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Duncan Fyfe & Hit Self-Destruct, Part 1

August 3rd, 2009 | Posted by Ben Abraham in Spotlight:

Goodnight, Sweet Prince

When it came time to think about which writer or critic to feature in our second Spotlight feature, the decision was suddenly made for me with the news that Duncan Fyfe, author of the blog Hit Self-Destruct, was calling it quits. Atypical in that it has an actual ending – how many blogs can you think of that have had an end? – it seemed to provide the perfect opportunity for a retrospective on the man and blog.

Instead of writing this spotlight myself and merely presenting my own appreciation for Fyfe’s writing, I solicited a number of pieces from a range of games writers who were themselves readers of Hit Self-Destruct. The number of responses gathered are, frankly, too many for a single post, and will therefore be presented in three parts. In this, the first, we present the words of L.B. Jeffries, Matthew Gallant and Mitch Krpata, whose respective pieces each highlight a unique aspect of Duncan’s writing and why it should not be overlooked or forgotten.

L.B. JEFFRIES

It’s difficult not to categorize writers on the internet. Your RSS feed begins to overflow every day, the news aggregates are dropping new articles every 20 minutes, and finally you have no choice but to change your relationship with how you consume media. Writers were always broken down into the topics they were covering, but now even distinctions between writers covering the same topic must often be made. In video game criticism, where there are new blogs starting everyday and new webzines delivering strong content, writers can often be broken down by their agenda.

You have the ones trying to sell you something. You have others who are interested in promoting a certain aesthetic or worldview. Fyfe and his blog Hit Self-Destruct was always concerned with promoting a sort of cultural relevancy in video games. How do we get the dragon out of the magic kingdom and into a discussion about the real world, so to speak?

He did this in a variety of ways. His superb post on Braid argued that the game was about pursuing goals and the strange feelings that achieving them brings us. He discusses the amount of time and work the game takes if you play it without a gamefaq and how the final moments discussing the atomic bomb are reflective of the player’s feelings of accomplishment. You’ve done it, you solved the puzzle. Yet the game’s narrative and extra puzzles (such as collecting the stars) are so dense that you still haven’t really grasped it all. Fyfe writes,

Imagine that was only the starting point: if you could then produce an absolute interpretation that crystallized every facet of the game into sharp relief. Imagine that it satisfied all questions and met with everyone’s approval, even the game’s creator. You made Braid make complete sense; you found the Princess. If you were the one to discover the answer, if you were the very first one…God, wouldn’t that feel great?

The point is fleshed out as Fyfe muses on what kind of toll this would take on your personal life. Sitting around obsessing over a game, taking notes, neglecting friends and family to the point that the satisfaction from the accomplishment is made hollow by its cost. Out of all the things I’ve read about Braid, it never occurred to me to wonder what all these people banging their heads about the meaning of the game might really mean.

That’s the essence of what Fyfe’s writing does: it takes the fantasy and stimulus of the video game and tries to drag it back into the real world. His write-up about a visit to Alcatraz and how the tour is designed like a game shows his ability to explore the inverse as well. Just as you can make the things in a game relevant to reality, reality often times comes across as a game. The prison cells that all look the same except for the one setpiece; the generic piping and concrete walls; and the nature of the shared experience all become relevant. He opines,

The tour, like all single-player games, is actually a shared experience. The author, or the game, is never talking solely to you. It’s related this same spiel to thousands of others and will continue to do so long after your horrible death. For all the effect that it pretends you have on the world, everyone else has already taken their turn at being the hero.

Part of Fyfe’s cultural relativism also revolved around the desire for games to present a more realistic image of reality. Just as he makes points about how the real world can be affected by video games, he criticized titles constantly for refraining from saying anything about politics or society. A column for GameSetWatch criticizes the modern RPG for always featuring characters that blindly follow the player no matter what. They don’t get angry when they receive shoddy equipment and they don’t mind waiting in a pub for you to call. This desire for a more plausible game design is best highlighted in his blog post War Crimes. Highlighting the surrealistic nature of Call of Duty 4‘s civilian free warzones, he argues that the game is problematic because it presents an impossible fantasy: a perfect war. There are no civilians, no complications about wondering whether or not to shoot. The game presents reality in black & white which Fyfe criticizes by citing several examples from the Iraq War about how such conflicts genuinely go down. Far Cry 2 receives similar criticism, but he acknowledges that at least the game just paints you as an asshole instead of having anyone claim to be good. He concludes,

Where there are no civilians, there are no mistakes, there’s no collateral damage and it starts to feel safe. It changes from war into a murder mystery vacation. Maybe there isn’t a morally unimpeachable way to make a entertaining game about atrocities, but I’d feel better if those games didn’t try and make me feel so good.

