PAX 2015 Games Criticism Talk: More Than a Score

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 1.27.26 pm

Last weekend I was lucky enough to give a talk at PAX Prime alongside fellow game critics Zach Alexander, Austin Walker, and Aevee Bee. A couple of people have asked whether the talk will be online anywhere, and while there’s no footage out there (to my knowledge), I figured I’d do the next best thing and upload this lightly edited script of my part of the presentation. Think of it as Games Crit 101: what criticism actually is, why it’s important, and why you, YES YOU, should get into it.

Zach has also made his hilarious slideshow publicly available for your perusal.

Side note: it was super good to discuss games critically again, something I realise I haven’t done much of lately due to a focus on more mainstream work. So yeah, that’s something I hope to get back into. I’m currently tinkering with a couple of project ideas, so watch this space. :)

Anyway, onto the talk: More Than a Score.

Continue reading


dead inside

The Cat Lady

That’s what I’ve been telling people when they’ve asked what I’ve been up to. “How’re you doing?” “Um, kinda dead inside.”

People generally dislike the concept of death – fair enough. I shouldn’t be surprised when I receive more than a raised eyebrow in response. Honestly, though, I don’t mean to be scary or overly dramatic when I say it. It’s just the best way I can think of to describe how I’ve felt the past few months – how I just don’t have particularly strong feelings about anything right now.

My writing has stalled lately. I do the occasional news posts and… not much else, really. At some point, many months ago, I started to lose confidence in my ability and never quite picked myself back up. I’m realising now that I deal with these things by simply clamming up. Staying indoors, skipping social events, and playing lots of video games.

And oddly, it’s that last one that keeps me from flatlining entirely. After years of writing about them, going to conferences about them, thinking about them, and talking endlessly about them, I was beginning to find myself very easily annoyed by video games.

I think I’ve found love for them again.

So I just finished playing The Cat Lady, an unassuming and basically unheard-of game that’s already amongst my top five favourite games ever. It’s full of gore, mental illness, and cats, which won’t surprise anyone who knows me even vaguely. There probably isn’t a more Katie-type game out there.

I surprised myself playing it, though. Playing a suicidal cat lady character, you’d think it’d be all too easy to empathise – to back out of conversation trees prematurely and concede defeat. But no. Through Susan Ashworth, I became defiant. Through Susan, I beat down monsters that would compromise one’s will to live, and I pretty much told Death to go fuck herself.

Pretty deep stuff for a game I found by typing “cats” into Steam, really.

My partner found out last month that he’s moving to the Bay Area for work, and I’m hoping to follow him. I grew up as an awkward expat kid and I’ve actually become deeply uncomfortable with how comfortable I am in Melbourne now, so the move’s welcome. Unfortunately, this is where I also grow anxious about writing again, because I can’t continue my sorta-self-engineered freelancing “dry spell” forever; if I’m to stay in the States, I’ll need to find a job. And to do that, I need to prove my worth. I need to start writing again.

There are two terrifying, huge-ish features that I’m steeling myself for. You have no idea how much these frighten me. They’re both on topics I’m very passionate about, and I fear screwing up – or worse, nobody wanting the copy, because isn’t that a sign that you’re just not made to write? Well, no, and I know that. Just gotta beat my way through those demons, I guess. I’ve had some practice now. This cat lady wants to win.

I’ll see some of you in California soon, I hope.

Action Painting Pro

Discovered this gorgeous game/art tool by Aussie dev Ian MacLarty (one of the guys behind Boson X). In Action Painting Pro, you’re throwing buckets of paint around. Or maybe you’re scrawling on the walls with a giant pencil. Sometimes, you bleed giant pixel-like things. The colours, the platforms, the music – it all evolves constantly as you pursue your art. Like all artistic careers, the fun ends when you’re out of inspiration, money, or passion – but you’ll always have something to show for it.

