Community heroes: Chris Livingston, Concerned

Tom Francis

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This week on the site, we want to celebrate some of the heroes of the PC gaming community. People who've devoted huge amounts of their free time to making something awesome for the rest of us to enjoy. Today we're talking to Chris Livingston, creator of the very funny Half-Life 2 webcomic Concerned , the extremely funny Oblivion diary Living in Oblivion , and the hilarious mock gaming news site The First-Person Observer . Whatever he does next, it had better cause diagnosable hysteria.

PC Gamer: So, the first thing I know you from is Concerned, your Half-Life 2 comic made in Garry's Mod. How did the idea of using a mod to make a comic come about?

Chris Livingston: I cleverly hit upon the idea to make a G-Mod comic after seeing roughly 8,394 other G-Mod comics. I thought the world definitely needed 8,395. Most of the comics I was seeing were little one-off humor comics or completely original stories built into the Half-Life universe, and I thought maybe I could bring my own character in but follow the same structure as the game instead of inventing a completely original story, because it would be less work. It turned out to be a lot of work anyway.

I'd had an idea a couple years prior about doing a comic using screenshots from the original Legend of Zelda for the NES, and my comic wouldn't just be Link appearing here and there in the different game environments, but it would follow the progress of the game from start to finish, so Link would initially just have his little wooden sword, and by the end he'd have explored all the dungeon levels and gotten all the weapons and stuff.

I never did anything with Zelda, but when I started playing with Garry's Mod, I thought maybe I could use the same idea with Half-Life 2: a comic that followed the structure and beats of the story you play through in the game.

PC Gamer: What made you choose that particular face for the hero Gordon Frohman?

Chris: I basically just lined up all the NPC models along a wall like it was a firing squad, and shot them all in the face with the G-Mod expression tool, to see which face I liked the best. There was just something about that one model I liked better than the others. With apologies to the actual person he was modeled from, he was sort of harmlessly goofy looking. He had ain instantly likable face, and I think that's why a lot of other comic makers used him as their main character as well.

PC Gamer: What's the longest you ever spent posing one frame in Garry's Mod?

Chris: There's one comic where Frohman is trying to dispose of thousands of explosive barrels, and there are Metro Cops helping him out by stacking them up around bridge supports and rolling them off trucks, and there's sort of a lot going on in the scene. I posed the whole scene and it took a couple hours. Just as I was finishing, I accidentally shot a barrel -- I thought I was holding the remover tool but I was holding the pistol -- and they all blew up. On the one hand, it was an awesome explosion to witness, but on the other hand, it was about midnight and I had to basically recreate the entire scene, which took even longer because I was afraid of blowing everything up again. Which I did. While swinging a ragdoll around too quickly, I hit another barrel and blew everything up a second time, so I had to start over yet again. That was probably a total of six or seven hours for a single panel. I don't think I actually went to sleep that night.

PC Gamer: Were there any strips or plotlines you tried but decided against?

Chris: Yeah, there were tons. There was a whole deal with that English guy, Odessa Cubbage, who gives Freeman the rocket launcher in the game. I had an idea that he hated Dr. Breen because Cubbage had been married to a English woman who Breen had seduced, and she went off to live with him in City 17. And now she's the woman who does all the loudspeaker announcements in the city. There were going to be some scenes of Breen in the Citadel talking to her, and how she was mad because she was suddenly incredibly busy making announcements now that Freeman was around killing everybody. And Breen wouldn't hire anyone else, because this is science-fiction, and in science-fiction, all broadcast voices have English accents for some reason.

I also had a big backstory for G-Man that never made it in. I saw G-Man as a patent lawyer for an alien civilization that had invented teleportation technology to deal with their stifling traffic problems. G-Man's job is to protect their patent, and his civilization's legal system is based around basically killing anyone who infringes on your patents. So, he goes to Black Mesa to sabotage the teleportation experiments there, and that's why he sets Freeman loose in City 17, to destroy the Combine's teleporter in the Citadel, and basically, the en tire Half-Life storyline revolved around G-Man trying to protect his teleportation patent.

I just couldn't boil that stuff down into a few six-panel comics.

