January 27, 2010, 11:49 pm
Filed under: Features, Interviews | Tags: , , , ,

“We’re so concerned about the minutia that we’ve missed the much more interesting question of ‘how does this game make me feel?’”

Kill Screen is the ambitious new magazine from ex-Wall Street Journal reporter Jamin Brophy-Warren. Launching in January, it’s a project that promises a fresh approach to games journalism. Rejecting the established cycle of news, previews and reviews, Kill Screen aims instead to provide literate, thoughtful pieces on the people, culture and meaning of the medium.

In Brophy-Warren’s own words, “We want to be what early Rolling Stone was to rock n’ roll or Wired was to tech. We want to look like the Fader and walk like the Believer.” It’s an enticing prospect.

To achieve this lofty goal, Brophy-Warren has enlisted an impressive line-up of talent. Kill Screen’s ‘Issue Zero’ boasts the work of writers from the likes of the New Yorker, GQ, The Colbert Report, PopMatters and Paste.

As the names of these publications may suggest, many of the contributors do not usually write about games. Indeed some, such as The Colbert Report’s Rob Dubbin, have never written on the subject. “But that’s kind of the point,” says Brophy-Warren. “We wanted to get people who didn’t necessarily have an encyclopedic knowledge of games, but people who wrote well and games were merely one possible piece of their portfolio.”

It’s an editorial approach that hints at a broader dissatisfaction with the current scope of video game coverage. “I see a lot of items, but I want to see more stories,” says Brophy-Warren. “A lot of video game writing is focused on the now and there’s an arms race for news. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but that leaves a lot to be developed in terms of narrative.

“I did an amazing interview with Sheila Nevins, the head of HBO Documentaries, and I asked her about how they chose their topics. HBO doesn’t have a news department so they’re very selective about what they write about. She said her films should ‘stand for what really mattered — not what happened. What mattered is more important.’ A lot of game writing is about the former, and not the latter. I get dozens of press releases from every publisher highlighting every single little thing that’s being announced for each new title, but none of that really helps me parse what’s important about a particular title.

“I want more stories like Daniel Radosh’s The Beatles: Rock Band piece and Esquire’s Jason Rohrer profile. That’s the writing that really matters. Those are pieces I’ll go back to and read, because they help me make better sense of my world. With a lot of game sites/blogs/whatever, everything matters, so nothing really matters at all.”

So with a focus on long-form profiles and reflective pieces, will Kill Screen will forgo video game criticism entirely? Not at all, says Brophy-Warren. But he’s keen to outline how Kill Screen will do things differently. “I find a lot of games criticism horribly boring,” he says. “They read like CNET reviews — a complete focus on the technical aspects of the game. That works well for a reviewing a flat-screen television, but it’s a terrible way to write about games.

“If we continue to buy into the delusion that games are merely software and should be evaluated solely on their graphical fidelity and feature set, then we cannot expect the medium to go forward.

“If we continue to buy into the delusion that games are merely software and should be evaluated solely on their graphical fidelity and feature set, then we cannot expect the medium to go forward.

“Case in point — the recent debate about whether Brutal Legend is RTS. Poor Tim Schafer had to wade into a discussion about whether something that he created fits a pre-convceived notion of a particular genre. That’s like arguing about whether The Road or No Country for Old Men are dramas or action movies. They’re both — but that’s hardly the point, and certainly the least interesting discussion about either of those films. And whether or not Brutal Legend succeeds or fails as an RTS is completely irrelevant to its worth as a creative product.

“And yet that’s where a lot of games criticism, certainly the kind you find on Metacritic, wallows. We’re entirely concerned about the minutia that we’ve missed the much more interesting question of ‘how does this game make me feel’ which is an entirely different question than ‘does this game perform in 1080p?’

“So if you mean criticism as it’s widely practiced in game writing, then absolutely not. But if you mean writing that is critical of games as art form, then of course. But only insofar as that is a feature of good writing in general. I think everyone who’s interested in Kill Screen should read Gay Talese’s interview with the Paris Review on the art of non-fiction writing. That’s what I’m interested in.”

Admirable stuff, but Kill Screen isn’t just relying on its editorial ambitions. The magazine is an aesthetic and physical experiment as much as a textual one. Indeed, such is Brophy-Warren’s focus on elegant, clean design that he “bristles” at the idea of ads “spraying juvenilia all over my lovely pages.” A high-end, lavishly produced journal, Kill Screen is the type of project that he believes publishers have shied away from in recent years, much to the detriment of the medium.

“Most publications have had it backwards,” he says. “People read newspapers not just for the stories, but for the relationship with the object itself. And so the smaller and cheaper you make it, the less you’re respecting the love and dedication of your readers. You’re telling them: ‘This thing you adore is truly worthless.’ And then they start to believe you.

“The commodifying of the written word is a given. It’s worthless. And I say this as a writer. What I mean is that written words are infinitely distributable across a myriad of platforms so the reading of those words has a lower value. But, and this is our presumption, there is value in an expensive product with high production value. People pay for physical objects everyday. We are not living post-singularity yet. As long as there are tactile experiences to be had, there will be value in the held thing.”

Of course, for all the magazine’s grand plans there is a chance that there just isn’t a market for such a product, something Brophy-Warren openly admits to worrying about, but the early signs are positive. With interest and momentum gathering, independent funding — at least to a breakeven point — secured via Kickstarter and Issue Zero complete and ready to go, things seem to be shaping up, thanks to the ambition on show.

[This article originally appeared on GameSetWatch and Gamasutra. This version was a little longer, adding a couple of interesting bits and bobs from Jamin that didn’t make the final cut.]]


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