I find myself at another conferencelet. Tis the season for them: LA is full of these things. AnimeCon is coming soon, then ComicCon, and BlizzCon, and SOECon, all within 4 hours of my house. I'm going to miss LA, a lot. Anyway, so here I am at Hollywood & Games; Jamil from GDC just introduced Cliver Barker, who has the the most ruined voice I've ever heard. It really suits him.
So here's more or less what he said. He uses pretty colourful analogies and language in places, made the audience chuckle a lot. What was really clear was that this was straight from his heart as an author, an imaginist: as Jamil says, people are beginning to think of an idea first, and a medium second. Barker is perfectly content at the eye of this storm: have a look.
Jamil: last year we substituted the word convergence for collaboration. Today & tomorrow we’ll be taking a closer look under the hood and seeing relationships forming. Greater attention being paid to letting a story idea form on its own and seeing where the right manifestations of the story lead.
As games, TV and film and the internet grow financially and creatively, more creators are looking to play a greater role in how their properties translate to other mediums. The emerging word for this is transmedia, you’ll hear that a lot through this conference. With that in mind I’m honored to introduce our first keynote; he was transmedia before we were: novels to movies, fantasy and children’s stories, and a spellbinding collection of oil paintings with art books to accompany them. He’s also been experimenting with games, and Clive Barker’s Jericho is scheduled for release this fall.
Can games move from crafts to art? Roger Ebert said, “I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”
Clive Barker: What Roger Ebert said was bullshit. This is a medium that is barely two decades old, and here he is saying, “I can’t find Tchaikovsky here. There’s no War & Peace.” That’s because it’s just beginning! If people in the critical circles are going to enter into the dialogue on how this is going to work (and do we even give a shit whether it’s art? That’s a legitimate question) then they have to come with open hearts.
It’s evident that Roger Ebert obviously had a very prejudiced vision of what the medium is, or more importantly, what it can be. That’s what annoys me, it seems too high-handed. There are a lot of very very smart people here in this room who are working to make these experiences extraordinary. We can debate what art is, we can debate it forever. But if the experience moves you in some way or other, even if it merely moves your bowels [laughter] then I think it’s worthy of some serious study.
You know, Umberto Eco was a semiologist, he studies the nuances of culture. He was once asked why he took so much time studying comic books. He was a learned man, why would he be bothered with comics? This was his reply: he said that anthropologists now believe that the defecation postures – no wait, follow me on this - of tribes across Africa, […], and you get tribes 50 yards from each other that will shit a completely different way. These are manifestations of a culture of a tribe. You with me?
No, really he said this. So why the hell, if shitting isn’t a legitimate study, should comic books not also be a legit study? We are looking at things that people obsess over. Now we’re apparently in a world where you can get 12-step programmes to be taken off gaming: these stories, these images, mean something to people.
We can’t be highhanded and condescending – well, Roger can – and the point is this means something to people. It’s a very important area right now, not just because it’s making a lot of money, but because it’s making money it signifies it means a lot to people.
I think that horror is the last genre to come out of the rain. It used to frustrate me, now I think it leaves you free to get on and do your work. It used to worry me that when they reviewed my books, the point is, people liked my books, this isn’t about reviewers - like games are about players.
Origins of Jericho?
Sure. It was going to be a novel. And this is an interesting thing: I have all these ideas buzzing around in my head; there are a lot of ideas, a lot of riches, and I have to decide where it all belongs. Is this a book? A comic book? A novel? And
Jericho seemed to scream out, GAME. That excited me.
I came into Undying when the material was well developed, I didn’t get a chance to really make it mine as much as I liked. But I think with
Jericho there really is some Barker there, for what that’s worth, and I liked the chance of being able to sit with people and create the thing collaboratively. My first art experience is theatre. That’s collaboration.
I love to sit with people and throw drawings and ideas back and forth. I love to try and push the limits of our imagination, and why... why... that’s the thrill for me. The gaming world is just beginning. We are at the beginning! The very thing that...Ebert... we should just get on and play, and not be oppressed by you know, notions of worthy intention.
You mentioned that when you realized games would be the perfect platform, why?
