Where next?

I don’t know where I belong in videogames anymore. I don’t know what I want from being in videogames anymore. It’s a weird position to find myself in.

There’s reasons. I know the reasons.

I can’t stress enough how tough the past few years have been. Life outside videogames has been pretty full. Two years ago, Mrs B narrowly avoided snuffing it by having her innards replumbed in a rather extreme fashion. Too narrowly, really. Picking up the pieces from that has been achingly slow work for everyone in here. Mrs B still has a long road ahead. Everyone here has their own things to contend with too.

I’m in a better position, health wise, than I was this time last year because at least I have meds to fall back on now but obviously, pain doesn’t magic away. The speed my own health went to shit sort of knocked me for six. I’ve long had pain, long suffered headaches, long battled depression but the sheer frequency and ferocity of my ills by this time last year had meant just about everything ended up stalled. Now, I have a lot of that managed but between pills and duties, I’m just so fucking tired, so often. What I’ve lost in pain and anxiety, I’ve gained in exhaustion.

So I have to manage with what I can manage. That’s fine, I’m fine with that. It just means reassessing a lot of things, yeah? I can’t be the person a few years back that was ready to make the best arcade videogame on a Sony box and then make more and more. I can’t be me before everything took a turn.

I can’t easily write thousands upon thousands of words a month about being in games either. Not anymore. I’ve mentioned it in the past but my memory isn’t so great now. It’s not that I can’t write, it’s that keeping a coherent thought for 2,000 words isn’t easy to begin with and I’ve got so much more pressing stuff taking up brainspace lately. Besides, I sort of feel like I’ve said what I need to say and anything now is just repeating myself over and over and over.

I burnt out. It’s only been a few weeks since I’ve been able to sit at a computer properly without either staring into space or having an anxiety attack or managing some skillful combo of both. That took rather longer to settle than I’d expected. It’s nice to be vaguely back though, even if it has involved a lot of Peggle to get me there. Peggle is good. Peggle 2 even more so.

So yeah, there’s reasons. Plenty more that I won’t go into too, from other life stuff to being heartbroken that all this stuff going on meant DRM2 development absolutely floundered. I’m not complaining here, it’s just… this is where I’m at right now. I’m coming off the back of the most stressful and painful few years of my existence (which given that I’ve nearly died twice in the past ten years probably gives you some idea of just how stressful things have been) so of course things are going to be a mess. Of course things are a mess.

But what to do? That’s what I’m trying to figure out now. So much stuff I’ve mentioned here is the past. It weighs heavy some days but there’s still a future to consider. I’m trying to work out where that future lies. The past is a lens to the why things are, not the future.

I know I still want to make videogames but how? Why? What do I want from them? The Rob of 2000 wanted different things to the Rob of 2004, the Rob of 2004 was a world apart from 2008 and so on. I accept things change, I just need to spin myself round a few times, stop and find my direction.

I don’t know where me of 2018 fits into videogames. I’m not sure how life in videogames in the year of our Molyneux 2018 fits around me. It’s a lot. I know what I can’t do, what I can’t be. I’m just not sure what I can do and can be just yet.

I’m thinking about it though. I’m definitely thinking about it.

You don’t get rid of me that easily, after all.

The Honeymoon Is Over

There are three things Valve carelessly signal with the announcement that they no longer have any intention of pursuing any sort of reasonable policy as to what is allowed on their store.

1. They have no intention, ever, of providing a space where developers and customers are able to build a healthy relationship. If you want that, go elsewhere because here is mob rule.

2. That Steam will, whether they intend to or not, become the de facto games store for the worst humans in and around videogames.

3. Those worst humans will bring more worst humans with them and there will be shit for anyone who is not one of the worst humans. The result will be that developers (and customers) will find no safety on Steam.

I’m not going to wax too lyrically over it because that’s pretty much it, this is where it begins and where it ends. It is brutal.

As someone who has enjoyed a spot on the steam store, who (hopefully) is not one of the worst humans and would really rather not have to deal with them, this is not good news. For marginalised creators, it lays the situation out in a way that could not be more clear – they will have no protection, no recourse, on Steam.

