This is a modified version of a post that first appeared on Meeple Like Us.
You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online. You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage, or on my profile at Robert Gordon University.
My post on the New Boardgame Journalism seemed to cause a bit of a stir, both for and against. That’s great. I think this is a conversation that boardgame media needs to have if it’s not going to end up rendered entirely obsolete by the gradual encroachment of professional media into the hobbyist space. As Polygon, Ars Technica, Kotaku and the like sink their claws ever deeper into tabletop we’re going to find it a lot harder to be relevant if we can’t offer anything distinctive. An indie press can certainly co-exist with a professional press but only if it’s offering something unique in comparison. We’ve got nothing holding us back, it’s beholden upon as a result to be innovative.
In response to a point made by the Thoughtful Gamer in his response to the article, I started a thread on Twittertalking about the idea of nostalgia and the New Games Journalism. It’s a fair point that often these pieces (particularly the ones that I cite most regularly) do come across as semi-indulgent exercises in personal hagiography. I linked Paul Dean’s spectacular piece on Stardew Valley as a near perfect example of the form. I mentioned Rab Florence and his reminiscences about Heroquest. Last month for the first Meeple Monthly Roundup I also mentioned a piece I should have referenced in my New Boardgame Journalism post – Brendan Caldwell and Pip Warr’s phenomenal article on the indie RPG Dog Eat Dog. All of these draw heavily from the well of nostalgia and personal experience – perhaps to the point that this could obscure the deeper meaning of the pieces. It’s easy to mistake experiential-based analysis for content that is merely personally reflective.
I thought I’d take a different tack with this followup post and do a kind of ‘New Games Journalism reader’ – an overview of why I think these pieces are important and worthy of attention, and why they do much more than simply attach a personal reading to a nostalgic relationship to a game. I think in each of these works what they say about the game has greater meaning and greater value by virtue of the author wrapping themselves up personally in the writing. The personal experience that threads through the text is not indulgent – it is fundamentally illuminating with regards to the themes and systems and meaning of the games they discuss.
Note here I cannot at all state that what I say about these pieces was the intended meaning, but that’s okay. It’s odd to say so but New Games Journalism, with all its apparent focus on the writer and the experiential dimension, is in many ways a spiritual successor to Roland Barthes’ and the Death of the Author. While NGJ pieces are often intensely personal, the meaning of the text will ideally transcend the individual on its way to something more universally applicable. While I believe Barthes wrong in asserting there is no author behind a text that doesn’t mean the author has final say on what a text means. The great thing about NGJ pieces is that we can have meaningful discussions about the meaning of the discussion.
The greatest pieces of NGJ may look on the surface like ‘This is my life and how it relates to a game’ but on a deeper level they’re all about communicating something truly important and relevant to the reader. It’s entirely possible you’ll read these analyses and think ‘Man, this guy is nothing but a smug, pretentious wanker’. That’s fair, because that’s exactly what I am. You might also think ‘Well, duh – all of that is obvious’ and I apologise if that’s the case. Please don’t let that obscure the truth that these are truly remarkable pieces of writing that are head and shoulders above the vast majority of what’s being produced in the tabletop media space. These are pieces of a quality and resonance to which we should all aspire.
A Year in Stardew Valley: Life, Labour and Love. Paul Dean.
If I’m happy about anything that has come about from my piece on the New Boardgame Journalism it’s that it sent around a hundred people from the site to this extraordinary piece of writing from Paul Dean. The cachet of this Stardew Valley retrospective has grown considerably since it was published a year ago – its quality is in my view is self-evident and its enduring popularity is a sign of that. Even at the time I realised this was something special. It instantly took my breath away.
