It is cold in Edinburgh. Discarded Christmas trees decorate the city’s streets, streets that run to grey infinity. Passing inside becomes a ritual, layers of clothes shed to reveal fragile creatures clad in jackets and jumpers. In one of these shelters I met with Cara Ellison, itinerant video game journalist.
What follows is a meandering chat about Cara, games, and games journalism. This is a Pint and a Chat with Cara Ellison.
Cara Ellison first brushed up against the world of video games back in the good old days, nestled amongst the collections of stuff in her bedroom. “Growing up my room was the biggest room in the house which meant it was where all the household junk got left. A lot of the stuff that my dad was into went there… you know, tech gadgets and stuff. Amongst all this was the BBC Micro, my first exposure to computer games. I played a lot of text games. I tried my hand at Elite but, like everyone else, I found some… frustration in docking my ship. I always missed by a mile. But my first game was this really difficult adventure game, Acheton. This also was at a time that I wished I could read better… I always thought about text games in that way. I need to learn how to read better, I need to expand my vocabulary, I need to understand what makes the machine work.
I was never a console gamer really, I was primarily just a magazine reader. I used to play NES games at a friend’s house a few streets away. Street Fighter 2, things like that. They used to get PC Zone and I’d read that, they’d occasionally have PC Gamer but mostly PC Zone because that was way more anarchic and irreverent… I suppose it was a kinda gross magazine.” I say something about how this approach to games journalism seems to have evaporated. Today it’s reduced down to buyer’s guides. Here is a game, these are it’s features, buy this game.. “Yeah, PC Zone was mostly just a place for jokes, and prank calls, stuff like that. So I think that long before we ever got a PC at home I was always a PC gamer at heart purely from reading PC Zone.”
“When we first got a computer I used to play things like Dungeon Keeper and Theme Park, but I think the first time I’d ever seen a 3D game, you know a proper 3D game was when my uncle left this disc next to our computer. I think he actually left it by accident but… it was a copy of Tomb Raider. Just getting it to run on our terrible computer took an hour or so because at the start it just would not work, artefacts all over the place.” We laugh at how fitting this is for Tomb Raider. “And even when I got it to work it wouldn’t run the cinematics in the game, so I never really understood why Lara Croft was there or who she really was. I think that added a lot to her story, I feel like she is a better person for not having the cinematics. And Lara was such a ’90s girl, just really pleased with herself and confident… I mean she just had massive breasts and guns. She just didn’t care, and I think there was definitely a value in that.
So, yeah, Tomb Raider had a big effect on me because I started to realise that games were mysterious. Games like Dungeon Keeper are top down so you can see basically everything, and from that you tinker with this machine to make stuff work. Tomb Raider was more like the text adventures I used to play… there’s this element of mystery, the impenetrable environment where you have to solve puzzles to get around. The idea is to navigate through this space. So I think Tomb Raider definitely made me into a person who liked video games, into someone who would always like them. Firstly it was a female character, and secondly it was an environment made for that female character. I felt like I belonged.”
The Long Road to Success
We turn to the question of whether a love of video games is enough to write about them. “Well I always say that you have to be a good writer first and then have an interest in video games. If you’re not a good writer then no-one’s going to want to read it. It takes a lot of practice, a lot of rejection.” I say about how the internet is full of voices, people putting stuff out there who expect to just be picked up, to be discovered. “Really you just have to pitch. A lot. Editors don’t have time to search through the internet for the best writers, they need people to pitch. I mean, even if you’re just competent and you pitch the right article on the right topic at the right time an editor will probably be like sure, write it.
I always warn people that a lot of writing about games is reliant on young writers being underpaid or not paid at all. These websites rely on writers working their asses off. They’re going to exploit that, chew you up and spit you out. You’ll end up totally burnt out. Sure you’ll have something small to show for it, but it’s not going to lead to fame or riches. It’s certainly not going to lead to riches.”
We end up talking about how people can survive writing interesting features and not just entering the news and PR machine that make up the majority of games journalism. “I think it’s one of those problems that’s only going to be solved by having some kind of payment model where there is actually decent money going to games journalism. Then you can actually retain, train, and have room for staff that are actually good at their jobs. But I’m not convinced that’s going to happen within the next 10 years, it’s going to be difficult for certain.”
