By Kieron Gillen on June 25th, 2008 at 1:37 am.
A few months back, I met up with EA Mythic’s vocal Creative Director in a bar near London Liverpool Street Station. We ordered drinks. We set the tape rolling. After three hours, I stopped the dictaphone and we stumbled off. We’d covered a lot of ground – pretty much everything away from Warhammer itself, which was out of bounds for the usual PR-reasons. Since the full transcript would run to tens of thousands of words, I’m going to break it down to individual segments which I’ll lob up every week or two. And it’s just as well, as much of what Paul says is going to lead to debate and each topic should be taken apart individually.
The first one’s about Games Journalism, how it should work, how it worked for him, how journalists minds get broken, the problems of journos turning devs, where it’s gone wrong and how RPS has invented a time-machine (to our mild embarrassment).
I was going to save it for nearer the end – starting off on something that’s a little naval gazing is a little off. But we’ll get to the more incendiary stuff soon enough, and doing it chronologically so the descent into booze becomes obvious strikes me as a worthwhile idea.
It was also unlike an interview I’ve ever done. In that it wasn’t often an interview at all. Paul arrived with a decorated sheet of paper packed with things he wanted to rant about, and we pretty much worked through them. It was more of an audience, Paul doing his demagoguery to a single listener, with a more serious bent than he generally gets a chance to show.
As Paul put it as I pressed record: “Use it as you see fit. Most of it can be thrown in the bin as ranting and gibberish.”
Let’s use it like this:
Paul Barnett: A thought dawned on me about why I was excited about coming to speak to you. And then it dawned on me that somehow or another you created a time machine.
Barnett: I didn’t realise you’d done that until I was trying to explain to my son about where I was going. “I’m off to London. I’m going to speak to a man” “What’s it about?” “Well, he has this website and I want to go and talk to him…” And I realise that somehow or another, you turned into Zzap 64.
When I was kid, I was obsessed about reading about Crash and Zzap. Obviously the Golden period, as far as I was concerned. I used to read about them meeting people in pub and talking to people who did things and thinking… that’s what I want to do for a living. And then I realised… I’m doing that for a living. But I’m not actually going to pubs. I don’t get to meet these people. And one of the great difficulties with modern media coverage is that there’s no equivalent of Zzap or Crash. It doesn’t exist any more. And that could just be because I’m completely broken – that I just don’t understand that the media is the same as before and I’m just weak and stupid… but in my mind it’s because there’s an energy and vibrancy of the age of the people buying the games and the age of the people reporting on the game and the wisdom of the owners [of the magazines] in letting them indulge in that juvenile area. [Ultimately] you were either Spectrum or Commodore 64. I was one, and then I moved to the other.
KG: You crossed the floor.
Barnett: I don’t believe in God. So instead what I have to have is religious transformation – and mine is usually between platforms. That’s when you have that moment of clarity. That’s when you move to a new religion. But you also have a particular favour [writer]. And mine was always Gary Penn. Not particularly the man but rather the ideology he had at the time. He was the only reviewer I read an awful lot and years after someone asked me about it. I said that I used to read an awful lot of Gary Penn’s stuff.
KG: [At which point, for our non-English readers, a little background. ZZap64 and Crash were the undisputed champions of games writings for the early period of the British press, generally falling in a tad more serious than most of its competitors while still being personality lead and all that stuff. Penn was, basically, the best writer of the period and who has real influence on the actual route games journalism took. He later went into Development. He’s at Denki now, and won the Games Media Legend award in the UK last year.]
Barnett: I sat down and I spent six months – not in one session. I slept and ate between that – but I had a big long chew over it. And wondered why I liked Gary Penn, particularly because in the later years they got rubbish and he went off and did all sorts of Crazy things. And I realised that I loved a particularly period when he was writing. Lo and behold, about six months later, I was in England and I picked up a copy of Edge [British Videogames Bible]. And he used to write in the back. And I read this article which was so sad. It was a one page thing. I think it may have been the last thing he wrote for Edge. It’s just so incredibly sad. Because he mapped out his experience – the 20 years of his life. As idealistic, young-gun ready to tear it up reporter all the way through to man who realises you need a pension fund and how do you live with life. And he documented the rise and fall. It struck me that what he’d fallen foul is nothing more than humanity – personal truth developed through wisdom ultimately leads you to unsettling views.
KG: I’m often unsettled.
Barnett: But personal truth through dogma – or broadcasting, someone delivering you a personal truth you just take on board allows you to be elated and happy. The actual curse he suffered from was going on a personal journey of enlightenment which involved him actually experiencing it, and then realising that if you do that you come out the other side incredibly disenchanted and unhappy, disenfranchised. And what I thought it was, was an incredible metaphor for almost every computer person I met. Even people who are just players – they start off with that idle wonder, and end up with everything not being any good, and everything being better in the good old days. So the bit I’m interested in is that when he still have the fire and the light….