The question of why it’s so special though may not be immediately apparent because on the surface it looks very much like a kind of convenient ‘what I did on my holidays’ piece of ephemera. A slightly closer look will reveal the biographical details that thread through it, linking it tightly into the context of Paul Dean’s life. In this, it doesn’t matter what Paul is saying about his own history – the honesty or clarity of perception by itself is irrelevant in the context of a piece of game coverage. This approach could so easily be trite. It could so easily be masturbatory. In less capable hands it would have been both of those things. With Paul Dean though this lens of personal experience becomes profoundly illuminating about Stardew Valley and what it says about games and what they in turn say about life and vice versa.
Go read the piece. Seriously. I’ll work on the assumption from this point here that you’ve read it.
If you’re more of a fan of the descriptive form of game media you’ll undoubtedly think it’s about ten times as long as it needs to be. It repeats itself in structure, and sometimes in content. It’s rambling, unfocused – misty eyed rather than clear sighted. All of that is true, but only because every part of it is interwoven in a way designed to have structural form mirror the analytical content. You could say the same thing in fewer words but the structure here is on emphasis of patterns. This is a piece that has rhythm.
Look at the common themes in the article. Young Paul in real life finds himself in a societal context where the patterns of self-sabotage constantly keep people trapped. Paul’s farmer is also trapped in a societal context where he is constantly self-sabotaging his own success. The exploitative patterns of labour that keeps Paul in both scenarios from achieving what he wanted are a consequence of the systemic design of Stardew Valley. Repetition, failure, set-backs and the need to constantly grind at the wheel keeps people from striving for self-actualisation. In this the article makes a powerful point – systems of effort are really systems of time, and systems of money can compensate for both. Few of us have as much of any of those as we would want. Some people, by virtue of their circumstances, simply have an easier time with things because they have more of the economic capital available. This is economic system that can break the unfortunate down and explicitly because the escape routes often require more of these fungible resources than life will provide.
Paul’s farmer in Stardew Valley inherited a farm – a dark inverted mirror of the lack of privilege he experienced in his own life. Paul the Farmer escaped the rat-race of his city life, but Real Paul had to work for it and work hard. Fictional Paul brought with him a privilege that is astonishing in comparison to others in the village but it still presents an exhausting obligation. Real Paul marveled at the comparative riches of his fellow students and how they were largely inoculated from any consideration of the wealth dynamics their lifestyles represented. This highlights the key lessons in Stardew Valley in terms of how privilege manifests in real life – all economic and game mechanisms reinforce that basic observation. The systems within which we operate are intensely asymmetrical. Advantage is not shared. Privilege is not uniform. And yet, we all somehow see ourselves as the victims of society, even those with least about which they can reasonably complain. We’re all on the hedonic treadmill and sometimes we don’t look around to see what speed others are going.
See how Paul discusses the relationship between Stardew Valley and Slough, and how self-deprecation emerges as a natural consequence of a society that believes unremarkable places will inherently produce unremarkable people. That’s a hugely important point made early in the piece so as to set the groundwork for the real revelatory elements to follow. Stardew Valley is a ‘compromise of a place that has no culture and no character. There isn’t much to do in town except drink’. He’s talking about the real world, but in doing so he illuminates the reality of Pumpkin Town. It’s a sad place really – devoid of any genuine character and representative of no real culture. It’s a twee place. And there isn’t much to do in town except drink. Penny, one of the characters in Stardew Valley, mournfully reflects in one piece of dialogue that she’ll probably never see much of the world outside of the town. There’s nothing stopping her except her own assumptions of inadequacy. An internal cringe that says ‘You can’t be anybody because you’re not from anywhere that matters’
Paul talks about the distance that comes along with ‘getting out’ of an unremarkable environment, and how that’s often as much an emotional distance as it is physical. He talks of the mother character in Stardew Valley – observed only in an occasional mail as a fretting parent that doesn’t want to be a burden. You can’t talk to your mother. You can’t reply to her mails. Her profound sadness at this disconnection comes through in her occasional missives, and eventually she just… stops getting in touch. How true is that of many people, and many lives? How many of us truly stayed connected with the people that were important to us in our youth? And those of us that did – what did we sacrifice to ensure that connection? We are still a largely tribal species, and core to that is the idea that there are ‘people like us’ and ‘people not like us’. To become a remarkable person is to alienate yourself from unremarkable places.
