Saturday, November 3, 2012

Announcing "Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line"

[UPDATE: The book is now out and you can buy a package with both .pdf and .epub formats here for a minimum price of $2.99. Kindle and print versions to hopefully be announced in coming weeks. You can also read the first section of the book for free on Kotaku AU.]

As you might already know, I have been working on a ‘thing’ for the last few months to do with Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line. It is a very long thing, coming in at about 50,000 words. For the longest time I had no idea just what it was that I was creating, and I had no idea just what I was going to do with it. Well, now I'm finally at a confident enough place with it that I think I can replace the word 'thing' when I talk about it to 'book'. Because, really, that is what it is. I have written a book about Spec Ops: The Line
I have talked a little bit about the fact it exists on Twitter, referring to it as my “Big Spec Ops Thing”. Well now I am in a position to formally announce what Big Spec Ops Thing is, when it will be out, and how you will be able to obtain a copy of it. I am excited to finally be able to tell you about this, and I want to go into some detail about just what this is and why I have done it. But if all you want is the straight up details of when and where you can get it, there is a TL;DR version at the bottom of this post. 

So what is it actually called?
First things first: that name. As attached as I have grown to Big Spec Ops Things, I have chosen to title the book Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line. “Killing is Harmless” is an appropriation of one of the loading screen messages later in the game that states, in part, “To kill for entertainment is harmless.” I considered using this whole quote as my title, but it was just a bit clumsy, and there are other meanings in “Killing is Harmless” as a phrase that I think are more applicable to what I am writing. So this name is both an allusion to something from the game and my own interpretations, so I think it is a good name.

What even is it?
I never did find a more succinct (or less wanky) phrase for what this is I have actually written other than “a close, critical reading.” That is exactly what it is. When I finished playing The Line, I was left with a whole heap of questions. These questions the game left me with were largely to do with the nature of virtual acts of violence, but also some further questions to do with Western interventionism and wars conducted via proxies. Killing is Harmless is, in part, an attempt to find some answers to these questions but, primarily, it is an exploration into just how The Line came to make me ask these questions in the first place.
While with most other games I could perhaps sum up their themes and how they conveyed them in a thousand words or so, I found this to be impossible with The Line. I think this is largely to do with the unique way that The Line is structured. Most videogames have narratives that work in a kind of looping fashion, going in complete circles one after the other, and you can talk about any of one of these loops in relative isolation. The Line, meanwhile, is one long, slow, gradual arc, and it is truly difficult to talk about any single bit of it without talking about all of it. 
So to analyse The Line, then, I needed to analyse all of The Line, from the opening menu screen to the end of the final epilogue. I needed to look at every single little bit of the game from start to finish to see how it all goes together in such a way to make me ask the questions I asked. So that is what I have done. 
After an introductory Foreword, the book is split into sections that align with the game’s sections (a prologue, fifteen chapters, and an epilogue). Each section talks through that stage, describing and analysing in equal part. I look at what the characters say, what the environment looks like, what music is playing, what the player does and is made to do, and the relationship between all of these. It is a close reading of the game, an act of interpretation that looks at the game much like you could look at a book or a film, and it tries to understand how it conveys what it conveys to me.
Also, as an appendix, I have compiled a “Critical Compilation” of articles, interviews, blogs, and video essays that other people have created to discuss The Line. All up, I have about forty links to a really vast variety of viewpoints and opinions and takes on the game. I’ve done this so that my particularly long take on the game doesn’t get crowned as some kind of be-all-and-end-all authoritative reading of the game. A lot of people didn’t get out of the game what I got out of it, and I think this is important to acknowledge. This critical compilation is also going to find itself a home on Critical Distance, accessible to all, and regularly updated as more people write more things about the game in the future.
Most importantly, if I want people to read 50,000 words about a game, those words better look pretty damn nice. This has to be a book, not just a really long article. Thus, I am super excited to announce that I have Daniel Purvis helping me design and format my words into a product that is going to be really special. Daniel is the editor of JumpButton Magazine (having recently taken over from Drew Taylor), regularly illustrates Dan Golding’s column in Hyper Magazine, and has produced all kinds of crazy and awesome illustrations for Kill Screen and other places in the past (check out some of his stuff here). In addition to doing all the design stuff for the book that I am utterly incapable of doing, Daniel will also be designing a unique illustration for the book’s cover. So I’m really excited about that, and I am stoked to have someone on board who can make the quality of the finished product really reflect how much time and commitment I put into writing the words. Hopefully it will be something that people want to own as much as they want to read.

