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Talking About Video Games

30 Mar

MeAndSessA few weeks ago, I went on Revision3’s show DownLOADED to talk about the state of video games. In addition to host Jim Louderback, I was joined by well-known video game pundit Adam Sessler. As “people who talk about video games on camera” go, Sessler’s a big deal–he was a host on G4TV for a long time before heading over to Rev3 to take over their games coverage.

It was a real pleasure to talk with Adam; as you’ll see from the video (if you’re unfamiliar with his work), he brings a rare combination of directness, knowledge, and energy to everything he talks about. For more on Adam and his career, check out this fantastic profile my colleague Jason Schreier recently wrote over at Kotaku.

I think we managed to cover a lot of interesting angles on the current state of video games. It should provide a good snapshot, here at the start of a year that’s bound to bring many, many more changes. Thanks to Jim and Adam for having me, and for being so much fun to talk with.

Do It Live

13 Jan

DoItLiveLast night, I had the privilege of performing a reading as part of the venerable Writers with Drinks spoken word/variety show. The event is put on by fellow Gawker-er Charlie Jane Anders (io9), and takes place monthly at the Makeout Room in the Mission. WWD has been going on for more than a decade, and I, because I am a huge loser, have never been. After last night, I’ll probably never miss another one as long as live in San Francisco. It was a BLAST.

The setup is more or less this: Each month, four or five writers go up to the mic and read their stuff for about 10-15 minutes each. It can be a chapter from a book, or a few poems, or some spoken word thing, or a comedy routine, or an essay or article. When Charlie Jane asked me to participate early last week, my first thought was, “Okay!” My second thought was, “What the fuck am I going to read?”

For a while I considered throwing together some new thing, something about teaching, or music, or life in the city… the hidden message behind those ideas being, Christ, anything but video games. Then, my daily schedule being what it is, it became clear that I wasn’t going to have time to write 10 or 15 minutes’ worth of new material by Saturday in addition to writing for work. So, video games it was.

I wound up adapting a couple of older things I’d written: First was an essay about Pac-Man, lines, the Japanese visual art suibokuga, and jazz called “Onward, Pac-Man!” I also did a rendition of “Fisher-Fest 2010″, which is a breakdown of the ridiculous dialogue in Splinter Cell: Conviction. I asked my friend Dan to come up to read the dialogue from Fisher-Fest with me, to shake things up. How would this go? Would we tank? Would anyone care? God only knew.

Okay, so: I get to the Makeout Room and it’s packed. There are like 80 people there, and they’re all Here To Listen To People Read Things. Um. So I’m going to get in front of this huge group of people and read an essay about Pac-Man. Right. Then, it turns out that the person who was supposed to kick us off hasn’t shown up, so I’m going to go FIRST. Good lord.

wwdfallingI’ve actually performed at the Makeout Room before, but every time I’ve done it, it’s been with my band. I’ve had a guitar or a saxophone to hide behind, and a whole band to back me up. There’s something so naked about getting up on stage with a sheaf of papers and just sort of… reading.

So I go up there to read, and about thirty seconds in it becomes clear–praise be–that this crowd totally gets it. They are on board. They want to hear about Pac-Man and jazz. They’re laughing at Fisher-Fest. (Money line from Dan: “You’ll die on your knees, like a SCIENTIST!”) And the whole time I’m on stage, vaguely thinking, “Here I am, reading an essay about Pac-Man and making jokes about Splinter Cell, and this audience is super into it? What the fuck planet am I on?”

Anyway, it was grand. I now fully understand why readings are A Thing. Other readers included Jan Richman doing a chapter from her book Thrill-Bent, Ramez Naam sharing a hilarious sci-fi sexual misadventure from his book Nexus, Wired‘s Erin Biba reading this article about the history and future of prenatal genetic testing, and another writer (who wasn’t on the bill and so whose name I’m tracking down) who filled in for an empty slot with a riveting story of a woman traveling on a bus to an extramarital tryst, only to have one of the passengers go missing.

During all of the readings, particularly that last one, I was struck by how the very vulnerability I was so nervous about going in–No instruments! No band! Just words and a mic!–actually became a strength. Because there wasn’t any loud music playing, people were quiet. Because there was only one thing to pay attention to, the audience was focused. We hung on every word, laughed at every joke. It was remarkable.

I was also surprised at how helpful it was for me to rework my writing into something that’d work for a live audience. It’s always useful to read your work out loud, but I’d never really taken an article or essay of mine and asked of it, “Could I read this out loud to a bar full of people? Would they get it? Would it work?”

The changes I made to both essays helped them flow, and removed assumed knowledge and jargon without in any way changing their gist or substance. The Pac-Man essay still articulates a concept I remain enamored of even a couple of years after I wrote the piece, but my actual writing in it feels clunky and effortful now. It’s overly purple, like I was trying to impress everyone. (Guess what: I was.) I say too little with too many words, and in the lede I assume that readers know both Splinter Cell and Minecraft. In making the article work for last night’s performance, I didn’t just make it more accessible, I also made it better.

