November 12, 2015 5:00 AM | Joel Couture
Many talk about games like machinery - what parts go in to make it work, and why those parts are chosen. Even when speaking to the people who make them, games get talked about like mechanical devices to be optimized. How did you maximize fear? How did you streamline sadness? What parts did you install to make the player feel something? As such, it's almost strange to read Cara Ellison's Embed with Games, a collection of deep, personal interviews and captured moments spent with game developers all over the world. It's a collection of the personal motivations, secret histories, private heartbreaks, and stolen smirks that have made people want to create games.
But that oversimplifies the beating heart of the work - again reducing something striking and human to the sum of its parts. Embed with Games shows the human heart at the core of the code that delights, frightens, and saddens. It shows the motivations of the people who have created our wondrous toys and interactive lives. It delves deep into how place, life, and experience create the inspiration to share those feelings, and how games allow us to inhabit lives and truly empathize with another. The interactivity of the medium is the future of art, a place where creator and player meet and share something profound.
Even if that profound thing is falling down a well with gun boots on.
These aren't simple interviews with the developers, separated by font choice until all pre-approved questions have been answered. Ellison lived with many of these developers for days on end, sharing their lifestyles for a little while and recording her experiences with them. It's less a probing for answers and more a joined experience, learning who these people are by sharing in their lives. Through friendship and quiet conversation, she draws out much of the meaning behind why these creators have chosen to work in games.
It's powerful to hear the personal reasons why these people create games. It's not the stuff of mechanics, asking not why a game was created, but why these people chose to create at all. What was the allure of creating this digital space for someone to share with you? What was it in your life that brought you to create something at all? What did you want to express, and how did games allow you to do that? This makes it sound like the games were the key, but Embed with Games is a misnomer. It's not the games, but the people who create them, that matter.
Place is also key to what these developers feel as they create. Ellison paints a vivid picture of where these developers live, using photographs and her words to help bridge the gap for the reader and let them feel the presence of these other cities and countries. We're brought along for the ride and given a sense of the kind of towns these developers came from, and how the unique personalities of place can shape a game as well. Each city is its own character in Ellison's writing, given a life and existence that pulses through the work in ways that help you see how living there can change the course of a life.
The narration may seem strange, coming from Ellison's perspective. Embed with Games is as much her story of traveling the world as it is a story of why some developers work with games. This might seem that it would skew her view, shifting its focus onto her, but this only serves to make the words of the developers seem that much more personal. This is a book that asks you to befriend the developer and hear their private, personal thoughts on why they make games. It draws you in close, and as the games themselves, it asks you to willingly settle into someone else's shoes for a while. It asks that you share in a life.
For this connection to be complete, we bond with Ellison. We share her journey, painful and joyful, so that when developers tell us their dark secrets, it feels less like overheard conversation and more like a shared moment among friends. Ellison asks questions that are so personal that you would only share the answer among those close to you, and yet, through the connection to her and the work, it feels more like you belong there. You share one skin, and that connection between her and the developers becomes so much more than words on a page.
Art is telepathy. It's in projecting emotions and thoughts out into the world to be picked up by someone else and shared. It's in trying, desperately, to have another person feel something as you have, or to find if someone else HAS ever felt like you have. It's a cry to another person to share, and in that sharing, be healed, or inspired, or touched in some way. Embed with Games is about that aspect of games, so sorely ignored. It's about the human heart that beats at the core of games - how it's people that have created these clutches of code, wire, and steel and made them beautiful and alive.
If that sounds too artsy for you, then put it this way: Ellison's work will tell you why people chose to make games, no matter what those reasons are. The real reasons, whether making them just felt like a worthwhile choice when your life had no direction or if you just want to see people connect in interesting ways. It's not about why the games work in a mechanical sense, but why they work as means of making someone feel something, be that the joy of having fun with friends or the sadness of watching a personal horror unfold. It's why games are good for us as people.
Embed with Games humanizes the code we manipulate, and tells us why someone would devote so much time to create that space for us to experience. It brings us very, very close to the people that want to share feelings and fun with us, and lets us feel what it is like to live their lives for a while. It's about closing distance and getting closer, bringing us along to share a bunk with the people who create universes out of nothingness. It's beautiful and wondrous in its prose even as it stares into something raw and ugly. It shows that we can get through our lives if we connect, even if that connection is across thousands of miles between two people who will never, ever meet each other.
Embed with Games will be available on November 19, but is available to preorder for £8.99 from the publisher's site, Amazon UK, and Amazon US. For more information on the book and Cara Ellison, you can head to her her blog or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.