As the very public face of such iconic video game franchises as Gears Of War and Unreal Tournament, designer Cliff “CliffyB” Bleszinski was, for years, one of the most recognizable faces in videos games. While fellow designers Shigeru Miyamoto (the Mario man) and Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid) were called auteurs, Bleszinski was considered a rock star designer, one that earned the nickname “Dude Huge.” But while the game industry is usually as tightly controlled as the opening mission in a Call Of Duty game, Bleszinski is being far more open, and honest, about himself in his new memoir, Control Freak: My Epic Adventures Making Video Games (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Bleszinski — who I know from my own career covering games — talks about why he took this approach to telling his own story.
Photo Credit: Lauren Bleszinski
To start, is Control Freak an autobiography, as in it tells your life story, or is it a memoir in that it centers around one aspect of your life?
Control Freak is a love story. It’s about my love of video games, the industry, and ultimately that the biz led me to find true love. I wanted to write something that not only appealed to fans of my work and gamers but also any reader who likes a good tale. I’ve done some living.
Whose idea was it to write Control Freak?
When my studio Boss Key cratered, I was a broken person for the better part of a year. It also didn’t help that I had to put my thirteen-year-old Aussie, Teddy, down in that timeframe.
So, I sat down and just started writing and the words just poured out of me. At first, they were totally scatterbrained. My history and the video game juicy bits would frequently be overlapped with pop culture musings in the vein of Chuck Klosterman. Luckily, I found a writing partner who helped steer me in the proper direction. I generally work better when I have someone to bounce ideas off.
Once you decided to write Control Freak, did you look at anyone else’s memoirs to get a sense of what to do…and what not to do?
Memoirs are my favorite type of book to read, honestly. Here’s just a few authors / books that I devoured off the top of my head: Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, Lindy West, Educated by Tara Westover, Howard Stern’s latest, Howard Stern Comes Again, Got Your Back by Frank Alexander, Crying In H Mart by Michelle Zauner…
These books, along with others I burned through, they inspired me to make my memoir as personal and raw as I could, and I hope it comes across on the page.
I have a sticker on the back of my phone case that says “Book Slut.” I love sitting at a pub with my wife reading as she’s playing Pokémon Go (on two phones) or her Switch.
What about other books about video games that weren’t memoirs or about a specific person, did any of those have a big impact on Control Freak?
I’d say the biggest influence outside of traditional memoirs would be Jason Schreier books about the video game business, Blood, Sweat, And Pixels and Press Reset. They’re great reads if you want to see how the sausage is made.
Unreal Tournament 2004
Non-fiction books, be they memoirs or otherwise, can strike different tones. Some are serious, some are more light-hearted, and still others are academic and packed with facts and figures. What approach did you take with Control Freak and why do you think this was the best one for this book?
There was this famous college coach named Jimmy Valvano, right, lad passed from cancer. Before he left us, he did a famous speech at the ESPY awards, and he said something along the lines of “if you can do three things in one day — if you can think, laugh, and cry — then that’s a good day. If you can do that seven days a week then you’re living a great life.”
That’s how I live my life and I hope that this book, with all my ups and downs, will elicit those feelings from the reader.
You mentioned earlier how you were inspired to make Control Freak personal and raw. But how raw you actually get? And I don’t mean salacious or bridge burning, just open about the downsides of making and promoting games and dealing with the media and getting shitloads of money and how that can fuck with your head.
Early reviews have called it “raw” and “honest,” so, yeah, I went for it. Brutally honest. Names have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent in regard to my personal life, to be fair. The only person I throw under the bus in this tome is myself.
I’m still on really good terms with Epic Games. I emailed Tim Sweeney the other day to catch up, I go to Hurricanes Games with Mark Rein, and just the other night I had drinks with my former PR handler Dana Cowley and gave her a signed copy.
I seldom burn bridges. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll want to make another game. The industry is simultaneously huge and tiny at the same time. Everyone knows everyone so I go by my golden rule: Don’t be a dick.
