When you think about The Great Gatsby, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Booze? Flappers? Car crashes? How about video games?
Designers Peter Smith and Charlie Hoey put the two together for their online 8-bit adaptation, a video game version of The Great Gatsby that looks like it was made for the Nintendo Entertainment System. We recently sat down with the pair to discuss their love for literature, old school video games, and the reasons behind their offbeat hybrid.
Rumpus: What made you decide to create an 8-bit game based on a novel, and why The Great Gatsby?
Peter Smith: Well, we both love 8-bit games and we both love novels, so when Charlie initially had the idea, I think it resonated just as a funny thought. As we worked on it I think we started thinking about it in more complex ways, but the initial thought was just that it would be funny. Plus, we’d talked about doing a bunch of projects together at various points, and this one just touched on a bunch of stuff that we enjoy – classic literature, programming, writing music, retro graphics, etc.
The very early days of the project feel a little vague to me now, but I do have a funny story from maybe the first month we were actually working on it. I didn’t have a working computer so Charlie offered to lend me a laptop so I could get started on the sprites. He lived in Philly at the time but was going to be in Brooklyn for like twenty minutes one afternoon – kind of a story in itself. So I took the F train out there, met him on a street corner, talked to him for about thirty seconds, and then took the laptop and headed home. It was nice out, so I decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and while I was walking, I saw this light plane flying up over Roosevelt Island towards me, with a giant ad banner for Geico in tow – a picture of two giant staring eyeballs. It was like the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg (which we’d already agreed would be a major boss fight) were coming straight at me. I called Charlie and was like, “You wouldn’t believe what I’m looking at right now.” I thought that was a good sign.
Charlie Hoey: Initially it really was just a gag, but as time went on it started to feel better and I was spending more and more time “play testing” it just because it was fun. So we kept pushing it.
Rumpus: So what exactly does it take to recreate the feel of an old 8-bit game on the internet? How knowledgeable about computer programming are you guys, and would you say you’re more gamers, more readers, or hybrids of both?
Smith: I’ll let Charlie field the programming question. I used to do some programming in high school but contributed not a line of code to this game. But as far as graphics, I think we tried to be a little more faithful to the actual limitations of the NES than a lot of retro-styled projects, though we were by no means totally slavish. It still has way more colors than a NES could run in some places. But that said, we tried to get some of the feel of the graphics. One thing that makes NES games look the way they do is that while backgrounds could have 16 colors – that was divided into four four-color palettes – you couldn’t mix and match all 16. That means that game screens generally feel like they’re divided into big regions of color, like this:
I think we got some of that feel, particularly in the New York scenes. (Sorry, maybe that’s overly technical.)
I’ve read a lot of books and played a lot of games in my life. I don’t really play a lot of modern games, but I don’t really read a lot of modern books either, now that I think about it. My parents are both big readers and they were pretty wary about the pernicious influence of video games, so I think they’ve passed some of that on to me. When I spend a lot of time playing games, I tend to feel a little guilty. That said, we might have just made the only video game that could ever appeal to my parents, which makes me happy.
Hoey: Basically, tons and tons and tons of time. I wasn’t a Flash programmer when I started this project. My buddy Dylan was, and he programmed for a while at the beginning and sort of planted the seed for the platform engine we ended up with.
Rumpus: Why the 8-bit era? Is there something specific about it that made you go with that over something even slightly more modern like the 16-bit days of the Super Nintendo?
Smith: For me the NES had the perfect balance of capabilities – it was complex enough to do really interesting things and make really immersive environments, but not so graphically powerful that the graphics could really become the focus. There are a number of really wonderful SNES games too, and a lot of people say that’s where the perfect balance was for them, but in general I like having more left to the imagination. While I really adored Zelda III as a kid, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to prefer the original Zelda, almost for its austerity, I think.
Hoey: I just loved those games. SNES was great too, but nothing feels as cozy to me as the original NES. That was the one I really grew up with, playing it with my dad when I was probably five years old. It feels familiar.
Rumpus: One of my favorite parts about The Great Gatsby game is the back-story about the prototype cartridge found in a garage sale. It is the type of crazy story you read about sometimes on Nintendo collectors’ websites (case in point, the California Raisins game). What made you include the story on your website?
Smith: Well, when we were little, NES games were like these weird, badly translated artifacts from another planet, often really surreal and mysterious with this oddball internal logic of their own. One of the things that’s been kind of a bummer about modern gaming is that there’s no technological restraint acting as creative restraint anymore – the developer’s ability to get their intent across has become so much less hindered by technology, and it turns out that a lot of times their intent is actually to recreate the tone of a really cheesy special-effects blockbuster. Maybe that’s what they wanted to do all along, but the limited technology made everything so much weirder, so that a game felt more like a strange dream than a bad movie.
