I can count the number of video games I’ve actually played—or tried to play—on one hand. It’s not from a lack of interest, but more a lack of experience. I can never remember which button is where, or what it does, so the only times I played Little Big World with my fiancé, I spent the majority of the time making my character jump up and down and clinging feebly to his character’s hand as he pulled me along.
When I went to Scene Missing’s video game-themed event, I was worried I’d miss out on a lot of references. Scene Missing enlists seven writers and comedians to respond to seven different movie trailers, or in this case, video game trailers. However, since the writers are just responding to the trailer, the audience doesn’t necessarily have to be much more familiar with the movie or game.
It is described as “the literary equivalent of talking through movie trailers”, but as I found and was told by another attendee, readers at Scene Missing aim more for humor than literary content. This means the readings are accessible to a wider range of people, but those hoping for a truly literary event may be left wanting.
The event itself developed out of the interview and pop culture review website by the same name that has been active since 2004. Founder Jason Mallory started off interviewing comedians like Louis CK and Paul F. Tompkins, before turning his focus more towards reviews, the local scene, and Atlanta writers themselves. Back-and-forth reviews, in which two or more writers collaborate to review a movie or music video, eventually expanded into personal essays using the trailers as prompts. After participating in the “Titans of Talking” event in 2012, Mallory decided to take what was happening on the website to performance, and was approached by none other than Write Club Atlanta’s Myke Johns and Nick Tecosky (Write Club keeps popping up in these events, doesn’t it?), who were interested in producing and helping advertise. Since then, a branch of Scene Missing has started in conjunction with Write Club San Francisco, and there is another in the works in Chicago.
We were in the same room where Write Club Atlanta holds its shows, the Highland Inn Ballroom, in the Poncey-Highlands. The set up was basically the same, minus the omnipotent timer. At the beginning, we were made to take an oath that didn’t seem to have an end, but basically warned us not to talk during the trailers unless we were going to dress in a blue body suit and run around the room collecting gold coins.
Eli Banks started us off with a response to Portal 2, set up as a journal by a test subject at Aperture Laboratories. There were a few laughs based on the relatable habit of not writing in a journal as much as you intend, but others clung to the fairly well known nature of the fictional Aperture Laboratories, such as reference to “the bloodstained bullseye” the narrator aimed for when testing the long fall boots.
Amy McDaniel, founder of small press 421 Atlanta and visiting professor at Agnes Scott College, followed up with a list response to Mirror’s Edge. Jumping from topic to topic, her piece seemed to be attempting verbal parkour, a pretty direct reflection of what little you could get from the trailer.
Rita Leslie was the first of the group to diverge more from her trailer, which was Bioshock Infinite. Her piece drew a good many laughs, describing a date with a gamer who seemed more interested in the game than his date. She opened with the description of her date’s home by asking, “Why would you bring someone with ovaries here?” Gaming ladies aside, it set the tone for the rest of her encounter with the guy.
Jerad W. Alexander followed with a creepy fictional investigation into late Cold War/Reagan era chemical testing on children, which served as a prelude to Dead Island. It had a noir-esque feel to it, not only for the mystery or the gruff man I imagined searching through dusty, disavowed files, but also for the dark feel of the entire piece. The serum, meant to increase aggressiveness, led to the children appearing like a “neon Lord of the Flies” within their containment area. One line that stuck with me, “the only thing to destroy America is Americans themselves,” felt true in both the context of the story and a cynicism-for-the-future kind of way.
Dayne Swerdling strayed farthest from the rest of the acts by responding to Red Dead Redemption’s trailer with a stand up act. (Coincidentally he’s from my hometown, though he went to a different high school and graduated a few years after me.) His jokes landed well with certain people in the audience, spoken around a bit of straw hanging from his mouth. My favorite part had to be the interpretative dance he ended with to a Dixie Chicks song.
Julian Modugno drew the Legend of Zelda into the context of social advocacy and activism by pointing out that, as in other games, it allows the player to experience saving the world and being “the one” who can make a change. Modugno took this call to action when Occupy was active in Atlanta (“the greatest city in the South by default, not including New Orleans,” I quote). However, his attempt to contribute led to likely widespread cases of food poisoning among the 99% activists when he brought them improperly prepared curry. Although he mourned having given the only significant social movement in years curry diarrhea, and while he gained many laughs in the telling, the message was clear. “We can’t expect to be saved,” and regardless of a lack of any special powers or weapons in a video game, we can all do something to improve the world—or at least try.
Jack Walsh ended the night with a story, in response to Mortal Kombat, about an older kid taking a beginner’s karate class. A teenage bully, held back long enough to be in the protagonist’s class at school, begins to help out at the karate class and pick on him. The tale culminated in a show down between the two while the instructor was out of the room. After taking the older kid down by jabbing him in the eyes, the protagonist was surrounded by young, wide-eyed children whispering eerily, “Finish him.” Of course, as soon as the tables are turned they are whispering the same thing to the bully, simply desiring to see someone’s head get pulled off, spine dangling, dripping, just like in the game.
Having been to three Atlanta literary events now of a particular persuasion, I can see where different groups of people overlap and bring the vibrancy and diversity I’ve come to expect at shows like Naked City, Write Club, and Scene Missing. You can narrow them down to categories as simple as young and mature, or writers and listeners, but more specifically there are writers, actors, performers, comedians, and even puppeteers. While Scene Missing may draw more comedians and the like to the stage, its audience is as large and varied as that at Write Club; Naked City may have a smaller general attendance, but many there are members of this far-reaching collective of people who appreciate good writing—and a show.
I’ve recognized audience members attending different events, heard about Write Club combatants befriending one another, and begun to feel fairly at home even when I haven’t been to a particular event before. These three events create fantastic places to debut a piece of writing or just enjoy the work others have created, all within a supportive atmosphere of fellow artists and creators. The cross over is acknowledged in the ways the show-runners have supported each other along the way, from the conception to continuation and promotion of these events, but somehow most people don’t seem to often verbalize what an incredible thing this is. There is the feeling of “this is just how it is,” people come and go, connections are made from group to group, and the gigantic venn diagram that is attendance and types of artists grows more and more.
Perhaps I’m just a little too interested in human connectedness or the sense of community between groups of writers or other like-minded people, but this is something to celebrate. Until now, I’ve only really experienced something similar in writing groups that gather for workshopping each other’s work.
The majority of writing events I knew of before followed either the workshop model or the reading-at-a-coffee-shop-or-for-a-launch-event, so it was a pleasure to go to three events that took the latter of these styles and added their own twists. These were not gimmicks, but formats established to spark creativity and present prompts, to drive away monotony.
Soon I’ll be traveling back to England, where I will try to find new writing events to explore, but when I’m back, I’ll be glad to return to any of these.
This post is part of an on-going series devoted to exploring the writing communities of Atlanta, Georgia, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, and the surrounding areas. Please contact me if you have recommended events to attend!