Okay, so, my name is Simon Parkin. I'm a freelance journalist and writer. I live near Brighton, which on the South Coast of England, about an hour on the train south of London, so that will hopefully place it for overseas listeners.
I write for a variety of publications here in the U.K.and America primarily, but elsewhere, too, usually about videogames although increasingly less about videogames. But that's certainly my beat and has been for the last decade for publications such as Edge, which is the British magazine where I first started writing about games, and the website Eurogamer. Most of my work today is for mainstream outlets. I write a monthly piece of videogame criticism in the arts section of The Observer and most of my income comes from feature writing for The Guardian newspaper, which is perhaps the largest supporter of long-form journalism in the UK. On the U.S. side I've written a little for The New York Times but I've just been taken on as a contributing writer to the New Yorker where I've been contributing since 2012. Now they've asked me to go steady, as it were.
So, I write quite a lot about games for them as well.
So, okay. You've been doing this stuff for about a decade. I've been doing this stuff for about a decade. Certainly when you started you were probably not writing for those places.
Why did you start writing about videogames and what did you think or hope it would be a path towards?
Well, at the time when I first took on my first freelance assignment, I was playing a lot of videogames. Like most people our age, I grew up playing games. They were a major feature in my life in my pre-teens and my early teens. And then, like many people, I drifted away from them a bit when I discovered girls and going out. I went to college and had to study and do all of those things. So games retreated a little bit. And then --
What did you get your degree in? I always like to ask writers that.
English and theology. [Laughs.]
Yeah, so, 50 percent relevant I guess.
Sure. That's better than most, though.
[Laughs.] At the end of my first year at university, my parents split up unexpectedly and abruptly and in quite a violent fashion. While all of that was going on and I was trying to be a support to my family and figure out the new landscape of my life, I retreated into videogames, as I think lots of people do when they go through some kind of difficulty. Videogames are super-comforting; they give us a sense of fairness and justice that sometimes the world doesn't always provide. They're quite dependable. You know, you make an input and they'll give you a reliable output in return. So, all of these things kind of tipped me heavily back into games and, relatedly, into videogame collecting and history. I suddenly got really interested in questions like: Where did this medium originate? What are the canonical games I missed out on? You know, here I am playing, say, Final Fantasy VII, but what about VI and V and IV? What were they like?
So, I went exploring back into the medium's history and started collecting videogames -- at the time there were a handful of specialist vintage game stores in London -- they’re all gone now -- and, through that process became quite knowledgeable. My first professional assignment came about because in my final year of university, I wrote to the British magazine publisher here in the U.K.called Future, which publishes Edge and Official Playstation and various other mags, and I said, "I've got an idea for a magazine, can I tell you about it?" And, incredibly, the publisher wrote back to me saying, "Yeah, why don't you come to our offices down in the Southwest of England and tell us about your idea?" So I drove down there, described my idea for a magazine, which was essentially a videogame version of Record Collector.
The guy listened patiently and then explained how much it cost to launch a magazine, the risk involved and so on. And then he said, "But why don't you pitch it to Edge as a series of articles about rare and collectible games?" So I did that and started to build a freelance journalism career from there. For the first five years or so I was principally writing reviews and learning how to write reported features, but very much situated in the specialist press. As time went on, I became interested in writing more ambitious features and also writing for audiences that aren't particularly familiar with videogames. That urge took me outside of the specialist arena. That's a very brief history. [Laughs.]
But just sort of to dive around, as you've stuck with this stuff for that long -- and I know you've done writing elsewhere -- I'm curious what is your sense that the audience for videogames writing doesn't understand the work that goes into it? You know, whether it's sheerly the logistics or the way that it's thought about. Has it stayed static throughout the last 10 years, the way that they don't understand it? Has it changed? What have you noticed?
Certainly my understanding of what I want to achieve in writing about games has changed, so that has probably influenced my belief about what the audience wants from writing about games. [Laughs.] To begin with, I just wanted to be a game critic. It's still a young medium. There weren't many serious publications around apart from Edge. Certainly none in America that I knew of. It was all, like, GameSpot and IGN, which are perfectly fine outlets, but they’re not taking, I guess, a literary approach to the work of critiquing games. Edge was pretty much the only publication I knew of that was doing that. And it did it well. The magazine attracted writers who were writers, first and foremost, and interested in videogames second.
So, right from the start, that's what I wanted from writing about games and Edge showed that there was an audience for that kind of writing about games. It was definitely a smaller audience than that which visited the large American game sites, but it was there and I was aware of it and that's who I was interested in writing for. I loved writing reviews and I thought that was the highest calling in terms of this work.
And, you know, I still think there's an art to good game criticism. I don't think that many people are particularly good at exploring what a videogame is, beyond the fact and detail of its rules and mechanics.
I think lots of writers are good at maybe doing a deep dive on one particular aspect, but in terms of that classic literary book-review form or film-review form, there are not many writers doing that work consistently I don't think, in the world right now. And that was something I was interested in and, along with a few other writers I know, I wanted to try and learn how to apply some of the lenses used in literary criticism to games properly.
But, you know, as a freelance writer, you have certain other pressures bearing down on your life -- monetary pressures, in most cases. [Laughs.] When you're a freelancer starting out reviewing, you tend to be given the games that no one else wants to review, or the ones that are impractical for staff writers to take on. So, the kind of 80-hour Final Fantasy epic that no one working on a magazine is able to feasibly take on within their working day because there won't be a magazine that month if they spend 80 hours playing this game.
So that kind of game tends to go out to freelancers and those are the kind of games I was being given. And I was fine with that but at the same time, the economics of freelance game criticism are completely impractical when you have to spend 80 hours playing a game, then three or four hours writing up your assessment or whatever, and then your word rate is, I don't know, something like 10 pence or 15 cents a word on a specialist magazine 10 years ago. That doesn't pay your rent or buy you groceries. So yeah, I think I probably quickly started to branch out and think about other kinds of journalism I was interested in that would make the vocation practical.
