit, yeah. When you look at the more agile indie devs, there’s an astonishing amount of creativity and variety of form out there – people are able to find an audience who can get behind whatever they want to make. One of my heroes is Tarn Adams, the man behind Dwarf Fortress. In October 2002 he started work with his brother on this game, which he intended to be done in a couple of months. Fifteen years later, he’s still building it, and it’s become the most complex simulation game ever made. And it’s still displayed in faux-ASCII. It’s a heroic work, and it couldn’t happen without a core of people who believe in it, and which is just big enough to support Tarn and his brother. But when it comes to large studios with big overheads, they have to be more risk-averse with what they put out – and so you can still fit pretty much 90% of commercial releases into a few fairly prescriptive brackets.
Hideo Kojima recently conducted an interview with Rolling Stone in which he talked about the “rope and the stick”, two tropes that video-games keep repeating: the idea of climbing a rope to things we want and beating away enemies with a stick. Do you think video-games are a little mired in these tropes and how do you see them breaking free?
It seems trite to point it out, but it’s weird to think how many games are still just about wading around with a gun, ending things. But as I say, if you’re a risk-averse studio and you know you *have* to make a return from your investment, why wouldn’t you just make a variation on something that has succeeded before? I guess the trick to evolving genres is pretty much like natural selection in biology – you have to produce an organism which is still capable of competing with existing creatures in its environment, but with variation pronounced enough to let it operate in a whole new niche. Look at Thief in 1998 – it was still recognisable as an FPS, but the stealth/combat avoidance mechanics, and the slightly weird setting, allowed it to be something else too. What I’m saying is, we need tigers that can also fly.
Have you ever considered becoming a dev?
Yeah, I tried but I was… lacking. I was lucky enough to be one of the recipients of a microfunding initiative by the excellent Failbetter Games, and was working for a while on an adventure game about a haunted sales training manual. The writing and design elements really lit me up, but I had done zero coding before, and I was just picking it up far more slowly than I hoped. Even though I was using Twine, which is really Baby’s First Programming Language, I’d been far too ambitious with my feature spec, and it became daunting. It got to the point where I could have finished it with a couple of months of massive workload, but Failbetter didn’t want me to become Captain Crunch, so they very graciously let me dissolve the project. It taught me a huge amount of respect for game devs.
So, let’s turn to your earlier work. You’ve got two novels out with Rebellion and you also published Daniel Barker’s Birthday, another epic in Tweet form. I found it pretty disturbing but also hilarious in places. Can you talk us through it a bit?
I’ve told this story a few times online, but here’s what it boils down to. It was my mate Daniel’s birthday in 2015, and he did a silly tweet jokingly complaining that not enough people had wished him a happy birthday. I decided to wish him happy birthday for the rest of the day, and then when the next day came I thought it would be funny to start doing it all over again. I did it the next day too, and the next, and gradually I started mixing in the festive greetings with little vignettes about a bleak, birthday-themed world. After a week or so the vignettes took over, and I began tweeting a very long story set in a world enfeebled and depleted by the perpetual celebration of Daniel Barker’s birthday. This went on for 75 days, and ended up with a massive party in a pub basement, where Daniel came in character as himself. We are really good mates now.
Woah, what was that?
You’re breaking up, buddy.
Shit, just lost connection. Back now.
Okay. We recording?
Let me check. [pause] Oh shit, the connection loss fucked up my recording equipment. The last twenty five minutes are gone. It’s okay, it automatically backs up to Cloud every ten seconds, so it’s impossible for me to lose –
It’s gone. It’s all gone.
Are you kidding me?
We’ve been talking for twenty five minutes and you haven’t recorded a single word?
Shit. Tomek’s going to kill me. I’m finished.
I’d say so – if the stories about Tomek’s legendary wrath are true. What’re you going to do?
I don’t know. Nothing I can do really.
Well, I guess you could make something up. I mean, we’re living in a post truth era, man. I just wrote a whole book about games that don’t exist, surely you can fake part of an interview?
Make it up? Nate, what about all those lovely people at STORGY who diligently read interviews based on the assumption that these are truthful words spoken in earnest by two people sitting around the glow of a computer screen?
Let them keep the assumption. Never break kayfabe, dude.
What does that even mean?
You’ll find out later in the interview.
I thought you hated time-travel?
I told you that later, too. And anyway, there are exceptions.
