Phil Fish: A Postmortem

GoFish

I don’t know what to make of Phil Fish.

I’ve been aware of the man for maybe two years now. I barely knew anything of FEZ until it was practically released, so I missed out on a lot of the typical Phil Fish stories that pockmarked its tumultuous development. Like a lot of people, I was mostly introduced to him through the mountain of press surrounding Indie Game: The Movie, a film ostensibly about delays that was in limbo itself for a while. When placed alongside the softspoken, thoughtful Jonathan Blow and the easygoing Edmund McMillen, many people found Fish’s behaviour neurotic, paranoid, and alienating, especially in the segments at PAX. It’s not a perfect snapshot of Fish’s personality, but it will probably remain the most personal glimpse we’ll ever see. His recently protected Twitter account was always coated in a thick layer of Internet sarcasm, and his ascerbic tweets did little to change the minds of those who had decided long ago that he was just a pretentious hipster asshole.

A few days ago, Fish and Blow ranted on Twitter about how they hate it when journalists ask them to comment on industry rumours. Marcus Beer ripped the two to shreds during a particularly harsh segment of Annoyed Gamer, then Fish got into a very public Twitter shouting match with Beer that culminated in Fish locking his Twitter account, cancelling the recently-announced FEZ II, and seceding from the game industry.

While I don’t believe for a second that Fish is actually leaving the industry for good, his farewell note was right about one thing: this explosive incident was a long time coming. Fish seems to think that a lot of the hate directed toward him the past few years is unfounded, and that people are attacking him for no reason other than that it’s cool to hate him. His detractors claim he’s a rude and provocative asshole, much more so than most of his game-design peers. I think that both sides are correct to a certain degree, but the extremely emotional lilt to this war means reconciliation is likely impossible. Phil Fish will continue to bait the haters, and they will respond in kind ad infinitum.

The original argument that led to Fish’s retreat from the industry was an escalating series of overreactions. Fish overreacted after being asked to comment on an industry rumour about indie games on Xbox One, which, since he’s a successful indie developer who has worked with Microsoft in the past, it would’ve made sense to ask for his opinion on things. I understand his argument that it puts him in a difficult position to comment on rumours, especially if they don’t turn out to be true, but if that’s the case, just quietly decline comment. No need to moan about it on Twitter. It’s possible that he was worried about it turning from an Xbox One article into a “Phil Fish Said” article, which there admittedly have been a lot of lately, but he’s just so damn quotable. He got pissed at Polygon for reaching out to “industry analyst” and documented misogynist Kevin Dent for comment last week, so this time, they humoured Fish and reached out to him for comment instead, and surprise, he explodes. Polygon et al. reached out to him and Blow for comment because they’re two of the most recognized names in indie development right now, and regardless of whether they believe it themselves, their input is valuable to people. I’ve watched the Annoyed Gamer segment, and I certainly don’t condone Beer’s tasteless name-calling either, which was an overreaction in itself. I doubt Beer originally had any sort of agenda against Fish and Blow, other than knowing that lambasting them on air would probably guarantee a large viewership and incur little blowback because lots of people hate them, but he probably felt something on a personal level when Fish told him to “kill himself.” Fish overreacted to Beer’s overreaction to Fish’s original overreaction, and the Internet just eviscerated the loudest complainer, which was Fish.

I have to disagree with the general opinion that Indie Game: The Movie made Fish look like an asshole. I saw a guy who was very absorbed in his work, who knew that he had a hit game on his hands years before indie games would become “cool” (in retrospect, FEZ‘s long development cycle probably helped it in the long run by allowing the game to be released during a time that was more indie-friendly). I sympathized with his very real fears of seeing years of hard work undone by a soured relationship with a spiteful ex-teammate. However, I could also see that he had a flair for the dramatic, as he too-easily informed the camera crew that he’d kill himself if FEZ was never released, along with his bold claim that he would make his ex-partner “a millionaire” if he would just sign the damn papers. These are probably not things most working professionals (indie or not) would say if they knew these comments would be featured in a movie that hundreds of thousands of people would watch, but Fish seems to lack that sort of filter. Still, while these comments were overly dramatic, they were hardly representative of the kind of Internet demon troll persona that people have created around Fish has become since the film was released.

