So, my name's Jeremy Penner. I'm 33. Living right now in Ottawa, Ontario in Canada.
I don't know, I've been programming since I was old enough to read, which was three or four. So, I've always been interested in videogames and interested in making stuff like basic text adventures and whatever. I always had this dream that one day I would get really good and I would be able to realize my dreams and realize the games that I had in my head.
I don't know that I ever quite got there. I have ended up making a lot of things along the way trying to get there.
About eight or nine years ago I started glorioustrainwrecks.com because I was inspired by some old, weird games there were made by just a handful of people and I thought, "Well, there aren't enough weird games in the world. I want to make more, I want there to be more, and the only way to do that would be to make more."
I registered the domain at like 2 a.m. and put up the ugliest forum software that looked like I could tweak into doing what I wanted, and it kind of snowballed into this weird oddball movement of people making intentionally bad games out of sheer enthusiasm. Like, the goal from the outset was to make games that didn't take themselves seriously, at all, to enjoy the process of failing spectacularly, because I was so tired of being so concerned about making something good that I didn't make anything at all. But it turned out lots of people connected with that sort of ethos and lots of people started making games and putting them up on the site and it became this weird, unstoppable monster.
So I kinda tried to get my friends excited about it and start making stuff and, yeah, I don't know how many games I've churned through over the course of those eight, nine years.
Probably close to a hundred.
Yeah. Well, but you also preserve shareware registration screens. Am I correct in remembering that as well?
Yes! Yes. So, I'm also very interested in the history of weird videogames and making sure that's kept around.
It's not -- I'm not too worried about losing the history of Mario, but the history of Skunny, who was a squirrel that showed up in a bunch of terrible knockoff shareware games? That's something that people don't know about unless they lived it. And so, I think that's interesting to keep around and kind of as I've gone through, I've got this blog and I had this idea one day that there's this culture around these shareware games where people would make them. I had this impression as a kid that anyone could make a shareware game and make a copy, upload it to a BBS, and then it would spread, because that's how I got all my stuff. I would download it.
Well, there would be that or you would go to the computer store and --
Yeah, you'd have your pick: "I gotta buy a disk for $5!"
Well, that, but also there would be those bargain bins where it's a good price and there'd be a hundred games on there and you'd bring it home and maybe you'd like three of them. This is maybe a strange place to start, but something I've been thinking about a lot this past week is how have videogames gone from that to a thing that is cool or that people try to be cool around? We're the same age, and certainly growing up and when I was checking out these same weird games as you, I never really thought any of that was cool. I don't know if you saw The Game Awards last night --
Yeah. That does seem to be the picture of what we nebulously call "the game industry" wants to be presenting. Like, they want videogames to be cool, but when do you remember that starting?
I mean, just my personal impression of that? The first-person shooter. Doom. If you look at the industry -- Doom is interesting because it's this weird intersection of this old shareware game made by a handful of weirdos, right?
[Laughs.] In the middle of Texas, yeah.
Yeah. But, you know, suddenly it gathered this momentum and it just never stopped. This whole idea -- first-person shooter wasn't a thing. When you had games that were first-person for years after, they were called "Doom clones." It's like, "Oh, well, here's another Doom clone. You're staring down the barrel of a gun walking through a maze and shooting things.”
There was a sense for a while that that was going to be an evolutionary dead end or something, but then it just kind of kept going. People just liked them forever.
Yeah. I remember some of that even spilling out into the weirder games. You probably have a better memory of this than me, but I remember stuff like Chex Quest. But I think that was more trying to follow the trend than trying to subvert it. What are your memories of the really weird games trying to subvert the "cool" games?
Well, I mean, I think for a time the period was -- I'm trying to think of subversion, but I don't know about subversion but I feel like there was a push of, "Oh, this is a thing that people are expecting. The player needs to be driving in this perspective or whatever." But there wasn't necessarily a template. There wasn't necessarily a formula. So, people would kind of mash these weird ideas in or they would be like -- I know there's a Muppets CD-ROM game where you're the Swedish Chef in a first-person shooter and one of your weapons is an egg beater or something like that. I don't remember.
And I mean, eventually, after the template went, I can definitely think of some poor attempts to subvert things that didn't go so well.
Cyberdillo on the 3DO, I remember that was one of the first games I kind of profiled on Glorious Trainwrecks before it became a game-making forum. It was like, "Oh, I got this 3DO! Here's this system that's gotta be full of weird stuff."
Cyberdillo is this first-person shooter where you're literally a cybernetic armadillo that shoots plungers, has a plunger gun, and it has -- I'm trying to remember it. I don't know if I'm remembering it exactly right but there's some sort of meter where you can shit yourself?
Like, if it fills up too much and you don't find a toilet -- it's just this game that's desperately trying to be funny and kind of completely fails in every respect. There's a song that's a knock-off of "Cotton Eye Joe" about Cyberdillo.
I was gonna say, there's nothing at all about that is even remotely trying to be cool.
[Laughs.] From our email thread, obviously -- you call them "half-baked games," like, why do they matter? Why are they worth not only you curating and collecting and paying attention to them, but why should other people pay attention to these at all?
