Press Start & Write: A Q&A with Dakoda Barker

While it might not be immediately obvious, writing forms the backbone of most art / entertainment projects and games are no different. I sat down with NITH regular and twitter baron Dakoda Barker to talk all things digital. I started by asking him about games in general, and why he’s decided to make that a writing focus?

Dakoda: Growing up, I was always interested in video games. I read a lot as well, but I used to love playing those old games like Double Dragon and Sonic. When I started to get older and branch out into different genres, I started to appreciate the narratives more. I’m fascinated with what you can do with narrative in video games. I’m fascinated with video games in general, and I don’t think games get enough respect as an aspect of popular culture. I’m hoping to apply some of the critical approaches used in literature to video games so I can show the value of games and the creativity that developers infuse into their work. Gaming is a lot deeper than a lot of people think!

I’m only just starting to get my footing, but so far I’ve written a few previews, reviews, and analytical essays. The essays are by far my favourite type to work with; picking an element or game and analysing it in more detail is a great way to appreciate the sort of depth that goes into creating a game. I’m working on a couple of longer projects at the moment too. I’m really interested in the effects that the growing popularity of video games has had on people who use the term “gamer” as part of their identity, so I want to do a longer, more academic examination of that. We’re also a few months into the latest console generation, so I want to discuss whether it can be called a success and what sets it apart from previous console generations. I’m also working on a textual analysis of sorts for Final Fantasy X.

As the gaming world opens up to different markets, technologies and age groups we’ve seen an huge increases in mobile gaming. How do you see this changing the landscape?

Mobile gaming has certainly been a strong component of the rising popularity of video games. You can get a large range of games for your phone or tablet. Everything from Candy Crush to Deus Ex: The Fall, which means that gamers are not simply those hardcore types that people think of usually. The term “gamer” now includes those people who sit around playing Fruit Ninja on their phone while waiting for the bus, or playing Flappy Bird in between business meetings. I can’t say that mobile gaming is the only contributor though; the Nintendo Wii undoubtedly revolutionised the market and brought the idea of the casual gamer to the fore. Unlike a lot of “serious” or “hardcore” gamers, I’m really glad to see such diversity in games and gamers. I think different tastes can enhance the industry. Elitism bothers me in video games just the same as it bothers me in fiction; no need for snobbery. Everything and anything can be great fun to play or read.

What roles can writers find in and around the gaming industry?

Over the past few years there have been a lot more games really focusing on crafting a great narrative experience to go along with their gameplay. Games like The Last of Us, Spec Ops: The Line, and  Bioshock Infinite have infused really solid writing with their gameplay to create an experience that is more than worthy of being called art. So I think there is bound to be a growing need for strong writers who can help to craft stories for a medium that traditionally relies on stereotypes and clichés a lot.

Writing about video games is also a burgeoning field. In some ways, it’s oversaturated with writers. But, while anyone can talk about their favourite games, I think there’s a lack of people with the critical insight required to judge a game on its narrative merit. Detailed criticism of all forms is lacking in a sense; the primary sources all just want to create easily consumable reviews so that the fans can figure out what to play next. But if gaming wants to be considered a serious industry and mix it with other art forms like film and literature, it needs people there to critique it.

A less lucrative but still very much appreciated facet is writing parodies and Let’s Plays. I’ve read some truly wonderful things over the years, and although they aren’t as serious or don’t carry as much merit, I’m a huge fan of them. Perhaps my favourite is a Let’s Play of Final Fantasy VIII where the author used a special program to edit all the dialogue and writing in the game, effectively rewriting it and creating arguably much more interesting characters and a more nuanced plot. It’s called the Final Fantasy VIII Altimate (a portmanteau of alternate and ultimate) Rewrite, if you’re interested in checking it out. It’s… very long though, so prepare to invest a lot of time.

Someone recently recommended the latest Halo novel as a good sci-fi read. I’m not used to hearing that. What are your thoughts on book tie-ins like the Halo series, Star Wars, etc?  

I’ve leafed through the Assassin’s Creed novelisation a few times when I’ve seen it in bookstores. I haven’t read many of these kinds of books before, so I can’t speak for their “literary merit” or anything of the sort. I know they’re basically endorsed fanfiction, but I definitely have a soft spot for them. When George Lucas announced that the Expanded Universe of Star Wars was no longer canon, I was actually quite disappointed. Even though it’s hard to consolidate so many different contributors (especially in Star Wars’ case where it spans a multitude of mediums) I think that giving fans more than just the one game or one movie to enjoy is worthwhile. I’d argue that there are great educational benefits as well: kids that don’t generally like reading might still pick up a novelisation of Assassin’s Creed, or Halo, or something. Reading is obviously important, and we understand that, but some kids just hate it. Why not entice them with cool tie-ins?

Yeah that distressed me as well. When I was growing up my friends and I were really into the X-Wing: Rogue Squadron Books. It’s disappointing to find out characters you invested in are essentially ‘fake’ (or something). Do you think the market forces that drive big enterprises like the Star Wars Franchise create a disrespectful relationship between the fans and the creators or is this simply the the need for stories to evolve, develop, and be retold.

I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, I’m very interested in the ways that stories can change. Tangled is one of my favourite Disney films and it wouldn’t exist if they were afraid to change Rapunzel. I understand people have a connection with the version of a story they like best, and that’s really positive, but you can’t use that as an excuse to stop reimaginations. On the other hand, I think George Lucas is (understandably but not enjoyably) treating Star Wars like it is purely his story for himself. When you create anything commercially, you need to consider who your audience is and what they want; don’t create something you don’t want, by any means, but find that middle ground. I think, in the pursuit of creating his “perfect” narrative, George Lucas is willing to chop and change whatever he wants. Doesn’t make me love the franchise any less though!

You’re also doing a Masters in Writing, Editing and Publishing. How do you find balancing your writing passions and academic commitments?

It can be tough to juggle at times. On some days my brain has to flit between super formal academic writing, less casual but still professional critiques, and then the less structured creative writing. Each genre has a huge range of conventions that don’t necessarily overlap, so I have to be careful not to throw any flowery language into my essays for class. But it gives me options: some days I’m just really not feeling one specific type of writing, so I just work on another project. I’ve… not felt like writing my uni essays for a bit over a week now, so my creative works have definitely been enjoying the added attention. Focusing on a bunch of different things also helps with idea generation. If I’m writing about a game with a cool idea, I might try and incorporate that into a short story. I’ve already mentioned that I’m doing some academic-styled papers on elements of gaming; those were just inspired by playing and writing about other games. I’ve also written plenty of assignments on elements of creative writing, and written a few short stories about lazy uni students, so they all influence each other. It’s a strange but wonderful balancing act.


You can find Dakoda on twitter @JiroJames:

and on tumblr