The Great Gatsby Goes Digital
Screen shot of The Great Gatsby game, created by Charlie Hoey and Pete Smith. Image courtesy of the creators
My video gaming abilities have always been sub-par. However when The Great Gatsby Game went viral back in February I couldn?t help but fall in love with its non-traditional yet lovingly composed approach to Fitzgerald?s great American novel. Co-creators Charlie Hoey of the Barbarian Group and Pete Smith of Nerve.com took some time to indulge this nerd?s adoration and answer a few questions about the classic novel and the online game it inspired.
NEA: What was your first experience with The Great Gatsby? How did you experience it? Was it instant love or a slow growing of affection?
CHARLIE HOEY: I read it when I was a sophomore in high school, and loved it immediately. After begrudgingly half-reading some other required material, Gatsby's so fun and funny. I loved it right away, and I've probably gone back and read it two or three times, not to mention endless leafing through it to find good material for the game. It gets better every time.
PETER SMITH: I read it at the end of high school and loved it right away. But I've been a huge book nerd forever. Often through the process of making the game, I'd pick it up to check some little detail and then end up reading pages upon pages because the prose is so beautiful.
NEA: The Big Read is about inspiring people across the country to pick up a book. Do you think those who play The Great Gatsby Game need to have read the book in order to enjoy it? Or do you think people could be inspired by the game to pick up the book?
SMITH: When we were making the game, we really thought no one would like it if they didn't really love both the book and the games we were referencing---we thought it was going to be a pretty small audience. But it turned out that a lot of people on either side liked it anyway. My parents always wanted me to read books instead of playing games. But then my dad got hooked on the game and played it every night for a month. I was really touched when he finally beat it. And on the flip side, you have people...who never read the book but got a kick out of the game. The game really comes from a place of love for both of its sources, so there are a lot of little jokes for fans of either to enjoy. And if people pick up the book, I'm thrilled.
HOEY: The game definitely is funniest if Gatsby's pretty fresh in your mind; there are a lot of jokes that are only relevant to the reader. Our process for vetting jokes was to never sacrifice gameplay for a literary reference, to never make a joke too much at the expense of either The Great Gatsby or old video games. It was important above all else for it to really feel like something from this era, with all the technical limitations and gameplay conventions and terrible translations. At the same time, we love the book and wanted to carry some of our favorite passages and scenes across the vast divide between these mediums more or less intact.
More than a few people have told me they're going back to read the book after playing the game, which is really a great compliment. I've also gotten emails from a few English teachers that used it in class or in homework assignments, making kids compare and contrast references to the novel. Always makes my day.
NEA: Hollywood has been turning to books for movie ideas for ages. Inspired by your success, do you think the gaming world may eventually do the same?
SMITH: Well, there have been book adaptations before ours. There was a Nintendo version of Tom Sawyer, and recently there was a big-budget adaptation of Dante's Inferno, although I don't think it was too faithful. Video games are a huge industry at this point, so when they adapt other stories, they'll probably turn to source material that's more profitable than books. But that's fine by me---the main joke of our game was exactly how inappropriate the two media are for each other.
HOEY: It seems like games are mostly turning to movies for their ideas. There are a few Tom Clancy-inspired first-person shooters around, but those really owe more to the movie adaptation I think than the novels. I'd guess that games and movies will continue to pass ideas and stories back and forth much more than novels and video games. Part of it is that video games and movies have more in common in that they're both audio-visual; they both happen on screens. Books are more like a conversation with someone you've never met, and they're generally written by just one person, so they're much more personal and introverted. There's a lot of content that isn't action, that's just an inner monologue or a description of a place or a time or a feeling. It's hard to take stories like that and ?gamify" them, and ultimately you've got to ask yourself why you'd be doing it in the first place. History is littered with halfhearted adaptations of movies into video games. It's tough to do right, you've got to really love both halves of the equation to make them balance out just so.
NEA: Turning such a beautifully written novel into a game must have been difficult. What where the hardest parts of The Great Gatsby to give up and how important was it to you to keep the spirit and voice of the novel alive in the game?
HOEY: I'm not sure how much of the spirit we thought we'd keep; something so ambitious never actually entered into the project in the early stages. First and foremost, the goal was to make our friends laugh. Fitzgerald's descriptions are just beyond reproach, really beautiful and succinct. We knew we'd never dither those down to just a few dozen pixels across and retain their impact.
SMITH: Despite the framework of the game---that it was essentially a joke about how little sense The Great Gatsby would make as a video game---it was enormously important to us to keep the spirit of the novel. We really love that novel. Even though the game is fundamentally absurd, we very much wanted the tone of the novel to come through. A lot of it is in the intangibles---the exuberant, manic feel of the first level, Gatsby's Party, vs. the melancholic, nocturnal feel of the last level, the beach near Gatsby's mansion, for example. That shift in mood really reflects the trajectory of the book, which goes from this wild Roaring '20s action to a famously elegiac ending.
HOEY: It wasn't a conscious goal at the time, but some people have commented that the nostalgic trappings of the book play well [against] our generation's nostalgic feelings about 80s video games, and that that's one of the reasons they don't feel so at odds with each other. A lot of Gatsby is about youth, and about the emotional peaks you hit when you are younger that grow more difficult to reach as time goes on. Video games in the 80s were special because the way they told stories grew out of the limitations of a technology that wasn't limited for very long at all. Books had centuries to find their footing, but video games have been jumping from one technology iceberg to the next, always striving for more powerful hardware since their genesis (forgive the pun). It's hard to see it from where we are, because it's a moving target and people are more interested in predicting where games might go next. We're getting to a point where we can see where games came from with a bit more clarity, though. The span of human history where we told interactive stories by moving a handful of colored dots around with an electron beam was very short indeed, but it's a language we all understood at the time, and as primitive as it was, it was still a visceral thrill to fight a boss in a Zelda dungeon, no matter how abstract the graphics were. And after you pick up the triforce at the end, you'd lean back from the screen and realize you really were somewhere else for a little while. It makes you feel like a kid again. The same thing happens in great books. Great movies too. It's about providing a framework for a feeling, and the feeling of Gatsby---if not the beauty and nuance of the prose---can shine through in lots of mediums I think.
NEA: And lastly for all our readers out there, what are you guys reading now?
SMITH: I'm reading a book about clinical psychology right now, but the last novel I read was Moby Dick. I finally cracked it this year, and I'm glad I did. It was wonderful---way funnier and livelier and weirder than I expected from its reputation as the 'Great American Novel.'
HOEY: The last novel I (re)read was Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. There are so many great ideas in that book, you get the sense he just gave it everything he had. I love it. Lately I've been looking around for books on economics, since I'm sick of not understanding how money works at all, and nobody on TV seems to want to explain it calmly.