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Creative Commons licensed, via flickr user Mike Baird

Creative Commons licensed, via flickr user Mike Baird

This is the first entry in a new series for Critical Distance – the writer/critic’s spotlight. This series focuses on the body of writing produced by a single videogame writer, critic or commentator. In this post I turn the spotlight on the mysterious blogger, critic and industry deep-throat that was Surfer Girl and her blog Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars.

Come with me on a trip in the wayback machine – the date is early 2008 and the name on everyone’s lips is “Surfer Girl”, author of the videogame industry tipster blog Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars. Fast forward to the present and barely a trace of her existence remains outside of our personal memories and a few year-old blog posts. She was never a typical member of the critical game blogging cohort, drawing most of her readers for the industry insider information she passed along. So why exactly am I taking the time to remind Critical Distance readers of her existence? Because one of our goals is to help circumvent the tendency in the games industry towards short memories and even shorter attention spans. Surfer Girl also merits attention for how ahead of her time she was, despite the fact that she bowed out of the scene before the 2008 explosion of videogame bloggers, writers and critics. She blazed a strange (and occasionally mixed-message) trail with her posts, which often interleaved tidbits of information about the latest game in X series with comments arguing for journalistic integrity and for increased political and social awareness.

When a once-prominent videogame blogger disappears, I feel it is the duty of us who remember to remind others of those that have gone before.

Surfer Girl primarily used her blog to pass along information from numerous ‘sources’ about un-announced and in-development videogames – something that would not necessarily in itself make Surfer Girl notable enough for Critical Distance. She copped a lot of flak from people who questioned whether she was just after the attention her information brought her, and in a way they were quite correct – she stated in interviews and a number of her own posts that her main goal in revealing such “valuable” info was to use the platform it gave her to raise awareness of what she felt were more important issues.

Counting against her efforts in this direction were questions surrounding her identity, as she remained staunchly anonymous until her eventual disappearance from blogging (her very last post being in May of 2008). If after reading about the many mysteries surrounding her you find yourself inclined to make certain parallels with the game-crit sphere’s very own ARG blogger you’re certainly not alone. Her anonymity, the questionable accuracy of her tips as well as an incident where her blog was apparently ‘hacked’ before she ‘guessed’ the new password and regained control, leave one with the distinct feeling that all was not as it seemed behind the nom de plume. I started with much the same suspicions but can give confirmation, by way of word from the ‘vixen herself and ARG group Smith & Tinker, that neither were involved with Surfer Girl. In fact, the Smith & Tinker group started up after Surfer Girl and her mysterious blog.

While it is not strictly relevant to what makes Surfer Girl a good critic, the fact that Surfer Girl got so many of her dubious (at the time) predictions correct lends her words a credence I feel she did not always receive at the time. I will readily admit that a large part of my own investigation and research for this piece stems from a curiosity in discovering and documenting what she got right in terms of her predictions. With the benefit of a year’s worth of hindsight we can now examine some of her statements and compare them to what actually became reality in terms of games. Indulge me a moment as I describe some of what she got right in her predictions; most of the following links are to Internet Archive pages from her blog.

Earlier than most, she was aware of and began to tout the game Brütal Legend, also asserting the existence of a Max Payne 3. She also mentioned Far Cry 2 in one post and said that a PS3 exclusive Far Cry game was cancelled in order to get FC2 onto the PS3. There was also a claim that a new Zelda game was going to be released in 2009 and, as we recently saw, that game was announced at GDC 2009; I’m sure it came as no surprise to Surfer Girl who knew as early as 2007. A Batman: The Dark Knight game was allegedly in development, but according to Wikipedia was itself later cancelled, adding another game about which Surfer Girl was probably correct. Lego Indiana Jones and Super Punch-Out!! were both predicted well in advance, with the latter apparently slated for 2008 – it arrived, however, last month. A Ghostbusters game, a Lost game (which she forewarned was bad) and a new Knights of the Old Republic game (which if I were to speculate may have become the MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic, though perhaps not) were all also mentioned well in advance. She raised the possibility that a new Nintendo hand-held was coming in 2009 (the revamped DSi debuted last month, but wasn’t officially revealed until October ’08, way after Surfer Girl left the scene) as well as mentioning The Sims 3, Call of Duty 5 having started development in Jan ’08, by which time an Assassins Creed 2 was in the works, and that a spiritual successor to Red Dead Revolver was also being worked on in Jan ’08. There was even a scoop on the album that was the musical equivalent of Duke Nukem Forever, predicting the imminent release of Chinese Democracy! Lastly, in perhaps the most high profile reveal, she asserted that there was a Beyond Good and Evil 2 game in the works. The game was not officially announced until the Ubidays event in May 2008 (incidentally, right around the time Surfer Girl disappeared), but Surfer Girl was claiming it was I development as early as November of 2007.