Personally, part of it is just I just like it. I'm just interested in all these paths that have ideas and things that people tried. A lot of them are still kind of interesting. There's history there that I feel like it's very easy -- certainly the current climate of the gaming community as it were, it's very easy to decide that the newest thing is the best thing, is the most important thing, it's the thing that you should be paying attention to. But I don't think that's actually a particularly healthy way to engage with art, to think that because this thing didn't make a lot of money or wasn't fun in a particular way to play doesn't mean that it doesn't have anything to say to you.
And so, part of that is wanting people to be interested in weird games is not just, "This thing you missed is really good." It's just a general mindset of getting out of that space and getting into being open to different things and you'll know them when you see them.
You were saying, and I agree, and I don't feel like it's something I see articulated very much: There isn't really a sense of history among whatever you want to refer to as the community. I've heard some people describe it as a mentality where everything basically started in the year 2000 and there's nothing before it.
You were saying that the history of videogames is far more than the history of companies in the industry. For people who aren't sure what you mean, what sort of stuff are they missing out on by only paying attention to stuff that's being released by publishers?
Sure. So, I can maybe tie this back a bit. When I was a kid -- these days I make my living as a programmer. I work with computers and that kind of came directly out of me being interested in the things that computers could do when I was a kid, and one of those things was videogames. But as a kid I had the belief, I had the understanding that videogames and programs and whatever a computer could do, that was a thing that people could do. That was a thing that I could learn to do and just because the things that I could learn to do to start were kind of primitive or simple or weird or broken didn't mean that I couldn't get better.
One of the things that was important to me still -- I still try to look back and try to see with my own site, like, what is the path? What is the path to getting from someone who is interested in a thing to being involved in it and making it yourself.
So, the history of videogames is a history. So much of it is just people that made a thing. They learned how to do a thing and then they used that knowledge to make a thing. They weren't necessarily -- there wasn't some big organization putting together a business plan that says the kids need their 50 hours of gameplay or whatever.
There's so much out there that is just people who are just expressing themselves in this way. And I think it's important that you can recognize that you can see the human element in that, that you can know that this was a thing that was created by someone because that's what they wanted to do. If they could do that, if they could make this thing because they felt like it, then that expands the -- it means that there's a place for you, too. It expands the role.
Yeah. You make games and you do work as a programmer. Is that something that you tried to do, to work in the industry yourself?
I actually kind of intentionally stayed away from the industry, from the games industry, just because of reading the stories of people who would work in games and how they were treated and what their lives were like in industry. I would look at that and I'd be like, "If I don't have to do that, if I can be happy programming something other than that for 40 hours a week or whatever, then I will ride that out. I will not put myself through that.”
I'm still kind of hoping someday that I could find an arrangement that would not crush my soul.
What sort of treatment are you talking about with regard to talent in the industry? I know crunch is the one safe thing for people to talk about. Is that what you're referring to, or other stuff as well?
I mean, definitely crunch is a big thing. I just don't hear a lot of people who are working at a salaried game development job who are particularly happy about it. [Laughs.]
I think what it is, though, is that the people who are treated well aren't allowed to talk to anyone about it. I did have a realization a couple years ago, and especially when I started doing this, that when you go above a certain pay grade at many game companies and those employees don't have social media accounts. I'm not sure where you wound up in programming, but I have some friends who work at Apple and they're not allowed to have Twitter accounts and are educated on how to keep a low profile online. So, I do think there are people who are treated really well but they are the exceptions to the rule and you don't really hear about the amazing bonuses they get or the really awesome treatment that they get.
It gives a distorted picture that I don't think is untrue, but I do wonder what it's like to live large at one of those game companies? Because we don't know.
A lot of expertise and knowledge is just weirdly, although understandably, gated.
Well, to be fair, I think I also have issues with the larger tech community that I didn't when I started my career.
I think some of that mindset of crushing people to get a product out the door or whatever? There are a lot of programming jobs that are not game-related that are not immune to that, either.
I'm very conscious, still, of the work that I choose.
Right. Well, but I think, too, there is some of that notion of it being a very crushing space that it does prevent or at least the costs and the way they've crept up, it does discourage a lot of -- I hate to use the word "innovation" because it's so overused that it barely seems like a special word anymore. Maybe you feel that way, too, where games coming from companies, there's not a lot of variety to them anymore.
Does that sound mistaken to you, that I say that?
No, I completely feel that way. Anything that has a budget of however many tens of millions of dollars or whatever, it's a very rare thing that risks are taken with that on the line.
And so you are going to see a lot of things that are very same-y and by and large, I have very little interest in what those games have to say.
I would assume so, given Glorious Trainwrecks_._
I'm much more entertained by a freeware game from the '90s where you're a beer bottle shooting flying toasters.
From After Dark? [Laughs.]
Yeah. That is the game that inspired Glorious Trainwrecks. It's called the The Last Eichhof, made by a Finnish demo group and you're this beer bottle in space shooting at other beer bottles and toilets that vomit other beer bottles and you're fighting against the big breweries. The final level is called "The Morning After," and the final boss of the game is your own brain.
Does it have a happy ending?
I think it's happy?
[Laughs.] Here's a little about me: When I started out as a guy writing about games, I always thought that there's nothing at all wrong with Call of Duty but the world does not need another dude writing about Call of Duty. I always tried to find weird things on TIGSource to write about and I don't know if I've ever written about stuff on your blog, but I've been doing this in addition to other types of writing for 10 years you've been curating for nine years so I'm sure we've overlapped.
