A Gaming Education: Fessing Up

Confession time. Since starting this blog I’ve been harbouring a secret. A dirty, shameful secret. Deep breath: I’ve hardly played any video games. I’m a fraud, a charlatan, a games journalism Frank Abegnale Jr. — feigning the walk, bluffing the talk, living in constant fear I’ll be unmasked for what I really am: a crude, amateur hack. But the weight of my secret has become too much to bear. I must come clean. Have mercy upon me, friends …

Okay, it’s not that bad. I’ve played a whole bunch of games. I’ve grown up with games, they’re my thing. But I haven’t played enough — not for someone who wants to write about them for a living, that’s fo’ sho’. Ahem. “For sure”.

I was nestled down recently, guzzling coffee and reading the excellent “Games Journalism: What Not To Say” post from wunderkind games freelancer Quintin Smith’s blog. It was going down well. Good solid advice, a little superior in tone perhaps, but hell, he’s one of the best writers in the field, he’s probably earned it. If he says “gameplay” is a god-awful, redundant term, I should listen to him.

Then I get to a bit about playing everything.

Play fan translations, but also untranslated games. Play games you know you wouldn’t like, and play them on Hard. Play German WW2 hex-based strategy games. Play Japanese visual novels. Play existential Russian games where you control a kidney who believes he is a man.

Shit. I get that lurching, sicky feeling in my stomach. I read a few more of his posts. Looks like games journos sacking off exhaustive research is one of Quinn’s personal bugbears — his point being that without eating, sleeping and shitting games — gaining that “guru-level knowledge” — you’re going to lack the breadth of experience that makes for a great writer. You can dress up your words in sparkly frocks and slippers all you want, but without knowing the right steps you’ll never be dancing.

My nausea coalesces into a thought: he’s talking about me. I’m what Quinns reckons is wrong with games journalism. I’m the enemy.

Feelings of worthlessness begin to swirl. The familiar, vinegary taste of inadequacy. Except I’m not going to let that happen today. This is Spaceyear TwentyTen: the year I officially stop fucking up. Whatever it takes. And that’s when it hits me: the Plan …

* * *

I’d always known my dearth of video game experience would be a problem. I was a late convert to the church of gaming. There were no consoles or PCs in my house when I was a kid. My family weren’t exactly technophobes — a more accurate description might be broke. I’d admired games from a distance, sitting transfixed at friends’ houses watching Mario Bros. or Duck Hunt, but the extravagance of my own machine could never be justified. I remember looking longingly upon the SNES package deals in Argos catalogues and formulating plans — “£1.50 a week pocket money, plus £2 per car washed, 50p for doing Mum’s ironing …” — but whichever way I worked out the maths, it never added up.

I did eventually get a Gameboy with Tetris and Wario Land, then a second hand Mega Drive, but my identity as a game groupie had already been forged. I was on the sidelines, cheering my team along. I was a fan.

To redeem myself, I offered up my early teens as a sacrifice to Nintendo; I got an N64 for Christmas and started buying N64 Magazine every month. Finally I had a sense of belonging. I swapped games with friends, poured over reviews in back issues of the mag and stayed up at sleepovers playing Snowboard Kids. I found Yoshi on the roof in Mario 64, got all gold medals on Rogue Leader, memorised cheats for Turok (NTHGTHDGDCRTDTRK). At school I became known as That Guy Who Games. I was on my way.

Except I totally wasn’t. Early teens gave way to awkward mid teens, and I became painfully uncomfortable in my own skin. I didn’t want to be Guy Who Gamed; no one liked him, they made fun of his goofy haircut and his spots and the geeky magazines in his schoolbag. So I started skating. I bought Dookie and Smash and Punk in Drublic. I tried my first joint. I had a lung and puked everywhere and thought I’d died and gone to hell. I put away childish things.

Not that I ever explicitly gave up gaming; rather I drifted away from it, only returning to nibble on the likes of Wind Waker and GTA 3. Games were still special, but they were a hidden special, not to be talked about with the crowd I borrowed Punk-O-Ramas off and practiced kickflips with. Playing a little Tony Hawk’s or Jet Set Radio was acceptable; being interested in text-based adventures or NES emulators was not.

