Wednesday 7 October 2009

Interview: Justin Keverne of 'Groping the Elephant'

Justin Keverne is a gentlemen currently residing in the United Kingdom and a fellow blogger about games. He recently interviewed me about my Permanent Death experiment. I agreed to answer his questions on the condition that I get to ask some of my own, mainly to do with blogging about games, cultural differences between the UK and North America, as well as some more general questions. Here are his responses in full:

1) What is it like living in the UK and writing about games?

I can’t say I’ve known anything else so there’s not a great deal I can compare it too. Living in the UK can be frustrating at times, a lot of Publishers forget that people outside the US play their games, and so they make a big deal of release dates, or special offers that are simply inaccurate or unavailable to me. I doubt I have to explain that aspect of it to you as by all accounts the situation in Australia is even worse.

As for the writing about games aspect, well its part of who I am, I don’t think that would change wherever I lived. I’m not sure how much of it is influenced directly by my living in the UK. Actually no, on reflection I think not being in the US does have an effect; when almost everything you play is created by somebody in another country you can sometimes feel a little safer picking holes in it. As a Designer looking for a professional job I’m torn between being overly critical and playing things safe in case I end up interviewing for a job with a company I torn into. Since most companies are not in the UK I think I’m maybe liable to grant myself more freedom when discussing their games.

2) What sort of cultural acceptance is there of games, and games writing, in the UK?

Well everybody knows what video games are which something, I suppose. I’d imagine everybody under forty here has played a video game at some point and has some pleasant memories of them.

Because of the Spectrum ZX and BBC Micro, there was a huge home computer gaming, and amateur game development, scene in the early eighties; the heyday of the 16K era.

I don’t think it would be a lie to say that most people with high level positions in the tech sector probably started their careers copying code for games out of magazines and manually typing them into their Spectrums and BBC Micros. After that it was the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST. Growing up I had the latter and it was not uncommon for significant portions of large retail shops to be dedicated to shelves and shelves of Amiga, and Atari games. Moving into the PC era, the UK used to be at the forefront of development, with companies like Bullfrog and Core Design. Games, gaming and game development, are a huge part of the cultural history of the UK though I doubt many people are actually aware of it anymore.

Gaming magazines have been a stable of UK culture for years, growing up there was a running conflict between the magazines for the Amiga and the Atari, Amiga Power, ST Format and other magazines with similar titles. Then there’s PCZone which has been running since 1993, a number of successful writers in the UK have cut their teeth on such magazines, including Charlie Brooker (Writer of Big Brother Zombie cross over Dead Set) who wrote for PCZone in its early years.

Television dedicated to video games were also very popular and successful throughout the 90s, with people like Peter Molyneux appearing on Bad Influence and Games Master. There was also the superb, if utter mental Bits, which featured three women discussing and reviewing video games, Aleks Krotoski who now writes for The Guardian newspaper, and the BBC started her career there. At one time Games Master had a cultural cachet approaching that of something like Top Gear. [While US readers may not get this reference, I’m sure fellow Oz readers will. Top Gear is fantastic – Ed]

Recently though such shows have started to disappear, they’ve become increasingly marginalized until the only place you can find them is on select satellite channels, usually those described as being “For men”.

I’ve mentioned The Guardian and that is maybe one of the few serious newspapers to include intelligent and mature commentary on video games, from the likes of Charlie Booker, Aleks Krotoski and Kieron Gillen. You can find video game reviews in almost every newspaper and “men’s magazine” (FHM, Maxim etc) but they are usually extremely poorly written and styled as pure reviews. The Guardian actually includes editorials and more critical pieces dedicated to games and gaming culture.

I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a huge history of talking about games and treating them as another part of our culture that is being lost. A lot of the really smart games writers who have been around since the Amiga and Atari years are starting to move on to different things and the quality of new writing about games seems to have decreased dramatically.

I think that’s in no small way due to the fact the UK has lost the position it once had, the death of Bullfrog and the relative failure of the studios that formed out of it was a big blow to the UK game development scene.

