Review: Embed with Games, by Cara Ellison

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I've been reading an awful lot about games in 2019, but I haven't been passing much of what I've learned along. I figure it's time to pay some of that forward. Let's start with Cara Ellison's gonzo chronicle of a year spent couch-surfing with independent game developers of all stripes: Embed with Games.

Preamble.

Once upon a time, a young man of many talents was possessed with a singular drive: to become a games journalist. He was naïve, sure, but equipped with the sort of unearned optimism that comes from a life of comfortable shelter from reality, he assumed it'd all work out.

This young man went to college and studied journalism. He did well. (He even made the dean's list, not that anyone's keeping score.) And when the time came to graduate, he felt sure his story was just beginning.

Well, anyway. That was 2008; now, it's 2019. The young man, to this day, hasn't earned a single dollar from his games writing, though that didn't stop him from creating a mountain of work for himself. His dream didn't die; it was just transformed. Full-time, paid games writing, he'd decided, probably wasn't in the cards for him. Firmly in the hobby space, really.

Instead, life took him on a bunch of unexpected journeys: deep into the dramatic maelstrom of Silicon Valley, into more than a few existential crises, and through a makeshift, DIY boot-camp to become a game developer that — whoops — wound up leading him down a much more sustainable career in full-stack web stuff. Which is where he finds you now, writing this excessive lead-in to what was, I think, supposed to be a book review???

Anyway.

I really buried the lede here, but here it is:

Cara Ellison is one of the best writers I've ever read who writes in any capacity about games, and Embed with Games is a gripping, deeply personal narrative of an unpredictable journey.

If you haven't read Ellison's work in the Guardian, Kotaku, or any number of other places around the internet, you're in luck: it's still out there! Lately, she's been working as a senior writer on the sequel to Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines 2, and according to this Twitter bio I'm reading at this moment, she also — how cool is this — worked as a narrative designer on Media Molecule's upcoming thing-maker, Dreams. So! Lots of great stuff. Lots of media in which you can discover her work. Including, as this post suggests, in a paperback book.

I've been keeping up with Ellison's work over the years, and I remembered hearing mention of her Embed project, but for whatever reason I never kept up with it. (Honestly, I don't think I even knew what a Patreon was in 2014). But a few weeks ago, and frankly out of nowhere, I remembered that she wrote a book about it, and, well, here we are. I bought it; I read it in about 24 hours flat; I loved it.

Context.

While the stories in this book are a few years old, I found them to be quite timeless. This isn't a book dissecting in detail the precise workflow and specific economic challenges facing an indie game developer in Europe versus East Asia in, say, 2014; it's a book about journey and discovery and meeting people and hoping to connect with them and yearning for just one night with a comfortable mattress all to one's own. It's a travel book. It's a personal narrative. It speaks to, I imagine, a time of significant transition in Ellison's life, and the way she writes about her story is piercing and raw, sharp and shrewd, at times exhausted, always real.

It's important, too, to note that this project was conducted in 2014, which was also the dawn of the Gamergate movement. Ellison touches on this a bit throughout the book, about the dissonance of wanting to help but being committed to a project that led her all over the world. She justifies her decision to herself, thankfully — that there is value in telling these stories, and in helping the world to learn about creative people with good hearts who overcome adversity to share their gifts with the world. I'm glad she stuck with it. Some of these stories already feel like touchstones to me. (I fully hope and plan to adopt Karla Zimonja's "I HAVE A FUCKING AGENDA" as my rallying cry.)

This book also forced me to confront what I chose to do in 2014. Did I leverage my (admittedly tiny) platform as best as I could to advocate against sexism, terror, and the threat of violence? More importantly: would I do anything different if it happened again, now that I'm older? I found myself thinking a lot, as Gamergate danced like a threatening flame around the periphery of Ellison's story, about what it takes to earn the designation of "advocate" or "ally." I think I've fallen short. I can, should, and need to do more now.

I found this book in the midst of the latest of those existential crises I mentioned earlier. (Again, nobody's keeping score here, but there's a solid chance I'm still in the thick of this one.) And for someone who's been daydreaming for years about cutting loose and setting out on a journey to learn more about the world, its people, and my own identity, Embed with Games is sheer wish fulfillment. I doubt anyone on the internet would want to help finance a relative unknown person to go travel the world and tell more of these stories, but — well, I don't know. I think these stories matter. Maybe I'll find a way to pick up this torch and continue this project in spirit.