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Ten Years of Penny Arcade

December 4th, 2009 | Posted by L.B. Jeffries in Spotlight: - (12 Comments)

Ten Years of Penny ArcadeCompiling a tribute compilation of the past ten years of Penny Arcade is not an exact science. My first impulse was to organize everything by chronological order, but because so many of the comics are topical that format rapidly falls apart. How many people are still going to get a Tribes gag? What about the 7th or 8th one? Does John Romero even make games anymore? Penny Arcade is a work based in the events of the day, more time capsule than timeless. It’s a bit like the comic’s name itself, a dated reference to a bygone form of gaming. There’s a Roy Orbison song about the penny arcades from the 1950’s where he sings about all the lights and music going on around you. He describes going to one like having a dream, like being “lost in a sea of glass and tin”. The web comic Penny Arcade sticks with that theme by offering its own enormous library of different styles, topics, and characters.

In terms of plotlines, there aren’t any. Sometimes Gabe & Tycho live in a house together, sometimes they have kids, and sometimes they aren’t even in the comic. The two characters read like the descriptions from Richard Bartle’s taxonomy of Gamers. Gabe is the Killer/Achiever while Tycho is the Wizard/Socializer. At E3 in 2003 Tycho is obsessing over game design ideas while Gabe gets ready to attack the Bungie booth for Halo 2’s sins. Gabe’s love of awful word puns is only matched by Tycho’s wordy sense of humor. Like Bartle’s argument that a solid multiplayer game must have all four archetypes to be successful, the comic’s coherence comes from the interplay between the two. Gabe is willing to make anything competitive, even a game like Crayon Physics. Tycho’s immense knowledge of all things fantasy leaves him with his own neurotic tendencies, like correcting the notion that Warhammer is ripping off Warcraft. These are the archetypes of people who play video games. Whether it’s explaining a game’s story or barking on Xbox Live for someone to bring it, these are roles that all of us have assumed at one point or another.

Part of what makes their character work is also the tiny dashes of personality that go into each one. These aren’t just cookie cutter stereotypes, they are fleshed out with the personal details of Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins. Gabe’s numerous Kenny Rogers fantasies or Tycho’s father-son bonding are just a few examples of the quirks that embellish their stories. In the podcasts they explain that they’ve always thought of them as characters, extensions of themselves rather than representations. They look completely different from their creators and act in ways they never could in real life. It’s that unique relationship that makes Gabe & Tycho apt for a video game comic because they are their creator’s avatars. They are projecting themselves into the roles in that same fashion everyone does while playing a game or role playing in a live gathering.

This notion of Gabe and Tycho being extensions of Holkins and Krahulik plays out in their depiction of games. There is a distinct division between the comics where they depict their characters in the game and where they are depicting the game’s characters. There is always that theme of projection into an identity, only this time with hilarious results. The hellish repetition of Phantasy Star Online is only made worse when Gabe sternly reminds Tycho that they can’t quit because they’re almost Level 26. Another example where they’re both inside the game is Gabe playing with the face feature in Tiger Woods just to freak Tycho out. An awkward feature where in-game advertising is based on what you’ve been searching leads to a bizarre disparity between their billboards. A great strip on the three types of Halo 2 players maintains the multi-colored look of Master Chief. I’m not trying to claim any kind of uniformity, just that their comics are constantly playing with becoming someone in a virtual world. A rip on Splinter Cell has everyone drawn as their avatars appear in the game, same as their World of Warcraft comics. Identity and role play in these games is something you phase in and out of.

Strips where they embellish the characters of the game’s themselves often poke at the surrealistic issues of trying to stay in-character in these games as well. The notion of shopping while zombie shooting in Resident Evil 4 is adjusted to have a slightly more realistic response. The grinding idiocy of a badly translated JRPG like Grandia III culminates in telling the happy-sunshine-flower-healer that you hope she dies on the second disc. Struggling with Yorda’s A.I. in ICO or Final Fantasy Tactics Advance’s insane Judge system are all written from the perspective of characters trying to realistically engage with these game’s scenarios. The long elevator trips in Mass Effect are questioned while the NPC’s offering you DLC-only quests in Dragon Age bring out the hilarity of someone trying to stay in-character in a video game. Even the reality of being a henchmen in a game like Ninja Gaiden or two colossi from Shadow of the Colossus chatting about their glowing weak points flesh out these perspectives. The joke being, if we’re all losing ourselves in these simulations, how much of this are we just blindly accepting? My personal favorite is still their take on Professor Layton. Tycho sums the game up pretty well when he complains, “Nobody in this Goddamn game will help me unless I do their fucking math homework.”