It’s tragic really when one of the most known gaming franchises in the world, Grand Theft Auto is created in Scotland and most people don’t realize. The UK still has some incredible talent but I think a lot of it overlooked as the big Publishers have mostly abandoned their offices in London for continental Europe and New York.

Anyway, I’m not bitter at all... Ahem.

3) What kind of cultural differences do you think there are between the US and UK games press?

That history with the Spectrum through to the Amiga and the PC, has given a lot of the more established UK games journalists a distinct home computer bias and it can be clear in their work. The SNES was never as big here as it was in the US and other countries and the associated love for Zelda and Mario doesn’t seem as strong.

Also as a culture the English in particular (Can’t speak for Scots or Welsh) have an overriding sense of wry cynicism, I think it’s probably a post-colonial attitude. We used to own most of the world and now we don’t and as a culture I think we’re still a little bitter about that and can act like we’ve seen it all and done it all before and that nothing is new to us.

What I’m basically saying is I think UK, and specifically English, gaming press are a jaded and hard to impress bunch, who still long for the days when the UK ruled the gaming world with the likes of Bullfrog, Core Design and Psygnosis.

That’s a general attitude I feel is shared by UK gaming press and it’s one I can’t help but share. I didn’t really think I was so nationalistic in my tastes but I have realised that as much as I respect Garnett Lee I find it difficult to pay attention to a ListenUP podcast if John Davison is not on it. In fact I think John and Garnett are a good example of the differences between US and UK press. Garnet seems easy to impress and loves almost everything, where as John is cynical, cautious and only really impressed by something that’s significantly new or different.

4) Do you think UK game design differs significantly from US game design?

I think the ingrained cultural cynicism pushes UK designers to try and do things differently. I also think there’s a tendency to focus on ensuring a game has a strong central fantasy, being a hero in Fable, exploring ancient tombs in Tomb Raider or cyber punk paramilitaries in Syndicate. I think the aesthetic idea usually comes first and then a game is built to create that sensation and fulfil that fantasy.

I’d say in comparison US game design has a strong focus on iteration and refining an idea over time.

Also the attitude to sex and a humorous approach to sex and sexual activity is something shared by most people in the UK, we grew up with Benny Hill after all, and that can clearly be seen in most games developed here.

In terms of the pure creativity I think UK developers have a tendency to look to literature and subjects outside the field of gaming for their inspiration. A lot of that is probably because they learn programming as a hobby growing up with their Spectrums and Ataris so what formal education most UK designers have was not focused on games at all, they have degrees in Chemistry and Engineering instead of Computer Science.

I think US develops rely more on movies and television for their inspiration. I’m not trying to make a judgement call here as I think both approaches are valid, and after all I still think Halo is fantastic even if it is basically ripping off most of Aliens.

5) Do you feel more of an identification with UK writers than with US writers?

That previously described home computer bias is certainly something I share having grown up gaming on an Atari ST, as is the cultural cynicism. Also I find the type of references used by UK games journalists are ones I’m more likely to have some awareness of, using Football as a metaphor is something I can understand more than using Baseball.

That’s a general attitude element that I share, however on a person level I actually find myself identifying with the folks from Rebel FM more than anybody. Anthony Gallegos in particular seems to share a lot of my tastes on games, and it probably helps we are both sexually frustrated Star Wars geeks. I also appreciate his frank honesty which I think can be rare in games journalism.

6) Do you think there is a hierarchy in videogame critics blogging? If so, what does it look like, where would you place yourself, and why?

I think there probably is and I’m not sure I’m particular happy about that. I think there’s a hierarchy based on who you know, who you link to and who links to you, and I think that can be problematic. There are some really intelligent writers around who I didn’t know about until very recently, Alex Raymond, Simon Ferrari and several others, and I think the way blogs are set up can be rather incestuous, with discussion staying within that circle of linkage.

