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Duncan Fyfe & Hit Self-Destruct, Part 3

August 7th, 2009 | Posted by Ben Abraham in Spotlight: - (Comments Off)

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.

HSD Bioshock B&WWhen it came time to think about who or what author, writer or critic to feature in our second Spotlight feature, the decision was suddenly made for me when it came to light that Duncan Fyfe 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 an end?: it seemed like the perfect candidate for a retrospective on his writing.

In this, the second in this mini-series, we present a number of personal responses to Duncan's writing at Hit Self-Destruct from the writers Nels Anderson, Eric Swain and Ben Abraham.

NELS ANDERSON

I had the distinct honour of collaborating with Duncan on “Over and Under.” Collaboration isn’t exactly the right word; that would imply something of an equal partnership. I really just unloaded far, far more than Duncan would ever want to know about Wyoming. He took what he needed and managed to capture the feeling of my hometown with uncanny accuracy, especially given that it’s a tiny mountain town in the least populous state in the US. And, of course, he went somewhere totally unexpected.

Many writers would do something easy with such a setting – loner kid that nobody really understands finds solace in the world of games, girl and boy find each other through mysterious initials on an escalating high score board. This isn’t to say these couldn’t be good stories, but they’re definitely easy. But if there’s anything that has been exemplary of Hit Self-Destruct is that it’s rarely easy.

Donna isn’t simple. Beyond superbly capturing the desire to do more than her tiny, insignificant home allows, her relationship with games is intriguing. She’s an outsider looking in. She’s had a fleeting glimpse of what could be … maybe. But the potential of games she is seeing might be a figment: it could well be that it is just lizardmen, magic daggers and the bastard scion, Aduln'ric. If I wasn’t serious about games, I’m not sure I could look at Gears of War and feel any different.

Again, Duncan didn’t do what was easy. Donna didn’t suddenly see the majesty of games, of a new art laid bare. She saw some really nerdy, escapist nonsense. She saw what I, as someone dedicated to this medium, tries so hard not to. Honestly, it was a little hard to face. But there’s nothing more harmful to the future of games than the status quo. Pointing that out isn’t easy, but I wish more people did so.

Over and Under” is a glimpse, a moment. We don’t know if Donna was accepted to university. We don’t know if Bissette ever managed to get out from under his own shadow. We don’t even know if Tim ever got out of his parent’s basement. It’s a piece of someone’s story, somewhat reminiscent of the way games are pieces of our own lives. Duncan took some scattered memories of a tiny Wyoming town and wove something that speaks on multiple levels. And he resisted the temptation to produce something easy, something that would drive blog hits but would lack real thought. Hit Self-Destruct was rarely simple or easy. These qualities were the most representative of HSD and something I’m going to miss.

ERIC SWAIN

What makes Duncan's writing so incredible is the creative aspect embedded into his work. Nearly all of it is telling a story on some level: whether it is a straight-up piece of fiction, or the presentation of his or another's experience as if it were a story. The writing made his posts easy to read and digest. Game criticism is often a bonus in his posts.

There's a Monster in My Closet” is both a dialogue and a poem about the nature of the survival horror genre. The post is an angle not often seen in criticism and in a way is an allusion to the style of Alexander Pope of criticizing with rhyming couplets. But it's “Over and Under” that has to be my favorite post of his. It's long, around 14,000 words, but it is worth every word. Woven into this tale of a girl about to graduate high school is a variety of criticisms on many of the issues we face today as critics.

We see the perception video game culture had (and still has) from the outsider's perspective and it forces us to evaluate it, even though it may not be the complete reality. It is how our culture is viewed. Tim is the stereotype, the geek, the shut in, the socially awkward; a stereotype that we have no been able to completely shake even in 2009.

We also see criticisms levied at journalism: at what it is, what is really asked, and what it can aspire to, shown to us in the form of the magazines, interviews and Donna's personal aspirations as she reads All the President’s Men. We see Donna struggle with Darkforge the computer RPG as she is just thrown into it by Tim and expected to 'get it.' Even though the story takes place in 1986, the issue is still relevant to this day.

And much like Donna is trying to figure out where she is going, with everyone pulling her back into this small and stagnant little world of Jackson, Wyoming, I can't help but feel our own struggle as critics of Video Games is in much the same place. We are fighting to get out into the larger world and become something more.

All of these are the major issues we game critics deal with and here Duncan weaves them into a narrative fiction about growing up that can stand on its own. That is probably what I find most amazing about it. He wrote with such a personal style and he told a story with every post, drawing his audience in like few others could.  I see “Over and Under” as the ultimate product of this endeavour.

BEN ABRAHAM

I owe Duncan Fyfe a beer and a punch in the mouth. I blame him for the circumstances I'm in right now. And when I explain it to you, it might be hard to find a direct line of causation, but the thread is undeniably and irreversibly there.

It started innocently enough: stumbling across a Hit Self-Destruct post about the sequel to one of my favourite PC games of all time and how a reviewer gave (the sequel) a 5 out of 10: but it concludes with the purchase of a $200 graphics card just to play this game, my curiosity piqued. Duncan was right, of course, Neverwinter Nights 2 was entirely worth a 5 (and for exactly the reasons he lays out), but the ramifications of now having a $200 graphics acceleration card in my desktop PC would be far reaching.

It was mid 2008 and with this new beast thrumming away in the heart of my black-and-blue box, I played Oblivion, revelling in what was a triumph of the representational power of technology. My beastly new graphics card brought Cyrodill to life with sights, and a sense of wonder, that seemed straight out of a dream, delighting the fantastical escapist in me. My first affecting experience with modern graphics.

It left such an impression that I wrote about it for my blog, and subsequently dedicated sections of no less than two pieces of serious academic writing to a personal anecdote of exploration from the game; one fleeting moment that encapsulated the sense of absolute freedom I extracted from the game. Simply sitting in the world was enough to let the capillarity of the game to work its magic on me. It took me one step further along the path of desperate games writer.

After Oblivion came Spore; Fallout 3; and culminated in Far Cry 2. Oh Far Cry 2, How do I love thee, let me count the ways… But this is not the time or the place. If you are ever at all amused (slash annoyed), however, by my evangelical attitude to Far Cry 2 you now know precisely who to blame! Duncan Fyfe for influencing my purchasing decision more than six months before ever first contemplating the game.

True story: I bought my graphics card because it came with a free copy of Neverwinter Nights 2, and without that piece of hardware, Far Cry 2 would have remained limited to a console or I may never have experienced it at all. Certainly I would never have been able to take all the screenshots that I have for the, now infamous, “Permanent Death” saga. Far Cry 2 came in a period that ultimately led to me realising how much more I enjoyed writing and reading about games than I often do playing. Duncan himself wrote about this point in the post “Prometheus Unlocked” just a few months ago. It is considered essential reading for any self-respecting games writer.

In truth, I probably would still have bought my graphics card if I hadn't read what Duncan had written. And I might have even gone on to have many of the same formative experiences: who's to say. Regardless, the fact remains that I still cooked up this most tenuous thread of influence and spun it out into 500 words just to say, 'Hey, internet, Duncan Fyfe is an interesting guy and you should listen to him'. If that is not convincing enough proof then I don't know what is. I've done my part.

Thanks Duncan.

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.