For the concluding article of Part III in our ongoing So You Want to Work in Video Games series, game journalists discuss the Media that taught, influenced or otherwise inspired them to write about video games. We chose some of the most talented writers we know to write the entries compiled below; with the notion in mind that this small body of media might allow our readers to engage with the books, films and video games that nudged these same creatives one step forward in their craft; or moved them in a decided direction or by way of some brilliant intangible sparked a moment of bona fide inspiration. Whether you are a budding game journalist, an old vet or someone just looking for some powerful and engaging entertainment, then stick around.
The very first computer game I played was the now-classic text-based Adventure. Sure, I have more powerful software in my pocket now, and, sure, text parsing that was totally baffled by a typed command to “walk nroth” is a pretty terrible UI, but when I was growing up, I spent countless happy hours exploring the massive caves in Adventure. I drew elaborate maps of Colossal Caves, which served me well later when plotting out character paths for MMOs. This simple text-based game also taught me a lot about interactive storytelling, as I bored my poor mom by explaining in detail what I loved and what I wanted to improve in Adventure.
This game didn’t influence just me — keep a lookout for Adventure’s iconic password XYZZY and you’ll find it all over.
I was recently asked to recommend just one indie game to an audience of non-gamers, something that would introduce players to indie sensibilities. That game is I chose was Eufloria. Eufloria is an intuitive, beautiful game about growing exotic flowers to take over the galaxy. Players make thoughtful, tactical choices and in an unhurried, elegant environment, creating a game that’s simultaneously relaxing and strategic. At the time, I was a very junior reviewer covering indies, which usually meant being assigned underwhelming geometric puzzlers, and I was incredibly inspired by the idea that a couple of guys, without a massive studio or large budget, could make something like this, and that games like Eufloria are where indie development is going. And, if I’m completely honest about it, Eufloria’s aesthetics, creativity, and accessibility is now the standard to which I compare indie games.
Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
The first time I can remember wanting to be a writer was back in elementary school, when I was first discovering Gaiman and Pratchett’s unique takes on fantasy novels, literature, and morality. I was so inspired by Good Omens that I immediately sat down and began writing a short story that blatantly ripped off both their writing styles and a good chunk of their ideas. Imitation was literally my sincerest form of flattery; I considered these two (and their collaboration) to be the pinnacle of writerly achievement. And to some extent, I still do.
When I was in high school, I gamed exclusively on an old Dell Inspiron laptop that was way too awful to run anything more complex than Age of Empires or 2D freeware games. The lone exception seemed to be the sequel to Baldur’s Gate, which I got from a friend and played obsessively for years. It was the first game I had ever played that allowed the player some modicum of choice in his or her own plot, which was such a novel concept at the time that I instantly fell in love with the game, warts and all. I eventually succumbed to the lure of cheat codes, but my character’s journey across the Forgotten Realms and the Underdark–home to the dreaded mind flayers–still sticks in my memory as one of the most immersive gaming experiences of my life. And it was all because I got to shape my own story.
The Playwright’s Guidebook Stuart Spencer
After high school, I went to college for creative writing, met some incredible professors, and read a great many books on the craft. But none remain lodged in my mind so firmly as Stuart Spencer’s The Playwright’s Guidebook to writing for the stage, a book packed with practical advice and exercises that I eagerly devoured on my own time. I may not be the Broadway sensation I set out to be, but I learned much more than I ever thought I would–and I’ve been able to put those lessons into practice after earning my degree and setting off into the world as a professional freelancer. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell my own stories one day, and you’ll be watching them unfold on your screen.
I never actually played MMORPGs. I was one of those kids who was too shy even for online multiplayers, anxious that the elves and trolls would perceive my uncoolness right through my avatar. Nevertheless, The Guild, written by and starring the omni-talented Felicia Day, has been a source of inspiration for me. Apart from being really funny, the web series is a reminder that gamers come in all shapes and sizes—I could totally identify with Day as a cute, bookish, theatre-nerd type. I can’t imagine I’m as cute as Felicia Day, but come on, who is?
You can purchase the monstrous Complete Megaset DVD here.
Tropes vs. Women in Videogames
Even though it’s so easy for the internet to dissolve into mob rule, Anita Sarkeesian marched through the mob and went ahead with her web series. She had faith that there are people out there who know that feminism in gaming is a valuable thing to discuss, not dismiss. It’s not hypocritical to enjoy playing a game and also acknowledge it has flaws in gender representation. She reminds me that my perspective is legitimate, not just as a niche “gamergurl” but as a gamer, period.
When I read Ender’s Game for the first time, one of the things that really stuck with me was how videogames played an integral role in the plot. Ender is empowered by playing simulation games at the same time as he manipulated through them (I love how these themes are now getting addressed in games like Bioshock). Reading that book made me think about all the possibilities videogames had to offer. Today, our military uses videogames to train and recruit soldiers. We can use games to assess how likely it is for a prospective employee to be successful in the workplace. Educators are even bringing videogames into classroom to teach problem solving. Videogames are fun and entertaining, but it’s becoming ever more clear how important they are to our society. I want my finger to be on that pulse.
