July 31, 2009



The cigarette hanging taut between her lips, she struck a match on the restaurant’s matchbook and lit up. No explanation for the day’s events could possibly placate Abbey right now. May the eighth, 1947, was their ninth wedding anniversary, and it was supposed to be a remembrance and celebration of the love between the two of them. Nothing could be further from where she was tonight.
  They had left the restaurant early, before dessert, because Nathan had decided abruptly that he wanted to check on something at the office. Nathan already worked weekends, and was late home every day, and in Abbey’s strong opinion this was to the detriment of their entire family. Whatever he was working on this week – and who cared, it wasn’t like he was curing cancer – it was clearly something that was more important to him than his wife or his two children. Bringing Abbey here, today, was a complete insult. While she stood under the streetlight by the car, Nathan searched for the key that opened his office door, at a leisurely pace that was annoying. This was supposed to be something special. There wasn’t any time left to make this a good day.

Abbey flicked embers and ash into the gutter and Nathan finally unlocked the double doors. “Come in, okay?” he called from the top of the stairs. “It’s cold.”
  “It’s not that cold.” It was really cold. “I want to wait out here. Are you going to be long?”
  “It isn’t safe for you to be out here by yourself,” Nathan said. “Come inside; you shouldn’t be alone.”

Nathan’s extended absences were a problem. That Abbey didn’t ‘get’ the nature of his work made it all the worse. His job had been too technical, too dull for her when he’d attempted to explain it on their first date. She’d tried to understand, but it wasn’t meant for her. And she never understood what on earth could be so important that he needed to constantly stay late into the night and neglect his family. What was so important that it was worth his wife falling asleep every night alone, and his children only seeing him a couple of times a week?

Abbey pulled her coat around her and walked stiffly up the stairs. Nathan held the door for her to enter the building.
  “I don’t like it when you smoke,” he said, stepping inside and closing the door behind him.
  “Why not?” She took another drag and tried to make it look indignant, if that was something you could express with a cigarette.
  “It makes your clothes smell. It makes me not want to be around you.”
  Abbey shrugged as she exhaled.
  “I’ll be a minute,” said Nathan, and set off down the hall. Abbey waited by the doors, and looked through the small window to the street outside. She breathed in again.

Abbey’s younger sister Bethany was baby-sitting the children, and Abbey found some solace in not having to worry about how they were doing. Bethany was fun; she had been fun since she was born and had never lost the ability to get people to like her. Abbey’s sons liked her more than they liked Abbey. Bethany had her own apartment in Manhattan, and kept the details of her life private from her sister. When Abbey had married and become pregnant in a fit of excitement, it immediately made her boring in Bethany’s eyes; as if Abbey would be scandalised by anything that Bethany could reveal about herself.

Abbey stabbed her cigarette out on the nearest wall, the clicking of her heels against the floor echoing down the hall as she left her post. At the restaurant earlier, she’d introduced a leading question into the conversation.
  What you would be if you could be anything in the world? I mean, what would you really want to be if you weren’t already who you are?
  She had been thinking about what she used to do before she’d decided to have a normal life instead. She tried creative things throughout her early twenties, and as she explored them in her spare time, she hoped that she could one day make a living at it. She did think that she was talented.
  Abbey had given up doing what she loved in order to fall in love. At her young age, giving her hand away was both the responsible thing to do and the exciting thing to do. The responsibility part took over fast.
  Abbey knew it had been thrilling to wear an engagement ring for the first time, and that she’d shown it off, rotating her fingers in every possible direction and watching it reflect under every available source of light. At 35, dulled and circling the band idly around her finger, she could not remember what it was like to feel that way.
  She didn’t remember the person she was in 1938. What had she wanted to be when she was twenty? What had she wanted to be when she had married him? What hadn’t she been for the last nine years?
  “A writer,” she had said at dinner. “I want to be a journalist.”
  “Well,” said Nathan, “that was predictable.”

