I recently performed, or “read out”, a piece I’d written for Reads Like A Seven, at the kind request of One Life Left‘s Ste Curran. What I wrote was a mixture of sincerity, confession and juvenile scatology, and because it’s 2,500 words, I’m not going to blather on here. TL:DR; I shit on my balls in Austria, I’m sorry, and am going to run a pub in Nottingham.
Because this Reads Like A Seven was part of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, I will be using fancy dividing graphics. And there’s footnotes, because I’m Terry Pratchett now and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I recently resigned from my role as Associate Editor on the Official Xbox Magazine.
I had no idea what an Associate Editor was, until I was made one. One who associates freely with editors, perhaps. One with access to the editor’s restroom, where one is spritzed with editorial fragrances by a team of beautiful publisher-funded swans, who time their honking to conceal your editorly farts.
It was only when my duties and salary didn’t change, that I realised that Associate Editor, in my case at least, is what happens when your boss thinks that having a forty year old staff writer on the team is beginning to make the whole magazine look tragic1.
I’m leaving the games industry to run a pub in Nottingham, but before I leave, I wanted to get my affairs in order. And the only appropriate way to do that is with a list of apologies.
ANYONE WHO READ MY PREVIEWS
I’m sorry to anyone who missed my gently coded warnings. When I said “we can’t wait to find out more,” at the end of a passionless regurgitation of a feature list, that was the closest thing I could professionally say to “I don’t even know what this game is”. The first time I heard someone say “we’ve really listened to our community”, I was impressed, and reported keenly on this consumer-orientated and responsive attitude. By the end of my career, all I wanted was one developer to say “we’ve ignored our community, as they are plainly fucking idiots”.
And when I said “this game isn’t going to change the world” in the last paragraph, I meant “I’m sorry I waited this long to try and tell you that this game looks utterly shit”.
I didn’t mean to generate unwarranted hype, and I’m sorry if you feel like your life is burdened with a hype surplus. But from inside my cell, I was trying to warn you.
PEOPLE WHO USES VIDEO GAME REVIEWS AS BUYER’S GUIDES
I will apologise, for one last time2, to anyone who bought Spore as a direct result of me scoring it 95.
In my defence, it wasn’t a terrible game. It was good, even. But when magazines score out of 100, the 90 percent zone works like Star Trek’s warp speeds, the exact science of which was refined in The Next Generation. Every percentage point above 91 is an exponential leap, tending to infinity at Warp Factor 10. If PC Gamer ever scored a game 100 per cent, time space and human thought would almost certainly collapse.
In this environment, a score of 95 was scientifically reckless, and I’m sorry for using percentages that I clearly didn’t understand.
I’d like to apologise to you, for making an over-long and 27-year-old Star Trek reference. But that’s how I’ve survived these last eight years. Drop one grenade of relatively niche information, then wade through the rubble of assumed competence.
There have been many times when that assumption has slipped.
A time that’s lodged in my brain was at the Codemasters office in Guildford. I was previewing a racing game for a prestigious magazine. It was, I dunno – DiRT or something – and they offered me a go on their sit-down driving machine toy with the wobbly chair. You have never seen an assumption of competence slip so quickly and so far. I shunted, careened, and failed to steer at crucial steering-appropriate moments, such as “corners” and “the entire fucking game”.
In the reflection of the screen, I could see the developers glancing at each other, and I tried to laugh, but the noises I made was shrill and strangled. It was a howl of anguish.
I gave that game a psychotically enthusiastic write-up, knowing that I had lost any right to criticise an entire genre for the rest of my career. Racing games: I am sorry.
I’m sorry to every non-straight, non-conforming person who read my writing. I was given a voice, and I’m not sure I used it effectively.
I’m gay, for what it’s worth. I’ve come out so many times now that it’s easy to assume everyone knows. I’ve had the pleasure of watching women’s and gay issues become more discussed in this industry, and I’ve been excited to see transgender topics getting more and more sunlight. The writing of righteous, belittled and angry people has humbled and enlightened me.