This is not really a drastic change from the Steam of now, just that this time no-one has to suspect it may be the case, it is now there in black and white. Which given how much of the future of our medium lies with marginalised creators, how much amazing work at the front lines of videogames these people are doing, seems absolutely unreasonable and short-sighted for Valve’s business. (I’m ignoring that it absolutely is unreasonable to treat good people this way no matter there, obviously. Please just take that as read.)

Just, you know, there’s one thing Valve have shown themselves, as a corporation, to be tremendous at – not seeing the exact scenarios that will play out as a result of their actions that plenty of people point out within seconds of whatever it is Valve have announced this time. It took minutes before every single awful thing that absolutely will happen was mentioned across social media. Nothing around this is a mystery to anyone and the wrong people will be rubbing their hands with glee.

We’ve been here repeatedly before. We’ve been here with paid mods, with greenlight, with groups, curation and all manner of things. We will be here again. It is the way of Valve. Their attempts to turn Steam into a hands free, meritocracy (hah!) that somehow pumps money out a rather literal 24 hours a day mean they are destined to continue to repeat these same things as long as no-one is factoring in the cost to humans.

As I say, the bulk of the foundational work done on the future of videogames is in the hands of the marginalised right now. Any company with one eye on the future absolutely should be looking at embracing their needs, helping them sell their work safely.

Any company interested in the real future of videogames, a healthy future to videogames, should be making their spaces fascism free. They should be making their spaces racism free. Their spaces should be queer friendly, trans friendly, a place where people with disabilities can be comfortable to explore the full scope of videogames safely. Everyone should be able to be safe in videogames. Everyone with power and a platform should be doing their best to make it so,not just for business but because it is the right thing to do for people.

This is another decision, in a long line of decisions, that make Steam a less healthy place to be. It’s a disappointment that when pressed, Valve opted to make their store less of a reasonable place to buy and sell things on for a huge proportion of people within videogames. In an area that already has long-standing issues with being overrun by the extreme right who long ago cottoned on that videogames is a fertile space to recruit people from, it’s distressing too. It can only lead to the bad people becoming further entrenched, further empowered.

In saying they side with no one, Valve unwittingly side with the abusers and abusive within videogames. The power balance is, to be blunt, fucked.

Valve may not believe or understand this to be the case but that ultimately doesn’t matter. Right now it absolutely is the case. It has been an unfortunate side effect of their hands off policies to date now rubber stamped for the future.

I’m not even surprised anymore, just perpetually disappointed. As ever, I hope one day not to be.

Coverage

I have been around videogames long enough to recall a time when getting a single game onto a mainstream site was an absurdly uphill task.

The amount of indie games covered now is way more than at any time I can remember — it’s only a relatively short while since the majority of indie game coverage found itself relegated to the back pages of magazines, with only a literal handful of studios and games managing to find exposure outside of that.

Over the past ten years, we’ve watched coverage of games, paid and free, now become a normal part of a site or magazine’s videogame coverage. This is pretty fantastic, really.

The coverage we have is not enough, of course. Arguably, it can never be enough, has never been enough. Just right now, with the increasing trend for videogames to be funnelled into marketplaces, the need for better coverage has become really quite urgent.

I’ve chosen my words carefully there, “better” as opposed to simply “more”. More is, also, simply not enough.

The first thing we tend to reach for in these discussions is invariably that larger videogame sites can and should do more to break up the stranglehold on news that big box tends to hold.

I mainly agree with this. Larger sites can and should do more to normalise a broader idea of what videogames are, if only to do justice to the wider audience that videogames has but rarely addresses. I will return to this thought in a moment.

Anyone working for a large site is acutely aware though that simply covering more games is not the answer. The numbers, often, depressingly bear it out. I have little in the way of current data to fall back on but only a short while ago, I was told of pieces on smaller games being lucky to break into double or triple figures sometimes. This leaves us all too often with the idea that there is then little to no point persisting when the work and time involved outweighs the chances of a piece being read.

It is an understandable, if disagreeable, conclusion to come to.

Unpicking this is not a simple task.

We have spent a long time building up a certain audience in videogames, mostly to the exclusion of, well, most people who might have a passing interest in videogames. 

We have also built audiences around the big box news cycles. There is an expectation around reading the latest and biggest news from the smallest handful of companies.