Nathan had asked her what she would write about, and Abbey had difficulty coming up with an answer. At the end of the hall, Abbey looked back to the windows set in the double doors, and saw the streetlight outside faltering.
  She opened to the door to Nathan’s office, which for some maddening reason didn’t have the lights on even though Nathan was sitting right there at his desk amidst rows of television sets.
  “Nathan,” she said, and thought about everything that she could say, and something that she might say that would fix everything, “I want to go home.”
  “Let me do one more thing,” Nathan said, getting up from his desk and switching on one of the televisions. “Watch this, this is interesting.”
  “You’re showing me a television set.”
  Nathan knelt down to make sure the cables were properly connected.
  “Come on, let’s...” She watched him not pay attention. “Nathan, I don’t think I – ”
  “Wait,” he said, and the monitor sparked into life; spawning green dots of light arranged in a pattern across the spherical monitor. It looked to Abbey like a targeting device; like something she imagined would be standard issue on a submarine. Nathan stood up and twisted one of the monitor’s dials. The lights jumped across the screen.
  Abbey took a step closer. “What was that?”
  “See this?” he said, pointing to an overlay sheet placed across the monitor. It looked like graph paper, with a crude sketch of an airplane in the middle. “I’m trying to hit that.”
  “What are you talking about?”
  “These dials,” Nathan said, pointing to the deck of controls assembled underneath the monitor, “determine the angle and speed of the missile. You don’t see the trajectory until you turn the third dial. That launches the missile along the path that you’ve set.”
  “I don’t see a missile.”
  “This dot. Think of it as a missile.” Nathan pointed to the lower right corner of the screen. “You start here. You’re trying to hit the plane here, in the center. Watch.” The dot jutted out in a path across the monitor, where it soared over the airplane by half an inch.
  “It moved. You moved that,” Abbey insisted, as though she’d caught him at something. “Did you make this?”
  “The goal is to hit the plane.” Nathan aimed again, controlling for the speed and height of his shot, and they watched his shot rise and fall in a parabola underneath the target.
  “Why can’t you shoot in a straight line?” asked Abbey.
  “Because that would be too easy.”
  She looked at him, confused.
  “You’re not supposed to just be able to hit it,” he said, turning to her. “You have to take care, and you have to develop some skill. If you don’t, then there isn’t any point otherwise. The idea is that it’s a game. The idea is to make it a challenge. It can’t move in a straight line, it needs to be made a little bit difficult, because then there’s something at the end for you to win. Pretend as if this is real.”
  “Why is it fun when you can’t even hit it, twice?”
  “Because you get better at it.”
  Abbey looked back at the expectant light show. “I can’t believe you made this.”
  “Do you want to try?” he asked.
  “What?” She shook her head. “No. No. Nathan, I don’t know how.”
  “Come on. Put your hands here.”
  “On the dials.”
  Abbey tentatively stepped up to the monitor and placed each of her hands on the dials under the screen.
  “The left one,” said Nathan, pointing from over her shoulder, “controls the angle.”
  Abbey turned the dial clockwise in minute increments without any idea of what she was doing. “Nathan, no, I can’t do this.”
  “It’s fine,” he said, “just picture it. Imagine that it’s the war.” Nathan laid his left hand over Abbey’s, and she tensed up at the contact.
  “Move, okay? We’re aiming now,” he said.
  “Okay,” Abbey said, concentrating, “go up. Let’s go up.”
  “Move up?”
  The dial turned, and she imagined the path of the missile tracing upwards across the target.
  “No,” said Abbey, quickly, “no, you just had it.”
  “Go down. A little bit.”
  “How far? Now?”
  “Yes -- don’t – stop!” She laughed. “Alright, now, now!”
  “Yes! Go now!”
  The shot launched out of the corner and as she watched the trajectory her throat clenched. The missile inched closer, bearing down on the center of the screen, and at the moment that it struck the airplane, the picture jarred out of focus. The reverberations withdrew, and the spot where the missile had collided changed into an expanding circle that grew by sudden degrees before receding. Abbey’s hands went limp.
  The monitor flickered and reset. In the dark, the lights shone on her face: green light poised to touch green light, inviting her to start again.

Nathan slipped his hands off hers and stepped back from the monitor. “That’s all,” he said. “I’m ready to leave now.”
  “Wait,” Abbey grabbed his hand. “Tell me how it works.”

July 27, 2009

40 Pages, Black & White


“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: “theinternet@digiverse.net”. 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.

JULY 2009

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.


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."

APRIL 2005

“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.

JULY 2009

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.

July 23, 2009

A Fight To Remember

He is a sunken and bare chested young man who wears eyeshadow, styles his hair like a skunk ("skunk wave") and has a mustache tattooed on his face. His name is Ghat. This is you.

You are introduced to Ghat immediately after Zeno Clash begins. Ghat is fleeing his home city after having done something truly weird. He's killed his Father-Mother (which is what you think it is, but worse) and now he has to escape before he gets iced by a bipedal pig, dual wielding fish-mounted pistols. With his horned girlfriend in tow, Ghat is running away from the surreal and towards the even stranger things that wait outside the walls. He might think that he's running away from the circus, but he's pretty much only crossing from the freak tent to the bearded lady's caravan.

Interspersed in this sequence is a tutorial that teaches you at length how to punch and how to block, like that was the part that needed an explanation.

Zeno Clash is a first-person brawler that operates as a linear tour through arenas stacked with multiple opponents. It takes the first part of its name from its fictional setting of Zenozoik. Zenozoik is a deliberate reference to the Cenozoic era, the age of mammals: whales, sabretoothed tigers, elephants with hammers, hermaphroditic creation myths, and multi-species families decked out in metal helmets, peacock feathers and probosces. Ghat's sister wears a wicker hat and an exoskeleton blouse, his brother looks like the kind of creature that would wash up on a New Jersey beach, destined to appear on a shocking tabloid cover.

The world of Zeno Clash is like an entire game in the style of Star Wars' Mos Eisley cantina: a montage of aliens, puppets and makeup-caked actors; all completely unique designs and all quickly bypassed, never lingering upon their inherent strangeness and never venturing any backstory. To play Zeno Clash is to be exposed to condensed and casual absurdity in such a short span of time before you get to process it.