Meanwhile there you are – in Stardew Valley, a world that has a darkness that is hidden behind the twee picket fences and quaint architecture. Penny is emotionally abused by her mother, and still bound up in her care obligations for a woman drinking herself into oblivion after her redundancy. Her mother gets her job back eventually, if you arrange it. She never seems especially happy about it. Linus lives in a camp on the outskirts of town and must go foraging through the trash for meals. He’s caught by the saloon keeper who tells him he’ll give him a hot meal any time he asks. That’s nice, but you can’t help but notice nobody makes an effort to actually include Linus in any of the town’s festivities. ‘Someone threw rocks at my tent during the night’, Linus confides to me at one point. He’s left alone except for those times when he really wants that to happen. He’s welcome to charity, but not welcome to companionship. Linus is not ‘people like us’ and this is a town where conformity is reinforced through every action in the game. The people of Pumpkin Town don’t bend to meet you, they expect you to bend to meet them.
You only get the briefest glimpses of the personal vignettes that are associated with the denizens of Pumpkin Town because this is a place where you’re very much an outsider. They worry about how you’re going to fit in. You’re an outsider in every other life in the town until you’ve literally bought your way into their confidences. We can relate because we are all outsiders in someone’s lives and the buy-in, be it time or treasure, is more than we can maintain for long. Friendships decay. In Stardew Valley, they tick down as an integer.
It’s difficult to be seen as anything other than a caricature in Stardew Valley because that’s what everyone is. The systems enforce this. The ‘friendship’ mechanisms render everything down to an economic transaction. You don’t have conversations with people in Stardew Valley. You have vending machine style insights. You are never truly a factor in the lives of other people, even the ones that you gradually cultivate into your best friends and eventually spouses. The people Paul encounters in his university life are very much like this – he’s an outsider there as much as he is in Pumpkin Town. Their privilege keeps him at a distance – he can’t buy into their lifestyles.
“I spend my evenings counting pennies like a fucking cartoon character. I’m not ready for how much everything costs. Everything costs money, time and energy and I never have any of these.”
And this is all very bleak, and so it should be. When you scratch away the veneer of Stardew Valley’s cutesy aesthetics you find it’s something considerably darker and more reflective of real life. It’s easy to miss unless you had someone hold up a mirror to the mechanisms with reference to their own meandering experience. That mirror is important because it’s doing something powerful behind the scenes. This isn’t just ‘Look here’s my life, and here’s how a game reflects it’. This is building a connection to the reader by hinting at the core message of the article – ‘You can learn to live a better life by understanding Stardew Valley’.
Within all this bleakness though Paul’s article is deeply hopeful. Stardew Valley is characterised by shallow interactions within contrived conversational circumstances. In that, again, it mirrors how we behave in real life. We’re all in a massive network of weak ties and we don’t always take the time we need to strengthen them into something more meaningful. Our day to day lives are webs of casual encounters and pleasantries. We rarely go deeper. And it’s at this point the article starts to really develop its core thesis and reveals Paul isn’t talking about the characters in Stardew Valley. He’s talking to the readers.
Paul talks of the kid in Pumpkin Town that wants to be a football star but never practices. He talks of how he wants to shout at the kid to get out of Stardew Valley, get out before it kills him. To stop being the best in an undistinguished location and try to be the best in somewhere he’ll be challenged. On the face of it this is a gesture of futility – the game doesn’t permit you the tools to have that discussion. He can’t be heard, because the game won’t let him speak.
