When I was about thirteen, and there was still a video game arcade, called Wizards, in Dunedin, where I grew up, next to a cinema in which I saw crowds line up around the block for shows like Labyrinth, Return of the Jedi and Goonies, I sometimes drifted into the coin-op palace, even when I had no money, into its dark, ash-carpeted wilderness of university students, older highschool kids, biker gang layabouts and hipster Asians (more on that later). None of the places mentioned below exist anymore, except the Moray Place cinema, now run by Rialto.
There was a game called Gauntlet (recently remade on PC but lacking the original’s mystique). This game could support four players, could run continually (you could die, go away, and come back, so long as someone was still there and you had coins to feed it). It was the first multiplayer RPG I knew of, and in those days I just thought of it as a story, a world of its own, and I wondered why there weren’t more like it. I liked the characters; it may even have been the first time I had encountered a wizard, elf, warrior, and dwarf as a set. I didn’t know they were already stereotypes, let alone archetypes. At that time I hadn’t read LOTR (this was decades before the Weta movies and probably Narnia was the limit of fantasy books I had read - I grew up with Asterix, Lucky Luke and Tintin (some were even in French); my sister’s older friends, who had Tolkien down pat, and introduced me to D&D, impressed me with the might of their intellects. They could understand D20 and hex, and could authoratively invent monsters and dungeons, and I gradually became aware of the concept of a DM or dungeon master. The Wizards arcade was epic in one sense but dispiriting in another, it was also aimed at adults at that time, years before movie theaters had Ridge Racer and Virtua Cop and a bunch of $2 games a bit more friendly to kids (apart from the price). You could choose to play X-Wing once for about 30 seconds for all your money, or try out games like Defender or Qubit several times. I liked the sound and hyperspace of Defender, and didn't understand Qubit at all. I distinctly remember an Asian guy drinking beer and acting like a rich playboy as he poured a fortune into Dragon’s Lair, trying to impress his gushing girlfriend ... but Dragon’s Lair is a tortuous sequence of hair-trigger failures, so it seemed a forbidding game to take on. What was cool, but also frustrating, was that between sessions it would play in a sort of loop to entice players, and I was happy to watch that. Most of my early experience of games was as an onlooker, which comes with a particular feeling of being left out in the cold. Maybe if I'd sated my curiosity playing the games a lot, I wouldn't have kept thinking about all the ones I could only see from the margins.
Wizards wasn't the only arcade - there was also Plutos only a block away, and it was even more shabby, like a tile-floored laundromat someone had jammed in noisy combat machines to replace the washing machines. Most of the games there were one-on-one karate games like Tekken or Street Fighter. The dad of one guy in my class had a job fixing broken machines, and he wouldn't let us near them (or me specifically I suppose), so I got this impression that games were made by old grungy factory mechanics in back rooms filled with trash and electronics quickly going out of date. I later learned, or at least gained the impression, that the entire lower half of the city, around the old Sew Hoy factory and Southern Cross Hotel, was owned by a single Chinese mobster, of the kind who could quietly prosper in Dunedin’s damp obscurity, buying up old buildings as the city grew away from the exchange towards the university (his son was the Asian kid playing Dragon’s Lair, at least in my mind). All the shops were run down and dreary as much when I was twenty five as when I was five. Had nothing changed? Dotted among the muso bars, pool halls, and fish and chip shops with their invariably out of order pinball machines and a standing box installed with Galaga, Ghosts n Goblins, or Space Invaders (all of which I admired but dreaded because I couldn’t last long on one coin -- I didn't know that the machines were designed to push out players with only one coin and to tempt in punters who had more; they always had an 'insert more coins to continue' message that lingered on screen. An important life lesson right there.
Alongside those outlets of grease and emotional trauma, there were numerous secondhand book shops such as Galaxy Books, all apparently run by the same black-bearded Captain Haddock shop owner, where the space was minimal and the shelves packed with multiple layers of books, most inappropriate for a kid as young as I was. I became aware that adults came in certain ranks of sleaze, from sailors in the port to bikers to boil infested bus drivers and broken arcade-game mechanics. In disregarded corners of the shelves, you could pick through all kinds of weird stuff like L Ron Hubbard books, Hari Krishna manuals, nude photography collections with kids from Norway about their daily lives I figured, and Spy magazines, and yellowed newsprint editions of 2000AD. You could flip through the shelves for hours without raising a comment from the shopkeeper; even if you didn’t buy anything he’d just remember you till the day you finally did. I bought a Dragonlance calendar, a Great Space Battles art book, Sourcery and an Iron Crown LOTR game manual (which had a coloured poster map of all of Middle Earth). So I developed my core tastes, while my eyes drifted around the erotica and drug culture on shelves where I could look but not handle. Not many kids kick about in the perverse underside of their town by themselves, but that is pretty much what I did until I came across the PC game Ultima V whereupon my days were invested at home, on my dad’s ex-office 386 which had 3.5" diskettes that replaced our old Sanyo computer's 5.4" floppy disks. These games were free, shareable, didn’t require a console, and you could lose yourself in them for days, or years in my case.
