Reading about artists is a tricky business, especially when they have seen fit to write about themselves.
For one thing, you are always nagged by the suspicion that a better relief can be gleaned by going straight to the art. In the case of Control Freak: My Epic Adventure Making Video Games (Simon & Schuster), a new memoir from Cliff Bleszinski, the feeling arises more than once. Bleszinski made his fame, and his fortune, as the creator and lead designer of the Gears of War series, and you sense in the book the efforts of someone for whom English has become a second language. Not because he cannot write, but because in game design he found a syntax more suited to the expression of his pains.
These include the death of his father, and an adolescence blemished by acne and girl trouble. The problem is that Bleszinski writes in a way that actually evokes Gears of War, with the kind of gurgle-and-thrum prose that reminds you of those chainsaw bayonets. While in Los Angeles in 2005 – to unveil that game at E3 – he tells us that he “was taking in the buffet of humanity on Hollywood Boulevard.” I hope no one was hurt. He mentions a chance encounter with Bill Gates on the street, during which he fell afoul of Gates’s security entourage, and briefs us on the means with which they could have dealt with his fumbling approach. These include a “Sig Sauer P229, a taser delivering twelve hundred volts of paralyzing electricity,” and even “a Krav Maga-inspired knee strike.” Even his reverence is oddly revved-up; Gates, he says, “Had the softest hands I have ever felt.” So now you know.
Perhaps this is exactly as it should be. What else ought we to expect from the guy who brought us Marcus Fenix, a man who defended the buffet of humanity from alien threat while bravely sporting a bandana and a soul patch? (Marcus, I’m sure, would also reflect on the crushable softness of your hand, were he to shake it.) If the book spatters us with a spray of meaty language, so what? The trouble is, you often feel faintly discomfited by it. Bleszinski tells us, for example, that his parents hoped to have a daughter, but that “every time my mom farted out a kid at Mass General, the doctor saw another baby boy weenie.” It feels as if you’re being addressed by a teenager hoping to affect maturity with a foul mouth.
Our narrator’s other annoying quirk is his habit of jamming his recollections with the jargon of his trade. He describes his widowed mother’s relocation to California as “pushing reset after her life had gone tilt.” When your mind is encrusted with a lifetime of games, your thoughts can’t help but crackle with them; hence the surreal moment, at his father’s funeral, in which Bleszinski gazes past the headstones, “praying I would see him still alive, like Ryu’s father in Ninja Gaiden.”
Fortunately, Control Freak does prove to be good company, for a couple of reasons. The first is the dreamy chronicle that we get of nineties game development. Many budding developers now, chewing their fingernails and fretting over early Twitch exposure, will, I suspect, grind their teeth at Bleszinski’s account of posting an early game to one Tim Sweeney. “Weeks Passed,” we are told. “Then one day my phone rang.” Later on, he describes school as becoming “incidental,” as he receives an envelope bearing a cheque for one thousand dollars – an advance on “whatever Cliff’s next game is” – along with a “$20,000 SGI Indigo computer” and a note bearing the instruction: “Play around with it. Tim.”
Not that Bleszinski was merely the beneficiary of an easier time. On the contrary, the best parts of Control Freak are those that give us an insight into his talent – his preternatural gift for the textures of play. “That right there is the whole thing,” he says, “the difference between good and great.” He is musing on the way games deliver their experiences, the responses they elicit in us, and he sums it up with a fundamental question: “How does it feel?” It is no surprise that we get the report on Bill Gates’s hands; this is someone for whom an interactive medium is, above all else, about touch. He reminds you of Miyamoto, whose games feel not so much planned out as planed down, honed to the essential components of their pleasure.
In a profile of Bleszinski for The New Yorker, entitled “The Grammar of Fun,” Tom Bissel teases out a connection between making games and writing, likening the process of play-testing to that of editing. Bleszinksi described his job to Bissel as, “I play a game that’s not as fun as it should be, that’s broken, until it’s no longer broken. Then I give it to other people to have fun with.” This is the figure that emerges in Control Freak: Bleszinski the tinkerer, the refiner of fun, fiddling with his gears until everything clicks. Even his innovations seem like corrections; “I can’t think of a game that’s allowed players to interact while reloading a weapon,” he says to a colleague, arriving at the active-reload mechanic, prized by Gears of War fans, as though he were addressing a long-held injustice.
But there is another element to Bleszinski’s success. It lies in the porous border between his life and his art; just as video games barge in on the patches of personal history, the opposite is also true. After a liquor-hazed fall, in which he struck his head on a counter and soaked his bath mat with blood, he asked to have scars added to Marcus Fenix’s face. And I liked the notion of Gary Jules’s cover of Mad World burned onto a mix CD titled “Wallow” and pouring from the speakers of Bleszinski’s blue Dodge Viper convertible. That song would, later on, feature in the trailer for the first Gears of War, injecting the action with a dose of sorrow. We learn, too, that the landscape of that game – all broken cities and brown light, as though a cup of watery coffee had spilled over the camera lens – was inspired by a trip to London. Standing on the steps of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, he is hit by the sense of history pressing against the present: “The idea of so much architecture from the past that could be felt but not seen made an impression on me.”
No wonder that game’s hero, whose father is dead, winds up, toward the end of the campaign, defending his childhood home; Bleszinski took refuge in his work, tunneling into himself and bursting forth with ideas. This is why the earlier passages, on Jazz Jackrabbit and Unreal Tournament, don’t hum with the same power: there just isn’t as much of himself at stake. If you are as devoted to Gears of War as I am, then Control Freak is a worthy read – even if Bleszinski’s writing gives you the occasional urge to deliver a Krav Maga-inspired knee strike to his baby boy weenie. You’re best off racing through it in a day and diving straight into the game afterwards. Only then does what you have read gather the force of feeling that it deserves. Only then is Bleszinski truly at home.
Book: Control Freak: My Epic Adventure Making Video Games
Author: Cliff Bleszinski
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: Out now