So, there’s a cool exercise in there. Next time you’re writing something, ask of it: “Could I read this out loud? To a club full of ordinary people? Would they get it?” Granted, the approach won’t do much for, say, a review of a new graphics card, but if you’re going for broad appeal with whatever you’re writing, it’s a helpful measuring stick.

Anyway. Writers With Drinks was a lot of fun. If you live in SF, you should come out to the next one. I’ll be there!

You’re The Best! Around!

10 Jan

originalIt’s now 2013, and so of course everyone has done their “Best of 2012″ lists. At Kotaku, we decided to do writer-specific lists this year.

You can read my list here. It wound up being a list of 11 games, with some honorable mentions that are most honorable, indeed.

The list, in no particular order:

Thirty Flights of Loving
Max Payne 3
The Walking Dead
Hotline Miami
Gravity Rush
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Far Cry 3
• Botanicula
Sleeping Dogs
Persona 4 Golden

With honorable mentions to FTL, Mark of the Ninja, Dyad, Torchlight II, Dishonored, Papo & Yo, Super Hexagon and Sound Shapes. For more on why I liked those games, check out the full article. Short version: They’re all good!

We also did a site-wide Game of the Year award. I argued for why Journey should be our GOTY, but in the end we gave it to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and I’m just fine with that decision.

A pretty cool year for video games, all around. And while we’re only a week or so in, 2013 is looking like it’s going to be bananas. Hooray.

Read “Kirk’s Top 10 11 Games Of 2012″ At Kotaku

Game Theory

1 Jan

nyt2012 was, for me, a year filled with writing. I wrote 1,366 Kotaku articles (!!), traveled all over the country, played a bunch of games, met a bunch of interesting people, and generally had a good time working my ass off.

It was a year of big changes at Kotaku, and over the course of the year, our team gelled. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the job, but thanks to my co-workers and my marvelous boss, I spent the second half of 2012 in particular looking forward to heading into the office every day.

One of the coolest things this year was our involvement with the New York Times. Just last week, I had the privilege of contributing to the NYT “Game Theory” year-end round-up. So, that’s pretty cool!

Here’s the general story: This year, Kotaku formed a partnership with the Times where we’d provide them the bulk of their games coverage in the form of capsule reviews cut down from the full reviews we’d run on our site. Stephen and Chris Suellentrop also took on more substantive coverage for the paper. It was a pretty low-effort, cheap-thrills kind of thing; we didn’t get bylines, and the capsule reviews didn’t offer us much of a chance to say too much beyond “This game is cool,” but it was still fun to see our words in the Times, and great that Kotaku was providing gaming coverage to arguably the most esteemed and widely-read news publication in the world.


In past years, Chris Suellentrop has run a neat feature at Slate called the “Slate Gaming Club,” where a group of critics take turns writing letters to one another about the year in games. A lot of my favorite writers and critics have participated in the series, and I’ve wanted to do it for a while. This year, I pitched Chris on the idea–I’d played more games in 2012 than any other year of my life, and if ever there was a year when I’d have a lot to add to the conversation, it was this one. As it turned out, Chris had taken the idea to the New York Times, and asked me if I’d like to contribute to that, instead. He was also in the process of setting up a collection of guest writers–the idea would be that he, Stephen and I would act as the regular writers, with several guests writing one-shot posts in between our entries.

Long story short(ish): We got underway last week, and the whole series came together quite well. Prompted by Sandy Hook, our opening entries talked about violence in games, and I’m actually very glad we found a focus like that. Often, these kinds of things can turn into scattershot “My favorite game was [X]” conversations, and I think we did well with a focus, particularly one people are as interested in as they are video game violence. Each of those first three letters was published in last Wednesday’s print edition of the Times, in a big, multi-page spread. So: My first New York Times byline! Not bad.


You can, of course, read all of these articles online, too. Chris started us off with a table-setter that introduced everyone and raised the question of violence in games, and Stephen followed him with a look at the NRA’s bizarre response to the Sandy Hook shootings the week earlier. My first entry took a look at video game violence through the lenses of a few pet theories of mine, from the idea that game developers keep making shooting games because they’ve gotten very good at it to Steve Gaynor’s wonderful concept of “specific violence,” which suggests that if video game murder were less dehumanized and anonymous, it would be more impactful and dramatically useful.

Helen Lewis, deputy editor of The New Statesman, wrote a thoughtful article about women in games, which was nice to see, particularly as 2012 felt like a watershed year for the discussion of sexism in video games. Stephen waded in to respond to some of the things Helen had brought up, particularly surrounding the Tomb Raider attempted-rape controversy, since there has been some lingering obfuscation about how that story was reported, what the game’s rep actually said, and how the publisher’s PR spun it after the fact. Playwright Lucy Preble hopped in to bring up the games as art discussion, pointing to ThatGameCompany’s Journey as an outstanding example of a video game that stands as a work of art.


