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 Fa├žade, 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.


Steve gaynor said...

Wonderful collection of thoughts and impressions. Thanks for this.

dan paladin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dan paladin said...

i don't understand #3 at all

Mitch Krpata said...

Those old EGM scans are amazing. They must have been paid by the exclamation mark.

Unknown said...

That was an astounding group of articles which I'm endlessly pleased to have gotten the chance to read.

zipdrive said...

A great read. Thanks a lot.
Now, to get published...