And at the same time, I'm becoming more interested in kind of classic American long-form journalism and wondering whether that voice and style, ambition and rigor can be brought to bear on videogames, or whether the videogame industry can sustain that. [Sighs.] I think -- well, I guess to get back a bit to your original question, one thing I learned as I became more interested in writing features is that trying to write stories outside of the PR machinery of videogame industry is very difficult, and it's certainly a lot harder, I would say even five, 10 years ago when there were very few people trying to do that kind of work. Or 10 years at least.
Because, you know, it's an entertainment medium, it's a high-budget entertainment medium. Companies drip-feed their information. They have specific allocated spokespeople that say, you know, Activision will allow you to speak to you on a Call of Duty or Destiny. There's a wall that you can't get past if you want to talk to other people and find out a more rounded story, beyond the marketing plan talking points.
The way that interviews are typically conducted when you go and visit a studio to look at their forthcoming game is you're there with a bunch of other journalists, like, maybe 10 or 20 journalists, and you each get 10 or 15 minutes with a producer to squeeze everything in. In the absolute worst case scenario, there are five or six journalists all sitting down at the table asking the designated spokesperson for the game their questions in turn and everyone's using each other's answers in the final copy.
So, the whole system is set up by the publishers to make the specialist press an extension of their marketing plan. There’s very little access to interesting journalism beyond that tightly controlled marketing message. For a large part of the audience this is fine. It’s good enough. They just want the information relayed to them at a pace that builds and sustains excitement about a game that's coming out eight months from now. They're invested in the IP and they want to spend their $50 and have a good time and they just want everyone to tell them the production is on track and the final game will be good they haven’t wasted their time and energy and perhaps preorder money. And that's fine. I understand that. But there are also readers, I think, who are interested in other kinds of stories, ones that are off the beaten track or that speak to other parts of what videogames can do, and what they give us and the way they change our lives or change the lens through which we see the world.
Or even just more classic forms of journalistic story that happen to occur in and around the world of videogames: crime, fraud, unfair dismissals, deals that went bad and so on. These kinds of stories exist, but they're much harder to report on because publishers tightly control access. And, of course, most specialist publications simply don’t have the resources to fund this kind of expensive, often speculative reporting
Certainly in the specialist press there’s no budget to send a reporter off for a month or two to work on an investigative piece. So, all of this to say that I think probably the biggest change I've seen for myself is in finding ways to pursue this kind of story. I've been aware of an increasing appetite within not only the videogame audience for those kind of stories, but also the more traditional outlets that previously didn't cover videogames and now can acknowledge that videogames are this huge entertainment medium, that the majority of people under the age of 40 in the developed world play videogames, and they want some coverage and they don't want the one where their journalist is sat round the table with 10 other journalists getting the same quotes. They want unique, reported work. And so, those opportunities have started to come up more and more, at least in my experience.
Yeah, I think you are a special case because I think within game circles or some game-writer circles you are seen as the person who has done some unthinkable stuff as far as, like, you do write about videogames for New Yorker. Not a lot of people do get those opportunities. But what I'm curious about is from where you're sitting, are there stories you'd like to be able to write but you can't seem to get them greenlit?
Personally, I find the greater challenge is access. Videogame companies these days tend to have NDAs that are arranged with their employees for the lifetime of the employee. So, even if you worked on BioShock in 2005 and you left the company in 2009, you've since worked at three other companies, you may still be under an NDA that forbids you from ever talking about what happened during the development of BioShock. I'm just using that as an example. I'm not saying that's necessarily true. But these lifetime NDAs are quite widespread these days, certainly on the bigger projects.
So, there are undoubtedly games that I'm interested in where things went wrong or -- you know, for example, so, a good example is that we recently heard that Leslie Benzies, one of Rockstar's most senior employees, is suing the company for $150 million in withheld royalty payments. In the filing, he reveals that he was brought in to fix Red Dead Redemption at the 11th hour. The game was a mess, it was gonna -- it didn't look like it was gonna ship, and he came in to fix it up. Now, that's not the story that we've heard about Red Dead Redemption, which is seen as a kind of contemporary classic of the open-world Western form and everyone sees it like this: "It's so well-done, it's so well-finished that it must've been a smooth development, or at least things must have gone well for it to turn out this well."
So, here you've a senior employee implying there's actually a more complex and different story behind this game. How would we go about telling that story if everyone who worked on Red Dead Redemption has a lifetime NDA and is forbidden from ever saying, "Well, like six months before we shipped the game was a complete mess and it didn't have horses. None of the NPCs could say their lines of dialogue."
So, some the stories that I would like to tell that I am unable to tell tend to be because of practical reasons of just finding sources who are at liberty to contribute.
So, I mean, and obviously as you may have guessed, that's a little bit about why I'm doing this project the way that I am doing it, just talking to so many people.
But you're saying you feel it's more a case of non-cooperation from the industry and the way that it works than from publications being interested in telling those stories?
Yes, on the whole. There's also, because the media industry is on fire at the moment -- on fire in a bad sense. [Laughs.]
Yeah, I've heard. [Laughs.]
Everything's burning down.
That's why I'm doing this alone, so I've heard a little bit about this.
[Laughs.] I mean, one of the effects of that is that there aren't the travel budgets that there would have been 20 years ago.
So, if I have a story that I've got a tip-off on in, say, Tokyo -- there's a tip about, I don't know, a major videogame company in Tokyo that's affiliated to the yakuza. There are few outlets in the world who would turn down that story if I can pull it off. But there are also few outlets that would be able to fund, for example, a flight to Tokyo, a fixer’s fee, accomodation for month and all the necessary expenses involved in making even a rudimentary version of that story a legally robust reality.
So, that's the other problem. So, you've got two major problems that I encounter: just the basic funding of this stuff and also finding sources who are willing and able to speak.
So, I mean, my solution has been, "Okay, I'll build this thing. I'll just do a ton of interviews, I'll do as long as it takes. I'll see what sort of stories start to emerge and see where I can place them." I mean, I'm curious in the general way of trying to balance out enthusiast -- or I guess you called it "specialist" press mentality, do you feel the strategy is for journalists, like, should they go and try to infiltrate old guard or old, pre-internet publications as you have? Or do you think it's better to try to broaden the existing publications? Or does that binary just not at all apply, you think?