On that tip, Chris wrote my favorite entry of the series, in which he talked about how video games are like ballet. I’ve always talked about how video games are like music, but I gotta say, Chris’ parallel is stronger, largely because dance, like video games, is a medium that encompasses other, subservient disciplines (music, dance, visual arts, dramatic performance). The wonderful Jenn Frank then talked about the indie games she liked this year, and the many ways they embraced failure and death. That gave me an opportunity to bring up a few of my own favorite games of the year (and sneak a few Persona 4 screens onto the NYT website), and look at the many ways video games do not yet welcome newcomers.

Two more guest posters brought us home: Wreck-It Ralph director Rich Moore talked about the games that influenced his by-all-accounts fine film, and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” producer Gavin Purcell wrote a humorous and well-observed piece about how the social game Letterpress made him become antisocial thanks to his friends constantly pressuring him to take his turn.

And with that, we called it a day. I had a blast contributing to the series, and was happy with the ideas we all managed to articulate. I’m super proud not only to have been published in the New York Times, but to have published work I’m happy with.

Onward and upward, as they say. 2013 should prove to be a very exciting year both at Kotaku and beyond. There are new video game consoles to see, ambitious games already on the horizon, and we’ve got a phenomenal team of writers to take it all on. As I was saying to Jason Schreier the other day, “We’re loaded for bear, and this year, there’re going to be some bears to hunt.” We’ll see what’s next. I’m excited.

For now, I’ve got some soup coming at this cafe, and I’m pretty excited about that, too. Happy new year, everyone!

Read the “Game Theory” series at the New York Times

A Year Of The Melodic

27 Dec

SaxThere’s this thing about working at a high-output job like Kotaku where at the end of the year, you scroll back through the RSS of everything you posted and kind of just gape at it.

“Oh yeah, that article! I forgot I wrote or even conceptualized that.”

It’s certainly one of the challenges of the gig, but the high rate-of-fire is also a way to amass a bulky body of work in a short period of time. 2012 was the year we began to do separate “Channels” at Kotaku, the idea being to let our writers each highlight their expertise in various areas on the site. I got to run “Kotaku Melodic,” ostensibly dedicated to the intersection of games and music. I of course treated it more as my own personal fiefdom to write about Miles Davis, Kimbra, Amanda Palmer, and whatever the hell else I wanted. It was great.

I went back over the year and put together this post rounding up the best of the year at Kotaku Melodic. I’m immensely proud of the work we did this year. Give it a read, won’t you?

The Year In Music At Kotaku

Hi Again Mom

24 Jun

Hey, look at that! I went on Anthony Carboni’s show “New Challenger” again, this time to talk about the super-broken and weird Kinect game Steel Battalion. We also talk about the Kinect in general, what it does well, what it does poorly, what it could do in the future.

I wore a nicer shirt this time than I did last time. I’m pretty happy about it. Moral of the story: If you’re going on-camera, wear a nice shirt.

Thanks for having me, Mr. Carboni.

Three Es Are Better Than Two

3 Jun

This week, I’ll be in Los Angeles for the Electronic Entertainment Expo, a.k.a. E3, a.k.a. Videogameapalooza 2012.

E3 is the massive annual consumer trade show where all the big video game companies and publishers (Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, Ubisoft, EA, Activision, etc.) announce their big games and more or less set the publishing schedule for the next year.

I’ll be on the ground covering the event for Kotaku, which is going to be wild. Even though we bring all 9 of our North American writers to the show, we’re still a much smaller force than the other big sites (IGN, Gamespot and the like), so we make up for it by being scrappy, personable, and (hopefully) interesting.

I’ll be cranking out a ton of writing over there, so you can either follow the sidebar here with my posts, or follow Kotaku’s E3 Tagpage for all E3 news. I’ll certainly be tweeting a lot from the event, as well.

I have a plane to catch. See you in L.A.!

A Week in the Life of a Kotaku Writer

20 May

Hello, friends. Long time no see! I’ve been busy in my Kotaku-cave (Kotakave?) for the last couple of months, and have been doing so much writing that I haven’t had much time to do any blogging here. Today, that changes, and with what else but… a post about Kotaku!

Despite the fact that I’m writing and publishing more work than ever, I sometimes get the sense that my friends and readers maybe don’t have a firm grasp on what it is… that I do. I can’t blame them—fur flies all over the place at Kotaku, and unless you’re obsessively following the site or working there, I can’t imagine how a single human could keep up. In particular, some people seem to be under the impression that I “get paid to play video games all day,” which is a misconception so hilariously “mis” that I really do want to dispel it altogether.

