Killing is Harmless: an interview with Brendan Keogh

20:21, Nov 26 2012

If you think writing a 1000-word essay is an effort, spare a thought for Australian game writer Brendan Keogh, who has just finished and had published a 50,000-word critique, titled Killing is Harmless: a Critical Reading of Spec Ops The Line. It's on 2K Games' Spec Ops The Line, a war game set in Dubai that actually made you question what you were doing the more you progressed.

Keogh, who writes for Hyper magazine, Edge and Ars Technica, told me that he picked Spec Ops for his critique because "it is a game about something, which in itself is incredibly rare.

"The Line just has this overarching sense of thematic consistency about it. It isn't just a story over here and some gameplay mechanics over there. It's clear that the narrative designers and writers were on board throughout the whole game. It feels directed and focused in a way few AAA games do. With so many people working on one game, most games just feel like a lump of interesting parts. The Line feels like a cohesive whole," said Keogh.

He told me that the structure of The Line interested him. "It has this one, long narrative arc, from start to end, that I find really interesting. It's the kind of game that you can't play a 'bit' of to get the idea of. For example, the opening chapters are intentionally conventional and, dare I say, 'boring' to kind of get the player comfortable before the later chapters make you realise just how comfortable you felt.

"It really relies on the entire game as a whole to understand what is going on. So, as a critic, trying to write what is going on in the game, I felt I couldn't describe what is happening in a typical 1000-word article. I needed something longer. So it was really a perfect storm of a game to experiment with this kind of writing. There was really no other way I could imagine going about it."

Killing is Harmless was the result of four months' work - written between his freelance writing and his PhD work (he's doing a thesis on video game criticism at RMIT University in Melbourne), and Keogh says it was a huge undertaking.

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"I went about it in a very straightforward, kinda new games journalism kind of way. I pretty much just wrote through my own experience, in present-tense first person. This was easier, saying what happened to me, than trying to make some lofty claims about What The Game Does in some objective sense. So I played through the game once, played through again while taking an insane number of notes, and then wrote each chapter as a kind of rambling diatribe that would take breaks to focus on specific moments or objects I think deserve focusing on.

"So it was kind of like embedded journalism, I guess, but in a video game. I spent three months of spare time writing it between my usual freelancing and research. Then Daniel Purvis at Stolen Projects spent a month working on the formatting and cover illustration while I continued proofreading and putting together the Critical Compilation of other writing, which is free to read at blog Critical Distance."

I asked Keogh what was the most surprising thing to come out of Killing is Harmless, and his answer surprised me. "That people are interested enough to actually read it! Seriously, that has been more surprising than anything in my analysis itself: the fact that there is clearly an audience of critically engaged video game players who are hungry for this kind of writing about games."

Despite the hard work, Keogh hasn't ruled out another critique like Killing is Harmless but he says it depends on the game. "Few games could be focused in this linear, chapter-by-chapter kind of way and ... few games are really so cohesively about something to really need it. But that said, there have been a lot of really fascinating games lately and throughout the years that I could easily do this for." 

I've started reading Killing is Harmless and it's a fascinating read so far. If you're interested in reading Keogh's in-depth critique, you can buy it here. It's available for $2.99 (Australian) until December 21 then it'll cost $4.99. It's worth it.

Other stuff you might be interested in: Game Junkie is on Twitter and you can email him here. He'll even answer your emails, not get some smart robot to do it. He also has another gaming blog here, which was actually updated recently. You should check it out.