When you then throw in the relative toxicity of gaming site communities also, it is quite the unfortunate mix. (Even my favourite haunt has, after many years, finally saw me give up and install a comment blocker so I avoid being exposed to below-the-line awfulness. Videogames does not present itself well to the world outside.)

And so this leaves us with a quandary. We have an audience largely resistant to anything that isn’t within certain confines. The very same audience dominates the discourse around games, shapes the discourse around games. Their vocal disinterest in games as a broad and expansive, welcoming, medium is off-putting to both a number of people in games and to people looking in. 

We are largely insular, despite our frequent protestations that games are the highest art form, games are for everyone and a miscellany of other, all too familiar, refrains. 

Simply serving up coverage of a broader range of games to the audience we have curated is, well, it’s not solving much. That’s the polite way of putting it. It remains a nice dream that if we just put some words on a videogame out there, the people will come. We have tested this frequently, they do not necessarily come.

However, breaking the news cycle to cover smaller works makes a statement. Which is why I would advocate for sites to write about small games often, even though they may not do the numbers. Even though they may have an audience largely resistant to what they present. It’s why I would argue that it is the right thing to do. It says that yes, videogames are broad, there is so much more out there that you can see.

It is important that when we write about these games they are not punchlines, it is important to meet them on their own terms not, as is all too popular in the video space, to use them as easy objects of ridicule.

It is working to further normalise smaller works as part and parcel of what videogames is.

Though, of course, the problem we then run into is that the people most likely to want to broaden games coverage are those with the least power to do so. Games journalists cannot just accommodate these things unless the site itself is built around it or has a sympathetic editor or someone, somewhere, in the upper echelons willing to enact change. 

Exactly how much power do we assume freelancers have? 

Exactly how much power do we assume staff writers have?

This is not resignation, it is absolutely possible for sites to be better. Admittedly all too often this has to be present at the site’s genesis. RockPaperShotgun being built to give equal post space to games big and small is one route to a better way. Waypoint’s personality led journalism another. There are options. What a site is now, it does not have to be forever.

This is not an insurmountable problem but it is no small ask of larger sites who have long cultivated a very videogame audience. It is no small ask of sites who run on advertiser money at a time when the well is drying, it is no small ask of those who only have so many hours in the day and time to play or experiment with new things outside the traditional cycle.

But it is right that we ask. 

Videogames needs to be a better space! It really is as simple as that. If videogames as a space is to continue to grow we need to steer that growth where we can leave behind as many negative aspects of being in and around videogames as possible. It is imperative that we do and that we tackle this from as many angles as possible.

Normalising broader videogame coverage is just one step of many we need to be taking. It is not a small step, it is not an easy step. It is an important step. Under our current systems we have too many people getting hurt, too many games going undiscovered. Whilst it’s possible (and important) to tease these two things apart, they are both a casualty of our adherence to big box news cycles at the exclusion of most other titles. They are a casualty of our unwillingness to truly broaden the videogames space when we are handed a myriad of opportunities to do so.

There is comfort to be taken from the knowledge that we are slowly working towards making videogames a better space, towards expanding what videogame coverage can be. We can, as always, do so much better than we are. I don’t think we can afford not to for much longer either. Not if we want this space to be more than it is.

Crossing

I have a booklet here on dealing with fatigue that I’m too tired to read. There’s a part of me that sort of wishes this was a joke but no, really, it’s a lot of pages. That’s going to take effort.

Fatigue is weird. It’s sort of like a tiredness but not. It’s something I can’t just push through as just breathing, sitting up, becomes exhausting. Sometimes the fatigue leads to sleep, sometimes it leads to lying there, kind of waiting for the sensation to pass. When it does pass, which can be minutes or hours later depending, it’s an almost alarming return to getting about and on with my day. Not quite as though nothing ever happened but enough all the same.

It tends to come in phases, I can go a good few weeks without any serious fatigue, I can also go a good few weeks with serious fatigue. Sometimes it’s not weeks, it’s months. That’s just how it is. When it comes, it can often feel like it’s out the blue. It all takes a hold so fast, one minute I’m upright, the next minute I’m lying down.

Only a few days ago I found myself walking to school, as usual, to collect one of the kids and as I made it halfway down the school path I began to feel the telltale signs, the heavy legs, the sensation like your entire being is draining away. Thank everything I had a taxi waiting at the gates, I gather napping on school premises is frowned upon regardless of age or ills.

