(CITY OF BOOKS)
“Looking over our table of contents, you might get the impression that we're just another in a string of gaming publications, albeit on a smaller scale”.
At some point, someone would have read that in the magazine section of Powell’s City of Books, the world’s largest independent bookstore, located in Portland, Oregon, and not have been sure what to think. The Journal of the Compugraphical Video Entertainment Medium (translation: it’s about video games) set out its editorial mission as exploring and recording the maturations of the video game medium.
To an extent, it appeared every inch of a proper enthusiast publication: a review of the recently released blockbuster Doom 3 headlined the issue, and a feature article about game stories expounded upon “the schism between gameplay and narrative.”
Contrasting with the academic language were the magazine’s 40 A5-sized and cheaply photocopied pages. The cover illustration depicted a severely stressed-out and unhealthy-looking young man with glasses and a scraggly beard, hunched in front of a computer monitor, which touted that he had just scored a hundred points. “Let’s have some fun!” a caption enthused.
The editorial page ended with six illegible signatures, yet, conspicuously, none of the reviews or interviews credited any writers. The contact page pointed readers to an email address, unhelpfully: “firstname.lastname@example.org”. The issue’s last article was the only one to carry a byline, only because it was by its nature a more personal entry: a travelogue detailing the writer and his girlfriend’s Japan vacation. The policy of anonymity was still so overwhelmingly in effect that the author of the piece spelled his last name entirely in lowercase, as if to diminish it. “By Steven gaynor", it said, and what still wasn’t clear about Steven Gaynor was that he had made the whole thing.
Portland, Oregon is the kind of place that allows writers of its travel guidebooks to let their hair down a little. A place where they can depart from the reserved standard, sometimes even between pages of the same book, and affect a jokey casualness that mirrors the city’s colourful character.
Writers transition from genuflecting at the steely majesty of Mt Rushmore to Portland -- young, independent, artsy, and liberal – like it’s their late show. From a cross-section of three guidebooks dedicated to Portland, you find some adjectives (and some nouns -- anything goes in Portland, aka “P-Town”) frequently used to reflect the city’s lively, offbeat character. Lively and offbeat are two of the words. The others are: awesome, chill, vital, hipster, activist, vegetarian, friendly, zany, vibrant, good vibes, laidback, ultra-green, eco-friendly, idealist, politically charged, bustling, trendy, chic, leisurely, mellow, hangout, Gore-Tex, funky. “Radical leftist agenda” comes up at least once, and allegedly applies to everything created in Portland.
For all Portland's eclecticism, the one subject missing from its guidebooks is video games. None of these books mention video games at all. Portland wasn't a game industry city – unlike, say, nearby Seattle, or San Francisco, or Austin.
This was important to Steve Gaynor, who lived in Portland in 2004, and wrote about games for two local publications before moving across the country to become a video game level designer. Steve and his girlfriend, Rachel Jacks, who held a degree in biochemistry from the University of Oregon and in 2004 worked as a research assistant at Oregon Health Sciences University, both liked Portland. But Steve also liked games, and had wanted to become involved with that industry, and obviously there’s nothing in any of Portland’s guidebooks about how you do that.
There’s nothing about how to have a serious conversation about games when nobody around you is into them; nothing about how you take apart and analyse a game from a critical or mechanical perspective; nothing about how you learn the skills of a game designer; how, with no practical experience, you would put together a portfolio and get yourself noticed; nothing about how to get into the video game industry. What do you do when the guidebook doesn’t tell you where you want to go?
Twenty-two and unemployed following a nine-month stint at a Circuit City, Steve Gaynor was a Portland State University senior who’d arrived there by way of Clearwater, Florida and a brief stopover at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
In choosing his classes at PSU, Steve had never thought in terms of a major; gravitating instead to cultural subjects he already had an interest in: film, Japanese, English, and an art school summer course on making independent comics. In his final two years, Steve had to decide on something to graduate in, and committed to an art degree, with a concentration in Sculpture, not that he thought he would become a professional sculptor. When considering his future career, he kept going back to what was in his notebook.
Steve kept a notebook that he would fill with ideas for the great alternative comics that he was going to one day write and draw. Flipping through the notebook from back to front, it progressively became, page by page, a repository of ideas for video games. The significance of this had not even occurred to Steve until the transformation was well in effect.
