Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Best Of

I'm not normally one for writing reflective "The Year That Was" posts but, well, 2011 deserves one. It was a pretty giant year for me. I somehow managed to scrounge up a press pass and get across the world to the Game Developer's Conference at the start of the year; I wrote a thesis; I played more great games than I can fit in an upcoming "Top 20 Games of 2011" blog series (stay tuned!); and, perhaps most importantly, I somehow stumbled over that blurry line between "random videogame blogger" and "freelance videogame journalist/critic/what-have-you".

I've been fortunate through 2011 to have the chance this year to write a vast variety of articles for a vast variety of outlets, including such prestigious outlets as Edge and Ars Technica that I never could have imagined I would one day write for.

So I thought I would write this quick post to recap on some of my favourite pieces of writing from the past year. In other words, those few articles I wrote that I can actually stand reading myself.

"I Think They're Mad: Inside A 48 Hour Battle To Build The Best Videogame" (Ars Technica): Easily my most successful piece of writing this year (well, ever) and easily the one I most expected to fail miserably. When Truna asked me to cover this year's Fab 48 Hour Game Competition, I'm not sure why I instantly assumed that meant "record the entire 48 hours in one epic article". It wasn't until I was on my way to QUT's Kelvin Grove Campus with computer, sleeping bag, and spare clothes that I realised she has probably just meant for me to visit for an hour and write up a quick story.

Going into it, I had no idea what I was going to write or how it was going to turn out. I had sent Ben Kuchera at Ars a rambling pseudo-pitch of an email saying I would try to write a kind of liveblog equivalent of an article. A kind of subjective "as it happens" thing. I don't think I've ever written a pitch with so many instances of "kind of like" in it. Still, he asked to see a first draft once I had it written up and actually knew what the hell it was I actually wrote.

So I wrote it. I walked around and spoke to people while scribbling in a notebook, then rushed back to my laptop and tried to write out a rough draft narrative of everything I had witnessed, and then I picked up my notebook and went out again. And again. And again. It was a while before I had any real focus or idea of just what I was doing or aiming for, but things started to fall into place once I made the decision to just focus on a select few teams rather than trying to cover all of them. Fortunately, one of the teams I chose won overall--I have no idea how I would have concluded this otherwise!

So "I Think They're Mad" was a surprise hit and, in retrospect, I think I was mad to ever attempt it. It made Ars Technica's "Favourite Gaming Stories of 2011" list and even has an ebook version available for purchase if you are so inclined. I went into it expecting to come out with a 5,000 word ramble that I would just stick on this blog and have read by nobody. Instead I came out with 25,000 words that received nearly unanimous (and entirely unexpected) praise.

"Videogame Criticism, Videogame Journalism, Journalism about Videogames, Videogame Criticism: More a Rant than a Manifesto" (Critical Damage): Some of my most popular writing seems to be my angriest. I'm not quite sure why that is. Maybe the rapid, off-the-top-of-your-head writing one tends to when they are angry closely reflects my usual writing behaviour of writing rambling draft after rambling draft. I wrote this rant after the second day of the Freeplay Independent Games Festival in Melbourne in response to a panel that didn't really go very well. I wasn't the only person to write criticisms of the panel in the weeks after Freeplay, but I think I was the first (and, let's be honest, the drunkest).

The panel was meant to be about videogame journalism, and all four panel members were utterly deserving to be on the panel, and I would go to another panel with exactly the same synopsis with all four of them again in a flash. The problem was that the panel got quickly sidetracked into territory it was never meant to go into and a whole lot of problematic claims ended up being made without being challenged. So my responsive rant should not be (and hopefully was not) seen as an attack on the panel members, but as a response to the incorrect things that were said about topics the panel was never meant to cover.

I wrote my first draft of this post on the stairwell of a Melbourne backpacker's hostel at 2am, more than slightly drunk after the Freeplay after-party. I wisely listened to some friends on Twitter who told me to sleep on it before I post it, so the following morning I sat in Federation Square and read it aloud to my brother, Glynn, who wisely recommended I deleted about 50% of the expletives. I then posted it, packed up my computer, and chilled out in Melbourne for a day while waiting for my plane home to Brisbane.