That’s fine, because it doesn’t matter if a character in a video game listens to that message. Paul’s conversation with Alex is important because he’s saying something to us as the reader. He’s just saying it through the medium of a conversation he wants to have within the game. It would be preachy for him to address the reader thusly, but the message gets heard because we can see the truth reflected back at us. Paul’s early digressions into his childhood aren’t just indulgent asides – they’re building the credibility he needs to make the points he needs us to hear. And all throughout he’s doing it explicitly in relationship to the systemic design of Stardew Valley. Nowhere does he present this as ‘This is why you should listen to me’. He doesn’t have to – in talking about the game in relation to himself he talks about himself in relation to us.
Later, Paul talks of Elliott – the writer who never writes. ‘I have met people like him before. I never have the option to tell Elliott that writing is like farming, that it is slow and hard and if he made an effort every day he would produce something in the end’
It’s okay that Paul can’t say that to Elliott because Elliott doesn’t matter. Elliott is the stand-in for everyone reading. If you want to be a writer, write. It’s hard, it’s slow, it takes time and effort but you can do it. Paul’s talking explicitly as a farmer to a wannabe writer, except he’s not because Elliott isn’t real and Elliott can’t listen. He’s talking to us through the medium of the game and the game’s themes. Farming is hard. It’s exhausting. It’s full of systems of doubt and pain and punishment but just go out there and do it. You want to write? Then write.
Later still Paul talks of Leah – the quiet, shy but accomplished woman who is doing exactly what he says Elliott should do. She’s working hard at something she loves – not to be ‘an artist’ but to produce work that she feels exemplifies her own artistic impulses. In attempting to be true to herself, her work is adored by others. And within that she still makes time for other people – for Paul – because real talent isn’t an excuse for being an asshole.
All of that in this twee sandbox of twee adventures – all these secret sadnesses and hardships hidden behind the façade of ‘arms distance’ unfamiliarity – there’s still hope for Farmer Paul. And that matters, because Farmer Paul is Paul Dean. We understand that because the entire article has been discreetly curled around that central proposition without ever aggressively signposting it.
That’s why this article is extraordinary. It’s not simply because it makes a connection between Paul Dean and Stardew Valley. It’s that it makes a connection between us and Stardew Valley through the medium of Paul Dean.
This article is so good that I want it read out at my funeral instead of a eulogy. It’s an epistle cast as a retrospective on a game that tells us much through the contrivances of its mechanics and it couldn’t have been written by anyone but Paul Dean.
Cardboard Children: Heroquest & More. Rab Florence.
Rab Florence occupies a rare space in my life in that he’s a games writer who can make me cry. This article made me cry a lot the first time I read it. While I have you here, let me send you to sign up to his Patreon for Cast the Bones. It’s about as unique a proposition for board game media as I could possibly imagine.
This is a much shorter, much simpler piece that doesn’t attempt to make any great points about society and the destructive economic systems within it. It doesn’t argue that Heroquest holds up a mirror to our reality and lets us see ourselves reflected in it. Instead, this piece addresses something else – the importance of play and how we use and misuse it. It’s really easy to dismiss this again as a piece about nostalgia because in the end it doesn’t even matter that it’s ostensibly about Heroquest. The game literally could not matter less in the context of the writing. It could have been any game – literally any game. That it was Heroquest is a biographical feature of Rab’s life. It’s not the point of the work.
Nostalgia is certainly the framing here but its nostalgia in its most universal sense. It makes us feel like we were there because, barring a few minor specific details such as names and places, we almost certainly were.
“And I have HeroQuest laid out on it. Everything is assembled. My friends are here. Graham Hannah is here. Matthew Cook is here. Spiel is here. You don’t know any of these people, and I barely know them these days, but I loved them and love them and so they’re here.”
We don’t know them, but that doesn’t matter. We knew people like them. We knew people that would occupy their space in the narrative. We knew and loved them once and now we barely think about them because life is a constant river that forever takes us onwards. The people that were so close to us in youth are barely shadows now – maybe an all but forgotten friend on Facebook or the source of an occasional text if we’re lucky. They were bright, vibrant and important then. They’re not any more but other people have moved in to fill the spaces they once occupied. You leave spaces in the lives of others, and others still have come in and filled those spaces in your absence. They are important now. You can’t reach back and hug the people in your past but you’ve got people right here with you now and you should remember that nothing lasts forever.