[Pause.] I think a young journalist may have an inkling of what kind of audience they want to address or what kind of place they would want to work for and they will probably have a good sense that their dream is to write for Polygon or Kotaku or Game Informer. Or, they might be like, "No, I really want a byline in The New York Times." Now, those two goals are wildly different; there are different paths you must take in order to get to where you need to get to to make those things happen. So, I think it's probably gonna be down to the individual to know what they want to do more than it is a case of advising someone of, "This path's easier than this path." They're both challenging in their own ways.
But they're also quite distinct, I'd say. Yeah.
Of course. But I was wondering more about, say, if in the bigger picture we’re hoping to broaden the scope of what writing is being done, is one destination more impactful than the other?
Well, not only is it difficult to measure impact, but there are also different kinds of impact. I estimate that, on an average day, a reported videogame story on Kotaku will be carefully read by more people than if a similar story was published on the New York Times website. But if it’s breaking news, or a beautifully in-depth reported piece, then the amplificatory power of the New York Times combined with the way in which stories carry across social media today will ensure that it’s read, not only by all of the people who would have read the piece on Kotaku, but also this huge additional section of readers, who don’t care much about videogames.
A good example would be the New Yorker post I wrote about Hideo Kojima leaving Konami. I had a source within Kojima’s team who told me all of the details, which I was able to verify and publish. This story was then read by the specialist games audience, but also a large number of readers who had likely never heard about Kojima, and wanted to know why this story about a seemingly random Japanese guy was the most read story on the website that day. So the potential impact of a story that is placed at established, prestige media is greater, but that impact relies on many more factors than the platform, such as the timeliness and novelty of the story, the way in which it’s picked up and disseminates, even the headline that is used.
Well, so, you have some ears that a lot of people who write about videogames don't. What do you think people in the Polygons or the Kotakus of the world don't realize about the way The New Yorker or The New York Times perceive games or that mainstream culture perceives videogames today?
[Pause.] What I hear a lot from people who do not play videogames but who are interested in videogames and videogame coverage is that they can see that this medium is vibrant and exciting, it combines some aspects of art and some of technology and that, in and of itself is of interest. From a business perspective, there are high risks, and high rewards, which can makes for interesting stories. And obviously there's a lot of passionate people who spend a lot of time playing and thinking about games. It's quite a demanding entertainment medium of your time. It takes a lot of time and people are very willing to give it. It's also quite expensive, right?
It's more expensive than watching films, for example. And yet, millions of people choose to spend their money in this way. So, the kind of people I'm talking about can say, "Well, there is obviously something here, otherwise all these people wouldn't be doing it." Then they'll take a look at some of the games that are most heavily advertised, perhaps, because they're the ones most readily available in the public eye, and just feel a disconnect, perhaps, between the number of people who are interested and how interesting the material appears. Right? [Laughs.]
They're like, "Man, everything is just playground games of cops and robbers or everything is like a gun phallically positioned in the middle of a screen and you just have to shoot the other guy before he shoots you.” And all the games are dark and miserable and have this similar-looking protagonist." I think -- I've heard people say at some mainstream British publications, "I'm really interested in games but everytime I look at them they're not interesting. They're boring. There not much here that we can write about that would link them into commenting on life or existence.”
And part of that problem is perhaps because traditionally videogames have been closer to sports and, still, lots of them are basically sports. I would say Call of Duty multiplayer is a sport. You know, it's a team game. Whereas Call of Duty single-player is in the cinematic tradition. And we're starting to see games come along that are more from a cinematic, literary tradition. That are less about, "Can I shoot the guy before he shoots me?" Or, "Can I expand my territory?"
Which is, let's be honest, like, the majority of games are that: Can I shoot the guy before he shoots me or can I make my territory bigger than his? [Laughs.]
But slowly we're starting to see more games come in. If you look at a game like That Dragon, Cancer, which came out earlier this year, I guess, which -- if you don't know the game, but most people probably do at this point -- is a documentary game about a family living with a child who has terminal illness, and the child died during the course of making the game, which then became a part of the game experience that's all included in it. Some people would say that That Dragon, Cancer had a disproportionate amount of coverage from mainstream outlets for how, I don't know, internet commenters have said for "how good it is" or how mechanically interesting the game is. Whatever classification you want to use. But the reason it's had this attention that is because there's such a hunger for videogames that are saying something different about the world, or that have got some human interest in them. These are the areas that we see films explore all the time. Films are always on evocative, empathetic, human subjects.
And, this is something of a cliche, but, we don't have a single Schindler's List in blockbuster games. Like, nothing even close has EA ever funded. And yet, Schindler's List is a Spielberg movie. It's a completely mainstream blockbuster.
And part of that is because maybe the videogame medium is unable to tell that kind of story with the appropriate care and nuance. And when mainstream games attempt to touch on this kind of sensitive subject matter, those inadequacies of form, which are often to do with the way in which player agency and interactivity can undermine the creator’s intent, are made obvious. But I am confident that solutions exist. So the bigger issue is that it feels very risky and proven to those who fund blockbuster games. Firstly, is this kind of work feasible within the constraints of this medium? And, if it is, does a sufficiently large enough audience exist to make this work financially viable? Now, I think if a major studio invested $10 million or whatever in making a Schindler's List-style game -- I don't mean specifically about the Holocaust but just the game is trying to achieve similar effects to Spielberg's film, there’s a good chance it would turn a profit, and demonstrate that the medium and its audience is sufficiently advanced now that we can look at stuff like that.
Yeah, I mean, this is something that seems to go against all internal logic or what you would expect. Like, I hear that a lot, where people say, "Well, it's plenty risky to make a game that costs $48 million." And somehow it's less risky not to do something different and yet people keep buying it.
You know what I mean? Like, there doesn't seem to be an impetus to try something different. The way that I explain industry games are to people outside of videogames is, "Okay, imagine it's music and every band is just putting ‘November Rain’ out every month."
They seem to get that from that.
But, you know, you mentioned in your emails, too, that you're sure -- and I've talked to many of them in the workforce out there who would like to do something different.