But seriously, there was all that super interesting stuff about Daniel Barker’s Birthday and Dwarf Fortress and the evolution of your creative ideas… And then there was that spontaneous banter, that moment we looked lovingly into each other’s eyes…
I don’t remember that at all. Look, do you want me to help you make it up or something?
Yeah, could you?
Sure. Give me five minutes to come up with some bulls**t and we can continue.
OK, let’s go on. I think I can go on.
Are we recording again?
[click] Yes, we are recording.
Splendid. Where were we?
Well, I was going to ask about The Sea Hates a Coward.
Okay. So, that actually follows on from Daniel Barker’s Birthday because Lydia Gittins, who was running publicity at Rebellion Publishing at the time, her and a few of the wider team had been into the Barker story. Really into it. So, I got a string of DMs out of the blue while the birthday was still going on, asking ‘Would you like to write a novella?’ And, erm… yeah? I mean that’s an instant yes. I said ‘Sure, absolutely’. And Abaddon Books, which is part of Rebellion, had this Tomes of the Dead series running. Which was a series of unconnected books – with the shared factor of being unusual takes on zombies.
They said, ‘Would you like to do one of these?’ And again, it was an instant yes.
But here’s the thing: I was really over zombies. I mean, don’t get me wrong, in the early 2000s – when the zombie thing was really kicking off and there was Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide, there was that amazing Dawn of the Dead remake – I was all about them. There were the Walking Dead comics and I got really into them. I watched the entire history of zombie films over a couple of years, buying crappy £2.00 DVDs of old italian z-movies. I got really into that. I remember thinking ‘Man, I would love to write a zombie book one day’. But cut to fifteen years later, and I felt zombies had really been done to death, if you’ll excuse the pun.
And so yeah, when Rebellion said ‘We’d like you to do a zombie story’ I was initially kind of crestfallen. ‘Ah no, what am I going to do? What can I do that’s not been done before here?’ But they did say they wanted an ‘unusual take’ on the theme. So I thought, what about a world where – and OK, zombies as the protagonists, I’m not going to pretend that’s new – but what about a world where zombies aren’t threats or a disease or anything? They’re an industrial process, and something that a government is using for forced labour. So, imagine a world where this city is besieged, has been for 70 years, and they’re feeding it from this massive fishing fleet anchored in another dimension where they’re harvesting sealife from this horrific ocean world. I mean, you wouldn’t get people to do that job, right?
So yeah, what if this government are using their political prisoners; bringing them back to life, and having them work? And wouldn’t it be horrendous if you were conscious of this situation as one of those prisoners? So that was that was my take on zombies. I could really get into that.
Amazing. I mean, a lot of nautical stuff going on. Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner quoted in the epigraph and parallels with Moby Dick. Just how influential were those two on you. Or were they more a kind of small jumping off point?
I mean Coleridge is straight up sick. I mean so good. And I always loved that poem. Moby Dick, ah well… I mean it’s an incredible work of art and you can’t write about whaling without writing about Moby Dick to some extent, but it’s certainly not something that directly inspired my work to the extent of it being pastiche. I’ve always been fascinated by, not just the sea, but the way people talk about the sea. And the way we interact with it culturally. I worked at a public aquarium for a couple of years. At university, I studied the History of Science. And my big dissertation topic was the History of the Aquarium.
It’s amazing the way that changed how people looked at marine life. And I’ve read a lot about the development of the fishing industries and the whaling industry over the years. Both the Nantucket era of wooden ships that Melville writes about, and then the industrialised slaughter of the 21st Century, which so amazingly parallels the horror of mechanised warfare. In a way, we were going to war on our environment. Yeah, it’s bad stuff, but it’s fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. I guess that was, in terms of cultures of natural history and in terms of politics, that’s totally where Coward came from, more than Melville.
So, the follow up Grand Amazing is a slightly different setting. Was that just a natural progression in terms of the story or was that coming from ‘I’ve done seafaring and now I want to go into jungle elements and that environment’?
Yeah, literally just as simple as that to be honest. The other thing I was really interested to explore – I’m really interested in 19th Century travel narratives and Alexander Von Humboldt, Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin of course, and especially looking at these journeys from a post-colonial perspective. I’ve done quite a lot of time in the tropics myself, and I thought well ‘I’ve done the sea to death in this book. Now I’m gunna do jungles!’ And that was that.
