Hang All The Critics: Towards Useful Video Game Writing

Jonathan McCalmont @ 18-01-2012


  1. The Problem

It does not take a genius to realise that the world of video game reviewing is completely and utterly fucked. Their reputations sullied by an endless cavalcade of scandal and stupidity, video game reviewers routinely find themselves in the impossible position of having to balance the financial requirements of their publishers with the (frequently unreasonable) expectations of their audience, all the while striving to be completely objective, irreproachably fair, amusingly articulate and uncommonly insightful. Frankly, nobody could satisfy all of these demands at once — and, even if they could, I doubt that anyone would care. The age of the critic has now well and truly passed. Continue reading “Hang All The Critics: Towards Useful Video Game Writing”

The future of Futurismic

Paul Raven @ 16-08-2011

I’ve been thinking about the future.

Time forms a frame for our narratives about ourselves, a scale for organising coherence out of a formless flow. Thinking in terms of months, years, decades is a convenience that I’ve come to suspect actually keeps us from understanding the true causality of things until we get a significant distance from them and don the Magic AR Glasses of Hindsight +2. That observation isn’t hugely germane to this post, I suppose, but it acts as a qualifier for the following statement:

This has been an eventful year so far, on both personal and global levels, and shows little sign of becoming less so.

You don’t need reminding of the global stuff, I’m sure, but the personal stuff has some bearing on the running of this here website.

First things first, though: Futurismic will continue. It’s too much a part of my life and thinking process to give up easily, for one thing, and furthermore I want to keep running work by my columnists. I even intend to reboot it as a fiction venue once money and time allow.

Money and time, of course, are always an issue. Money has been tight for a while, hence the fiction closedown at the start of this year; this has a lot to do with me having exchanged a steady income for the time to do the work I wanted to do (much of which was writing at Futurismic, ironically enough). But I’m now rapidly approaching a phase where the opposite situation may pertain. Some of you may already be aware that I’ve been accepted onto a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Middlesex University starting this autumn, which I’m very chuffed about indeed. But if I’m going to do it, I’ve got to do it right first time and commit myself to it, so I’m going to have to shift my writing priorities strongly toward fiction in the coming year.

Furthermore, I’m in the process of hunting down a ‘proper’ part-time job to support me financially during my studies, too; the erratic income of my freelance work is not conducive to the state of not-worrying-about-where-the-next-meal-is-coming-from that I find encourages me to write good material. Depending on what sort of work I get, there may be more or less time available to me for noodling about the future right here, though I have to assume the most likely scenario will include less time.

But like I said, I can’t just give this stuff up; not only is it a source of great intellectual pleasure, but current events suggest that we need to be thinking even more clearly about the future than ever before – not predicting, but probing, groping ahead through the temporal fog, trying to find a safe way through the existential minefield. How much I can contribute that will be of genuine use to the global discourse is for others to determine, but I feel the need to contribute nonetheless.

All of which is a long way of saying that I’m going to have to start approaching my writing here in a more efficient and effective way. It’s time to stop posting every day for the sake of posting, and to take the time to work on fewer better articles (as well as trying to place said articles at other venues); to only post when there’s something that needs to be discussed, and to discuss it properly

It’s time to pay less attention to the Shiny Gimcrack Future and more attention to the Grim Meathook Future; the future will be full of gadgets and weird stuff, for certain, but they’re a sideshow or sub-plot to the big stuff: politics and economics; the contrapuntal narratives of science and technology; social shifts, network culture and the cultural Zeitgeist. All stuff I already talk about, sure, but I think I need to do more than point at interesting stuff and say “hey, look – interesting stuff!” if I’m to actually add any value to the discourse. The internet’s full of folk flapping their lips, and I worry that I’ve spent too long talking loud but saying little; focussing on quality rather than frequency will, I hope, go some way to amending that.

Oddly enough, this is a conscious counter-response to a deep instinctive flinching from the future; as both a writer of stories and someone with a more general curiosity about the path ahead, it feels like it’s getting harder and harder to look more than a few years ahead with even the slightest degree of clarity, let alone hope, and the temptation is to retreat into a wilful ignorance and refusal to think about anything other than myself.

And everything’s interlinked: the broken economies of the former First World winding down to be overtaken by the BRICs and others; food shortages and price hikes; the mutation and metastasis of the post-national corporation and the continuing slump of the nation-state as unit of power in realpolitik, complicated by heel-dragging refusals to acknowledge the increasingly global nature of most of our civilisational problems; even the youth of America, once that most optimistic of nations, are now resigned to their future as the inheritors of the comedown and cost of imperial hubris… and if you managed to read the riots here in the UK, in Greece and across the Arab world as anything else other than a seismic rumble of big turbulence coming down the pipe, then you’re either possessed of an enviable yet largely unfounded optimism, or completely naive.