So I tried to write about the bit of him I really liked. Why did I like him? And I liked him for a couple of reasons. In particular, he was the first reviewer I read who offered viable alternatives or options on a game. He’s say things like… “I’ve played this game, and they do this mechanic in this way. Which is interesting, but may have been better if they tried this way or that way”. And he clearly had a lot of information, and he used to critique. What struck me is reviewing games has slipped from a critique and instead had transmuted into… “I’m very good in comedy. Actually I hate being in the computer game industry and should be a film script writer. Allow me to put my script writing credentials on the page”…. to… “a very subtle injoke, and unless you’ve been following the industry very closely you won’t realise how ironic I am”… into “an alleycat piss-fest. Allow me to show how upset I can be with this thing”… or it turns into an elaborate sketch, so you get things like it being written into a strange language or written as if they’re a private eye, and just drive you mad… or if you’ve got reviewers who’s boiled it down to “There’s no point in reading this. You’re not going to listen to it. You’re just going to skip ahead to the score. And the score is 68% and now I’m going to fill it with rubbish, because I loathe the very people I’m writing for”.. but what Penn used to do, or used to do for a period, was critique.
Like a good movie reviewer. He’d state references and resources and give you opinions and in th end you became clear it was an opinion.. and it had provoked you to think. And that was interesting, because what came to it was an understanding of a judgement criteria. And the more you read, the more you understood his judgement criteria. And when he said “I don’t like this” you actually had a pretty good understanding of whether you’d agree or disagree with whether you’d think it was a good game or a bad game. And I was looking at the modern media… and we just don’t have those things any more. And then we have Rock Paper Shotgun… which is that thing. It actually is free from all the stuff that causes problems. It is like Zzap 64. And I am in a pub. And I am talking to you. And you’re sort of like Gary Penn. And so it is like a Time Machine that’s transformed me back to my childhood.
KG: I remember reading his review of Civilization circa Amiga Power. And he critqued it quite hard. Yes, he gave it an 80, but he had real problems with it. He didn’t like that it was a recapitulation of history. You couldn’t do things like… “What would the world be like without religion?” Civ stated history was a single route. This was a review before it as an accepted modern classic. And I always liked that review, because even though I disagreed with it – I’m a big Civ fan – I could respect that review. He clearly engaged.
Barnett: I was musing back, and in my opinion, the first time I became aware that he was going through the cycle of change was his review of the UK version of Aliens. The Electronic Arts version was the mini-game thing.
KG: Yeah, the awful mini-game thing.
I remember him critiquing it, and he objected to the robot having the same sort of endurance problems a human has and he saw it as a move away from the purity of the source material.
Barnett: And the thing he did with Edge – which I can’t find a copy of online – he talked about going through these stages. I think he should write a book about it. Because it’s pretty much the stages of life. He talked about idealism. He talked about being able to just detect a good game. Then he talked about frustration, seeing games which are missing opportunities. Then it’s like a crackhead… searching for that elusive hit again. And then realising that those peaks would come further and further apart. And then realising there was an art form – a purity. An automatic mistake people go into where they say – I’m looking for great games. I’m looking for greatness. And they’re actually looking for games which are going to stand on the shoulders of giants. Which is really tough. Really tough for you to be impressed. First time you see something, you’re going to be really impressed. Second time you’re hardly impressed at all, even if it’s an improvement.
And then you go through that terrible period where you just going… it’s all about that. And then you become convinced – and this has happened to almost all reviewers I’ve ever known – that your first best destiny is to make games. And that leads you down a terrible path. Unless you actually were destined to make games, in which case you probably wouldn’t be reviewing them… but it can be done. He ended off going into the industry horribly enough and witnessing what it’s like.
Carrie Gouskos works for EA mythic. She used to work for Gamespot. She did a lot of in front of the camera reviews. I met her when she worked for Gamespot and she was basically doing an interview for our game… and it’s been illuminating watching her come into the fold, and watching her go through that terrible journey where she is working 100s of hours – just like everyone on our project – and then magazine people, people in the media who – in one sentence – encapsulate everything you’ve done in a year in “Yeah, it’s alright”. And that crestfallen moment. It goes like that. You move into games development and then you become aware of this dark underbelly you didn’t realise existed… and then ultimately you realise it’s about moving units and the rest of it.
I thought it was interesting to see Penn was writing about it. You want to stay in early Zzap 64 territory and the glory days of Crash… and stay there. And that’s where Rock Paper Shotgun needs to stay, and it’ll be relevant forever.
KG: I expect we’ll kill each other with knives. I dunno. I quite like the idea of being the Clash. Having a few years and then falling out. We’re quite argumentative fuckers and it’s a miracle we get along at all.
Barnett: Someone will offer you money. That’ll be the end of you. What’ll happen is you’ll find a voice, you’ll find a rhythm, you’ll find some way of connecting with things… and before you know it, someone will go, “We should buy it and own it” and then one of the two natural cycles will happen. You’ll end up rejecting collapsing and exploding, or you’ll take the money and leave, feeding on yourself and it’ll all become a horror-show.
Next time on Barnett On we’ll discuss why he didn’t go to GDC.