If the game ever explains its characters, it's in the succinct and thought-provoking detail of a Twilight Zone parable. One creature wants to be invisible, which he achieves by ripping out people's eyes. Another is a dome-headed hulk walking in a straight line across the world until a rock gets in his way and he dies. Those two make sense, kind of, but how about the bounty hunter who can summon an army of parachutist squirrels with kegs of dynamite strapped to their backs? Never underestimate Zeno Clash's penchant for the inexplicable. The story is fairly simple, the plot basic enough to follow, but its systems of genetics and biology are altogether something else.

The story is, more accurately, a loose framework that allows the player to witness and murder concept art. You and Ghat head out into the desert, see and hit some things and then return. Neither Ghat nor his girlfriend ever appear all that perplexed by their crazy encounters, probably because none of it is any stranger than what they grew up with. So you get that there is no real baseline for what is "normal" in Zenozoik.

Zeno Clash being an independently-developed PC game written in English by non-native English speakers -- Chilean, in this case -- and there's the occasional piece of suspect translation. It'd be shocking if there wasn't, at this point. These instances invite you to guess about how daunting Zeno Clash is really supposed to be: whether some details are simply being unfortunately lost in translation, or that it is, actually, all this weird.

Is it surrealist for surrealism's sake, or is it a fictional universe that makes perfect sense to a development team lead by three Chilean brothers? Zenozoik and its inhabitants very plausibly could have been the kind of fictional place collaboratively designed by three brothers growing up together, manifesting itself in the short stories and ballpoint-drawn comics of sixteen-year-olds before achieving public legitimacy as a downloadable video game.

Is there anything behind the Zeno Clash weirdness? Propelled through Zeno Clash's series of arenas, you can consider the possible allegorical or metaphorical implications, the artistic intentions, rationalise events as poignant or significant, and then you break some dude's nose and save the philosophy for later. Herein lies the answer.

Ghat's confused because he murdered somebody and left home, and we're confused because what the fuck is this place. How do we both work through our separate anxieties? We fight. At no point do you care less about what Zeno Clash might "mean" than when you're grabbing the nearest, sharpest stick and bringing it down upon the head of a bloodied woolly mammoth.

It's remarkable how a game like this can be so complicated and so simple at the same time. The Zeno is abstract and inscrutable, and the Clash; you've played this before. Zeno Clash would be more intimidating if the impenetrable fiction accessorized with impenetrable gameplay, i.e. if it played like something from the Myst series. Instead, this game is at once familiar and unfamiliar. The mechanics are as traditional as the fiction is alien, and ultimately you can cut through the pervasive oddities because, you will find, you speak the only language that matters.

Zeno Clash is a really conventional game in a lot of ways. The movements are simple: you lock onto enemies and circle them, clicking a button for a basic attack, holding it for a powered attack, and pressing another button to block. There are combinations of these three moves that deploy some more sophisticated techniques, and you can figure out when to time your blocks, how to break someone else's block and when to grab enemies and throw them into one another... or you could just press that basic attack button over and over again, clicking insistently as you beat your enemies into boring, effective submission.

Zeno Clash intentionally evokes the spirit of classic fighting games with sliding versus screens that announce your opponents before you do battle. It doesn't even need to do this if it wants to draw the comparison. To anyone who's played those games, Zeno Clash is immediately recognisable. The similarity is not about aesthetics, it's about feeling. Zeno Clash is like every fighting game, it has the same repertoires and taps into the same emotional responses.

Like every fighting game, Zeno Clash will, from time to time, compel in you a sense of absolute brutality. These are the moments where you really, genuinely want to beat the shit out of something. This is when you get thrown to the floor by a gargantuan boss character, and you hammer the keys to try and speed up or bypass the animation for Ghat getting back on his feet. That animation wastes so much of your time, and the other guy is still throwing punches while you're not even permitted to mouselook.

These are the moments where you're totally thrashed and reduced to the lowest fraction of your health bar, but you are fully aware that you've never got so far before. This is when you are so absolutely fixated on destroying something, and you click the mouse three times which translates into punching the guy onto his knees, uppercutting his face and kicking him in his stomach, and every contact wound is so satisfying because at that moment you have never been so close to victory.

These are the moments where you just made it, after too many times when you didn't. This is the feeling of finally beating a game's greatest challenge when you already have so little health your character should be dead. This isn't triumph, or pride, even if you think that's how you're supposed to feel. This is pure adrenaline, this is rage, that leaves you panting over a virtual corpse. It takes you that place where you are you are mentally ready to bash in the teeth of a moleman. You'd really do it. This is a feeling dissipates in a second when the next enemy pings you in the head with a crossbow, and then you repeat forever if necessary.

A lack of quicksave in a game can result in a different style of play. In Shadow of the Colossus, needing to deliver the takedown in one unbroken take turns boss fights into improvised art. You have to hit all your marks, all your steps: leaping from horses, across wings, being thrown around by the wind and clutching tightly to the surface as you're dragged underwater. Performing it is something spectacular. That's about precision, that's about grace.

Zeno Clash is another kind of desperation. The fights have no progression, no separate stages. There aren't any dance steps to learn except the first one: tear this guy apart, now. Smash this thing in the face with a mallet. Zeno Clash is messy.