PC Gamer: Obviously Concerned satirises a lot about Half-Life 2 - did you create it specifically to do that, or were you more interested in telling your own story?

Chris: I was interested in poking some fun at a game I loved, and also trying to celebrate it, and in telling a story within the confines of the game's existing story. I liked that idea because it had a clear start and finish, and because it meant I had to build my ideas into the confines of their script, which seemed like a fun challenge. I had to think up reasons Frohman would follow the same path when he had an entirely different agenda than Freeman. So, I came up with him looking for an apartment in Ravenholm, and going to Nova Prospekt because he wanted to join the Combine. Having him walk through most of the game ahead of Freeman also meant I could explain why the world is the way it is, with explosive barrels and saw blades lying around everywhere, and make other jokes about the nature of the game.

PC Gamer: For a long time you were working on another comic, made in the Team Fortress 2 universe. How far did you get with that, and why did it not pan out?

Chris: I didn't get far at all, mainly because I couldn't really find a tone for the comic that worked. I sort of wanted it to be really melodramatic, like a soap opera, which I thought would wind up being funny considering how silly and cartoony the whole game is. And there'd be these deep, dramatic stories that would wind up being ridiculous because it's a cartoon. It seemed pointless to do a comedy when the game is entirely comedic in nature. Ultimately, I just never felt like it would really work. I wrote a lot of the story and posed a few pages worth of comics, but was never really happy with it.

I'm glad I didn't bother at this point, because Valve is putting out their own comics and creating back-stories that are a lot more fun than anything I was coming up with.

PC Gamer: Your next successful project was Living in Oblivion. Why did you think trying not to have any adventures would be entertaining?

Chris: I was pretty sure it wouldn't be entertaining at all, which is why I played a few days with Nondrick, then wrote up the diaries, then didn't post them until, I think, a year later. I knew I was enjoying it, but I couldn't imagine why anyone else would. I mean, the guy doesn't do anything. Ever. Eventually, I posted them and people were like, "Do more of this." And I realized that a lot of gamers like seeing someone create a personal experience in the framework of a game, even if that experience is of a guy who spends his time pulling weeds and sleeping.

PC Gamer: Were there any false starts or moments where you thought "Hmm, actually this isn't all that exciting"?

Chris: There are entire sessions of playing where I'm sitting there thinking, Jesus, nothing is happening. How the hell am I going to make this interesting? He walked from sun-up to sun-down and literally not a single event has transpired other than, you know, maybe he saw a goblin and ran away. Or he found a fork in a dead wolf. I enjoy the game world so much that I don't mind that nothing is really happening, but it's hard to write about ten hours of picking flowers and imagine someone would want to read it. I think the key is that other people also enjoy the game world and it doesn't need to be exciting, and if I can find a single theme or idea for the day, I can write about that. Like, with the fork in the wolf, it's sort of a running joke where he's trying to own an entire cutlery set of utensils he found inside dead animals.

PC Gamer: Have you tried playing any other games that way? Does it work?

Chris: I tried it a bit with Fallout 3, but somehow it didn't seem to work quite the same way. I don't know why. I'll always try living in a game world, in any game where it's possible. In the original Grand Theft Auto, with the top-down view, I used to just enjoy walking around, riding the train, obeying the traffic laws, not killing anyone. I don't know why I enjoy that but I do. I think it's just neat when a game's framework provides you with a chance to do something other than play the game itself, even if you like doing nothing but seeing the sights and riding public transportation. I think the bigger and more games get, the more room around the margins there is for players to create their own experiences and have their own agendas.

PC Gamer: Do you think a game that's meant to be played this way, like an ordinary citizen, could work?

Chris: It probably could. I know there are roleplay servers for Garry's Mod, where people enter a city map and claim an apartment for themselves and do little jobs, like playing as a prison guard, or as a prisoner. And they get very upset when someone comes in and starts shooting them because it's disrupting the experience they're trying to create. People like creating their own stories and connecting somehow with the characters they're inhabiting, and they like reading the stories that other people come up with. Robin Burkinshaw did it in The Sims, with the Alice and Kev stories, and that was a huge hit. It was fascinating and genuinely emotional, and this is in a silly game where people are constantly peeing on themselves.