But this is always one thing that has struck me as odd, is that some of the games media is better about writing about smaller or weirder titles now. But am I mistaken in that assumption, too, that on the whole there is a risk aversion from game outlets in looking for really weird, interesting, strange, or unusual stuff to write about as well?
Yeah, I think there are definitely people in the space that write about stuff and that seek stuff out and engage with it but they don't tend to have a lot of readership or are able to pay their writers. They don't have the reach that the people who will write about the bigger things that are already being talked about.
What I see a lot, too, is places will wait for some other place to write about a thing first and then it's okay for them to write about. I sense a measurable hesitation in taking a risk on writing about a thing that might seem weird. Maybe it's scenesterism and maybe they don't want to be accused of having "bad taste," but do you sense that too or is that just me?
I follow a lot of games writers on Twitter but I don't necessarily read a lot of games reading.
[Laughs.] Yeah, that makes sense. Maybe it's because of that, but why have you arrived at that approach to your games media consumption?
Well, it kind of parallels my game consumption a little bit. In the last two years I've disengaged a little bit more and I'm kind of coming around back to it now. But just, in some respects I need to find some other things to do with my brain for a while.
Yeah. This was in your email, that talk of budgets and tech and "hours of gameplay," and maybe this is something I said in my email back to you already, but it does feel like a lot of the conversation around videogames can be a little cyclical and I think those are things that are often put through -- you know, if it's not Fallout 4, it's Metal Gear Solid V, and if it's not that it's Arkham Knight. I'm sure it's similar but I feel like it must have been somehow different when we were growing up and talking about Mario 3 and Metroid 2.
Do you remember those conversations being different somehow or was it always like this?
I don't know. I can talk a little bit about going back. So, the videogame magazine I used to read when I was younger was called Videogames & Computer Entertainment and they had a number of interesting features in it. There was a section of the magazine devoted to fanzines. It was reviews of fanzines. Stuff that people had photocopied or whatever made in their own time that were copied and said, "Write to me and send me a couple dollars and I will send you my zine." And they devoted space in the magazine to say, "Hey, this is some interesting stuff that people are doing."
Yeah, largely, you're gonna get people who are talking about -- I was always bummed that they would only talk about shareware in a special feature or something. Maybe once every couple years you would get something that was like, "Oh, here are some shareware games you might be interested in checking out or something. There was this whole space and it was this world of stuff that I was playing that just may as well have not existed in the writing about it. And I always thought that was weird.
And eventually there would be some special features, like -- that was when Wolfenstein came out and you couldn't ignore shareware anymore. That was when that conversation started to turn and be like, "Oh, there are these other games here. Maybe we could talk about them."
In those days, the internet was around but it was nothing like it was today and it was nothing like the internet of the late '90s. I think just logistically, tracking down "all the shareware that's out there" was a lot harder. Like, I mentioned a weird endcap barrel thing at Babbage's or whatever software store I used to go to. I don't think I was reading about these weird mixes of hundreds of games. Where would you go to even find out about them?
You just wouldn't.
You would go to the store and it would be at the store.
They would be there. Yeah.
Or you would go to Happy Puppy or whatever and there'd be some download links. Like, The Last Eichof, the beer space-shooting game, I found that game because I was early early internet on some FTP site that had games on it and there was a file called "beer.zip." There was no description of it and I had no idea what it was. I just knew it was four megabytes, it was called "beer.zip," and it was a game so that was worth spending the hour to download. Like, it had to be.
I mean, it was called "beer.zip," how could you not be intrigued or confused?
Exactly. It was like, "Oh, I haven't seen that file before! That's interesting.”
That's gotta be good for something.
I'm curious about this collection you've built up. Do you have a Holy Grail that you're hoping to find someday or do you not really look at it that way?
In terms of my weird game collection? I mean, in terms of old shareware or whatever, honestly, I'm on the lookout for -- I go to the thrift store probably once a week and just kind of flip through the CD-ROMs or whatever. What I'm on the lookout for is something that I can pick up and be like, "Oh! I had no idea that they would have put that on a CD."
One of the things in my collection, it's Dole, 5 A Day Adventures. It's made by the fruit company and it's an educational CD-ROM about Dole. I've got this really, really horrible -- not even edutainment, but this cartoony thing for kids and it's about safety when crossing the street or something like that.
It's just, like, I pick it up and I'm like, "Nobody will care about this if I don't take it home." [Laughs.]
I share a similar fascination in the things that I feel like people don't pay attention to. I don't know if that's the way you feel about it, and I don't know if you can even answer this but hearing you talk about a Dole promotional CD, what do you find fascinating about that?
I like that I don't know what I'm going to see.
I literally -- there have been lots of these things, I put them in and it's like, "Oh, that's kind of disappointing." I have this one -- it's Manitoba Public Insurance Driving Safety. It's a CD-ROM and you put it in and it's like, "Oh, it's a multiple-choice quiz thing that was made in Macromedia Director." You know, there's not even weird art here.
I don't know. Yeah, I like that I don't have any idea. Is it gonna be something that someone put a lot of effort into realizing this vision that nobody else could see?
In your head, do you construct the conditions under which these things were made or imagining why someone had to or chose to make these things?
I mean, a little bit. There's definitely a story behind stuff that you don't get to see and nobody's writin' it down. But it's just kind of implied by what gets put in versus left out. I have some -- another thing all about the Puget Sound and it's got FMV footage of random Seattle news personalities. It's like, "Okay, someone clearly put a lot of time and thought into hiring these guys and someone wrote them a script." I don't know. There's a story there and who knows what else they decided needed to be in there because in the first place who would decide you needed to make this thing.