What makes Penny Arcade’s work impressive is also their relative financial immunity from the industry. A Seattle Times article explains that after a few months of working independently a business manager named Robert Khoo offered to help them get organized. They were able to subsist solely on advertising and merchandise after that point, something made even more remarkable because they are actually picky about what ads they will run. Despite hosting ads for the Prince of Persia sequel, they were disappointed by the final product. They now insist on playing some version of a game before hosting advertising. Events like PAX, book collections, and merchandise all help them keep things going. In an essay in their first collection of comics Attack of the Bacon Robots! Holkins explains, “Readers will take care of you. I’m speaking from personal experience. They won’t rest; they’ll invent a way to do it. And if you aren’t meeting them halfway, your archives open, if you are not inviting a person into your work, I’m prepared to say that you aren’t making Webcomics.”

What this situation creates are two people with a very large soap box who are willing to call people out on their bullshit. After reading middling reviews of Donkey Konga 2 back in 2005, one of the early rhythm games, Tycho writes, “I’ll tell you that I’m tired of hearing every person who reviews the fucking game tell me what kinds of music they don’t like. I don’t give a flying fuck what kind of music you listen to. What I want to know is if these new songs provide interesting, original rhythms I can play solo or with my friends when they come over.” When Gabe gets angry about the harsher reviews of Assassin’s Creed he comments, “I don’t read game reviews. I honestly don’t see any reason to. It’s not hard to rent a game and see for yourself if it’s any good. I don’t know why I should care what number someone I don’t know and will never meet has attached to the latest game.” They also aren’t particularly sympathetic to the pangs of print media’s demise. Or even most people’s reactions to print magazines today. When Tycho writes a few paragraphs describing what a game is like, he does so with the understanding that your own opinion is perfectly valid. In 2007 he explains, “If I had to state the difference between our approach and others, it’s that we seem to understand that we are simply expressing an opinion. The age of the psychic reviewer shaman is over. You should never allow a meaningless, arbitrary integer promulgated by an arbitrary voice who came to power arbitrarily make decisions for you.”

They’ve also picked their fair share of fights with people outside of the gaming scene. When Wiley from Non-Sequitur criticized web media Gabe doesn’t hesitate to tear into him for being old and not understanding technology. Their feud with Scott McCloud’s vision of web comics is epic and spans years. When it sparked up again four years later in 2005 over a documentary Tycho wrote, “Every time I see some book or video purporting to represent “our scene” it’s a Goddamn cavalcade of Scott McCloud acolytes singing one Goddamn note. Scott McCloud’s great contribution? He championed a bold new high-tech way for artists to be poor…Everyone has always been able to make “challenging” incoherent art that no-one cared about. And now, with the Internet, more people can not care about it than ever.” Their exchanges with Jack Thompson started off innocuously enough but after his challenge to name one good thing that video games have done, Penny Arcade countered with the Child’s Play charity and it’s enormous contribution to children’s hospitals. Thompson responded with his usual crazed antics. After Penny Arcade wrote a sharp satire of the media blaming video games for a crazed teen’s violent outburst, it led to a touching e-mail from the kid’s step-mother explaining that he was always a “lying sociopathic asshole”. Other moments, like the Todd Goldman fiasco, shows their willingness to engage in the only justice that really exists on the internet: spreading the word.

Tracking through their commentary on gamer culture shows that they cast their net wide when mocking its curious tenants. The startling effects of playing System Shock 2 or the ridiculous size of the original Xbox Controller are all lampooned. The early days of online play were raw, brutal experiences where weapons weren’t automatically handed to you but instead had to be found on a map. This problem was fixed pretty quickly as people got off the dreaded dial-up, but the slur of ‘camping’ persisted well beyond its actual meaning. Before Warcraft III had even been out for a month online play already resembled “burly men raping you”. At first the comic only made a few stray gags about Everquest, but eventually World of Warcraft would change all that. There are over a dozen comics about that game, so I’ll just post this one about couples playing together to give the gist of their take on it.