When I was 21, studying Dante’s Inferno and Paradise Lost and The Master and Margherita, I told my girlfriend, who was quite religious but otherwise perfect, that I wanted to design a game where demons were the main characters and ... well, she didn’t want to hear the rest and things went downhill. I remember feeling affronted that what was fine at University was not fine for me, or at least for her. At about that time I came across the art of H. R. Giger, at which point I decided I wanted to try out art school. Now Giger’s art impressed me because of its personal context to his life (he was painting his dreams, his childhood terrors, his girlfriend, and other mentally disturbing facets of life). But the thing that clicked the most was that he got taken up to do art for a film, which to me seemed better than Dali (all my art school friends were into surrealism; I was into science fiction). I started out doing painting but ended up gravitating to the computer animation department, where the legendary David Watts (who reminded me to remember him, which I do) gave me a copy of 3dsMax to study at home. At that time, Weta was starting to film Lord of the Rings, and even hired some of the seniors. My teacher was offered the part of an orc, but didn’t want to wear a costume all day and declined the offer. I was spinning out with excitement to get involved, but I was just starting my fine art degree. I had some drawings so I took a folio up to Wellington to see if I could get a look in on doing storyboards. All I knew was that Christian Rivers was the guy to ask for, about storyboards. At the first studio gate they said I’d come to the wrong office and had to walk along Miramar to the other one; optimistically heading off I caught site of Peter Jackson in shorts and sandals barreling to his car on the way out of the car park. I often wonder what might have happened if I’d asked for a ride, since it seemed he was going that way. Instead I walked alone in a gale they smashed my folio and nearly tore my arm off, as the weather turned bad and my mood with it. At the other studio gate, the Samoan heavy on watch said ‘Just send it in the post.’ And that was that.
This failed quest, at the end of a childhood set in the surprisingly comfortable seediness of Dunedin, the isolated experience of growing up, a blemished youth, present at the margins of other people’s existence in a town committed to history and weather, filled me with existential remorse. I used the last of my student loan to go to London, with literally no money to live or return, and endeavoured to find work doing 3D for games, found London to be no place to be broke, and eventually, and luckily, wound up in Russia, teaching English, where I got by just well enough to keep the dwindled flame of a creative life burning. Ironically, my Polish pen-friend’s husband said, while I visited them in Gliwice, if I went to Russia I would die (when pressed he said ‘creatively’). But as it happened it was in Moscow that I first worked on a published game and on an animation film, during the most vulnerable, terrifying and awesome period of my life (yeah, nostalgia). Anyway, I was inexperienced and awful, and so were the productions, but the people were very nice and it did allow the mossy stone of my career to begin rolling, but all the really creative work I did was always on the side of what I was actually paid to do (I spent almost a decade lecturing before I found a job I was actually proud of, because for all teaching is fun and valuable, my feelings were pretty much summed up the saying: ‘Those who can do, those who cannot teach.’ Which is a terrible idea to mull on, but I’ve weathered many follies.
Over the time I was transfixed in the arcade by Gauntlet, and later Ultima on PC, and Giger’s Necronomicon and Akira comics and Lord of the Rings films, I realised that my actual life, that went on physically while my imagination magically bounced in its fragile bubble from one fantasy to another, was very atypical, volatile and possibly charmed, an ungoverned string of awkward binds and moral compromises and near death experiences that, at the end of youth, plonked me very much where I’d started, but older...
Now, granted, The Wizard’s Harvest Table does not overtly reference games, and certainly is not biographical, but it does contain a full-circle journey in which completion is not a victory, and it does contain an amalgam of genre influences packed together like marbles in a bag. The story fundamentally sits upon the failed love of a demon for a princess. The action ripples with accident, failure, loss of friends, lonely wandering, and eventual peace, though the underworld, once visited, is not a place one returns from unbruised, instead bewildered and haunted.
There are details in the book that might strike a chord with heavy games players; Neneste has many lives (and not only Neneste); the Onquerol is a remote presence, Rastarian is a sort of disembodied tutorial guide; The Night Offensive has a faceted crew with roles like a multiplayer experience; Astrid’s pearls are a sort of high level rare item (and a human-machine interface); Cloud and Bidehoo are rather like pets; Modest’s arm develops a chain of abilities that progressively elevate his status; the Harvest Table's runes are like words of power; characters possess each other; portals let them traverse scenes like fast travel waypoints, though they also lead them astray; wise characters guide the inexperienced; the party rests in towns; Simnem the Drune Sword is a legendary rare item; each demon is a boss, especially Kashprav, surrounded by waves of minions; Neneste goes on a side-quest to kill zombies; interesting findings are logged in a journal; Modest experiences dreams like cinematic cutscenes that fill in backstory and direct reader interest. There is even a developer blog.