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Duncan Fyfe & Hit Self-Destruct, Part 3

August 7th, 2009 | Posted by Ben Abraham in Spotlight:

Donna grew up to become a successful games writer. That's my ending to Over and Under.So we have reached the end of our run of focussing on the writing of Duncan Fyfe and his blog Hit Self-Destruct. I think it’s fitting that we conclude our coverage with the following two pieces, the first from Michael Abbott who has long been an advocate of Fyfe’s writing – the second from Alexander Peterhans (aka Qrter) who is one of Duncan’s longest running and most visible of his readers and commenters. [ed. note: I’m sneaking in a last-minute entry which I wrote after Part 2 was published and, as a latecomer to HSD, am slightly embarrassed to have to include with the words of these two superfans. If you want to thank Duncan or reminisce further you should leave a comment on his final post. – michel]

Part 1 in this series can be found here, and Part 2 here. If you have taken the time to read all of the posts in this Spotlight series, thank you for coming along for the ride, and a special thank you to all who made the time to contribute a piece to this series.

MICHEL MCBRIDE-CHARPENTIER

I have a confession to make: I only really became aware of Duncan as a writer last February, after he published his “Domestic City” series. Hit Self-Destruct had been in my RSS reader for some time before then, but it was lost among the 70 or so other blogs in my Game Design category, many of which I never associate with an author; many of which start to blend together after a while as a result of my gluttonous devouring of information. But nestled between Michael Abbot’s posts on Flower and Iroquois Pliskin’s ruminations on games as total artwork was “Domestic City”, a series of fictional vignettes set in alternate realities where video games had a real cultural value comparable to film and music.

That February was a difficult month for me, and I was immersing myself in video games after an extended break from them, telling myself I needed to play these AAA titles from the past year to keep current, but in reality probably just trying to lose myself in shallow entertainment. Some of the vignettes were reassuring to me at the time, and others horrifying. In retrospect, I want to echo Emily and scream at my slightly younger and extremely more morose self “What the fuck is going on? Stop talking about [and playing] video games!” In any case, after those posts I started reading the author, not the blog.

Hope for the fulfillment of the medium’s potential is a theme that runs through many of Duncan’s fictional and critical writings. “Over and Under” lays bare the depressing reality of most video games today while using an “outsider” to provide a hopeful point of view. “Domestic City” was primarily satirical, but honest optimism nonetheless seeps through. His final post “Cadmium” is the most optimistic of all. With it he ends his blog by resetting the timeline of video games and showing us how they might have begun. The game that is invented is crude and probably not very fun, but nonetheless represents the birth of a medium. It’s a wonderfully rare event that has happened six or seven times in the history of human civilization, and all of us are here to experience it from the start – or close enough to it. With “Cadmium” Duncan temporarily erases the current reality of a society and commercial industry that spawned websites like GamerWidow.com and reminds us that the potential is still there to be pursued. Just because mistakes have been made doesn’t mean they need to be repeated.

I may be wrong but I think I share something in common with Duncan that is difficult to admit. We are head over heels in love the medium, but are deeply embarrassed by the majority of its products. But what is the difference between an interactive dot on an oscilloscope and God of War, in the grand scheme of things? As he declares at the end of a convincing critique of Mirror’s Edge and Prince of Persia, “We can all do better.” More than any other writer, Duncan helped me realize that the only thing more exciting than the birth of a medium is its inevitable maturation.

MICHAEL ABBOTT

Hit Self-Destruct has come to an end, and I’m sad about it. Longtime readers of Duncan’s blog probably saw it coming. He occasionally teased us about quitting, and I recall posting a comment or two encouraging him to stick around; but I always feared we wouldn’t keep him for long.

Few people understand the enormous commitment required to write the kind of blog Hit Self Destruct was. When Duncan says “I can’t make it as good as I want it to be anymore,” the only solution is to walk away. It kills me to say it, but you did the right thing, Duncan. Finish strong. Move on.

I’m lucky to be part of a community with many gifted writers, but Duncan is the best of us. His vivid and concise writing penetrates the surface of his subjects, and he consistently locates a meaningful angle. Duncan explores a game like a spelunker navigates a cave: shining his light on mysterious objects, unafraid of the narrow passages, seeking a way through the dark. Where others grab a look and move on, Duncan digs in and maps the territory.

