I've been making games for about nine years now. I started back when mobile development was really taking off, and took the opportunity to learn Unity and went to a lot of developer meetups and things like that. Did hackathons, game jams, and shipped my first iOS game about seven years ago. I've since iterated on that title a few times, as well as released multiple game jam and hackathon projects.
I got into VR not long after that, which has become one of my kind of major development and kind of theoretical design interests. You know, what possibilities are there with hardware and expressive technology? I've also done some VR game jams as well, which are fun. I continue to apply the lessons from having played games since my childhood and seeing the democratization of the tools that make it possible for individuals to basically make games for free. The only investment -- it's really physical and mental energy, but financially, you can pretty much get started, just a computer.
Creatively, I majored in film in college. I knew I wanted to do some kind of applied endeavor involving technology, whether that would take the form of something digital -- something involving writing software or making artifacts in some form, whether they be animation projects, you know, computer animation or live-action film, or photography. I was always involved in that kind of art-making as a kid, and then as a young adult and in college I have been building websites and things like that.
I ended up going deeper into the technology side of things for my day job, but I worked at The Criterion Collection for several years out of college. Ended up crossing those streams of film and the kind of historical theoretical context surrounding movies and movie-making, specifically around art house and classic films from around the world and was able to take that artistic context and learn a lot about technology and pursue a matrix and technology by which to manage all the digital operations around website, ecommerce, and social media, and all those things which Criterion was doing at that point.
That led me more into pursuing technology first, and joining a series of startups where I spent my time since then, working in several different industries. But I guess the one constant has really been that I'm frequently thinking about and talking about and reading about and trying to learn about videogames as a common thread.
David Wolinsky: I guess it makes sense to also talk about why I got in touch with you. It'd be a good way to open the door and offer some further context on these various threads you've started to mention, if you don't mind.
The opportunity to write about videogames, a new title that was coming out -- kind of draw some points of reference in comparison with films, that opportunity came up last year for the PlayStation title Ghost of Tsushima. Basically, the studio Sucker Punch is owned by Sony, who's the publisher for the game. They got in touch with Criterion about potentially doing some sort of interview or collaborative piece for the Criterion website, given the game is explicitly inspired by Kurosawa movies, and that kind of artistic homage to the genre is a big part of the premise of that game -- that you could have some kind of experience that evokes the same feelings that you might have had watching those movies, and being steeped in Japanese screen culture in that way.
So, there's an opportunity to interview the game's co-directors, Nate [Fox] and Jason [Connell]. Essentially, when Criterion got this request, I think that having worked there before -- it's been a few years, but I still know a lot of people there. Nicely, they thought of me as somebody who played a lot of games. I made my interest in games well-known, so they asked me to do the interview to sort of, again, blend those streams of being able to hopefully talk knowledgeable about movies and this cinematic literacy and games literacy. You know, talk with the co-directors in both of those realms and see what interesting alchemy might result in discussing their creative process, and the kind of ways that the game was inspired by movies, how is it different?
We had a really great chat. It was awesome. We took about an hour and a half and really walked through some of the interesting biographical touch points. We got to talk about how -- Nate and Jason each got into being fans of Japanese film and some of their thoughts on game design and their creative process. It was a really good and kind of unusual opportunity because, as somebody who has been trying to write more -- I don't write that frequently, so when I do write a piece, I want it to be something that stretch myself and maybe the audience, or brings an interesting spin. You know, getting publications that historically have not written about videogames to consider it as something they could cover.
You could think about games as existing within a flat cultural landscape, the same way nobody bats an eyelash when cultural publications write about movies, music, theater, or novels. Games are both major creative and artistic and also economic forces in the landscape, so my hope is that more publications will become more open to having those kinds of collaborative pieces and opportunities.
It was pretty cool to see that, ultimately, when the Criterion interview went live, I think it actually did bring a substantial audience to their website that otherwise might not have. Hopefully readers learned something about that particular game and that particular creative process and were able to see the fusion of their own interests reflected on screen. It was really gratifying for me to see that kind of response online.