Like, there's this object that exists and I don't even understand why it exists to begin with. So, there must be something that it can tell me.
Yeah, I think earlier this year I found on YouTube -- because there are a lot of completists in anything you can be a fan of, there was a guy who was trying to collect every single Nintendo DS game. He had found -- and maybe you've heard of this -- a very rare, limited edition run of some chain of hotels that had made a training game for their employees.
We may have already touched on this, but what's lost by this stuff not being considered part of game history or brushed to the side?
I just feel like it's just -- I don't know. I feel like what it does when you kind of strip away the stuff that didn't work or is no longer interesting to most people or was a "failure," I feel like it's telling a story. You're telling a particular story about this is what a videogame should be by talking about all of the things that are blockbusters and ignoring the things that are at the fringes. You're saying, "This is the thing that is valuable and all of these things that are failures or are weird, they're not valuable, you shouldn't care about them, and they don't even exist. They never happened."
What's valuable to me is just broadening that story and just seeing there has been this incredible variety of work and for all kinds of different reasons made by all kinds of different people in all kinds of situations. There's just been -- it has always been this enormous variety and diversity of stuff, of games, of people making games and of companies making games that you wouldn't expect and all sorts of things.
No, indie games were always. The first games were sold in Ziploc bags. I mean, come on.
Yeah, that was something I wanted to ask you about, the very nebulous independent development space today. The games that you're talking about from the '90s and before, they occupy what we would call the same space but do you feel like there's a difference as far as the stuff that's occupying the space today as opposed to what occupied the space pre-2008 or even pre-1998?
Yeah, I feel like there's a lot more recognition that these things are being made and that they're worth paying attention to, which is nice. I don't know. I think there probably is more diversity now. I've gone through, from my shareware project, I have this Tumblr of shareware registration screens and to curate that, to make that, I have to play a lot of shareware games. And I'll tell you, there were lots of people making games, but there were lots of people making the same damn game. I don't know how many cheap Solitaire games or adaptations of board games done in VGA there were, but there were a lot of them.
I feel like today -- I had the impression when I was a kid that, "Yeah! I can do this!" But I was also a relatively well off white kid in Canada who had access to multiple computers and whose parents were able to support him in his interests and buy him programming books and all this stuff. Now we have, I think, a much greater diversity even of people making stuff and I think that that's -- for me, that's kind of incredible. There's an overwhelming amount of interesting weird game coming out all the time. If I wanted to, I could sit down and just play this stuff just non-stop. I could start and just never end.
[Laughs.] But you don't think that things were weirder before a certain point or more creative before a certain point and less weirder and less creative after a certain point?
So, like, in terms of games that came out from publishers or whatever, yeah, there was a lot of experimentation and a lot more risk-taking but because any game put out would be a risk. It was all new.
Definitely, there has been a period of where the funding for more diverse and more interesting games has kind of went in the toilet and we're still kind of there. I feel people are trying to haul their way out of there a little bit. I've seen -- we're trying to do better.
You had mentioned Indie Game: The Movie. This may be hard to tell, but what effect do you think that made on the types of people now making games and the types of games that we see being made in the independent space? Can you even tell?
I mean, I don't know. I don't have a lot to say about that, I don't think.
You mentioned in our emails you had a lot to say about emulators. What did you want to discuss? They've weirdly almost never come up in these conversations, but I think they have contributed to making games feel a little less special. As a precursor to having a giant library on Steam, I feel like this was the thing a lot of people did: Get every single old NES game they had and then play them for, like, two minutes and then go onto the next one and onto the next one.
There's kind of a curve there, I think. It wasn't just emulators that I did that to. When I first discovered emulation and that you could play a Nintendo game on your computer with the classic freeware DOS emulator, Nesticle, that was just this revelation, right? And actually, my first reaction to that was -- to some degree, "Yeah, cool! I can download Nintendo games. That was fun!"
But my first reaction to that was, even then, "Oh, I can get a Commodore 64 emulator and I can play all these games that I used to play with my friend who had a Commodore 64 and then moved away." I was already even as a teenager nostalgically reliving my past as an eight-year-old, which is kind of ridiculous. Actually, one of my first experiences with that was discovering that a game that had been kind of this fairly important bonding experience with a good friend of mine was called Whirlybird. Just this silly little shooter thing where helicopters came up on the screen and you had to shoot them before they shot you back or whatever. But I tried to find it and I couldn't. It wasn't preserved anywhere. There were a few things called Whirlybird but they weren't the same thing, which eventually culminated when I was, like, 19 and ordering the parts to dump the disk myself so that it wouldn't get lost forever. [Laughs.] It was this thing where I really I want to play this again and I have no way of doing it. I was kind of making sure that I had that again and kind of would be able to keep it and to hold onto it.
I don't know that emulators have -- on one hand, I have absolutely had the experience of having every Nintendo game and playing them all for three minutes and then moving on. But I've also had the experience of ordering old consoles on eBay or old computers on eBay and loading them up with a handful of disk images and playing them and then leaving them in a closet for three years.