Anyway, this is all a long-winded and snooty way to say that I think we both miss the era when we knew less about games, so we thought it was fun to add some supplemental material that evoked that mysterious quality and those really kind of haphazard translations and explanations that almost never explained anything. The idea of the game as a prototype was just because it seemed like fun to give it that kind of mystique. Our real-life credits are right there on the website, so there was a limit to how far we’d take it – it was supposed to be an homage, not a hoax.
Hoey: If money and time were no object, I think I’d have printed the whole manual and made the real cartridges and just hidden them around at flea markets and let the world slowly discover them. But I definitely wanted to put it in the context of a real game as best I could. It’s in flash, and there are inaccuracies, so it wasn’t a conceit I was going to really defend tooth and nail. I wanted to just set the scene and let people take it or leave it.
Rumpus: What’s next for you both? Any plans for making 8-bit versions of other literary classics?
Smith: No more lit adaptations, I think. I could just see it becoming a shtick really quickly.
Hoey: Definitely more games, but probably no more 8-bit literary action-platformers.
Rumpus: Tom Bissell and many writers are calling for games to take the next step forward narratively and begin to approach the type of mature storytelling we expect from movies and someday even books. Do you think this is ever going to happen? Do you think it even should happen?
Smith: Hmm… see, this is going to read like grumpy contrarianism, but I want games to take a step backward narratively. Every medium has its own specific strengths and weaknesses, and I think games won’t mature until people realize that their strengths are very different from the strengths of the movies they’re constantly trying to emulate. What if every album had to be a concept album, with intrusive spoken-word segments cutting in to tell the story? (I mean, I love Rush, but give me Moving Pictures over 2112… god, nerdiness.)
That’s not to say that games can’t tell stories well, but they usually don’t. I love the emotional payoff of Chrono Trigger, but a lot more games frame “mature” storytelling in terms of, you know, “Guide Xorgon the cursed mutant as he makes moral decisions about whether to kill the weak and feast on their delicious innards. For experience points!” When Roger Ebert sends out his annual provocation about how no games tell a story as good as The Brothers Karamazov, I both feel like he has a point and that he’s barking up the wrong tree. To me, great games are closer to art installations than to movies or books. They’re kinetic sculptures about color, space, and mood. The story told by the original Metroid – leaving out the manual, just talking about the game itself – wouldn’t satisfy a ten-year-old, but the game world you get to explore is this beautiful, sprawling Lovecraftian nightmare. The story is just enough to serve that sense of place. I’m seriously contemplating hanging a big print of this on my wall:
Incidentally, feel free to inform your lady readers that yes, I am available.
But to finish the point, I think part of the joke of the Gatsby game is just how inappropriate it is, how nonsensical the book’s story is when reduced to the vocabulary of a NES game. Although I will say that I think some of the melancholia of the book crept into the last stage and the ending, ridiculous as it is. The book is so beautiful it was hard not to be sincere about it in the end. There’s a secret ending if you get through the game without dying that tries to capture some more of that wistful tone. One of the nicest compliments we got was from my friend John, who’s a games journalist – he got to the green light at the end of stage 4 and was like, “You know, against all odds, you actually managed to end this in a tonally appropriate way.” I thought that was really sweet.
Hoey: I think there’s definitely room to grow for video games. Seems the quick way out is through a really rigid, linear narrative and cut scenes and big name voice actors and things like that. It’s just making a movie with some interactive elements at a certain point, and it definitely sells and people love it. For my money, I prefer when better graphics lead to games like Portal that are pretty subtle about their storytelling, and give you those moments when you lean back from the screen after a while and realize you really were somewhere else for a minute. I also really like Fallout 3‘s style, sort of a blend of new and old with some fixed narrative strands but no set sequence or real required path. Just a huge awesome world to run around in. I prefer immersive environments and game mechanics to storytelling, but that’s not to say it couldn’t get better. I don’t think people are really holding their breath for it, though. Games already do a lot of things well, and the best ones aren’t left wanting for a better story.
Rumpus: One of my students is behind the Waiting for Godot game and he got a cease and desist letter from the Estate of Samuel Beckett. Have you heard anything about the legality of the Gatsby game?
Smith: Your extremely long-winded interviewee is finally going to shut up here. Um, back to you, Charlie.
Hoey: We haven’t heard anything so far. We both really do love the book. I hope it shows through clearly as a loving tribute.