Last night, members of the GamerGate campaign exploded with glee as they read through a brand new set of damning, dramatic allegations that seemed to prove serious wrongdoing in the indie game scene. Here it was. A smoking gun.
But like with many of the red-lined imgurs and conspiratorial posters that have fuelled this controversial group for the past few months, all it takes is a little digging to uncover that this week's big GamerGate freakout is based on half-truths, flimsy evidence, and claims that are, at best, totally misleading.
Let's rewind a bit. Yesterday, the GamerGate-friendly website TechRaptor published an interview with Allistair Pinsof, an ex-reporter who was fired from Destructoid in 2013 after publishing parts of a story on his personal Twitter against his boss's orders. Over the past few months, Pinsof has re-emerged as a GamerGate advocate, taking to platforms like Reddit and Twitter to attack the games press on various issues, including what he said was a blacklist against him conducted by various gaming media outlets due to his history with Destructoid. (Which, as best we can tell, is not true — in fact, Kotaku was fielding freelance pitches from Pinsof way after the Destructoid incident.)
In the TechRaptor interview, Pinsof says a few interesting things, laying out allegations that A) Independent Games Festival chairman Brandon Boyer helped his friend's game win an award in 2011; and that B) indie developer Phil Fish reneged on an agreement with former partner Shawn McGrath to not release the game that would eventually become Fez.
GamerGate ate it up — last night, prominent members of the movement were trying to get "#PinsofInterview" trending on Twitter, and the official GamerGate subreddit was flooded with threads about what Pinsof had said. The movement already had vendettas against the games press, the IGF, and Phil Fish, so this was perfect for them. Says one popular thread: "How important is #Pinsofinterview? REALLY FUCKING IMPORTANT. We need to get the word out about this."
Despite my distaste for almost everything GamerGaters have said and done over the past few months, a story is a story, and these seemed like allegations worth investigating, so I've spent the past day looking into Pinsof's claims. They're… well, let's take this one at a time.
First there's the accusation of award show collusion. To quote Pinsof:
In 2011, at Fantastic Arcade, I was talking to a former game journalist Tiff Chow who I recognised from her work at Destructoid in 2008. I asked what she thought would win the Best Game Award, she flippantly bragged that her boyfriend is friends with Brandon so he'll win... I took it as a bad joke. Next day, sure enough, he won Best in Show for Faraway, against games such as Fez (which won audience award), Skulls of the Shogun, Radical Fishing, and Octodad. It seemed fucked up, but it was such an insignificant show and I depended on Brandon as a local journalist so I stayed silent. Looking back now, it definitely makes me question how the IGF is run.
The anecdote is damning. But is it true? Tiff Chow says otherwise — when I reached out to her last night to fact-check Pinsof's accusation, she denied saying what Pinsof claimed she said.
"I do remember this conversation explicitly," Chow told me in an email. "I remember Allistair asking how I knew Brandon, and I told him we were friends. At the time I was beaming with pride about Steph's game being featured in the show. I am positive I said something along the lines of 'I hope Faraway will win, but I'm biased — he's my husband.'"
"Just so I'm 100% clear," I asked, "was that all you said or did you also tell Allistair that your husband was friends with Brandon and therefore he'd win?"
"I definitely did not say that," Chow said.
I reached out to Boyer to ask for more details about potential wrongdoing there. Although Boyer didn't want to comment on some of Pinsof's specific allegations, he did send over a statement about the Fantastic Arcade awards show:
There seems to be some conflation here of how Fantastic Arcade awards work, compared to a competition like the IGF. There *is* one similarity: both awards are chosen by a panel of jurors. In Fantastic Arcade's case, that year the jury was made up of three Arcade attendees who had an hour or two to come up with their funniest fake-award categories to give out to all eight of the Spotlight games.
You can see the full list of awards pasted in here. Octodad, for instance, won "The Implied Cephalopod Intercourse Award", and Jesus Vs. Dinosaurs won "The Teach the Controversy Award".
All three of those jurors liked Faraway the most of all the eight games, so they awarded it Best in Show, for which Thirion won the grand prize: a glass boot filled with beer. (pictured here.) All the other seven honourees won toys: Jesus Vs Dinosaurs, if I remember right, got this set of Darwin Action Figures and someone had a friend make a Lego model of Gomez for Fez's award (which you can see pictured in that G4TV post).
That tradition of having a panel come up with "funny" "everyone's a winner"-type awards to give to all eight of the games has continued since, for better or worse (here's 2012's, and 2013's, and 2014's), and so to an extent, I agree: it *is* all a joke.
Boyer added that there were no cash or other incentives involved in this particular award show — "Fantastic Arcade spends whatever tiny budget it has on making those eight Spotlight arcade cabinets look super nice every year," he said.
Pinsof's interview — and subsequent Twitter rants about the issue — allege broader, more subtle collusion between Boyer and members of the gaming press, which is difficult if not impossible to prove or disprove. Boyer was a member of the oft-cited "Game Journo Pros" message board — a list I was also on — and although that group was mostly used as a forum for members of the press to swap 3DS codes and commiserate about industry issues, there's certainly a whiff of appearance of impropriety there. Still, the claims about this specific award show seem misguided at best.
The second major allegation in Pinsof's interview initially seemed to be more concrete. Says Pinsof: "One of the more interesting things I heard was a notable indie developer tell me that Phil Fish significantly stole from their code, projects and ideas to create Fez. When I questioned why they won't sue, they said they were in fear of being ostracised by the IGF, media, and indie dev scene."