Yet as much as I bracketed Fyfe and his work into the category of ‘Game Critics Arguing for Cultural Relativism’, I always found myself ending up at his site because of his satire. Probably my favorite of the bunch was his proposal to improve journalism in games by creating an ARG for Press Releases. Claiming it was all an issue of motivation, Fyfe lamented that with game journos, “You urge Woodward to follow the money; Woodward instead writes a post briefly announcing the existence of the money.” The point nails home because of the inherent problem with game journalism: the news itself is typically a bit dull and juvenile. The need for depth, Fyfe comments, is to try to not present video game culture so simplistically in the first place.

Being a video game critic is extremely difficult work. You’ve got to be able to competently address the game design and technology while still appreciating the art and aesthetics of the overall experience. As more and more blogs about video games hit the internet, the difficulty of finding people who can juggle both worlds becomes apparent. Fyfe, with a strange background in linguistics, writing, and political science, was one of the people cut out for the job. He once noted that his blog was just, “a productive outlet for all kinds of lingering disappointments and lethargic searches for fulfillment.”

Considering how much people like him were needed back when he started writing and still today, I think his blog served its purpose well.

MATTHEW GALLANT

There are dozens of game writers that I greatly admire. Some of them have similar tastes to mine, and I look to them for recommendations and reviews. Some write about the process of creating games, while others specialize in deconstructing and critiquing them. Each writer sees games through their own lens – as formal systems, as a narrative medium, as marketable products, as emotional experiences, as specialized software.

Duncan Fyfe doesn’t write about games. He writes about people who play games. He writes about people who design games. He writes about people who write about games. At Hit Self-Destruct, games only exist in the context of people, and games matter because they matter to people.

Many gamers are concerned with the cultural legacy of video games, and wonder whether they’ll ever be taken seriously as an artistic medium. Duncan’s writing makes me wonder if we’ve been framing this discussion the wrong way all along. Games are important, culturally and artistically, when they affect people.

Games are art when they inspire a theatre professor to explore a nascent medium through teaching. Games are art when they serve as a muse for talented writers. Games are art when they open a world of possibilities to a young art student. It’s the personal experiences that players co-author with a game that really matter, and the litmus test for legitimacy is how these experiences change lives.

In that spirit, I’d like to take a step back from grandiose statements and generalizations and instead talk on a personal level. Duncan, thank you for making me think about games in new ways. Thank you for taking a long view in a notoriously short-sighted industry. Most importantly, thank you for teaching me about why games matter to people.

MITCH KRPATA

Envy is a powerful motivator for a writer. It comes in two flavors. Either you read something awful and think, “Hell, I could do better than that,” or you read something astonishing and are inspired to meet its standard. Hit Self-Destruct falls in the latter group for me. Each post is like a challenge: Can you top this? So far I can’t, but I’ve gotten better by trying.

Duncan Fyfe makes it look so easy. He doesn’t dazzle his readers with wordplay. His writing succeeds because he has the courage to communicate his ideas simply and clearly. Often, what he leaves out is as important as what he puts in. In the post War Crimes Duncan takes Far Cry 2 and Call of Duty 4 to task for what he perceives as consequence-free violence, thanks to game worlds that lack non-combatants. He lands this haymaker on CoD‘s chin:

In all of Call of Duty’s urban cities, apartment complexes and television stations, there isn’t a single civilian. One mission in Russia takes on a certain urgency when the player is told that rebels are massacring villagers right over the hill. They must have done a really good job.

Notice the gap between the second sentence and the third. The negative space is the perfect representation of Duncan’s in-game discovery. Without fancy formatting or five-dollar words, he delivers a lethal insight with surgical precision.

If he’d wanted to, Duncan could have stuck to reviewing games and his blog still would have been essential reading (see War Correspondent for a one-of-a-kind take on Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter), but he had bigger fish to fry. Like Nick Hornby in High Fidelity, Duncan uses a popular hobby as a proxy to ruminate on the desires and drives of the modern generation. If you think that sounds grandiose, you obviously haven’t read the multi-part Domestic City series, which is as funny and wise as anything Hornby’s done.

Duncan didn’t want to separate the discussion of a game from the person playing it, or maybe he couldn’t. Whether he was pondering the innate desire for authorship over an experience by naming save files, in Writing Shotgun, or dramatizing the fanboy’s lament, in Twenty-One Guns, he never drew a line between the medium and the culture that spawned it. We are the co-authors of gameplay, and Duncan understands this more acutely than any other writer I’m aware of.

In a way, Hit Self-Destruct was never about video games. It was about Duncan. It was about us.

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