Well ok so the concept of
Jericho is that there is this evil fuck that lives in the Empty Quarter, it’s a real place, in the Sahara, called the Empty Quarter. It is what its name suggests, and empty, huge, area of sand and wind and heat, and I wanted to put in the centre of that a world that in a way resembled one of those Russian dolls… so that when you come to this place where the EF, the evil fuck, is lingering, and has been for many thousands of years unable to move because the forces that hold him.. that when you come to that place you find that just like the Russian doll, the armies that have held him over the years are still in place, if very transformed and .. and the brutalized forms as you saw in the video.
So you know we see the Sumerians, the Crusaders, the Romans... we see WWII fighters and as we pass through each level we do what the reverse of what most people would do in a horror: we move closer and closer to the villain. I liked this! I like this idea of an assassination attempt on a creature that gives the devil [hives], and on the outside you’ll find the WWII vets, and they’re crazed and touched by the creature’s madness. Further in are the Crusaders... then the Romans… then the Sumerians... and you’re getting closer to him.
I love the idea that you can keep changing the background and the means of warfare; shields, spears... that would make a fucking terrible novel, by the way. It really would. It doesn’t work! It’s screams out to be something other. If games hadn’t existed, I’d have made it a book, but I much prefer the idea of having 20 hours to play this world, to enter this labyrinth, than the two hours or.. four hours of a movie, given how they’re going these days. My bum gets sore! I mean I like pirates and all but oh jeez.
You said it was very important for you to be very hands on.
Yeh. It never works perfectly, but... I said I would be part of the design, drawing... this worked very well. Creating characters, creating environments, obviously: this is an area of work where I think artists of every kind have huge potential. It’s a wonderful playground. We’ve only just begun to think... we have only just begun! Maybe there will be a gaming War and Peace somewhere out there.
But the point right now is to get people excited, and I like being part of the exchange, I like working with people who are pushing their imaginations. The rule was, let’s try to not make it like anything else. I don’t know if we succeeded but that was the rule.
You said it was like hitting a moving target because of tech advances…
I’m a technophobe! I plug in rat traps and they explode. There’s nothing that I... my relationship with technology that is comfortable. I hand write my novels. And yet. When I look at the [videogames] images and their clarity, and their precision, I mean... I think any artist would be a fool not to be wanting to be involved in that. I am a lucky son of a gun frankly, to be able to get to use some of my imagination and share it with people who are really really wanting to press forward into new territory.
Did that tech affect how you approach the creation, what was doable?
Yeh. The movie-gaming thing... there are moments in movies where the producer says, we can’t do that, we don’t have the money. It’s rotten, but there it is. And it happened on
Jericho too, there were things we couldn’t do. I was in NYC doing PR, and when I got back I got a wonderful note saying, we can’t afford to do this particular thing, but it’s a great idea and we’re going to do it in the next game. I thought that was a really smart way of looking at this: we’re inventing as we go along. There are no rules, or if there are, fuck ‘em.
William Blake, poet, has a rule I live by: make your own laws or be a slave to another man’s. I think that’s very smart and very applicable: we have to make games our way, you have to go at games as though there are no rules. I pick up the gaming magazines and my head reels. The colour, and everything, shouting. Screaming at you. And yes there’s a lot of passion behind that stuff. Let’s use that passion to go into territory that hasn’t even been dreamed about in novels and movies... something unique to the medium.
So as a technophobe, how do games fit so organically into your world?
I imagine. That’s my job. Someone said, what will they put on your gravestone. I said, ‘he imagined’. That’s what I do. Imagining for a book is a very different thing from imagining for a game. The possibilities in a game- we don’t know what they are yet. You guys are in the biz of inventing them. To me that’s bloody exciting. That gets me jazzed.
When you say how does it fit, it fits because there are some ideas like
Jericho which I love and an idea that really has no place. I don’t know what I would have done with it 30 years ago. I would have thought it a preposterous notion, and left it unexplored. Now I can go to my guys and say hey, here are some ideas, and they know where to take them: the games, the movies, the books, the illustrations: they’re all part of one huge roiling mirestorm that is happening between my ears. Even now…
Gaming is unique in that it affords players to determine the course of the story...