And that’s important, because people don’t last forever and they can be gone before you know it.
My da downstairs, never complaining about the noise. Thump! Bang! Teenagers Jackie Channing each other. Sammo Hunging each other. Screaming “THIS! IS MY BOOMSTICK!”
No complaints. Him downstairs. Me here.
Him there. Me here. Christ, that brings an ache to my heart because while my own father has been dead almost twenty years I still occasionally think of all the times I could have spent with him but prioritized something else. Him there. Me here. I could have made the time for him, more easily, more freely. Maybe he was fine with being left to his own devices – we were close, but that closeness had cracks in it because life is a river. Maybe though he would have liked it if I had made more of an effort to involve him in my own passions. We shared a lot of interests, but as he and I grew older they would only come together in casual intersection.
You can take Heroquest out of this piece entirely. Replace it with your own game. Your own friends. Your own parent. You need though to replace it with a game or the whole thing makes no equivalent sense.
The lesson of the piece will be the same – games matter because we set time aside to enjoy the company of the people in our lives. When we were young we wasted time on games because we had an infinite amount of it. Now we spend time with games because it’s important. It’s meaningful. It’s an explicit choice to take pleasure in the people around us in a world that needs us to do too much and gives us nowhere near enough time to do it. There is always something more important you could be doing than playing a game with your friends. The fact you’re not doing it is something to cherish.
Tomorrow is the first anniversary of my da’s death. It brings me some comfort to know that he lives in that house forever, singing in the kitchen, dozing in the chair.
This article is a call to arms – to cherish the time you have with people and the privilege you have in spending that time in the pursuit of triviality we call gaming. In reality this piece is the literal opposite of nostalgia – it’s intensely focused on the here and now. Nobody but Rab Florence could have written this article.
Review: Dog Eat Dog. Shut up and Sit Down.
This is another piece of intensely self-reflective work on a game that manages to say something entirely different. This time it’s about discomfiture and identity, and the cultural hegemony within which we find ourselves immersed in as children. It’s also a piece that explicitly isn’t designed to be universal but instead very specific. I can’t say the experience of being a Scot in Britain is the same as being Irish in Britain – it’s just not at all true and it would be nonsense to claim otherwise. However, I can say that there is a resonance to this piece that will chime with anyone that has felt themselves at odds with the dominant culture in which they function. This review is about how games can be more important than engines for fun and can make us confront things within ourselves and our pasts. It also beautifully expresses the often asymmetrical impact of games that are designed to teach profound lessons about systemic injustice. That’s a thing that you can just come out and say and an overly analytical asshole like me will nod sagely and stroke his beard. Mmmm, we’ll say. MMmm, yes. Impact. Injustice. Asymmetrical. Insightful point, what.
But Brendan here does more than that. He takes you to the conclusion by giving you a seat in the audience for his own reflections. He’s not making a point here that has historical merit or geographical context. He’s instead highlighting the impact the game had on him, and on Pip, and on Quinns. As a consequence of that he takes in the sweep of history and the context of geography. Three different people. Three different frames of reference. Three different experiences, all of which were equivalently disquieting because of the psychological context that was set by their respective childhoods. For Brendan, it forced him to reflect on what he lost of his Irish heritage to English imperialism.
“But ours has been a colonialism effective enough for me to often look at myself and wonder: what am I? I do not feel English and when people ask me where I’m from, I say I am Irish. But the sad truth is that I am closer to being an Englishman than any generation of Irish people was before.”
I live in a country that is constantly at war with itself for the heart of its identity – those drawn towards the homogenization of the British sense of self and those like myself that see ourselves as Scottish first, British not at all. I can empathise with Brendan’s concerns, and the constant impact they have on my own life. It’s a hundred small things expressed in a hundred small ways. None of them are large enough to be a millstone around my neck but together add up to what was a profound sense of disconnect between myself and my environment. I’m more comfortable in my skin now than I was when I was younger, but I once cringed at any conception that to be Scottish was as valid as to be British.