I thought it might be fun to take you guys on a walkthrough of one week in the life of a Kotaku writer, focusing on last week. Get ready for thrills, chills, and behind-the-scenes excitement! Continue reading

Viva Melodic!

22 Mar

I’ve been having a great time running my “Kotaku Melodic” series every Thursday from 7-9PM. We’re sharing all sorts of music-related stuff, from goofy videos to funny hidden audio easter-eggs to composer interviews to classic-game mixtapes. That image is from a post I did about the baller music of Persona 3. At my most professional, I described myself as “in full-on, hearts-on-fire love with this game.” That about sums it up.

Anyhow, I wanted to point everyone here over to it, since if you head to the Tag Page, you can just read Kotaku Melodic as if it were its own little music/games blog. You can do the same for our other channels, including Sportaku, PC Gaming Lives, the Off-Kilter comedy block, and the comics-oriented Panel Discussion.

So, go read some Kotaku Melodic! We had another fun set of posts tonight, and will be back next week with more.

Read Kotaku Melodic

Music, Lyrics and Song Design

18 Feb

This week over at Kotaku, I wrote a piece called “Gameplay and Story are Exactly Like Music and Lyrics”. It’s my take on the whole “gameplay vs. story” debate, and I believe it’s a useful one.

I’ve been chewing on the idea for a good long time now, and I was happy to finally get it down. It kind of works in tandem with my first Kotaku column from 2011 about “The Rhythm of Play”.  Two entries in my ongoing quest to demonstrate that video games are really just music.

(I’m kidding. Sort of.)

I’ve been happy with the response the piece has gotten–the analogy sure put the entire situation into perspective for me, and I’m glad to hear that it has felt useful for others as well.

I’ve been on the sidelines of the debate for a while now, reading recent pieces like Raph Koster’s “Narrative is not a Game Mechanic” and Mattie Brice’s response, “Narrative is a Game Mechanic”, watching Clint Hocking’s killer 2011 GDC talk on dynamics and “how games mean”, and earlier last year, brokering an enlightening letters debate between Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari over at Paste.

But I’ve never felt like I had that much to add to the discussion. I understand the finer points of the definitions and analyses that are being thrown around, but most of those distinctions haven’t felt that vital to me. (That’s to me, I should stress. They’re entirely relevant to the discussion itself.) Anyway, this parallel did feel vital, and like something that was easy to understand and articulate.

After the article ran, friendly rabble-rouser Mattie Brice took issue with what she took to be my conflation of (or at least, lack of distinction between) “story” and “narrative.” I’ll point out that in my piece, I really only referred to story, though I did call these types of games “narrative games.” Perhaps I should have just gone with “story-based games.”

While I actually do find the distinction between story and narrative interesting (to think about more than to write about), I don’t believe that distinction was all that useful for the broader analogy I was making. Just as I wasn’t going to spend a paragraph making distinctions about atonal music, and how to find melody and rhythm in the work of, say, Merzbow, I wasn’t going to dedicate space to making distinctions between narrative and story.

I don’t meant to wholly disregard the importance of that distinction, however. As boring as semantics can feel at times, language is important. I just don’t think it’s all that important for the point I was making. But if you do want to make the distinction, I think that the musical analogy has a place for narrative as well as story.

The question is where we want to place narrative on the spectrum. If narrative and story are in fact interchangeable, then it’s a moot point. But I like Brice’s illustration of what narrative is, how while Tetris may not have a story, it certainly has a narrative:

Games are constantly communicating experiences to the player, as when the height of all your pieces in Tetris is juxtaposed against the increasing speed of the falling blocks to create tension and provoke anxiety.

So let’s say narrative is like musical form. The way that a piece is arranged and built; not the music specifically, but its structure. “Gameplay and Story and Narrative are like Music and Lyrics and Song-Form” is a bit of a mouthful, but it feels like an accurate headline.

At any rate. In my years as a composer and songwriter, I’ve come to understand my creative process as a kind of design. The term “song designer” sounds ridiculous, but that’s very much what writing a song is like.

Most of the songs I write start with a melody. I’m strumming guitar, or sitting at the piano, and I sing the melody to myself. It sticks, so I sing it over and over. I play through a chord progression, I figure out a bit of the form, I conceptualize the tune, but it’s all built around this one wordless melody. That melody is the core of my creative idea, the peg upon which I’ll hang the rest of the song.

Sometimes the lyrics I attach to my melodies don’t make sense right away, and I’ll wind up with a completed song with no lyrics. But other times, I know exactly what a song’s lyrics will be–I have a specific story I want to tell, and I build the song’s structure around that story.

No two songs come into existence the same way. It’s an endless puzzle, and an endless design challenge. It’ll never get boring.

