A while ago I was asked to stand in front of a group of people to articulately juggle moans about the current state of games journalism, advice on how to break into the career and some choice incandescent screams of ‘The sky is falling. The sky is falling’. It went okay, more or less.
This is what led, five or six pages back on my gmail, to various half-answered emails from people who wanted deeper, darker secrets on how to clamber up, repeatedly tap ‘A’ and steal the bread from my mouth.
This isn’t the article I claimed I’d write in response. In fact, I got a bit bored and depressed while I was tapping it out. I’ll hijack the Hookshot hiatus to publish that another day. No, this is the stuff I actually want to tell people – rather than puff a little air into my cheeks, show fear in my eyes and tentatively ask how you rate your SEO skills.
I’ve been dragging people out of their conversational comfort zone with the bold proclamation that I write about games for a living for the best part of ten years. From barbeques to weddings: no-one is safe. I have a little black book full of nephews who’d love my job.
Increasingly though, I’m working on the other side of the fence. So I thought I’d spend the afternoon mind-blasting you with what I’ve learned since I started making the tea in the PC Zone offices in 2003.
Imagine me as some sort of latter-day Moses: coming back down from Mt Sinai with a batch of freshly carved writing commandments, only to discover the internet worshipping a golden bull with TotalBiscuit’s face.
This isn’t the stuff that’s going to get you ahead in the stormy seas of games, it won’t get you a job and it certainly won’t stop strangers telling you that you’re shit all the time. It’ll make me feel better to get it all out there though. That’s the important thing.
ITEM #1: Like games
Perhaps it’s a natural infection that’s been caught from the sourpuss comment threads that lie beneath articles. Perhaps it’s because it’s fun to moan. Perhaps because it gets attention. I don’t know when, or why, the neutral gear for games commentary became passive aggression – but it really isn’t very becoming.
The reason you’re doing what you do is, hopefully, because you love games and the way they make you feel. They’re a formative part of your youth and development, and it’s starting to look like they’ll be a cornerstone of your entire existence. So stop griping.
Stop telling everyone that the world of games is so irredeemably awful, when the reason you’re involved is that games make you feel like the world is a better place.
The response to a bad game or a wonky gameplay system isn’t necessarily anger and the stamping of tiny feet. Have fun, make snippy comparisons, talk about a moment of unparalleled anguish when a bug corrupted your save… do it all in a way that entertains.
Some people, and a lot of middling YouTubers, get a lot of attention for the outrage they put on – but it’s skin deep. It won’t last forever for you as a critic. Being permanently cross will lock you into self-caricature, stunt your development and make usually pleasant people (like me) think you’re a prick.
There is, of course, a time for anger. When a games publisher promises the world but only delivers Uruguay both you and the reader have every right to see red. You can get pissed off whenever you like (and you only have to look at a writer like John Walker of RPS to see that done eloquently and passionately) but don’t let this approach cloud your every article. You’ll swiftly become a one note writer, and not a good one like… say… top C.
ITEM #2: Be shit at games
Being shit at games, or claiming that you’re shit at games, is the gateway to exceptional games writing. On a broad level folks appreciate honesty. They don’t like blowhards who proudly affix their ‘hardcore gamer’ name-tag and bang on about how they ‘beat this’ and ‘aced that’. Well, quaint British folks like me don’t like it anyway.
On the level of what you’re writing, describing your personal failings is the perfect way to explain what a game is and what a game does. It allows you to accurately describe the way it feels to play, it puts you on a level playing field with the reader and (most importantly) it lets you describe complex gameplay systems in an engaging and amusing way.
The reality of people playing games is that they fail: they die, they fall off cliffs and they forget which button does the stabbing. Replicating this experience in your writing lets you have your cake and eat it: you get to write about new gameplay features X and Y in great detail, but you can also inject your own personality and experience and make it clear that you haven’t spent five minutes coughing up a half-digested press release.
Item #3 Realise that your first line writes everything else
The first line is your through line. I regularly spend the best part of thirty minutes staring at an opener growing, shrinking, undoing and redoing – and that’s not including the attributed coffee breaks, toilet breaks and bouts of wild self-denigration.