I mean, The Sea Hates a Coward was originally a standalone, right? I didn’t write it expecting to do a sequel. Turned out, it was very easy to carry that story on. And to be honest, I think Grand Amazon is a better story. But the setting was just an excuse to tackle a new biome.
Mix it up.
Keep it interesting.
Look out for part three!
Yeah! The city!
Actually, for April Fool’s last year I did mock up a cover for Space Hates a Bastard.
I don’t know whether that will be the real book.
That would be some proper hard-boiled sci-fi.
Don’t rule it out, actually.
Haha. Do you often find that’s how your creative process works? I think a lot of writers struggle because they plan something out and think ‘This has to be epic! There has to be so much going on!’ It seems like you just get something and run with it. Like, a title alone can expand and become this whole book.
Yeah, pretty much. I’m working on this novel at the moment with an idea that’s been in my head for a long time. And the setting (groans) – I had all these ideas about it, because you know you build these things up over time in your head? But I decided just to bin it all and start again with the central precept and work it out from there. Because a big trap a lot of people get into is to do loads and loads and loads and loads of world-building, to the point at which they’ve created something so huge and fragile that to start telling a story in it would start wrecking it.
So, you know, I think the working it out as you go along method is pretty good because then you can focus on your story. I mean, you can have some ideas about the world, but if you build the world around the story it’s serving your purposes rather than you writing a story to serve the purposes of the world you’ve made up.
So, erm, yeah. I mean mostly I’m just winging it.
Haha. A ‘discovery writer’ is, I believe, what the popular term is.
Yeah, let’s go with that!
Or as your book blurb says an ‘over-imaginer’. Do you think that’s an accurate description?
Yeah, I’ll happily sit under that.
Or a ‘genius’ as Dara O’Brien has recently said.
Well, he was of course a big fan of Daniel Barker’s Birthday. If I’m honest, I think the cover quote [for 100 Best Video-Games] Rebellion have pulled there is actually Daniel Barker’s Birthday. I don’t know what he thinks of the rest of my work, but I can only hope.
He does like video-games, so it’s not completely out of the remit of his interests! Moving back to the video-games, do you have a favourite entry in 100 Best Video-Games? One game you would like to see made into an actual game.
I know, I’m sorry man. That is so unfair.
It’s like Sophie’s Choice but there’s a hundred. I think, ah… Okay, I don’t want to go with one based on my ideas, but based on the art, there was a game… let me just find this, I’m flicking through… OK. The game is called They Can Break Your Arms, You Know? Erm, this is an entire game based on the pathetically inaccurate folklore that swans can break your arm. And, like, you select one of four swans which have been bred in a government research facility and had massive beefy arms sown onto them. And you escape from your cell and beat the shit out of increasingly tough armed guards until eventually you must defeat the Queen of England, traditionally the owner of swans, flying an enormous eight-armed combat mech, which you can only take down by breaking all of its arms. Like I said, the premise is not the best in the world, but the art the guys at Rebellion did for it is like classic late-90s side-scrolling beat ‘em up art. It’s incredible. I’d love to play that.
Haha. So, do you think at any point you would write your actual 100 Best Real Video-Games. Or because you’ve not played as much recently, that it wouldn’t have as much interest for you?
I think I’m just not the right man for the job, really. I’ve never played a Zelda game, which is kind of a scary thing to admit to some people.
Oh yeah, some people would kill you for that.
There are some classic games I haven’t played. There are just gaping holes in my experience of gaming. So, you know, I couldn’t write that book. Yeah, I’ve written about games and I love writing about games. But doing a real-life version of this book wouldn’t work at all. Because I just play Hearthstone these days.
Now that is addictive.
Oh it’s awful. I’m just like this ghoul buying packs of imaginary cards and just power gaming this terribly beautiful card nightmare.
It is terribly beautiful. I found that as soon as I took any time away from it at all the punishment of getting back into it.
All the fads had moved on, all the popular combos had moved on. And I was just left in the dirt with a really crappy Warlock build and nowhere to go.
Warlocks are the worst man! Awash in a sea of shit, you’ve got no hope, man!
For you, how do video-games and stories intersect? Have you always just had this interest in and love of both. Or was there a moment you had a eureka in terms of video-game storytelling or a novel about video-games? Did those two loves grow up together and you’ve decided to combine them?
That’s a good question. They’ve been two really parallel themes in my head. When I was eight me and a friend from school came up with an idea for a game called Stanley Turbo Bulldog. Now, this is 1992. And it’s not like fast animals were a theme in games in 1992. No, this is an original idea. Totally original.