Well, also, you had mentioned that when it comes to history there's a tendency some people have to just focus or think about their own little geographical corner of the world and said that there is so much more to this than people even realize. By way of example, you said to bring this up: You had a Gchat conversation with a Hungarian friend about Ecco the Dolphin?
Yup. So, a former a coworker of mine basically had as a side project for fun, he had taken this old Hungarian Commodore 64 text adventure and he had decompiled it and ported it to Inform, which is a programming language for text adventures that lets you run them on the web or on modern computers or whatever.
It was in Hungarian and it was kind of interesting that there's this game that's kind of this cultural touchstone for that time and that place. "Time architect," I think is the translation of it. Here's this game that was culturally important and you had no idea growing up in North America.
If you read about things, you can hear people's experience in Europe, you can hear people tell the story of, "Oh, I learned English from Monkey Island." Or something like that. "I learned English from playing English videogames." And so, I kind of decided it might be interesting to have kind of the reverse. I've always been interested in that experience, and here was this opportunity. Not that I'm going to necessarily learn Hungarian by playing this old weird Hungarian text adventure but what could I do with that? I could kind of try. I could engage with that a little bit.
And so I actually ended up talking to him about a few things, but one of them was he sent me the source code for this game and I basically ran it through Google Translate so that I could attempt to play this game -- which was a fairly baffling experience, to be perfectly honest. It's not only an old text adventure, which are notoriously unforgiving -- you're not only playing "guess the verb," you're playing "guess the verb that Google Translate spat out for you."
Google Translate is not very good at Hungarian. I will put that out there. That is one of the worst languages to feed it. But I got some really interesting experiences out of that as well. Just things react in ways I wouldn't expect, like I'm going to this old dilapidated hut and there's this filthy old man sitting in the corner. I'm trying to figure out how to interact with him. It won't let me talk to him. It won't even really let me look at him. He's just there. Eventually I'm like, "Kick man." And then he died. I just killed this old man in a hut for no reason because that was the only thing that I typed that it would accept.
You were saying that there's a whole line of non-violent games in Hungary to bring foreign currency into the country after the fall of Communism. Is that right?
Yeah, so, the other conversation I had with this friend of mine is he was kind of just telling me about the history of game development and gaming in Hungary. One of the things that kind of came out of that was, yeah, this company Novotrade, which, I think is still around but is now called Appaloosa Entertainment. It was a government-formed company that basically did contract programming work and one of the things that they did was they wrote and ported a bunch of videogames to sell to other places. Probably their most famous was Ecco the Dolphin, but there's kind of this tradition that while it was Commodore 64, early computer scene, they were making things and there's games about being a clown in the circus spinning plates or one of their earliest games is you're a polar bear on an ice floe and there are people on the ice floe and the ice floe kind of tilts with your weight. Wherever you are, the people kind of slowly slide in that direction and you have to make sure that they don't all fall into the ocean and freeze and die.
There's another one, which is probably my favorite, which is literally this first-person game where you are wandering the forest foraging for mushrooms. Basically it gives you very detailed descriptions. You pick up a mushroom, it gives you detailed description of the mushroom and you have to decide if it's safe to eat or not. There are bandits who will come and take your mushrooms away. But that is a whole level of -- you could play that game and learn how to not die potentially.
So you did get to try that game? I remember in our emails you said you were trying to track it down: Csavargás A Gombák Birodalmában? I think I'm saying that right. Actually, I’m betting I am not.
I really don't know how to pronounce Hungarian, unfortunately. I mean, you can try it. I put it in an emulator but I still don't read Hungarian.
I mean, if you're someone reading this and you suspect there is more to videogames than what big companies put on shelves -- where do you go? Do you just Google "Hungarian videogames?" Can you just do that with a bunch of other countries and find them?
You can. There's certainly enthusiasts in other places that write about the stuff that's important to them.
You have to be willing to wade through Google Translate and follow some rabbit-hole links until you find them. But they're certainly out there if you dig. Certainly for older computers where there's collection of games, if you just want to see the games rather than the people writing about them, like, there is complete ROM sets of everything, right?
There's databases that have all the games and you can see some of them: "Okay, here's a list of languages that this game is in. Okay, well, what games are Russian? There's actually a whole bunch of weird Russian games." They didn't just write Tetris and sell it to the West and then stop making games.
Do you think the industry could be plausibly better at finding and publishing some of these under-the-radar games from other countries? I mean, that is what Tetris was in its day right?
Is that unfair to say that there's less curiosity from the game industry? Is that because there's less curiosity from the media?
I mean, a lot of it isn't necessarily out there. A lot of it is stuff that was out there, it's just not easily accessible if you don't speak the language.
Some of it is. It does get translated or whatever -- you just have to realize that it's there, I think. You just have to think about it and be like, "Oh yeah, stuff happened in places that I'm not." And that can be interesting, too. Just because I didn't grow up playing Manic Miner or Jet Set Willy doesn't mean that that history isn't interesting. I had this project years ago which never really got off the ground, but I just got fed up with the writing that I was seeing that was looking back on the history of games and that was just in this total silo of people's experiences and was just not connecting the dots geographically.
Like, I remember people writing about Dragon Quest, Dragon Warrior, and saying, "Oh, they did this cool thing, this new innovative system that they brought out in Dragon Quest III or whatever." And it's like, "Okay, but if you actually look at the timelines, they clearly ripped that off of Ultima. There clearly was cross-pollination between -- clearly the people making Dragon Quest were not just playing other Japanese RPGs, right? They were playing all of them. They were getting ideas from everywhere.