Then, in 2004, with no clear plan or reasoning, I found myself enrolling on a BSc Games Computing degree at the University of Lincoln. The decision was partly down to a vague sense that making games for a living would be, like, pretty cool, but mostly because I already had the UCAS points to get in with my AS Levels alone. My late teens had given me what I would call a terrifying, all encompassing ennui. Others would say I was flat-fucking lazy.

The course was a disaster. I’d pictured a utopia, hundreds of kids bursting with enthusiasm, ready to discuss, play and make the shit-hottest of shit-hot games. There’d be electricity in the air. For the first time in my life I was going to be somewhere I would fit in.

The reality was a lecture theater packed full of evil nerds. No showers on that Games Computing course. Memories of replica axes, smug jokes about Microsoft … a universal lack of talent … utter hopelessness. A vital group meeting wasted listening, in disbelief, as group members argued for an hour about the exact pitch and timbre of explosions in CoD2.

Nerd1: PINAAOOOW!

Nerd2: No, no. BASHAAOOOW!

Nerd3: PAAASHOOOSH!

Nerd2: Umm. BAAASHOOOOM!

And the guns. Jesus, the guns. Personally, the idea of high caliber metal slugs tearing through flesh and viscera leaves me a little cold, but discussing military hardware definitely got these guys wet. They were losers, the downtrodden ones — woeful gimps abused by society one too many times, spitting ugly bile at the outside world now they had strength in numbers. Leetspeak was the lingua franca during classes; perceived weakness was always met with howls of STFU NOOB — the viciousness of attacks mirroring the humiliation tormentors had been subjected to in earlier life. They didn’t read, except for bad steam punk novels; they were calloused about the environment, bragging over how many days they’d left their PCs on for; they hated all games that didn’t allow you to shoot limbs off your victims — the course was a festering, piss-ridden cesspool of gun nuts wallowing in elitist resentment.

… And bearing in mind so far here I’ve only been talking about the lecturers.

I slumped into black depression. If this was the future of the games industry, I wanted no part of it. I washed my hands of the thing.

The next three years were spent loading up bongs, drinking rum and listening to the Velvet Underground. I read Hunter Thompson journalism, watched Richard Linklater films, made great friends and got high with them. The games themselves were still there — endless Mario Kart, endless Goldeneye (Stack/Pistols/License to Kill, natch), Half Life 2, Counter Strike and Battlefield 2 to satiate my meager blood lust, World of Warcraft … well, best if we don’t talk about World of Warcraft.

The games were still there, but the solidarity with the industry was gone. Once through Double Dash’s Special Cup was pre night out ritual (no speed limit on those nights, no cooling it on the curves of Wario Colosseum … Howling through turns on Dino Dino Jungle — Zaaapppp — past Toad in second; listening for the strange music to start on Rainbow Road), but that was for fun. I had none of the fevered passion demanded — and exemplified — by real games writers like Quinns or Kieron Gillen or Leigh Alexander. I was a drifter, along for the ride. And I was going nowhere.

… Fast forward to the present day. We’re not skipping much of interest. It is TwentyTen, and things are changing. I see now how much of my anger at the Games Computing nerds was really anger at myself. I hated them for being different because people had hated me for being different. My desire to rebel against teachers, lecturers and society at large was only a rebelling against myself. The world is a mirror of the self and the self is a mirror of the world.

Meaning: I’m finally okay being who I am. My anger did a disservice to the games industry; in drawing battle lines — as always with anger — I bled a world of wonderful shades out into a deathly tomb of black and white. Of course one of the lowest ranked universities in the country was unlikely to attract many pioneers of the digital age — though there were a few, and I can only apologise to them for not appreciating them sufficiently at the time. The industry is as fresh and bursting with possibility now as it has ever been. For every IGN there is a Rock, Paper Shotgun; for every Cliff Bleszinski there is a Daniel Benmergui.

