Archive for September, 2011

It’s a bit of a horror story, an American horror story, and I’m not talking about the new television show about to premiere on the FX network. In the past week, what can only be described as terror has struck fear in the hearts and minds of many videogame journalists. Here’s why.

*Yesterday, Future Public Limited Company, a U.K.-based publisher of many of the U.S. enthusiast magazines like Nintendo Power and the Official Xbox Magazine, rocked the investor world by suggesting that it may sell off its U.S. division entirely. Or, the magazines might go digital instead. Or the magazines could go digital and then be offered for sale. Future will explain more on November 24.

*Word is that another lauded but struggling game magazine is about to go bi-monthly, and it may go belly-up before June of next year.

*Russ Frushtick, one of our early members and the witty writer/editor for Multiplayer, the MTV game blog, was let go last week in a round of poor-economy-related layoffs that hit employees across Viacom. Russ’ smart freelancers were hurt by the decision as well.

*Some game magazines and web sites are not paying freelancers in a timely fashion. I spoke with a Critics Circle member who is fed up with payments that come months late. That member, a terrific writer and a knowledgeable gamer, is readying to leave the industry entirely.

*The cutbacks are harming the reputations of well-known videogame websites as well. At GameSpy, which recently went through a slew of firings, new editor Bennett Ring was taken to the woodshed by readers for writing a clueless preview of Blizzard’s latest entry in the lauded Diablo series. He made things worse by lashing back at the onslaught on Twitter. I actually sent him list of videogame books to read. Perhaps this was a move that bordered on the obnoxious. Nonetheless, he chose not to reply, not with vehemence, not with a thank you.

During one of the previous recessions, I wrote an opinion piece for Mediaweek magazine. I said I was glad to see a spate of consumer magazines bite the dust because they were either redundant in the market, poorly written, oddly conceived or just plain twee. And I said recessions end, and when they end, they give rise to new ideas for great new magazines. There was hope then, and there’s hope now.

Yet this particular recession feels different. This isn’t the end of print, as the nervous nellies are proclaiming. But what’s happening is indeed troubling. Smart media observers realize that the publishers and editors of print magazines devoted to the world of gaming have to kick things up many notches in order to stay in business as they vie against competition from websites and blogs. The editing and assigning has to be more thoughtful and more courageous and the stories have to engage readers in ways that they haven’t before. Marketing and sales departments have to be push harder to garner a mix of ads that isn’t videogame related.

The question is, how? The answer must come from the brightest minds at these magazines as they conceive and plan beyond the norm. They stakes are higher than ever before. If they don’t implement groundbreaking new ideas, they won’t survive. And both game journalists and game enthusiasts will be the worse for it. Those magazines themselves? They are, in some inexplicable way, transmogrified in our minds to become our pals. And as Flaubert cautioned, “A friend who dies, it’s something of you who dies.”

–Harold Goldberg

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On 9/11, there were no more videogames. On that morning with its molten-steel-bright sun, I stood with two neighbors, director John Waters and actor Tim Guinee, on 6th Avenue and 12th Street. It was just before the towers came down, and the NY1 report, still chilling, was that a small plane, perhaps a Cessna, had hit. So we stood there in awe, talking about movies. After all, it looked like a movie. It couldn’t be real. Then, a pretty rollerblader stopped near us. She stared at the towers and the smoke, and then at us, and then at the towers, and then again at us. “Maybe now the rents will come down,” she said. And she bladed away.

There were no games that day. And as we watched the towers turn to dust, as we watched the shell-shocked by the thousands parade up 6th Avenue, their clothes stippled in white dust, I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about games anymore – or movies, or music, or books. What good could entertainment do? What good at all?

At Rockstar games, as I detailed in All Your Base Are Belong to Us, Sam Houser told me that he and his brother Dan were feeling somewhat the same.

There were no games that day:

But just as (Sam) began readying his fiery personality for (Grand Theft Auto III’s) launch, he and Dan watched the terrorism attacks from a Thompson Street apartment on September 11, 2001. In the early moments of the disaster, he feared the buildings might tip and cause a domino effect right into Soho and further up into Greenwich Village. For an intensely nervewracking two weeks during which the country as a whole was on edge, the Housers talked about bagging the game altogether. Like everyone in Manhattan at the time, they didn’t know if terrorism would strike again. Manhattan constantly smelled noxious, like chemicals were burning, and there were posters of the missing plastered everywhere. Sam told Dan, “This beautiful city has been attacked and now we’re making a violent crime drama set in a city that’s not unlike New York City. My God, I’m terrorized where I live and on top of that, we’ve got this fucking crazy game that is not exactly where people’s heads are at right now.”

Rockstar worked to change the game to make it work for gamers and society in a post-9/11 world. Many gamemakers did the same. At Entertainment Weekly, Noah Robischon and I were given the daunting task of writing about the effect of 9/11 on games for a special issue of the magazine. All the games that dealt with New York City were changing. Even Microsoft removed the Twin Towers from their popular Flight Simulator game.

It was weeks and weeks before I played another game. I moved away from entertainment for a while, writing a book about the science of serial killing with psychiatrist Dr. Helen Morrison. But, of course, I came back to games. I came back to entertainment. Because people need to play.

There had been so many court jesters writing about games. There still are. But something did change after 9/11. The better writers helped videogame criticism to come into its own as a potent form of journalism. The essays became more thoughtful. Writers went deeper.

There were no games that day. But games came back and many played better than ever. And the writers came back with a power and force that continues to grow to this day. That is evolution, and perhaps it has nothing to do with 9/11 at all. I happen to think it has more than a bit to do with that horribly shocking morning. And each time I put a finger to the keyboard or a pen to paper, I try to kick it up a notch. Because life is fragile. Because people died.