Their lampooning of the console wars both back in the early days and this generation are all on par, as is their comic about the sad truth of the Wii’s promise of physical immersion. When the long lines were forming for the PS3, they didn’t hesitate to point out that the Xbox360 was still available with far more games – not that the Xbox gets left off the hook, they’ve been mocking the juvenile behavior and even downright creepiness of Xbox Live for years. And let’s not forget the empty wasteland that is Playstation Home

Helping all of this commentary stay varied are the numerous series and side-stories in the strip. One of the longest running characters, Fruit Fucker, has done everything from defeat zombies to star in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Tycho’s niece Annarchy has had her own series along with cameos in their games as an NPC and summon attack. One of my personal favorites is the Div X, an outdated and drunk piece of technology that was obsolete before they even started posting him in strips. Krahulik explains in the footnote in Bacon Robots that Div “represents the hypermasculine impulse we strive to repress.” There’s a lot of Div comics to pick from, but this one always gets a laugh out of me. 2009 saw the release of two major side-stories, the Lookouts and the grim techno-noir Automata. Both stories are only a couple of strips long, telling their stories in just the right amount to make you interested in more if it ever comes up. The Cardboard Tube Samurai, which began from one humble comic into having a Tekken appearance, continues to produce short poetic stories. There’s also a lot of weird crap that doesn’t really fit into any category. Did Twisp & Catsby ever make that much sense? Penny Arcade’s willingness to indulge its own whims is often present, like the insistence on dragging the zombie gag out for years…and years.

Their side-projects are all impressive as well. After years of tearing into video game magazines they were sharp enough to brace themselves for the payback that would come when their own game came out. On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness is interesting because as a game, it doesn’t fall into the classic mistake of trying too hard. They could have easily tried to create something ridiculous and unworkable to prove that they know everything about games. Instead, it’s a solid time-based action RPG that lets you appear in a Penny Arcade strip with Tycho and Gabe. After seeing the game’s reviews Gabe acknowledges that liking Penny Arcade is a love it or hate it proposition. He writes, “We’re really just lucky that enough people enjoy fruit fuckers and deep crows to let us make a living off this.” Other projects like the amazing charity Child’s Play have collected over 5 million dollars in donations and toys for children’s hospitals. They’ve even recently begun a Scholarship Program. The PAX Conventions have gone on long enough to spawn their own DVD documentaries and soundtracks. They are both testaments to the enormous fanbase of Penny Arcade and their willingness to be more than just fans. In a comic about supporting a landmark game like Braid Tycho writes, “The reality is that we can create the kind of culture we want…We can be the people who find and nurture truly original ideas when they emerge, or we can lament the sorry state of the medium. We can be consumers, or we can be curators.” That’s something Penny Arcade has always taken to heart in their charity and convention work. They don’t just talk about gaming culture, they actively try to shape it.

Critical reaction to the group has been both positive and negative over the years from more than just burned developers and journalists. Penny Arcade often comes across as a stereotype of gamers because they were the ones who helped shape the stereotype in the first place. The early years had their fair share of gay jokes that left a lot of people who loved games ostracized. Yet a spirit of inclusiveness that PixelVixen 707 praised them for has always led to improvements. Karen Healey writes at Cerise Magazine, “Ethically and aesthetically, Penny Arcade has improved considerably over its many years. The gay jokes disappear, and the humour remains, a pointed reminder that homophobia is not necessary for hilarity. Tycho’s niece Annarchy appears; a girl who games, but who doesn’t slot into any stereotypical Girl Gamer category. And just when I think that they have gone one fruit-fucking joke too far, they pull out something like this Gary Gygax Tribute. It’s perfect; absurd, sincere, and touching.”