The visuals are like no game before it, and the mechanics are like every game. It's a style of gameplay memorable to anyone who's played video games. The world is strange, the characters are stranger, but you know how to interact with it. And that doesn't necessarily make half of the game disappointing -- it's a balance. The familiar and the unfamiliar. You've been trained how to navigate this place.

You've been here before. You remember what it's like to see an enemy coming at you, you remember how to think, how to act, how to respond. This is you. This is the last thirty seconds of a Street Fighter match when you're down to no health. This is rapidly button-matching your way through quick-time events in God of War and coating the the controller in sweat. This is being the last person alive on your Counter-Strike team. This is the part of Shadow of the Colossus when you do bring the sword down, again and again, swinging around wildly as you clutch to a patch of fur. It doesn't matter that this time it looks weird. This is home.

Maybe it's too bad that a game with such a strong visual imagination is entirely about kicking people in the face.

But violence is your compass. You'd be lost without it.

July 18, 2009

A Trilogy In Seven Parts


I ran into a former college professor, who's a pretty highly regarded poet and essayist. He asked me what I was up to, I said "writing about video games," and he looked at me like I had a huge booger hanging out of my nose.

Does anybody grow up wanting to be a game journalist anymore? Did they ever? It definitely seems like it was more of a possibility then and less of one now.

In retrospect, I think that game journalism throughout the eighties and most of the nineties was about appealing directly to the imagination of twelve-year-old boys. The staff of gaming magazines didn't call themselves journalists but gaming
experts, who could master the most difficult of titles and had access to all the latest tips, tricks and secrets. So that made them eminently qualified to write for a magazine. They knew your favourite hot new games inside and out, and in that way they like a better quality of person, at least to the male adolescent brain. This was how you validated your drastically uncool hobby: you could, one day, get paid to play and write about video games.

Since then, the internet has made it far easier for anyone to broadcast an opinion worldwide, and consequently far less prestigious to do so. Publishers and developers are able to bypass the press almost entirely. There's a far greater volume of games writing available and much of it is bad (not that it was very good back then) and gets ripped apart by the internet with a little too much schadenfreude -- devaluing the entire profession by association. Gamers distill articles and personalities down to pro/con biases and polemically champion/diminish the source. Developers declare negative reviews of their games to be "irresponsible journalism". The ostensibly "smart" critics eulogise gaming journalism every time someone at Kotaku makes a typo. Also
, print is dead. From the outside, being a gaming journalist doesn't look like such a fun thing to be anymore.

Late last year, Cliff Bleszinski was profiled in
The New Yorker. One of the more bizarre moments in that article comes when Bleszinski takes the author for a joyride in his Lamborghini and proclaims that "One of my jobs in life is to make this" -- referring to game development -- "look a little cooler." He's even wearing sunglasses when he says this. Presumably he then goes on to draw alongside a convertible filled with college girls at a red light and rev his engine.

Bleszinski, in that moment -- the real moment, not the one I made up, although that too -- is still the little kid on the playground reading EGM and thinking how impossibly cool it would be if you got to play, make or write about games for a living. Fast cars and sunglasses are the kind of game industry career fantasy that's attractive to that kid. It's about self-consciously attaching glamour to a profession and a medium that is fundamentally not that sexy.

If it's not cool to be a game journalist anymore, it should be, and for one reason alone. The writing is better than ever. The bad writing is still bad, and there may be more of it, but the good writing is better than at any other point in history. Take a look at the standard of publishing in 1989: this isn't even a contest. Today's best print journalists, industry analysts and reviewers are sharper, more intelligent, more erudite. They write what they honestly
think instead of getting hung up on cheat codes and exclamation points and marketing cycles, and so maybe this means professional games writing doesn't ensorcell preteens like it once did, and it doesn't instill the same kind of blind enthusiasm and devotion in its audience anymore. But if it's not so focussed on appealing to kids, then it can start appealing to adults instead. It has started.

Initially I thought I would talk examples of writing I liked, then decided I'd rather talk to the writers that I like. From most of the professional game journalists that I spoke with, I learned that journalists talk about what they like about games journalism with the reluctance of clinical depressives asked to talk about what they like about themselves. And it occurs to me that portraying game journalists and journalism in a light that's not relentlessly sarcastic is also very uncool on my part.



SIMON PARKIN: There are lots of reasons to write about videogames for money: videogames and money, for instance. Of course, in time you discover that neither the money nor the videogames are usually any good but even so, for the passionate adolescent gamer (which is still how most videogame journalists enter the field), the perks of free games and exclusive access can be persuasive.

But these perks don’t sustain or nourish over the long-term, which is probably why so few game journalists remain in the job past thirty-five. As with any vocation, true job satisfaction comes from doing enjoyable work and doing it well. In terms of writing about videogames, that can be the moment you describe a game world or system in a way that puts into words what readers were feeling but unable to articulate themselves, or the moment that you make some fresh analysis that frames the discussion in a new way.