David Wolinsky: Right. We're now speaking as a direct result of that. And I was halfway tempted to ask if there were people who had never heard of Criterion who landed on their website because of this interview via that game. But I don't know if you're the sort of writer who wants to know those sorts of metrics or even pays attention to them anecdotally.
We've seen genres become popular and then fade out slowly or quickly, driven by a bunch of externalities from the world. Sometimes a given movie can be exactly the movie that people want, whether consciously or subconsciously, to speak to the current moment in some way. Then, months or years later, that same thing could no longer be en vogue. It could be snuffed out or seen as antiquated or an artifact in some way.
But if you zoom out more broadly, right, movies, cinema, as a form is young in its story of humanity sense, but obviously much older than digital forms and specifically current modern videogames as we see them in consumer goods or online videogames. So, one of the challenges in college for me, I ran the college film society for a year and was involved in various film festivals. The challenge is, how do you keep that kind of artform vital and relevant? And I think the reality is that -- and I see this happening -- is the overall audience, in absolute terms for arthouse film and classic film, it's very difficult to make that audience grow. It's very difficult to popularize it with new generations, you know new kids becoming adults, how do you get them interested in this stuff? How do you get them to see the creative possibilities?
More broadly, it may be that movies in general are becoming less popular, or at least the popularity it has has become more asymmetrical. We've dispersed or concentrated on fewer number of movies. So, you have your Marvel movies, your colossal blockbusters that suck up a huge amount of the box office. Disney has the majority of total box office dollars spent in the world. Your average arthouse movie 10 years ago or 20 years ago -- when I was in high school, you could still go to local art houses and see smaller movies and film festivals. Now there's movies, often they won't get distribution at a theater at all, so they'll just go directly to it online.
So, the experience of watching a movie on screen like that, it's become rare and to the extent that -- you know, the experience of sitting at home, playing on a console, potentially on a large screen, potentially with friends or on a network with friends. That experience has become much more prevalent, so that shift from movies to games is, to me, very, very real. I think one of the ways in which the Criterion Tsushima interview was interesting was its ability to fuse those streams back and put them back into a conversation or dialogue with each other, is how I thought of it.
David Wolinsky: You said that you write when an opportunity arises that interests you, particularly if it gives you a chance to do that fusion. Is that rare? I know we talked before and already agreed, yes, it is rare -- but why are these opportunities rare? Is it some perceived high- and low-culture dynamic?
But when it comes to coverage and the way the media handles it, if you see the same question over and over again -- and not a little more detail with the experience of what it's like to actually make a game, or what it's like to actually grow up liking both games and movies, well, I didn't see a lot of those questions. Obviously part of that is due to space and time constraints. In big publications, they often don't have the room to get that detail.
I felt there was an opportunity to really talk in some depth about game design and then some depth about film, culture, and Japanese culture -- and see what kind of alchemy might result in that discussion. But I think part of what made the conversation feel really kind of like it was a breath of fresh air to me because I hadn't written a piece like that before is having that ability, having that kind of access to speak freely about those different kinds of creation in different forms of media with folks who are co-directors who were really knowledgeable and open-hearted and warm about sharing their enthusiasm for this stuff.
I mean, we talked about Lone Wolf and Cub, we talked about The Mandalorian. We talked about a bunch of reference points and bits and pieces that were inspiring and incorporated into their artistic ethos and the resulting game. To have that discussion under the banner of like, "Well, it's going to become a piece," like, the final piece is in there, less about the game design. Then we discussed, yeah, a lot of it, but a lot of that stuff didn't make it into the final thing because of space constraints. But, I lost your track of your initial question.
David Wolinsky: Why --
David Wolinsky: It sounds like what you're saying is this more nuanced coverage is somewhat rare because what it's trained on is also somewhat rare. Which is, that there's a context outside of games going into games that is rare?