It’s an exquisite, near-perfect metaphor of creative and mechanical processes, and how the two play off each other. Creating is such joy. I want to slap every “artwork” I create with this squarely on my fridge door. Look what I made, mom!

You’ve gotta download it right away: Windows / Mac

Review: 7 Grand Steps

[This was originally published in issue #237 of Hyper Magazine, July 2013.]

7 Grand Steps is a beautifully tactile thing. You’ll likely find yourself chain-feeding representations of tokens into its interface like a casino-goer, each familiar kachink of the coin dropping feeling like a strange comfort. But, unlike the rarely-lucky gambler, 7GS’ payout is huge. Starting humbly with two peasant lovers whose bloodline you must oversee through seven ages of history, an epic tale forms through unexpectedly complex drag-and-drop gameplay.

Continue reading

Rookie Day

This is part of a 1951 Women's Weekly I cut up for my Rookie Day "vision board." My vision is pretty incoherent, but the two more distinct things it contained were pies and cats.

A lot has been happening! Not that anyone reading this blog would know about it, given my abysmal maintenance of it. Yesterday I was at the Melbourne Writers Festival, taking part in Rookie Day – a space for ladies under 20 to love, learn from, and dance with one another. Festival director Lisa Dempster had asked me to be part of the speaker line-up, which is kind of crazy because when you’re speaking alongside someone like Tavi Gevinson you feel even more like “what could anyone even learn from a nobody like me?!” than you might usually.

I think, if there was something to be taken away from my talk, it was that I still have no idea what I’m doing. Two, maybe nearly three years of this video game thing still hasn’t taught me what to say to girls younger than I who might be looking to getting into the same space. And maybe that’s part of it. Three years ago, I never thought I’d be writing about video games for my living. I never thought that some of my closest friends today would be game developers, writers and artists whose work I once idolised from afar. Like I said in the Rookie Day Q&A, you’re never told what sort of person you could become when you’re in high school and still trying to figure out what you want to do with your life. You’re only told to get full As if you don’t want to become a garbageman and a disappointment to everybody in your life ever.

Nobody ever said to me, hey, video games are totally a thing you can do! I’m still not sure what made me go for it, or what motivated me through the early times, when I had a much thinner support network. But I tried and somehow I did it, and now I write for publications I used to devour as a teenaged gamer. I wish somebody had told me, back then, that I had a chance to be in those magazines too. Maybe that’s why I’m super-passionate now about things like Rookie magazine – because yesterday, I was looking at a hundred gorgeous girls wearing flower headbands and Campbell’s Soup dresses and they were asking questions like “How do I survive the final year of high school?” and I didn’t have any answers, even though I was on stage like some kind of got-it-sorted authority figure. I guess, looking at them, I knew they already had the smarts, the creativity, the intense beauty to be on that podium too.

I’d love for more of today’s teenaged girls to get into games development or games criticism or even just gaming itself. Rookie Day’s host, Anna Barnes, later told me how much she’d love to see a future game infused with Rookie’s dreamy, rose-adorned aesthetic, and you know what? I absolutely want to play that game, too.


The frequency with which I’ve been updated this blog is pretty laughable, and after having Alive Tiny World mentioned in my Rookie Day introduction and my MWF bio, I began to seriously wonder why I still mention it in the list of Stuff That I Do. Honestly, I find the unblinking white expanse of my theme a little unwelcoming, and I’ve had a makeover planned for months, but that’s not going to happen until October at least – because next month is Freeplay! We’ve got ourselves an amazing new website to celebrate this year’s theme, Volume of Revolution, and we’ll be announcing the program and putting tickets on sale soon. If you’re in Melbourne, please come by and see what’s been eating up so much of my time lately – oh, and get a chance to hear from and play the games of some of the world’s most interesting games developers, too.

A totally ineloquent life update

I have been playing the shit out of Sleeping Dogs; I've not enjoyed a game this much in months.

