Community heroes: Chris Livingston, Concerned

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.