(Note: this is Round 1. The second and final round will be published tomorrow)
To: N’Gai Croal
From: Stephen Totilo
Date: March 2, 2009
Re: What’s Next?
So you’re making it public finally that you’re leaving Newsweek and – gasp – getting yourself into the creative side of video games?
I need you to address a few things about this, and would like you to do so in public.
1) Some will say that you’re leaving Newsweek and turning your back on games journalism because you realize that someone who has only been playing games since 1999 just shouldn’t be covering them. True or false?
2) Others might say that you have timed your departure so close to the release of “Resident Evil 5” so as to once again glom yourself onto the attention that game is getting, with little regard to how it affects the sensibilities of people in Spain. Fact or fiction?
Beyond that, I have to say: congratulations.
In theory, I should be weeping. I’ve become saddened by the seemingly constant flow of gaming reporters into the pools of video game development. We lose a Shawn Elliott, we lose a Shane Bettenhausen. We lose an Alex Navarro, we lose an N’Gai Croal. Is Ben Fritz running Ubisoft yet? Is Brian Crecente already rendering guns for the next “Call of Duty“? When do I start writing instruction manuals for LucasArts?
That’s how I feel…dismayed, in theory. But I know that every situation is personal and I know all too well these days that economics can keep even the best reporters from a steady gig in games journalism. More importantly, I know that this has nothing to do with economics or the state of gaming journalism. You’ve been yearning to explore your creative side in video games for a long time.
I would like to hear a bit more about what you’ll be doing on the creative side of the gaming business, and what kind of impact you hope to have. Can you do me a favor and finally make games writing good? So tell me about the impact you’re hoping for.
And, if you can, tell me who we’re trading you for. If you’re leaving Team Journalism for Team Development, we’ve got to get somebody in exchange. I know David Jaffe is obsessed with games journalism, so we might be able to get him — though, no offense, we might need to throw in a utility player. Thoughts?
To: Stephen Totilo
From: N’Gai Croal
Date: March 2, 2009
Re: Like Harold Melvin Without the Blue Notes?
I could say that I’m leaving to master Street Fighter and other pre-1999 franchises in order to both complete my video game education and defend your honor against the Cobra Kai of competitive gaming, Soulja Boy Tell Em.
Or I could say that with the BBFC having certified Resident Evil 5 as One Hundred Percent Racism Free –I mean, what could such noted videogame writers as Tom Chick and Tycho know about such things anyway?–my entire raison d’être as disappeared into thin air.
But none of that would be true. The truth is much simpler: after 14 years at Newsweek, nearly ten of which I’ve spent covering video games in one form or another, I had accomplished pretty much everything I set out to do, journalistically speaking. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn my craft at the feet of some of the most talented and hard-working reporters, writers, critics and editors in the business. Colleagues like Allison Samuels, Johnnie Roberts, Steven Levy and Jack Kroll, and editors like George Hackett, David Jefferson and Kathy Deveny. As much as I’d like to say that I achieved what I have on my own, the fact is that their wisdom, their patience and their example helped make me what I am today.
At the same time, my job at Newsweek let me ask questions, at length, of some of the most gifted artists and craftsmen in a variety of media: the Wachowski Bros, Spike Lee, Eminem, RZA, Aaron McGruder, Shigeru Miyamoto, Hideo Kojima, Will Wright and David Jaffe, among others. And as someone who started out as a college journalist writing movie reviews the same summer I was taking a film production class, I’ve always had that split personality: the critic and the creator. Journalism let me fulfill the critical side. Time after time, it put me in a room with more genuinely accomplished creator, where I could engage them in conversation to help satisfy my inexhaustible curiosity about What Makes This Piece of Art Work and Why Did This Piece of Art Fail?
For someone with my divided soul–to say nothing of my siblings, my friends and my many acquaintances who write for film and television; who perform on stages, in clubs and stadiums; whose work hangs in galleries—it’s impossible to be surrounded by that kind of creativity and not be similarly inspired. And when Newsweek reopened its buyout program in the fall, I said to myself, “I’m 36 years old. If not now, when?” So I decided to make the jump.
You asked me what I’ll be doing next: part of it will involve consulting on video games. It might be a tall order for someone in an advisory capacity to “finally make games writing good,” but I will say that I’ve always been impressed by the way that Dan Houser and his writing partners at Rockstar Games have been able to scale both the script and the performances of the voice actors to the visual fidelity of the onscreen graphics and the quality of the animations, going from more theatrical-scaled performances in the PS2 era to more television-scaled performances in the Xbox 360 age. I’d also tip my hat to Valve’s use of embedded narrative in “Portal“ and “Left 4 Dead,” where the environment tells a story through graffiti and other means. There’s a lot to learn from there.
As for what kind of impact I hope to have, that sounds a bit grandiose for someone who’s only now crossing over into an industry that’s filled with experienced people. I think what I can bring to the table is a perspective that cuts across multiple genres and even multiple media, given my experience covering everything from consumer technology to pop music. Developers are in the trenches every day, so they have to have a certain amount of tunnel vision, while you and I are fortunate to be able to cast our gaze fairly widely. And while I’m sympathetic to many of the unspoken rules of what makes a game a game, this wider gaze has also made me a bit impatient to see some of the lessons of audience expanding platforms (Wii, DS, iPhone and Facebook) and audience stratification (the rise of “hardcasual” gamers, cross-generational play and other segments and scenarios that only partially overlap with those of the traditional hardcore) incorporated into more titles.
For example, I love “Rock Band,” but I don’t understand why most of the songs are locked off in “Rock Band” and “Rock Band 2.” And if Harmonix is still doing that despite the large casual audience for rhythm games, I shouldn’t be surprised that Capcom did the same thing by locking off many characters in “Street Fighter IV“—but I nevertheless think it’s an archaic approach to game design that should be reconsidered. Difficulty, progression and failure states are all ripe for rethinking, and if my hunch is correct, hardcore gamers and more casual gamers will benefit from developers taking a fresh look. In fact, as Mitch Krpata points out, maybe we shouldn’t even be talking about hardcore gamers and casual gamers at all.
That’s some of the thinking that I’d like to bring to the developers I work with. But what other kinds of changes, if any, do you want to see in the games you play and write about? Do you think that the greater collective endeavor of gaming journalism is impaired when one of us crosses over, or is it ultimately just another blip? And if we can arrange it, would you accept [“Halo Wars” writer] Graeme Devine in a trade for me? Because in the end, it’s all about the hair, right?
Tomorrow: N’Gai and I discuss his offered trade and I blame him for kicking a pony. Seriously. Plus he tells me what I think of the one big change I’d like to see in video games.