The hook isn’t just an in-game event that struck you, a disassociated shouty rant about bugs or a ‘What I done on my holidays at E3’ preamble – it’s a thirty word précis of the content and (most importantly) tone of what’s to follow.
You need to let the reader know they’re in safe hands, and give them a rush of endorphins that’ll keep them reading long into the piece – at which point gravity will hopefully lead them back out the other end. Punchier is always better, and attachment to the actual gaming content is negotiable.
So let’s watch two (NO! three!) masters at work with even less than the opening paragraph.
Exhibit A: Christian Donlan’s ‘Night and the City’
Opening line: “Today, I’m going to tell you about the time my grandfather shot a man in the ass.”
Exhibit B: Simon Parkin’s ‘The Rise and Collapse of Yoshinori Ono’
Opening line: “Rumours of Yoshinori Ono’s death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Exhibit C: John Walker’s ‘Wot I think: Saints Row IV’
Opening line: “I think I can sell Saints Row IV to you in one anecdote:”
Straight in, straight out. Verbal luges that not only drag the reader deep in, but more importantly act as directional and tonal indicators for the writer as they trot out everything that follows.
If you nail your first paragraph then you don’t have to worry about what you’ll be saying at the end – and everything in-between. It’ll just flow because you’ve spent valuable time building a stable foundation amidst all the usual flurry of smoking/wanking/worrying.
ITEM 4: Mix things up
It’s your job to play a game and accurately convey the enjoyment and emotion you experienced while you were there – all the while smuggling in information on how many guns there are, and whether the graphics are good. These are not (and if I were a twat then ‘not’ would be in bold) the choice destinations for separate paragraphs.
The very worst crime when people are writing about games is to have a structure that reads like a shopping list. Parading game features and giving each one an ‘Excellent!’ or ‘Good if you like that sort of thing!’ out of ten does the job – you can feel happy at a good day of work, take your the money and quite possibly apply for a job at a major US outlet that has three letters in its name, and ends in ‘N’.
You won’t, however, be any friend of mine – because you haven’t tried hard enough. A good writer supplies those essentials via stealth, and leaves the central paragraphs open for original thinking and interpretative dance.
ITEM #5: Be the right sort of travel journalist
I rolled my eyes and muttered at the time, more fool me, but the single best lines ever drunkenly dashed out on the subject of games writing were in Kieron Gillen’s New Games Journalism manifesto. It’s a piece that still rings true, even if its target has undergone seismic shift since it was written. And even though it now sits in the nostalgia department of my brain next to boxes containing The Real Ghostbusters and Pink Sunshine by Fuzzbox.
Bedecked in black and with hand firmly on chin, Kieron wrote that we’re “Travel Journalists to Imaginary places”. Our role? To “go to a place, report on its cultures, foibles, distractions and bring it back to entertain your readers”.
Bang on, wasn’t he?
So what sort of travel writer are you? Perhaps you’re the Daily Mail employee who’s been given a free holiday to the Maldives and has three hundred words to sprinkle superlatives into – fully aware that there are ads deals working in the background, and that mentioning the smell of sewage will rock the boat.
Perhaps you write for Lonely Planet – lining up hints and tips so people can best enjoy their imaginary travels. You could be a version of TV’s Simon Reed, serving up bite-sized chunks of a pixilated culture that give your audience a good idea of what to expect – should they ever choose to visit.
Maybe you’re a beat poet On The Road, reporting on your virtual road-trip in a fast-paced (and vastly over-rated) haze. Maybe you’re a foreign correspondent reporting from the mire of a gaming scandal. Maybe you’re a flustered Michael Palin attempting to buy a ticket to Orgrimmar from a grumpy Tauren.
Personally, my writing hero is Bill Bryson (Notes from a Small Country et al) so I endeavour to put myself in that slot: reliable if confused, broadly amusing, trustworthy and with an eye for the eccentric. You can all tell me I’ll never be anywhere near as good as him in the comments.
ITEM 6: Controlled flights over people’s heads are acceptable
I didn’t get to where I am today by avoiding oblique references.