Oh God. Was it a 2D sidescroller by any chance?
Yeah, funnily enough. So I spent the whole summer holiday that year drawing out maps for Stanley Turbo Bulldog. And I was really convinced the kid at school, his uncle worked for Nintendo, was totally going to get it made. But, that never panned out! The other project I’ve had over the last couple of years is – me and a really good friend of mine Josh Fortune – we made a YouTube series, an animated show, called Realms of Fightinge. Josh is a lecturer and a dad and has a lot going on in his life so he’s had to put down his pen on that for now after we did the first series. I think he might come back to it. But, in case he doesn’t, I’ve actually included Realms of Fightinge as one of the games in the book as a nod of respect to him.
I thought I saw that.
So, the series was about a knackered MMO that came out in 2005 and is still being played despite being kind of dated. Again, not based on anything real at all.
No, of course not.
Erm, it’s about a guy called Colin who uploads himself to live in the MMO to avoid paying rent and because he’s kind of going nowhere in real life. And, you know, there’s a lot of stories with a common trope: If you die in the game you die in real life. But it’s not true for Colin. If he dies in the game he just respawns.
Hailstorm entertainment, the company that kind of runs the MMO, really want to shut it down, but they can’t evict Colin, so they just make the game progressively more unfair to try and force him out.
That was lovely to work on. That was such a treat to work on, because, you know, MMOs have such pathetic and bizarre logic. The idea that you would live an everyday life in one was kind of… just great territory.
There was actually a World of Warcraft server I believe that was role-play and you had to eat three meals a day, sleep at night, only do reasonable levels of combat (or get exhausted). And there were police going around enforcing that people fully commit to the roleplay, and people were doing twelve hour shifts a day.
So we were actually looking into that. One of the characters is a guy I voiced [putting on a wizard’s voice]: Gundulphe the Great, a totally original wizard. He insists on role-playing all the time. And everyone who knows him is really embarrassed by it. And they meet a gold-farmer, you know people who literally log on to grind mobs all day in order to sell the currency for real money, they meet a gold farmer and Gundulphe just doesn’t comprehend it. What do you mean you’re doing this for a job? This is life! So yeah, just that weird role-playing thing – not that role-playing is weird I’m well into it – but that was just good to play with.
Yeah, do you play any Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop role play or is it mainly MMOs?
Erm, I never got much of a chance to play tabletop roleplaying games growing up. I actually only even got into video-game RPGs fairly late on in my life. I’ve always liked the idea but never actually got to do much of it. One shameful secret I have which is – you know – a really dicey idea to confess publicly, is that I do occasionally do LARP.
I do it as an NPC. So, I work with the people who crew the LARP. It’s a big game, the system’s called Empire. And they have these massive events with thousands of people. As one of the crew I show up there for a weekend at the tent and hang out in their big backstage tent. And they’re like ‘Okay, we need like three crab-men to go and threaten a warlock.’ And I’m like ‘I’m in!’. I get like a big foam pincer and face tentacles and get to go out and be weird at people. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
Yeah, but I wouldn’t say I’m like massively into it, because there are people who like play as characters who get mega into it and spend a lot of time thinking about it. I’ve got a lot of respect for them but I haven’t got the time to get invested in it. I just like showing up for a few days and being weird monsters.
I now have the image of you coming towards me, pretending to be a weird crab person. That is quite scary.
I live it, man.
Yeah! I always find Battle Recreation and LARPing is such a huge thing but you have to find it. You don’t see posters for it around. You have to know where to look. Or at least that’s been my experience of it.
Yeah, I mean in the early 2000s or whatever I remember a forum I was on this video went around of people running around the woods in these broke-arse wizard costumes and it was like this laughing stock. Yeah, it was really stigmatised. I have to say when I first got involved in it a couple of years ago, I like kept it mega, mega secret. You know, I thought, people are gunna think this is really weird. There’s a real stigma attached to it. And not everyone who does it is the easiest to get along with. Every hobby in the world has people who take it too far. But for the most part, it’s a lot of fun. It’s active, it gets me outdoors. I like it.
Completely. On the subject of NPCs, have you seen Epic NPC Man on YouTube?
No, I have not!