That’s insane. Why would you do such a thing?
Ideally, I hope that others who found the game to be so powerfully evocative might be able to get some insight into just how it was so. Further, I hope that those that disliked the game might find some answers as to just why others did find it powerful. Further still, I think good videogame criticism should be able to describe to someone who has not played a certain game just what that game meant to those that did play it. Hopefully Killing is Harmless will be able to communicate to those that are interested in The Line but never wish to play it themselves just why other people found it so engaging.
But more than that, on perhaps a slightly more meta level, I’m hoping to show that a single videogame can be so critically rich as to warrant such a prolonged interrogation. I want to show that one videogame has enough happening in it to warrant 50,000 words of analysis. As videogame criticism comes into its own, related to but distinct from games journalism, I think it is important to explore new avenues and methods of being a videogame critic. Not just new ways to ‘do’ games criticism, but new ways to distribute it to a readership. This project is such an exploration. 
I believe long-form videogame criticism is a valid form of writing and one that an audience exists for. Certainly, too many words about a single game can become long-winded and self-indulgent and repetitive and utterly meaningless. But if it is done correctly, it can also allow for the most magical of insights that a smaller article just can’t grasp. Look at Tim Roger’s must-read 12,000 word analysis of Earthbound, for instance. Some of the insights it makes are absolutely stunning, and could not be made in a shorter article.
I also believe that videogame criticism does not always have to cling on parasitically to games journalism outlets. I believe that games criticism is slowly coming into maturity to a point where it is worth trying to distribute works of criticism independently from journalism. So by writing this long-form piece on a single game and distributing it beyond the normal channels of game journalism magazines/websites, I’m hoping that maybe (maybe) this book can help games criticism find its own feet a little bit. 
So those are the main reasons I am doing this: because The Line deserves it; to validate long-form games criticism; to help mature games criticism as its own form.

Cool story. So when and where can I get it?
We are looking to sell Killing is Harmless through Daniel’s website as part of his new publishing company, Stolen Projects. I don’t have a URL for you yet but watch this space. We will be selling it as a straight up PDF (no DRM or any of that stuff) that will look equally slick on your desktop or your tablet. Going forward, we’ll hopefully look into selling it through other venues like Amazon or Apple, but for now the PDF will be the way to go. In the near future, we are hoping to also release a limited edition print run, but that is all up just dreams at the moment.
As for when you can buy it, the official release date we have set for ourselves is Wednesday 14 November. So that is less that two weeks away! Exciting! And kind of terrifying!

[Update: Due to unforeseen circumstances, the release date has been pushed back a week to Wednesday 21 November. I'm terribly, terribly sorry to have to do this, but it was necessary to ensure the quality of the final product. Ultimately, I had completely underestimated the amount of work that goes into creating a book (turns out it takes quite a lot). So absolutely definitely, the ebook will be released on Wednesday 21 November. Again, my sincerest apologies for the delay.]

How Much Will It Cost?
We’ve decided on the price of $4.99, with an introductory price for the first month of $2.99. Hopefully this will be cheap enough to get people interested in actually paying for it, but not so cheap as to devalue the work. I believe videogame criticism is valuable, and videogame critics deserve to be paid for the work they do. So hopefully this introductory price is a good way to balance out this belief with the internet’s sense of entitlement for getting everything really cheap. Ultimately, I think the quality (never mind the sheer quantity) of the work in addition to Daniel’s fine design work makes this a more than acceptable price. 
From each sale, a percentage will go into hosting the shop on Daniel’s website, a percentage will go to Daniel for his work as designer, and the rest goes to me. In many ways, this is an experiment to see just how viable it is to write long-form criticism about games. If this sells well, it is certainly something I will happily explore doing again in the future.

TL;DR Version
Killing is Harmless is a digital book that performs a close, critical reading of Spec Ops: The Line. You can buy it on Wednesday November 14 Wednesday November 21 for a special introductory price of $2.99. Day One DLC is TBA. Get excited.

So I’m really excited about this, not just because of the amount of time I’ve spent working on it, but because I am cautiously optimistic that this could maybe be a turning point for the kind of writing I do about videogames. Maybe. I guess I’ll find out on November 14.

[Update: Lots of people on Twitter have asked me about the possibility of the book being released on other platforms in the future. I can't confirm anything yet, but we are exploring both Kindle and print as other platforms that we really want to make Killing is Harmless available on. So after we release the PDF, we will be looking at that, but I can't yet say if that will certainly be happening. Hopefully it will.]


Anonymous said...

Unknown said...

Looks and sound good Brendan I'll sign up!

Rob said...

Sounds interesting and worthwhile. I'm looking forwards to buying it

rubthemtogether said...

Wow, doesn't seem that long ago you were thinking about doing this. I look forward to reading it

Daniel Primed said...

Wow, what a coincidence! For the past 2 years I've been working on a long-form piece of games criticism myself, a 450 page book on Wario Land 4. The book triples as a critique of this game, a game design text book and a statement on the current state of games criticism. I should be done by the end of the year and was thinking of getting in contact with Daniel to help me with the cover (I'm from Adelaide and we met up a few years ago before I moved to China). I'm also looking for a publisher as well. Seems like a perfect fit.

The Spec Ops book sounds great. I totally agree that there's a place for long-form games criticism. Games are complicated and many of their most important pieces are very small and seemingly minor. More words gives the author more time to unearth these elements. All the best with the book.

Anonymous said...

No physical copy of the book? I'm sure there would be a publisher willing like for other video game books about the art, history, or meaning of some games like Extra Lives (Tom Bissell).

Anonymous said...

I would love a physical copy . I'm getting the .pdf now but I will still buy the crap out of a physical book if and when it happens

Romero said...

Ihr ansprechender Schreibstil macht komplexe Themen leicht verständlich. Ihre Arbeit wurde mit uns geteilt und wir wissen das zu schätzen. Vielen Dank, dass Sie Ihre Gedanken mit mir geteilt haben. Ich hoffe, in Zukunft mehr von Ihnen zu lesen. Für mich als Gamer ist der cps test eine großartige Ressource. Diese Fähigkeiten haben mir einen Wettbewerbsvorteil verschafft und meine Reflexe in meinen Lieblingsspielen verbessert.