PV1Like the Hollywood of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the PixelVixen707 blog is a place where the fictional and real co-exist. Rachael Webster is a native of the Domestic City; she is a character who might have once been the teenage indie-game-hipster Emily’s roommate and has now somehow found her way into the real world. Games have unchallenged cultural value in her world and she naturally takes it for granted in her writing. Her blog posts never suggest a desire to see the medium mature or become something it’s not already. When Duncan Fyfe writes “We can do better” he exhibits optimism for the future of games that a lot of us share. In contrast, Rachael Webster writes in her critique of Fracture “I thought our standards were higher.” It’s a subtle difference which I don’t think is a fluke of language. Fracture is disappointing to her because it fails to meet certain standard expectations, not because it failed to exceed them. She never blames bad games for not fulfilling the potential of this medium just as no one blames Transformers 3 for holding back film.

In the world of PixelVixen707 games are ubiquitous. I don’t mean a console in every living room, but rather games of all types permeating every aspect of daily life – the kind of stuff Jane McGonigal often goes on about. Her friend thinks she’s too shy to meet developers and network at GDC, so Rachael develops a game of sorts that will entice people to seek her out. She later makes a bet with her dad that involves searching for an old arcade machine – the first video game she ever played. She turns to her readers for help solving the mystery, at one point asking us to play actual arcade games and submit our high-scores. These are, of course, alternate reality games. Rachael is a fictional character from an alternate reality, so what else could they be? But if she was a real person, if everything she wrote about the coin-op was true, would it not still be a game?

Everyone agrees that Rachael was running an ARG at GDC, but how is what she did any different from the IdleThumbs newspaper? For a few days those guys lived in an alternate reality where they roleplayed newsboys and print journalists and where game criticism, not just Halo 3 launch day mania, can appear on the front page of a newspaper. For several weeks the person (or persons) behind Rachael Webster was roleplaying a journalist in a temporary reality where nobody thought twice about Tim Schafer and Planescape: Torment retrospectives appearing alongside reviews of Blueberry Garden and inFamous on a website that describes its subject matter as “Beautiful naked punk rock, goth and emo girls with tattoos and piercings.” Just two months after Duncan Fyfe finished his Domestic City series of short fiction that had games appearing everywhere and anywhere, we saw Rachael Webster making it a reality with her Suicide Girls columns.

I believe the reason she started blogging was to make us consider the role of identity and games in our lives. I don’t think it was a marketing gimmick. I read the entire PixelVixen707 blog archives and never once saw a link to an upcoming book or product of any sort. I think, in a way, she was preparing us for the next decade. It will be a decade where identity is even more blurred and associated with social web representation than it is today, and those of us who don’t embrace alternate/augmented reality games will end up being left in the dust by a younger generation that experiences the outside world through projections and mobile phone screens in ways we’re only beginning to imagine. I never did submit an arcade score to Rachael and now I’m left wondering why. Rachael and her games offered a glimpse of a future we’re all going to be part of whether we like it or not, and I wasn’t an active participant. I think this is the kind of introspection she wanted to inspire, and is what will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten whether she panned or praised Fracture.

Her quality of writing was top notch. None of this meta stuff would have worked if nobody wanted to read her blog in the first place. Her critiques were sharp and witty, incorporating references to pop culture and other mediums that were notable for the simple fact they didn’t seem forced. For example, in “Left 4 Dead is PUNK AS FUCK” she compares Left 4 Dead to a moshpit, some of its players to hardcore punks, its campaign structure to a film, and then includes a throwaway joke mentioning how the Obama election failed to reform XBL racism. And why not? As far as Rachael’s concerned you can write about politics and racism and film and the punk scene in a post about a video game without making it an awkward 6,000 word essay dissecting what it all means for the future development of the medium.

One of my favourite lines is from her fourth post, a review of God of War: Chains of Olympus. In her short plot summary of the game she writes: “There's also a titan, Atlas, who you can chain to the bottom of the world with a few well-timed button clicks.” There’s no jadedness, judgement, or excited claim to a new sighting of ludonarrative dissonance; just a deadpan statement that succinctly illustrates the game’s ridiculous marriage of narrative and mechanics.

We’re going to see more writers like Rachael in the next few years. I don’t mean invented personas, but rather writers with a style that can only come honestly and comfortably from someone who grew up in a world where games have the kind of cultural relevance and ubiquity that makes constant justification unnecessary. I have a 12 year old cousin who is more hyped than I am for Beatles: Rock Band and is always asking me for iPod Touch game recommendations. She’s not an outlier, she’s one of an entire generation of girls that are growing up with Facebook, games, iPods. I don’t know if my cousin will want to write about games, either as a hobby or professionally, but I think it’s inevitable that that is something many of her peers will pursue. Nothing Rachael did or wrote will seem extraordinary next to the output of this new generation, but the sneak-peek she provided us with has been fascinating.

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.