I gave Fish a bit of leeway regarding Indie Game: The Movie and his infamous “Japanese Games Generally Suck” interview because of who his audience was at the time. His immediate audience in Indie Game was the camera crew, who would not have cautioned him against making these statements (if anything, they were probably double-checking to make sure they got the shot). His extended audience would be anyone who bought the movie, a large number of which were probably people who had an unfavourable opinion of him, but because of the medium, they were unable to immediately deliver any rage-filled feedback. The “Japan” panel was another case where the Internet hive mind wasn’t Fish’s immediate audience; it was all the developers and journalists gathered at the panel. He wasn’t saying these particular things to incite any rage among the gaming populace. In Indie Game, he was trying to provide dramatic soundbites, and in the “Japan” interview, he was probably trying to be funny off the cuff, which is almost impossible and he shouldn’t have tried it in the first place, but hey. It’s possible, however unlikely, that he has a hard time judging how far his words will reach when it’s just a few journalists or filmmakers in the room.

Fish’s behaviour on Twitter, however, is less excusable. It’s a direct line to his haters, and he milks it for all it’s worth. I have to admit I found it entertaining at first, and sometimes, his proclamations on what’s wrong with the industry today very nearly echo my own. But recently, not a day goes by where I don’t see him post some sort of inflammatory remark designed to drive the Internet into a frenzy, whether it’s about his game, someone else’s game, the latest industry controversy, or whatever. I saw him tearing apart Minecraft the other day, to which Notch sadly replied, “Just found out that the guy who made one of my favourite games hates my game.” For a guy who hates navigating the shitstorm of irrational abuse surrounding his own game, Fish has no problem slinging it toward other people’s creative work. When Polygon incurred his wrath for reaching out to Dent for comment last week, Fish made his case like a child, ragetweeting at Polygon’s account for hours (which, being a news feed, doesn’t reply to people) until Phil Kollar politely (and smartly) asked him to share his concerns via email. Fish (rudely, of course) insisted on keeping things as public as possible, because if Kollar is shown publicly taking the bait, then Fish wins. “I wonder what Phil Fish’s thoughts on Kevin Dent and Polygon are,” Dan Ryckert quipped.

The worst tweets, by far, are the ones where he directly attacks the gaming public. If you’re a game developer and you rely on gamers to make your living, then calling them “the fucking worst” and “fucking ingrates” and telling them to “suck my dick, choke on it” is probably cause for hiring either a therapist or a PR team. Fish knows exactly what kind of reaction he’s going to get when he hits send on these tweets, but he’ll inevitably complain about the reaction anyway. This breeds yet another cascade of furious tweets in his direction, which he’ll also reply to, and so on. I’ve seen people I know send him angry messages on Twitter, and surprisingly, he responds to every one, which makes he think that he actually reads every single negative tweet addressed to him, and he’s already admitted to reading comments on gaming sites. If this is true, then I can only imagine how unhealthy it must be for his psyche. What he needs to do is stop reading comments and @replies, because when he’s the topic at hand, the comments are likely emotional, irrationally furious, and utterly unconstructive. Replying to the hate is getting him nowhere, and it’s making him look worse in the process.

Right now, the original argument has sort of evolved into a question of whether it’s necessary for developers (or really, any kind of celebrity with an online presence) to absorb all the hate the Internet constantly throws at them. It doesn’t matter if you’re an indie developer with no ties to a publisher; if you’re going to interact with the public, for the sake of your business (and Polytron is a business, despite having few employees), you should generally strive to appear professional. These include matters where it’s necessary to deflect criticism. As you become more famous, you’ll have to face more and more of this criticism, as unfounded as it may seem at times. Try Googling “Reggie Fils-Aime is a”; the first two autofill results end with “douche” and “idiot,” and this is big, lovable Reggie we’re talking about. Ideally, anonymous people on the Internet would think twice before spouting hateful rhetoric, but I don’t think the Internet is going to budge on that point. It is what it is these days, and unfortunately, it’s probably never going to change for the better. Sadly, the onus must remain on Internet celebrities to weather the online hatestorm, which in my opinion requires skin a layer or two thicker than what celebrities are traditionally used to developing. Before Twitter, only the press had a direct line to celebrities, and the rest of the world had to witness the exchange passively and from a distance. Unthinkably, Twitter has provided a direct line between celebrities and literally everyone else on the planet, which has sort of broken down the barriers that would’ve once insulated Fish from his very vocal detractors. Still, I creepily observe Twitter exchanges between hundreds of other developers and journalists every day, and the vast majority of them manage to remain civil and professional enough that Fish definitely seems like the odd man out. Blow gets just as much hate as Fish does (most of which is unfounded, in my opinion; I think a lot of people are intimidated by Blow’s intelligence and try to pass it off as pretentiousness), but his responses are always calm, measured, and careful.

