We don’t need more “Phil Fish”s

Since Phil’s departer from game design, I’ve heard many people in the industry defend him saying we need more people like him. Most notably CliffyB, but we also have articles like Ben Kuchera’s article on why you want assholes designing your games.

No. We don’t need more assholes. No, we don’t need more people like Phil Fish. Indie devs like Blow and Rorher say stuff that create drama all the time… yet neither of them are nearly as reviled as Fish is. Phil Fish doesn’t ‘deserve’ the treatment he’s gotten. No one deserves to be harassed by thousands of people for stuff said about videogames. But he definitely earned it. He cultivated it. I’ve seen it pointed out during the famous “Japanese games suck” incident that people were surprised that it wasn’t Jonathan Blow that ended up under fire. Phil was being glib to move the conversation. The reason it spiraled for Fish and not Blow is because Fish embraced his drama. He acted above it while deeply wading in it. Stuff like his comments about the PC version of Fez was basically either intentionally inflammatory or massively out of touch. When you’re the single most reviled person in the indie scene, we don’t need more of you.

Fez worked for people. You can’t fairly say Phil was bad at what he did (though you can still criticize it). It probably would have been better to have more of what he did. But his abrasive personality was by far his most defining feature. Jonathan Blow is know for being abrasive too — but not in the same way. Blow speaks his mind frankly and often from a weird perspective. Blow is brutal. Blow gets his reputation for his convictions. Phil Fish has it… because he’s a dick?

So why want more Fishs when we can want so many other indie creators?

Why be Phil Fish when you can be Jonathan Blow instead? Why be Phil Fish when you can be Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes? Why be Phil when you can be Bennett Foddy or Doug Wilson? Cactus, Rorher, Auntie fucking Pixelante? Why not be Konjak, or Derek Yu… Pixel or Niffles? Why not be DanC, or Chris Hecker? Why not be Terry Cavanagh? He has a great accent! Why not be Jenova Chen? Hell, why aim small. Why not be Hideo Kojima, a Hidetaka Miyazaki, or a Hideki Kamiya? Why not more of whatever you are? Just try not to be a dick!

This list could go on forever. Almost no one on this list is beyond criticism. I surely disagree with everyone here about something. Some of them make some people (including me) very mad sometimes. But their games speak louder than their twitter accounts (well maybe not Kamiya’s…). Brilliant artists might often be abrasive, but we don’t need to forgive them for it. Teaching someone to shut their mouth or so sympathy or empathy will not make them a worse artist. We don’t need more asshole worship.

With all the amazing role-models in game design, no one should be looking at someone like Phil Fish and going “I need to be that”. Fish’s value as a role-model is to teach you want not to do. He made the mistakes for you and he paid the price for you. As much as I don’t like Phil, I might even say it isn’t fair that he paid the price for all of us. But he did and it says something very clearly.

Don’t be like Phil Fish.

Nostalgia

Everyone has nostalgia for something, from playing with your friend down the block, to the meal your grandmom used to make, to the artifacts of our childhood. In the world of the internet the word seems to come up most when talking about video games. Everything old is “fueled by nostalgia”. Games like IWBTG are, apparently, nostalgia trips for 20-somethings who miss the games and the difficulty of their youth. In a sense, this is true. A lot of us go and download ro~ I mean buy Virtual Console versions of games we played in our childhood to relive our childhood. I mean, who would play these games now? Certainly not young kids!

… Yet this isn’t quite true. As I’ve mentioned before, the I Wanna Be the Guy forums were never filled with mid-late 20-somethings pining for the classics. The forum was filled with high-schoolers. I’ve asked them on occasion ‘hey why do you play these old games’ and the answer has pretty much been consistent… Because they’re free and really good. That’s a lot better than you can say about the quality of games on newgrounds. So amazingly, I had a forum full of kids who knew the references in IWBTG and played those games even though those games came out before they were even born.

Should we be surprised about this? I doubt most of the people who read my blog would be surprised, but I think you all know people who would be. Why? We have kids buying LPs of bands far before their time and playing the music on vintage equipment. We got upcoming film students falling in love with old black and white movies. Many people have favorite books written spectacularly long ago.

The past is not superior. The past is valid. The past is ripe and rich for examination. Contemporary media is a puzzle we enjoy and piece together and opine about in a tricky way. We don’t know what will withstand the scrutiny of time. The past, on the other hand, has been meticulously cultivated so we can easily find its best bits. In the now, you’ll get a good album, book or movie every so often. When you dig into the past though, time is compressed, leaving a dense layer of goodness. Even if you exhaust that layer, the past is so dense there is plenty to discover. We make an assumption that because something lacks quality in certain areas (graphics, usually) that no one will ever be able to go back and enjoy it. Why should we assume this? We do this all the time even with contemporary media. Or mobile games look worse than our console games. Our TV shows look worse than our movies. We are able to accept these limitations as long as the core of what we’re consuming is good. I have a friend under 20 who’s only been really playing games for 3 years and talks about games like Super Metroid, Final Fantasy 9 and the original Metal Gear Solid, all while he plays and enjoys modern games. I’ve heard one of my favorite podcasters, John Siracusa, talk about having his kids play old N64 games. According to him, they don’t notice the dated graphics. They also want their 4:3 TV programming stretched to fill the whole screen. We’re less discerning about these things than we seem inclined to assume!

As silly as it might sound, I don’t find myself feeling much nostalgia. The old retro games I love now are games I couldn’t stand as a kid (Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania). Many of my favorite NES games of my childhood are almost unplayable to me now (The original Legend of Zelda). The generation I was born into shaped me and informed my tastes and values, but ultimately it’s about the quality of the games I’m playing and not the emotions I ascribe to them. If I’m playing an old game, I give it some leeway on some things, just like I woul an old movie, regardless of whether it was part of my childhood or not.