You could conceivably map this stuff -- people making platformers for ZX Spectrum in Britain obviously inspired by Mario or whatever, but also went in their own weird direction. I feel like there's a lot more story there that is dropped, that is lost.
In that vein, I wanted to touch very briefly on the audience for videogames. More specifically, the increasing toxicity we’ve seen flare up in the last year or two. Is there a precedent for this elsewhere and earlier in the history of videogames? Or is it intrinsically an American sort of thing?
As far as I know there’s no real precedent for the intensity of it, but absolutely, I think if you look back, there’s a lot of gross stuff in the culture that was just kind of left to fester. It certainly didn’t come from nowhere. You know, there’s Nazi Mario ROM hacks, right? There are all kinds of, like, rape-fantasy text adventures. There’s, you know, “John Romero’s Going To Make You His Bitch, suck on my rocket launcher,” kind of stuff. I feel like when I was seeing all that stuff, I was seeing a lot of different stuff, too, though. It wasn’t normal, it was, like, one particular direction. Somewhere along the way, some people started to decide that that was videogames, you know, hyperviolence and smack talk and “feeling powerful and about you getting your way,” to quote Leigh Alexander.
I dunno, I feel like there was also this gatekeeping, too, this idea that these games are real games and those games are for babies or girls or whatever. I don’t think that’s all that new. The difference now is more that it’s coordinated, that people have made that idea part of their identities, and they’re ready to fight you for it. Like, I think there has been a long buildup to get to that point. I think a lot of people think they’re still fighting Jack Thompson, that anything that they perceive as “defending videogames” is inherently virtuous, and there are now those who exploit those people to help drive people from their homes.
How do you feel the media either today or throughout all the decades that you’ve tracked and read about games lacks empathy for the people who create them?
I feel like, when the story isn't about the game itself, as a product, a thing that might as well have appeared from nothing, it's about companies. Sega did this, or Nintendo did that. Mario is more of a real person than his creators, when you're looking with that perspective. You certainly can spend more time with him. And, like, there were a lot of weird attempts by games companies to turn designers into celebrities, to generate name recognition which would generate sales. Like EA originally put their games out in record sleeves and tried to project an image of programmer-as-rock star. Just this weird, artificial, turn a person into a marketing tool.
Weirdly, the thing that comes to mind when I think of games media that treated creators like people is Sierra’s magazine, InterAction. It was clearly a marketing tool, like, Nintendo Power, but it was absurd. Ken and Roberta Williams, the co-founders, they'd let their kids write articles about random stuff. Like, “Oh, my summer job was mopping up fake blood on the set of Phantasmagoria but my mom, who designed it, says I'm not old enough to play it once it's out.” I don't know. There were so many weird touches in there, interviews with designers and stuff, that felt really human.
Talk to me about fan games.
Okay. Man, what to say about fan games? So, yeah, that's just kind of this thing that was very present. I remember it being very present when I was younger, especially when you start to go to the internet, were people who loved something or was connected with it -- they would make games of it.
That was just part of -- you could draw fanart or make a web page or you could make a game. And people would do that. I remember -- and people would get really excited, like, if you were some part of a fan group or some TV show that here's a game set in the world of your TV show: "Here's the South Park game that I made in Klik N Play where you're Cartman farting at aliens or whatever." It would be like, "Yes! I need to download this! I need to have this in my life! Thank you so much kennybastard29!"
Yeah! But it's just, like, to me there's a huge body of work that is people taking the things that they love and turning them into videogames for people who also love that thing to connect to and just as a way of loving it more. There's so much out there that's just fascinating and you get to kind of interact with and get to live someone else's perspective on this world or what it inspires in them. That is really cool to me. There's lots of stuff out there that is really fascinating to see.
I'm not sure how many people who are reading this know what Steam is, which is basically like iTunes for videogames, but over the last few decades there have been many portals and platforms that were much more easily accessible for creators to come out and share whatever it is they have to share. What you're talking about, stuff that is similar to FTP servers in spirit, yeah, a lot of it will never be found. I’m talking about things like Newgrounds, Kongregate, and Game Jolt.
But when you have a service that is a commercial service and you need to curate and weed things out, something that will go away is the sort of thing you're talking about with fan games. Because obviously it's infringing on copyrights and we could talk for another hour on how copyright laws affect creativity.
Well, just to comment: When you have community, when you have this group of people whether it's online or whatever, where you're kinda just hanging out with people, it encourages creative work. Like, something like Newgrounds, where people would dump stuff? You're not making it to get it out to a wider audience necessarily to make it big and have lots of people see your game. You're making it for yourself and for the benefit of the people that you're already connected to who will try it. That's one of the ways that Glorious Trainwrecks operates is it's this close, fairly small community but if you put something up it's likely that people are gonna try it and they're gonna try it and they're suggest things and they're gonna see it.
But sometimes I see, like, from the fan community or people who have worked at game companies that the fans will try to hurt the feelings of people who have made games professionally by saying what they're basically making is fanfic. Why is that an insult?
I mean, it shouldn't be an insulting thing. But gamers are jerks.
No, like, it's totally a valid thing. There's no reason why a fan work is any less legitimate in my eyes than a game or whatever that is blessed by a publisher and cost however many millions to put out. What it means is they're trying to say it looks amateurish or whatever, but I don't have a problem with amateurish. I connect with that.