You just raised THE question. I think that Roger Ebert’s problem is that he thinks that you can’t have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written Romeo and Juliet as a game, because it couldn’t have had a happy ending. I think that Ebert’s problem is, if something is so malleable, is so full of possibilities, that are not under the artist’s control, then it can’t be art.
Now that’s where he’s wrong. Because the artists have put all their options in. Shakespeare might very well have written Romeo and Juliet and there could have been... Mercutio is gay and falls in love with Romeo, civil wedding in
Venice, you know, why not? Anything’s possible? I’m not joking. I’m saying that actually we should be looking at really stretching the imaginations of our players, of course, but also of ourselves.
Let’s try and make everything possible. Let’s make a world, let’s invent a world, where the player gets to go through every emotion, every churning emotion, every feeling: that IS art. Offering that to people IS art. I am excited about the fact that in the next few years we’re going to see a lot of people playing together, and it’s going to become HUGE. It’s going to... you’re going to go to your computer or your outlet, whatever it is, an area of mist hanging in your room, much more protean, and it comes to life, and you’re walking the streets of your invented world. Everyone on the street is someone else in that world.
That’s great – it’s the collective unconscious! I think it is a mental revolution. I think it changes completely the way we will think about our imaginations.
Let’s take our imaginations away from the people who want the lower common denominator, and give it to ordinary people whose imaginations were shot down in flames at the age of 5 or 6 by their art teacher who said they couldn’t draw a straight line. I get so many people at signings who say, until I saw you painting, I didn’t realize it was so messy and arbitrary and you were just making it up as you go along, and I said, that’s the whole point!
I discovered oil painting aged 45. I discovered I had a big room that my mother could not tell me to clean up. Aged 15, I had attempted oil painting once, I made an incredible mess of the wallpaper, I knew my mother would freak out, so I got paint and reconstructed the whole design on the wallpaper and she never noticed. When she took it off 11 years later, she said, you painted over the wallpaper didn’t you! But now I have a space where it doesn’t matter. Everyone needs a space where you can make a mess. Where you can cut free of the law.
Image-making in Jericho?
What I talked to someone about once, the best way to do it is to get a piece of white paper and pen, and just draw. It doesn’t matter if you draw well or not, forget that, just draw. We live controlled by these little laws in our heads that were put there by our teachers, our parents. No you can’t do that. And one of the things I’m trying to establish in my relationships is YES WE CAN. Yes we can make images and we can throw things back and forth and it doesn’t need to be Da Vinci, it just needs to communicate.
Visiting alternate realities: it’s in all your work. Did you have prescience about this?
People need to pull the plug on the real world once in a while, more now than ever. I mentor a few people and I mentored a soldier in
Iraq. He’s now back safe and sound, and finished, and he’s 21, and he’d get on the line and we’d have 14 mins to talk, and he would want to talk about the wildest stuff in his imagination and mine. He needed to pull the plug on everything that was going on around him because it was extreme.
Now most of us don’t live in those kinds of extreme, but we underestimate how aggressive the world has become, how much about control it’s become. To be able to come home to this royal ink ball of mist which is my mental image of what the gaming experience will be in years to come, walking into it and smell it and feel it, that’s going to be amazing. The wind on your face. To be able o do that is also to be able to find sanity again.
We need to dream with our eyes open in order to stay sane. We get beaten up by the world, we see it all over, and I think with gaming, and I’m not an evangelist here, I’m simply saying that gaming is a great way to do what we need, which is to take ourselves away from the oppressive, sometimes depressive, facts of our lives, and go somewhere where we have our own controls, where everyone [..] and I think gaming has a lot to offer.
The movie is always going to be the same. You go in, the movie seen by the people just coming out of the theatre is the movie you’re about to see. It’s not true with games, games can be your own thing. Your own experience, your own world. Your own rules -there it is again, make your own laws - it’s an extraordinary revolution in the shape of the imagination.
What makes consequence so much more personal?
I love consequence. Don’t kill without consequence. We have a lot of moral issues to address in the years to come about what we are saying, about taking responsibility for the stories we’re telling.