Did anyone try and talk you out of this? Or at least warn you of the consequences of being so open?
My older brother had his concerns, as did my wife. Earlier copies had plenty of information on the behind-the-scenes of how to make a game and how hard it is, but I also included detailed descriptions of me sowing my oats. People who buy this book aren’t buying a Tucker Max tell-all. They want an honest tale of a pimply faced outcast who fought his way to the top of the digital heap and then came crashing down. And, then, as Van Halen famously said, “Love comes walking in”.
One aspect of the industry that was somewhat unique to you and a handful of other game designers, but not many, is that you became something of a personality. I remember when I went to Epic’s offices to do a preview of Gears Of War 2, we were going to lunch, and Dana was like, “Hey, Cliff, why don’t you drive Paul,” referring to your Lambo or Ferrari or whatever it was, and you were like, “Huh? Oh, right, yeah, Paul, why don’t you ride with me,” but you and I looked at each other like we were both in on the joke. Do you talk at all in Control Freak about having to play a part, and what that did to you, personally and professionally?
Ha! I remember that visit.
I always said I got into the biz for three things. To make great games, to be well-known for it, and to make money. I wanted kids out there who saw my brash and often offensive persona to think “maybe I could be a cool game designer one day.”
Now all the kids want to be influencers and streamers and YouTubers. Sadly, they don’t realize that only a small handful of those folks are truly making Fuck You money and the rest are fighting over the scraps.
In my gut, I believe the era of the rock star game designer is rapidly fading, if it’s not gone already. Most studios and publishers don’t want that; they want teams of hard-working drones that aren’t known. If you’re a very visible developer that means leverage with your employer, especially if you have a good fanbase.
Epic just let me run with it, for better or worse, over the years. Lord knows I’ve said some dumb shit.
Gears Of War 2
So was writing Control Freak somewhat cathartic for you? And if so, did you go into it expecting it to be, or did that catch you off guard?
Writing this book was equal parts therapy and equal parts agony. It felt like a Twilight Zone episode in which a guy dies and then is forced to re-live the best and worst parts of his entire life on an infinite loop. That said, it really feels like I’m closing the chapter on the front part of my life as I move onto the next chapter.
Pun totally intended.
So in writing Control Freak, did you realize anything about yourself — either personally or professionally — that you didn’t know before? Like maybe something you just never considered or thought about.
I realized that I worked myself to the bone for decades. It wasn’t just enough to spearhead the Gears franchise. I also play-tested it constantly. I helped out with other games Epic was producing, such as Shadow Complex, Infinity Blade, and Bulletstorm. I lived to work and, as a result, Epic rewarded me handsomely.
I realized that, in my personal life, I was a horrible lothario, and I carry a lot of guilt about that. Take a young guy, put him in a swank condo in Raleigh’s bar district, add sports cars and hair gel, and you damned near get a Jersey Shore douchebag.
What about the video game industry; did you have any epiphanies about it while writing Control Freak?
I realized that it’s a miracle that a video game ever even ships. Putting all of my experiences on the written page made me wonder even if I’ll ever want to make another game again. Reminding myself of the Herculean efforts involved to make that magic makes me want to go take a nap.
I will say being able to go to bed without an alarm set these days is glorious.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about Control Freak?
It’s an honest story about a guy who lost his father, got picked on in school, had few friends, and defiantly fought to make a name for himself in a medium that he holds near and dear while also making a lot of mistakes in his personal life along the way.
There are many books about the industry or game design, but many of them read like stereo instructions. That’s why I opted to put myself out there, for better or for worse.
Finally, what video game person would you most like to see write a book like Control Freak? And to open it up, let’s toss commercial considerations out the window; it need not be someone whose book would sell well.
Goodness, let’s see…Ken Levine (Bioshock); Vince Zampella (Call Of Duty / Titanfall / Apex Legends); Shigeru Miyamoto (duh); and Ed McMillen (Super Meat Boy) — it would be great to have the indie perspective.
I’d wager they all have fascinating stories to tell, not just work ones, but personal ones as well.