The Jolly Postman
I honestly don’t know where I picked up this personality of being such a critical fussbudget (or what makes me think it’s cool to toss words like “fussbudget” into my prose) and maybe I shouldn’t be admitting this, but I still don’t much consider myself any manner of journalist. Reading critical writing is something I only did with regularity when I had to because I was, unwisely, doing a degree in the stuff. Typically I find written criticism dull and rather despise the rigid structure so much of it adheres to. I far more appreciate fiction, specifically the kind that makes a point of exploring what can be done with the medium of writing itself. I like stuff like House of Leaves that thinks about the actual physical notion of books and wonders, “How can we screw with this?” A lot simpler than House of Leaves is this children’s book, The Jolly Postman. It tells the tale of a postman delivering letters to various fairy tale characters, e.g., Cinderella and the Three Bears. Half of the pages tell you in rhyme where the postman is going to next on his bicycle. But every other page looks like a little envelope that you can flip over and pull the mail out of. Not only are you reading the core storyline, but you get to have these awesome little side-adventures reading about the lawsuit the Three Little Pigs have brought against the Big Bad Wolf or an abridged version of Cinderella’s story meant to be a proof copy of her autobiography sent to her by the publishers she’s working with. It might sound absurd that I found a kid’s book to be such an inspiration but it has really stuck with me and I still marvel at the inventiveness of the book to this day. The Jolly Postman is so playful in its composition that it is actually physically interactive. It’s literature as a game, which immediately fell in line with my early appreciation of video games and also encouraged me to be playful in how I write, something I continue to do in my reviews and why my prose continues to confuse and annoy everybody.
Shadow of the Colossus
This one’s a lot more conventional and easy to understand. Anybody who knows anything about gaming loves Shadow of the Colossus and with good reason. It’s one of the only games in existence that deeply considers and experiments what can be done with the medium and then pulls off its experiment in an effective manner. It first presents a truly inventive gameplay concept, namely that making your opponents towering creatures is super freaking cool. We’ve had monster movies for ages, but being the little guy taking down those monsters is an awesome premise communicated uniquely through the medium of video games. Then of course there’s the fact that killing these colossi gradually begins to make you feel guilty. It took a long time for gaming to really consider agency—how much our actions as players dictate who our characters are and how we affect the game world—and I don’t think it’s been accomplished again as sublimely as SotC handled it. The idea that a game can make you feel guilty and that that feeling can make you examine yourself by way of the emotions you’re experiencing is stunning. This makes SotC probably the foremost example of video games as more than just toys. I once had lunch with a group of women, most of whom were older than me (we were all new teachers for the same course) and they got onto the topic of their boyfriends and husbands and the amount of time they spend on games and whether this was a worrying thing or not. This eventually morphed into a topic about the worth of gaming on the whole, leading me to bring up Shadow of the Colossus as an example of gaming that goes beyond the stereotypical representation of the medium that typically reaches non-gamers. To my surprise, everyone at the table actually seemed interested in what I had to say and asked me thoughtful questions about it. I felt if I could get a group of older women even mildly intrigued about the possibilities of video games, I could certainly write some criticism, forever with the goal of shedding light on those new ideas that elevate this medium out of the immaturity it’s so long been mired in.
Transformers (as in the Michael Bay movie) Transformers is a colossal piece of garbage that fails in nearly every category that would allow it to be qualified as a film. It’s overlong, horribly written, crass, not particularly well-acted, and so poorly directed it’s straight-up hard to even see what’s going on at times. It’s a nausea-inducing, vapid hunk of feces that nobody should have ever seen. But, instead, everyone saw it and continues to go see all the sequels (not me—I learned my lesson with the first one). I have, of course, seen greater cinematic failures, but the real injustice of Michael Bay Presents: Noisy CGI Crap is the way viewers refused to acknowledge how bad it was. For me, this “film” felt like a turning point for society in which we stopped expecting quality from our entertainment and began defending badness. The argument wheeled out on the IMDB message boards, various other stupid corners of the internet, and even occasionally in real life to my face was that this was a movie based on a line of kids’ toys, that it was “supposed to be stupid,” and that it was folly to expect anything more. But there have been action movies that were “stupid” like Predator or the Indiana Jones trilogy (not Temple of Doom; I hate it), but those were still structurally competent, better edited, better directed, and just plain fun to watch. I shouldn’t leave a movie about giant fighting robots annoyed, exhausted, and bewildered. At the very least, I should feel like I watched something with a beginning, middle, and end.
