The World of Warcraft is a season of life. You could approach it strictly as a video game - many do - but as soon as you push beyond the surface, you find yourself building relationships with fellow players, musing over storylines, sharing frustrations and triumphs in a way that punctuates time.
It's no stretch of the imagination, then (or is it, perhaps, entirely about stretching the imagination?) to consider the impact a game such as World of Warcraft might have on the fertile mind of a fantasy writer. So when we spied comments around the internet from Catherynne M. Valente (author of Palimpsest) pointing straight toward gaming, we suspected she'd had her hand in the WoW cookie jar – and we were right. While she's not currently playing WoW (having sworn off its siren call to devote her time to writing), she responded enthusiastically to our interest, producing an interview filled with gaming, WoW, fantasy, science fiction and the timeless themes that tie these worlds together.
15 Minutes of Fame visited with Valente on the heels of her trip to Worldcon 2009 and a fresh nomination for a World Fantasy Award for A Buyer's Guide to Maps on Antarctica.
15 Minutes of Fame: We understand you're quite the console gamer. What's your gaming background?
Catherynne M. Valente: I am an inveterate console gamer since my first Nintendo -and I have hazy memories of my dad's Atari. I grew up playing video games, obsessing over them. I know the layout of the first Zelda game like the streets of the town I grew up in.
Which should tell you: I'm a freak for vintage games. I've even written essays on the Buddhist narrative in the Super Mario Bros. series. I proposed to my fiance at a classic Donkey Kong machine-I put the ring on the console just like we used to put the quarters up to hold the next game. Clearly, I think about it all way too much.
Tell us about your time playing World of Warcraft.
I picked it up first when I was living in Japan for a few years. I was very isolated, living in a valley in the mountains, my husband always gone, not speaking the language, having no real friends. I first discovered WoW just before I moved back to the States. I played mainly for the same reason I started my Livejournal. WoW offered human contact - doesn't that sound funny to say! Orcs and Night Elves as human contact! But someone was on the other end of the game, and it was a comfort.
When I got back I played less, but one of my cousins just raved about it, and my brother, too, so I kept up with it a bit, though it was already getting a lot harder to balance gaming time with writing time.
I mostly played a Night Elf Warrior - a girl. I can't help it; since my early days, if there was ever an option to play a female character, I took it. It used to be a lot rarer, to be able to have an avatar who was strong and violent and still a woman. So to this day I never, ever play male characters if I can help it. Choosing that female avatar always makes me feel like being a kid again and noticing for the first time that you could play a Valkyrie in Gauntlet. And I was a Warrior because I like to smash things. Sometimes I'll choose a Mage character, if they have a bank of particularly smashy spells, but I really like to crush things and make them explode. Never a Paladin or Priest, though, as the religious aspects don't interest me.
Even when I play Magic:The Gathering, I almost always play red monocolor - the smash-things-with-fire color. In person, I'm intellectual and fairly elegant in the way I dress and speak, so people are generally surprised that I like to play tanks. But that's the beauty of gaming, isn't it? Becoming someone else, doing things you can't do in the real world.
Why did you eventually stop playing WoW?
I have this attention arc with games. I play them obsessively, but I'm always chasing my own attention span. Once I get reasonably good at them, I often wander off. In this case, it was a combination of that and not wanting it to become a bigger part of my life than it already was. When I came back from Japan, I kept playing for awhile, but I was publishing regularly by then, and once you start writing full time all your other activities get jumbled up to make room for this huge new thing in your world. It's weirdly like having a baby - you have to raise this career and it's hard to keep doing things the way you used to. As I got busier and busier, I had less and less time, and finally I just stopped completely so that I could focus on my books and rebuilding my life after Japan. I knew from the beginning that if I let it, gaming would take over all my time. But unlike a console game that has a distinct beginning and end, WoW can just obsess you forever.
Absolutely! So many players struggle with becoming completely sucked into MMO game worlds. Are you still able to allow gaming to be a creative break, something that refreshes and replenishes your energy, or do you find you need to avoid gaming's siren lure when you're immersed in a writing project?
Gaming is this treasured time for me now, a bubble set apart from work where I can just let my brain play and play.
A game is a story -- all games are stories, just like novels or plays or movies. It's just an interactive way of taking in story. And when I play, it's a little like creating a story - I create a character, I give them a name, I make them do things, I choose the order in which I pursue quests, I make connections with other players if it's an online game. But it's like telling a story without any real responsibility. I'm part of the drive of the narrative (or my avatar is), but I don't have to control it or worry about where it's going, make sure the characters have depth, that the surprises are surprising. It's more active than reading, but still, the story is being told to me, rather than me telling the story.
It's incredibly relaxing. Sometimes there's nothing that calms me down or centers me like plugging into a game for a few hours. Sounds weird, doesn't it? But it's kind of zen. The world of the game flows around me, and I can get lost in it, the way you can lose yourself in meditation or yoga.
Have the themes, stories, sights and experiences you've encountered in WoW and other game worlds made its way into your writing? What about the other way around?
Since I write in the fantasy genre, the game is always to avoid the appearance of rolling dice behind the scenes. So many fantasy novels are bad re-hashings of a game campaign that was super cool online or on the tabletop -- but in a book feels forced and artificial. So I try to avoid a lot of the tropes of MMORPGs, actually -- random, episodic questing and cliched cultures being the main danger.
But in some sense, there's no helping it. Most fantasy games model themselves on the classic hero's journey -- even WoW, which has kind of a cyclical hero's journey framework, repeating the heroic tasks and confrontation of the dark power sections more or less endlessly.
I think what has influenced me more is the visual look of fantasy RPG worlds. They are so vivid and beautiful, especially as graphics have improved. Final Fantasy VII was the first game that really blew me away with the look and feel of the world, the hints of a long history, the mix of magic and technology, the gorgeous music. In all honesty, I've always wanted to write something that made people feel the way I felt when I first played that game. Azeroth in its best moments reminds me of that, the open world where you can do anything, the broad fields and ornate character design. It's so easy to take that for granted, but these games have a lovely visual aesthetic.
As for the other way around, last year I actually worked on some game design and story-writing for an MMORPG that's still in development. It was wonderful and I'd definitely do it again. It's a whole other way of thinking, trying to anticipate player actions and create things to delight them at a glance, rather than over the length of a chapter. My time on WoW and other online games really helped on that project.