Monday, July 29, 2013

Video Games: A Liminal Gamer's Confusion Part 1 (Phil Fish, Judging Games By Creators)

I kinda wanted to talk about my thought on the games industry right now. I'm a self-identified indie supporter, but I'm also a fan of mainstream gaming. I'm in a very confused state about what the games industry should do, or even if there's something that it should be doing at all. That's what the "liminal" thing in the title is - I consider myself to be somewhere in between an indie gamer and a mainstream gamer, balancing on that fence, unsure of where I really am going.

The question comes on multiple levels. A good deal of this confusion started when I watched Indie Game: The Movie, which I now consider to be near-required watching for those who want to discuss the state of not just indie games, but also corporate and studio game development. I've done some discussing in private, both in person and online with friends, but the thing that's really kicked the confusion into high gear is the hubbub yesterday with Phil Fish.

If you don't know, Phil Fish is the head of independent studio Polytron and the creator of widely-acclaimed game Fez, along with programmer Renaud Bedard. He was one of the four stars of Indie Game The Movie, which chronicled the very very rocky development of Fez, along with the development of Super Meat Boy and the fallout of Braid's release. In the movie, Fish said some rather petulant things and generally made himself a rather unsympathetic person in a lot of people's eyes. Admittedly, the situation was hyper-stressful at the time of the interviews. But Fish has continued to make generally unfriendly comments, especially toward Gaming Journalism outlets. A couple days ago, in an interview with GameTrailers' Marcus "AnnoyedGamer" Beer he refused to comment on Xbox One's self-publishing decision, and Jonathan Blow did the same. Beer replied by spewing a set of insults at Fish, calling him a "hipster," a "tosspot," a "wanker" and a "fucking asshole". Fish responded by claiming that Beer had assassinated his character and told him to ""compare your life to mine and then kill yourself". Fish ended the thing by declaring Fez II cancelled and locked his Twitter.

Now, I'm upset about the loss of Fez II. I'm really fucking upset by the pure immaturity of the gaming journalism world. And I'm confused about whether or not Fish's response was reasonable. He's been hounded for a long time about Fez, and his brash personality has been at the center of the vast majority of commentaries on his game. His clash with journalism has been loud and public. The original journey ended with the production of a game that is perhaps the pinnacle of puzzle video games in recent memory. It is layers upon layers upon layers of accomplished and intricate pure game. However, Fish's clash with the journalism world didn't end, and the usual crowd of mainstreamers who see the big indies as pretentious and narcissistic didn't help much.
Now, I consider Beer to be pretty much entirely at fault for the breakout of the argument. No journalist should resort to throwing insults at someone just for refusing to give a quote about something, but games journalism (meaning IGN, Kotaku, Gametrailers, etc) tend to be even worse than your usual reporter. The way Beer acted is a fucking embarrassment (and it says some rather, um, unfortunate things about the industry that we let a guy called AnnoyedGamer be the one to talk to creators and tell us about it; a baseline of "annoyed" ain't exactly bias-free). But Fish wasn't exactly the model individual either here. His frustration with his treatment finally boiled over, and that rage isn't really ideal behavior, but what should we think of Fish now? Many think that he should just mellow out, which would give him the stance of being level-headed and clear. However, that says something horrific about the gamer audience, that all game developers should be clear and well-spoken. What's wrong with a game developer being an angry sort of guy? That's his choice and we shouldn't condemn his contributions to gaming for that. Of course, we can't let him entirely off the hook; as a person, he's kind of a dick, and so treating him like a dick isn't exactly out of line. It comes down to this:
How closely do we tie a game to its creator?
If a creator's a dick, do we avoid their game? I say no. If a creator supports causes you don't agree with, do you avoid their game? Yeah, sometimes, especially if much of the money goes direct to that creator (less an issue in studio development as your purchase does not impact individuals who were payed by salary rather than royalty).

What do I think of Fish after all this? I think he's a man in an impossible situation who has lived through a shit ton of harassment and has maybe not handled it with grace and poise. I think he's an incredibly skilled game developer and that Fez is a masterpiece that the entirety of the game development scene should look to as a game that innovated in fascinating ways. I think that I'm disappointed in the cancellation of Fez II. I think that it was entirely his right to not cancel it - no one was entitled to receive it. Game cancellations happen, and sometimes happen for stupid or petty reasons, and while the story would be different if he was taking preorders or something, he had no obligation to make a Fez II.
This is, of course, assuming it's for realz dead. Fish is dedicated as hell to his craft. Honestly, I don't think Fez II is gone quite yet; he's going through shit, but he'll come back around. And I hope he does. But if not, I'll be glad to buy his next game (you know, when it goes on Steam Sale, because I'm a cheap-ass fucker).
Heck, this comes around to a good point made in an editorial on Kotaku someone linked to. It was overblown and exaggerating, but the gist of it was that the absurd bluntness that makes Fish such a prominent figure in the games gossip scene is an evidence of an incredibly strong passion for what he believes about video games, and that revolutions like Fez don't often come around without someone with that sort of intense passion. Fish says the things he does not because he's trying to rile everyone up (though I think his frustration gets the better of him sometimes - understandably, but not necessarily excusably), but because he simply believes that the design philosophies he works with are the ones that can bring games forward. I'd rather we had the explosive, unruly Phil Fish we do than have a cooperative and appeasing Phil Fish because I don't think he could do what he does without being the way he is. What I think you need to be a true innovator is a powerful unhappiness with the current state of the medium, to see missed potential and want it so bad to do it yourself, to push boundaries. To use IG:tM examples, Edmund pushes the social taboos on every level of his thoughts - he's unhappy with Super Meat Boy for being too safe. Tommy sees the current direction of the industry and thinks it's shit, and wants to do it himself to show what he thinks it should be like. Blow has greater ambition in the movie; he sees the reaction to his game and finds it lacking, even though they love his game, they're not seeing the real beauty of it. He wants to change the way the culture views games, and the best way to do that is through being vocal and making games that hit those higher levels to push viewers into thinking that way (this is my own interpretation of his message from the movie; perhaps I'm wrong, but that's what I saw). Pushing boundaries and innovation is the true power of the indie scene for me. Corporate game design is motivated by the bottom line, and that means safety. Experimental is rarely the most profitable option, or, more accurately, it's like playing the lottery. The indie scene has the freedom to innovate without the supervisors overhead, and that lets them do great things.

I love the indie scene. But I don't have that passion that these developers do, that Fish or Refenes or any of them have. If I had that sort of passion, I imagine I'd be a part of that scene myself, rather than just an onlooker. Instead, I enjoy much of what the mainstream does too.

I didn't intend for this post to be all about Phil Fish. I came into this thinking I'd talk about mainstream vs indie confusion in the realm of film-inspired game design. But I think that I've really needed to talk about this Phil Fish stuff, so here it is. My bottom line is this:
Phil Fish, if you ever read this, please, don't stop being you. Keep being that loud obnoxious guy yelling what you think about games, and don't let these idiots stifle your drive. You have a supporter in me, whether you come back to do Fez II or something brand new. Stay passionate and don't give into the angry mob of the status quo.
(also, seriously, what's the deal with that black monolith puzzle? holy cow man)

I'll be back to talk about those other things later. For now, I hope these thoughts give you something to chew on.
End Recording,

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