Then theres the pixel art aesthetic. I know many young kids who make pixel art games. Many film students, pre-digital, also made Black and White movies. The reason is because pixel art isn’t the aesthetic of the past, it’s the aesthetic of accessibility. It survives in a form detached from modern times. People of my generation pine for scanlines, and screen curvature and color bleed. Modern young game makers employ them for the opposite reason. Pixel art is crisp and clean. It’s sharp edges and straight lines look beautiful in HD (Where pixel art on a console on your TV will look like crap). High res, beautifully illustrated sprites look even better, but they’re prohibitive. Unless you’re the guy who made Dust, you’re not doing that by your self. Old men get mad that modern indie games don’t get pixel art right for all those reasons I said above. They buy high end CRTs or upscalers and other equipment to capture the perfect look of their childhood… and that’s fine, but the modern pixel art movement is more important. Pixel art is not about nostalgia. Pixel art is a -modern aesthetic-. Crisp, yet lo-fi. a retro throwback, with modern sensibilities. It borrows from the past, but it is not the past.

The most ironic part of all of this is the ones most likely to deride something as just a nostalgia trip are people of the generation who could feel nostalgia for it in the first place. It seems almost like ‘nostalgia guilt’. We assumed the things we loved as a kid are not worth loving. Sometimes we’re right, but I see more old gamers trick themselves into thinking that enjoying older games is an immature frivolity, even when the younger generation is beginning to dig into our old libraries.

Nostalgia can sometimes trap us in our youth, but the past in ALL art forms is littered with gems. Don’t assume it’s nostalgia. Sometimes something is just good.

How We Might Enjoy Things Differently: Internal vs External

Two artists get two different phones. One gets an iPhone. Beautiful and perfect out of the box. The other get’s some android phone. It’s gross and has awful pre-installed garbage on it so he roots it, flashes the rom, spends hours customizing widgits. The result probably isn’t as good as Apple’s best offering. The artist with the Apple Phone asks why the artist with the android phone would buy such a shoddy, poorly designed device. The Artist with the android phone asks why would he buy a phone where he can’t express them self.

Neither of these artists are inherently more artistic than the other. They prioritize things differently. The first person wants to surround themselves with well designed things. They want everything they own to be expertly designed and use their knowledge to choose well. He is externally minded. His phone isn’t about him. His phone and it’s design is about the phone. He shows his taste by having what he thinks is the best, most well designed phone. To the second, everything he owns his about him and a tool to use to express himself. He is internally minded. Instead of wanting a universally well designed phone, he wants exactly what he wants. This doesn’t necessarily mean gaudy and garish and filled with pictures of his dogs. Perhaps it’s high contrast minimalism, vs iOS7’s pastel minimalism. Maybe it’s the same style, but the Internally Minded artist still wants it to be his.

As a person in the second camp who’s often defending my self from people in the first camp I’ve always found this divide interesting and I think it might apply to more than just artists and what they look for (in the case of phones, inherently good design vs control), but perhaps how we enjoy all media. This also isn’t a dichotomy. Plenty of people fall in in the middle and you can also want both traits. We might also approach different types of things differently, but whatever.

So let’s talk about literature (though this can apply to any story driven media). I’ve often read people talk about the ‘meaning’ of a book and what it’s trying to say. They will deride books written with no inherent thesis or will try and manufacture meaning where it doesn’t exist. Some books definitely serve themselves better to this sort of study, but others (Anything by Stephen King, for example, who sorta just writes has he goes with only very basic planning) really don’t. But what’s the opposite of the externally minded reader? It’s not as clear cut as the design example. Still, I think the difference is that the internally minded person is driven more by things like curiosity and wonder and characters. External analysis talks about the author and what he’s trying to say. Internal talks about how we feel and how we relate to it and what it makes us curious about. If we were to talk about the extreme version of internal enjoyment, we’d talk about people writing fanfiction and roleplaying fan characters. They literally are taking a degree of personal ownership over the work. This compared to the far end of external analysis, which is cold and clinical. How you felt doesn’t matter — if you don’t get why something was written the way it was, you’re “missing the point”. Who understands the meaning of the story better? The person who has deciphered the authors opinions, or the person who gleams a personal truth? Personally, I pass no judgement.

I even see the same thing in games. Different games have different capacities for self-expression. A Sudoku has no player expression. You solve it and each successful move you make is the same one anyone else who’s succeeding would make, with skill being the only differenting factor. Tetris is highly driven by optimized play, so skill is again almost key, though some players of the same skill level may make different decisions and express different styles and have slightly different strengths and weaknesses, ultimately it’s not very expressive. Something simple like Mario is very expressive. Situations can be approached many different ways and as long as you’re not speedrunning it, you can approach the game a ton of different ways. Then you have games like Devil May Cry which have moves and techniques that are, strictly speaking, unnecessary, but exist because the game wishes to give the players the ability to play stylistically. Fighting games can have two players of similar skill level playing a character two totally different ways. Stuff that seems useless and redundant to some designers/players is critical to other. This is also probably why we see a big divide in the effectiveness of plots in games. Those searching for perfectly well constructed thematic stories are often disappointed, while those who deeply indulge themselves in the worlds they play in become heavily invested.

I might be full of shit with all of this, but even if I’m not, I’m not sure what good any of it is. Still, the next time you argue with someone and it seems like they’re coming at the subject from an entirely different world, this might be why. This, or maybe a million other different reasons. Still, felt the need to put this out there.