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.