And I’m still here. You’re still here. You have to go on — better, if not tougher. You honor those who died that day. You honor those who didn’t get a chance to write or to express themselves in any way. You keep going; you keep playing; you keep winning, or at the very least, you keep trying.

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It woke me up. In the distance, the evacuation horn was sounding that dull, forlorn foghorn sound of danger. Stumbling around in the morning darkness, I noted that the power was still out. I threw on my one good raincoat and a fishing hat. Outside, the rain was pouring like it had taken a fistful of Adderall. It had been doing so since the evening before.

Slipping but not falling, I ran out down the muddy road about 500 feet to see the creek about to rise above our bridge. On the other side stood a tall, thin man with a grey mustache. He was lifting the car onto his flatbed truck, about to tow it. “Sheriff’s Department saw it and called me,” he explained. “They say it’s going to wash away in the flood. Move it to higher ground. You go, too!”

The water had already risen a couple of inches in the minutes it took to place the car elsewhere. At the bridge, it was a maelstrom of mud and water, roiling. I stood at the railing as hard-flowing waves crashed against it. The brown red water looked like earth rolling to the rhythm of a major earthquake. The sound was like M-80 firecrackers piped through speakers at an arena rock show. Yet it was hypnotizing. It called me to jump in and dance with it.

I turned around. Water was rushing down the mountain, carving out new streams as it cut out huge parts of the road. Back near the house, three new waterfalls began to spew where there were none before. They met to make the sitting area near the pond into a new lake. Trees bent as even heavier rain made me wonder if I should evacuate.

But I couldn’t. The water was now pouring over the bridge. It wasn’t merely beckoning. It was ready to grab and steal anything in its path. I didn’t know it as I stood there, but throughout the Catskills, the water was taking cars and tossing them into boulders and trees. It was taking houses, too. As the last bit of power left the battery-operated radio, I heard that Margaretville and Fleischmann’s were under water. People on their roofs were being evacuated by helicopters.

The sound of a branch. It cracked with a sickening din and fell with a splashy thump 50 feet behind the house in the woods. Again, I put on waders and the raincoat to check the bridge. It was raining so hard that Ralph Lauren’s coat couldn’t take it. I was drenched as I watched the bridge become submerged.

My life has been full of writing about popular culture and my thoughts are informed by what I’ve seen and written. Just before the towers came down, I watched the World Trade Center attack from 6th Avenue and 12th Street with director John Waters and actor Tim Guinee, We talked about how the disaster looked somewhat like various movies we’d seen, and then, when the disaster became one of epic proportions, I wondered why our talk wasn’t deeper, more serious, more salient.

In the case of this horrible and historic flood, all I could think of when I wasn’t outside in the muck was videogames. Before Irene came, I had been playing From Dust, the Xbox Live game made by one of the designers of the brilliant, landmark 1990s failure, Heart of Darkness. Both games have drama, momentous water drama. But “From Dust” features mammoth tsunamis that rush in to take away the tribe to which you’ve just given birth. They scream pitifully for help as they are washed away into the foaming ocean rages.

Perhaps, like me, you’ve felt that the best of videogames can mirror life even as they enhance fantasy. Game developers have always done well in imagining both fire and water. But From Dust is too clean to feel real. The surging water and the aftermath isn’t as dirty and muddy and haphazard what I saw in real life. And, with the way the waters of Irene surged and kidnapped all in its path, I don’t think I’d have had time to scream like the tribesmen of “From Dust.” Yet “From Dust” felt real, as real as escapist fiction, which induces thrills and not fear, can be.

Yet the way Irene’s waters moved, almost as they were alive, reminded me of another videogame, Ken Levine’s BioShock. As I describe in All Your Base Are Belong to Us, the water was a character, deep black as you swam through it in the opening moments. And when it crashed through to your creepy but dry environs below the sea, I worried about drowning, an immediate panic. To me, BioShock was a closer approximation to what I saw when dealing with Irene.

But, again, in real life, the panicked feeling of perhaps injury or even death slowly crept in and then grew. In games, I’m aware enough of being a player even when I’m absorbed in my surroundings. But I’m never “in shock.” With a real life disaster, the idea of “being in shock” is paralyzing and sickening. In games, I can walk away to do an errand to clear my head. There may be dreams or nightmares inspired by games. But there’s never that feeling of being unable to move or think.

Then, I thought about the chaos of the winter water levels in Killzone 3. Hermen Hulst and his teams created a seemingly maddened ocean water that was full of danger. It even seemed hateful. But in that case, the water was too big, the John Henry meets Paul Bunyan of a perfect storm, to feel real.

And the rain, the hard rain that fell, reminded me of Red Dead Redemption. That pelting rain in Red Dead was a lot like the hurricane rain in the Catskills. The rain seen while walking or riding through the woods as rebel cowboy John Marston also sounded real, and the look of it as it came down in sheets was a very close approximation to what I felt as I tread the water-soaked property and the mountain road that ultimately became a waterfall.

In any game, I feel angrier about dying than fearful of dying, angry that I screwed up, angry that I wasn’t aware enough, angry that I didn’t have the reflexes to survive. But you respawn or get up the gumption start again. You have the opportunity to turn your failures into successes. But in the Catskills, there were moments when I wondered if I would make it, if the mountain road would rush with a tsunami-like gusher and take me, or if the falling ancient trees would drop thousands of pounds of living wood onto my body as I slept.

No game has ever given me that feeling of impending death, eight of nine of the dictionary meanings of doom, yes.

But not ruin and not death.

For that, I’m really quite thankful.

This morning, there is new flooding and new evacuations in the Catskills, this time from tropical storm Lee. I might just stay away from games with wild water features for a while, if not for a good long time. It all hits a little too close to home.

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