We move on to Cara’s life before entering the games journalism machine. “So I had a kind of weird career path. I was doing English Literature at university and I thought that the one way I could avoid coming out the other end and becoming a teacher was to go into publishing. So I did that for a while, working as an editorial assistant in a publishing house. Then there came the slow realisation that someone would probably have to die for me to be able to become someone who was working in editorial full time. So then I applied to be in QA at Rockstar. I was there for a year before my contract ended, GTA IV came out and I think I realised that I didn’t really want to be in AAA games in that kind of role. It’s one of the hardest jobs in development, completely software based and it requires an amazing attention to detail, a kind of dogged attitude coupled with really good analytical skills. I think English Literature is actually really good at teaching these skills, and I’ll always defend that but I couldn’t see myself working there for any longer than I already had.
So I left Rockstar and the games industry behind, and joined the JET programme teaching English in Japan. So I lived over there for a while and loved it, the culture was great, the food was great and I lived in this kind of semi-tropical paradise. Although, once I learned Japanese, I got bogged down in the fact that I was hearing all these quite sexist, racist things going on around me. They were all totally inadvertent, not meant to hurt me or other people, but I eventually realised that kind of conservative attitude was kind of killing me a little bit. It’s all just embedded into the culture in a way that Westerners aren’t really expecting. So there were these expectations of the way that I would behave and I found it very hard to get out of that stencil so I had to leave, but I loved a lot of things about Japan and I miss it very much.
I left this steady pay check in Japan and came back to Edinburgh where it was the worst time ever, the economy had collapsed and there were no jobs at all. I applied for so many jobs I was massively overqualified for and got rejected. I ended up working a job at Gamestation before it closed down, a part-time job not quite making my rent. They wouldn’t promote me to full-time because they were afraid I might leave so I was left in this limbo where I wasn’t really getting paid enough. The job was terrible but it gave me this network of friends who were all university age, all hilarious and filled with this optimism and excitement. They thought my stories about Japan were cool, and I had a really good time with them. The job was shit but you had this amazing place for stories and meeting people. I still idolise those days.”
We bitch and moan about generation rent for a while, before moving onto how Cara actually managed to get her rent. “Well I was desperate, I needed to pay my rent so I applied for this job at the Japanese consulate. I worked there for a while on contract, I was organising events, live translating and stuff like that. It was difficult and there was a lot of pressure but I managed to do it pretty well.
But really, I’d always wanted to work at the BBC, and after leaving university I must have applied every month. They must have eventually got sick of me because I finally got an interview at Radio 4 and then they employed me. So I packed up and moved to London, working there for a bit. Unfortunately the BBC has all these structures and barriers to change, and I couldn’t see myself staying there. Eventually I left and moved down to Brighton to work with Littleloud.
Littleloud was great. I was doing producing on their games down there, and I was just surrounded by all these fantastic people. We had the filthiest sense of humour, cracking all these ridiculous jokes, doing pranks on each other. A lot of what we did was work for hire stuff so that that we could try and get the money to do what we actually wanted to do, but in the end a lot of it didn’t come to fruition because these companies we worked for just simply didn’t understand games. They’d short change us, demanding extra features for free and, ultimately, they just didn’t know what actually makes games fun. They’d say something like ‘Why not put a dice in here, make it random?’ and we’d try to explain to them that having a random outcome just isn’t fun for a player. But they didn’t understand games, they didn’t try to understand. ”
I bring up Sweatshop (playable here), a game that Littleloud created, later releasing it onto the app store. Apple later pulled it from sale because of the themes it tackled.
“Yeah, Apple removed Sweatshop from the app store which was, I guess, the final nail in our coffin. It was supposed to make us some revenue and it didn’t because they removed it. It felt like the final injustice really, and then eventually the studio shut down.”
The Gradual Move Into Journalism
We move onto when Cara actually started to put hands to keyboard and write about games on the internet.
“So I started writing about games whilst I was at the BBC I think. I was going to the pub with a group of friends that were involved with it, people like Kieron Gillen, Brendon Caldwell. I’d always been interested in games and they were like ‘Why aren’t you writing stuff? You should just write those thoughts down.’ So I did… I think if they hadn’t said to pitch something I would never have done it, I would never have become a journalist or a critic. I just needed that push.