It’s just this series about this NPC in a small village, a kind of MMO starting area. It’s live action. It just exposes – as you were saying – the pathetic logic of MMOs, and how awful life as an NPC would be in it. There’s a brilliant scene where a player is killing NPCs by throwing stones to distract them, and it kind of plays on the idea of the NPC Guy knowing exactly what the player is doing, but still unable to go against his programming. It’s brilliant.
Awesome. I really want to check that out! I mean, the best drama I’ve seen about NPCs was HBO’s Westworld, which I’ve just finished.
Like, that was a brilliant show. And actually, whereas it was a lot more than that, it was a great show about video-games. Hot take: Westworld is an MMO. There you go!
Oh the game will be coming out soon, surely?
Haha. Now that would be interesting.
I wonder whether they could pull it off. Because it already is a video-game I guess it might be difficult to execute that. But it really was an amazing commentary on AI and Game Design.
Yeah, I mean I’m not a big cyberpunk fan, really. When I heard about the series, it was only because I absolutely adore Westerns that I actually watched it. But phew, that was great piece of television. Really spectacular.
Do you have a favourite Western movie?
It’s not a movie, but another HBO series Deadwood is my favourite show of all time. Have you seen Deadwood?
I have never even heard of Deadwood! That sounds awesome.
So they made three series in the early 2000s and it’s Ian McShane playing the role that makes every other Ian McShane character seem like a waste of Ian McShane. It’s set in the dregs of the 1870s gold rush after the Civil War in the Dakotas when the Black Hills had been opened up for gold mining. So it’s like the last gold rush. And it’s just about this town that springs up out of nowhere. It goes from a few tents to a city of ten thousand people in the space of like, a year.
David Milch, the guy who wrote it, is genius. It’s got the best writing I’ve ever come across. It’s properly Shakespearian in places. It’s just this amazing deconstruction of the Western. I can’t believe how many people haven’t heard of Deadwood. And it’s no fault of theirs, it’s a series that just seems to have disappeared from popular consciousness. But it is incredible.
I’m going to check that out. That’s a recommendation and a half!
One hundred percent. Also, Grand Amazon has an entire sequence which directly homages Deadwood.
Oh really? I’ll get through Deadwood then before I get to Grand Amazon so I can experience it in it’s full glory!
You mentioned Melch. Are there any other writers you’d like to name drop as big heroes for you?
Yeah. I mean, people I think about and talk about quite a lot. China Mieville. He has one of the most staggering imaginations there is. And of course, he’s very political. Some people find that heavy going. I love it. His Bas-lag books are like hard-left D&D. Iron Council, which is the third of his big weird fantasy books – I was lucky enough to meet him and tell him it was my favourite ever Marxist-Fantasy-Western, which, you know, really narrows it down.
Alastair Reynolds. Fantastic sci-fi author who just goes from strength to strength. Revenger, which I read last year, absolutely blew me away. I pretty much love all his books but he really broke new ground personally on that one, I think.
Iain M. Banks, God rest his soul, was an incredible world builder, and did something I really admire and which I try to do in my work which is mix a really warm sense of humour with an unflinching description of the absolutely horrific. And some of his aliens, man, they feel more human than humans. Because, you know, they’re people. He was an incredible writer.
Jeff Vandermeer, again, an absolute master of the Weird. I got into him through City of Saints and Madmen which was a tour de force. But then his Southern Reach books, especially the first in the series…. Well, I mean, in terms of building atmosphere it was pure literary glucose. It really packed a punch and I really admire him.
So there’s some names dropped like a collection of clattering pans.
Loudly and they resonate! You talk about how you try to incorporate some of what these writers are doing into your own work. What do you think the future holds for you in terms of where you want to go? Do you think you want to do more post-truth alternative history work or do you feel another novel coming along?
So, I’m really hoping Rebellion will commission a new Wrack book, obviously, because I’m really having fun with those. The games book has been great. I would like to do more in that vein, but we’ll just wait to see what sort of idea comes along. At the moment, I’m working on a big fantasy novel called The Key and the Fish. It’s kind of early days to say anything about it, but it’s funny you mention post-truth… The book is – you know, it’s not a direct parody of Trump’s America in a low-fantasy setting, certainly, but there are certainly some satirical elements, inevitably because of the time I’m writing it, that resonate with that sort of thing. You know, I can’t even bear to talk about Trump, so let’s talk about his smaller but no less ugly cousin Brexit.