But for all good journalists, no matter what their field, the height of professional satisfaction is surely found in rooting out an interesting story and telling it in an interesting way to an interested readership. This is a rare opportunity in game journalism because so much of our story-writing is PR-led, writers acting as mere conduits for publishers, passing preset information from developer to consumer. As such, most of the stories the gaming press deals in aren’t really stories at all.

Indeed, the tussle to be the first to publish a list of developer facts is as undignified as it is un-enduring. Once Wikipedia has been filled with the details of your latest Final Fantasy, Metal Gear or Halo interview, what value is left in the remaining husk of your work? There may be a certain frisson in being the first to report on a new title in a beloved franchise, but that story would have broken with or without you, in much the same way. The realization of that reality brings with it little to pull you from your bed each day.

So, for me, the times when I’ve felt most fulfilled in this industry have been those times I’ve been able to write a story about a game that’s somehow enduring, usually by exploring the humanity behind or within a product, or the culture that surrounds it. It’s in writing something of value that, in one way or another, might not have appeared if it weren’t for your seeking it out and writing it down.

By way of illustration, last year I had the chance to interview the maker of an obscure Japanese-only Sega Dreamcast title, Segagaga. It’s a videogame about a console-maker on the verge of collapse, made by a console-maker on the verge of collapse. Released in 2001, on almost the exact same day the Dreamcast was discontinued and Sega began their withdrawal from the console manufacturing business, it offers its player the chance to rewrite history. A kind of business-RPG, you’re charged with turning Sega’s ailing fortunes around, making the console side of its business a success and taking the company to the top of the industry.

The idea that a Japanese company whose hardware division was in terminal decline should fund a game in which players were offered the chance to address the very same issues its executives were wrestling with is unprecedented. That the game even exists illustrates why many people hold the Sega of that era so dearly, and yet very little is known about the game’s gestation in Japan or the West.

In interviewing Tez Okano, the man who single-handedly came up with the concept and managed to shepherd it through a difficult and underfunded development to release, I had the chance to tell a fascinating story that touches on all manner of issues pertinent to the industry today.

Okano-san was extremely chatty, in a way that Japanese interviewees rarely are, and the strong flavour of his anecdotes turned a good story into a great one: things that I can in no way take credit for. Nevertheless, it was, in very real terms, a neat story that might have remained untold without my telling it. I wish I could do that more often.


NICK BRECKON: My story isn't so much a story about my career as it is about the guy that gave me it.

I'd originally planned to write about one of the many life-changing events from the course of my storied tenure at Shacknews, but there were almost too many to choose from. For instance, there was that great one-liner from line 16 of my BlizzCon 07 liveblog--a real classic. There's the time I snuck in a short nap during Hideo Kojima's keynote address. And then the infamous free food; the Banjo Kazooie pre-release event was a career highlight in that respect.

Yeah, I've been to a lot of places and gladly eaten a lot of shit in the last two years, but if I had to pick the first and greatest moment that made me think a career in games journalism was worthwhile, it'd be the secondhand recollection of a story that Chris Remo once told me.

It's no complicated or scandalous tale, but as a newcomer to the field at the time it was told, it was incredibly instructive. Hopefully he doesn't mind me retelling this. I didn't ask him. For the sake of the story, let's pretend I asked him.

It goes like this: Chris had played an early version of Castle Crashers at some conference--I believe it was GDC 2006--and sort of hated it. Maybe he didn't totally hate it, but for the sake of the story, let's say he thought it was complete garbage.

Chris being Chris, he doesn't beat around the bush and flat-out tells The Behemoth guys what he thinks. "Your game is complete garbage," he probably said, and likely went on to detail its many flaws and shortcomings. A few slaps were exchanged, possibly.

Chris previews the game again at Comic-Con 2007, and it's undergone a complete redesign. He writes the game up again, gives it a favorable preview. Then, sometime later on, The Behemoth guys tell him that his original critique was a significant factor in their decision to refashion the game. And that's the story.

Now, if he'd told me that story today, I probably would have thought it was just a neat thing. But back then, a few months into the job, it was somewhat revelatory. I wouldn't say that particular event changed the way I approached game journalism in any tangible way, but it certainly opened my eyes to a broader context for our work.

The face of games journalism is so focused on serving the consumer audience that the idea of actual game developers caring about anything I wrote hadn't much occurred to me. That story gave a weight to the words that I hadn't known to measure beforehand; made me realize that the articles I wrote had the potential for greater impact than a few idle comments. More importantly, it proved the value of staying truly honest, a policy I've tried very hard to follow.

It's no mini-hamburger, but it was a good lesson to learn, and stories like that have certainly helped me become more comfortable in my role as a game journalist.

Come to think of it, I never did play Castle Crashers. Bonus lesson: you don't really have to play the games you write about. Man, that story was just full of lessons.


Jason Rohrer, the counterculture indie "art game" developer behind Passage, Between and Gravitation, gets called a sellout for signing with a creative advertising agency. The agency's name is Tool, which invites obvious condemnations of artistic betrayal. Why would a developer ever be labeled a sellout for anything other than a fanboy's reasons? In Rohrer's case, it's because we know him. We learned who he was and what his values were when Jason Fagone wrote about him in Esquire, and then when he was profiled, as a follow-up of sorts, in Robert Ashley's outstanding and sorely irregular A Life Well Wasted podcast.