PC Gamer: Is Living in Oblivion over now? If not, will it ever be?

Chris: I really need to put an end on it, I think. I hate leaving people hanging without a resolution, but I found it much easier to survive as Nondrick than I had thought. I would have figured he'd be dead by now. There have been some close calls, moments where I thought he would die, including once where he almost got kicked to death by his own horse. That would have been a fitting end, I think. But since he avoids adventure, he never finds himself deep in a dungeon where it's easier to die, and since you can pause the game to drink heath potions, it's not that hard to keep him alive.

I suspect I will eventually get back to it and give it some sort of conclusion, if only to get him back to his hovel in Imperial City with his disgusting fork collection. Maybe when I'm done I'll release the save-game and people can play with Nondrick themselves.

PC Gamer: Most recently, you've started up First Person Observer as a sort mock in-game news site. Where did that idea come from?

Chris: I had been playing Just Cause 2, and I was trying to write something interesting about it. By that time there were already reviews out, and videos posted of all the crazy shit you could do in the game, and I was trying to figure out what I could really say about it that hadn't been said. I decided to write a post about it from the perspective of a small-town newspaper. Like, here's these little routine news items day after day, like car accidents and minor scuffles, and then suddenly Rico shows up and there's thousand of people dead and the island is exploding and people are being shot in the genitals with a grappling hook.

From there, I sort of thought, what else would in-game newspapers have to say? What stories would they report on? What do the people living in these game worlds think about all the stuff that happens when the player shows up and starts shooting everyone in the face?

In a way, Concerned, Living In Oblivion, and The Observer are all rooted in similar concepts. While the hero is off having adventures, what are the average citizens of these game worlds thinking and doing? It's a question I always like asking and something I think about when I'm playing games. Like, in Oblivion, here's a shopkeeper who does nothing but stand in his shop, waiting for me to come sell him all the junk I've collected. He doesn't do business with anyone else, and he buys everything I give him. What kind of business model is that? What's going through his head?

I've always been interested more in supporting characters than main characters. Prior to writing about gaming, I used to write about movie henchmen , comparing them to temps, and coming up with little back-stories for them.

PC Gamer: How has it gone down, versus your expectations?

Chris: I figured people would say I was trying to ape The Onion, which wasn't my original intent but quickly became clear that was what it would amount to, a bunch of Onion-style stories about games. As soon as I started writing stories I realized they would sound like I was trying to be The Onion. And I'm definitely influenced by them, no doubt. It's hard to write a fake news story and not have The Onion in your head.

My expectations are the same with everything I put online: people will hate this or not care about it, or point out seven hundred guys who are doing it better. But, I've gotten a lot of great feedback. I think it would work better if I had a new story every day, but I'm just not that clever and I don't play nearly enough games to handle that kind of workload.

PC Gamer: In the FPO's comment threads, Dozens of people name themselves after game characters and comment on stories from other game-worlds in-character - to the point where some people don't believe they're real. Is this something you encouraged, and do you have to do any pruning to maintain it?

Chris: I have done nothing with the comments. The comments are all completely spontaneous contributions from readers and I have not written or edited a single one of them. Which is so great, because I never imagined the comments would be anything other than "I like this" or "This sucks." But the readers just immediately got the joke and jumped in with both feet and played along, and they're brilliant and funny and wildly creative and easily the best part of the site.

PC Gamer: You've started publishing articles from contributors, is that open to anyone?

Chris: I initially got some e-mail from a few bloggers and writers who wanted to contribute, so I said yeah, go for it. My fear is that I'm just a terrible editor so I'm not sure I want to encourage everyone to start writing stories and sending them to me. But, seeing as though I've been less than productive recently, I may open the gates and ask anyone interested to send in ideas or stories. It's not something I've ever done before, collaborating or sharing my sites, so it may take me a while to get used to it.

PC Gamer: Lastly, what's your favourite thing about PC gaming?

Chris: Steam. I can sit at my desk, see a game, buy it, and start playing it. Any service that lets me avoid going out and talking to people is a big plus.

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