Good grief! It’s been about a hundred years since I updated this thing – and unfortunately, my gallant return to this blog doesn’t come in the form of a particularly wistful or insightful analysis on any kind of video game thing. Nah. I kind of just want to update my readers on recent stuff that’s been happening, and share some cool events and links. So here we go!

Continue reading

Too many reasons why

I’ve been watching the #1reasonwhy hashtag on Twitter with an anxious kind of understanding. Like, part of me wants to jump right in and post a dozen of my own experiences, but I’ve also learned what happens if you say that shit publicly: you’re berated, blamed, dismissed. I’ve been there.

But why the fuck should I have to fear posting this? I’ve been quiet on Twitter and Facebook lately, for many reasons, but you know what? I think I’ll make my own list of Reasons Why right here:

  • Because when I tell people what I do for a living, they still say, “But you don’t actually play games, right?”
  • Because, at university, I had a classmate say, “I know for a fact that women don’t understand games. I know. I have a mother.”
  • Because when a man condescends to me, I’m told it’s because I’m wearing a pink skirt.
  • Because we still have people saying, on a daily basis, that sexism will go away if we just stop talking about it.
  • Because when I call out this behaviour, I’m told it’s my fault for having an “attitude problem” and maybe I should be less of a bitch.
  • Because when a fellow games student from my university comments on my articles, he says that I should stop whining and just accept that games journalism is a boys’ club – even though I’ve gotten far further in my games journalism career than he ever did.
  • Because when I tell the PR rep I want to look at AAA console games, he takes me to the pink Facebook games anyway.
  • Because I have other women in the games industry tell me to “just be quiet” if I don’t want to be harassed.
  • Because I’m told to “stand up for myself” – and then, when I do something like this, I’m dismissed.
  • Because I’m scared to post this on Twitter.

Power to the Players

[An interview with Warren Spector to coincide with the Game Masters exhibition at ACMI. Originally published in issue #228 of Hyper magazine, August 2012.]

“If I’ve done anything in my 29 years of making games, it’s that I’ve championed a single idea and been sort of bull-headed about pursuing that idea.”

Warren Spector – one of the most well-known, passionate guys in games development and with a head that is inexplicably not at all bull-shaped – is telling me about the various accolades he keeps receiving for his work in game design, the latest of which is the “Game Master” bestowed upon him by Melbourne’s ACMI. He seems a little confused by the fuss.

“It makes me feel uncomfortable, if you want to know the truth,” he continues. “I just put together teams that want to investigate my idea – that doesn’t seem like any particular genius or anything. I mean, I just find an idea that’s really interesting to me, and I manage to hire people way better than me to execute it.”

Continue reading

Freeplay 2012: Legitimacy

I’m so incredibly grateful I got to be so involved in this year’s Freeplay Independent Games Festival, which concluded barely a fortnight ago. I was a speaker in the conversation session Games and Words, exchanging thoughts on the written word’s relevance to video games. On the panel Levels of Discourse, I contributed to a discussion of various aspects of games criticism. I was on the judging committee for the Freeplay awards, playing through dozens of excellent indie games from all over the world. I somehow even convinced director Paul Callaghan that it’d be a great idea to let me present an award at the Freeplay awards ceremony. (I hope he’s not too mortified I took the opportunity to slip the word “throbbing” into the script.)

I have a history with Freeplay, actually, and I’d say it’d played a pretty critical role in what I do now. At last year’s Freeplay I met a whole bunch of people I’d only admired from afar till then; now I consider many of them to be great friends, mentors, and alcohol suppliers of mine. The year before, at Freeplay 2010, I’d just begun writing about games, and it was all the cultural discussion at the festival that really guided the path my writing would take, each panel I attended and game I played at Experimedia shaping my path like wire on a bonsai tree – so being an actual part of the festival my third time around means an immense amount to me.

And this year, as in previous years, a lot of discussion was generated that has me thinking still, even two weeks later. Though the official theme was “Chaos and Grace”, I think several unspoken sub-themes also emerged in conversation, and there’s one I’d like to expand on today…

Continue reading