I’m excited that I’ll have an opportunity to write more about music and games at Kotaku–I’ve got a regular weekly posting-block every Thursday evening called “Kotaku Melodic”, where I’ll get to write about whatever I want, from terrible menu music to Avishai Cohen. It’s gonna be a blast.

And hey, while I’m at it, maybe I’ll finally find some time to finish designing some of these songs I’ve been working on.

The Year in Review(s)

17 Dec

2011 was a hell of a year. Twelve months ago, I was a fresh-faced blogger who had just taken the reins at Paste magazine, eager to do something new but not quite sure what that would be. Now it’s December again and here I am at Kotaku, looking back at an insane year of writing, debating, critiquing, traveling, and goofing around. I’ve made more friends this year than I made in the ten before it, and have had more fun than any one person ought to have. It’s all a bit difficult to write about, actually.

I wanted to take some time over the next week or so to look back at the year that was. I figured I’d start with game reviews.

It felt like I wrote a lot of reviews this year, but looking back, I see that I wrote fourteen. That’s not as many as most hardcore reviewers, but I hope that by keeping myself to around one review per month, I managed to engineer a quality-over-quantity situation.

Here, in chronological order, are all of the game reviews I wrote in 2011. Continue reading

Play It Again, Samus

3 Dec

I’m thrilled to once again have contributed a feature to the lovely Kill Screen Magazine. This issue’s theme was “The Sound Issue,” so as you can probably imagine, I was excited to come up with something good to write for it. I think I did!

My article is a look at how both games and improvisational music (jazz) devise strict rule-sets to allow for improvisation. I talk about the rules on the bandstand, discuss some of the games I use to help young students learn to improvise, and take a look at composer John Zorn’s free-jazz “game pieces.”

It’s a collection of ideas that I’ve been chewing over for a very long while, and I’m happy with how I articulated them.

As I progressed from high school to undergraduate jazz studies and beyond, I began to see that both forms [videogames and jazz] have a great deal in common. Both play with the boundaries between designer/composer intent and player interpretation, both allow for improvisation and the reimagination of the original goals of the creator. And most of all, both use strict rules to spark endless creativity.

Thanks to my editors Chris Dahlen and Ryan Kuo for working with me so tirelessly on it; now more than ever, I am aware of the benifits of a rigorous editorial process, and working with those two gents was a luxury that few writers are afforded. Special recognition to Chris for coming up with the article’s excellent title.

Props, too, to the issue’s designer Jeremy Borthwick and art directors Keenan Cummings and Jon Troutman–this is the most eye-catching issue of the magazine yet, and Keenan’s illustrations on my article are brilliant! It’s so cool to send off a huge chunk of text and then, a couple months later, see it rendered into a sexy, art-laden thing.

The issue also features work by some of my favorite writers including Matthew Burns, Patrick Klepeck, Dan Bruno, J.P. Grant, Jon Irwin and Gus Mastrapa, as well as a terrific debut article by Sarah Elmaleh.

It can (and should) be ordered from Kill Screen‘s webpage.

Three Months On The Job

23 Oct

Friends, honored guests, Pawneeans: I have some time this Sunday and I thought I would look back at my first three months writing for Kotaku. It has been an intense, often overwhelming, extraordinarily educational, stressful and rewarding time. It’s taken this long for me to even get a sense of what the hell I’m doing there, and how it is that this particular job best gets done.

Since starting in August, I’ve covered two conventions, attended a dozen or so San Francisco press events, reviewed two big games, and been at the center of a couple of internet controversies. I’ve made some people laugh, pissed some people off, and made some people think (I hope?). I’ve written around 200 posts, which may sound like a lot but by Kotaku standards is a fart in the wind. Some of those posts have been good. Some have been not so good. But I like to think my batting average is holding up okay.

We’re in the height of the fall rush right now, with more great games dropping each week. That said, I feel like I’ve got some sort of window now that I’ve finished Batman: Arkham City (it is excellent) and have a couple of weeks before Uncharted 3 and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Whoo buddy, when Skyrim comes out, I don’t even know what the hell I’m going to do.

Anyway, here are some articles that I’m proud of.

I’ve only done proper “reviews” of two games, both of which I liked. Deus Ex: Human Revolution got a more holistic treatment, and I tried to articulate how the game felt like a playable love-letter to is many influences. I also really liked Gears of War 3, though I got much more specific in my review. That was a very difficult review to write, for whatever reason.

I’ve started or fanned the flames of a few controversies, most having to do with how games represent women and minorities. My very first post as a staff member concerned the Facebook beauty contest that determined the appearance of Mass Effect‘s female commander Shepard. It was the beginning of a longer story, and as it progressed I even got to interview Jennifer Hale, the exceptional voice actor who plays Commander Shepard.

Two other posts generated similar noise–the first, a response to Evan Narcisse’s takedown of an offensive black stereotype in Deus Ex, and the second just last week about Arkham City‘s weird fixation on the word “Bitch.”