Well, it's honest.
I mean, it may be crude and awkward but --
There needs to be a path.
Not that everyone's goal should be or needs to be to be a professional. You have to make 10,000 terrible paintings before you make a good one, right? I think it's really, really damaging to look down on amateur work and say, "That's garbage." That stops you. That is a force that says, "Do not continue."
When, actually? You need to continue. If it's good, if you want to continue, then you should feel good about continuing and you will grow and there's no reason that that has to be alone in your basement and no one ever sees it.
What do you think would be a good gateway for people into the world of fan games? Either that or the types of games that you collect in general? I ask for people who are reading this, are intrigued, but don't know where to start or what the point of entry should be.
So, I was reminded of this game that I found just randomly cruising Game Jolt called Nintendo World 2.
Yeah, you were just telling me about that.
I was just telling you about that. I can't think of a better example than Nintendo World 2 because it is just kind of this amazing mash-up of ideas in every respect, just everything about it is simultaneously like obviously this labor of genuine love for videogames and just also -- gosh, I don't even know.
I'm looking at the blurb you have for it on your site. You said it deserves a Pulitzer.
It's this teenage kid or whatever being like, "Yes! I'm gonna make a game where all of videogames comes together in one world and you have to save that world!" Because that's what you do in videogames, you save the world. But in order to do that, it means there has to be this incredible -- videogame world is attacked and he's clearly thought through all the lore of how videogame world works and how it's divided into four different worlds in the videogame universe. There's Atari world and there's Nintendo world and Sega world and they all have orbs that keep them alive and you need to gather the orbs to save the videogame universe.
The only thing keeping Mario alive is the orb of Nintendo and he's like, "No! You need to have this so you can save the videogame universe." He sacrifices himself for the videogame universe.
He says, "It doesn't matter. All heroes should be ready to die! I'm ready to give my life for justice and peace. Barry the anthropomorphic life bar! Please help the hero in his task!"
I have this incredible melodramatic -- "videogames are the most important thing." And I don't know. I kind of feel it when I play, you know?
I don't know. It's so good.
In other words, something being a glorious trainwreck, per the name of your site, is not necessarily a bad thing.
I don't think it's a bad thing at all. I think it's glorious. It's great.
It just makes me light up inside to play this game that just wears itself on its sleeve.
Modding's also interesting. I think the history of it is important and just the fact that it used to be -- it was this kind of accessible thing at one point. Back when Quake was out, Quake 1, it's like, "Oh, modding Quake is a thing you can do. Here are the tools for it." It was kind of this blessed thing that was part of the game in some respect. I made a Quake bot that was modeled after a friend on IRC who -- I drew a picture of his face and pasted it one of the existing models and then I programmed him to always just run toward you and constantly swing his axe because that's how my internet friend played Quake sometimes. He was like, "Ah! I'm gonna get you with my axe!"
Again, it's like: Here is this thing that you could do and it was shared very small, like, "Oh, okay, I'll start up a Quake server and here comes the axe man." It was this thing that I could share with my friends and get a laugh.
But, I mean, it goes back forever, too. I've looked into it and my understanding is the first game mod is on the Apple II, it was the original Castle Wolfenstein. Someone took it and replaced all the Nazis with The Smurfs and called it Castle Smurfenstein.
And, yeah, and replaced the flavor text and whatever.
So that predates Simpsons Doom.
Yeah. Which, yeah! And Doom was another thing that was this incredible proliferation of levels and of all kinds of stuff that people hacked the game to do different things. To me, it was this blessed activity. It was like part of the game that a person could come along and mess with and that was -- to me, that's a very valuable thing. Modding a modern game is kind of -- the tools don't seem nearly as accessible as they did.
Who were these people who made Castle Smurfenstein and these early game mods? Do you know?
Castle Smurfenstein is actually reasonably well documented. I think the people who made it have an official website now where they tell the story.
Are there things you wonder about with the mod scene? What are the question marks in that community like, either the ones that strike you about a particular community for a series or anything more broader?
One thing that this reminds me of -- I don't know if I should go into it. Maybe I will. It's not entirely related to mods. It's a story I kind of dug up when I was doing my shareware blog.
The story itself is just kind of this human connection. So, the story is I found this text adventure called Crime Adventure. It's got a shareware nag screen: "Send me $10." And you start off in this arcade with all these videogames around and then you wander into the streets and you can visit the computer store and stuff. So it was clearly some young nerdy kid who designed this game. You know, whatever. Played it a little bit. Didn't think much of it.
But one of the things that I do is I try to Google around if there's an original webpage of the author or something like that, try to dig up an archived link for a little bit. What I found was someone had reviewed this game on a different platform. It was on the Atari 400. Old Atari computer. And someone had commented saying, "Hey! Flash from the past! I made this game years and years and years ago. Awesome! Here's a few tidbits: It's actually based on my hometown and here's the area in this town where it takes place."
And then, so, but the name on the comments didn't match the name on the copy of the game that I had. So I'm like, "What's that all about?"
So, the comment link on the blog post had an email or whatever so I found this guy and I sent him an email, like, "Hey! I'm doing this blog and just found -- and there's a bunch of copies of this game and they're all attributed to this one guy. What's the story there?"
