I was very excited for Brink to be released in May of 2011. I love first person shooters and am almost always disappointed in the lack of team coherency when I play multiplayer FPS games without my friends. I prefer objective-based modes to deathmatch and when no one on the team is speaking on chat or otherwise coordinating there's no teamwork, and that's no fun. The AI Squad Commander in Brink was a way to keep teams on task without requiring any direct communication between them. My Brink feature for Gamasutra was about the narrative design I found interesting as a writer, but the Squad Commander is what I really looked forward to as a player.
I talked up the game to friends and convinced a bunch of them to jump into Brink on day one. We arranged to meet in an Xbox Live party chat, spun the discs up...and the game didn't work. Getting into a server together was sometimes impossible, and when we did get into a match together we often found ourselves fighting bots on the other team rather than human players. Incensed after a few days of this most of my friends turned the game in to GameStop and that was the end of Brink as far as playing with my friends was concerned.
Luckily the Squad Commander worked as advertised, because I stuck with the game for a while and once the server issues settled down Brink was a hell of a lot of fun to play. The game itself was solid. It wasn't bad design that chased my friends away, it was the horrible server issues at the beginning. And this is the lens through which I am looking at Polygon's reviews policy. I think I understand what they're trying to do here. Russ Pitts gave the game a 9.5 based on its design, and maybe that's a fair score. I haven't played SimCity (and now am not likely to as I'll probably be knee-deep in a half dozen other games before SimCity is fixed) but a game is more than design as Joystiq's Alexander Sliwinski so brilliantly argued in this editorial.
Games are increasingly becoming services and inasmuch as reviews are used by the audience to inform purchases it's difficult in my mind to justify separating the game from the service, though I remember Brink and wishing my friends could have done just that. Game reviewers aren't our gaming buddies, however.
Today is World Mental Health Day. I wouldn't know this if not for a tweet I saw from a game journalist linking to a blog post they wrote last year about suffering from depression. World Mental Health Day is about spreading awareness of mental illness. I ought to know when this day falls every year because I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1999 and had been suffering from it for almost a decade before finally seeking help.
There were two reasons why I never sought help. First I didn't understand what was going on, and later when I had an idea that something was wrong I was afraid to do anything about it.
Over a few pieces at Unwinnable I've slowly been working into writing about this, stating that I had a mood disorder, having been severely ill in the past, and citing my issues with drug addiction that arose around trying to self-medicate my condition - a common enough state of affairs that there's actually a formal, medical diagnosis for it - but other than these few references to the past I've avoided ever talking about having a mood disorder, or being bipolar. The precise, medical definition of my condition changes with each new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, but I've been afraid to mention my mental illness by whatever name because I've been afraid that doing so would come back to haunt me. The reason we need World Mental Health Day, and why people like me who are capable of effectively communicating the experience of being mentally ill need to speak up, is because these illnesses are still stigmatized.
I remember the first time I ever told anyone I was going to therapy. I was in seventh grade and mentioned it to a friend of mine while we were walking with three other people to class. He looked at me like I was an alien and am pretty sure he told me to get away from him. That was the last time I ever tried talking about going to therapy to anyone other than the closest of friends until, well, until right now, actually. It wasn't until 1999, after a failed year of graduate school that I could lay on being high pretty much every day, and a year of working at a brokerage house in-between transferring to another graduate school rather than sucking up to mistakes and thus wasting an insane amount of federal student loan money as only three credits transferred over from an entire year's worth of work, that I finally decided to deal with this issue because quite frankly I was tired of feeling like I wanted to kill myself on a regular basis because I was so depressed, so distraught, and so utterly devoid of hope.
I published something on Stu Horvath's gaming and geek culture blog Unwinnable last week. They do themed weeks over there and the themes have been resonating with me, and I really like Stu and his crew so I participate whenever I can. I don't get paid for any of it, but I think the stuff I've been contributing to Unwinnable is some of the better content I've been writing lately. And I think there's a connection between the lack of remuneration and the nature of the work. My reasons for writing on Unwinnable are different than when I take professional assignments elsewhere.
Part of it has to do with how I perceive Unwinnable. It's a place where I can take some risks I can't take elsewhere. Unwinnable is much more a potpourri of different perspectives and lenses, whereas when I write for commercial sites they have established voices at the outlet level and part of a freelancer's job is to learn how to write to that voice. The fact that I'm writing for free does seem to matter, though. I'm writing this stuff purely because I want to share something with an audience, not to try and further my career or make new inroads at a new outlet, and I suppose that's why anyone ought to be writing.
If one wants to make a living at this, though, they're going to have to take gigs that have nothing to do with self-expression or the craft of the writing, or have less to do with either due to the nature of the assignment, and those pieces are inevitably, I think, going to be of lesser quality. I've seen this in my own writing, I've heard my wife saying as much as she moved from blogging to full-time writing and editing, and I've seen it happen to numerous people who have moved into paid positions on game journalism outlets. That isn't offered as a revelation or anything, but it isn't something I really thought about until recently, and realized how often I've seen it happen.
Human comprehension of story isn't all cognitive. That's the lesson taught to us by how humanity constructs myth. There are certain narrative constructions we all understand and they are there for a reason, because they work by speaking to who we are as human beings and what we need from our stories.
BioWare has curb-stomped those psychological narrative underpinnings with the end of Mass Effect 3. It's no wonder pundits have lumped everyone upset about the ending into the same bucket as the extreme haters who are demanding a new ending out of BioWare. Anyone who is really upset about the ending, but doesn't understand or cannot elucidate why, probably does sound like a raving lunatic to someone else who doesn't get it or doesn't care.
When someone says "I demand a new ending to Mass Effect 3!" what they really mean is "This ending has disappointed me deeply," and that could feed constructively into a discussion of what happened to make them feel that way, which is a discussion about narrative construction.
It bothers me that discussion hasn't taken place yet within the pages of the outlets which are meant to hold the authoritative, critical voices about video games. It bothers me even more that it may never take place within the pages of those outlets. Mass Effect 3 is a watershed moment in many ways. One of them is demonstrating the limitations of our traditional methods for talking about video games.
If web addresses could use quotation marks, VideoGameJournalismJobs.com would be an excellent candidate. The word job fairly implies payment, and most of the listings on VGJJ.com are volunteer gigs. It's easy to tease the site but I have cited it as a place where people hoping to get experience in games journalism should absolutely go to try and find their first position somewhere. It's how I got hooked up with a website called Game Kudos which got me into my first E3, and my first GDC, and my first Penny Arcade Expos as press, and allowed me to conduct a ton of networking which has paid off big over time.
I never noticed before that VGJJ.com labels itself as "jobs for freelance game journalists." I definitely see that through a different lens now than I would have around the time I hooked up with Game Kudos. I can't imagine any of the freelance game journalists I am friendly or acquainted with going to VGJJ.com to look for work. The listings have always seemed quite clearly meant for beginners. They are positions to be graduated out of. But then this ad from indie site RipTen.com was brought to my attention via that wonderful source of endless kerfluffling known as Twitter.
The RipTen.com ad cites a degree in Journalism, Communications or Broadcast Media, or appropriate education/experience combo, and a portfolio of work as prerequisites for applying. For all intents and purposes it reads like a legitimate job advertisement...only it's a volunteer gig. The kerfluffle was best expressed in the statement "This is what's wrong with video game journalism," but that's entirely incorrect. I can't get worked up over RipTen throwing that ad out there because I can't imagine anyone taking them up on it. If that ad were a problem, it would be an immediately self-correcting one.