And the more I think about it, the more I think utopianist future-hucksters like Ray Kurzweil are part of the problem; the more I feel that Singularitarianism (much like some other emerging cults of the atemporal and altermodern End Times) is a refuge for privileged intellectuals who can’t face the future without believing they get some sort of personal get-out-of-Apocalypse-free card; the more I think that science fiction and other speculative forms of communication (design fiction, essays, mixed media, whatever) have great potential to help us understand where we’re going, but that the potential is wasted by that same desperate search for a personal escape hatch with the phrase “I’m all right, Jack” stencilled on it by some notoriously anonymous marginal celebrity street artist…

And so it goes. Futurismic has always been about peering ahead in various forms, but it’s time to look in smarter ways, and think more carefully about what we see.

I hope you’ll stick around for the journey. Some of it’s gonna be rough, some of it’s gonna be glorious… but it’ll all be made more bearable by having intelligent company along the way. Talking to you people for all these years has taught me a great deal, but I reckon you’ve probably got more to teach me yet.

Thanks for reading.

Science fiction, religion and rationality

Paul Raven @ 08-01-2010

As if to mirror the wider (and louder) debate of science versus religion (which I remain convinced is a false dichotomy in some respects), the science fiction scene seems to be turning its attention to the deeper philosophical underpinnings of the genre. Here are a couple of stimulating viewpoints: first of all, Ian Sales argues for science fiction as the last bastion of the rational in literature.

When Geoff Ryman founded the Mundane SF Movement in 2002, I saw it only as a bunch of sf writers throwing the best toys out of science fiction’s pram. When Jetse de Vries called for sf to be optimistic in 2008, I didn’t really understand as, to me, the genre was neither pessimistic nor optimistic.

But it occurred to me recently that these two attempts to change how science fiction thinks about itself are themselves symptomatic of the erosion of the scientific worldview in the public arena. By excluding the more fanciful, the more fantastical, tropes in sf, Mundane SF forces writers and readers to engage with known science and a scientific view of the world. And optimistic fiction, by focusing on “possible roads to a better tomorrow”, acknowledges that situations exist now which require solutions. It forces us to look at those situations, to examine the world and not rely on on a two-thousand-year-old fantasy novel, or the opinions of the scientifically-ignorant, for our worldview.

Meanwhile, over at Tor.com Teresa Jusino discusses the ways science fiction stories address the questions raised by religion:

What all of these stories do well with regard to religion (with the exception of The Phantom Menace, which did nothing well) is capture what I think the discussion should really be about. Most people who debate science vs. religion tend to ask the same boring question. Does God exist? Yawn. However, the question in all of these stories is never “Do these beings really exist?” The question is “What do we call them?” It’s never “Does this force actually exist?” It’s, “What do we call it?” Or “How do we treat it?” Or “How do we interact with it?” One of the many things that fascinates me about these stories is that the thing, whatever it is—a being, a force—always exists. Some choose to acknowledge it via gratitude, giving it a place of honor, organizing their lives around it and allowing it to feed them spiritually. Others simply use it as a thing, a tool, taking from it what they will when they will then calling it a day. But neither reaction negates the existence of the thing.

Good science fiction doesn’t concern itself with “Does God exist?”, but rather “What is God?” How do we define God?  Is God one being that created us? Is God a race of sentient alien beings that see all of time and space at once and is helping us evolve in ways we are too small to understand? Is God never-ending energy that is of itself? And why is it so important to human beings to define God at all?  To express gratitude to whatever God is? Why do people have the need to say “thank you” to something they can’t see and will probably never understand? To me, these are the important questions. They’re also the most interesting.

I’ve got a lot of time for Jusino’s arguments (despite my being an atheist), because her observations chime with my own: the stories that have stuck with me most strongly are those that project new ideas into the conceptual space between human consciousness and the universe in which that consciousness exists. One of the most interesting aspects of those questions is the way that the same evidence (or lack thereof) ends up being used as a confirmation of worldview by both sides of the fence; it all seems to boil down to whether you choose to see a “god in the gaps” or embrace the gaps as proof of the absence of a deity. Sure, there’s acres of philosophical battlefield between the two outlooks, but (as Jusino points out) there’s a lot more common ground than either side is keen to publicly admit.

That said, I’ve a lot of sympathy with Sales, too; the increasingly loud importunings of evangelicals, Biblical literalists, creationists and other cranks (not all of whose motivations or worldviews, it should be pointed out, are prompted primarily by religion) are doing visible damage to public discourse, not just in the States but worldwide. Jusino points out that there’s no necessary disconnect between believing in God and accepting the theory of evolution, and I’m convinced that the vast majority of people share that outlook; however, it seems to be those that don’t share it who shout loudest and longest.

So perhaps we do need more pulpits of rationality, more agitators for progress and foresight, more calm clear voices to balance the shrill and shrieking… and science fiction would seem ideally suited to such a purpose, if only because of its underlying philosophical roots; this is one of the reasons I consider myself a ‘fellow traveller’ with the Mundane and Optimistic SF movements. But I’m leery of prescriptivism, too; science fiction, like all art, should be allowed to find its own way through the individual journeys of its practitioners.

The sf scene’s ability and will to debate (through its fictional output, and in its public discourse) topics that many people find irrelevant or boring – racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, to name but a few – has always seemed to me to be its greatest strength; perhaps having the debate is, in some ways, more important than reaching a conclusion.