He had always played games, but it wasn’t until recently that he saw they had become his main creative focus. “I was making comics because I loved to draw, not because I loved comics inherently,” he says. If there was one medium whose possibility he was intrigued by, it was video games. The notebook, now packed with concepts for games or thoughts about them, testified to this.
Nobody Steve knew was all that interested in games, certainly not on the theoretical level that he had begun to think about. Rachel wasn’t prejudiced towards games, but just preferred other things. When she and Steve were living in Eugene they had played Animal Crossing for almost a year straight and seen the entire rotation of the game’s seasons. “I guess when I played [that,]” says Rachel, “[it was] more about the social interaction than the game itself. It’s just an alternative way to spend time with Steven. Animal Crossing was cute and fun and maybe I would have played it without the social aspect, but again I think the interaction was key. And eventually I lost interest because there were simply other things I’d rather do.”
“My other friends,” says Steve, “all just thought that it was a quirk of my personality that I was really into video games. ‘A funny thing about that guy is he really likes video games’, or whatever.”
Informed by the critical writing he had done in college, Steve was inclined to present his opinions as academic-style essays, investigating “the theoretical bullshit side: what does playing a game mean?” The little professional games criticism that he was aware of – mainstream, consumer-focused publications like Gamespot and Electronic Gaming Monthly – definitely weren’t the kind of writing that he had in mind.
There was no outlet Steve knew of for essays on video games in the established style of film and literary critique, and with the occasional license to be funny and ironic. If there wasn’t an established website or magazine he could write for, then, well, fuck it, it was Portland, after all, and he could make one himself.
Steve had ideas to share and wanted to learn what actual game developers thought about the medium. The best way to achieve that, he felt, was to organise his thoughts into a form that someone else could read and interact with. He could have put it online, but Steve wasn’t internet-savvy, and besides, “it took three or four guys to make a website.”
Music, literature, indie comics and art zines were nothing new to Portland –they were available in stacks at record stores, book stores and coffee houses because the demand for them existed – but there was nothing similar that covered video games. In 2004, “a zine felt outdated, but also indie-cred/grassroots.” While Steve was studying and writing about the Northern European Renaissance, Flemish paintings, abstract expressionism and minimalism, he turned in an essay on the newest Doom game. The notebook became The Journal.
The full title: The Journal of the Compugraphic Video Entertainment Medium. Self-conscious about highbrow video game writing being perceived as pretentious, Steve saddled his creation with an intentionally cumbersome title and a lo-fi production to take the air out of the whole thing. Given the limited resources available to him, though, there was never any doubt that if this was something he was going to do, he was going to do it alone, on a non-existent budget, and photocopy it at the nearest Kinko’s. He also enjoyed the high concept of a very serious academic journal that was run off a Xerox printer.
For the first issue, he’d managed to secure an interview with Greg Kasavin, the executive editor of the website Gamespot, which Steve was inclined to choose as it seemed like “the most reputable game review site. It was of a consistent quality, and [Kasavin] was serious about his job.” He’d fired off an email to Kasavin, who may have been swayed into accepting the interview request out of nostalgia, as he’d made a zine with his friends in high school.
Steve and Kasavin exchanged emails about what was next for the medium, and about when Kasavin first considered turning his enthusiasm for games into a career. Steve asked if, in Kasavin’s press job, he ever formed relationships with game designers. Kasavin replied that he tried not to, for the sake of objectivity. He went on to volunteer that if he wasn’t writing about games, he’d “ideally be helping to make them.” His ultimate goal, he said, was to get into game design.
Steve had conceived a three-part series on the challenges inherent in writing non-interactive stories for interactive media, and included the first part in his debut issue along with a feature about the graphic adventure games he fondly remembered from the 90s, some of which, like Sam & Max Hit The Road, he’d played with Rachel.
Every piece of content was produced in a vacuum; Steve unaware of similar writing that may or may not have existed. This naiveté informed the grave idealism of issue one’s opening statement: “We at The Journal are interested in what games can do next to move forward as a medium. Is the introduction of stronger narrative and believable characters with which audiences can identify the surest method of drawing in more players and stimulating them to explore further the possibilities of gaming? Will it be advancements in interactivity, artificial intelligence, and user-dictated experience, the development of open-ended worlds and unpredictable occurrences, that will push games to their next logical step? Is illusionistic realism the goal, or even necessary or desirable in games? Is innovation the key, or do people need something familiar to anchor their experience to, and how best can these concepts coexist? How do we foster a medium so that it can reach out to all cultures?”