For the record, I liked FEZ a bunch. It’s one of those games where the prime mechanic is so deceptively simple that you sort of slap your forehead and wonder why no one else has thought of it yet (I had the same feeling during Braid). I didn’t expect the announcement of FEZ II, mostly because I expected Fish to move on to his next idea, like Blow and McMillen have, instead of continuing to fine-tune his first idea, but I wasn’t about to complain about more FEZ either. So when Fish cancelled the project, I admit I was disappointed. My personal opinion of the man seems to waver between “dedicated, if emotionally sensitive developer” and “caustic Internet troll,” but somewhere in between those two personalities is a guy who was making a cool video game that I would’ve purchased, and now he’s apparently no longer doing that. In this scenario, everybody loses.

Polygon: A Promising Start

Last night, the game journalism Twittersphere exploded as Polygon’s long-awaited site finally went live. Since February, they’ve been temporarily operating under the banner of Vox Games (which wasn’t a bad-looking site in its own right, and will continue to operate in Polygon’s absence), but as month after month went by with promises that the site would be worth the long wait, I began to wonder whether it would ever be completed. Well, it’s finally here, and it is indeed a sexy-looking piece of HTML.

As I had originally hoped, the site content seems to be equally divided between news, reviews, and features. The first one is about what you’d expect and is capably headed by former Kotaku boss Brian Crecente, but it’s the last two tags that have got me in a pondersome mood.

I read Matt Leone’s Super T.I.M.E. Force feature, and while it was a well-written article on its own merits, I was mostly struck by the beautiful layout of the article. The artistic spread looks like something you’d see in a print magazine, not on gaming news sites where style has traditionally been eschewed in favour of substance. IGN’s presentation has always been hampered by their stubborn reliance on “pagination” of online articles, a relic of the print era, while Kotaku is little more than a blog format with a screenshot header. Every Polygon article looks like an immense amount of effort went into its presentation, and in the Super T.I.M.E. Force article in particular, the use of pixel art from the game liberally sprinkled around the article makes for a classy presentation. The white-and-maroon colour scheme of the whole site is simple, yet clean and unobtrusive.

Something games journalism has struggled with as of late is the philosophy of reviewing games. Nearly every media outlet has a different review scale, making it difficult to compare scores between sites that use numeric scales, letter grades, no scales at all, or something else entirely. Out-of-five scales like the old GamePro mag had (probably influenced by the industry standard for movie reviews) are too tiny and don’t allow for enough variation, especially when scaled up to match the industry norm of a ten-point scale . Conversely, allowing for scores like 8.6 and 5.7 allows for too much variation and renders the decimals pointless; can a writer really tell the difference between an 8.6 and an 8.7 game? Letter grades are okay, but numbers are easier to reconcile with aggregate programs like Metacritic and make comparisons between sites easier (is an A+ equal to a perfect ten, or is it anything above a 9?) Kotaku was somewhat correct in assuming that appending a numerical score to the review renders the actual writeup redundant to a vast majority of readers, but they then missed the point completely by marking games on a “yes/no” scale. If you’re against review scores because you feel they invalidate your writeup, then why would you render your writeup completely irrelevant by attaching the simplest review scale in journalism history to your review? Of all the games journos out there, it appears Kotaku has struggled the most with reviewing games; earlier this year, they ran a horrid series of “Gut Checks” that told readers whether they should buy the game based on their initial feelings (and well before they had played enough of the game to warrant an actual review). Hilariously, these Gut Checks usually included the opinion of a reviewer who hadn’t even touched the game yet.Games are complex things, full of quirks and nuances that all affect a review score either positively or negatively; by simply telling gamers whether they should buy the game or not, a lot of those individual components get tossed by the wayside. I do think it’s possible to add up these components and convert them into a standardized score. Speaking from experience, it’s a bit messy when one first starts out because you lack a strong point of reference for, say, a 7/10 score, but over time you’ll know exactly what a 7/10 feels like and be able to readily compare it to other games you’ve scored as 7/10.

