Page 28, press hold, and reveal. Digitiser's founder speaks out

Edge Magazine #121 March 2003

The accidental journalist

Edge #121, March 2003

They've asked me to introduce myself, but it's not something I'm used to doing. In the flesh, I usually confront unfamiliar social situations by piercing the air with a strange, undulating hissing sound, and that's a difficult thing to put across in print. Especially when you're being paid to fill a page with interesting and florid prose. Or should that be 'interesting and florid P Rose'? Do you see?

I'll be honest with you up front; this whole games journalism thing was never part of the plan. I fell into it by accident - I was supposed to be as astronaut or, for one brief and unrealistic moment, something - anything - to do with monkeys. But unless you're spectacularly focused (and I'm far too easily distracted by my demons, specifically crack cocaine, to be focused upon anything other than self-induced catatonia), life never quite flows the way you expect.

It wouldn't be too trite to say the life of a games journalist chose me, but whichever way you look at it the fit seemed to work. It's been ten years since I first picked up a joypad for professional gain, and ten years since I last paid money to play a game. Heck, for a long time I'd even managed to talk my former Teletext oppressors into paying me a monthly stipend to visit the arcades (for 'reviews'). Yes, they really were that gullible.

And yet, in many respects, as far as most games journalists go, I was always on the fringes of the comfort zone. I was the proverbial eunuch in the virgin baths. Sure, games gushed through my letterbox on a regular basis, but I can count the freebies and the overseas jollies and the lunches on the fingers of half a hand. I never even went to E3.

I don't know why this was. Perhaps everyone in the industry hated me. But if they did, then I'm glad they did, because I was able to crow on about my lack of bias, and the fact that I was un-fingered by the filthy hands of the public relations lotharios, and it made me look really great and decent and principled and all that. I could happily make out that I was un-corruptible, because nobody ever tried to corrupt me. But at least I realised how lucky I was.

See, most games journos don't realise how good they have it. Oh, sure, there are better-paid professions, but the average gamesplayer in the street would kill to be in our position. Or, at the very least, literally whore themselves to Peter Molyneux. Games on tap, often months before they're officially released? Access to all the most up-to-date hardware? All expenses-paid jaunts to LA and Japan? Frankly, it's a ludicrously cushy life. So much so, that I have - on at least two occasions - come close to stabbing a journo in the knees because he's had the bare-faced gall to whinge about deadlines, or the fact that he has to - boo-hoo - traipse around a developer's studio and play some games.

On one notable occasion, I was in a group of about 20 writers and forced into a coach seat beside one particularly loathsome skank. He spent the entire journey complaining to a colleague about what a waste of time the whole trip had been. Here was someone who was getting paid to write a feature, be put up in hotels, be given a sack-load of freebies, and then be treated to a slap-up meal and free drinks - and yet still managed to think he was hard done by. But don't worry, I had the last laugh. By doing a blow-off on his ice-cream. Not really.

This incident is sadly indicative of the majority of UK games journalists; they think the industry owes them a living (or, at any rate, a trip to E3). As a consequence there's barely a games journalist in the country who can be wholly relied on for a completely honest and untainted opinion.

You can't blame them. To stay objective in such luxurious circumstances would take a feat of super-human willpower. I know, because I've been there, and for the first time in a decade I have to contemplate buying games again... and, frankly, I'm terrified from my head to my spleen.

Forty quid for something that I know isn't going to entertain me beyond a fortnight? What manner of madness is that? I know all too well the corners some reviewers cut. How can I be expected to rely on them to tell me what to buy? They haven't paid anything for the games they receive, and their review scores have been bartered over a few drinks and a hamburger. Their opinion is - whether they want you to know this or not - worthless.

Over the years, as I matured and became crippled with loathing for my fellow man, I learned to care less and less whether I upset my chums in PR (because, let's face it, I never really had any chums in public relations). But certainly there was a time in the early days of 'Digitiser' when - while never being quite so enthusiastic-to-please as some individuals and publications - I may have nudged a score up a mark or two. Oh, it was never necessarily a conscious decision, just done in the same way that you might subconsciously not send death threats to someone who you think might, possibly, fancy you.

But today, as reviewer-turned-consumer, I feel like a former adult film star, who - having seen the grim, behind-the-scenes reality of the porn industry - can no longer get off on dirty movies. All I see are unsanitary sets and unhappy people contorted into painful sexual positions by a vile director.

Y'know, the optimist in me wants to believe that when a reviewer gives a game 9/10, or 98.2 per cent, he genuinely means it. That he believes a game is worth such a score, in spite of costing a quarter of a week's wages, or three months' pocket money. That he can put aside the fact that it came into his possession gratis, and can think himself into the position of the punter, handing over the raw, cold cash for the same game in Dixons.

This isn't another rant about the cost of games (the smoke still billows following the fire-bombing of the Fairplay campaign headquarters, and I'm far too much of a coward to risk inflaming the wrath of Miles from Sports Interactive). But the fact remains that it's the job of a games reviewer to tell his audience whether a game is worth buying.

Now, looking at things from other the other side of the wall, my whole criteria for which games I play has changed. Whereas two months ago I'd probably have chosen a Nintendo title above all others, with Nintendo's new focus on shorter, but sweeter, experiences I'm more likely to pay for, say, a PC roleplaying game. I don't know... maybe it has been a subtextual and subconscious rant about the price of games. Oh man! Now I'm probably going to wake up one night to find Roger Bennett from ELSPA standing over my bed, brandishing a pitchfork...

Mr Biffo is a semi-retired videogame journalist. His views do not necessarily coincide with Edge's

Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me ( right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.

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