The bus with the three hundred and fifty million quid lie on the side. Ress-Mogg suddenly being A Thing despite nobody wanting him to be. The way some things can become narratives just because someone wants them to be, and so says that they are. I was interested in how a nation in a low-fantasy setting might work along these modern political media principles. Like I say I’m halfway through at the moment so I don’t want to say too much…
But it’s big. You know, it’s I guess a bit gentler than the Wrack books, at least in terms of blood and guts. Like, I don’t want to be known as a Horror writer really. Because one thing, I said in a talk recently, there’s Horror and there’s Horror. I’m really interested in how people come to terms with horrible things – that’s something that’s very personally important to me – but I’m not interested in gore and sadism and descriptions of dreadful things just for the sake of making people feel scared or disturbed. I don’t think that makes the world a better place. Although I get a lot of reviews that say: These books are drenched in blood. And they are. But, you know, it’s not something I revel in. I guess with my next work I’d like to be seen someone who isn’t all blood and guts.
Interesting, I came to Horror quite late. But once I discovered it, it was like my eyes were opened, and it was this whole thing I’d been waiting for my whole life. Finally there was this writing that was actually going to go to those places that I felt what I’d been reading before had been holding back from, it was giving me the full spectrum, but what surprised me a lot when I started reading King for example, was there was really a lot of redemption and positivity. You know, occasionally you get the downer ending but a lot of early Horror writing, for me, was that good triumphs over evil and people do make it through these terrible situations. There’s the threat of really dreadful things happening but often it doesn’t reach the zenith, unless you’re reading Clive Barker.
Clive Barker does what Clive Barker does.
He does. I don’t know if you’ve ever read The Damnation Game?
Well, cliché though this is, there’s this one scene in it which can never be erased from my mind. So, I mean I’ve read The Sea Hates a Coward and the style is really visceral. Almost earthy. Did you find you were looking to Horror writers for that style or did it come naturally to you?
Erm, if it doesn’t sound arrogant to say, it came naturally. I was really, really depressed when I wrote that book, actually. There was a lot I was dealing with. You talk about sort of optimism in horror, and good triumphing over evil, and sometimes I think you can be optimistic without good ever really triumphing over evil. Display how people are able to react to the worst the universe can throw at them with a sense of decency and compassion. And that’s – I mean it is definitely a horror book – but it’s a book about how people deal with horror. And there was a reviewer who really, really kindly said: ‘It’s not a book about monsters, it’s about good people in a bad place.’ That was beautiful, because it’s really what I was trying to do.
But there’s a lot of intestines.
There will be viscera. Monsters and failing flesh.
That’s life, right? Haha.
The zombie is an amazing metaphor for our frailty. I guess that’s become quite a well-worn thing now, but you definitely feel it in a new way in The Sea Hates A Coward. You see how the zombie really is a metaphor – you know, I’m falling apart, dental appointments and stuff, and I’m only in my twenties! It’s very disturbing.
Wait until you get into your thirties mate, it’s a nightmare.
Oh yeah, I’m not looking forward to that.
That’s very kind. Wait until you get to Grand Amazon, because when half your cast are dead, and they’re in thirty degree heat and a hundred percent humidity in an environment full of insects, muurr, not great.
I sense new levels coming. Did you use those two books when you were doing the 100 Best Games? Because they’re such creative settings it seems a shame – well not to waste them, you’ve written two whole books about them – not to reference them a little?
In the full list of a thousand that went on Twitter, there were a few Easter Eggs amongst them. And there is one hidden in the 100 Best Games book as well. It’s just a small nod to the setting of The Sea Hates A Coward. I will leave it to the eagle eyed readers to find themselves!
Very good! Don’t give too much away.
Hahaha. My lips are sealed.
It’ll be dissected for years. That’s one of the things, when I was reading 100 Best Games I had to keep reminding myself none of this is real.
Haha. That’s the finest compliment you could pay, thank you!
No, absolutely. It’s complete immersion. It’s not just the “100 Best” you’ve “selected” but also the whole framework. You’re comparing games to other games that also don’t exist. Were you kind of “winging” that, working into it, or when you sat down to narrow that thousand down to one hundred did you have a sense of how you wanted to build the backstory and the time-sequence?
