Here’s a statistic: After reading Brian Oliu’s Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping, I’ve spent more of my life reading Oliu than playing basketball. There’s an old, mangled hoop out in my front yard—happened to be there when I moved in—but it was never my thing. Basketball, that is. NBA Jam, however, was absolutely my thing. “The first thing that you need to know,” Oliu notes, “is that the game is not basketball.” EYI consists of a series of lyrics essays, using teams from the arcade/console game as a springboard for various investigations/meditations on identity, youth, and the game itself. But my description, in a sense, is reductive: it’s both basketball and not, and it’s as much game as it is reality. Oliu, along with thirteen other contributors, offers something more hyperreal than its 16-bit origin—something a little more like life.
First, because I think some people might be wondering why video games are receiving such heavy literary treatment—why video games? What can writers learn from them in terms of narrative, world construction, or otherwise?
I think video games are texts that we've learned to grow up with--for me, they were my introduction into storytelling: I would play arcade-like games that didn't have much narrative structure & I would assign my own stories to them: it was like being able to create my own fan-fiction world, in a way. They are simultaneously blank spaces, but also creative launching pads. Everything I write usually stems from an originating text; it's comforting to me to have a background to jump off from (at an even more micro-level, this is why I'm attracted to nonfiction as there is always research to be done or an event to work from). I'm not one for the grandiose spectacle of a videogame playing out like a feature length film--instead, I like the quiet moments that really play with the idea of "gamer as reader and as creator" that surprise & pop up seemingly out of nowhere.
Reading Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping, I couldn’t help but find parallels to my own life everywhere. In many ways, it seems impossible not to. There’s an associative nature that invites readers, regardless of whatever to enter their own initials. Was that the intent behind this book? How did you approach this project?
All of my writing is meant to evoke something in the reader--to have them be able to put themselves in my shoes, or at the very least attempt to feel what I felt at that juncture. I feel like with this project I was being extremely nostalgic: not only for the act of playing a videogame that is over twenty years old, but also reminiscing about a life of basketball that despite my love for the game, still seems to be behind me. I am certainly not a good athlete, but I absolutely loved playing, and watching others play--I think that this is a common story for a lot of people; maybe not basketball, or even something athletic, but having a love for something that you yourself are not good at. I wanted to capture that sense of admiration and awe on both a fantastical level (NBA Jam), a realistic level (the NBA itself), and a deeply personal level (my father being a fantastic player himself).
There’s something in your language that perfectly captures the essence of—especially—older, “vintage” games. Something like a collapse of traditional logic, some sort of magical simplicity. Something ineffable? I can’t quite nail it down, but I felt it in Level End, too, and it’s really a beautiful thing when it happens. Can you describe this essence?
I'm a firm believer in the idea of logic when I write--that each sentence has to have its own insular concepts and ideas that are able to not only exist on a sentence level, but also allow it to branch out into the larger paragraph/essay level as well. I like to think of each sentence as its own essay--which seems to make sense in regards to my writing style: I like keeping things short & to the point. I also think a lot about how everything needs to be circular or cyclical in its own way: you can't deliver something early on in an essay & never come back to it. These are basic building blocks of fiction, of course, Chekov's gun, etc. But in nonfiction I feel like they're even more poignant and important: if you give the reader an idea or an emotion that you want to convey along with an image, you need to make sure that those feelings permeate throughout. I think in essays it is very important to stay on theme: this gives you a chance to envelop the reader with the world you are building, & in a sense, this creates its own logic--you don't want to jar someone out of the experience by giving them something that doesn't compute.
Could you explain your relationship with nostalgia?