As ambitious as that sounded, The Journal’s true editorial purpose was not so scholarly. “The main reason that I made the zine,” Steve says, “was to send it to game developers and trick them into talking to me.”
Steve was genuinely interested in the thought process of a game developer, and wanted a print zine because a copy could be mailed to them. He thought that if he sent a copy off to a game developer’s office along with a covering letter and a request to interview them, it would be taken more seriously than some guy with a Geocities site and a Hotmail account.
Even with The Journal being a print publication, Steve still didn’t feel that it looked official enough. He decided to close the introduction that he’d written with the names of a fictitious editorial board. In a “gambit for credibility”, Steve ran a Google image search for the word ‘signature’ and found a United Nations peace agreement for a minor Eastern European conflict. He hadn’t heard of the accord or the countries. All the five signatures were unintelligible so he copied and pasted those over to his zine, adding his own signature to the gang of possibly long-dead dignitaries.
Photocopies ran five cents per side; the entire print run costing Steve around 75 dollars. When he mailed a dozen copies to game studios in Massachusetts, Washington, California and Denmark it pushed him closer to a hundred dollars total out of pocket.
Steve had approached Backspace, a local coffee bar/internet café/art gallery, checking that it was okay to distribute copies of The Journal on their premises. The store ended up with an advertisement on the issue’s back cover out of the deal; enticing Journal readers with an hour of free internet with the purchase of any medium size espresso drink. He passed out more copies at Reading Frenzy, an alternative press store, and a retro arcade and bar called Ground Kontrol, where he doesn’t remember asking anyone if it was alright, and just offloaded a few issues on their free publications table.
At Powell’s City of Books, about ten blocks from Steve and Rachel’s 11th Avenue apartment, Steve needed the manager’s agreement to stock issues of The Journal in their zine rack. Powell’s were wary of giving it away for free – it could imply worthlessness – and imposed a dollar cover price. Steve was cut in on 50% of these sales, though he didn’t care if he got paid or not. This was about what it cost to produce an issue, and, he says, “I’d rather have people reading them than make my dollar back.”
Steve concluded the introduction with this: “As for our part, we can't wait to see what's next for games, and we know we're not alone in that.” In the months following the issue’s release, Steve would check in at the stores to see how his project was faring in the free market. Every once in a while, a copy was missing from the shelves.
A Backspace staffer told Steve that the entertainment editor of the Portland Mercury, the local alternative weekly, was looking for someone to write freelance about games. Steve called the editor, Erik Henriksen, and walked over a copy of the first issue, to his office, levelling that there was nobody else actually involved in the project.
Henriksen was sufficiently impressed, and as quickly as that, Steve Gaynor became “a mildly professional video game writer,” earning about 50 dollars for the occasional 300-word column on gaming culture.
The second issue of The Journal tackled the subjects of women, art and politics all vis a vis video games. Steve called it the “issues issue”. The cover, another Gaynor original, portrayed a latte-sipping French beatnik, obviously replete with beret, perusing a copy of the Cahiers du Compugraphique. “C’est la vie!” exclaimed the caption in a jaunty font.
Steve’s art classes crossed over into his avocation with an opinion piece on video game art design that excoriated the generic look of western fantasy role-playing games. For added value, Steve included a foldout poster that graphed the lineage of modern game genres, charting all the cultural influences between The Sims, Full Throttle and Max Payne, amongst many others.
The Story of Games series continued: “[Games] are one of the only modern media that can transfix viewers young and old -- I know I've been playing since before I can remember, and can't imagine ever stopping -- and therefore the potential to affect impressionable minds throughout their formative years and into their later life is enormous. Games are the greatest sugar pill of our day -- they can keep people's attention endlessly with pure play, opening up to a payload of subversive intent they might not even realize they're receiving. Mine is the first generation that's grown up with games from day one, but the upcoming generation will be the first where sophisticated, cinematic, convincing gaming is considered the norm. What will games say to them?”
The Journal, overall, combined this kind of thoughtfulness with uncompromisingly harsh reviews of games that failed the idealism. Steve pared The Sims 2 down to its questionably consumerist themes, and marginalised the critical darling Half-Life 2 for being an uninspired reprise of an already-established aesthetic.