I’ve had enough of anger. I send the question forth: what do I want to do? The answer returns: this. Here, now, struggling to hold this awkward blog post together, I am content. I’d like to carry on doing this, please — whatever it takes.

My gaming knowledge is weak. I know this. I’ve never played System Shock — or BioShock for that matter. I’ve never played Chrono Trigger or Grim Fandango or Elite. I’ve never completed Super Mario World, or Ico, or any Final Fantasy. I know nothing of the Atari 2600 (or 7800), the 3DO, the Neo Geo, the Atari …

This blog has made me aware of my handicap. Previous posts have seen me casting around, scrambling for intelligent points to make without the experience to inform my opinions. Truth matters to me; jumping to wrong conclusions is a crime. Play everything, Quinns says. But I’m lazy, unmotivated, outside of any community that might enthuse me and spur me on. These are the facts on the table. So how to move forward from here?

… Which is when the Plan hits me. A series of pieces for this blog on classic games: reviews, commentaries, virtual travel writing; experimenting with styles, paying my dues … A Gaming Education — weaving new thread through the frayed patches in the tapestry of my mind, creating examples of my writing, and, most importantly, having fun. That’s what this is about, after all.

To hell with BSc Games Computing — my education starts here. Watch this space.

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11 Comments

Filed under Ramblings

11 responses to “A Gaming Education: Fessing Up

  1. Wood

    Couldn’t resist commenting on this too.

    Most of the professional games journalists of today started playing games in the eighties, and remember the nineties as a golden period (for consoles, at least*). Think of how often they wax lyrical about Final Fantasy VII, the first time they entered Hyrule Field in OOT, or the design perfection of NES platformers and Super Mario World- the journos are drawn to those periods as they assume the reader is about the same age. But there’s no need for younger people to live up to these frames of reference.

    Playing all the dated, obscure crap out of a sense of obligation won’t foster a greater love of games. Kieron Gillen is 34 and games have changed drastically since he first started writing about them. You won’t be able to recreate his gaming career or experiences unless you have nothing else better to do with your time for the next five to ten years.

    Bioshock is a great game but certainly not the rich, sophisticated masterpiece some made it out to have been. Chrono Trigger has a lot of charm. If you’re to complete a Final Fantasy, make it VII or IX as the Junctioning system of VIII is far too complicated. There are far better ‘arty’ games out there now than Ico and I wouldn’t worry about missing 99.5% of the games on the Amiga. The rest you can forget about- Elite came out in 1983, fer Chrissakes!

    *For the PC, 1997 to 2002 is made out to be the golden age of creativity, particularly by the folks at Rock Paper Shotgun but also in PC Gamer. To be fair, I’ve never played Outcast, Anachronox or Planescape: Torment, but I can’t imagine they could possibly live up to their rose-tinted reputations.

  2. Rob

    I’m with you there, to an extent. Playing many ostensible classics today leaves me a little confused as to why exactly so many journos have been making such a big deal of them for so long. The innovations they made have often been streamlined and improved in more recent games to such an extent the original is left feeling awkward and naive in comparison. And certainly at times the RPS guys appear to be pushing the retro articles more as geek posing than because the games truly deserve the attention.

    And yet I still feel everything is worth playing. Having a bedrock of first hand knowledge of where games have come from helps a journalist to predict where they’re going. Also, figuring out where you converge and diverge from common consensus on classic games can be no bad thing. If I play X-Com and realise tactical isometric alien blasting leaves me utterly cold … well then I’ve formed an opinion and moved a step closer to figuring out what sort of person I am. And if I can then write that opinion out with warmth and humour, so that others might take something from it, then that’s where the magic lies.

    Cheers for the well thought out comments. Take care.

  3. Wood

    Thanks, good luck with your quest! And X-Com really is all it’s cracked up to be, though I found it bewildering for the first hour or so (first played it in 2008). Serves me right for not finding a manual online.

    And I retract that comment about Elite. I still haven’t played it but it stands out for being a hundred million times more sophisticated than your average game of the time. I saw a documentary about the men who made it, they’re geniuses- they programmed the entire thing in machine code, and they spent months simplifying the code to cram in a few more features. One of them said spending a couple of hours working on the game to save a few bytes of memory was considered time well spent.

