I Want To Tell Their Stories

I Want To Tell Their Stories

Here is a story.

In Indie Game: The Movie, Phil Fish is visibly flustered. He’s at the Penny Arcade Expo. His game, Fez, is being shown in public for the first time in four years. Fez is essentially his life’s work. The stakes could not be higher. Earlier in the movie Phil Fish, without a hint of irony, states that if Fez fails, if his world collapses beneath him, he will kill himself. It doesn’t feel like an idle threat.

Then: disaster. The playable build of Fez, the demo he was tinkering with until the early hours of that morning, becomes unstable. It crashes minutes after the very first person picks up a controller, and this trend continues throughout the entire day.

At this stage there’s little he can do. He restarts the machine after every crash; but every reboot feels like it steals a small part of his soul. Each crash is another personal apology he has to make for the game he can’t separate from himself.

The camera lingers on Fish. His internal tension, the physical pain he has to endure at this precise second is palpable. In the pit of my own stomach, it resonates. Another human being’s life work is on display, and people are judging it. They invest a spare minute moment of their day on Fez, a video game Fish, at this point, has spent most of his adult life working on.

Then they walk away — with their own judgements, their own surface level evaluation and Phil Fish can’t control any of it. He is completely powerless where he once had complete control. He is excited. He is terrified. He is fragile.

He looks like a lost soul.

Here is another story.

Four years ago I went on a press trip. In the mountains of Japan, roughly 14 journalists were given access to a full, early build of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

It was incredible. I loved it. Never in my career since, have I been given that level of access to such a high profile video game that early; and I doubt I ever will in the future.

One specific moment sticks out.

At one point during the trip, I clicked into Metal Gear Solid 4’s menu system. Like Snake Eater, MGS4 has a system that allows you to manually change your camouflage. Unlike Snake Eater, MGS4’s system is less integral to the game; it’s more of an excuse for fan service: you can dress yourself like Altair from Assassin’s Creed, or tinker with more outlandish clothing options for Snake.

I found one of the options hilarious: a mask that essentially replicates Snake’s original facial model from the original Metal Gear Solid. I could transform from the highly detailed polygonal representation of Old Snake in MGS4, to the clunky version of Solid Snake from MGS1.

It was a pixelly mess. I looked at the weird dissonance between the brilliantly realised character model, and Snake’s PlayStation One face. I started to grin, releasing a soft chuckle.

And then, at that moment I heard a noise behind me.

‘Hahaha.” Another soft chuckle; a familiar voice. “Young Snake.”

He continued laughing, I turned around. It was Hideo Kojima. For God knows how long, he had been watching me fiddle around with his creation for my own amusement, trying to stifle his own laughter.

I smiled back. Not really knowing how to react.

Here is one more story.

It’s 2010 and I am at Ubisoft’s Australian office. At this point I still work in magazines and, for the cover story of Australian 360, I’m doing an exclusive early review of Assassin’s Creed 2. Playing a game for two days straight in the office of the game’s publisher is hardly the best environment for a pristine, unbiased review, but I have a magazine to finish, and this feels like my only cover-worthy option.

And there’s another wild card — Patrice Desilets, the game’s Creative Director, perhaps the most French-Canadian man in all of Montreal, is in the office to oversee production. Part of me thinks this is cool, another thinks it’s a little strange.

I play regardless, and every now and then Patrice pops his head into the room where I’m seated, inches away from an LCD, trying to power through as much of the game as possible in the two days I have.

Sometimes I don’t even know he’s there.

“Oh, you need to speed up eef you want to finish ze game,” he says, in his French-Canadian accent.

Other times he’s more generous.

“You’re making good time now, I theenk,” he smiles. “Ze other guys are a leetle beet behind!”

At one point I crack.

I had been playing the game for roughly 16 hours straight. It was late on a Friday night. I was stuck in Ubisoft’s office and all I wanted to do was go home, but according to Patrice I was very close to the end; so I might as well finish it off now.

I get to the map room, in Ezio’s home base. As far as I know, this is where I have to head. I’m so close to finishing.

I get there, but nothing happens. Apparently, in the course of my 16 hours playing the game, I haven’t collected all of the codex scrolls, and I need them now to progress. I have roughly 6 of them, but I need 20, and they’re scattered throughout the game world. I can’t even remember collecting any of them. I can’t remember being informed they were of any importance. Now I need to collect them all or I can’t finish the game.