Oh, completely. I mean, if you're working on a blockbuster it takes three or four years to finish your game. By that measure, you will produce only six or seven games in your working life. And I think by the time you get to game four and you've got kids and stuff, you're probably thinking, "I can't make another World War II shooter or Afghanistan-based squad shooter."
A lot of people are like, "I need to do something else." -- and I am sure that this is part of the reason why we saw so many developers at major studios leave to set up their own, small studios. I agree that we have a lot of "November Rains," but I think we are perhaps at the turning point or approaching one because the audience is getting fatigued with the same kind of games, I think. But certainly, the older audience, as we've -- people in their thirties and their forties and perhaps even entering their fifties now will either go, "You know what? I'm done with games. They're not for me anymore. They're too much about reaction times and I'm not interested in that. They're too competitive and I just don't have the time for that. I'm tired at the end of my day or whatever."
I've been talking to a lot of those people as well.
I mean, I think they've been part of the one-two -- because there has been that phenomenon of people aging out, there hasn't been enough twigs in the river, I guess?
That's a way to think about it. That it prevented a, "Hey, we as the audience collectively would like something different."
But it's been pointed out to me in these interviews as well, and it still sticks with me, but that videogames may be among one of the few industries or cultures where the adults want everything to change and the younger groups want things to stay the same.
[Laughs.] I mean, I don't want things to change in the sense that I want Call of Duty to go away, because --
I think it's more that people want more, different things.
It's in addition to, not instead of. There's no displacement.
Right. Exactly. Yeah. Because we have a lot of the sports-like games and I think there's a hunger for other kinds of games. But also, in the last however many years, watching the independent sector trying to try different things often with some success, for me, I'm just like, "Come on, some of the big guys need to take a leap of faith that's more than just making one of the two protagonists in Assassin's Creed a woman." [Laughs.] That's not quite the solution here. We need more diversity and representation in terms of the characters we play as, but also more diversity and representation in the kind of games being made and the kind of mechanics that are being explored. I'm sure that investment is going on in small skunkworks teams at Activision or whatever, but the fruits seem to be quite meager at the moment.
I'm sure you knew that I would likely ask you some stuff about Hideo Kojima and Konami.
I know that there's a lot of stuff that you probably can't get into. There's a lot of stuff I know that I know I shouldn't get into.
So, maybe we could just go off the record and talk about that stuff?
But, what I think is most relevant here to ask you is: Do you ever get a sense that figures like a Kojima -- do they feel like they are leaders within the industry? Like, if they wanted to push to do something really different, could they? Or is that beyond their grasp?
I am certain that Kojima sees himself as a creative leader in the industry.
He's kind of an unusual choice in this example.
But I think you know what I mean.
I know what you mean, yeah. I know what you mean. There are certainly people in creative director and director roles within game studios that I'm sure have great ideas for games that meet some of the requirements we've just been talking about. And I'm sure if any of them are listening, they're sitting there going, "Damn it! I've got, like, 10 of these things."
Probably the problem is financial. Games that look like Kojima's games are incredibly expensive to make and incredibly risky. Trying to find people that will fund those risks is very difficult, I'm sure. Particularly now when -- because games look so good and they cost so much to make to look that good, publishers have fewer and fewer titles every year. I mean, sorry to keep coming back to Activision but they're a good example for this. Their tentpole series are Call of Duty, Destiny, World of Warcraft, and Skylanders. They occasionally try something else like with Guitar Hero last year. But on the whole, they are a multi-billion dollar company that makes four games. That's what they make. And they need every one of those games to be incredibly profitable for them to maintain the scale of their operation. Now, you can't -- if you're principally money-making business, which I think Activision would happily say that it is, then it doesn't necessarily have the perhaps artistic interest in trying to develop a risky game that might not be nearly so profitable as making another Call of Duty or whatever. So, that's part of the problem, I think, is that to make these very expensive and luxurious games requires a lot of money. And so, the kind of people like Kojima who are in the studio system, as it were, will find it difficult to get those projects off-the-ground for those reasons. They might be well-equipped to come up with fantastic solutions to some of the problems we've been talking about, but they are prevented from doing so for purely financial and commercial reasons.
Yeah. I mean, do you know -- is there ever any talk at any of those companies about, like, if the five families need to sit down and sign a treaty?
As far as getting costs under control? I mean, are there conversations about these types of things? Are they concerned? Are they worried? Does it seem tenable or sustainable? Even internally?
Yes, I don't know. I just don't know. Part of the problem as well is if you want to tell a -- it's one thing to want to tell a powerful story.
And a game like Life is Strange from Square-Enix has been able to do that on a manageable budget, I guess, just by using traditional point-and-clicky-type mechanics. But it's one thing to have a story that you want to tell but quite another to figure out how you translate the game part of that so that people don’t respond by saying, "Well, why didn't you just go and make a film?” [Laughs.]
And that's been a huge problem for these big games because everything -- you know, videogames are really good at doing guns and big shooters. That's just a fact of the thing. [Laughs.] Because you can point a cursor and squeeze a trigger and it feels a bit like shooting a gun and you can affect something in the near-ground and something in the background as well. You know, you can shoot a guy when he pops up in front of you and you can shoot a switch on a wall 100 meters away to open a door. From a purely physical perspective, guns work so well on a screen. Shooting works so well in videogames. But, you know, imagine if every movie had to be a first-person shooter. That would be horrible. [Laughs.]
So, we have to, like, figure out the stories we want to tell but also the means of telling it that's relevant and appropriate to the medium, I guess. And that's another colossal challenge that people are having to wrestle with.
Yeah. But you're saying, you're not even aware if there's that kind of introspection happening?
I mean, I think there is, personally. I don't know if the companies are -- I don't know what the interest is at the senior management level, especially when the most popular and profitable videogames in the world right now are, without exception, online sports-style games.
Yeah. It's such a double whammy, 'cause you mentioned That Dragon, Cancer, and maybe this got onto your radar, but -- I don't know, there's always some internet kerfuffle and there was some kerfuffle about streamers --
-- and people seeing it and thinking it was not worth paying for.
Yes, I saw that. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
It just sort of seems like people get punished for creativity on either end.
Yeah, that's right. And, do you know what maybe, like, 10, 20 years from now everyone has just conceded that there are some things that videogames can't do and that they will forever be shooters and football games?