Rohrer supports himself, his wife and their two children on $14,500 a year -- an income sourced from Paypal donations and a two-year patronage from one of the guys who made Bink Video. Rohrer outlines his environmentally-conscious lifestyle on his website. In Ashley's podcast, Rohrer notes that he's stuck to his sustainable ideals, bought a cheap house that's also no good, but that he's starting to be troubled by how a life of making art games for no money is going to send his kids to college.

"The house is also really musty and damp, and my wife has asthma," he says, "and it's gotten worse and worse as we've lived there longer and longer... we can sell our house for $50,000, maybe. And then where are we going to get another house? Because housing prices have gone up everywhere.... We're facing... how idealism kind of hits reality, and then you are sort of stuck in this situation where, what's worse: me making a game for the iPhone or my wife, eventually, taking ten years off her life because of asthma, you know?"

"The answer seems fairly obvious," Ashley observes.

A narrative is forming around Rohrer's public life, and it's not about how he progresses as a game designer or what studio he works for or how much his games sell. It's not even about whether he proves that games can be art, really. The story is about his crazy ideals and how long he can remain true to them. Rohrer wonders, in A Life Well Wasted, what will happen if he ventures into commercial game development: will he be able to keep spending $14,000 a year, or will his lifestyle adjust to match his new salary?

Rohrer doesn't want to give up his values, or is reluctant to. This seems insane to everyone listening to the podcast, given the conservative extremes of his choices, and that his wife's health and children's futures are at stake. I believe that his situation, abstracted enough, is understandable to anyone. Rohrer's dilemma is about fundamentally compromising the person that he wants to be. He doesn't want to abandon his ideals and become the kind of person who considers ideals to be exclusively the province of young. He's been living his dream for years, and because he's held onto it for as long as he has, it's ridiculous to think that it's simply impossible to make it work -- he just hasn't figured out how to do it, long-term. If he has to compromise, he's probably never going to get back to how he wants to live his life. That's what "selling out" means -- not earning a paycheck, developing games for the Xbox 360 or selling Passage on the iPhone for a dollar. There's so much inherent drama to the Jason Rohrer story, and all of it without mentioning what's noteworthy about his games.

This is a transitional period for gaming journalism. You're starting to get biographies written about people in the game industry, completely separate from their roles as creative directors or programmers. As referenced earlier, Tom Bissell rode in a car with CliffyB. John Seabrook shadowed Will Wright, David Kushner reconstructed the history of Carmack and Romero. These pieces are the exceptions to feature writing about games. As an audience, we still don't know much about developers' lives beyond the games that they produce. Is it just hard to find subjects who are suitably fascinating, or is it easier for non-game journalists to look beyond the reasons why the games are interesting, and write about the people instead?

Still, nobody would have ever thought to write about Jason Rohrer if he didn't make games. People aren't interesting to people who don't know them until they produce some great work, at which point journalists are able to look back and find out what made them interesting in the first place.

Rohrer is an interesting person by any standard. More interesting than his games, arguably, and the downside of that is that when his life becomes public in magazine profiles, he opens himself up to being called a sellout for making a deal with an advertising company.

For allegories, art games, parables, whatever they are: Rohrer's games are actually very simple and easily understood. They are ideas and emotions expressed entirely through gameplay mechanics. Melancholia, aging, separation, loss. That's surely a challenge to communicate as a developer, but not to understand as a player. Rohrer's games are no less laudable as achievements for this, but they all click for you at a certain point and then they're effectively over. You understand the intent, you get the message. There is nothing to be gained from playing it a second time. You're not going to learn anything interesting after they click for you.

You get the point. His games click. But the thing about
Jason Rohrer, the person, is that he never will.


MITCH KRPATA: I always wanted to be a writer, and this is where I think I have a decent chance to make a mark, moreso than if I were pursuing fiction or something. With games, I feel like I have a chance to say something nobody's ever said before. (Not that I actually have done that. But the possibility is there!)

Plus, seeing your name in print never gets old. Even though blogging is awesome, and it's where most of the best games writing is happening these days, being published on dead trees is thrilling and empowering and legitimizing and lots of other participles. If you're working in new media, it's easy to disparage traditional print media, but I think deep down everybody craves that validation.

The money's nice, too. Which is not to say the money is good, it's a pittance for the amount of work it takes -- barely more than minimum wage, if you do the math -- but what could be better than getting paid for your hobby? I'd be playing video games with my spare time anyway.


KIERON GILLEN: I can't really choose one moment. If there wasn't a promise of a resplendent, transforming, beatific moment every few weeks, I doubt I'd have stuck it out for a month, let alone the decade-and-a-half I've put in. There's a mass of shit you have to swallow, but there's chocolate mixed in that slurry. As a chocoholic, I have to gag it all down. I've no choice.

Let's go with the first professional review I wrote. I was approached in a nightclub by the DJ, who was also a staff writer for the immortal Amiga Power. He asked me if I'd be interested in writing for them, as my writing had caught the editor's eye. Well, yes.

