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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
Journey
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.

journey-cap-blog480

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.

NYTimes

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.

26artsbeat-video-blog480

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.!

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