And then we just get to the point where it's like, "Do you know what? I guess that's what they have to be, I guess.” [Laughs.] "They have to be roguelikes with procedurally generated dungeons, otherwise --"
[Laughs.] This is E3 2036, is what you're predicting?
I mean, I hope not. I really hope not. But there does come a point when you're like, "Well, someone probably would have cracked this by now if there were other meaningful genres that worked well for telling human stories.” [Laughs.]
Knowing what you know and looking back on it now, what struck you about the way Kojima's departure from Konami was covered? Did Kojima ever confide in you his observations on this, for that matter, if that's something you can even talk about it?
I have complicated feelings about this episode. My interest in reporting Kojima’s departure from Konami -- the exact date and time and so on -- was motivated by what I perceived to be an injustice, not just in the way in which Kojima was treated, but also via reports in the Japanese press at the time about terrible working conditions for employees lower down the food chain.
Then, after I published my story at the New Yorker, a spokesperson from Konami gave a comment to a Japanese newspaper, claiming that my report was false. This was obviously galling, because Konami’s lie brought my reporting into question, and positioned the conversation in reader’s minds as a he said-she said scenario. So the next morning I returned to my source on Kojima’s team, and asked whether he had a photograph from the leaving party that I could post to refute Konami’s version of events. He duly provided me with a picture from a colleague, which I posted to Twitter. In most people’s minds, this exposed Konami’s duplicity.
As a brief aside, I only recently heard that management at Konami took other photographs taken at that event and, through these, figured out who had leaked the shot. He was, I’m told, disciplined, although I don’t know how, or to what extent.
Now, the way in which Konami responded my report was obviously personally irritating and provocative -- a terrible way to handle what happened from a PR perspective. And while
Kojima would not tell me what precisely happened in the meeting where his departure was agreed upon, he did tell me that Konami had been, to use his term, “spying” on him, trying to figure out who he had hired for his new studio, where their offices were based, how many computers they had, and so on. All of this fits into the popular perception that Konami is a toxic place to work.
But even so, I am aware that the story we are left with is fundamentally one-sided. We know that Metal Gear Solid V went over-budget and was delayed on multiple occasions. I know that Kojima had a luxury apartment in Roppongi, paid for by the company, reputedly as part of his benefits. As I understand it, he often took private planes. From the company’s perspective, perhaps his demands had got out-of-hand, or were financially unsustainable? Perhaps he refused to compromise on the trappings of success, and both parties reached an impasse? These details complicate the popular perception that Kojima was nothing but a humble artist facing up to a cruel multinational corporation.
Because nobody on the company side chose to give their perspective or comment, the coverage is necessarily imbalanced. That’s where the complexity and, to be honest, some residual frustration, lies for me, even though I confidently stand by all of my existing reporting on the matter.
Well, maybe this is self-important, but do you feel because there isn't yet enough a certain type of journalism or scrutiny that there isn't other types of pressures being put on the industry to adapt and change?
Hmm, I think there's loads of scrutiny happening at the moment. I think critics do a tremendous job of holding the industry to account. I'm certainly not slagging off the state of writing about games, which is rich and diverse and there's loads of interesting voices and, despite the financial pressures, it's increasing all the time.
Yeah, I just think it's in a difficult spot -- I would agree. I think it's the best and the most, to borrow a game-marketing term, robust I've ever seen it in the state that it is today. But it's also incredibly undervalued.
Yeah. That's maybe true, but this is all happening within a broader context of written journalism, which is suffering within the still broader context of instability and change within media more generally. You know, there's not like a vast community of book reviewers who are eating caviar while they lay down their latest thoughts on the latest David Mitchell novel or whoever.
Yeah yeah yeah.
I think we are where we are because of a number of factors, many of which sit outside of the realm of videogame publishing and commentary. It's all part of a bigger story, I guess.
But, yeah, I mean, I think that the questions I'm asking here and we're talking about will not be new to many people who have thought about this stuff or who particularly work in this area of the media industry and who are are interested in the state of the medium as an artistic medium beyond just an entertainment and profit-making medium.
The conversations are happening. Things like game jams provide something of a forum for people to try new ideas in a relatively low-risk context. But I don't feel like, perhaps, the studios could perhaps afford to incubate and encourage more artistically ambitious work.
You mentioned conversations that are familiar. We don't need to necessarily harp on this or dwell on this, but you were saying in our emails it's boring, the question of whether there's politics in games. I don't know if you were referring to The Division. [Laughs.] I'm trying to figure out how to explain this to people reading it who may not know, but what do you think is with this persistent denial of the fact that videogames may say something or they may be part of our lives and say something to us -- that they're not just products you go and buy. These are denials you're talking about that are coming from game companies? Or where are you seeing this?
Well, firstly, I'd say that I think all videogames are political in the sense that all things that anything anyone makes is inherently political in some way. The work humans produce invariably represents our values and the things that we think about and the way in which, or vantage point from which we perceive the world. That's especially true with videogames, which are systems and microcosms of reality. And so, the values within games can't help but reflect the way in which we see the world and our politics, in its broadest sense. The resistance that we've seen in the last few years to discussing videogames through the lens of politics is complicated, and it's to do with probably some people being worried that when critics say there are some things in this game that are -- to use the dominant term problematic -- or there's some aspect to this game that isn't how it should be, the immediate fear and the juvenile fear is, "Oh no, this is gonna result in it being taken away. This thing I love is is going to disappear or change and change is frightening.”
That's the kind of primal fear, I think, that goes on. A lot of the kickback we've seen to people either criticizing games in political terms or even saying that games are political in the first place is that fear of, "Oh God, they're going to take my games away.’”
I think it can be as basic and childish as that when, of course, the job of criticism is not to censor anything or steal anything away, apart from, perhaps, bigotry and stupidity. It's to interrogate it and ask difficult questions and see what answers return, to hopefully inspire creators to think more deeply or in different ways about the things that they're making in order to improve them or make them more interesting and rounded.
No, that's good. Well, we mentioned before how gatekept a lot of information around videogames are. Do you as a critic or as a player, are there games that you just would authoritatively know the politics or intentions of?