When the fatigue takes hold, it’s tough to find things to do. My concentration tends to be one of the first casualties, my already scant excuse for an attention span becomes like wading through deep water, grasping for the ability to hold some, any information. My already absurdly poor memory now some sort of brain seive where thoughts just empty away.

So many things that aren’t normally overwhelming become arduous tasks. Silly things like reading, writing, even watching television takes a lot out of me to do.

Lucky I enjoy videogames then, really. I’ve found that’s one thing I can still do, even when the fatigue is at its (waking) worst. I can still play.

Of course, I have to be much more selective. My usual diet of flashy lights and lasers isn’t really a sane option. To be honest, most games I’d normally play aren’t an option when the fatigue strikes. They, generally, ask way too much of me – be it reflexes, reactions, skill or concentration – it can all be a bit too much.

None of this is a complaint or a moan either. This stuff just is what it is. I’ve long grown used to bouts of fatigue having had them pretty much as long as I remember and sure, the gaps between have become shorter and shorter in time (like most of my other ailments, really) but still. I accepted it all a long time ago.

So now I’m often looking for something else in a game. Maybe this sounds daft but I’m looking for a game I don’t mind falling asleep during, I’m looking for a game that doesn’t mind me falling asleep during it. I’m looking for stuff that’s calm, doesn’t tax my brain too hard and well, the only way I can put this is “gentle” – I want it to be stress free and nice wherever it can be. A videogame that ambles is the ideal.

I have found this in odd corners. The niceness of Loot Rascals, the slow travelling between worlds of No Man’s Sky and more recently in the mobile version of Animal Crossing.

It perhaps seems odd to many that I should find comfort in the mobile Animal Crossing when I have a 3DS, I have the full Animal Crossing experience just on a shelf over there. Yet for a game that ambles so, it asks a lot of me. There’s the amount of walking, the amount of talking, the stuff to keep track of. When I’m functioning on some sort of vaguely normal level, it’s a relaxing experience and more to the point, one I enjoy a great deal.

When I’m knackered though? It’s too much.

This is where the mobile version fits into my existence. I struggle to disagree with anyone who calls it a husk of what Animal Crossing is and should be. It is, indeed, so very much a husk of the experience Animal Crossing provides. Yet it’s exactly that which enables me to play it.

When everything aside from selling stuff can be done with little more than a tap, when places, animals, all the interactions are only ever a tap away, it’s a taste of the niceness that surrounds Animal Crossing without the effort.

And sure, sure, the monetisation is a terrible thing. As with Nintendo’s previous mobile foray, Miitomo, it is built upon an economy that feeds the player scraps. It is a game that, in order to engage with it at a reasonable speed, would burn through money in no time were you that way inclined.

I am, thankfully, not that way inclined. It helps that I am so tired. The very idea of speeding things up is just everything I’m not seeking to get from the game. I am here for the gating, I am here for the repetition, I am here for the scant amount of brainpower the game consumes.

With one hand I can shake some fruit from a tree, I can catch fish, I can amble towards a curiously dressed animal and offer them the often literal fruits of my labour. And I can fall asleep halfway through doing it and nobody will care, nothing will happen.

Of course, the same “nothing will happen” can be said of Animal Crossing in its other, more usual forms, but that is not on my phone!

I can’t hold the 3DS stylus comfortably whilst propping my head up in a way that keeps pain to a minimum. Plus with my hands having a tendency to throw things on a whim, accidents will happen. This way I can throw myself down on the sofa, prop my head up with cushions and just play. And if or when I drop my phone, it sinks into a cushion – a far easier find than a DS stylus.

For now, I’m enjoying Animal Crossing:Pocket Camp. I am enjoying this extra life where my days can be spent giving fish and coral to cats, marvelling at whatever Timmy Nook has robbed from the tip to sell today whilst I watch two sheep build a skate park for no real good reason.

I have no idea if this time next week, this time tomorrow even, I will have grown bored of it and moved on. But it’s been a game that’s made the past week nicer. That counts for something.

Actually it counts for a lot. A whole lot. I dunno, it’s 2017 and I can’t get enough nice this year so every little bit helps.