So I started pitching… The Guardian picked me up and Rock Paper Shotgun were always very supportive. So with that I managed to not totally starve. Then eventually people started to follow me on Twitter, I don’t really know when but they started to turn up for stuff.”
With Twitter followers came the idea that she could do something different with this collective behind her. The result of this idea? A successful Patreon and eventual book: Embed with Games.
“So then I stopped writing criticism full time and tried to, well, get rid of my rent. I couldn’t pay my rent, particularly not in Brighton. I wasn’t making enough, I just couldn’t do it. So I asked people on Patreon for money and I knew if I took a risk they might put more money into that, and they did! Which was super great and so I kind of had a kind of salary for a while. I think it’s really interesting to have this readership that can find a way back from your scattered bylines on the internet, back to your Twitter feed and from that they can then find something you’ve written recently.”
We end up chatting about how to get to write this interesting stuff, you’ve got to already be in the collective eye, to already have this audience. “Yeah, so the problem with Patreon is that you need to build this readership in order to ask for money. It’s difficult to get through the gates of the Guardian, the gates of RPS. They’re getting thousands of emails everyday and they just might not see yours. So yeah, it is really difficult to get through those gates in the first place, it’s still based on a kind of privilege of whether they’re aware that you exist already. Though ultimately I’m still not sure how I got popular.
A lot of people say that I write what I think, but everyone does that. Maybe what I was writing was new or interesting to them? I don’t know. I mean, the coolest thing about RPS is that they feature weird stuff, they’ve always had this outlook of not wanting the normal usual things. And the cool thing was that they’re not necessarily interested in the wider culture of games, they care about the esoteric, the machinery of games. They’re not afraid to have a really hard focus on the way games tick, whereas other websites presume their audience only want to think about games on a surface level. The hallmark of RPS is that they’re not scared of alienating people just because they want to have a very technical analysis of something, a hard look at a game’s working parts. I think if someone cut me open like a stick of rock, RPS would be written right through it.”
PR Setting the Pace
I say that the interesting thing about her writing was that it wasn’t always driven by the PR machine, the cut and paste press releases that fill up the majority of games websites.
“The pace is always set by PR and all of the structures are put in motion by the PR people. I mean, ultimately they are the people who give you access to a game and decide when they’re going to show it to you. Frankly, I had no time for that and so I realised that if I wanted to write about the inner process of game making and creativity then I would have to go to indie developers who wouldn’t make me sign a NDA, wouldn’t make me constantly re-negotiate access.”
The New Games Journalism
We move onto the state of modern games journalism, the slow death of the print magazine and the rise of the internet model. Regular content, churning content.
“People often ask me about the state of journalism now, I actually don’t know. I think it’s getting worse in a way because a lot of the old UK magazines are shutting down, a lot of the outlets are consolidating. I mean some of these magazines still do incredible journalism and have some great writing, very solid stuff but all of these places are slowly going away.”
I bring up Kieron Gillen’s The New Games Journalism essay, and say that I think it still stands up today as a template for writing games criticism and analysis but that it just hasn’t happened, there hasn’t been the follow through.
“People misinterpret that essay because loads of people are like ‘Oh well, this just let games journalists talk about their feelings’. Well that in itself is fairly valuable, but what the essay really says is that the analysis should be about what you personally experienced, not what features are in the game, not how many levels there are. It’s about the working parts of how it affected you. It’s supposed to include analysis and criticism. This game made me feel this way, how did it do that? What are the mechanical parts of that happening?
A lot of the writing you get now people are just touchy feely about a thing, there’s no analysis going on. You can’t just write that That Dragon Cancer made me feel this way… you need to actually analyse why that is. What tools have the game makers used to make you feel like that? How do you know those tools are there in the game? And that’s what missing. I mean, sometimes it’s missing from my work because you have to spit out features, you don’t have 2 or 3 days to reflect on a game you spent 30 hours playing.
But I’m really against the by the numbers journalism, the sort that says there are five graphics, they’re all very good. The action is visceral. I don’t care. This doesn’t mean anything to me any more. I want to know what it is that attaches your life to this game.”
I say I think the scoring system is harming games criticism, people just skimming to the bottom of a review and reading the score without taking into account the analysis that gets there.