My favorite of Duncan’s posts is called Badlands. In characteristic fashion, he immerses himself in two problematic games (Stalker and Pathalogic) and proposes we play and savor them despite overwhelming obstacles:

These games are broken. They share an aesthetic and it’s clunky. It’s shaky, it’s hard, it’s outdated, it’s punishing, it’s oppressive, it’s a bad dream, it’s constricting, it’s alienating, it’s unlikable, it’s irritating, it’s mean, it’s depressing, it’s sad, it’s aggravating, it’s too much, far too much, way too much for anyone to endure.

Despite all this, by the end of the essay he’s convinced us to play both games, provoked us to question how we define “fun,” and made us wonder why nobody bothered to examine these games so carefully or sympathetically. For what it’s worth, Duncan, I played Pathologic and hated it. Hated nearly every minute of its ridiculously frustrating brokenness. And I dreamed about it two nights in a row. Nightmares actually. Thanks.

I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of Duncan Fyfe. He’s too young, too smart, and too prodigiously talented to pull a permanent disappearing act. The demise of Hit Self-Destruct is disappointing, but what remains is a two year archive of writing that demonstrates what’s possible when a promising young critic suddenly discovers he’s “Shiftless When Idle.”

Thanks for everything, Duncan. All the best.

ALEXANDER PETERHANS

I wake up mornings, lying in a pool of sweat. Whatever happened to Benjamin Day, I find myself wondering.  Duncan Fyfe won’t tell me. Why won’t he tell me?

One of the many entries on Mr. Fyfe’s blog Hit Self-Destruct is called “Murder Charge.” It tells the story of Benjamin Day, a games journalist working for GameTime.com (not to be confused with GamerTime.com) who gets woken to the news that Cliffy B-a-like Mark Brandon (lead designer of acclaimed shooter First Flight) has the previous night accidentally run a man over. Benjamin gets himself an impromptu interview with Brandon and then finds himself poorly equipped for this.

It’s an impressive piece of satire, about the uncomfortable dance between two worlds: one of them representing a certain kind of popular games journalism, the other the stark, harsh reality of daily life. In the world of corporate games websites there’s a blinkered focus on entertainment, where the rest of the world is only of marginal interest (and certainly should not try to involve itself too much with our hobby), where men never have to grow up and wouldn’t know how to, even if they tried. Conversely, in the world we all live in, even the games journalists of GameTime.com, there is no going back, choices are permanent, nothing can be saved, quickly or otherwise.

It would’ve been easier for Fyfe, I suppose, to write a story solely about how laughable Day’s stumbling in the real world is. But there’s plenty to identify with too: we all have been in situations we thought we would be able to handle, only to find ourself being closer to drowning than swimming. It’s almost breathtaking, reading how Ben willfully wades deeper and deeper into the morass, expecting him to get sucked down at any moment.

To me this is the strongest form of satire, where the peculiarities of a system are highlighted, yet we still feel for the characters that move within that system. The writing surpasses ‘just’ being satire, it becomes great fiction.

I kept thinking about that story for a long time, about how technically accomplished I thought it was, how the elements all seem to fall into place.

I wish Fyfe had written more, featuring Benjamin Day and his world, although as a writer you tend to want to move on, forever focusing on the new.

I thought about writing a follow-up to “Murder Charge” for this piece. It would’ve been told from the persective of a young woman, called Sam. It’s five years after the Mark Brandon incident, and Ben is the only one still working for GameTime, others having moved on to new careers at other sites, in game development or in community management. He feels inadequate, left behind and has decided he wants to be a real writer, whatever that means. He tries writing a roman ^^ƒÂ  clef about the world of games journalism. He asks his girlfriend to read it. This girlfriend is the aforementioned Sam, and she is a PR rep at a major games company and although she is fond of Ben, she’s unsure whether she loves him (she’s also unsure whether this really matters to her). She has read it. She found it to be uncommonly dull. She wonders who would ever be interested in reading about the daily lives of games journalists. She wonders whether she should tell him this. And she thinks she shouldn’t.  It wouldn’t help him, it wouldn’t help her, it wouldn’t help them.

And then she tells him anyway.

I didn’t write the story. It wouldn’t have added anything, it wouldn’t have made anything clear about why the story resonated with me. In the end, I think Fyfe’s story itself does that quite perfectly.

I have wondered if I should tell Fyfe how much I have always enjoyed reading Hit Self-Destruct, how many pieces have made me laugh and made me think, a rare combination. And then I thought I’d better not, as it’s could be seen as kind of naff.

I told him anyway.

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