Nostalgia is great! Where would we be without it? I love waxing poetic about things that have happened in the "collective past"--shared experiences, where were you whens, things along those lines. This is great in bar conversations, but a lot of times it isn't enough to operate this way in nonfiction: it isn't enough to be like "hey, remember that time this thing happened? that was cool." It's the same way when folks tell you that you should write stories about them because they've lived a "crazy life"--most times the story isn't enough in the same way if I was like 'hey, remember NBA Jam, wasn't that game crazy?' it wouldn't make a very compelling book or a book that I am interested in reading or writing. Leave Luck to Heaven got some bad reviews from gamers who wanted more nostalgia: they wanted specific references, moments where they could have those bar conversations where someone would be like "remember how in Metroid how you could roll into a little ball?" and while I'd love to meet & talk videogames with that person, my writing doesn't seem like the medium in which I wish to have that conversation.
In the book, you mention a parallel between cheat codes and advice/wisdom. Here’s a threefold question:
Favorite cheat code throughout the history of gaming:
I think the best cheat codes were the ones that never actually existed: the amazing rumors that just permeated our childhood. Playing as Vega in the original Street Fighter II, playing as Michael Jordan in NBA Jam, all of the Mortal Kombat rumors, etc. The Konami Code's usage in Contra was huge: I can't even imagine buying that game & getting my ass kicked by it over & over & over without having knowledge of the code. Imagine owning that game for months & not getting past stage 2 & a buddy coming over & being like 'SURPRISE!'.
The biggest writing cheatcode is to always have a source text: something based in the real world that gives you some context & something to work with when your brain decides it doesn't want to create things out of thin air. For me, it was videogames, or the Odyssey, or my grandfather's book, or wikipedia pages about 1992 NBA squads. It always gives you something to draw from--there's always more to research.
In life, I think the best cheat code is just to be nice to people. It's amazing how being nice to people makes your life so much easier & so much friendlier. It's pretty straight-forward, really, though I imagine if you're naturally a kind of bitter & bummed out person, it'd be hard to flip that switch. But my life has always been made so much better by showing kindness.
Favorite video game of all time, and why:
I think Earthbound has to be #1. It's a lot of people's favorites. It has so much heart, it is super fun, & has so many bizarre & beautiful quirks to it that constantly make it exciting. Mother 3, in a lot of ways, is better, but Earthbound still has that gleam of perfection to it. It's a game where I had an amazing experience with it when it first came out & I played it when I was 11, when I played it again when I was 19, & the subsequent years since when I've played through it (most recently when writing the beginnings of Leave Luck to Heaven). There will never be another game like it.
You once posted a Facebook status saying, “My goal in life is to be Professor Emeritus somewhere & teach one class a year that is just me spouting old man nonsense.” Here and now, I’m granting you this position. What do you have to say to the class?
Oh man, who knows what old man wisdom I'd have obtained by then! Hopefully at least a little bit. As of right now, I'd probably just give lots & lots of writing pep talks, which is what I do anyway, but it'd carry a heck of a lot more gravitas because by that point I'd be old & have, like, all of the awards. Also I'd refer to extremely famous writers by their first name & talk about how we used to hang out because that's a favorite professor emeritus move "Oh yes, when I used to go over to Ted & Sylvia's for after dinner drinks..." etc.
What writers are you excited about right now?
I need to get Sarah Einstein's memoir--she's a favorite essayist. I've been reading a lot about advanced statistics when it comes to football lately in an attempt to somehow understand the math behind all of it: Bill Connelly over at SBNation does an amazing job of making it somewhat understandable. Writing a book about football is most definitely in my future, I'm sure of it. I'm really excited to read Michael W. Clune's Gamelife--I just read a review of it in the LA Review of Books that makes it seem pretty interesting.
Any last words?
I think my copy of Mario Maker that I ordered is waiting for me at home, which is pretty much all I've ever wanted in life. There have been some "artsy" type levels already, but I'm really excited to see how we can further bridge that gap between game & art: can we tell a successful & advanced narrative through gameplay? How liberating can these obstructions and gameplay conventions be if they are tweaked in the right way? Can we extend a story through multiple levels? I'm looking forward to digging in
January 11, 2016 | Interview