Greg Kasavin was the only person from the gaming press that Steve had wanted to talk to: with one completed issue on hand, he’d sent out that issue and interview requests to designers at some of his favourite game studios. These included Rockstar Games, of Grand Theft Auto, IO Interactive of Hitman and Peter Molyneux at Lionhead Games, then working on an ambitious RPG called Fable. Craig Hubbard of Monolith Productions, the creative lead on the Shogo and No One Lives Forever games and Ken Levine of Irrational Studios were also on the list. Levine had credits on System Shock 2, and Thief, two games that had helped solidifed the ‘immersive simulation’ sub-genre that was the province of only a few developers. Levine was now working on BioShock, recently revealed to be an adventure through an abandoned World War II lab recently put back into operation for some advanced genetic experiments.
“I tried to read some of the issues,” says Rachel, “but there were too many references that I just didn’t understand. I don’t remember if I got through a whole issue.” Rachel had other things to focus on. She was wrapping up her time at the lab, and had begun applying to graduate schools, with the ultimate ambition of getting a Ph.D. and becoming the head of her own lab. Checking ranked lists of biology and biochemistry schools, Rachel narrowed her options down to about ten schools on the West Coast. Whatever she chose, however, would take her out of Portland. “She was moving with a purpose”, Steve says, and not doing anything that tied him down, “I was cool to go along.”
While Rachel may not have related to the content of The Journal, she liked that Steve was doing it. In general, Steve didn’t talk much with people about the zine; not knowing anyone who cared about games in the way that he did except for five members of the United Nations.
Steve and Rachel’s friends responded more positively to his writing for the Portland Mercury, since it was an established publication that they’d already heard of or read. Additionally, unlike The Journal, the Mercury job got Steve invited to a couple of company parties, with room for a few plus-ones. “The zine was targeted more at myself; [here] the intent was more to bring something interesting about games to the attention of the general readership of the Mercury, which was in the thousands. Like, here’s some cool games that you might not have heard of, and even if you’re not huge into video games you might think they’re weird or interesting. Or, here’s some controversy about a law to ban violent games. More a general interest kind of thing.” That column referred to the then Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, as a “conservative shitbag”, and obviously in Portland that line was less controversial than it was conventional wisdom.
With The Journal, Steve was starting to get industry responses – sort of. An email from the Rockstar offices in Edinburgh politely informed Steve that he had sent his request to the wrong Rockstar office, and he should contact the New York headquarters.
On the other hand, Jacob Andersen, a co-founder of Denmark’s IO Interactive was happy to talk to Steve, and so he scored his first developer interview. Steve and Andersen chatted about the role of the company’s first game, Hitman: Codename 47, in popularising non-linear, emergent mission structure, stealth action and ragdoll physics, and touched on the concept of a non-character avatar.
Sometimes these industry figures threw in an endearing comment about their complimentary issue of The Journal, but Steve was aware that this didn’t technically make them readers. Steve had only heard from one legitimate reader, via email. It was someone in Portland named Harry who actually really liked the zine but wondered why there weren’t any bylines.
With the second issue done, Steve shipped out some more copies, including one to the offices of Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Studios in San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, “an email from tim@doublefine or whatever flipped my fucking mind.” Schafer wrote to say that the zine was cool, thanked him for sending it, and let him know that they’d put his foldout video game genealogy poster up in their kitchen. Steve replied saying thanks, and reminded him about the initial interview request.
A woman called Steve at home one day – he can’t remember if she was a receptionist or PR representative, but whoever it was, she was from Irrational Games in Boston, Massachusetts, and she was telling him that Ken Levine was interested in doing an interview. Steve was a fan of Irrational’s System Shock 2 and was intrigued by their ‘spiritual successor’ BioShock, and he sent through some questions.
Steve stayed in occasional contact with Irrational’s offices, waiting to hear back from Levine, but there never ended up being a good time for the interview. Tim Schafer's reply to Steve's email, when it arrived, carefully referred him to the PR people at Double Fine's publisher.
“I learned a lot about channels of communication,” says Steve, “calling people weekly, sending them emails and getting the polite deferment. It’s disappointing but it taught me about how that stuff works. They’re not going to say, ‘oh, he’s too busy with real work so we’re going to cancel this.’ Instead, they say ‘oh, we’ll get back to you,’ until you stop calling. Which is standard across any kind of industry that involves important people and receptionists.”
Regardless of how successful the discussions might have been, his contact with the developers effectively demythologised them in Steve’s eyes. It had only recently even occurred to him that “normal people that you could theoretically meet and talk to make these games I play.” Game developers weren’t wildly different from him, he thought – in fact, he could do that.