David Wolinsky: Well, there's a lot of tap dancing that's necessary. You said you were hoping for what you called a "flatter media landscape," and when we spoke earlier this year about speaking, you said you felt like a flatter media landscape feels almost inevitable. And what we've been emailing about ever since is that the way things are now seems unsustainable. So, eventually, what's ahead is this flatter media landscape.
David Wolinsky: So, what sort of games coverage do you think is inevitable?
But if you come at it from the kind of creative culture standpoint, or cover the angle of who are the publications writing about games and talking about games, and how do they serve their audiences and who are their audiences? Does each publication speak to one or a few subcultures, or do they take a kind of broader lens?
You know, Forbes has a bunch of coverage of games. Very large publications have different verticals that sometimes are very good and very sharp and other times are very, you know --
David Wolinsky: Following the trends, I guess?
But -- to put another point on it, the kind of review culture writing that functions in a kind of marketing mode of, ultimately, advising people to buy or not buy some game as a consumer good. That's a totally different kind of thing than what I was hoping the Criterion piece would be, right? Even though that's the premise of it, it's implicitly promotional. Like sure, of course, it's being written about because it's a new game.
I personally like reading about games that aren't new. I mean, it doesn't really matter to me. I like the intermixing of reading about a new game and hearing about what the precedents were for an hour with its points of connection. It's the same way that when I'm watching a movie, I'd like to know the other work of the director and actors. I like to know who is involved in making this game and where did they come from and where are they going. If it's a studio, I want to know the basics about the studio and who owns them and what are their motivations for their incentives.
The rise of games generally are now being made exclusively by people who grew up playing games. Pretty soon it'll exclusively be people who grew up with the internet and playing games. I'm old enough to remember the games before the internet, but pretty soon most of the people making these games will not, right?
David Wolinsky: Well, I can tell you these last few months, what has started to happen is I have started interviewing people who are second-generation game developers.
David Wolinsky: It's not really a thing that I ever ran into when I started this six, seven years ago.
David Wolinsky: It's already happening. I think people are often like, "Well, we're just gonna storm the gates over time." But I think the time has to be filled with some intentionality, we can't just sit back and wait. Games are in this mode of craving respect, and we've both had experience of being near the gatekeepers at some bigger cultural institutions. Like, how do you think they internalize this ambivalence about games? I hate to ask because I'm not just pointing you to discuss Criterion. But, for example, over there was there trepidation like, "Gee, I don't know. Do people really care about games in this way?" I've run into that so much at so many places.
I personally believe that, you know, the solutions or stakes of a given medium that arise -- without intentionality, they tend to go on a kind of -- well, "thoughtless" is the wrong word, but without enough care and attention to detail to the way things develop, it's usually not optimal for artistic goals or even business or industrial goals. I think it does take a lot of deliberate action and thought to really achieve meaningful or substantial, substantial changes.
In industry -- oh, I mean, I could say a lot about the way that large-budget games have evolved and developed. A lot of it is driven by the internet, I believe, but that's maybe somewhat tangential to your question about the cultural coverage and under whose auspices do you get to write about games and for which audience.
David Wolinsky: The Criterion thing is unusual because you had the developer and publication onboard out of the gate. But you also previously told me a story about how Criterion in their offices use a PS4 to watch movies, but are still unsure if movie fans or readers really are going to care about analysis on games through a filmic lens. It doesn't really sink in for them, that other people are also playing games.
David Wolinsky: I guess that's what we're asking.
Tyson Kubota: Yeah. And then also, you know, the newsworthiness of the topic is always the pitch: "I want to write about X, I want to write about VR because it's been in the news lately." Given the nature of whatever publication you're writing for, they're going to have a sliding scale of interest of whatever you're pitching, whatever the angle is. What I like to read personally has a diet of that. Do I need the same basic kind of press release news story, reiterated from 20 different outlets? I'm not going to read all 20 of those because it doesn't matter, right?
If I already have seen the news and understand the news, I don't need it. I don't need to rehash that many times. If there's some level of analysis or some kind of systems thinking that's brought to the table in terms of contextualizing whatever the piece of news is, that's a different story, maybe. But if it's just the raw breaking news, yeah, I don't I don't need that for every source.
