The wrong man for the job

When I woke up last Saturday morning, it was thundering: outside (loudly) and in my head (with a dull throbbing). I had drunk too much the night before, gone to bed, and gotten hired to write game reviews. And I was entirely the wrong man for the job.

In my dream the night before, I was hired as the newest member of Rock Paper Shotgun, the PC game reviewing website. In this dream, RPS had an office. (I have no idea if they actually have an office, but I suspect that they don’t.) The office was big—I would even say lavish. The main part of it was very hip, with an open layout and strange ergonomic chairs. The chairs were low to the ground, and essentially looked like double-wide coffee tables warped into a wavy ‘S’ shape, covered with brown shag carpeting. They were comfy. The foyer was more of a classy affair, with marble floors, gold elevator doors, and huge sculpted gold plates running up the walls in 1920s art deco style.

And there were girls. Now, I’m fairly certain that real-life RPS has no female staff, but in this dream, their offices were positively overflowing with cute girls, several of whom kept shyly making eyes at me when I first walked in. There was also an older lady, a language coach, who worked there. She looked a bit like Betty White with a red dye job, and walked around the office clucking at people to use the proper British pronunciation of things. She insisted loudly at one point that bouquet is properly pronounced “buttock,” at which point I decided to go around asking people if they wanted to smell my bouquet, hiking up my shorts on one side and thrusting out my hip suggestively. The girls loved this.

I then decided that I should go meet the core RPS team, so I sat down on one of the ergonomic chairs where a bunch of guys were hanging out. Having seen the likenesses of most of the RPS writers, I can confidently say that Alec Meer and John Walker were nowhere to be seen. I felt like I ought to say hi to Kieron Gillen, but I had to find him first. I wasn’t sure if the balding fellow with glasses sitting near me and staring at the floor somewhat dourly was him, and I felt too awkward to ask.

After a few minutes, I noticed a red carpet flanked by those little “line up here” stands with the cloth strips. Many well-dressed people were clustered around the carpet and cheering, while others walked down it and into the office. Apparently I had arrived just before the start of an indie games festival of some kind. I looked down at myself and felt relieved that I had had the sense to come to the offices dressed in dress pants, dress shoes, and a nice pastel green button-down shirt that one of my ex-girlfriends was nice (or perhaps exasperated) enough to buy me at Express Men some years back. I looked for a spot to stand, and found one near the far end of the carpet with some of the girls. Five of us posed for a picture together. I was having fun.

And then I woke up. It was 6 AM. And my head was killing me.

I do not remember the justification for my dreamworld hiring. I do remember thinking that RPS hadn’t made the right decision. I certainly felt awkward enough through most of the dream. And in retrospect, my writing for wouldn’t have been a very good reason to hire me on: my style is very different from theirs. They practice new games journalism, seeking to convey the experience of playing a game through personal anecdotes, while I undertake the more mundane task of seeking to describe a game’s various bits and pieces and evaluate what works and what doesn’t.

But of course, there’s a better reason why hiring me would have been a doubtful move: I’m a game developer. The whole scenario got me thinking (not for the first time) about the awkwardness of my position as a designer who also reviews other peoples’ games. There is a fairly obvious conflict of interest there, of which I am acutely aware. On one hand, it behooves me to only say nice things about other peoples’ games, since a bad review risks alienating industry contacts, potential future collaborators, and people who might be able to support me or my work in other ways. On the other hand, there may be a perception that if I write negative things about a game, it’s to try to make my own games look better by comparison. (I would never, ever do this, by the way. It would make me look like a huge jerk, hurt sales, and jeopardize my ability to network with other indies.) In this way, every review I write presents me with a double-bind.

So given the risks, why review other games? It would certainly be safer for me to keep my big fat mouth shut and just go about my business, making games and leaving the reviewing to people who don’t. The short answer is, I feel a duty to the community. Indies have to review other indies. Derek Yu does it. Paul Eres does it. And they should. Not because we ought to sit in judgment of one another, but because without that process of talking about each others’ games, indie games coverage would be sparse and tightly focused on only a small handful of comparatively well-known titles.

Indie RPGs get it the worst. They are the most difficult games to make, and yet they are mostly invisible: mainstream sites ignore them, of course, but so do indie games sites. They show up on TIGS now and then, but not terribly often. The Indie Games Blog seldom features RPGs. Gametunnel used to review indie RPGs, but they are now defunct. JayIsGames won’t review commercial games that are not sold on, which in turn carries very few RPGs. Even RPGWatch (which I love, by the way, and which regularly features indie RPG news) doesn’t cover indie JRPGs, a subgenre which accounts for probably 70 to 80% of all indie RPGs. Jay Barnson’s blog, the Rampant Coyote, is a good resource, but he doesn’t do reviews. And so on. And so on.

The truth is, I simply got tired of complaining about it. I realized that whining on the internet wasn’t going to change anything. I simply had to roll up my sleeves and change it myself. So that is what I’m doing—or at least trying to do—one review at a time. I’m not saying that I’m the right man for the job. I’m saying that I’m the only man who showed up to the interview. That has to count for something.

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  • Calavera says:

    With or without reviews, I think I lot of us seriously appreciate the simple fact you’re spreading the word about these games. I’m sure I wouldn’t know that most of them exist without this site.

  • jackal27 says:

    You’re awesome for doing this site man. I really hope it catches on like some of the other indie game sites like TigSource or I waited for this site to come around for a long long time and I enjoy checking up on it regularly. Keep it up man.

  • Ville says:

    I appreciate your work and you’ve helped me discover a few games I would have overlooked. I have this site bookmarked! Keep up the great work.

  • […] developer Craig Stern wonders whether reviewing indie-RPGs is that smart thing to be doing. Also, has dreams featuring us. I had a dream last night I had to write a feature for today, and […]

  • Anton Gully says:

    Nice work!

    Is RPS still around? They started to get way too self-referential for me so I stopped following them. Kieron Gillen is a great writer but most of the rest…

  • Tom says:

    I’m really glad this site exists (I just found it today through RPS; apparently, I suck), because indie RPGs are worth talking about. Reviews are really the only way you can talk about games people haven’t played, once they’re out, which is frustrating. And while more standard indie fare (platformers) stand up well with their contemporaries, it’s hard to review most indie RPGs without falling into “production values are terrible, the ideas are good, though!” tropes.

    Very appreciative of your work, though. In an industry where the mainstream is straight Final Fantasy clones or straight Oblivion/Diablo clones, it’s important to talk about the people who are usually trying to expand on these formulas, and give them their due.

  • Arvind says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Tom. Keep up the good work 😀

  • ChongJ says:

    I discovered your blog when I was looking for some Indie RPGs on Google.

    I intend to pursue a career in games development after graduating college, and I must say, your effort on this blog gets my utmost respect. Thanks for contributing to the world of gaming in the way that you have, I’ll be following you from here on.


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