At the time, reactions to Surfer Girl’s claim of a BG&E2 ranged from ‘hopeful, wishful scepticism’ to outright scoffing, ridicule and claims that she was just making it all up. With the benefit of hindsight we know that in this case she was absolutely correct (and the Wikipedia entry for BG&E2, until a recent edit, credited her for the initial reveal). While this is running the risk of turning into a defence of Surfer Girl’s tips and accuracy, I’ll add that credibility is a relevant issue for all game bloggers – for better or for worse, anyone on the internet can get a blogger account and say anything they like.

Another useful resource for assessing the accuracy of some of Surfer Girl’s rumours is this old thread from NeoGAF which details an extremely long list of the games she passed along rumours about along side their status as confirmed/unconfirmed/wrong. The confirmed and partially confirmed rumours seem to far out-weigh the incorrect ones. There are also a pair of posts by Simon Carless on GameSetWatch that discussed the relative merits of a few of her tidbits of information, as well as one that mentioned her secondary blog dedicated to un-released and un-announced games, ones that were cancelled and never saw a release. I get the impression that she empathised with the numerous people who poured their creative energies into those games only to see their creative fruits left to go to seed. She said in an interview that she was “fascinated by the sheer amount of creative things that go to waste.”

In one GSW post ruminating on her identity, she turns up to comment on Carless’ speculation about her identity and goes as far as using a proxy to disguise her IP address, showing her internet savvy. Her willingness to engage with her commenters and detractors was a characteristic of her blogging and she was candid in her answers to many of the questions posed in the comments of her blog. While she always remained anonymous, she shared with her readers an inordinate amount of her personality, opinions and insight. In the small number of interviews she conducted throughout her time as the videogame industry’s deep-throat, she came across (to me anyway) as a thoughtful and enigmatic character. In an interview with Destructoid, she mentioned the entrenched mysogynism present in the games industry. When asked what she thought was the root of the problem she said that,

…females in creative roles are still forced to output things that conform with male interests… We need females who are willing to express themselves. Jade Raymond is not doing anything remotely unique. Assassin’s Creed is great, but it is just another game. But then you have someone like Kellee Santiago with a passion and drive to do something different and something mind-blowing results.

As a commentator and critic of the industry she was passionately vocal about a number of issues, speaking out about originality, experimentation and innovation. In response to a question about she thought what was ‘holding back the industry’, she said,

Surfer Girl: Hesitancy, I’d eradicate that like Ron Paul wants to do with the federal government (like a crazy, crazy irresponsible man).

Destructoid: Do you mean hesitancy to embrace new ideas?

SG: Yes.

The posts on her site often reflected what N’Gai Croal would call an “innovation bias“, with commentary that often amounted to her chastising one publisher or another for their reliance on sequels and licensed fare – the predictable hits. Her sarcastic catch-cry, often added to the end of a piece of news that so-and-so developer was working on another game in a franchise was “Originality! Excelsior!” Like so much of the things Surfer Girl said, a multitude can be read into those two little words.

In November of 07, around the height of her fame, Surfer Girl revealed in a blog post that she had turned down a high-profile interview with a UK Playstation 3 magazine. She subsequently went uncredited when they published her rumours, and her reasoning for declining the opportunity was that she found the idea of a “technology magazine” printing a story about her blog on “dead trees” to be ironic and outdated, not least because it would take a month to get to print. The interviews she did conduct were with a Destructoid blogger, from which the above quotations are taken, as well as one with Logan Booker of Kotaku Australia. In both cases, she insisted on also conducting her own interview of the interviewee, an interesting personal quirk.