With both of those posts, particularly the Batman one, I was surprised by how many people angrily told me that I had no right to be addressing the topic at all. Several of my professional peers suggested that I’d written that “Bitch” post in a cynical bid for pageviews. I can assure them that I did not, and I can further assure them that I’m not the only person to notice that aspect of the game. I was just the first to comment on it in a far-reaching publication.

But even if I had been the only one to feel that way, it was still something I thought, and these days I’m paid to write what I think and show it to people. I appreciated everyone who engaged in the discussion, but I was bummed out by fellow writers who publicly questioned my motivations for writing the piece.

Speaking of interviews, I was happy with an essay/interview I wrote entitled “Felicia Day is Just What Gaming Needs.” Speaking with Ms. Day, I was struck by her enthusiasm and creative energy, and how willing she is to do unconventional and goofy videogame things. She’s a force for good in gaming, and I think we could use more people like her. I was extraordinarily depressed by the comments on this post. That’s a subject for a separate discussion.

I was so happy to reunite with my letter-writing buddy (and buddy in general) Leigh Alexander to tackle the classic 2000 PC game Deus Ex, in what we called “The Deus Ex Letters.” Leigh was hesitant about getting on board with the “greatest PC game of all time,” and given the reactions I’ve come to expect from PC Gamers on… well… just about everything, I don’t blame her. But we had a good time, and I think we shined light on some worthwhile topics.

Not everything I’ve been doing at Kotaku has been news, criticism, or other serious(ish) stuff. I’ve been writing goofy-yet-hopefully-enjoyable things as well. Right at the outset I wrote a fake novelization of The Witcher 2, which wound up being some sort of weird mix of humorous criticism and fanfic. I’m not sure if our readers knew what to make of it (I’m not sure I know what to make of it). I do know that I had a good time writing it, and I plan to do more.

Game previews are something we do a lot of at Kotaku—our readership is very interested in upcoming games, and we get to play a lot of games pre-release and share our impressions. Preview events tend to run from “uncomfortable” to “goddamned uncomfortable” for me. Trying to get a real sense of the game is all but impossible, since you generally see exactly what the publisher wants you to see and nothing more. Furthermore, playing a game for the first time while someone watches you, with a (well-intentioned but also intrusive) PR person hovering in the background is just… it’s not very close to my ideal gaming experience. Though often there are cookies, and I do like to eat cookies while I play games. (Also, Milk Duds.)

Sometimes the PR folks at press events practically write your headlines for you, and sometimes that can get you in trouble. (*cough* Batman *cough*) (I actually plan to address the whole “Joker-Gate 2011″ debacle, but I’ll do it this week at Kotaku and I don’t want to steal my own lede here.)

Writing previews can be fun, if you’re creative about it. I had a good time writing this goofy rhyming preview for Saints Row 3, a game which deserves a poetic preview like a German Shepard deserves a plate of foie gras… which I guess is a good reason to do it? It’s a riotous, dumb game, but it’s not particularly lyrical. Anyhow, I had a good time writing it.

It was cool working with our commenters to assemble this collection of Deus Ex hidden secrets and easter eggs, which did over 1 million pageviews. That is a big number! The last hype-related thing I wrote that I liked was my analysis of the whole Dead Island trailer thing, where the emotionally impactful (blerg worst phrase) ad for a game was substantially different than the game itself. I talked about what I thought that meant, and invoked Don Draper while doing so.

I was happy to get to share some more bloggy, critical stuff, including my well-received “Kill your Mini-Map” post about Grand Theft Auto IV that has been brewing in ma’ brain for a long time, and a post about “The Thrill of the Hunt” in games, and how much fun it can be to hunt… people… and kill them. Uh. In games. It’s nice to pause and take a look back at games that everyone has already played, and allows for much more critical perspective. I hope to do some more of that in the future.

I’ve also covered some “current events,” in that they were things that were happening and I wrote about them. I was happy with my coverage of the Foxconn iPhone game that got banned, as well as my takedown of Fox News’s uninformed take on Fate of the World. I’ve actually kinda become Kotaku‘s unofficial Fox News hatchet-man, which is a role I’m prefectly happy to assume. If you malign video games on TV, beware! I will probably make fun of you for it.

Me at E3, ignoring Jane's Addiction in favor of trinkets.

So there you have it! Some of my favorite things I’ve written in my first quarter-year at the biggest, weirdest, wildest videogame blog on the planet. The fall rush is halfway over and all my convention-attending is done, so I’m hopeful that I’ll be writing more focused, critical pieces in the coming weeks.

As always, if you’d like to keep up on my writing but for whatever reason don’t want to sift through the tons of content we run every day, you can subscribe to my RSS feed, follow me on Facebook, or track me down on Twitter, where I tend to share my biggest stories.