Originally it was just a thousand unconnected ideas. There were a lot of ideas where I just thought: “Uh, that would make a cool idea for a game” but there was nothing really funny about it, so I stripped those out. Then, with the ones I had left I sort of shortlisted them. I thought about which ones would be funny enough to have a whole page and ones that would just be funny to refer to in passing. And like, throughout the book there are those interludes with just text descriptions. So it’s called 100 Best Games but there’s actually like two-hundred and fifty in there. Erm, but I did that. Then I thought, which era would be most funny for these games? To arrange them chronologically. And then whenever I wanted a point of comparison, I had my backup list. Oh yeah, let’s mention Sausage Squad here!
Yeah, that was how it worked. I think the whole thing, even the points of reference… just makes it a more head-achy experience. The marketing goal there, and this is reflected on the side of the book, is confused grandparents to buy this book for their kids at Christmas. Oh, it’s a book about games! And if you didn’t know games mega-well you could flick through and just think, Oh yeah, this looks legit. I’m hoping for a few mistaken purchases.
Even the introduction is kind of bullshit as well, isn’t it?
I was reading through it thinking: Okay, he’s going to explain about the Twitter thing and… And then I was like, We’re in a pub, and drinking grog, and his publisher is drunk, what’s going on here?!
You know, I’ve got a real fascination with nineties pro-wrestling.
Haha. There’re a few wrestling games in there.
Yeah, I genuinely think, once you realise that – like – WWE is not a wrestling show, it’s a soap opera about a wrestling show. I’ve stolen that quote, but I can’t remember the name of the gentleman I’ve stolen it from, it’s not an original thought, but it really encapsulates what it is for me. In early pro-wrestling circles, where it was just burly men battering each other on the carnival circuits in early twentieth century America, you get this internal term kayfabe, which is pig-Latin for “fake”. And there was this whole thing of moving between wrestling fixtures and interacting with the public, where the wrestlers never broke kayfabe. So kayfabe was this aegis of pretending it’s all real. That’s why it kind of had this pig-Latin name. And the idea was never acknowledge to the public that it wasn’t real. And so with this book, I’ve not broken kayfabe the whole way through, until the last page where I have the acknowledgements. Yeah, it’s kind of that principle.
That’s really interesting. So, were you a fan of The Rock, Triple H, The Undertaker, that kind of very bombastic scene? Or was it earlier for you? I struggle to remember now.
So I was born in 1984, so, you know, my corpus would be Hulk Hogan, Matcho Man Randy Savage, Jake The Snake, all of those guys. And then I was just like ‘Woah, these demi-gods destroying each other’. And when I came back to it as a teenager with more testosterone but also a little more critical faculty, and that was like during The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austen era, and I was like ‘Huh, this is really interesting as a piece of narrative art.’ It’s not like I watch wrestling any more, I haven’t really got the time to, and I know there’s a lot of really problematic stuff about it, but I still think it’s fascinating. A comedian, I’ve known from a few years back, Adam Blampied, is now a Lord of Wrestling Commentary and does WhatCulture wrestling and, you know, I still watch his videos really regularly on YouTube. He’s a fascinating guy to hear talk in terms of giving a conscious perspective on wrestling.
Amazing. Do you ever see, in the future, a grand collaboration between your three loves of writing, wrestling and gaming… Well I guess it’s already there.
Haha. You’re looking at it now.
There’s one ChessWrestle. It turns out to be a wrestling game inside a chess game being played by two wrestlers.
Yeah, playing chess with these wrestler pieces, then press a button, the camera zooms out, and there’s two wrestlers playing chess! And they fight! I enjoyed that one.
That was genius. If only that game really did exist.
We can only hope.
We can only hope that just quietly – I’ll buy a few copies and post them to the devs and just say: ‘Look, if you’re looking for inspiration for your next triple-A release.’
Yeah, I mean I’ve got a lot of devs following me on Twitter, and if any of those guys want to talk ideas, they know how to get in touch!
Yeah. I live in Guildford, so I can do all the postal runs for you, it’s where all the major devs are.
A nice big check from Bethesda or EA would set me up nicely, so err…
I always see Bethesda advertising for writing positions, actually. I think that’s a whole other writing experience, working on such a massive pre-existing IP, such as the Elder Scrolls. Is that something you would ever consider doing? Or do you want to work on your own stuff?
Let me just stare directly into the metaphorical camera now, as if into the heart of anyone who might be hiring such a position, and say yes. That would be something I would really love to do. Someone I admire is Meg Jayanth, who wrote 80 Days in the indie world, and recently did a fair bit of the writing on Horizon Zero Dawn. She’s extremely talented, and last time I saw her I’d just finished HZD and so I sort of gushed at her. Coming in as a third party and just kind of beefing up some of the worldbuilding must have been a splendid experience, I imagine. Yeah, it would be really cool to get a gig like that.