But I think that the games industry in many ways is very -- the way that the media functions around it is still very embryonic in many ways. Or, at least at most it's in its teenage years. It's not a fully baked kind of thing. Even though it's been now multiple generations of humans have come through, working on these things. It's still got a ways to go in terms of workplace practices and the contract between who's making the game and who's paying for the game to be made.
David Wolinsky: People I've talked to in the past, they put this so well -- with the advent of Mario Maker, which is fun of course, but it's basically getting to the point where it's like, "Here, you, make the game."
You can have a high-level idea and mood you and you know tonally what you want to achieve, but the exact mix of mechanics that you want to get there, or that you feel that work to get there -- you can't know that a priori, and that's one of the things that came up in the discussion with the Ghost of Tsushima interview was, you know, to what degree did they find the gameplay in the making of it? They obviously had the high-level kind of situational brief of "you are a wandering samurai." They knew there would be fight scenes, they knew there would be open-world traversal, that kind of thing. But the kind of the kind of more specific mechanics that are unique to that game, many of them were found in the course of development. It's the, "Hey, what if we did this?"
But we were talking about news cycles and you asked if things I wanted to write hadn't been well-received or even accepted. I mean, what I'll say to that is I think that that sort of utility of a given outlet wanting to write about or wanting to have pieces that are written about games in some way in some facet, if that's driven by concerns other than the sort of cultural ones of wanting a deeper understanding of the form, or what you and I might call the "right reasons" -- if you're driven by things like chasing of news and your publication needs to have some piece about games because publications X, Y, and Z also have pieces about games -- the kind of keeping up with the Joneses, if that's the main motivator, or if there's some top-down motivator of "VR is hot" or "Fornite's big" or "we must cover battle royale games" or "there are lawsuits about loot boxes" or "we must cover in-game, in-app purchases," that kind of stuff, you know, those concerns are very different. They typically don't allow for the kind of sustained reflection and deeper kind of critical insight that you might find if you let people write about what interests them.
Outlets like Polygon or Kotaku, they often do have pieces that mingle those streams or there's a personal element and it's a review of the game and it's a piece about the reception to the game. That's good. I would like to see more of that but. But in general, when I propose pieces that have been flat-out denied -- not Criterion, but at other places, the response has basically been, "Oh, we're not interested in covering games on a routine basis. It's not going to become part of our regular cadence of coverage."
Candidly, a lot of it is just continuing perceptions that games are for kids.
David Wolinsky: Well, the next thing I want to ask I think actually speaks to that. You said in our email beforehand that you know "we're at some inflection point in the broadening of the audience, allowing more revenues and cultural consumption and criticality for a healthier future that's not far away." What's the responsibility for people in the know? What should people of our generation maybe try to signal boost or recalibrate for in sending messages to that next crop coming up?
Once you get to a certain age, obviously, you just play whatever looks fun around you. If you're like 10 years old, you know, you want a game that's going to give you the most "value" for your money. If you're doing chores or something and save up for it, you want to buy a game that you think you'll be able to play for a while. If you can only buy two games a year for Super Nintendo, let's say, right?
If you project forward from there, you see a lot of the kind of behavior that strikes that from a kind of macro view. It seems a little bit silly or miscalibrated like you were saying, which is the angle that maybe I personally used for viewing games and kind of evaluating games. I no longer use those measurements to judge things like how long will this game take me to beat. You know, how many hours of content are there, right? There's that site, How Long To Beat, etc.
From an abuse perspective, there are cases where publishers have basically tried to come up with the minimum possible amount of content in order to make a sale, because the sales are so front-loaded that it doesn't matter. You saw a lot of cases, maybe more like five or 10 years ago, where a studio developed basically a single-player game and then they would have some outside studio as a subcontractor build a multiplayer experience that was completely disconnected just so they could say they had multiplayer. They could have a campaign that was really padded -- some Call of Duty game, right, like essentially a multiplayer shooter could say they had single-player, even though the main bread and butter that people were buying it for was multiplayer.