It spread like wildfire and I instantly regretted posting it so soon after Freeplay's end as, on the whole, Freeplay was (and always is) an utterly positive and uplifting and inspiring event. I instantly regretted that the first big article to come out of it was my hugely negative rant. But, still, it had to be said and it had to be said while it was still fresh in everyone's minds. So, in the end, I'm glad I got it off my chest.

"Bastion Review" (Paste): I loved Bastion. I played it through twice in three days and felt absolutely compelled to write about it. I wanted to say everything about it and I wanted to say it now. Fortunately, Paste still needed a review so I had an outlet. This is one of those reviews that practically wrote itself. I found exactly the right words for everything I wanted to say and exactly the right paragraphs to fit it all in. This is perhaps the only review I've ever written that I didn't look back at afterwards and note all the things I forgot to mention.

"Modern Warfare 3 Isn't An Un-Game, John Walker. You Are An Un-Player (And That Is OK)" (Kotaku Australia): Another angry rant. This piece was a response to an article by Rock Paper Shotgun's John Walker where he wrote a largely negative rant about Modern Warfare 3 and how it was an "un-game". I read it, and it made me kind of furious. It seemed to me like he had begrudgingly gone into the game with the intent to not enjoy it and to make it break. He seemed to want to play it in a way that Modern Warfare 3 was never meant to be played so he could blame the game when it didn't work. So I was ranting about this on Twitter when Mark Serrels, Kotaku Australia's Editor, DM'ed me and asked if I would be interested in writing a response piece. I said maybe, as I had quite a few other articles to work on. But, by the end of the day, I was emailing Mark my responding rant. Truly, it is easier to write when you are angry.

Some context I think this piece deserves: I was responding to John's article as it appeared on Kotaku. I had missed the point that it was a republished article from Rock Paper Shotgun where it had a different title and was, essentially, just John's review of the game. I felt a bit like a jerk when I realised this, that I had written this response to someone's subjective review of the game. But still, this absolute dismissal of games that aren't about the player being in a position of power by videogame criticism is a huge bugbear of mine so I am glad I wrote a response.

John then wrote a response to my response on Rock Paper Shotgun, which really just reiterated many of his opening points. Still, I think all three posts make for a really interesting dialogue. It is an argument, to be sure, but it remains a very civil one, and I think we can agree to disagree. Also, while I didn't respond to John's second post, Jim Sterling did at Destructoid, and he says pretty much what I would have said if I did respond.

"Character Building" (Kill Screen: The Intimacy Issue): So I can't link you to this article as it is in print. If you want to read it you will have to go buy Kill Screen's The Intimacy Issue, which is really a thing you should do anyway. And, really, if this wasn't in print I probably never would have written it. The idea of putting such a personal article on the internet where an "in real life" friend of family member might easily stumble across it would have absolutely terrified me--as it has terrified me enough to never even mention this article on the internet before now. The internet might be great for anonymity, but it can't beat print for discretion.

"Character Building" is about the darkest years of my ongoing struggle with anorexia through the lens of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. That perhaps sounds like a strange connection, but it was a realisation of what I was doing to CJ's body in the game that first forced me to accept what I was doing to my own body.

I am neither as proud nor as terrified of any other piece of my writing.  I am so glad that I worked up the courage to write it, and that I had the editorial support in Chris Dahlen to turn it into something so much more than just another confessional. But I am also terrified that it exists out there for people to stumble across, read, and know about me. I guess acknowledging its existence on the internet, finally, is a part of getting over that terror.

Anorexia was something I had wanted to write about for quite some time (what writer isn't consistently tempted to write about their darkest secrets?), but I never had the place or the context to do it in. Who would have thought that a videogame magazine would have given me the chance to finally get it out?

And perhaps that, more than anything, is what I have gotten out of 2011. Not an excuse to play more videogames, as the joke so often goes when you tell people you write about videogames, but a chance to just write and write with a purpose.

There is an old Brainy Gamer podcast (I'm not exactly sure which one) where Michael Abbott is interviewing Chris Dahlen and Jamin Warren about Kill Screen, and one of them says (and I paraphrase) that if you are serious about writing about videogames you need to approach it primarily as a writer, not as a gamer. It sounds so obvious, but it was not something I'd ever thought so explicitly before. Later that day, I wrote my first pitch to Kill Screen and took some of the earliest steps towards seriously trying to write about videogames.

I am doing this not because I love videogames (which I do) but because I love writing. So if you read anything I wrote (including this) in 2011, thank you for giving me a reason to write.