[Pause.] I mean, I think even if you take a mechanic like -- I actually wrote a piece about this for The New Yorker, but if you take games that use the classic RPG leveling up and loot system, which Destiny does and World of Warcraft does, and in fact the majority of games do, there is a clear reflection of capitalism. The idea that you go out, you do tasks, whether it's killing 10 swamp rats or shooting an alien in the head, and they drop some currency and then you use that currency to become stronger or buy more things. That's the endless loop in a lot of these games. You don't have to zoom too far up to see what that's a reflection of -- of late capitalism in the 21st century, there's some pretty clear mapping there. But even, I think, asking that question can be quite provocative for some people and say, "Well, why would you want to think of it like that?" And, again, that's probably coming from the fear of, "I really like seeing numbers go up and I hope your criticism doesn't make the numbers stop going up in my videogames." [Laughs.]
Even on The New Yorker, you get responses like that?
[Laughs.] They disable comments.
Oh yeah, yeah. That always happens.
That's what they do to me, so.
Yeah, always. Oh gosh.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I don't know. I guess -- something I have been asking people lately when it does come to stuff in the audience for games and some of the toxicity, I mean, I always like to ask people not in the U.S. if it feels like a distinctly American thing. You had of your own volition sort of mentioned that some of the toxicity and abuses around games coming from Western culture, particularly U.S. culture -- sorry, I mangled your quote there. But do you feel that that sort of bratty, entitled toxic -- however you want to describe it -- is that actually a distinctly American type of thing?
I love Americans. [Laughs.]
I'll start by saying that.
You're speaking to one!
Just to be clear.
I think the culture war is clearly not only limited to games; it's something that's happening much more broadly. You can see it in writing about television, comics, films as well, and you see it in all these different areas. It's not a videogame-only thing. It’s not exclusive to the American conversation, but the locus of the conversation is in America, probably because that’s where so much of this work is produced, as well as the fact that proximate conversations about race and guns are uniquely American. That does feel distinctly American, as someone who is not living in America.
Now, we have that stuff going on here in the U.K.as well. For example, there's an ongoing controversy at the moment going on in the U.K.about no platforming people on university campuses here. That kind of stuff does go on. And I'm sure many of the toxic conversations that have happened around progressive games or games that are trying to do different things have also happened in the U.K.and are equally coming from young, disaffected British teenage boys or young men. But I wonder how much of that is a slight reflection of -- it feels like the eye of the storm is in America with this stuff. [Laughs.]
[Sighs.] They're not dragging everyone else into its circle of influence, although America does do that a lot, obviously.
But your days are numbered. It's gonna be China in, like, 30 years. So, it's fine.
You know what? I welcome it.
Or as I like to joke, if Trump gets elected at least we'll all get jobs building the wall.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I mean, I don't know. It's very difficult to say if it's purely America. I think because of social media, because of Twitter, we're all kind of thrown in there together and geography matters less and less. The conversation is, to a degree, dominated by American people and because America is -- to steal Henry James’ line, a world, isn't it? It's not like a country. You're so large you're a continent. You're a world. San Francisco is so different to somewhere in the middle of America, right? They may as well be on different planets.
And for that reason, I think because you have such variety of experiences and perspectives and because you're so politically polarized left and right, liberal versus conservative over there is -- the battle lines are so fiercely clear. Add in your racial history and mix that with young people and social media platforms. Either particularly disaffected young men who have found refuge in games or found community and now feel threatened by that, or young progressive people are sick to death with some of the hangover issues from their parent's generation, perhaps, that they're kicking back against. And we're seeing a lot of change at the moment. It's exciting. It's good. But it also means that there's a lot of heat.
There are, inevitably, because of the way that social media works, there are casualties in that as well. So, I don't know. It only feels like the main battleground is American in a lot of this stuff, but it's also and increasingly reflected in other parts of the world as well.
So, I mean, I ask you that not to goad you into picking on America or whatever. It's a valuable perspective and insight and I was always try to ask people outside of America. I think, also, a parallel to talk about here is -- you know, you being of the right age -- how have you noticed as the game industry has migrated to be more focused on the West and there's fewer of them in the East, how have you noticed the West's influence seems to have impacted the business infrastructure or the output? What have you noticed or felt change as a result?
One of the great things about Sony when it was in its ascendancy with the PlayStation One is that Sony Music was heavily involved in the publishing side of things. Sony Music understands, because they worked in the music industry, the value of having not only huge megastar artists but also kooky underground artists that might turn into stars later down the line and might just have their weird little niche that they do well with. And so we saw all of these weird games, in particular, in that era. But weird in a good sense. Things like PaRappa the Rapper, Ape Escape, and WipEout -- I know that was a British game but it was still kind of Japanese-led -- and it was an exciting time in terms of seeing this new creative ground being broken. And I think a lot of that was perhaps to do with it being Sony Music was kind of running a lot of the show in Tokyo at that time. And then when things moved in the next decade to be a lot more America-centric, that changed, and I think probably things became more commercial, and teams less able to take risks. That shift was further compounded by the escalating costs of making videogames.
But then, the third act to this is probably the rise of the independent scene. Particularly with the release of Braid in 2006, on Xbox. Really, this new up kind of uprising, again, quite America-centric, of people funding their own games, trying different things, finding new mechanics. So, we did see that happen again, but -- I even feel with that it's still quite, my sense is it's always quite commercial-minded, even in indie-game development. If you watch Indie Game: The Movie, that's a film about people becoming millionaires. [Laughs.] It's like the American dream except through indie games. And that's not quite what Sony was doing in those early days. It's not quite what the music industry does when it's investing in weird left-field talent just for the sake of making the art richer or hoping that some unusual young artist might do something that then influences one of the bigger artists and creates a whole new genre or something.
That's the stuff I don't see happening so much. I think that's on America, to a certain degree. Just the mentality there about indie games being part of the American dream. It was sold to a lot of people as, "Hey, you can quit your company, you can make your game, and you'll become rich doing so." That narrative has been damaging or at least has kept things back from what they could maybe have been.