But I rarely added my own voice. Even something as pitiful as gendered pronouns felt like a bold political choice. For a while, I basically did what Nintendo did with Tamodachi Life: made gay people – more specifically, a gay person, hello – a little more invisible.
Not in my day to day life, of course: I was out and perfectly happy amongst the open-minded folk of games journalism. But it’s too easy to forget that audience of straight young adults who might have benefited from having to think “Oh. So he’s… OK.” And more importantly, it’s too easy to forget the non-straight children who might have clutched desperately at any reassurance I could have offered.
It’s too easy to forget, with a brain tamed by age, what a fragile wreck I used to be. How at 10 years old, I realised I was thinking too much about the wrong people, and made the conscious, rational decision to hide those feelings until there was something sexy I could do about it. And how the daily ratcheting tension of pretence, would make me intense, erratic, and frequently hateful.
Video game magazines were a genuine release for me in those years. I formed imaginary relationships with the outline drawings of Julian Rignall and Gary Penn. Before that, I engaged in one-way correspondence with the actually imaginary Lloyd Mangram. I looked up the home of my favourite magazines in our family’s AA Road Atlas.
The nonsense words were a lullaby to me, a reassuring whisper that there was something else. I will never visit Ludlow, Shropshire, because I suspect it won’t be the crystal city of sexual fantasy that I still really want it to be.
I gave bigotry a rough time, sure, but I never flew any flags. I’ve abused the privilege of passing for straight too often, and for every struggling child who didn’t get from me what I could have offered, I’m genuinely sorry.
THAT PR I LAUGHED AT
During a demo of a profoundly average game, a PR who used to be a journalist told me that the game wasn’t going to change the world. Recognising the words from my own previews, I barked a sharp little laugh, and it dawned on me that the generous language of the preview wasn’t something I’d invented. It was something I’d absorbed, that had sunk into me like a vapid ghost. Like the time I noticed 72 was the “out of hundred” equivalent of the famously non-committal “seven out of ten”, calibrated from 70 to seem extra scienctific.
I was pointed to an issue of Sega Power3, where this observation had been made years previously. Only their number was 73. I spent my career playing catch-up with what everyone else knew. I’m sorry that I briefly had the audacity to think I’d done or noticed something original4.
I’m sorry to the young, passionate, and politically alive writers. The young men and women who watched as an absurd bloke throttled the last coins out of his hobby, occupying a position that they could have used for good.
I’ve always tried my hardest to avoid responsibility. That’s not a juvenile humblebrag: Peter Pan isn’t a role model, he’s a smug immortal prick. It’s not cool to be as childish as I am. It keeps you happy, but…
Let me elaborate: some people tell me that they cry at movies when they’re on a plane – that a combination of air pressure, and the idea that they could be being observed in the peripheral vision of a stranger, judged by a man who’s watching Family Guy, just makes them weep uncontrollably.
I have a similar thing, but instead of crying, it’s laughing. And instead of watching movies on a plane, it’s doing a fart in a public toilet. You may have noticed this is the second time I’ve mentioned farting in public toilets in a talk that’s ostensibly about video games. It’s a real go-to, for me.
You can’t really giggle ironically. So farting in public toilets must be really funny, or I wouldn’t be giggling. There’s only one thing funnier. Allow me to elaborate again:
My first trip in the games industry was to Austria, to see the reveal of a European role-playing game called Gothic 3. Something honestly wonderful happened in Austria. You see, Austrian toilets are different. There’s a little dry shelf, presumably to allow for a good medical rummage before your doings get irretreivably slooshed away.
I wasn’t anticipating – nobody could have anticipated – that my body would weave, in that Austrian toilet, a long solid that perched on that shelf, before actually leaving my, for want of a better word, anus.