I wander into the office, and have an audience. I get lobbed the A500 version of UFO and a bank note from hell. That is, my soul being bought, right then. And I laughed then, and I laughed now, because it's leavened with the sense that there may have been something actually Faustian in that moment. And - hey - fuck it. It's not as if I was using my soul anyway.

So I go and review the game. It's an amazing game, but the conversion is ludicrously terrible. I mainly play it on a friend's Amiga in the Student residence, getting enough play then going off to write it. I crouch with a notebook, in the corner of a room where a guy's hitting on my friends, with the pair of them smoking magic mushrooms as I scribble out the piece ("There are no more heroes". Which, as far as first lines paid for money goes, at least was in character). I hand in the review.

Forward a month, the morning after another nightclub trip, but 200 miles away. Grabbing a copy from the shelves and flicking through and seeing myself immortalised in ink.

I've never quite got over that buzz. The moment of creation, the moment of contact, the moment when you realise that stuff you loved - and I loved games journalism like I loved few things - IS NOW BEING DONE BY YOU. You are becoming what you desired, stepping over into the mirror. It's not like being God. It's like being Christ, and ascending. You know there's a chance you're doing to other people's brains what other people did to yours.

You know it's pointless. You know it's the most important thing in the world. It's all you've ever wanted. It's amazing. I recommend it to anyone who's functionally insane.


CHRIS REMO: When a few like-minded internet friends and I founded the never-fully-defined game site Idle Thumbs, we were practically giddy. We weren't very involved with the games industry on a professional level at the time, and, as with Idle Thumbs itself, all of our prior journalism activities had been done on a volunteer basis. The already surprisingly small industry seemed even smaller to us than it does now. But because that meant we occupied a slightly larger part of it, I think our potential impact seemed lager.

We had innumerable disagreements about what exactly Idle Thumbs was "supposed" to be (disagreements that led to eventual dysfunction on staff) but we were all of similar mind that it was to represent a more human, less by-the-numbers approach to games writing. Kieron Gillen's infamous manifesto on The New Games Journalism had coincidentally been published within weeks of Idle Thumbs' public launch. We twittered excitedly about it on the staff forum; we had different opinions, but the fact that somebody else of a certain stature had similar complaints about the old games journalism, and suggested doing something about it, made us feel like we were part of some zeitgeist.

Given all of that, it's no surprise that, while we did make the annual trek to E3, some of us were far more excited about the Game Developers Conference, where the creative energy is palpable as developers from all over the world gather to say really grand things about the future of game design. (It remains my favorite event of the year.) Being able to attend GDC and meet some of the developers we had often discussed -- we sat down for a long talk with Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas, the pair behind Thumbs favorite Façade, and I met Tim Schafer on the streets of San Jose after the Game Developers Choice Awards while dorkily wearing a Full Throttle shirt -- made the extremely small thing we were doing feel much more real.

That feeling came to a head, for me at least, a couple of months later when I wrote I Kill You... a ranting editorial expressing my frustration with the seemingly regressive nature of games and emotion and their obsession with violence over all other forms of human interaction. It's the kind of piece that I don't think I could write now, as a "professional" game journalist -- at least not as easily as I did back then, when I had no idea if lots of other people had already made the same point, or whether I was making it well. It had a certain naivete that came with being an impassioned volunteer journalist, and that I sometimes miss.

The article was linked by a number of designers and commentators more clever and respected than I, and it all came to a head when it was included in the August 2004 edition of the International Game Developers Association -- an email list to which I was of course subscribed. To all of us on staff, this was a bigger deal than it really was, particularly so for me. At that moment, it felt like everything we were trying to do (and we still didn't exactly agree on what that was, but that was okay) was somehow working, that the right people were seeing what we were doing, that we were having an impact.

I don't remember how long that wonderfully amateur sensation, crystallized by that IGDA link, lasted, but to me it somehow justified all of the time and money and travel and debate and effort we were spending on a non-profit, but extremely earnest, endeavor. And it still does.

July 12, 2009

Repeat Forever If Necessary

In a lifetime of playing video games, I never wanted to make them. In the last three years, I've made friends with video game developers, but never once have I asked them why they wanted to do that for a living. Instead of asking them now, I came up with my own explanation for why it's so wonderful to create video games. I.e., from the mind of someone who doesn't understand what's so great about making video games. This rationale, I'm sure, falls somewhere between arrogant, saccharine and inaccurate. You'll miss all this when I'm gone.

If you're writing a story, linearity and non-interactivity have obvious benefits. Games by their nature are an interactive medium and it's hard telling a story with fixed themes, plot events, characters and atmospheric elements while letting the player change all of those at their leisure. It's hard to create contingencies that anticipate everything the player might want to do, obviously, but maybe the writer likes what they wrote, thinks it's important to the game overall, and isn't going to let anyone screw around with it. Even a small and relatively logical design choice like having the wasteland of Fallout 3 be bleak annoys certain players so much that they'll only play it with a mod that turns the skies blue, peaceful and postcard-happy.