Personally, I feel that scoring games out of 10 with 0.5 gradations in between whole numbers is the way to go (because sometimes games feel better than a 6, but not quite a 7). Perhaps that’s why Polygon’s rating system just feels right to me. But another part of their reviewing philosophy resonated with me even more than that: their practice of using non-static review scores. In today’s day and age, where DLC and patches can rapidly change the game’s value and playability at the drop of a hat, I feel like fluid review scores are long overdue. Many people are acting like we’re going to see games swing between 3/10 and 8/10 every time a patch drops, but I seriously doubt any of these so-called “amended reviews” will bring such drastic changes on a regular basis. To paraphase Shigeru Miyamoto, a bad game is bad forever, and no amount of patching will usually fix that. Bugfixes can render a game like 007 Legends playable, but at its core, it’s still a shitty, underdeveloped cash-in lacking in gameplay, and at this stage, Eurocom won’t be able to save it. On the other hand, a game like Fallout: New Vegas that was marred by bugs upon release but was still, at its core, a pretty good game could be dinged a few points by Polygon on Day One, then could have had its score bumped up once the patches rendered it a better game than its predecessor. Mass Effect 2 was a great game, but even its score could’ve been bumped up following the release of the widely acclaimed Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC. And what about MMOs that continually release new content? Compared to the bulk of the game, all of these patches and DLC are small changes that wouldn’t change the overall review score by more than a point or two. I could only see this becoming a contentious issue with games like Star Wars Galaxies that essentially revamp their core gameplay over their lifetime, becoming a completely different game in the process.

It’s too early to say for sure, but Polygon could very well become my primary source of video game news. I currently use Kotaku for up-to-the-minute news, Gamasutra for more thoughtful insight into the industry, and the Penny Arcade Report for editorials. But if the content flow remains strong and the presentation continues to be top notch, Polygon could well surpass all of them in garnering my clicks.

My Favourite Games Journalism Sites

As you may have guessed from reading my hyperlink-saturated posts, I like to get my gaming news from a couple different sources. Sometimes it’s because I like to get a different slant on the same story. Other times it’s because a certain site specializes in a certain section of the industry that others usually gloss over. Still other times I frequent a site solely because I like the writing style of a particular journalist. So herein I present my favourite sites for games journalism and my thoughts on them.

Kotaku – Probably my most frequently checked site, thanks to the mostly up-to-the-minute nature of its stories. Problem is, they’ve been heavily mired in sensationalist journalism for the past year or two, and it’s only getting worse with each passing week. Of their current editors and contributors, only Owen Good and Jason Schreier are worth reading, Good for his witty sense of humour and above-average writing skills, and Schreier for his “Random Encounters” JRPG column and his mostly level-headed approach (although he recently wrote an ill-conceived article on why developers refuse to talk to the media and got absolutely ripped for it). Unfortunately, I’ve been reading Kotaku for so long that I just can’t stop now.

Gamasutra – Whenever I want to read exclusively about the business side of the games industry, I go to Gamasutra. They have a ton of insider articles about how such-and-such company got off the ground, why this company went under, how much it took to make this game from scratch, etc. Really interesting stuff if you’re intrigued by the cogs and underlying machinery of the industry. And the commenters are fairly intelligent (most of them seem to be developers and industry personnel).

The Penny Arcade Report – A one-man operation run by Ben Kuchera. I like this site because it’s almost a 50-50 mix of editorials and long expository articles. If Kotaku is ADD-fueled blip journalism, with everything packaged into bite-sized paragraphs (nothing wrong with that), then PAR requires an attention span and a tolerance for long stories you might not necessarily care about (and you only get one a day, so unlike Kotaku, where there’s a good chance you’ll find at least one piece of news you’re interested in on a daily basis, you’re SOL until tomorrow with PAR). Still, I like the amount of thought that goes into each PAR story, and how each one is an original piece (whereas at Kotaku, Destructoid, and Gamespot, you’ll often see the same press release reposted at each site).

Polygon – If there’s ever a site that could be considered a “games journalism supergroup,” it’s this one. I started reading it when I learned that Brian Crecente and Michael McWhertor (my two favourite ex-Kotakuites) would be writing for it. It’s still very young and doesn’t seem to have found its angle yet, but it’s absolutely brimming with potential. Right now, it seems to be an equal mix of press release blips and longer articles, but I’m hoping the latter becomes more prevalent in the future.

I’ve noticed that many gamers tend to be partial to certain sites (my friend, for example, is a Gamespot kinda guy, whereas I’ve probably checked them out less than ten times in my life), so I’d love to hear what sites are your favourites. For better or for worse, games journalism is an incredibly important aspect of the games industry, so where its core audience chooses to go for information makes for an interesting topic of discussion.