(MOD TOOLS AND GRAD SCHOOLS)
Throughout the winter, Rachel interviewed at graduate schools across the West Coast. When she went up for a weekend interview in Seattle, a four-hour out of state drive, Steve made the trip with her. “The weekends are pretty intense,” says Rachel, “with wining and dining, sightseeing, and the all-important interviews where you meet with faculty members you might be interested in working with.”
That same weekend there happened to be a free seminar at a nearby convention center on, of all things, how to get into video game development. The panel was comprised of hiring managers, contract artists and producers. The sessions, Steve remembers, “touched on the qualities developers look for when hiring, how to put together a good CV, a Q&A forum with the panel, and so on.”
Steve realised by now that he wanted to be involved with games. As early as thirteen, he had made game maps in the Duke Nukem 3D level editor, creating his own textures and art in Microsoft Paint. He’d graduated to using the Quake editor years later, and beyond all the partly-formed stabs at game production, there were the creative ideas in his notebook and the critical theory in The Journal. “I was doing all that writing,” Steve knew, “because I wanted to be involved in making them. I wanted to be in the shoes of the kind of person who at that time I was just trying to talk to.”
One of the seminar speakers summed up the lesson of the event in a one-liner that stuck with Steve: “Make cool shit, and show it off to anyone and everyone.” It was a basic sentiment, Steve thought, and maybe it was something he could have figured out on its own, but it clearly meant something to these industry people in the auditorium who hired game designers, and for that reason, it meant something to him, too. “I came to the very explicit decision that I was going to open up a level editor, make levels, send them to companies and try and get hired as a game designer.” He considered that he could use his work on The Journal and the Mercury as a portfolio to transition into a role at gaming press sites like Gamespot or 1UP, but he knew that would only be an indirect route to where he actually wanted to end up.
Another print run of The Journal was going to cost him another hundred bucks, albeit offset by what he was making writing for the Mercury. The total could be halved if he didn’t send any copies out to developers this time. Most of his interview leads had fizzled, although he had Craig Hubbard of Monolith lined up for the third issue.
The illustration that graced the latest cover of The Journal may have been inspired by the fine art courses Steve was taking: a goofy-looking, bow-legged cowboy attempting to lasso a galloping computer desk. “YEE-HAW!” read the subtitle. The slapstick image was a nod to the ongoing conflict in the pages of The Journal between sincerity and self-consciousness, and despite Steve’s commitment to game design, still hadn’t really been resolved.
In previous issues, Steve had rarely discussed specific games at length, and to rectify this, decided to make issue three more of a “reviews issue”, catching up with all the games neglected by The Journal over the past six months. In preparation, Steve checked online for more information about the games that he was going to write up. He was trying to find out if there were any essays or critical thought that already existed about these games, as well as screenshots that he could lift and copy into the Word template. In searching, Steve stumbled across more intelligent game writing than he had ever known about. Other websites were discussing the same themes that The Journal was, in a similarly academic tone that lacked the self-deflating deflection, and were making whole-hearted stabs at commercial success. There was even somebody else doing a zine, a writer named Jeremy Parish. Steve included the addresses of all these websites in the third issue, indicating that if you liked The Journal you ought to check out this list of recommended reading.
That there was, after all, a preponderance of existing game critique seemed to take a little bit of the imperative out of what he was doing with The Journal. If other writers were expressing the kind of ideas that he had about games, in more widely read forums, he found there to be less urgency in saying what he thought.
From day one, Steve had intended for the Story of Games series to be the core theory writing in the zine, and now that he had carried those articles to their natural conclusion it seemed like the most appropriate time to bring The Journal to an end.
Reflecting upon The Journal, he declared it an exercise in diminishing returns. “For being as lo-fi as it was, it was still a lot of work without a lot of… I mean, I got that freelance gig off it, and I talked to some cool people, but I’d already done that stuff, and there wasn’t a lot coming back and I didn’t already have a sweet interview lined up for issue four.”
Steve was proud that he had gotten some industry figures to give him their time and reply to some of his questions, but figured that he had exhausted most of his academic thinking about games. He went into issue three knowing that it would be the last. “Three is a nice, classic number.”
The conclusion of Steve’s free-time project didn’t hurt as much as it might have, because something else had already taken its place. Steve didn’t want to pursue game criticism or game reviewing, nor anything to do with fine art – it was game development. He was convinced of this.