In making a video game you have to sacrifice authorship to some degree. Most single-player games, which try and relay scripted stories, compromise -- they convey the plot is conveyed entirely via cutscenes, for instance -- and there's nothing inherently inspiring about a compromise. If that's the approach you're going to take, why not make a novel or film instead? You won't be cresting the wave of new media but you retain creative control where it matters. These are the drawbacks, but think about what you get in return for putting your efforts into making a game.

According to the most classic definition possible, games are not stories or narratives. They are rulesets designed to live in perpetuity and whose potential can never be exhausted. Individual instances of the game can be won or lost, but the game itself never ends.

Rules are important but they aren’t interesting by themselves. The individual fascination comes from who the players happen to be, and the social dynamics that result from whoever occupies those positions. In sports, the players are more famous than the designers. I can name a dozen baseball players before I can tell you who was baseball’s creative director.

Games -- in every permutation except for those games more preoccupied with relating a fixed story in a single-player environment -- are most valuable as a framework for social interaction than as a narrative. Challenge isn’t even that important. The kind of drama that will really resonate with players results not from the villain's secret plan, but which teams are playing against each other, what the odds are, and who do you know that’s a fan of this team over the other.

This is true of sports, card games, board games and some video games. It’s certainly the case with multiplayer games or party games. Games depend on people as a resource, and so long as there are interesting people around, the game in question will stay relevant and important. Counter-Strike today is less about shooting fictional terrorists and more about an ad-hoc team of “professional” Counter-Strike players/college dropouts touring Texas in a van. World of Warcraft can be less about gryphons or gold than which players end up getting married or murdered in real life. Real interpersonal tensions emerge in your fake rock band and someone genuinely surprises you by having an amazing singing voice. Even Donkey Kong can experience a relative cultural renaissance when it becomes identified with the personal sagas of Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe rather than Jumpman.

Games remain important as long as there are people to play them. Games at their most successfully mainstream are also the most vacant of authorship. There are people who think Call of Duty is the nerdiest thing ever but will not blink at joining in a game of Rock Band. Games can be about creating opportunities for players to leave their fingerprints all over the experience.

Games can become personal in a way that appreciating a masterful narrative is not. It's harder for an audience to take ownership of that. If I ever have children, I bet that in their lifetimes that they are much more likely to play Tetris than Heavy Rain. And as gratifying as it can be to have someone laugh at your jokes, isn’t it more satisfying to create something that stands for eternity?

Think about what that’s worth. This might not be the primary reason why people make games, but what a reason!

Most single-player video games are not like this. The variability that they do offer is severely limited. Games are the only medium that replicates the conventional styles of storytelling of film or prose and then tries to make them infinitely repeatable. Rarely are these attempts at immortality elegant. Video games will scatter moments of possible variation throughout a preordained story just to claim that the game has a lifespan longer than any single player’s interest.

Increasingly, games are rendered in such high fidelity and at such great expense that it’s not cost-effective to deliver choices that can have a truly significant impact on the direction of the story. There’s no obvious reason to go back through these games because, despite what it promises, nothing of consequence will be very different.

The ethical dilemma that is the beating heart of BioShock, for instance – whether to redeem the little sisters’ souls or redeem them for prizes – barely affects the game except for the 30-second cutscene that you see before the credits. You can choose from a handful of avatars in Far Cry 2, and this will change a few of the characters that appear. But it doesn’t affect at all the story that is being told or that the resident militants will fire upon your Irish terrorist as readily as they will upon your Israeli terrorist.

Even if the particular choices are significant, how many players will truly appreciate the variety? Deus Ex can be played as a super-intelligent hacker or as a double-fisted, heavy artillery linebacker, but whatever approach I chose the first time, I chose because I liked it more. I’m not going to vary my play style away from what I actually enjoy just because it’s a theoretically possible to do so. It’s great that I get to play the way that I would prefer, but that doesn’t entice me to try it another way.

Replayability in single-player games is an exploration in limitation. But single-player games that tell linear stories don’t need to be infinitely repeatable to be powerful. I do wish that games that want to be more like interactive stories would offer less choice in most cases. Once a player discovers how little the “choices” in Far Cry 2 or Grand Theft Auto IV differ from one another, it can’t possibly improve anyone’s opinion of the game. I would rather that the games which want to tell a fixed story were more confident in doing so – instead of pretending that the players have more influence than the developer is actually willing to relinquish.

Metal Gear Solid's cutscene-to-gameplay balance is famously out of proportion with what is expected of a typical video game. This video game has always wanted to be far more like a movie than like Scrabble, and given the series’ verbosity, its choice of format is probably not all that beneficial to the game in question. There’s a lot to criticise about Metal Gear Solid, and Hideo Kojima could probably stand to bring in his brother-in-law to edit his screenplays, but there’s no reason that the kind of narrative model Metal Gear Solid uses shouldn’t exist. Even if it means calling it an interactive story instead of a game. Call it a ractive, I’m ready for that now. Call it anything that doesn’t make the developers feel obliged to intersperse inconsequential agency in their long cinematic to be legitimate.

I don't know why Hideo Kojima wants to make video games. I don't know why developers place such an emphasis on replayability when it usually means so little, unless it's there as review insurance, implemented out of expectation. But this is an exploration in my limitations now.