Awesome. I mean the Steam marketplace is bursting with content: story-based games, interactive novels… Do you find yourself looking at any of that for inspiration or is it a sea you don’t want to get lost in?
There’s the true vast and terrible ocean in my life! Haha. Yeah, I get lost in it sometimes. I am bad for impulse purchases. I mean, I was really interested in an RPG called Torment: Tides of Numenera which is sort of a homage to the old Planescape games. It’s like this bizarre far-future setting which I found fascinating, but I read a couple of reviews that said: ‘You will have to read four novels’ worth of text in scrolling windows in this game.’ And I was like: ‘I love novels, but I don’t really want to read them in this form, on my PS4!’ So regretfully I just never really – I did that classic impulse purchase thing where I was like ‘This is so cool!’ and then read the reviews. I just didn’t have the time. But yeah, especially indie games, there is so much out there. On Twitter, everyday, I see people talking about incredible games I’d like to have a go at. But, you know, until I’ve got like nine clones of myself and I’m uploading their memory to my cortex every night, it’s just not gunna happen.
But it will happen.
One day! Or we’ll just become immortal.
Yeah, that’s the hope.
What novels are you reading at the moment, is there anything you’d like to shout out and recommend?
Ah, my mind just went blank. The problem is, a lot of the stuff I’m working through at the moment is re-reads. I just got done with a non-fiction book, which I picked up as research for 100 Games actually, it’s called Console Wars by Blake Harris, which is a story about the marketing feud between Sega and Nintendo at the dawn of the nineties. It’s a cool kind of corporate history book. At the moment I am re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch.
Ohh, how did I list my favourite authors earlier without mentioning Pratchett? Ah, the guy is… he spins my emotions. And Night Watch in particular is exactly where I’d like to be with my writing. Hey, it’s Discworld, it’s a fundamentally silly world but it’s a fundamentally serious story. Ah, it’s not aged a day.
One of the amazing things about Night Watch that relates to your work quite strongly is that – you know, I’ve seen watchman books, and time-travel books – but he’s travelling back in time within the context of an imaginary world. That is so incredible. I took it for granted when I first read it, but the more I think about it, the more impossibly ambitious and clever I see that is.
Yeah, and it’s so effortlessly done as well. Well, clearly not effortless – I mean, what a prolific and talented man, but as you say, when you really think about what he’s achieved there, in what you might otherwise overlook as a generic fantasy series, it’s pretty incredible. And again, kudos to Night Watch. Because I hate time-travel, it’s my single least favourite trope in fiction. I think it is almost impossible to write a time-travel novel that stands up to any logical scrutiny. And that is a seriously lukewarm take, I know a lot of people would disagree with me. They’re probably right too. But I just despise time-travel. But Night Watch, what an exception to the rule.
Awesome, well I think we’ve covered a pretty decent amount of ground. Is there anything else you’d like to drop in there?
Just obviously, anyone who is on Twitter, I pretty much live there, as we’ve discussed: @frogcroakley.
I need to ask you about the Frog actually. Your twitter handle, and then you were raising money for frog habitats, is there a personal connection you’d like to talk about?
Yeah, I’ve just always liked frogs man! They’re nice animals. They’re really sweet. I had some pet frogs when I was a kid. I’ve got some nice memories of collecting frogspawn. I’ve always thought that amphibians in general are mega-interesting. I think now especially, you know, I said this to Leon from Cane and Rinse, I think frogs have now, somehow, been claimed as like a fucking hate symbol by the alt-right, the Nazis as they should be called. I think we need to reclaim frogs! They did not ask for that. So, yeah, I’m keeping the frog handle.
Keeping it real, keeping it warm.
Definitely keeping it ectothermic.
Haha. Warm as in: cute and lovable. Not warm-blooded!
Thank you so much Nate for your time, on behalf of STORGY Magazine, and on behalf of myself. It’s been amazing to talk to someone whose writing I really admire. You’ve given really generously of your time and we really appreciate it. Thank you very much.
No, it was a really, really lovely way to spend the dawn! It’s light now, so I shall go and do my gardening. It’s been a real pleasure talking to you and you’ve been very kind. Thank you.
Interview by Joseph Sale
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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