I understand, yes, there is some potential for that kind of abuse. But as I've grown older and my tastes and the time that I have to actually play a game has changed, the constraint is no longer that I can only buy two games a year. The constraint is that I don't have time to play all the games I want to play.
So, to your initial question here -- about some sense of criticality and how to signal boost worthwhile experiences to next generations. I think that I would love to see the conversation shift beyond those kinds of metrics that I was just describing. There is an abundance of choice. There are many more things available. When you and I were kids --
David Wolinsky: Yeah, there's no scarcity.
The thing I take most from games now, though, is more about trying to see if there are a few things that the game does that I either haven't seen before or calls out to me in some way to the extent which those mechanics or those bits and pieces can be kind of rebroadcast or projected, I can tell other people, "Hey, did you see how this game did blah-blah-blah?" That is the kind of signal boost that, I think, maybe is more appropriate for the way that the internet functions now.
As opposed to, you know, a reviewer is basically trying to give you a giant thumbs up or down and Metacritic score, right? Because that kind of raw number is never going to capture the nuance of why a given game feels the way it does to play, which is ultimately one of the things that is most unique to games as a medium and one of the things that I care most about: The relationship and uniqueness of that feedback loop of how the game actually functions moment to moment. I care about that in many cases more than the story, more than the graphics, more than how long in however many hours I can expect to spend playing it. I care about those kinds of micro interactions or micro, micro moments and micro loops.
I think Twitter sharing, like a video or something, that can be a good way to call attention to those sort of smaller mechanical moments. You can have a really interesting and varied gameplay diet for yourself if you're the next generation looking to get into games or understand more about games just by following game developer Twitter accounts or seeing what bits and pieces people are most interested in calling out. That can be its own sort of education and that's a lot different, and I think, hopefully, leads to a lot higher degree of fluency and literacy of how games work than just saying, you know, this game has a 92 on Metacritic and thus it's deemed great.
David Wolinsky: I know a lot of people who don't believe anything they read online, but will flock to Rotten Tomatoes or whatever before deciding to see a movie.
David Wolinsky: I know there are going to be people reading this conversation who will scoff at us because there's often this other narrative -- and I'm sure you've run into this -- of how games see themselves as actually being in the center of the culture. I think things like streamers and figures from that world are often the types of stories getting placed or lauded as proof -- look at how much money they're making, and everyone is incredulous. I don't really want to steer towards that specifically, but to you what is the most surprising source of this kind of dissonance?
David Wolinsky: Right.
I don't know the extent to which games see themselves as the center or not. I mean, this is one of the paradoxes of online culture in general. To me, it's very good at kind of exploding things and replacing them with a bunch of little things, but then those pieces often ricochet into dominant and even in some cases oppressive forms, right? You have a million different fragmentations of like, yes, instead of all going to the arcade and playing some game, now there's a huge number of subgenres and subcultures and there's a streamer for every subgenre or multiple streamers for every kind. There are subreddits for everything, and all of these micro climates and micro cultures.
But at some level, the platform and tools and such, they are often very similar across these groups, so the extent to which taste can be -- but I do think it's possible as a kind of new online citizen if you're a kid becoming a teenager becoming an adult to live your entire childhood and be basically completely unaware of what might have been kind of games that everyone played or rites of passage in the past. That taste has become atomized but also, again, it's in some ways become this kind of coalescing of it or the diversity of the huge number of options available.
But there are also some options that are so colossal that they have absorbed what would have been many different kinds of games. Or you know, something like Fortnite has so many humans actually playing it and spending time in it that it's not clear that in the past pre-internet era that there were phenomena on that level that rolled along forever. That kind of interconnectedness and sort of ongoing online nature of it makes it makes it substantially different.
All I was really trying to say was, yeah, it sounds generational. I don't ever really conceive of games as the center. Maybe that's a function of my age.
