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January 12, 2009

Making Golems

One of the books I read as last year drew to a close was Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, a collection of essays about his influences, his thoughts on genre, and of particular interest to this specific entry, his thoughts on writing. The pieces cover all manner of influences, interests, and beliefs regarding writing (both his own, and others'), and he reveals much of himself; many of the short pieces appeared previously, and in advance or concurrently with the novels they prefigure or discuss. It's clear that Chabon deeply inhabits his interests as he writes, that he's passionate about his influences and that he shares much of himself in his writing.

"Golems I Have Known¹", the last piece, is of particular interest to creators of all kinds and to me particularly. As the title might indicate, the essay deals a bit with the creature of Jewish folklore that has crossed over to various other locations -- I met my own first golem in Dungeons and Dragons², and you can see them all over the place, including World of Warcraft and any number of our electronic entertainments. The famous Golem of Prague featured prominently in my favorite Chabon novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and the essay touches on this golem and others that supposedly the author has personally encountered, as well as other literary golems such as Frankenstein's Monster. The essay is adapted from a speech that Chabon gave several times earlier in the decade, often for book-signings and the like, and I can't help but think that I would really have liked to hear him give this speech.

Although he spends some time describing the construction of a golem, and the dangers which lie within the process (especially at its termination), the folkloric creature is of less interest to Chabon (and to me) than the metaphor he weaves from it. The folkloric golem is a product of devotion and ritual, a constant outpouring of oneself that presents great dangers to its creator, who at all times is at risk of being destroyed by his creation. The golem thereby is a metaphor for all worthwhile creative endeavor; the artist puts more than simple effort and craft into the making of a work of interest, he puts a great deal of himself, perhaps all of himself. When the creation is completed, it is animate, a living thing that can destroy its very creator, if it has been made properly, that is, if the creator has risked everything. Coming at the end of a collection in which Chabon makes clear some of the direct events in his life which are reflected in his work, the discussion is a powerful one.

And of course, here's where games come in. Of any creators, we game-makers arguably make the most living simulacra out there. Other media seem dead by comparison; we make systems that live and breathe if we choose them to, though in many cases we simply follow closely the frameworks of other media we're interested in emulating, or which have informed our own growth. Yet so many of our creations strike me as curiously lifeless, as if no one has given anything of themselves in making it. Not all, for certain, and I'll talk about some that I've played and read about that seem to me to have a bit of life to them, but many -- most -- of what we put out on the shelves or the web or what-have-you seem to barely skim the surface of actual individual lives. At least in the triple-A space, we bring dozens of unique life perspectives to the table, if we're lucky and yet, as anyone who has played them for years and years can attest, this year's games aren't really all that different from last year's, in terms of actually carrying real emotional content. I'm not even asking about whether they can make you cry, or whatever, I'll take as read that at the very least we can make some cutscenes tied to gameplay about characters we can manufacture some feeling for (through tricks we steal from film, primarily) -- I'm talking about lasting emotional impact, characters or events that educate us. As I've mentioned in other ways in this blog, I think this shallowness is a real problem for us.

There are counterexamples, and they give me hope. I think there were a number of games over the last year or so that bore the mark of the people that made them. Some I think show promise that more of interest is coming³, some that are already quite interesting (Jason Rohrer's work, or Rod Humble's The Marriage), some that I need to play (here's looking at you, Braid), and then the occasional Tim Schafer game. I've always felt that you can learn a lot about Tim Schafer from playing his games -- he creates characters from aspects of people he has known, his subject matter is always fresh and interesting and clearly of personal interest; clearly, business decisions did not drive LucasArts into Grim Fandango. His games remain some of the few story-based games I've played more than once, if not the only ones.

So, I'm calling on those game developers who stop by this blog to invest something of themselves in what they make. You can create animation that contains quirks from that third-grade gym coach, you know, the one with the bushy mustache and what seemed like the longest arms in the world -- perhaps something in the way he held his arms out when he was frustrated can make it into a bellow. You can model based on the outsize oddities you've encountered in your life. You can write from stuff in your life -- in the thousands of little datalogs and books and whatever that is "background material" in many of our games these days, you can craft a story that is touched with just enough of your personality to elevate it beyond the trite, rehashed bits we see in so many stories. You can say, as I've heard it said, that we're in a business, that we make "games not art", that we are hit-driven and product-driven and our audience doesn't want that, and it's all about the money. To that I say, echoing the title of the other book I received along with Chabon's: Shakespeare Wrote for Money.

¹Subtitled, "Or, Why My Elder Son's Middle Name Is Napoleon," which I like for many reasons, not least of which is that it properly indicates that Chabon has exactly two sons. :) Yes, I am also a geek about language, but of course, you knew that already. (back)

²Of stone, as I recall. (back)

³Everyday Shooter, while it feels personally influenced, also feels like the product of someone who hasn't lived a lot yet, and I don't even a little bit mean this as a slam. I honestly look forward to great things coming from Jonathan Mak, when he learns a little bit more about the human condition or at the very least, if he already knows more than he's saying, when he can put it into gameplay. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at January 12, 2009 10:05 PM



I've been meaning to read Chabon's books for a while. Which one would you recommend first?

Posted by: Stephane at January 13, 2009 12:33 PM

Hey, thanks for coming back, Stephane.

My answer to this, as to so many things is, it depends. If you read only one Chabon book, read "The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay". It is, however, kind of an edifice, by far the longest and most involved book he has written. If you were to read two, I would suggest "The Yiddish Policemen's Union".

Then of course, there's how one likes to read... generally I like to read an author's oeuvre more or less in order, so that I see the author's growth. So, that argues for starting with what, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I guess, and then through Wonder Boys, etc.

Then, of course, there's what you might be interested in -- in the case of Chabon he has a number of themes that he returns to again and again. There's:
*His relationship with his heritage (he's Jewish), which is in basically all his work, but most especially Kavalier & Clay, Gentlemen of the Road, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, oh, and also, his Sherlock Holmes' pastiche/homage The Final Solution
*His love and interest in the trickster mythologies, particularly in Summerland, though definitely on display elsewhere (one could convincingly argue for YPU here as well, I think, and definitely Gentlemen of the Road)
*His love for comics, again, especially Kavalier & Clay, but of course, also his Escapist collections
*Homosexual love or encounters, K&C, Wonder Boys especially

Maps and Legends kind of ties all this stuff together in lots of essays (most of which have appeared previously), but I think they're primarily useful or interesting if you have been reading Chabon through the years. At the very least, familiarity with him and his work is going to enrich your reading of the essays.

If you have young sons, as I do, then Summerland might good be for to them; it's a young adult novel involving baseball and the trickster.

So, there you go. Not one answer but several. Honestly, I think Kavalier & Clay is your best bet -- because of the comics theme, it's in some ways of interest to our industry as well.

Posted by: Brett Douville at January 14, 2009 10:26 AM

Thanks for the wealth of details, Brett.

It actually makes it harder for me since I now want to read all of them!

I'll definitely start with Kavalier & Clay.

I feel I owe you at least one piece of recommendation, so here it is: I'm reading Eifelheim by Michael Flynn and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. The blurb says "Umberto Eco meets Carl Sagan" and, so far, that's exactly how the book feels.

Posted by: Stephane at January 14, 2009 12:44 PM

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