And so, connected briefly to the porcelain by a bumbilical cord, I thought “what next? Do I stand up and carry on?” A reflex spasm stole that decision from me, and the treacherously snipped cord toppled forward, and found a new resting place, propped against my balls. I shrieked, laughed at my shriek, and spent a full minute muffling my own mouth as joyful tears shot out of my face. Then I waited another full five minutes to be sure that no-one who heard me would see me leave the cubicle.
You’re probably thinking, why is he telling us this story? Well, it’s an apology to my editor at the time, Jamie Sefton, who I put in the position of having to ask me to remove this story from my preview of Gothic 3. Apparently, 300-word shitball asides weren’t “house style” or “relevant”.
The legendary magazine that is PC Zone would go on to close, four years later. I’m not saying that story would have saved it. I’m saying we can never truly know.
I’d like to apologise to you again, for that story, which probably killed any memory of any worthy goodwill I may have built up with all that stuff about being gay.
I’d like to sneak in a quick indulgent apology to 25 year old me. My video games career started with PC Zone in 2006, but my first opportunity to write for that magazine actually came seven years earlier. Thanks to websites I’d written and contributed to, I was invited to send in a sample review, by a man who would go on to become Charlie Brooker.
This was ridiculous. I’d never been paid for my words before. And what descended on me in those following weeks of opportunity was a chill. Not a “reduce speed by 60%” Cone of Cold, but a full paralysing Frost Nova.
The chill of failure by another man’s hand. Oh, I’m happy failing over here, through my own laziness and inertia. But failing after actually trying? Failure that exists outside your own flagellating tumble-drier of a skull? That kind of heroic failure is for a different, highly successful group of people.
I never sent that review.
From what I can tell from the stories I’ve heard since, told by men who look like they’ve lost something wonderful, I missed true glory. I’ve not seen a truly decadent press event5. None of my colleagues have succumbed to drug-driven nudity in a Monte Carlo ballroom6. My Spore review didn’t retrospectively earn me the services of a sex worker. My career has remained entirely free of strip clubs. And yeah, press events in strip clubs are a repulsive sexist symbol of what a reprehensible dick-sodden boys club this industry can be, but… it’s nice to be invited.
This regret mostly explains why I’m here tonight. When I was asked, I felt that same nervous morbid fist of ice clutch at my gut. I’m feeling it now, and I’ll feel it until this talk is over. But at least I’ve eventually learned, through an even greater fear of missing out, to tell that chill to go fuck itself.
If this was a Doctor Who episode, and I was Donna Noble, doing this talk would right that old wrong, and former me would send that review. At the end of this reading I should get catapulted back to my true timeline, where I do join PC Zone in 1999, *I* invent New Games Journalism, and rip apart the atoms of the universe by scoring System Shock 2 103 per cent.
Well, I’ve made my apologies, and I choose to believe that I’ve secured your forgiveness.
I like to think I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I’ll try to put them all to good use in my new career as a publican.
It’s a real ale pub, so I’ve got to convince my punters I know about ale. That’s easy – I’m an established charlatan, as we’ve seen from that Codemasters fiasco. And I survived for years on the Official Xbox Magazine, and never once spoke my true feelings about Halo7.
All that endless chat about listening to your community: suddenly I’ve got a real, physical community that I can’t not listen to, because they’re drunk and in my house. I’ve got the chance to set the moderation policy. I can do my best to make that pub a welcoming place for everyone.
I can use my new position of privilege to help other people, instead of occupying their seat. Let them use whatever facilities I can offer. Room, equipment, whatever I can reasonably offer. It might not be profitable, but I didn’t get into games journalism to make money. I’m not an idiot. I got into games journalism to make strangers like me. Now I get to meet those strangers.
I know my pub isn’t going to change the world. But changing the world is more responsibility than a man with an ice fist in his gut could ever handle.
I will, however, look into having Austrian toilets installed. Because I want my customers to enjoy themselves as much as I did, that wonderful day.
I hope one day to hear you shrieking in horrified delight from my cubicles8.