Here's a good example: If I go to a game jam in the Europe, these are the kind of 24-, 48-hour-long get-togethers where developers get together and they make a game. Everyone splits into teams, often with people they don't know and they try to make a game. But if you go to a game jam in America, the focus tends to be -- my perception is -- that it's like: "Hey, we might come up with something that could become a hit, a commercial hit!" [Laughs.] And, you know, trying to maybe come up with an idea that then after the game jam they can go and develop further into being a game that they can then release and maybe have lots of success with. I've been to a couple of game jams in Europe, most recently in Norway. There, the stance is very different. They're like: "We've got 48 hours. What's the most crazy, ridiculous game we could make? It's just gonna be maybe a joke that then at the end of the weekend we can play and everyone will laugh about, or at the end we'll just put it out for free on Itch.io or whatever.”
And so, the stance is subtly different and I think that says something, perhaps, about America being the cultural capital of videogames. Maybe that filters down in some way.
No, I can corroborate that. Are you talking about -- was that the boat jam you were just talking about?
That's interesting. I'm just wrapping my head around indie games as the new American dream with the picket fence and 1.5 kids.
[Laughs.] But that's totally the case for a lot of people. I don't know how old you are, but maybe 15, 20 years younger.
Or even people our age.
Yeah. That's true.
Yeah, that's definitely the fantasy. It's becoming less and less a reality or feasible because the sheer number of videogames now coming out on Steam, because the barrier to make and release games have come down. That's been wonderful and that's resulted in lots of different types of games. But it's also made the chance to make a Super Meat Boy or The Witness -- any of those tentpole indie-game multi-million successes, the chances of doing that are shrinking all the time, I think.
Do you -- in my head, I always connect that sort of ecosystem with what's been happening in journalism. I mean, I guess I'm curious: Are you optimistic about our future in this type of work and how sustainable it is in its general future? Do you think it's a leap to compare those two?
Well, I think that's purely a media question rather than a videogame question.
Because while people are playing videogames in the numbers that they are, while people are making videogames in the numbers that they are, and while we've got stuff like eSports springing up and attracting loads of investments, people trying to make that happen, people will want to read about all that stuff. That's a fact. So, in terms of the appetite for journalism and writing and blogging and features and all of that stuff around videogames, whether it's a profile of Notch in Rolling Stone or it's -- I don't know, some live coverage of the League of Legends world championships on Polygon, there's a sufficient, large audience who want that stuff to make that viable for people who want to write about it. What threatens it is the broader media ecosystem and the challenge of how do you get people to pay for that stuff?
Because everyone is used to getting these things for free and when you get things for free, it creates entitlement and you don't want to pay for those things ever again. So, it makes anyone -- it makes this being a professional machine a more difficult and more challenging thing to make happen.
But there are lots of people working on how to make that work at the moment, as we speak, around the world. People with lots to gain and a lot to lose. So, I'm confident as well that people are going to be wanting to read about games, as well. Specifically read. As much as YouTube has claimed the under 15-year-old audience of game fans -- and I'm sure very few of them who maybe would have read Nintendo Power in the early 1990's now read magazines. Like, they're all on YouTube watching PewDiePie or whoever. I'd like to think at a certain age, you don't want to sit and watch, like, someone pretending to be scared while they play Slenderman or whatever, as fun as that is. [Laughs.]
Like, as fun as that is, at some point hopefully --
[Laughs.] You just gave me a great idea for an article I want to write.
[Laughs.] There's probably a name for that, isn't there? But it's a whole, like, jump-scare schtick, isn't it, on YouTube? There's, like, a load of them that do that or whatever. Anyway, I'd like to think that at some point a light goes on and you're like, "Oh! Actually, I'm interested in where Slenderman came from. Like, who designed this guy? Who made this game? What about those people who carried out an attempted murder in Slenderman’s name?" Those kind of things are far better served by writing and by written journalism, I think.
What writers and writing inspires you not as a professional, but just in general as a person?
I heard an interview with John Updike before he died and he said that he’d reached an age where he no longer had the capacity to be floored by a new writer -- that feeling where you know that just immediately have to go out and read everything he or she has ever written. I’m not at that stage yet, thankfully, so I regularly encounter writers with whom I have that coup de foudre, lightning-bolt moment of attraction.
Non-fiction is my area of primary interest, and not just from a professional perspective. I’m working my way through each of Janet Malcolm's books at the moment. She has this capacity to create a deep-clanging impact, through simple sentences, carefully arranged that I find mystical. I read Ariel Levy’s book last year, a slim memoir that expanded on her Pulitzer-winning New Yorker piece “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” and was floored by that. I’m not unique among youngish male writers in finding Martin Amis a tremendous inspiration, both as a stylist but also in his approach as a sometimes-journalist. Less so the novels, alas. In terms of criticism, I’m enjoying reading Clive James’ old Observer columns. He wrote TV criticism for the newspaper at a time when serious people through television was risible. As the Observer’s games critic, that is of particular interest, for obvious reasons.
So, hopefully this isn't a rude question to ask: Are you able to support yourself with your writing alone? Or is there other work that you also have to do to support yourself?
Yes, I am. For a long time, I wasn't. I actually -- at one time I had a job packing boxes in a warehouse just for, like, two or three days a week just so I could write on the other days and try and make a go of it. Three years ago I was working part-time at a small studio in Brighton and they primarily made web games and I was just kind of working there a few days a week. And then the company went bust and I had a moment where I was like, "Oh crap, I need to get something else.”
But I got a little bit of redundancy pay and I thought, "You know what? I'm just gonna see if I can do this for a month." And I had just started writing for The New Yorker and there were a few other opportunities coming. I had just got an agent as well we were planning a book.
Is that your current book or your --
I was sent a galley -- I have it on my desk right here. I just got it.
Oh, cool. That's great. [Laughs.]
So that's that book that's coming out in America in June, I think.
Anyway, there were things starting to happen and I did the sums and thought, "Maybe this can work.” Yeah, so, I've been three years, now, a full-time writer. That feels like an achievement these days, I guess.
Well, congratulations. It is a huge achievement. I've had my stretches of successfully doing that and not successfully doing that.
Right. Yeah, yeah.
And I think -- you know, maybe readers don't understand how precarious and random that line can be.