He wanted to help create games, not simply write about the games made by other people, and in that goal he had something new to motivate him. He had already become occupied with learning how to build levels in game editors, and with his attention so swiftly drawn to other things, The Journal passed from his life without incident. “I thought, alright, I’m done with this.”
In what would be The Journal’s final interview, Steve had asked Craig Hubbard about the evolutions of his experience at Monolith. “I've gone from navigating by a mostly intuitive understanding of games”, Hubbard replied, “to developing formalized theories of design and structure that eliminate a lot of guesswork. Like everything, though, the more you know about something, the more you realize there is to learn."
“What if I think I’m going to [make games], but I’m not actually 100% sure? What if I think I want to do it but then I don’t actually enjoy the act of doing it?” For comparison’s sake, Steve had once wanted badly to externalise his thoughts about video games, but stopped after about eight months and three zine issues.
As Rachel was finding a new school, Steve was getting ready to leave one. He was doing his final year of sculpture concentration with a professor named Harrell Fletcher, who was an actively practising conceptual artist. He knew that Steve was not considering contemporary art as any kind of career, but was supportive of what Steve did care about. Fletcher assigned Steve a final exam that was tailored towards his interests.
“Game designers,” Steve had learned, “were the people that were shaping the games in the way that meant the most to me. They were devising what happened in the games. My interest was not in how the games looked, or sounded, or in how sweet the technology was, but in the dynamics of what I did and how the world responded. That’s a game designer’s job.”
“My final project was to spend seven days in my apartment doing nothing but – literally the entire time I was awake – using a level editor to make a video game level and find out how it worked.”
“You’re not going to come to class,” Fletcher told him, “you’re not going to get out and do anything, you’re just going to get up in the morning and you’re going to work on this thing and then you’re going to go to bed at night.”
It was important to test Steve’s resolve, and he knew this not least because he was beginning to doubt some of his own recent decisions. He was wrong about The Journal, for one thing. “I still wanted to write about games and I had ideas for articles in the back of my head.” Only now he had no outlet for those ideas, and with Rachel waiting to hear back from grad schools, he’d soon be leaving behind both the Mercury job and Portland itself.
Since he’d never made any kind of game for an audience before, it was easy to wonder about how concrete his commitment to making games really was. Steve’s goal of being a level designer was nice in theory but his skill and resolve were unproven. If the rigours of this college test were any reasonable measure for how a life in game development was going to go, then it wasn’t going to be all that relaxing from here on out.
Seven days, ten hours a day. Steve had chosen to work with the level editor for Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Using its Unreal engine, he wanted to figure out how to set up a world, or more accurately, an obstacle course that the player could navigate using all of the spy character’s moves: mantling over ledges, climbing up ladders and moving hand over hand across a pipe.
The level Steve was putting together was comprised of abstract geometry: he didn’t concern himself with graphics. The level was based around a spiral construction. A ramp twisted up and around a central column, with chain link fences and sewerage pipes blocking the path. The player was supposed to manoeuvre through these to the top of the tower, where he’d zipline back to the beginning. The goals for the project were small, but Steve thought that they could therefore be reasonably completed in a week of ten-hour days.
Steve wasn’t working in a medium that was technically considered fine art – yet – but this didn’t mean that he hadn’t sufficiently learned about or analysed conventional forms of art. He’d discerned enough to decide that he did not want to be involved with it professionally. “Contemporary fine art has so little relevance to the vast majority of the populace. There’s a very small group of people who make art and a very small group of people who consume art and it’s all really expensive. In the past, fine art was an actual communications medium, ‘cause there wasn’t photography or hundreds or thousands of reporters all over the world taking pictures and sending them back to publications that anyone could read. A painting was actually trying to depict two people, an event or a concept, something that they couldn’t otherwise have knowledge of, and it was important. And even in the 19th century, people in France would go to the Salon and it was a huge cultural event to see the art that was being displayed by young artists.
“Television and film and the internet [make] depiction of concepts and places so ubiquitous. Fine art is nothing more than expensive entertainment for a very small audience, and it’s just entertainment. That’s what art school taught me: art is not important. In this day and age, [fine] art is entertainment for people who have very specific tastes, who are really into the kind of imagery that certain artists make, or in trying to figure out what encoded messages are in this artistic piece about the war in Afghanistan, or whatever, and I’m interested in entertainment but not that kind of entertainment.