When I write I tend to bind in references to the things I care about (‘Allo ‘Allo, usually) but in ways that casual readers (or even my editors) would rarely notice. If 95% of people don’t notice and 5% of like-minded people become part of your happy little gang – then according to Maths you’ve still got a 100% rating of people who haven’t been alienated. Hell, 5% even like you a bit more!
Also related to this item are references to high art, philosophy and famous historical thinkers that you might want to jam into a write up of Animal Crossing: New Leaf. You’ve finally got an outlet for the mental fruit borne by your bullshit middle class humanities degree – so use it.
Well, okay. Maybe not. Maybe that’ll make the world and its wearied wife think you’re a tosspot.
But if it fits – if what you’re implying makes sense, and isn’t being plucked from your bum simply to impress – why withhold it? My friend Prezzer once said to me, upon submission of a slightly wanky analogy, “Fuck it. If they don’t understand it, they can look it up.” and so, with me, they’ve been looking it up ever since.
Trumpton awareness has raised at least 4% in PC gaming circles over the past decade, and all by my hand.
ITEM 7: Read what Tom Francis had to say on this same subject
You can find it here. Tom’s the best of the best, and if you’ve made it this far through my rambling thoughts then his write-up will likely blow your mind.
ITEM 8: Find a way to grow extra skin somehow.
When I started out in games writing and got something wrong then it’d take a month after submitting a piece for any backlash to begin – and perhaps a month and a half for letters (yes, real letters written with a pen and everything) to start arriving at PC Zone towers to politely inquire as to my credentials and breeding. To the writer’s mind, het up by deadlines two issues down the line, these missives might as well have been fired from a cannon on the moon.
Now, online, feedback is instantaneous. The first barrage of praise or incredulity will come within minutes. Writers have to know their shit, or they’ll be called out. Words like bias, flamebait and incompetence start getting thrown around. Wild accusations and conspiracies are often formed from what began as human error.
Gaming has long since grown beyond adolescence, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t left a lot of its own-brand of fury in its wake.
Reader feedback is, in many ways, wonderful. It pulls writers down from pedestals and/or ivory towers, and it democratises a whole medium. Every voice is heard, and charlatans are uprooted. A culture of reader-fear has, arguably, been fostered – but ultimately people raise their game, and those much-suspected dirty deals are (by my reckoning) far less likely to occur today than they were five years ago.
The problem is that all this is incredibly unhealthy for writers with… what you might call an ‘amiably complex psychological disposition’. I’m one of these people (it’s hugely common in my field – and indeed any creative arena) and I couldn’t even count how many of my working days have been ruined by an angry person venting steam beneath a piece I’ve written. The black dog starts barking, and your creative mojo runs away.
Sure, the trolls are generally a minority – but when your mind has been built to concentrate on negativity rather than happy, happy, joy, joy (and you work at home, on your own) then comments threads are a mental plague pit.
As a writer – what can you do about this? Well, you can start making your review scores more conservative for a start. Oh, and you can definitely avoid rocking boats that contain angry devotees of certain platforms, genres and franchises. Oh, and how about excising all humour for fear of miscomprehension from angry dullards you’ll never meet?
OMG HANG ON GUYS OUR COLLECTIVE INSECURITY JUST BROKE GAMES WRITING.
So basically: say what you want to say, and suck it up. There’s no wrong opinions, only a lot of people who think you should be fired for having a right one.
(I’m not very good at sucking things up though, which I guess is why I’ve drifted away from the frontline in recent years. I do a lot more work in games development these days, where no-one ever calls you a cunt – right?)
If you do get a conscientious objector to your work, if you’re on a site built for older and more balanced sorts like Eurogamer or RPS, then I’ve also found that direct contact away from the comments thread always makes me feel better. (This is a tip I learned from Jamie Sefton, a former editor.)
On four or five occasions I’ve PMed or emailed people who’ve had a pop, explaining a point in more detail or perhaps apologising and saying I’ll do better next time. EVERY time I got a civil and apologetic response from the angry poster. On a one to one basis, removed from the social jostling of the voices in a comments thread, people are actually quite nice.
ITEM #9 – Probably going to finish this up now
ITEM #10 – List features should always go up to ten
Sorry if I sounded like a twat with any of the above. Love you!