Absolutely. Yeah, yeah.
It's completely out of your control, more or less.
Well, it's also enough within your control that it can make you very stressed when it's not working out. [Laughs.]
Yeah. [Laughs.] Well, I just mean the element that's out of your control is when you're waiting to hear from other people and what's gonna happen.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
But I think what you're saying is either you have the proactive choice to either freak out or just work on stuff? [Laughs.]
Well, if I look at my own journey, there are definitely points of luck, I guess. Just having the right conversation at the right time. But at the same time, there's that quote of: "Being in the right time at the right time requires being in the right place at the wrong place a whole load." I think that's also true. Success is such an indefinable, weird thing to pin down. How do you go defining success? Whether it's, "I got a certain commission," or, "I get to write for this publication," or, "I've managed to do six months without having to take another job," like, all of those things, it comes down to this weird cocktail of factors, doesn't it? And some of it is completely out of your hands. And then some of it is just: Did you have a really good idea for a story? [Laughs.] Or, did you happen to listen to the radio, the NPR show, which sparked your imagination for a thing and then you spoke to the editor at the right moment in the week where they wanted something like that?
Well, so, we both started about a decade ago and I think -- what do you think for people starting out, eh, I hate these types of questions but I'll ask anyway. 'Cause I get the sense that people who started out around the time-ish that we did, and I'm sure that we know many of the same people, like, what has changed? We got to be lucky in this very weird way of sort of getting in writing about games in a specific type of way that is much more commonplace now. But do you think it's harder to differentiate yourself now if you're just starting out trying to get established? I'm not really sure what my question is. [Laughs.]
It’s an impossible question to answer, in a way, because the route that most freelance journalists took to success, however you choose to define it, is usually no longer possible or relevant as soon as it’s been taken. Perhaps a certain publication shuts down. Or an internship disappears. Or an outlet that, at one moment, needed a freelancer to plug a gap has no gaps anymore. And things change so quickly.
Generally speaking, however, think is harder now for younger writers is it's not too hard to distinguish yourself now. Someone with a bright talent will be able to make it work, I like to think, if they can find a way to hang in for the amount of time it takes to get noticed, or for an opportunity to arise. What I think is definitely hard now is just when I was starting out, I wrote some terrible, terrible things that I'm not proud of because I was just learning. [Laughs.]
I was learning as I was going along and I had people to kind of push me in the right direction. But I also needed opportunities to fail and sometimes on fairly high-profile platforms. Today, if you fail on a high-profile platform, that can be the end for you. Or it can be so devastating because the torrent of abuse you get back -- people telling you that you're terrible, that you can't write, and why did the editor commission this story -- might just end it all for you on your first swing.
So, I feel for young writers in that sense. There are fewer opportunities to fail on a platform that's bigger than, like, your own blog or whatever. And the stakes feel higher, because of the sheer force of backlashes today.
And so I think young writers need those venues and they need to have some few mishaps and the stakes just feel high and the opportunities few.
Yeah. Well, I talk to so many people who, I think regardless of the discipline, it's just the way things go, where they want to be very big, they want to be very influential, but they don't know what to say or how to do it yet. [Laughs.]
I always try to remind younger folks to take advantage of that time. Be glad that there's this opportunity and this window where people are not paying attention to you, don't have any expectations, and you're free in a certain way.
It's not like you don't get to be later, but it's just different when people scrutinize you.
Yeah. That's such good advice. I think it's pretty easy to actually screw things up for yourself, as well, these days, because it's possible to guess email addresses. Like, it's feasible that you can get a hold of, like, a senior editor's email address at a publication you'd long to write for way before you're ready you send off some ill-advised email. It's just too soon. [Laughs.] You're not ready. Most writers are no good ‘til they get to 30 anyway.
Maybe they even give you a shot there and you're just not equipped yet to deal with that level of exposure or pressure -- you just don't have the muscles yet. It takes time to build them. You have to learn how to do that. And that's terrifying. I think maybe everyone has done that at some point, where they sent a pitch and they're like, "Damn! I wish I had just, like, waited a year until I knew a bit more, either about the subject or about myself.”
I definitely have. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] But it feels like --
That's how you learn.
If the stove is hot, I shouldn't be touching that.
[Laughs.] Yeah, there's something to be learned there. But -- and also, I think there's a real hunger, I guess because it's so competitive now to get decent bylines.
And if you're not careful, if you're not mature enough, that becomes the chase -- that becomes the job, and all you care about is getting the next big byline, and you're kind of leap-frogging up until, I guess, you hit The New York Times or whatever. The problem with that approach is if you just become addicted to the momentum, or the chase, you forget why you're doing the work, and, when you do finally get that opportunity, chances are you might not have anything to offer, or you quickly grow bored because you forgot your rue mission, to tell good stories or find interesting people. That's risky, too. I see that urgent ambition a lot in a number of writers and I kind of say, "Don't fall in love with the idea of being a famous writer more than falling in love with the idea of being a writer.”
Yeah. This is true. This has been my experience and I will back you up on that. So, I guess this will be my last question for you, which is intentionally broad unless -- was there something else you wanted to mention?
I don't think so. No.
Okay. Excellent. Well, so, yeah, this is intentionally -- go with this wherever you want to, but what do you think videogames have accomplished?
Hmm. [Pause.] What have videogame designers accomplished, perhaps? You know, in a very basic way, they've brought a tremendous amount of joy to people and that is not nothing. The act of play, whether it's within the context of videogames or whatever, is just crucial. It's part of being a joyful human being. It's part of learning how you interact with the world and what's appropriate and what isn't and how things might respond and how they don't. Being able to assume fictional low-stakes existences is amazing. We used to have to do that in the realm of our imagination and now we sometimes get to do that inside other people's imagination that we can render on a screen. That's an incredible achievement and also a great power, I think, probably, that can teach people about the world. Yes, it can teach maybe less desirable lessons if a game is made in a certain way to promote a certain way of thinking, it can maybe reinforce poor values in people or trick them into thinking that the world works in a particular simplistic way when in fact it's much more complicated and nuanced. But on the whole, I think if you put it all on the scales, videogames' contribution to our species outweighs any of its subtractions.