I am a strict adherent of Writer’s Law, which means that I am duty-bound to absolutely despise anything I’ve written within five minutes of publishing it. Hence, all blood drained from my body and I let loose a desperate, whining howl of pure anguish when, to commemorate my impending departure, Graham asked me to compile a selection of what I considered to be my best writing on the site.
Christ, I can’t remember most of it, let alone feel good about most of it. 12 years since I co-founded RPS with Kieron (RIP), Jim (RIP) and John (soon to be RIP) – I’ve changed so much since then. Games have changed so much since then. So many reasons to flinch at old attitudes and old words. But, grudgingly, these are some of the pieces I consider to be least dismaying.
(Oh, for anyone wondering, I’m moving into writing for games (having already done a spot of such things) and games consultancy, as well as getting my own game project off the ground. I have some particularly pleasing initial things in the pipeline, but if I can be assistance, or indeed you to me, please do holler. Thankyousorry.)
In only vaguely chronological order:
A through-line you’ll see in this post is that I am not at all impressed by the quality of my early-days RPS writing, but something that was happening then was, younger and with more time to spare, I was truly living games in a way I cannot now. Team Fortress 2 was one of the first RPS-era games that took over most of my mind for a while, and this piece is a document of just how deep that rabbit-hole went, my tumbling into a world of darkness wherein people tried to game the game. Games can be such a personal thing, and stumbling into a chilling other-place that revealed other folks’ shallowest gaming needs is something that has long stayed with me.
On the other side of the coin, there’s this. An outwardly humdrum game revealing untold, delightfully strange depths. Again, I don’t rate my actual writing here at all, but I enjoy the enthusiasm. The best element of games, and this job, for me, has been when unexpected things became more than the sum of their parts – something exemplified by American Truck Simulator. King’s Bounty, back in 2008, was an outwardly cynical Might & Magic-me-do that worked hard to go to bizarre places. I now characterise my early RPS years as suffering from an excess of bitterness, all angry-young-manism, which is why the times that I frothed with joy still linger in memory.
Honestly? It makes me shudder now. I don’t remember writing it, it just appeared on the site one day – which almost certainly means I wrote it drunk – and mysteriously blew up. I don’t even dare read it now, but it became part of RPS’ mythology. 229 comments! What the hell.
Once again, iffy writing, but time and persistence causing an outwardly unimpressive game to yield strange and wonderful bounty. OG MMO Ultima Online was/is almost unplayable by modern standards, but it’s filled with ambitions almost unprecedented in today’s online fare, and had (has?) a community that had morphed to fit its rules and oddities. Discovering the form of this living world, years after most life had left it, was a treat.
Inside baseball: to begin with, it was Kieron, Jim, John and The Other One, and rightfully so. My Morrowind diary granted me a name. Very little of it is what I’d write now, and dear lord what was I thinking with some of those mods, but deep-dive exploration of and enthusiasm for something that had fallen into the periphery of popular consciousness was the making of me, I think. Without it, I worry I’d still be writing scabrous nonsense about how everything is awful forever.
Past a certain point, the ‘comedy writer’ switch in my brain flipped off. Devastating personal experiences, the appalling culture war of 2014 and my generally becoming determined to understand rather than lampoon other folks’ hard work leave me still struggling to straightforwardly laugh at things. One day, I hope it will flip back. In the meantime, I can look back to this affectionate mockery of the inherent absurdity of ARPGs. I put an absurd amount of work into one extended gag.
I mean, boy did this come back to bite me. But in terms of ‘this is my website and I’ll do whatever I want with it’, this is the motherlode.
Having a child rewrites one’s prime directives. I played Gone Home during paternity leave, my head a mess of new hormones and painfully learning to self-sacrifice, but also a new analysis of my own upbringing and sense of self. One of Gone Home’s less-documented strands is a quiet exploration of how dads can fail, and the terrible, far-reaching consequences of that. While everyone else hailed the Fullbright explore-o-story game’s many other triumphs, its dad subtext drilled its way into my self-questioning brain.
For better or worse, my latter years at RPS have been defined by introspection, and a blend of sadness and yearning. This Firewatch piece, questioning the questionable heroism of its protagonist, and how that related to my own attitudes both in games and in life, might just have been the turning point. When an angry young man became a worried but empathetic old man.
And, with respect to the above, this is when I looked my older, angrier self in the eye – and reassessed a true modern classic, to boot.
For a couple of years, I quietly wrote my autobiography, as seen through the prism of a lonely childhood defined by games, hidden behind the veil of the RPS Supporter Program. I’ve just made them all public, my history from the Spectrum version of The Hobbit to the original Dungeon Keeper, so go nuts on my own soul-flaying nostalgia. If I ever go back to games journalism in earnest, or attempt a Patreon, it will be to resurrect Raised By Screens, and to expand and improve the 16 existent chapters. GTA, of all things, would be the culmination: an unexpected story of rebirth.
Games are not their mechanics. A game which is hard to recommend can still be a game which feels personally meaningful. This split head/heart review was an attempt to embrace this dichotomy. Part of me believes that all game reviews should take this approach.
More a collection of pieces than one stand-out, a slow and ongoing investigation of how a game about driving pretend lorries around a compressed digital version of the US, has become my defining game of the last three years. I could play ATS forever. It is a true balm, and it understands why games can feel so personally important – even if it never necessarily intended to.
Games journalists are terrible at games, or so the popular refrain goes. I don’t disagree with it, but the reason is not some inherent incompetence – it’s because we have to dance through a quantity of games at a pace most folks do not. As such, we rarely get to sit with one game for a long time, for long enough to master it in the way that someone who’s dropped forty bones on it and wants to make the very best of it might. There have been a few exceptions to that rule for me (I even had my Quake III hotshot era), but most recently there was this demonstration that my living and breathing all things XCOM for several years had had an extreme pay-off. This was a game that I understood inside and out, very much one where I would see the Matrix when I began a new map, and my dozens-of-kills single turn video here was one demonstration of that. (As was topping the leaderboards a couple of times during its short-lived daily challenge mode).
Aka ‘Alec knows he’s retiring from games journalism soon and so feels he has license to wax poetic.’ While I’m not the fire-blooded, games-are-my-life gun of yesterday, I feel less ashamed of the quality of my language these days. Which, unfortunately for people who just want to know whether they should buy the game or not, means I’ve trended towards writing reviews as introspective experimental fiction.
More inside baseball: everyone on RPS hates writing Have You Playeds. We’ve done so many already, thinking up new ones is outrageously difficult now, and they’re always in the way of something that feels more pressing. But, secretly, they might just be the heart of the site.
Thanks for reading. It’s been wonderful and strange. As for what comes next, you can keep tabs on me via Twitter.