“There’s a lot of people on the internet that sit in comments and bitch about scores, saying that they’ll never take anything you say again seriously because you gave their favourite game a low score. And I’m like, well if you actually read what I wrote you might get from it an analysis of the parts that made me feel the way I did. From that you can tell whether you’ll like it or not. That’s what a valuable piece of analysis or criticism is. Regardless of whether the critic liked it or not you can tell whether you’ll like it or not, whether you want to invest in that experience.
I think readers should be bringing something to the table, I mean reader laziness happens a lot on the internet. Critical reading should be happening, you have to meet a writer halfway. I don’t think you should be the type of reader who can just drop a comment like the bomb at the end of something and be really thoughtless, you should be doing some of the work some of the time. I don’t think the customer is always right.”
I say something about how a lot of games don’t require much effort mentally, the player doesn’t have to engage, piece anything together, because they’re all surface, no surprises. It’s all just gloss. “Yeah, maybe the reason active readers don’t exist very much in the games criticism plane is because of the nature of the games themselves, they might have an effect on how people regard pieces of work.”
Games ARE Interactive Fiction
I mumble something about how literature engages the reader, deliberately controlling what information is supplied rather than performing an exposition dump. I start to touch on Interactive Fiction as a medium via Cara’s own game Sacrilege.
“But IF isn’t taken seriously at all outside of it’s own community, a community that’s one of the most intelligent, nuanced, interesting groups out there. They’re doing some of the most exciting work in video games and they are roundly ignored by the games press.
However then there are things like 80 Days, which my friend Meg wrote the majority of. I’m sure no one has disputed as to whether that’s a game or not, it’s definitely a game and it’s IF, it’s fully IF. It’s wonderful and amazing, but because it was on mobile I guess people have just been assholes about it. People who play ‘videogames’ can be assholes about mobile games and gamers.
I mean, all games are IF on some level, even Pong is IF. It’s a fictional story of the ball going from one side of the court to the other. It is fiction and you’re interacting with it. It just bothers me when people constantly try to put labels on things when that’s really not the point. Like when people don’t watch Battlestar Galactica because it’s Sci-Fi, and they don’t like Sci-fi. I just say ‘Do you like soaps? Downton Abbey? Pride and Prejudice? Well, it’s basically Pride and Prejudice on a spaceship. Now go watch it.’ The genre classification doesn’t matter, stories are what humans are interested in.
I think IF needs to have AAA steel to actually go in there, take those ideas apart and try to bring them to something else. I mean Spider and Web by Andrew Plotkin blew my mind, and that’s a really old piece of IF. I’d just never played a game like that before that’s proper storytelling in a game manner.”
I say about AAA driving towards bigger and better graphics, the prettiest faces and so on, and how this limits interactivity. The games end up simply not being able to afford to animate all these different outcomes if only a fraction of people will get to it, it’s not viable.
“I think in AAA they pay a lot of attention to the fact that cinematics in particular are very costly. When writers approach stuff like cinematics they want to have drama, they want to compel the player emotionally. You want to provide drama and conflict, to get the player curious and want to keep playing the game. Whereas the game makers want the writers to convey information, stuff like ‘there’s a key here and there’s like 4 bad guys who are going to be here’. This kind of very simplistic storytelling going on because there’s this information that needs to be conveyed, it’s important that the player needs to know these things.
So there’s this huge, constant conflict between the drama the writers want and the supply of information that the game makers want. It’s really hard, and I don’t think anyone’s at fault because they’re just two hard things which don’t fit together very well. I guess the critical thing is for people to be highly communicative. I mean the interesting thing at Rockstar was that the environmental designers were very talented and made these worlds that the level designers would then look at, thinking about how they could use that to embark on creating small stories within the world.”
We move onto how indie developers are having all these interesting ideas because they’re not driven by the constraints of the big business AAA world. “I feel like AAA developers are intensely aware of the interesting stuff that’s being done independently, but the problem is how much time and money there is and whether you can get the publisher to invest in those ideas. The publisher wants to look at the parts of a game that are definitely going to make them money or please the player in the end. If there’s a question there, then they don’t want it. That’s why there is actually this use in indie games iterating on an idea for a while until eventually the publishers take notice. Until they say ‘Can we make Gone Home now?’”
And there it ends, our time is up. Thank you Cara Ellison for a very long chat. Time to layer back up and confront the cold.
You can buy her recent travelogue Embed with Games from here.