“I am not a patriot, nor a nationalist. I dislike the idea of the country, the super-tribe, even if I concede it is a thing which must exist. But there is something deep in me, like so many Irish people, that resents imperialism in general and British imperialism in particular. It is a history that has been largely addressed and the political wreckage of that history is not the worst among the nations of the world. But it is the history that has affected me.”
Here Brendan is echoing in large part the call of the modern Scottish independence movement – ‘not because we are better than other people, but because we are just as good as other people’. It’s a national identity that grows not out of oppression in its technical sense but out of the reaction against a constant imposition of inferiority. That your literature isn’t as good. Your poets are not as important. Your history isn’t as significant. Your language isn’t as real. Dog Eat Dog is a game that is about confronting and manipulating systems of inferiority and oppression and it’s inevitable as a result that it would stir up a great amount of very personal feeling.
The way for the natives to win in Dog Eat Dog is to essentially render their oppressors unnecessary. The legacy of British imperialism was to create frameworks of weaponize disharmony – to create bureaucratic and explicitly ethnic castes that would fight amongst themselves rather than against their common oppressor. In the end, in Dog Eat Dog, you win by abandoning your own cultural autonomy in exchange for a shallow political ‘independence’. As Terry Pratchett put it in Interesting Times:
“The Empire’s got something worse than whips all right. It’s got obedience. Whips in the soul. They obey anyone who tells them what to do. Freedom just means being told what to do by someone different.”
This review of Dog Eat Dog addresses something deep and important by virtue of its relationship to Brendan Caldwell. How the themes it addresses were so powerful that he almost cried because of an ineffable sense of loss regarding his Irish identity. In the end his natives not only made the whips for the oppressors, they willingly wielded them inside their own culture and pretended it was their idea in the first place. In the final reckoning the culture that you end up with is as sure a product of the oppressors as it would have been if it had been enforced from without. You could talk about these themes without reference to a personal history. You couldn’t give them the same emotional impact.
Pip’s response to the game in comparison is, as she put it, ‘the discomfort of the historically privileged’. It wasn’t the visceral and gut-wrenching loss of Irish identity within a context of abstracted assimilation. It was the discomfort of being the inheritor of a legacy that Pip (presumably) had no part in shaping. It was a worry of being culturally obtuse, or inadvertently patronising. It was the unease that goes with inheriting the legacy of colonialism. It might seem like a lesser form of confrontation but bear in mind… there were real people around the table and they were each experiencing this game from an entirely different cultural perspective. You could say ‘This game makes people think about things from a different cultural perspective’, but that’s not even close to having the same degree of effectiveness as this deeply experiential account.
Nobody but Brendan and Pip could have written this review.
I’m not claiming for a moment that these are the only ways to read these pieces, or that I’ve even managed to capture a fraction of what makes them so interesting to me. I’m not trying to imply that I’ve managed to read some impressively insightful message into the texts or that I think this is the only valid way anyone could have spoken about these games.
What I’m trying to say here is that these pieces focus on the writer’s experience rather than the mechanisms and features of the games they were supposedly discussing. As a result they are much richer than they would have otherwise been. They’re more universal, more reflective, and I think much more interesting because they shine a light of insight that radiates from inside each writer. The pieces are brighter, warmer and more intense than any other form of reporting would have permitted. Importantly, even while on the surface they may seem to be about the writer, the writer merely serves as a conduit. They are not writing about themselves. They’re writing about us. They just have the good grace to trust that we’ll be able to work that out without being told. The best kind of NGJ is inherently respectful – it trusts you to see beyond the surface text and how that text relates to your own life.
What do you think? Any pieces you have found that deserve special mention? Disagree with anything in these close readings I’ve put above? I’d be interested to know your thoughts – comment below!