I also think it’s too easy for the “cult of personality” to take over and people are praised for who they are more than what they write. I think Michael Abbott is a prime example of this, I really do think he’s probably one of the nicest human beings I’ve had the fortunate to talk to. At the same time I think some of what he writes can feel obvious and of little interest to me, on the other hand some of it is also borderline profound, so it’s swings and roundabouts. However I see a lot of people treating his work as sacrosanct as if he can say no wrong, or that his opinion somehow carries more weight than others. His recent post about Scribblenauts and Bowser’s Inside Story seemed to have provoked ire disproportional to its content because I feel a lot of people somehow expected something else from him. Personally I agree with him on this particular issue, but I fear readers have been using his work as validation of their own opinions and that can be damaging to the discussion of video games.

Furthermore I think disproportional worth is given to the opinions of professional game designers... Oh wow I really am bitter aren’t I, jeez. [No, not really. Angry, maybe…– Ed]

What I mean by that is that from my own perspective I disagree with EVERY game designer I’ve ever heard speak, I mean EVERY ONE. The designer I share the most opinions with is Warren Spector but even he has said some things that just make me shake my head. As for Raph Koster and Will Wright, well suffice to say I don’t agree with pretty much anything Raph says and Will scares me with his intellect but his opinions on stories in games make me laugh derisively. I’m not saying these people haven’t earned some respect, but I do think with such individuals everybody needs to be careful to avoid the “cult of personality”, which isn’t helped by some designers apparent unwillingness to discuss ideas with those they don’t consider their peers.

Yeah I can do the CLINT HOCKING joke as much as anybody else, but I am eternally grateful for his willingness to actually discuss his design philosophy and defend it when necessary. I agree with him on a lot of things, and it’s great to actually debate with him on the parts I don’t.

Discussion of video games needs to take place in an arena where opinions are judged on content and insight not on whose idea it was, and any form of hierarchy can all too easily lead to the unjustified assignment of worth to an opinion even when it’s patently dumb. Everybody has stupid ideas and if our barometer for worth is the individual not the idea we could easily let those occasional stupid ideas be given worth they haven’t earned.

7) What do you like about English weather?

In all seriousness I actually really like rain, I have a strange tendency to actively go out in it and stand staring up and the sky getting soaking wet. It’s such a wonderfully tactile experience having weather you can touch. Sadly we don’t get too much torrential rain, it’s usually just drizzle (Is that a colloquialism?) [We call it drizzle in Oz too – Ed] and mist.

I think what all English like about the weather, and the simply reason we do discuss it so much, is that it’s unpredictable and rarely the same two days in a row. It’s an easy discussion to have as there’s always something to say about the weather when you live here.

8) What is a gerund, and why did your people invent them?

I actually had to check Google for that so I’m really not the right person to ask.

9) Do you tell people that “I’m famous on the net” as a videogame writer? Why/Why not?


I suppose you want something more than that, well I don’t and I probably never would because I consider that a lie. I don’t think I am famous on the net, and I also don’t think I’m a video game writer. I’m a designer and everything I write is an extension of that, some of what I’ve written might have a critical bent but it’s always written, at least from my perspective as a design piece.

I’ve discussed the representation of the mentally ill in Batman: Arkham Asylum but I also made a point of providing an example of how I’d have modified the design. I make no bones about saying clearly that I want to be a professional game designer. It’s a position I’ve interviewed for twice and been unsuccessful but I still call myself a designer if anybody asks what I do. Of course you could argue that’s just as much a lie as saying I’m a video game writer. Either way I hardly think I’m famous.

10) Do you talk about games with your real life friends? If you don’t, would you want to if you could?

All the time, it can actually be a problem. I tend to play a lot of Co-Op with my housemate, or just sit and watch him play something in single or multi player, and I will usually give him a running commentary: “This is a stupidly designed level, why the hell does the enemy spawn there, if they moved it there it’d have a better angle on us as we came through here and let also allow us to see it before we rounded the corner and got insta-killed...”

