Game Write is a recurring series dedicated to the fiction of game industry veterans. From the best-selling titles of Drew Karpyshyn and Austin Grossman, to the obscure classics of Jane Jensen and Sheldon Pacotti, this series hopes to unearth both the gems and the trash we tend to leave buried in the credits. In this entry, we look at Harvey Smith’s first novel, Big Jack is Dead, a personal story about a slightly-sociopathic software developer returning to rural Texas to see his abusive father put to rest.
Big Jack is Dead is an unusual novel. On the surface, it’s a deeply-personal story about overcoming (or failing to overcome) a toxic family history. The deeply-personal will shift, however — sudden, jarring tonal transitions –, to indulge in the sort of comic violence you’d expect from Chuck Palahniuk or Bret Easton Ellis. These moments hammer home themes of cyclic abuse — of how and why we repeat the mistakes of previous generations despite Knowing Better — in a way that’s perhaps too over the top in relation to Big Jack is Dead‘s overall tone.
I liked the pain of Big Jack is Dead‘s surface level — and I liked the novel itself; there’s a lot to relate to — but the shifting tone doesn’t quite work, and causes Smith’s first novel to be stilted and even confused in its structure. It’s not always easy to identify with Jack Hickman, who one moment will sincerely reflect on his abusive father’s final moments and the disconnect between father and son, and the next he’ll be fantasizing of beating a stranger to death; of countless bloody accidents on the highway, all the reckless Texan pickup truck drivers getting their just desserts; of devouring the lives of the young women in his life through sexual abuse.
For the first time in years, Jack Hickman returns home to Texas to bury his estranged father, the ‘Big Jack’ of the title. It’s the place and situation he never wanted to find himself after leaving his roots behind and losing himself in California’s tech industry. The narrative reels between Jack’s reflections on his childhood and the family he left behind — third-person descriptions of abuse and torment from his proud, ignorant father* — and a present-day Jack Hickman wading through his family’s wreckage via first-person narration.
Harvey Smith himself is an escapee of rural Texas; to some degree, this novel feels very personal, and lines of biography and fiction feel blurred. It’s impossible, however, to know how deep this personal connection lies in the characterization of Jack Hickman. As a fellow Texan who never quite felt like a Texan, I connected with all the frustration he unleashed on Texas’ self-obsessed culture, with a number of small observations acting as shared comfort between reader and writer.†
The third-person stories of past abuse are, at times, wonderfully-written and heart-wrenching. Of particular note is Big Jack’s final, selfish attempt to bond with little Jack, dragging him along on a hunting trip and forcing a gun in his hands, the lives of animals in his charge. Like every other experience with his dad, it’s guided abuse; an attempt to shape little Jack Hickman into an execrable piece of human garbage just like his old man.
The present-day uncertainty of whether Jack Hickman would follow in his dad’s abusive shoes or not was the weakest part. As his internal voice turns psychopathic, the notion that Jack Hickman would be unable to escape his dad’s cycle of abuse reads as heavy-handed. He’ll often rationalize his way out of it, that his more subtle and psychological abusiveness is somehow different or acceptable because so much of it remains internalized.
Even though I enjoyed my time with Big Jack is Dead, much of that may have depended on my relationship with Texas’ culture. I’m not sure how much I can recommend the novel outside of that connection. There are ultimately no real answers to why his dad did what he did: Why he himself facilitated the broken family dynamic, lost contact and killed himself in a grimy house, alone, surrounded by candy wrappers and fast food. Big Jack and his life, from the outside, were simply miserable: There are no answers beyond that, and whether Jack Hickman really can escape the cycle of abuse his father perpetuated remains an unknown.
Big Jack is Dead is available via Amazon as an affordable e-book.
Harvey Smith has been a prominent voice in game design (and taking chances) for 20 years. Starting in QA for Origin Systems in the mid-’90s, he came to prominence as a designer for Ion Storm’s Deus Ex (2000). Later, he led development on developing two woefully-underappreciated gems: Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003) — also with Ion Storm –, and BlackSite: Area 51 (2007) with Midway Austin.‡ Since then, he’s been co-creative director with Arkane Studios, producing games like KarmaStar (2009), Dishonored (2012), and Dishonored 2 (2016). Big Jack is Dead is his first foray into fiction.
* And, to a lesser degree, his enabling-but-trapped mother, whose life was completely absorbed by the conflicting morals embedded in a populist South.
† Pick-up truck drivers are, indeed, too numerous and too aggressive. The extraordinary distances between every building — a design flaw that all but forces car travel for the smallest of errands — makes no logical sense and feeds too much into a fossil fuel industry. And why would anyone subject themselves to a climate that leaves their clothes soaked with sweat and dirt before nine a.m.? This is why I’m no longer a Texan.
‡ Blacksite: Area 51 (2007) is one of those peculiar releases alongside Trespasser (1998): A game of immense potential ruined by a rushed and rough development cycle. While it may not be ‘good’ in any objective sense, it’s full of original and clever ideas buried underneath its failures.