Last, but not least, are the things that Penny Arcade created which really are timeless. Like the secret behind Andrew Ryan’s golf swing, Gabe’s declaration that there is a statute of limitations on spoilers is something people are still claiming today. Probably the comic’s greatest meme is still John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, which accurately describes pretty much everyone on the internet. And then there are the more honest, touching moments. Krahulik’s worries about anxiety medication are addressed in a comic. He discusses it openly in a later post. In a podcast he comments on the hundreds of e-mails he got from readers with similar issues that were comforted in knowing they were not alone. Being willing to really put themselves in their comic personas has always been the thing that kept the series engaging. But to go so far as to propose online? That’s a degree of openness not many could manage on the internet.

There are so many things you can talk about with this series. The amazing improvements Krahulik’s artwork has made in ten years and the creative opportunities Holkins has seized on for great side-stories shows they are both capable of consistent adaptation. It’s a good thing too, because processing the enormous amount of information that comes with being a video game critic is no easy task. There are the games that must be played, the online matches that need to be experienced, and the constant flow of blog chatter that must be filtered through. Penny Arcade is a constant barrage of new ideas and commentary because gaming culture itself is this way. As Roy Orbison sang about visiting the now faded penny arcades of yesterday, “Hey step up and play each machine seemed to say, as I walked round and round the penny arcade…And the music played at the penny arcade, yes it played and it played, played all the time!”

[Updated: December 4, 2009 various corrections]

Pixel Vixen 707, Part 1

September 1st, 2009 | Posted by L.B. Jeffries in Spotlight: - (10 Comments)

PixelVixen707When PixelVixen707 was first getting started and sending out friendly e-mails to various bloggers, in the one I received she asked me why I used a pseudonym. The inspiration mostly came from one of my favorite periods of American literature where authors using fake names played an important part in magazines and newspapers. Petroleum B. Nasby wrote a weekly column mocking the Confederacy in the voice of a pseudo-intellectual Yankee and was read by everyone from the President to soldiers on the march. Mark Twain, which is the warning phrase a riverboat navigator shouts when the boat is at neutral depth, became famous for his hilarious travel books and satires. In Europe, the pseudonym was often a way for women to get more sales while men used them to post scandalous jokes. George Eliot, who wrote the long (but worth it) masterpiece Middlemarch, is no more real a person than Mark Twain. Nor is George Orwell, Artemus Ward, or countless other fake names that have been used to produce great writing.

Often these fake names were such wild and vulgar characters that they slowly began to have little to do with their authors. Samuel Clemens had an incredibly tragic life before his alter-ego became famous. By the end of his days, many people claimed he would alternate between the two identities, revealing Clemens to steadily fewer people. If you want to read some of the most incredibly withering comments ever conceived, just read some of Orwell’s articles attacking pacifist politics during World War II. He was not someone you picked a fight with lightly. Yet in person, he was sickly. When it comes to fake identities and writing, their biggest function has always been to find a way for big ideas to come from big places. Mark Twain had a witty remark to every question, could drink you under the table, and smoked cigars constantly. Samuel Clemens could only pretend to be such a wild person.

At the core of PixelVixen’s character was the idea of being the ultimate punk rock gamer girl. The author of Personal Effects, J.C. Hutchins, which was the book the website connects with, says in an interview that one of the biggest inspirations was the website Suicide Girls. If you’ve never visited the website, a variety of tattooed and pierced models that fall far outside mainstream definitions of beauty post nude photo shoots. Hutchins explains,

“The women at SuicideGirls aren’t just…gorgeous, they’re brilliant. They’re geeky, they’re empowered, they take shit from no one. As I poked around and explored the site, I was like, “This is exactly the kind of person that my hero, Zach Taylor, would be with.” It absolutely informed the creation of Rachael.”

The tattoos, the music references, all of these things became a part of Webster’s character.

The very first post on the blog shows this original angle for Rachael by being about Rock Band. She muses on the merits of plunking away at a plastic instrument, her punk rock days, and praises the game for finally giving her a chance to play a decent female character. She writes, “Rock Band isn’t a rock instrument simulator: it’s a rock experience simulator. It creates a democratic fantasy: unheard of in RL: where every race, creed and sex can share the stage.” Such musings were both a reflection of the role Rachael was intended to be, the ultimate gamer girl, and the difficulties of how to present such a concept. In a medium dominated by male empowerment fantasies that constantly objectifies and hypersexualizes women, how does one create a strong character who is never bothered by such things? In a later post she wonders, “Do women who write about games have to write about sex?” The post, along with her subsequent pieces, sticks with the promise of only mentioning it if it’s relevant.