Basically, it turned out that he was 11 at the time that he wrote this game and he made this deal with this older kid that he knew from the computer store and he basically ripped him off. He took the game and was gonna sell it to a magazine for some amount of money and parents had to get involved to actually get him to cough up his fair share and eventually got in contact and found out years later that this guy had kept on trying to sell his game under his own name or whatever.
You know, it's 30-year-old dirty laundry, right?
There's things and there's these stories behind them just kind of barely underneath the surface and you just have to send an email saying, "What's going on?"
The smallest email and I just got pages and pages back. This guy, just pouring out this story. I eventually kind of decided that publishing -- I wanted to mention it on the blog, and I did, but I ran this small blurb past him saying, "Would you be comfortable if I talk about this?"
Because, you know, these are people who have gone on to live their lives. You can find them. You can Google them. You can see where this other guy ended up.
It's not necessarily that the detail of any particular story -- that this game is Crime Adventure and it's this particular game. I didn't have any connection to it before I loaded it up from a list of a million shareware games.
The fact that there are these stories behind these games -- I don't have a connection to this game but what I get out of it is this sense, this knowledge, that this zip file that I downloaded, it's not just a zip file. It's people. It's peoples lives. They lived their lives and part of what came out of that was a zip file that I could download. But it's more than that.
Right. I mean, who devotes their free time to putting The Smurfs into Wolfenstein? To not just have the idea, but to --
I don't know, but I wanna hang out with them.
So do I. [Laughs.] I don't think we're typical in that regard, but do you ever wonder about why we wonder about it and a lot of other people tend not to?
I'm mostly content to just wonder, myself. It's important to me, so that's okay.
And I won't hesitate to share these things that are important to me and these questions that I have that I think are important are not necessarily being asked.
Like, I started Glorious Trainwrecks because at the time, nine years ago, I'm like, "Where are all the weird games at? I don't know. I don't see 'em." And at the time I was like, "Yeah, I'm gonna make weird games, too." But a significant portion was just tracking stuff down. I was just seeing what was out there and trying to maybe make some connections or see other people who kind of felt similarly or were just doing interesting work. So there's a lot of reconnecting with that history from digging it out that has gone on, and there's a lot of making new stories and work. And I think that is the most productive way to wonder why aren't people thinking about this is to go out there and ask the questions that you're curious about, and then they will.
As we talk today, the idea for this and my doing exactly that and going out and asking the questions I was curious about will be about a year old. I mean, nine years? I hate questions like this and don't know if this is even going to be in our interview when it goes up, but: Did you imagine you would be doing it for a decade?
No! What I imagined -- kind of real talk, here? I actually did a talk that touched on this for Ottawa at our local game-dev group here called Dirty Rectangles, but basically I had in the year or two prior had moved away from my home across the country. I moved from Manitoba to Vancouver and then basically a few months later, I got a job in Vancouver and got fired after a month, had kind of a meltdown, and then ended up getting offered this crazy dream job in the Seattle area and moved down there working for basically a computing pioneer doing work that I thought was the future of programming at the time. I still think it's promising and hope that the stock will be worth something someday.
I had this crazy whiplash of, "Now I'm in this crazy job." I'd been kind of unsettled or uncomfortable or unhappy and kind of got this opportunity that I had been after it for a while and then I was there. I was living it. I'm in this job doing this crazy research for this brilliant man who's running this company. I'd been at it about a year, maybe a little longer.
I was like this frozen ball of terrified perfectionism. Like, I was just not doing the things that I would used to do that would connect me with the world, I guess. I had a lot of pressure and felt a lot of pressure at this job doing this high-level stuff. The first few months I was there I didn't have any idea what was going on. It was this incredibly steep learning curve. My life was just this surreal thing. Like, if you're working directly for a Microsoft billionaire into your job -- imagine you get an email that's a press release or a link to an article saying that your boss is going to space and he's gonna be away in Russia training for the next nine months to go into space. You know, it was just a lot of weird stuff going on and just a lot of unhappiness.
I was trying to tread water, find some reconnection to the world that used to make sense in some way. And so, I just got really excited about this idea and it was like, "Let's start something." When I started it originally, I thought it was gonna be this small dumb thing with a handful of friends and whatever.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
[Pause.] I don't know. I'm always hoping more. [Laughs.]
[Pause.] You know, the question that you ask yourself when you're 33 and have a basement full of videogames and consoles and an arcade machine in the corner is, "Why am I doing this?"
Why is this important to me? Why does any of it matter?" There's just so much around me right now -- I'm sitting in this basement, looking at these videogame systems and there's so much around me that has inspired me. That is worth paying attention to. That I'm glad I spent the time with with it. It has impacted my life positively even if at the same time, there was no need for me to spend my time and money playing the Manitoba Public Insurance Driving Quiz.
But, I mean, part of what that in particular does for me is it connects me with other people. They make this thing and they put it out there in the hopes that other people will see it. I have a connection to that kind of implicit story. There are so many people out there just doing their best and putting themselves out there and it's not perfect and it's broken and it's shortsighted and it's not polished or whatever. And hey, that's kind of me, too.
I can look at that and I can feel good about my own failures, my own weirdness because here are all these people who have tried and who put themselves out there. I'm the only one who cares about the Dole 5 A Day CD-ROM. I'm sure the people who worked on it, maybe they don't have fond memories of it. It's an assignment that they had to deal with, but that's part of the story too.