On a personal note, I’d like to thank all my friends for reading my stuff and supporting me. Getting a full-time gig writing about games is a very cool thing, and I feel fortunate to have this opportunity. But it can often feel lonesome, and the job hasn’t always been easy. Working from home, writing super-hard all day, addressing a mob-like comment section of shouted, conflicting opinions; dealing with doubt and isolation, as well as the occasional anonymous social-media anger of people I don’t even know. It’s all tough. Due to the full-time nature of this job, I also somewhat unexpectedly left my music teaching position at Urban, and I miss teaching every day. It has been a significant challenge for me to balance my life without my students in it.

Every reader who has sent in a note of encouragement, every friend who has retweeted my work or said nice things, everyone who’s joked around with me on IM and teamed up with me for some late-night zombie destruction… thank you. My life has never been weirder than it is right now, and thanks to you, it’s also never been more fun.

Thanks also to my editors and fellow Kotaku writers, all of whom are maniacs who work their asses off every day. Special recognition to Stephen Totilo, who has kept me sane and been a massive help in upping my game. He’s a great editor, a funny guy, and he’s a phenom when he covers a conference. It would take another 1500 words to even begin to list the things I’ve learned from him.

Emo stuff complete! Time to play some more of this game I’m reviewing for next week. It’s not gonna be pretty. But then, “pretty” ain’t what they pay me for.

At least, it’s not entirely what they pay me for.

Voicebox 360

13 Aug

It’s not every day I’m in the New Yorker. Actually, it’s pretty much been zero days up to this point. But this week’s issue features a fantastic profile of voice-actor Jennifer Hale by my friend Tom Bissell, and it’s got a quote from me!

It’s just a little quote, but it’s a good one. I’m super-proud not only to be in such an esteemed publication, but to be a small part of such a terrific piece of writing. (Also, while I can’t prove it, I think that a piece I wrote back in February was the first published instance of the still underused nickname “BroShep.”)

You can download the iPad version of the magazine or find it on newsstands now, and I recommend doing so—like all of Tom’s work, the piece is excellently written and uniquely humorous, and it offers a really informative, neat look into the world of videogame voice-acting.

While I’m sitting here not-so-humblebragging, I’ll share a short story. One weekend back near the start of the year, I knew Tom was going to be down in LA hanging out with Jennifer, and was appropriately jealous.

I was sitting around my apartment that Saturday when my phone rang. I saw that the call was from Tom and thought, “Oh cool, isn’t he down in LA with Jennifer Hale this weekend?”

“Hello?” I answered.

“Is this Kirk?” a woman’s voice replied.

“Yes…” I said, slowly.

“This is Commander Jane Shepard. I have a mission for you,” she said.

And then I died.

Hi There, Kotaku

27 Jul

Well, then. I’m crazy-excited to announce that I’ve accepted the position of San Francisco Features Editor at Kotaku!

We announced the position today – I’ll officially start this coming Monday. I’ll be writing features, criticism, developer interviews, reviews, doing field reporting from SF, keeping up my music/games column… basically everything, really. I’ve had so much fun writing stuff for Kotaku over the past couple of years, and the fact that I’m going to get to do my thing full-time for them has got me pretty pumped.

I have a ton of goals and plans and what-have-yous for what I’ll do there, but for the time being I’ll just be getting started and getting my feet under me. I’m really looking forward to working with and learning from Joel, Stephen, Crecente, and the rest of the crew.

Furthermore, I’ll be doing a lot more interacting with Kotaku’s wild and wooly commenting community — commenters have been getting a bad rap lately in many corners of the internet, but on my past few Kotaku columns I’ve been enjoying responding to the lengthy, thoughtful responses that so many people have posted. So, yeah: I’ll be reading the comments, so if you want to talk about something I wrote, please do pipe up.

The new gig does mean that I will have to step down from my position at Paste, which I’ll be sad to do. I’ve had such a good time working there thanks largely to Paste EIC Josh Jackson’s tireless work and awesome self, as well as all of the fantastic contributors I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Thanks, all. I still can’t believe some of the stuff I got to publish there, and will definitely put together some sort of list of my favorite pieces.

I guess I should mention the fact that Kotaku takes a lot of flak around the internet, for reasons as numerous as they are varied. Most of my friends, colleagues, and online acquaintances have ripped on the site for some transgression or another over the years, often publicly. To those people I say: You are forgiven! It’s okay, just never ever say anything bad about Kotaku ever again, and you and I will be cool. Everyone deserves a second chance.

KIDDING, jeez.

In all seriousness, I have always thought the big K was damn cool, and that their format works really well for delivering an incredible amount of content. The staff works their asses off, and they celebrate games and gaming culture with an unmatched joie de vivre. I’m really excited to add my voice to the fracas, and I’ll always be available to talk about whatever I write at kirk [att] kotaku [dott] com.