As a reviewer, she was good. You got a pretty thorough run-down of where the game was bad and where it was good. Rachael could always do this with apt analogies and a few good jokes. Her piece on GTA IV points out the limits of the simulation (there aren’t enough people or pigeons in the city) and the satire is the usual stereotypes Rockstar uses. Sharply critical of the Wii Fit, she ends up comparing it to young adult fiction and how uninspiring the game is in contrast. In video games about teens and young adults, anything is possible. They have their whole lives ahead of them. She writes, “The Wii Fit knows we’re over the hump: and so it never tries to change us. It just pats us on the head as if to say, “I know you’ve already given your best. I expected nothing more.” The post on Far Cry 2 was one of the first to praise the game’s attempt to reflect the player’s immortality through the game design. The Joseph Conrad quotes don’t really help the game’s point, but the malaria mechanic which constantly reminds you of how sick your avatar is certainly does.

And then the day the truth came out. PixelVixen707 was an ARG designed to promote a book. The timeline of Personal Effects takes place during the week she posted the fatal essay, so it adheres to the plot of the book. Links and places mentioned in the blog go nowhere or don’t exist. It details her having a crazed encounter with a serial killer, so people naturally did some snooping and figured out the truth. My reaction to the revelation was the exact same as Mitch Krpata’s. Whenever someone starts a blog post with “I love my boyfriend” I try to do them the favor of skipping it. But as Krpata notes about the whole ARG, “That’s pretty awesome. Can’t imagine the planning and dedication it takes to execute a stunt of this magnitude.” As a huge fan of Andy Kaufman’s comedy work, I couldn’t help but admire a well played stunt that didn’t really have any negative consequences on anyone.

And for all the hubbub, PixelVixen kept on writing. The nature of being a girl gamer would come up again in a post on Rock Band 2. She points out the strangeness of winning a female merch chick, essentially a groupie who wants to make out with you. Since they were both female, Rachael pondered whether this was adhering to rock culture or gamer culture. A Harmonix writer in the comments chimes in that they were indeed tapping into fan culture and how the merch chick is in love with the band, not you in particular. She addresses the issue of guys coming onto her because of gaming through a mock shmup session. When one friend starts getting a bit close, PixelVixen offers a personal explanation for why such things must always be deflected. As old as it is true, she gives a great take on the friendship talk. Rachael explains, “The way this works is, some people you meet, and you share a story together. You’re in it for the long haul. And other people? You give each other a few minutes of laughs. You meet and ricochet off each other and move on.” For the fantasy of the ultimate gamer girl, it’s no surprise such a thing had to be said over and over.

Her review style began to adapt and evolve as well. Not content with just talking about content and design, she began to broaden the topic into talking about games outside their context. She rags on Little Big Planet for its strange British Imperialism as you play a little Sack Boy looting items from various countries and taking them home with you. Rather than just analyze Crayon Physics Deluxe, she contrasts her solutions to puzzles with her boyfriend’s creative ideas. Whereas she would just draw a line and win, Zach always drew an elaborate solution and ended up getting more out of the game. One of her best reviews was for the FPS flop Fracture, which she got obsessed with playing for a weekend out of the hope that it would redeem itself. She writes,

“I spent that time looking for something – a glimpse of the passion that made them launch this project, a sign of the excitement they must have felt at the idea of making the ground quake or the fires rage or just making the sniper rifle reload feel just right. Some sign that the artists on the boss design tweaked the jumps and bad-assed the head and grinned when they first watched him stomp the dirt with deadly force. I wanted to find some sign of the love – the love of games, the love that kept people late at night, later than I was up playing it. Maybe some of that’s in there. Buried. But I never found it.”