Pinsof goes on to explain that this notable indie developer is Shawn McGrath, best known for creating Dyad (and writing this wonderful Kotaku article about Doom 3's source code). In the interview — which, again, has become fuel for hundreds of GamerGaters since it went live yesterday — Pinsof claims that McGrath told him Fish reneged on an agreement never to release Fez in the first place.
The thing the public never knew — that McGrath and Degroot held for leverage should the [Indie Game: The Movie] filmmakers & Fish not change the credits — is that McGrath worked on Fez until the GDC trailer put out in October 2007, according to McGrath. At this point, McGrath had a second falling out and this time it was serious. McGrath told him they were done and Fish agreed to cancel the project. The agreement was that McGrath would take his original design (2D/3D rotating mechanic) and Fish would take his Trixel engine, according to McGrath. When McGrath saw the game appear at IGF 2008, he was furious and felt backstabbed. There's been bad blood between them ever since.
But McGrath disputes many of the details in Pinsof's account, like the claim that he was holding information as "leverage." ("I didn't hold anything for leverage," McGrath told me. "I didn't mention this to the [Indie Game movie] people at all ever, and wouldn't 'hold it for leverage'... that's pretty silly.")
In fact, when I spoke to McGrath on Skype yesterday, he said that he had only talked to Pinsof once, back in 2012, and that he wasn't sure where these allegations came from.
"I don't think that's entirely true," McGrath said when I read him that section of Pinsof's interview. "From the way that reads, it seems like I had talked to Phil after the trailer was released. That's not true."
"So you guys never agreed that Fish would not work on [Fez] anymore?" I asked.
"No, no, that was never even talked about," McGrath said. "I don't know where that came from. Maybe I said that in the original interview I did with Allistair? I highly doubt I would do that though… No, that never happened. What happened was what I said: we were working on something, it wasn't called Fez, there was no concept of Gomez, what he even looked like, any of the hat stuff, there was none of that. None of that existed; there was no Fez. It didn't even have a name... we didn't even have a name for it."
In fact, McGrath sent me a video of this early prototype that the two worked on together:
"That's the state of it I think when Phil was still working on it," McGrath told me. "So it was really early when he was working on it; it's not like he stole a complete game or something. Like I think people are overreacting.... I'm not cool with what happened, but let's be realistic about it."
The actual story, according to McGrath's recollection: Back in 2004 or 2005, he saw a rough prototype at a University of Toronto game jam with a 2D/3D swapping mechanic that allowed players to flip the screen's dimensions in interesting ways. McGrath thought it was a great idea, so he went home and started iterating on it.
"I started expanding on it and doing a bunch of crazy shit with it," McGrath said.
McGrath says he met Fish in 2006, and the two of them hit it off — Fish loved McGrath's design ideas; McGrath was impressed by Fish's artistic skills. The two decided to work together, but Fish's infamously surly personality struck a nerve with McGrath, and after a few months they split up. Both McGrath and Fish went their separate ways and continued working on their own games, until Fish released a trailer for Fez in 2007. McGrath, frustrated that Fish had taken the idea, immediately decided to give up on his own project. "I had spent a long time on the game, and I liked what I was doing with it," said McGrath. "And then the Fez trailer came out and I was like, well, I guess I just wasted a year of my life, so I just stopped working on it."
While McGrath does believe that Fish stole his dimension-swapping concept, he disagrees with Pinsof's assertion that Fish took all the credit.
"I don't know if I would say — he's said in interviews, whenever he was asked about it, he said in interviews that it was my idea. But he's never been like, 'Oh it was my [Fish's] idea,' he's never done that,'" McGrath told me. "To say that he flat out took the credit I would disagree with. But to say that perhaps he was less forthcoming than he could have been maybe would have been a truthful statement, but I don't think it's true to say he stole the idea and then claimed it to be his own. I would agree that he stole the idea."
Fish, who has been a target of GamerGate since the campaign started last year, declined to comment on this story when reached by Kotaku last night. His issues with other former partner Jason DeGroot have also been documented in various interviews, including the documentary Indie Game: The Movie, whose creators only told Fish's side of this particular story.
But McGrath seems particularly frustrated at the misinformation that's been floating around over the past day thanks to Pinsof's interview. Pinsof claimed multiple times that McGrath would not talk to media because he was afraid of being ostracised by media, but McGrath says that's not true.
"The biggest reason why I didn't ever want to talk about this [is] because no matter what, it's not gonna come out right," McGrath told me last night. "There's nothing that can happen, there's no situation that exists where everybody who gives a shit actually knows what the truth is. That can't happen, the way that the internet works makes that an impossibility. So I was just like, 'Fuck it, who cares?' This isn't actually that important. I don't have anything to do with the game, I've moved on with my life, I've made a game since then, I don't even care about this anymore. I kinda wish this would just never have happened."
The GamerGate narrative, of course, has been entirely different, as evidenced both by the front page of the GG subreddit and by the many tweets from Pinsof that launched this entire controversy.
Since last night, Pinsof has walked back many of his earlier claims on Twitter, now saying that it's "unclear"whether there Fish and McGrath made an agreement over whether Fez would not be developed. "[McGrath] afraid to go public during original interview due to unwanted attention, he now says not due to Fish's industry influence," Pinsof wrote this morning. He has also withdrawn his allegation that Fish stole McGrath's code, which was printed in the TechRaptor interview yesterday.
Which gets us to the crux of this story: as usual, this sequence of events is far more convoluted and nuanced than Pinsof and various GamerGaters have suggested. To sum up the story of Fez's development as a tale of good vs. evil — the type of rudimentary sorting that GamerGaters have been so attracted to over the past few months — is to ignore what really happened.