In her interview with Logan Booker, she revealed her disdain for MMOs, RPGs and licensed games, and even commented on the use of licensed music for games, saying:

In quite a number of RPGs there is what seems to be this library music that companies have had since the early nineties and have kept recycling for their games. It is the most irritating thing in video games.

When asked by Logan whether she ever had any interest in journalism, she mentioned that she was actually a journalism major in college, but that it was “not necessarily a career path” for her. One does wonder how she managed to become privy to her information and has only ever cited having “numerous sources” for her info. Perhaps even more peculiarly, in her Destructoid interview she revealed that “in a way” she was already in a position to have her ideas on games realised. It seems hard to reconcile that statement with the idea of Surfer Girl as being just a games journalist, and she stressed that she had never broken an NDA.

An interest in journalism and games journalism in particular, however, appeared in many of her posts. For example, she was one of the first bloggers/writers/critics I can recall raising the issue of journalistic integrity in games journalism. In this post from November 07, she talks about how Ubisoft allegedly pulled advertising arrangements that were in the order of magnitude of a five figure value from a website that posted unfavourable coverage of Assassin’s Creed (the website may or may not have been Eurogamer). Similarly, when the Jeff Gerstmann saga was coming to light, she made a post titled simply “Gerstmann” containing no text, only an image called “Gerstmannone.jpg” now long since lost to the ravages of time and the internet. Given her track record, you can expect it to have been a pithy commentary on the complex, vested interests at play within the field of professional games journalism.

Another characteristic of her tenure as a blogger was an emphasis on politics and she highlighted a number of controversial situations in politics on her blog, right alongside the game info. She discussed the Blackwater controversy amongst other political events of the period and in the last few months leading up to her final post added a Barack Obama banner to the bottom of each post.

Sometime after May 2008, Surfer Girl decided to delete her blog, and it has been gone for a good long while now. There still exists, however, a small record of her last few posts on Bloglines, a few searchable pages on The Internet Archive, as well as some quotes that exist on other websites in dusty old blog posts. Looking back over the last few in the lead up to her final farewell, the juxtaposition of inane requests for some new scrap of information about so-and-so game, on posts ostensibly about serious issues like the US election, torture and global politics gives me the impression that Surfer Girl was failing in her struggle against the current. Her stated desire was to use her blog to raise awareness of serious issues and, while I say this reluctantly, in comparison to something like North Korean nuclear ambitions, well, game’s don’t really rate on the same scale. Actually, I wish that they did, but I doubt you’ll change a dictator’s opinion by showing him Tropico or be able to eliminate third world hunger just by playing enough of Free Rice.

In her final post she echoes this sentiment, saying that she felt unsuccessful in her desire to use the platform she had to make gamers aware of more important issues. Her last post was headed by a music video of the French electronica duo Air and their song ‘Surfing on a Rocket’, and she left her readers with a series of bullet points which do well in summing up:

  • Please don’t devote coverage to this–focus on any of the plethora of more important things such as QoL [Quality of Life] issues.
  • Industryites, bad QoL situations will not get better by telling no one about them.
  • What was the point of this blog? Force folks to pay attention to important things going on in the real world and encourage them to become activists for social and political progress. I probably failed miserably, but at least I tried.
  • You cannot honestly be surprised that Doom 4 was announced, can you? I’m guessing you are the kind that will be shocked when things like Call of Duty 6, Diablo III, Hitman 5, Onimusha 5, Max Payne 3, the non-wagglefest starring those Rabbids, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 3, Sniper Studios’ Capcom title, Dynasty Warriors 8, NBA Street 5 and Turok 2 are announced.

Full of wit and character, Surfer Girl was never above self-parody or criticism of the games industry which she was so obviously a part. In more ways than just those outlined here, she was ahead of her time and I wonder what she would make of the explosion of interest in videogames beyond the enthusiast fare; what she would think of the Critical Distance project itself. I can’t help but imagine that she could be on-board with any efforts that worked against the industry’s notoriously hyperactive tendencies. Surfer Girl, if you’re still out there – I hope you’re still pushing the industry in the all right places.