The Rumpus Interview with Mike Rosenthal

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While working on an interview with the Great Gatsby video game folks, this wonderfully clever Waiting for Godot game went viral on the web. Rumpus managing editor Isaac Fitzgerald suggested I track down the people behind it for an interview, and I agreed even though I had no idea who Vector Belly was or where he/she/it was located.

The next day, I went to the Advanced Fiction Workshop I teach at the University of Pittsburgh, and after class, a student came up to me asking for legal advice. He had just received a cease and desist letter from the Samuel Beckett estate. In what is easily one of the strangest coincidences I’ve ever been apart of, Vector Belly, aka Mike Rosenthal, turned out to be a student I’d had in class for the past three months.

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Rumpus: Mike, why did you decide to make your Waiting for Godot project look like an old Atari 2600 game? Wasn’t that a bit before your time? Do you have any legitimate nostalgia for that era of gaming?

Mike Rosenthal: Atari was before my time, but I grew up with the NES.  My older brother Jeff (who programmed Waiting for Godot for me) played the NES religiously when I was a kid, and I would just stare at the screen with fascination.  There were only so many two player games, and my brother kicked my butt in all of them, so I usually just watched him play.  But we made single player cooperative.  NES games had low-quality graphics and nonsense gameplay, so it’s really up to the player to figure out what you’re doing.  My friend played Final Fantasy XIII, and we would jokingly call it a movie because most of the gameplay is just a cut scene explaining everything that’s going on.  But with games like Bubble Bobble, you have no clue what the hell is going on.  So my brother and I would improvise, make up our own plots and characters and settings.  We had to figure out that green means grass, blue means water, that guy on the screen is holding a sword and that squishy enemy over there has a body made of jelly.  Beckett’s play has a similar effect on the audience.  The characters on the stage don’t explicitly state what’s going on, so it’s up to us to decide.  I think you get a much better reaction out of the audience when you make them a part of it, and my game kind of exaggerates that idea.  When someone plays Waiting for Godot, the game is so simple and minimal and stupid that it’s practically non-existent.  It’s all the player.

Another reason I went with the Atari aesthetic was because it was easy.  Drawing people is hard.  But with pixel art, I draw a few black squares and the player will see a hat.  But it isn’t a hat.  It’s a few black squares.

Rumpus: Why Waiting for Godot anyway? Why do you hate Samuel Beckett so much?

Rosenthal: My friend Greg introduced me to indie games a few years ago.  These were games usually made by just one person, someone with a good idea and a lot of free time.  And when developers don’t have the pressure of broad commercial appeal, they tend to experiment, and that reminded me of the absurdist movement.  There’s some awesome stuff being made under the radar.  I consider Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa on par with Beckett’s genius.  It was clearly made by people who loved games, knew a lot about the history and the culture, but they made a game they wanted to play, not one that all audiences would get.  I’m sure plenty of people stopped playing Barkley when they had to sit through a lengthy diatribe about RPGs every time they wanted to save.  I’m sure some people didn’t understand why they never had enough Science Points to hack the vending machines.  And the game doesn’t care if you don’t get it.  That’s your burden to live with.  And I love that attitude.  It reminded me so much of Beckett.  In my opinion, that’s the same mindset Beckett had when writing Waiting for Godot.  Who cares if the audience doesn’t get it?  That’s their fault for being dumb.

Ultimately, I wanted to make something selfish, something I thought would be funny without ever considering the audience’s opinion.  Taking all the fun out of a game is funny.  Basing a game on a play where nothing happens is funny.  And people played it!  One guy told me he made it to the surprise at level 99.  That still amazes me.  What a great guy.  I mean, I can barely make it to level 99.  The game is pretty difficult in a way, but rather than testing your reflexes, it tests your patience.

Rumpus: Can you tell us a little bit about the reaction from Beckett’s estate?

Rosenthal: To quote one of the several cease and desist letters I received from the French lawyers representing the Beckett estate, “Unfortunately we do not share your sense of humor.”  They asked me to change the name “Waiting for Godot,” because they held the rights to it.  Under American law, my game is considered parody and is protected under fair use, but I complied since I’m just a college kid who can’t really afford a lawyer.  So I changed the name to “Samuel Becketttt’s Lawyers Present: Waiting for Grodoudou.”  I even explicitly stated on my website that my game is now referring to the Australian Samuel Becketttt, not to be confused with the Irish Samuel Beckett.  They didn’t appreciate that.  So now it’s just called “Game.”  Personally, I find it ironic that a publishing house established to surreptitiously print works censored by occupying Germans wants so strongly to censor my game.  But I think they would just get mad at me again if I brought this up.  We’re on good terms now, and I wouldn’t want to damage our friendship.  Needless to say, I’m expected Christmas cards.

Rumpus: You use hybrid forms a lot in your prose fiction. For example, one of the stories you put up for workshop was produced as a PDF with intentional smudges and black-outs to represent various set pieces happening on the page. Do you see your work in the digital realm as analogous to your prose output? Could you ever see yourself combining the two?

Rosenthal: I consider all my output similar in that it’s all a shameless combination of other people’s work.  What’s that line, good artists borrow, great artists steal?  My Waiting for Godot game has clear influences, and the story you brought up has influences as well.  I thought of it from listening to too much My Bloody Valentine.  Kevin Shields was all about obscuring the music, filtering and distorting the guitar so it sounded like several guitars and then burying his vocals inside that static-y mess.  I liked how I couldn’t always pick out the individual parts.  I just had to look at the songs as a whole, which doesn’t seem popular in literature.  When we analyze fiction, we do so by picking out the individual parts and see how they create a whole.  I wanted to try obscuring the parts, in a way.

Combining digital media and fiction is definitely something I’d like to pursue.  I could see myself writing plots for videogames.  My brother Jeff and I are currently discussing a game idea about Benjamin Franklin and George Washington in an arcade-style fighter tentatively titled Death and Taxes.  I would like to recreate that famous painting where Washington crosses the Delaware as a level and have a boss battle with Poseidon.  I don’t know much about mythology, but I like to think Poseidon would stay loyal to the British crown.

Rumpus: Extra Credit: How much strength/power would you say you’ve absorbed from being in my class, aka Thunderdome 10,000?

Rosenthal: I’d do a Knowledge of Literature check, but I left my d20 in my other pants.


Salvatore Pane is a writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Quick Fiction, Weave, We Are Champion, Corium Magazine and others. His debut graphic novel, The Black List, will see publication later this year from Arcana Comics. He blogs at www.salvatore-pane.com. More from this author →