David Wolinsky: I don't even know if there is a center anymore.
David Wolinsky: I've talked to a lot of our forerunners in writing and criticism. People who in the '90s were storming the gate, covering games at, like, The New York Times, and at that time there was this literal debate that maybe videogames should be covered in the travel section because they digitally and virtually take you somewhere. If we're heading towards a flatter media landscape, do you feel like is it a matter of us maybe not learning from the past or should we be redefining our relationship with the past?
David Wolinsky: Well, I was going to ask what tropes in discussing games you're exhausted by.
I don't love that, as somebody who likes movies and games a lot. I don't love that, but I think it's understandable. But I also think it's kind of lazy.
David Wolinsky: I don't know what it means.
In some ways, experientially, is there a difference between watching an hour-long cutscene on your screen versus watching a stream? An hour-long cutscene with commentary is the kind of meta mirror windowing of it, right? It's like, you could see that sort of recursion could stretch forever, right? Because once it's not interactive, it's basically not. I mean, you can surround it with a frame of interactivity if it's just you're watching the streamer and you're typing comments, then that's its own form of interaction.
And if you're doing that in downtime where the game is running a cut scene or whatever, that's like you're basically -- you know, bottom-up, culture, like, you're sort of taking advantage of the lack of ability to do anything in the game to provide your own kind of activity. And so, in some ways, yeah, I always question when someone says "cinematic," what they mean by that. If they just mean "has good graphics and the people look realistic," that's fine, whatever. That's okay. But, like I said earlier, my time is really limited.
I think another trope that has gotten to be a red flag for me is the way that game narrative is discussed. Speaking candidly, most games don't have really interesting stories. Most games that try to tell stories are not particularly interesting about what the story is or about how they tell it. Usually it's, because how they tell it is drawn largely from the language of movies, and situating a virtual camera in a virtual space with actors and cuts and, you know, so on. It's usually not done to the degree of finesse of execution that you find in a movie or TV show. That's not really the main reason that people are there, right?
One of the things that I loved about talking with Nate and Jason from Sucker Punch was they were very clear that, yes, we could talk about cutscenes if we're talking about how movies and games relate to each other, but that's not interesting for us either because the reason we make games is not to make cutscenes. It's to make interactive moments. I think the example that Nate used was walking over a hill. I think that anything that tries to reduce or eliminate player agency is generally to be suspicious of, so if it's long cuts and if it's kind of extended on a non-interactive periods, that is worth questioning and digging into.
The reasons why those things are there could be multifarious. It could be because someone thought that game needed to be X hours long, and one way to guarantee that was to have some fraction of that because it could be that. Maybe they really wanted it to seem "cinematic." It could be that they wanted to show off the graphics engine. It could be any number of things.
I mean, that's been the accusation of Kojima. It's like, sure, you can play "spot the reference" if you watch those cutscenes, and many of them are really impressively executed, right? It's more just that if you were to actually look at the story, those sequences are telling that they're very elaborate and in some cases that kind of simplicity of the story -- I mean, it depends on what is right. I feel like it's not fair to criticize that last Metal Gear Solid game because it was taken away before it was done, but basically, yeah, it's often to me a clear signal that something needs to be approached with caution.
But another trope that I have grown really weary of is any description of a game in terms of gameplay using time as a substitution or a proxy for value or merit, I really don't like that. I think we alluded to this earlier.
David Wolinsky: What do you feel videogames have accomplished?
David Wolinsky: First thing comes to mind.
The degree of fidelity of the world is almost as important. I mean, it's going to vary by what the game is trying to accomplish, but I think all the games that I like best and all the things I find most interesting you know, are very precise and intelligent about how they set up those situations for players to participate in. That's the dream to me of digital creation in general. Like, not even just games, but outside of games is the dream of the digital -- that you can create something that exists outside the human, but which is interactive and actually operates.
It's different than creating something out of a piece of wood or carving a rock. A game system actually moves in time and actually changes to create a world, regardless of fidelity.