When it came time to think about who or what author, writer or critic to feature in our second Spotlight feature, the decision was suddenly made for me when it came to light that Duncan Fyfe of the blog Hit Self-Destruct was calling it quits. Atypical in that it has an actual ending: how many blogs can you think of that have an end?: it seemed like the perfect candidate for a retrospective on his writing.
I had the distinct honour of collaborating with Duncan on “Over and Under.” Collaboration isn’t exactly the right word; that would imply something of an equal partnership. I really just unloaded far, far more than Duncan would ever want to know about Wyoming. He took what he needed and managed to capture the feeling of my hometown with uncanny accuracy, especially given that it’s a tiny mountain town in the least populous state in the US. And, of course, he went somewhere totally unexpected.
Many writers would do something easy with such a setting – loner kid that nobody really understands finds solace in the world of games, girl and boy find each other through mysterious initials on an escalating high score board. This isn’t to say these couldn’t be good stories, but they’re definitely easy. But if there’s anything that has been exemplary of Hit Self-Destruct is that it’s rarely easy.
Donna isn’t simple. Beyond superbly capturing the desire to do more than her tiny, insignificant home allows, her relationship with games is intriguing. She’s an outsider looking in. She’s had a fleeting glimpse of what could be … maybe. But the potential of games she is seeing might be a figment: it could well be that it is just lizardmen, magic daggers and the bastard scion, Aduln'ric. If I wasn’t serious about games, I’m not sure I could look at Gears of War and feel any different.
Again, Duncan didn’t do what was easy. Donna didn’t suddenly see the majesty of games, of a new art laid bare. She saw some really nerdy, escapist nonsense. She saw what I, as someone dedicated to this medium, tries so hard not to. Honestly, it was a little hard to face. But there’s nothing more harmful to the future of games than the status quo. Pointing that out isn’t easy, but I wish more people did so.
“Over and Under” is a glimpse, a moment. We don’t know if Donna was accepted to university. We don’t know if Bissette ever managed to get out from under his own shadow. We don’t even know if Tim ever got out of his parent’s basement. It’s a piece of someone’s story, somewhat reminiscent of the way games are pieces of our own lives. Duncan took some scattered memories of a tiny Wyoming town and wove something that speaks on multiple levels. And he resisted the temptation to produce something easy, something that would drive blog hits but would lack real thought. Hit Self-Destruct was rarely simple or easy. These qualities were the most representative of HSD and something I’m going to miss.
What makes Duncan's writing so incredible is the creative aspect embedded into his work. Nearly all of it is telling a story on some level: whether it is a straight-up piece of fiction, or the presentation of his or another's experience as if it were a story. The writing made his posts easy to read and digest. Game criticism is often a bonus in his posts.
“There's a Monster in My Closet” is both a dialogue and a poem about the nature of the survival horror genre. The post is an angle not often seen in criticism and in a way is an allusion to the style of Alexander Pope of criticizing with rhyming couplets. But it's “Over and Under” that has to be my favorite post of his. It's long, around 14,000 words, but it is worth every word. Woven into this tale of a girl about to graduate high school is a variety of criticisms on many of the issues we face today as critics.
We see the perception video game culture had (and still has) from the outsider's perspective and it forces us to evaluate it, even though it may not be the complete reality. It is how our culture is viewed. Tim is the stereotype, the geek, the shut in, the socially awkward; a stereotype that we have no been able to completely shake even in 2009.
We also see criticisms levied at journalism: at what it is, what is really asked, and what it can aspire to, shown to us in the form of the magazines, interviews and Donna's personal aspirations as she reads All the President’s Men. We see Donna struggle with Darkforge the computer RPG as she is just thrown into it by Tim and expected to 'get it.' Even though the story takes place in 1986, the issue is still relevant to this day.
And much like Donna is trying to figure out where she is going, with everyone pulling her back into this small and stagnant little world of Jackson, Wyoming, I can't help but feel our own struggle as critics of Video Games is in much the same place. We are fighting to get out into the larger world and become something more.
All of these are the major issues we game critics deal with and here Duncan weaves them into a narrative fiction about growing up that can stand on its own. That is probably what I find most amazing about it. He wrote with such a personal style and he told a story with every post, drawing his audience in like few others could. I see “Over and Under” as the ultimate product of this endeavour.
I owe Duncan Fyfe a beer and a punch in the mouth. I blame him for the circumstances I'm in right now. And when I explain it to you, it might be hard to find a direct line of causation, but the thread is undeniably and irreversibly there.
It started innocently enough: stumbling across a Hit Self-Destruct post about the sequel to one of my favourite PC games of all time and how a reviewer gave (the sequel) a 5 out of 10: but it concludes with the purchase of a $200 graphics card just to play this game, my curiosity piqued. Duncan was right, of course, Neverwinter Nights 2 was entirely worth a 5 (and for exactly the reasons he lays out), but the ramifications of now having a $200 graphics acceleration card in my desktop PC would be far reaching.
It was mid 2008 and with this new beast thrumming away in the heart of my black-and-blue box, I played Oblivion, revelling in what was a triumph of the representational power of technology. My beastly new graphics card brought Cyrodill to life with sights, and a sense of wonder, that seemed straight out of a dream, delighting the fantastical escapist in me. My first affecting experience with modern graphics.
It left such an impression that I wrote about it for my blog, and subsequently dedicated sections of no less than two pieces of serious academic writing to a personal anecdote of exploration from the game; one fleeting moment that encapsulated the sense of absolute freedom I extracted from the game. Simply sitting in the world was enough to let the capillarity of the game to work its magic on me. It took me one step further along the path of desperate games writer.
After Oblivion came Spore; Fallout 3; and culminated in Far Cry 2. Oh Far Cry 2, How do I love thee, let me count the ways… But this is not the time or the place. If you are ever at all amused (slash annoyed), however, by my evangelical attitude to Far Cry 2 you now know precisely who to blame! Duncan Fyfe for influencing my purchasing decision more than six months before ever first contemplating the game.
True story: I bought my graphics card because it came with a free copy of Neverwinter Nights 2, and without that piece of hardware, Far Cry 2 would have remained limited to a console or I may never have experienced it at all. Certainly I would never have been able to take all the screenshots that I have for the, now infamous, “Permanent Death” saga. Far Cry 2 came in a period that ultimately led to me realising how much more I enjoyed writing and reading about games than I often do playing. Duncan himself wrote about this point in the post “Prometheus Unlocked” just a few months ago. It is considered essential reading for any self-respecting games writer.
In truth, I probably would still have bought my graphics card if I hadn't read what Duncan had written. And I might have even gone on to have many of the same formative experiences: who's to say. Regardless, the fact remains that I still cooked up this most tenuous thread of influence and spun it out into 500 words just to say, 'Hey, internet, Duncan Fyfe is an interesting guy and you should listen to him'. If that is not convincing enough proof then I don't know what is. I've done my part.