Anyhow, freaking out a bit at the moment, currently enjoying a fun combination of “Damn I’m Stoked” and “What the hell have I gotten myself into.”

Wish me luck, friends. This should be fun.

Just To Watch It Burn

26 Jul

(click to embiggen)

I’ve played it so many times, and yet to this day Far Cry 2 remains a game filled with such terrible thrills, such unexpected beauty.

Talk Talk Music Talk Talk

18 Jul

My latest music/games column is up at Kotaku – it’s a post about voice-acting, melody, and why so many beloved game soundtracks are from games that feature little to no voice acting. It’s an idea I’ve been chewing on for a while, and which I first articulated on Michael Abbott’s Brainy Gamer Podcast last fall while talking with Michael and Dan Bruno about our favorite game soundtracks. While it’s of course not a “final” idea, I’m happy with how I managed to articulate the core concept.

As developers add spoken dialogue and sound effects to their games, they should always weigh the value of those things against the possibility that they will overshadow their game’s other vital aspects: bounce, flow, rhythm, and feel. Games and music can both wordlessly convey feelings of challenge and stress, joy and terror, and progression and release, and a talented composer can weave his or her melodies straight into a game’s mechanical systems to create something dynamic and uniquely beautiful.

The column was also a chance for me to do some collaboration with my friend Sarah Elmaleh, who is a fantastic voice-actor based out of NY. You may remember her role as K’lara Loshachtii in the oft-delayed but epic Sci Fi adventure game Suparna Galaxy. (And the voice of the computer in the PC adventure game Gemini Rue).

Sarah lent her voice to the role of Aeris in a video I made, while… yeah… I played Cloud. My goal wasn’t to win any voice-acting awards, but more to point out how the ear changes focus once a voice enters the scene. That said, I think that a recent YouTube commenter put it most succinctly:

I hope it’s clear in the piece that I don’t mean to “dismiss” any games with voice-acting, and I’m not offering my central theory as anything other than food for thought for fans and developers alike. I love the soundtracks to games like Metal Gear and Mass Effect, and of course both of those games feature copious amounts of voice-acting. That said, I think there’s something to be said for limiting the amount of chatter that goes on in games – lately I’ve been playing a few games that feature too much repetitive NPC chatter, and it detracts from the overall experience as much as it does from the music.

It’s been really fun, as usual, to talk about the column with commenters and people on twitter, and I’ve heard some great thoughts on both sides of the discussion. And I’ve had it further reinforced that at some point here I need to play Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy VI, XenoGears and Crisis Core. You know, when I create a clone of myself specifically to get caught up on older games.

In the meantime, gotta go finish Bastion. It’s pretty cool. I’ll have some stuff to say about it.

-Read “Voice-Acting Sucks Kill It With Fire” at Kotaku-


12 Jul

This past Sunday, I headed down to Mad Dog in the Fog to check out a new event called “BarCraft,” hosted by’s gaming channel Twitch TV. I was covering the event for Kotaku, and it was great fun. My write-up went up today:

In between games there’s a convivial, social vibe as bargoers chat up strangers, discuss strategies and rehash epic games from the past. Everyone seems to agree that it’s a fantastic turnout, and that that fact is a Very Good Thing. BarCraft has that open, optimistic excitement that tends to crop up at the best types of video game events. Here we are at the start, everyone seems to be thinking, dipping our toes into the future.

My impressions are in the piece, as well as some general thoughts on professional gaming as a spectator sport. The short version: I’m totally into it. I’m certainly not much of a StarCraft player; the skill that it takes to compete on the ladders is far beyond me. If you want a good idea of what I’m talking about, check out this insane APM demonstration:


But even though I could never hope to be one one-hundredth that fast, I love the game, and have had a blast learning more about the process of its design.

I missed the GDC talk given by Blizzard’s Dustin Browder entitled “Designing an e-Sport,” but I wish I hadn’t – fortunately, I can go watch it on the GDC Vault, which I fully plan to do. But even without seeing it, I enjoyed my friend David Carlton’s notes about the talk that he posted to his blog.

I’ve been thinking about sports and games quite a bit lately, realizing that it seems easier to turn a videogame into a sport than it is to turn a pre-existing sport into a videogame. People play Street Fighter IV and StarCraft 2 professionally, but to my knowledge they don’t play Madden or MLB: The Show. I have a number of thoughts about why that might be, but it’d probably be best to get them organized, do some research, and write a full piece about it.

In the meantime, I’m sure there’ll be more BarCrafts soon. The guys from Twitch TV were really excited to host more, and from the look of this Reddit thread, plenty of other folks are going to be taking it upon themselves to organize ad-hoc get-togethers of their own.

I’ll certainly go to the next one, and bring some friends. Maybe in a few months, at the end of the NASL’s second season. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to tear myself away from these YouTube videos and finish the Wings of Liberty campaign.

- Read my “BarCraft” report at Kotaku -


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