I can also get very angry as bad game design and I’m sure sometimes he’d rather I just shut up. It also helps that at least three of my friends all have professional game development jobs, two as Programmers and one as a Designer.

11) Tell me what’s so good about this Thief game.

I could use all these phrases like cascading failure states, intentional play, emergent behaviour, shared authorship and a dozen others, but I’ll refrain. All of those statements are accurate but the main reason the Thief games, and in fact everything created by Looking Glass Studios is worthy of attention is that they are intelligent games made by very intelligent people that neither try and hide that fact nor talk down to their players. They expect players to be willing to engage with the world and the design and will reward those players who are.

Playing System Shock 2 and Thief made me smarter, it contained ideas and concepts that I didn’t fully understand but which were presented in such a way as to make me want to go away and find out what they were. Irrational and Ion Storm did the same and 2K Marin, 2K Boston and 2K Australia are continuing that tradition.

Also I adore Looking Glass Studios because they were always willing to discuss the philosophy behind the games they made, there are Post-mortems of Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock 2 available on Gamasutra and the proceedings for the last few years of GDCs are full of presentations by Looking Glass Studios alumni.

For a more specific description of why I adore Thief and System Shock 2, I’ve already written about them on Groping The Elephant: Thief II – The Metal Age; System Shock 2.

Writing those two pieces was pure joy, without doubt the easiest things I’ve ever written. I could write twice as much again and still not say everything I wanted to. If Thief or System Shock 2 is selected for the name Vintage Game Club game I think my head will explode; which is why I’m trying to stay quiet about how excited I really am. [Thief was chosen for the VGC game #8 – Ed.]

See not all UK gamers are jaded and cynical... No wait actually I am as Looking Glass Studios no longer exist and I still blame Eidos even if it was really the fault of the gamers who didn’t realise how much good gaming they were missing.

12) Are you having a nice day?

I am now. Work was once again tiring beyond my capacity to cope with it; I am not designed for manual labour. I also had to come home to my housemate and his girlfriend arguing again which is “nice”. But at least he’s just picked up Halo 3: ODST (Which was part of the reason for the argument), so I’ve been watching him play that this evening.

After finishing off these I’m going to watch the latest GameTrailers TV episode, and then spend most of the night either playing Resident Evil 5 (Just picked it up on PC), or Thief Gold.

Thanks for answering my alternately serious and frivolous questions.


Kateri said...

Allow me to educate you about the gerund:

Ben Abraham said...

I was asking the wrong person, clearly! =P

Travis Megill said...

Great interview! I enjoy getting to read some about the personalities behind my favorite gaming blogs.

I do find the "cult of personality" issue interesting as well. I think that has an effect, but there are other reasons for certain bloggers to be more popular than others. Accessibility is a huge issue.

Justin points out Michael as that kind of personality, but I think the way he writes and what he writes about are the main reasons for his audience. He's a gateway drug to a certain kind of writing on video games (hopefully this metaphor will cross the Atlantic). Anyone, even someone that knows nothing about games, can read his blog and enjoy it. So I think that if you're writing about video game design on a more technical level, your audience is limited more by your approach than popularity.

That's not meant as a criticism to anyone. Blogs with a more specific focus are great, but they're probably not going to be as popular because they're niche (or is that niche-niche?)

Kirk Battle said...

I feel bad about the way internet scenes slowly form but there's also not much anyone can do. I stumbled on Brainy Gamer back when Abbott was working on it for his sabbatical and can still remember when posts usually just generated a handful of comments. When it was a small circle it was easier to get know someone new because there wasn't much content to go through.

Now...there's just tons of it and everyone has a new blog post on something interesting every day. For a lot of us this is already a very demanding hobby and sometimes I find it more overwhelming than my school work. You can only get to know so many people, particularly on the net where it's already that cobbled digital version of knowing someone.

I guess you just gotta have faith in it.

Travis Megill said...

Spoken like a true member of the secret inner circle, Jeffries. We've got our eye on you. :p

Ben Abraham said...

Spoken like George Michaels you mean?