Burnout

I mentioned a few months ago that I am burnt out on writing about videogames. Little has changed in that regard since.

Being burnt out is curious. This is not the first time this has happened (the last time it was making videogames, prior to that an entirely different line of work) but certainly it’s one that’s had a most notable effect on my every day. 

The thing about burning out is that when it’s happening, it’s not always so easy to notice until it’s too late because that’s how it gets you, how it works. It’s kind of insidious in how good it can feel in the run up, before things go pop. And when the crash comes, it can be more like a light switch just being set to off. No fanfare, no explosions. Just *click*

Whereas previously I found myself idling the time away writing tens of thousands of words about videogames a month alongside my (rather more important) everyday duties, now I struggle to engage with any writing about videogames at all – not just my own. Partly because a lot of my writing has hinged around what is happening at any point in videogames and far too often about the abuse that takes place in videogames, just the thought of engaging with this stuff is enough to shut me down.

Perhaps weirdly, I am neither shocked or bothered by where I find myself. 

The past few years have been egregiously stressful in so many ways. Videogames has not been a comfortable place to retreat to as there are certain things I am unable to turn a blind eye to and I’m unable to just carry on like nothing is happening. It’s taken me a few years to push through an increasingly slowing NHS to get a diagnosis (trigeminal neuralgia, if you’re interested) and some vague attempt at treatment for my pain (this has not been entirely successful to date either) and of course, my family life has been (politely) rather busy since Mrs B nearly slipped off her mortal coil.

All in all, I’m quite accepting of where I find myself. This is different to previous times (as the last time was different to the one before that too) but also, there have been previous times – I know from experience that you don’t gain much ground from trying to force yourself to do something your brain and body are exhausted by, that only makes things worse. I don’t especially want to make things worse.

I still read a bit on and around videogames but I choose carefully, a bit of Waypoint, some Donlan, that sort of thing. Stuff that engages with games without the stresses and the scandals, where thoughtfulness and contemplation, discussion, is the order of the day. The grind of news and scandal is far too emotionally wearing. I cannot mentally deal with that stuff at the moment.

Of course I still adore videogames. I’m playing a larger variety of things in recent months, some due to IGF judging as ever but just, I felt like I wasn’t engaging with videogames in a way where I truly played and appreciated them so now seemed like as good a time as ever to change that. Certainly when the muse does return, I have plenty of good things to say about plenty of good videogames. I have played a lot of good videogames.

The words do not flow at the moment though. On odd occasions I find myself firing up the old writing gear and seeing if anything pops out but no, it does not. There is a blank where the words used to be. Even so much as writing a sentence to compliment a game rarely gets further than “yeah, I like this”. Again, I’m not complaining or trying to change this by brute force, it’s more just to see if I am ready to return to writing yet. For now, the answer is no.

And making? I am still able to tinker away at things, albeit slowly. Thanks to the kindness of the internet, I have a much more comfortable set up (and crucially, one where the computer turns on) and if I’m honest, I’m quite enjoying very very slowly putting together my next game. 

I’m writing this partially because this is the sort of thing we rarely discuss in games despite me knowing plenty of folk who’ve gone through similar over the years and I’m still me, I still think that talking about the not so great things that hit us is important, that it matters. I doubt I’m the only person in games right now in this situation and I doubt I will be the last.

From experience I know that when things are good and ready, the cloud will lift. I know there’s another side to it. I guess I also wanted people who are in a similar situation to know this too. These things rarely last forever, and sure sometimes something is lost in the interim but there’s no shame in being burnt out, there’s no shame in letting something take a back seat whilst brain and body tries to get to a healthier place once more.

I’m not suggesting the ride from one place to the other is all roses either, there are bound to be bumps and frustrations along the way. It wouldn’t be life without that, really. I’ve certainly had plenty of late.

So you know, sometimes we need to heal. We need time to claw ourselves back or to find who we are again. Sometimes that’s necessary. Sometimes that’s vital.

That’s where I am now.

As I say, I’m accepting of it. I’ll be back in no time at all, really. In the meantime, I’m counting on others to call bullshit on videogame’s bullshit for me.

But I’ll understand fully if you’re too exhausted to do that, y’know? I really will.