But this was the terrible moment at which the moviegoing public made it clear that not only had their sense of good taste deteriorated, but that they felt this is what they deserved. This is a frightening notion to me, that people not only accept such garbage, but voluntarily take on the task of acting as PR for those who crapped it out, supporting the perpetrators and the product till the bitter end. This behavior is absolutely an epidemic among gamers and battling against it is probably my main purpose when it comes to writing negative (which is most of it) criticism. Somebody released a game, movie, TV show, or whatever with the implicit suggestion that it was fit for public consumption and that you would have a good time with it. You spent money on it in good faith, expecting to have a good time. You did not. It is your right to express your discontent. And while it’s sweet of you that you’ve got Michael Bay’s back, he definitely does not need your help. He can be a rich prick all by himself.
You pick up a cop of Micheal Bay’s demented action film here.
Jason Schnieder Copywriter, Game Journalist and Editor at Hardcore Droid
Outliers Malcolm Gladwell
I’ll admit that most of my “inspirations” don’t really fall under traditional sources that normally inspire game developers and critics. But I’m a copywriter by trade, musician by passion and casual gamer since before I could do either of the former. So when I got my hands on Outliers—an inspiring study on the science of success by former New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell—I read it with the same fervid enthusiasm that many other readers did. This nonfiction collection, while it focuses on fields that are decidedly different than my own (lawyers, hockey players, ancient Asian rice paddy farmers), its central theme dissects what makes someone successful. And to be frank, Gladwell contends that hard work and capitalizing on advantages are the only reasons anyone in history achieves mainstream success. Bill Gates had access to a college computer science lab when he was 12, NHL players were given advantages in Canadian Junior leagues, and I managed to stumble my way into a young and fruitful writing career because I met the right person at the right time. The takeaway? Never say never (excuse the cliché). Grab coffee with the stranger whose business card mysteriously slipped into your pocket. You truly never know.
The Coen Brothers
I’ll admit that I cheated a little with this one. These are directors, and not a resource unto themselves. But if you look at their body of work (and collective critical acclaim) you’ll see why I’m so inspired by this duo—both as a writer and a musician. When I saw O Brother Where Art Thou I was taken aback in more ways than one. The music was phenomenal, the acting was splendidly awkward, but the writing. Oh, the writing. My first viewing (back in the Spring of 2005, I’d say), was the moment I knew I wanted to do something great with the power of my pen. Their adaptation of the form-fit epic The Odyssey was so subtle and so effective that I watched the film 3 times that weekend. And from there I knew that I wanted to wow people with my creativity. I went on to study music, sound design and digital communications where I worked for a variety of music and advertising startups. But I always came back to my desire to convince people of the power of the written word. And I guess that fits copywriting and game criticism to a T. I can only hope that the brothers’ follow-up folk narrative Inside Llewin Davis gives me the same creative jolt.
Windows Game Programming For Dummies
From the perspective of a beginner who’d just taught himself C and C++, game designer, Andre LaMothe’s book waxed difficult at times. Still, what was amazing to me about this book was that when compared to others books of its ilk, everything in it was doable and comprehensible for a beginner. Tackling everything from coding video cards in assembly language to the trappings of Microsoft Windows API, Mr. LaMothe’s book not only took a bunch of complex material and rendered it both palatable and understandable, it also provided newbie programmers with a shell, built by Mr. LaMothe using the MS Windows API, which readers with a fundamental understanding of C and C++ could hack to construct their own simple 2D games. I spent a summer vacation constructing a 2D shooter out of about 200 pages of code and while the game was a bit of a mess, the exercise taught me volumes about the work involved in creating video games.
Blades of Exile
I spent another summer developing a role playing game using the RPG construction set that came with Spiderweb Software’s excellent old school RPG. Not only did the endeavor set the stage for me writing about games, and DIY video game endeavors like this article, but I found something out about myself. When I won a runners up position in the homegrown RPG contest Spiderweb held on their site and user reviews cited my RPG’s excellent dialogue and plot, I discovered that that I could write.
And so I did.
In the ten years following my Spiderweb RPG venture, I earned a masters degree in creative writing, published five short stories, the last in the prestigious literary journal, The Fiddlehead, Canada’s oldest literary journal, and I built this website.
Zen in the Art of Writing Ray Bradbury
I read this superb book on writing when I was working on my master’s and more than anything it confirmed two important concepts. One was simply to always strive to write with passion and immediacy. The other, concerning the making of art, I had, up until that point, always suspected was true, I just didn’t have the backup of a heavyweight like Ray Bradbury to confirm its validity. Bradbury imparts that its essential for artists to embrace the strange and idiosyncratic things they love, explaining that they should learn to see these things as integral aspects of their creative selves and should never allow anyone to convince them otherwise. In other words, the creatives among us should identify the off-kilter things that inspire us and then gear ourselves up to chase the buzz they provide with everything we have. As the world’s preeminent scholar on mythology, Joseph Campbell, wrote, and said with frequency about the secret to a full life: We need to learn to follow our bliss.
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