“It actually helped to legitimise, in my mind, the idea of working with something like video games, because even… the finest of fine art in this day and age is just entertainment, like any other thing that you can decide to spend your money on. It helped encourage me and think of what I wanted to do as being more valid.” The education of Steve Gaynor had either brought fine art down to the cultural niche of video games, or it had elevated video games to the mainstream respect afforded to fine art.
At the end of the week not only had Steve finished his project – in his Splinter Cell level, you could successfully control the spy, hop a fence, plant a bomb and win the game – but something far more significant had occurred. “I was still really excited about it – like, yep, this is what I want to be doing.”
Steve brought in his level to class, and demonstrated his process to the room of art students, contrasting screenshots of the level editor with the finished product. “None of the other people in the class were into the games they way I was, but they found it interesting…. I [compared] what part of the level looks like when you’re building it compared to when you’re going through it. There was general interest, just [for] the fact that I had committed to it and that I had something tangible to show for it.” The reaction of his classmates wasn’t what was really important, nor was the grade that he received. (It was an A.)
Having put theory into practice, Steve had some measure of internal validation about how he would fare in game design. He’d gone through the same test with producing The Journal, and even after that ceased to be, he knew he wasn’t through with writing about games either.
The thing about The Journal, says Steve, was that “it was always supposed to be ironic, deprecating. Overblown. Self-important. I was pretending that I was doing something with an enormous amount of gravity, just to, on some level, temper the fact that I was doing something completely sincere and serious.” Despite the cover art juxtapositions, there had never really been much of an internal conflict: Steve had meant every pretentious word, and was only cautious about whether anyone else would acknowledge that this sort of thing could be taken seriously. He was joking that he didn’t really mean it, but yes he did.
While Steve was handing out the final issue of The Journal at Powell’s and Backspace and all his usual distributors, Rachel decided where she wanted to get her Ph.D.: she’d accepted an offer from the University of California, San Francisco. Rachel had chosen UCSF because its biomedical science graduate programs were consistently ranked in the nationwide top three, and the particulars of the program appealed more to the medically oriented research that she was interested in.
San Francisco also happened to be a game development city. Unlike Portland, it was a place where Steve could feasibly get hired in a game development role. This was no coincidence: Rachel had been considering all along “whether San Francisco would be a good place for Steven to find a job in the video game industry, and obviously it was.” For Steve, whether to move or not was a no-brainer. “Everything that was important me was going to be in San Francisco.” They moved two weeks after Steve’s graduation day.
(HOW TO GET INTO THE VIDEO GAME INDUSTRY)
If The Journal had a legacy, if it had been at all meaningful, it was as personal catharsis rather than serving as popular entertainment for an audience. “I went from vaguely thinking games were interesting and not knowing exactly why,” says Steve, “to having drilled down on some of those and examined why I cared.
“Any time that there’s something that you think a lot about but you haven’t actually expressed in any structured way, it just is a nebulous ball of interest that you have, but once you start to formalise it… you’re forcing yourself to put your thoughts into a structure and re-examine them.”
Consider all the possible ways of getting into the video game industry. Making a local video game zine seems like a far less obvious path than, say, becoming a tester – and Steve did that too, which likely contributed more directly to his eventually becoming a level designer. A level designer working, by massive coincidence, on sequels to titles made by the same people he’d interviewed for The Journal (or tried to).
The Journal, though, was not irrelevant. The challenges of internet technology no longer a deterrent, Steve transferred his video game writing and criticism for The Journal and the Portland Mercury to two web outlets, one entirely his own and one, shorter-lived, that he worked on with others. The latter got him a press pass to the annual Game Developers Conference, held in – where else – San Francisco. At the conference he met Tim Schafer, who casually greeted him with “oh, hey, Steve” and shook his hand. At the same conference, people recognised him for the writing that he’d done for his personal blog. They were impressed or at least interested by his thoughts on video games, and, crucially, they were in a position to hire him.
His goal of talking to a game designer became the most blasé, normal interaction of his everyday life. It was no longer this idealistic quest to contact a kind of person who only theoretically existed: the people who made games were now the furthest thing from unreachable. Steve Gaynor was one of them.
And between all the money that Steve had spent on The Journal and what he’d earned writing for the Mercury, he was, in the end, up by twenty dollars. That part was nice, as well.