I have a lot of conversations with a lot of people about what RPS is, and after years of trying to sum up this dumb website, I’ve settled on using the same answer each time. I say: ask ten people to describe what RPS does, and you’ll get ten different answers. One will say we’re that website which writes silly, in-jokey nonsense about PC games. The next will say we’re some blog which is always going off on another consumer rights diatribe. Another will talk about how we’re about championing indie games and giving everything a fair shake if it interests us. The next will say we’re a games site that’s home to strident feminism, while another points out that we write in-depth, researched pieces taking down mainstream media misreporting about games.
Someone will always point out that we’re about some sort of unfathomable endless bear.
Look at that list and look at the author of the posts. Jim had the ambition and the drive to make RPS happen. Kieron was the famous name that brought in early readers. Alec was the breakout hit. But it was John, wasn’t it, who defined almost everything that RPS is. Today’s his last day on the site – come say goodbye.
Of course, this makes it equally difficult to sum up John’s work. There are a handful of games journalists who have had careers as long as him, but I think John is the only one whose career has eras. As a teenager, I read PC Gamer and loved him for his daft, irreverent reviews of budget games in ‘They’re Back’. They were a delight – a high-wire act of silliness and self-indulgence that you read for the writing, not the games. My favourite writing in games magazines always made the author visible to you, and They’re Back did that in the extreme.
Throughout my time reading PC Gamer and then in my early years working on it, I thought of John primarily as a critic. Being visible as an author is useful for a critic because it’s how the audience gets to know your tastes, and therefore how your tastes might align with their own. John always had unusually well-defined tastes. Likes: adventure games (he’s a pro), RPGs, story, comedy. Flipping loathes: all strategy games, management games, most multiplayer games. That his heart was always visible on his sleeve made you trust him.
By the time RPS launched, I was living with John in a house share in Bath. (It’s an odd experience, having someone go from a headshot in a magazine to a person arguing with you about whose dishes were left in the sink.) He always seemed to be playing two games at once: one on the PC, that he was probably reviewing for PCG; and one during loading screens on the DS, that he was probably reviewing for Eurogamer. (When he wasn’t painting one of the freezers in our kitchen to look like a Companion Cube.)
I think Jim and Kieron mostly used RPS to continue to do what they’d been doing for years, and I’ve already said that I think Alec used RPS to emerge from a cocoon as a beautiful butterfly. To me – and I haven’t discussed it with him – John seemed to go through a kind of rebirth at RPS. From “the funny one” to someone concerned with serious journalism, developer interviews, and social justice. And as John went, so RPS went with him – and arguably, the rest of games journalism followed. I’ve linked many of those articles above and you can probably think of many more.
But it’s the reviews that I’ve been thinking about. I think John might be better known for other things, but he never stopped being a games critic. Our reviews category currently contains 1,545 posts, of which John wrote 432. No one else comes close to that many. And while a handful of those reviews are about building a word-coffin for a bad mainstream game, the vast majority are about OK-or-better indie games – and often tiny indies at that. Games that would have never received any coverage from us or anyone else if John hadn’t had a look to see what new games were out, given a bunch of them a try, and decided that the worthy few were deserving of the time to play and write about.
I know from experience that this is often tiring, thankless work. These aren’t high-trafficking articles and you’re not often remembered or recognised for it. I also know this work is important, because without critics willing to champion the new, the new falters and dies. No one has had the appetite to do it as thoroughly or for as long as John has, or the passion and writing chops to do it as successfully. Who will try now that he’s going?
We’ll try, of course, because we are what John built us to be. Maybe the next time I have a conversation with someone about what RPS is, I should just tell them that.
As John himself might write: good GRIEF this post is long and maudlin. Get in the comments, say farewell, sing your praises, and share some of your favourite John posts. There are 4400 of them to choose from.