20 hour playtime, to build story. How is that liberating?
I like writing big novels, I really do, there’s a payoff in a big novel. You get to page 900 and you really feel like you’ve experienced something. A game gives you something of the same: a journey. An experience. You know when you wake up from a dream that was really intense and you want it back... well, at its best, games can be dreams that do come back. We have some measure of control there, and I think that’s magical.
You mentioned writing epic novels, they take a year or more?
2 years. But it’s all me. I actually hate not to be able to share the creative experience whether it be in theatre or movies or gaming. I love writing, painting, I also love people, creative people. Yeh sure you get argumentative sometimes, but the truth is that I feel richer for working with people who are sharing their own inner feelings. It’s a very nice, life-enhancing process.
You do so many different things. Is that one of the reasons you do it?
You balance off the personal stuff with the very private stuff. I never show a novel of any kind until it’s finished. So it could take 2 years before I show the thing. That can make you crazy. You get half way through and you think, this is shit! I’ve thrown entire novels out. Out the window. After a year’s work, gone. Start again. Yeah. but I like hugely working with other people, and it’s not the only thing in my world, but it is a nice balance.
How do you go about finding the time to do all this stuff?
Well .. you just do. I get up in the morning, I write in the morning. I paint in the late afternoon, maybe I’ll go back to writing in the late evening. Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night and write. You know, your basic obsessive behaviour. It’s very regimented. Seven days a week, 9am, at the desk. This morning, I was at the desk at 8am because I was coming here. I’m a type-A personality, I need to control my world because there’s so much going on in my head and if I don’t let it out, it makes me crazy!
You have a novel coming out too this year?
Yes, Mister B. Gone. It’s a possessed book. Possessed by a devil. It speaks directly to you. It threatens you. It tells you that it will get you to beat yourself senseless with the book if it wants to. It’s a very aggressive book. I don’t know why a gentle person such as myself would conceive of such a thing. [Laughter]
It sent my editor to church. She had to go say a rosary.
Now you’re at work on the next book...
Yeh. I have to edit Mr. B. Gone, then I do [illustrations book 3], but I’ve done all the paintings for that. Then I’m doing a movie which comes early next year and is going to be killer. We spilled 500 gallons of blood in one shot.
Is that a record?
It is! We spilled a lot of blood. If you wanted blood in LA that day, you’d have had to take a razor to your arm because there wasn’t any to be got.
What would you say thematically connects all your work?
Getting out from under the platitudes and the banalities of our world and moving into some more mysterious, dangerous, holy, visionary place. I have wanted since I was a kid to be anywhere but where I was. Post-war
Liverpool..Euh. I sat there and I wrote things and dreamed things and drew things, and I became the thing I did. I’m still driven, and I do mean driven, to make this work. I cannot stop, even when it’s not good for my health sometimes.
What’s the force that’s driving you?
[Thinks] I don’t know. I do know that I am happiest when an idea is born. When an idea just appears. And... The trick is to get out of your own way. To just not worry too much about what it all means. The significance of it – forget it, just do it. Don’t analyse, just do it. And .. the greatest joy that I had from drawing in the back of my schoolbooks when I was a kid, sitting amongst rubble, that joy hasn’t gone away. I was twitchily eager to be sitting back in front of the words or in front of the canvas as I ever was.
Are there any ideas perking for another videogame?
Yeh we’re in training. We’re in a 3 game deal, looking at right now. I believe in games, I believe in what they can be. And if I sometimes seem to stumble in attempting to articulate it, it’s because I haven’t yet found the right vocabulary, but what I do know is the fat man with jowls is wrong, and we have something in front of us, we have a huge imaginative adventure in front of us, and I’m just glad to be alive and to be part of it.
What scares you?
You know I was shit scared doing this. I was! I absolutely was. That’s why I asked to do this as a conversation because we know each other. I couldn’t have stood up and addressed this room of nice people without coming out in a cold sweat. But a conversation is wonderful. Articulating things is difficult, and I’m still trying to find the words to express the passion I feel for this... but I’ll get there.