    He might even have said bits…

  4. Colin

    Absolutely brilliant.

    I don’t think you’ll have any trouble mate, your writing is superb. I love it, and don’t listen to those few comments on EG where people say you add to much fluff, it makes it richer and a far more interesting read.

    You might not have played as many games as some, but you appear to have a quiet passion/admiration for them, and it really comes through in a nice way in your writing.

  5. “To be fair, I’ve never played Outcast, Anachronox or Planescape: Torment, but I can’t imagine they could possibly live up to their rose-tinted reputations.”

    OH MAN! You just named 2 of my top 10 EVER!

    Naw, man. Don’t shun old games. Don’t play cause they’re “classics” either.

    It’s like music (consequently, it was by entering “music” in this blog’s search field that I came across this post). Music: how do you discover it? What brings you to it and then plunges you deeper and deeper into it? I been across the CENTURIES in my search for good music and you know what: there’s a lot of shit out there. And there’s alot of GOOD SHIT. More good shit than I will ever be able to hear even just one listen of each in the course of my life time.

    But when you love it, meaning when it pulls you to floor at the moment you least expect, time and time again, you can’t stop the search. Go back, back, back. Games are AT LEAST as old as music. VIDEO GAMES are as old as VIDEO, so…what do you know about Video?

    Don’t try to capture the whole expanse and drift of human invention. Just find as much of the GOOD SHIT as you can in this life time. There is no completing that journey. It’s just a path you start walking and see where it takes you.

    Now back to the late 90’s:

    Planescape rocked my socks and I was a big fan of all the Black Isle RPG’s (now there are awesome mods that stitch the different worlds together), on that note Bladerunner is quite the epic and immersive noir (which you can play through in under 3 hours with a guide), Outcast makes use of a brilliant innovation (voxel-texture mapping) and is damn fun, Rune ROCKS and the sequel (HOV) is quite fun if you can find any online players, but I have to say the one game that got me into gaming on the PC: Starsiege Tribes (the original which is now a freebie I believe)

    Those were my PC days, but the reason I got a PC wasn’t for the games; it was for the VRML (something to check out). My childhood is filled with Genesis, NES, SNES and Arcade glory and I totally missed out on the 2600 as well as those older PC’s like C64, Amiga and Atari ST, although I’m slowly learning about things that passed before my time. I don’t expect to learn it all and I’m actually more interested in the history and the personalities like Jeff Minter, Rob Hubbard, Tim Follin, some of the demosceners… just interesting stories I guess. I tend to be drawn to the Musically and Visually Enhanced as I look to the past, rather than someone else’s nostalgic highs (yes, I know that above is a presentation of my own nostalgic highs–forgive me my indulgence)

  6. Also, you don’t need to play Anachronox to get it. Just download the Machinima (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anachronox#Machinima_film). I played it when it came out and got super bored after having such high hopes. But the story kicks ass, so I’m happy someone was able to frame it in a different medium.

    • Rob

      Just watched the intro to Anachronox on Youtube. Buying it as soon as I get my PC up and running again. It had me at hello.

      And I dig the comparison with music. It’s about finding the things that speak to you — those games or songs or whatever that make you thump. The point of this Gaming Education strand is to get me exploring, get me searching for my special moments. So far it’s been a great journey.

  7. Lee Morris

    I’d like to say that I really like your writing style too. I’m becoming something of a sycophant commenting on all your articles saying how good you are because your experiences remind me of mine. They’re all a very pleasant read though. Even if you knew nothing about the game you were reviewing and made something up based on a trailer you think you may or may not have seen, I would still prefer to read your account of playing the game – as opposed to that of a hardened pro.

  8. sebmojo

    You Must Play VTM: Bloodlines.

    that’s all.

    • Rob

      Bought it a few months back. Can’t get it to run. It’s a resolution problem I think, but I couldn’t find any way to change res outside of the game. Google says it has a “run in safe mode at low res” option, except mine doesn’t, and the config file is no help either.

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