In a moment of weakness, I throw a little tantrum.

“What the fuck,” I say out loud. “What the fuck?”

I hear a shuffle of feet, and I turn around.

Of course, Patrice is standing behind me. For how long, I have no idea.

Maybe he heard my audible sighs, maybe he saw me shaking my head. Undoubtedly he heard me verbalise the word ‘fuck’ directly at his video game; the thing he had spent the last two years of his life painstakingly building.

I knew this because I could read his expression, as he tried to explain the design decision that had me swearing at the television. I could see his attempt to suppress disappointment; with a smile that looked more like a grimace.

I smile back, not really knowing how to react.

In Indie Game: The Movie, Edmund McMillen, co-creator of Super Meat Boy, collects over 500 reviews in a spreadsheet. He smiles at the reaction to his game online. He laughs at the YouTube videos, and the people screaming the word ‘fuck’ at his game’s notoriously devilish level design.

Phil Fish speaks to those who played an early, buggy version of Fez — he tells them it will be fixed in the final game. The pressure placed upon his shoulders seems astronomical; you wonder how he’ll survive.

All the while the camera focuses its gaze upon them, telling their story.

I think of my own role, where I fit into this. At various points in my life I’ve been the person playing the game, as the developer looks on nervously. I’ve been the one apologised to; I’ve been the one praised for getting it.

But now, more recently, at Kotaku, I’ve been the one holding the camera, asking the questions; trying my best to tell the stories of those who dedicate their lives to building and creating video games.

On multiple occasions, I’ve been called upon to do both.

But, now I don’t think I can do that. I don’t think I want to either — how could I?

I simply want to see, read, hear and tell the stories of these incredible people, and enjoy the fruits of their labour in my own time, in my own space. If anything, Indie Game: The Movie reminded me of that fact.

At one point in the movie, Edmund McMillen’s wife weeps at the positive reaction to her husband’s video games. Jonathan Blow systematically searches every article about his video game to correct people’s reaction to his work.

This is the power of our response.

I wonder what the effect of negative criticism of Fez will have on Phil Fish, a man who, understandably, cannot separate his own ego from the game he spent years creating.

I realise that I don’t want that power.

I just want to tell their stories.

This story was originally published in June 2012.


  • Sounds like you’re in a role fundamentally at odds with your enjoyment of something very important to you. That sucks bro.

    • Actually no I was wrong, not as extreme as that. This solidifies why there aren’t reviews published here, but Kotaku is still a channel for game opinion and criticism in one form or another.

      Got me thinking though, all of the games your mentioned were really well received, has anyone ever interviewed a developer post -release of a game that got slayed by critics and consumers?

      • That’s an interesting idea.
        I’ve seen a few ‘interviews’ of that nature, but a lot of them were less interviews and more whiny protests taking an excursion to schadenfreude land, often done as an ambush and usually deflected. Sometimes skillfully, sometimes not.

        Thing is, no-one really enjoys talking about their failures that much if they haven’t got anything useful out of it to call a positive. Learning experience, or otherwise. Try talking to someone about an embarrassing failure of theirs and see how comfortable they feel. That’s if you can even get your foot in the door in the first place. “Hi, I’d like to interview you about your spectacular flop.” “We’re uh… a little busy.” Also, folks rarely make decisions that they feel are innately ‘wrong’. They always had a rationale that seemed like it made sense at the time. So when folks get their backs up, all you get is a defensive re-posting of how it was reasonable for them to have gone that way.

        You’d need a pretty skilled interviewer with a gentle touch to be able to extract anything useful out of that kind of interview. More often than not, I think the approach would usually come from the failure, “Hey, I want to talk about my failure,” and who’s going to do that unless they think they can turn it into spin, for a future project?
        Deep introspection turns to advertising. It’s the nature of the Game media plays.

      • Gamasutra does post mortem analyses and interviews on games, both good and bad, from time to time.

  • Great piece. A fine response to the people who ask why KotakuAU doesn’t do reviews.

  • Thanks for the article, Mark. Sounds like you’ve had an epiphany other game journalists need to have, especially after that insanely negative cloud of E3 coverage on all fronts. I like the personal insights too, reminds me of that story you did about Japan and the GameCube. One of my favourites.

