Embed With Games by Cara Ellison

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I annotated the shit out of Embed with Games, occasional Paste contributor Cara Ellison’s recently-released compendium of her travels living with game developers. I underlined quotes I found insightful and scrawled responses in the margins. I destroyed this book because I wanted to find the running thread that connected each of the interviews, or to connect with one of them on some deeper level as a struggling creative.

And there are some wonderful quotes. My favorite comes from Liz Ryerson, who makes a statement that seems to define all art:

“It’s [about] making stuff to survive. Not just survive on a personal level but survive as a way of making sense of the other things that people are feeling or experiencing. There’s something very boring about that, in a way that’s not bad.”

Ellison’s book is a collection of the essays she wrote after she packed her life into two suitcases and traveled the world as a part of an idea for Patreon subscribers. And in a way, her writings are mundane, but if we use Ryerson’s words, that’s not bad. Many of the subjects are the closest the games industry has to auteurs, such as Nina Freeman or Brendon Chung, but you may not know most of them by name. Some of them have created small indies and alternative games, but others have been behind titles that have become a part of the media’s lexicon. Katherine Neil, for instance, is one of the most surprising interviews, a story about a developer that made games for social change but was too afraid to show her face and expose her identity. I didn’t know the name Harvey Smith before reading these essays, but he was a key force in Dishonored, so he has to be important.

While many of the subjects have large Twitter followings or could be considered “successful” by game industry standards, their lives are standard. The cities depicted in the book are larger than the people living in them. They each have their own problems, their own obstacles for game developers trying to make it. London is incredibly expensive; France, at the time of the writing, was reforming legislation so intermittents—people who receive an allowance from the government for working in the arts—would receive less money; and Tokyo is a part of a stagnant games culture in the east. Despite the fact that, according to Ellison, people have made pilgrimages to visit Tim Rogers, the life of a game developer is unglamorous.

Getting glimpses into developers’ personal lives often provides insights into their creative processes and their opinions on games. Many of the interviews provide this well-rounded perspective and that keeps you going through them. You know they’ll all be unique, especially as Ellison moves from place to place. Because of how different the interviews and essays are, the book lacks a certain flow, possibly attributed to the original content being published individually. As I underlined passages, I tried to find that flow. What was it that melded these interviews together? I discovered that it was mostly Ellison’s presence.

Embed with Games is less about the developers Ellison said she was going to interview and the games they created and more about the author herself, reflecting the constant traveling and homelessness of the lifestyle, and engaging with her hosts on both related and non-related topics. That’s not to say that the subjects are inconsequential. It’s just that in some essays, Ellison’s story can overshadow the developer’s. In between two more straight-forward pieces on a developer there may be a passage on her move from country to country or her state of mind. Sometimes it’s easy to forget who the essay was about to begin with.

But this is a consequence of the “embedded journalism” that Ellison is attempting. While a reader would like to experience more of the lives of the developers that are being interviewed, there is a whole other life that they have to contend with. Ellison is the one traveling, the one with the subscribers, and the one that has the responsibility to tell these stories without screwing it up.

And overall, it’s less about the book itself. The work already stands on its own. There’s a moment in her trip with Ojiro Fumoto in Tokyo that she mentions writing about him for the Guardian and being taken aback by how his game was soon picked up by a publisher.

“I’ve never thought hard about my ‘readership,’” she writes. “You never think about the link between poverty and press coverage until you one day dramatically influence it.”

Whether Ellison wanted to or not, Embed with Games has had an impact. She didn’t invent the concept of embedded journalism, but the idea seems to have spread. In Kill Screen’s magazine Kickstarter, for example, they stress how they’re going to use a lot of their money to embed journalists with developers across the globe. She started the project frustrated with a lack of ambition in games journalism and maybe the industry has finally caught on.

Embed With Games: A Year on the Couch with Game Developers was written by Cara Ellison and published by Birlinn General.

Carli Velocci is a freelance writer in the Boston area. Besides working on her webzine Postmortem Mag, she can also be seen ranting at Paste, Kill Screen and more. You can follow her on Twitter @velocciraptor.