Even GDC proved to be a challenge Rachael was up for meeting, claiming that she would be there and that people could meet a person who did not exist. A friend would distribute various cards with a code to be deciphered while Rachael herself wrote reports on the conference. Her writing presented a side of the conference I only saw a few other people address. Absent were the longwinded summaries of speeches that everyone was covering and instead a more personal tone was presented. She wrote about the camraderie that people have for one another after meeting up for years and closely reported what the indie developers were saying. Her support for the Heather Chaplin rant was interesting because it talked about how less macho games were important for more than just women. There was an entire audience of men who weren’t interested. She explains, “There’s a spectrum of masculinity and femininity, and endless ways for both boys and girls to respond to it. But in games, aggression is the default, and relationships are usually as clumsy as a third-grade dance.” Although critical of some of Chaplin’s remarks, Rachael is quick to point out that few would argue games could not stand to broaden their horizon.

Every critic, whether it’s in a review or just a rambling blog post, is imposing their vision of what they think video games should be. Rachael’s vision seemed to always ground herself with the argument that a game should be open for anyone to enjoy. In a post about the nature of professional gamers and leagues she opines that they are mostly a step backwards, “Kill your alpha geeks. Kill your Goddesses. The only diff between you and whoever’s the champion of gaming is that they’re a better shot. So get out there and practice.” She extended this even to game auteurs, arguing that a game was ultimately about vision and it separated from creator once it was released. She argued against my concern about the growing resemblance to hipsters that hardcore gamers were developing because elitist cultures don’t work in video games. She points out that Penny Arcade is almost “Christ-like” with their inclusiveness for anyone except the occasional extremist. They are also the most popular video game critics on the scene. With her constantly changing styles, sarcastic gender discussions, and punk rock attitude, Rachael chiefly believed that video games should be enjoyed by everybody.

By April of 2009 the blog was steadily branching out into new territory. A one-time review for the music group The Dirty Projectors was followed by the announcement that she would be blogging bi-weekly for Suicide Girls. The work there is solid, covering everything from Grim Fandango to Planescape: Torment but the arrangement would ultimately not last. The users of the website are there for women they can look at and talk to, while Rachael was only capable of one of those things. A post about why you should write a gaming blog almost reads like a goodbye letter. She writes,

“Why start a game blog? I already stumbled on the answer: writing about games is as much fun as playing them – probably more. In fact, the writing is the game. We swap links and post comments like soccer players scoring assists. The best points score a goal. And everyone’s on the same team – which maybe breaks the analogy, but, no worries. I’m just glad to share bandwidth with some of the best bloggers on the globe.”

The next to last post, detailing the capstone of a New Games Journalism playthrough of Final Fantasy VII, ends with a discussion about Aeris. Criticizing how crassly the game’s overtures to care about Aeris can be, she admits to still feeling responsible for her death despite having the event spoiled. Knowing now that this was possibly intended to be the final post, you can’t help but wonder about the analogy. Rachael was never real and everyone knew that, but it didn’t spoil the dynamic as much as you’d expect.

Various writers have tackled the mystery of the ARG known as PixelVixen707. Matthew Wasteland wrote an excellent essay detailing the history of the website and her creator’s interviews. One of her defenders after the truth came out, Chris Dahlen, points out that everyone writing online is like an ARG. He writes, “We all have to become such characters in order to fit ourselves online: a little smarter, a little funnier, a little brasher or moodier than we are in real life. The fictional properties we love are doing nothing more than meeting us right in the middle.” Speaking as someone who took inspiration from writers who used pseudonyms in the past, I can’t help but agree. L.B. Jeffries, as a character, is a combination of numerous styles and writers that I channel into how I want my work to sound. He’s the dry informative tone of the crotchety Professor from The Paper Chase with the wit of Pauline Kael but tempered with the sincerity of Samuel Johnson. Anyone who has met me in real life can assure you, the real thing is rarely up to such standards. So for me, I don’t really take much offense that Rachael Webster was a little bit too perfect at times. Super smart, loves video games, knows all the indie bands, reads all the cool books, always chill, always ready with a joke, happy to talk to anyone…these are impossible standards for any human being to maintain. But I think most people like the idea, and most try to put on a good show for our readers. On the internet, perhaps we all become the characters of our own ARG.