  • Brilliant article. It’s way too easy to forget the fact that the games we play are made by real people, who’s intentions are always simply to make the best game they can.
    The truth is, noone wants to make a crappy game. Developers put their hearts and souls into these things then release it into the wild, and if it doesn’t live up to expectations then it gets ripped to shreds. Sure, it might just be a fact of life with creative/commercial products these days and I’m certain most developers steele themselves for such critisism, but it definitely can’t hurt to show a little more empathy when we judge a game. We might even find much more enjoyment in a game than we originally realized by focusing more on it’s intentions and merits rather than its faults.

  • Brilliant article Mark. Can’t wait to read more developers’ stories from you 🙂

  • Great article! Really shows just how much of a developers blood, sweat and tears goes into a game, and how quick we the players are to judge them. Well done..

  • Great work Serrels.
    I just wished the movie was better, Fish feels so fake in comparison to Team Meat and his style infects his sections of the movie.

  • It really puts it all into perspective doesn’t it when you look more closely at the side behind the games. I really enjoyed reading this Mark and I hope more comes 🙂

  • Great read, Mark. This article will be where I go to cleanse the palate when The Whingers™ stomp their feet about game endings or not getting what they think they’re entitled to. They’re so loud, Mark. So so loud.

  • Fantastic article!
    The stuff in the AC2 section is one thing that has always made me struggle to listen to (or even care about) the opinions in game reviews these days. Being forced to push through a game in an incredibly limited time frame means the game can’t be enjoyed the way the player wants, and that just sucks.

  • It’s a great article but I must say I think you’re being a little soft. Sure, some commentators (particularly on the net) are haters more than critics and take it to a ridiculous extremes but criticism is part of the process and what often leads to improvement.
    As harsh as it sometimes may feel at the time, if you can’t take that criticism, rise above it, learn from it and become better, then maybe that speaks more of the creator than the critics. There is a great Churchill quote that I think sums it up. “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

    • I was waiting for someone to make this point, because I think it’s a fair one!

      I think what I’m trying to get at is the fact that it’s hard to keep that distance when you have to engage with people and tell their story, and it’s difficult to do both well. I’m saying that I think I have to choose one or the other, and I want to tell the stories, I’m not to concerned with evaluating the work.

  • Enjoyable read Mark. I liked the MGS story, because it has some great comparisons with IGTM when people are playing Fez and genuinely understanding what the game was about, Phil was able to see that and was happy for it, just like Hideo Kojima was liking the fact that you understood what that part of the game was about.

    • Haha I love this strawman argument gets used so often. So therefore if you aren’t being raped daily, a child slave or a persecuted gay person shut the fuck up your life is perfect and your problems mean nothing, A little bit of empathy bro… just a little bit of empathy.

  • What a great read. I don’t think Assassin’s Creed was mean to be played in two days straight though, that’s what I don’t get about game reviews, it very rarely reflects the end user experience of the game, I’m still playing GTAIV two and a half years after buying it, I’m gobsmacked some people finished it in a week!

    BTW Fez is a great game (and no, I’m no where near finishing it yet!)

    • its a repost from 2012 so the answer is both yes and no. some poeple started to hate fish then because he apprently said something about JRPGs being boring, but it wasnt until 2014 that everyone else jumped on board with hating him over his gamergate opinions

      • I think the timing is off there. Wasn’t “Fez 2 is cancelled” long before Gamergate was ever a thing?

        • i think Fez 2 was cancelled either just before or just as GG was starting up because i remember him going completely off the rails at total biscuit and it was after that he “quit” the industry

          • Fish cancelled Fez 2 back in mid 2013 after an argument with Marcus Beer where the latter was critical of Fish’s attitude, at one point calling him a “fucking hipster”. The GG name didn’t exist until a full year later in August 2014 (when Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend alleged she traded sexual favours for positive press, and when Adam Baldwin coined the term on Twitter), and his childish whinge about TotalBiscuit was that same month. By that point Fish already had a well-established reputation for douchebaggery.

            What I can’t remember is exactly when Fish started being a douche. It might be as @pylgrim said below that it came out of his success, but I have a vague recollection that people were already pretty unhappy with Fish because he was winning repeated indie awards for what at the time seemed to be vapourware stuck in development hell, and was starting to act really smug for someone who hadn’t even released a game yet.

  • So Mark, did you ever experience a high profile game so early, or have any comparable experience?

    And do you feel you’ve achieved telling their stories over the last four years?

  • Hard to believe that pre-Fez Fish was this humble, insecure guy fearfully wishing to share with the world his work of love. Success definitely went to his head.

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