Brendan Caldwell

The dog pile: How I Infuriated A Few Hundred Final Fantasy Fourteen Fans To Death Threat Levels

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(Contains some mentions of sexual assault, violence, suicide)

At an unremembered age, I created a Super Nintendo. It was composed of a box (cardboard) and string (string). It did not have any discernible function apart from to assuage my own feeling of child’s inadequacy and self-doubt. My infinite brothers and sisters had played the real Nintendo, the ownership of which was in constant dispute, the controllers jealously guarded as it was played in various neutral zones between bedrooms, and they joked with limitless reverb that I would never defeat the first level of Super Mario Brothers 3. I would not allow them to be correct. If it took the construction of a fictional entity incapable of producing sound, light, colour, or happiness, then that is what I would do. I worked on the cardboard Nintendo for a full hour, and then I showed the results to absolutely nobody.

At night, some time later in my childhood, my father would sit with zealous fervour in front of Jeremy Paxman, journalist and anchorman whose pompous visage and alligator-length face on the regular current affairs programme Newsnight only complimented a merciless interview technique which used contempt as a weapon, and inquiry as a means of inflicting blunt force trauma to the ego of myriad politicians too brave or stupid to say “no” to an interview. My father laughed when politicians stumbled over their words, when they were caught in a trap. He gestured with delight at the TV, his fifteenth-hundred cigarette of the day in hand, grinning with the joy of all the Irish foxes in the fields outside our home. He pointed at members of the British establishment forced into corners by their own slavering rottweiler. I absorbed this bloodsport willingly. I too was captured by the inviting cudgel of journalism.

At 18 years old I left the slabs and tarmac of my Irish hometown for the slabs and tarmac of a northern English city, where, for a time, I entertained the idea of becoming a “real” journalist. That idea died in the magistrates, crown and coroner’s courts of South Yorkshire, where human beings routinely regurgitated lifedata about other, less fortunate humans who had burned to death, hanged themselves, overdosed on drugs, drowned in canals, or committed hellish atrocities upon third-party humans, who themselves gave testimonies from behind opaque screens, or via internetted television. The televisions were surreal, antiquated wheeler-TVs, and would have reminded me of lackadaisical days in primary school when a teacher was sick and the cathode ray TV shared among the entire scholastic institution was rolled out of its hiding place to show us episodes of Ghost Writer and Through The Dragon’s Eye. The wheely TVs of the courtroom would have reminded me of this, yes, were it not for their grim content. Against the varnished grain of lawyer’s pulpits and bat wing smocks, the TVs recounted witness statements in unwanted detail under cover of technological anachronism. During one day of my reporter’s training, a woman burst into tears in the juror’s stand as several rape charges were read aloud to the court, and as she was dismissed from her civic duty on the grounds of emotional contamination (or whatever arcane legal code they used to announce that, hey, maybe this lady shouldn’t be here) I thought: no, this is not a room I want to spend my life in.

I discovered the more populous slabs of London city some years after becoming a qualified raker of daily muck, and decided to return to video games, the old ember that had burned in my belly ever since I built my first false console. I hobnobbed with such recklessness and lack of foresight, and wrote with such misplaced confidence, that I fell head first into the pages of manifold internet magazines. By night, I constructed strange shapes on digital touchscreens for The Guardian, for an audience of perhaps dozens, and at the close of every work shift I received a free copy of the following day’s newspaper, its contents already out of date even as the wet ink came off on my fingertips in the 2am taxi home. It was a good job, until the video games came for me with fortitude. We all knew that day would come. When I eventually left that job, my friends at the desk I worked gifted me an old iPad. One of them had built an entire miniature arcade cabinet from wood, electronics, and affection. You slotted the iPad into the cabinet, you see, and it became a fully functioning Pac-Man machine. On the side of this mini-cabinet, I was depicted in a mural as Luke Skywalker with various co-workers as supporting cast. It is much better than a cardboard SNES.

By the time I landed a full-time job at Rock Paper Shotgun – the violently named care bear treehouse of good words and solid people – I suspected that a games journalist was not that different from a “real” journalist. The differences were minor. We were still supposed to put a fire under someone every now and then. Only it was sometimes unclear exactly who. Significantly, I could soothe myself with the knowledge that nobody in this industry would ever die four yards from their front door after their walking frame collapsed during an unstoppable blaze. If you can spend your life never knowing what is discussed at coroner’s court, I recommend doing that. The only people who die inside a video game are the bad guys. And they are often Nazis.

Like many of my colleagues in the industry, I kept myself entertained during these years by collecting lanyards as if they were the pelts of endangered beasts. For every event that I visited, upon returning home, I would secure my amulet of access upon whatever post-fiesta podium my contemporary workspace allowed. I have since lost many of these not-quite-treasured possessions, a loss I have never felt in any way emotional, but for the purposes of this essay (I suppose it is an essay) please entertain the image of me typing this next to a hat stand with innumerable laminated name badges cascading from above, rather than a sadly adorned corner of mirror, where a mere six lanyards hang limply like unutilised laurels of garlic. Or let us say there are twelve, if you count the reflections.

One of these badges has upon it all-caps print reading: GUEST. FINAL FANTASY XIV FESTIVAL. 2018. LAS VEGAS. I have inserted the full stops for the sake of clarity. It is a reminder of a good time gone bad. I attended this festival both as a matter of duty for my editor and as a sort of “fun thing” that would take the edge off a rotten year. I was by this point in my career, completely wiped out. I could barely think of a video game before my hand reached up to rub another hair free from my temple. Maybe this was down to having recently given up the demon alcohol, who comes for all members of my genetic pool eventually unless they escape into the still waters of urge and sobriety. I had chosen 30 years of age to make this run for better health and late life. It just so happened to coincide with a cross-globe house move, and a year of completely explicable tiredness and low-key sadness that couldn’t be assuaged with video games. The flashing realm of gunfire and noise that usually made me feel good and focused now only sucked me deeper into the idea that I had chased a worthless life and produced nothing but dross that would be forgotten as soon as whoever controlled the internet died and forgot to tell their family the master password. I’m saying I was burning out. This was my mentality in 2018, completely unbeknownst to my workmates (or perhaps it was beknownst, and they just didn’t let on to their beknowing). The trip to Final Fantasy XIV Fanfest was something I privately felt worried about and faintly excited for in equal measure, if only for the chance to resuscitate my enthusiasm for distant worlds which do not, and will never, truly exist.

Aside from the giant billboards welcoming me to the city of Las Vegas, and offering “Dynamic Stem Cell Therapy”, aside from the advertising miniscreens embedded in the back of taxi passenger seats, and the billboards further down the airport road asking me if I had recently suffered in a motorcycle accident, and if so to immediately call 1-800-LAW-TIGERS so that a giant feline roaring with all the might of on-demand legal representation may set things right for me, aside from having to endure all that, I was happy to be doing something vaguely worthwhile. Reporting on an event most people would not be able to go to. An event most of our readers would not even know existed. My brief, my mission, as it often had chance to be, was to write about this festival with some gentle fun-poking, some accessible information about the game, its inhabitants, and ultimately admit that, although this was a gathering beyond my fickle ken, it was a perfectly reasonable and heartfelt pilgrimage for any true fan of the massive fictional region of Eorzea. A place where people who kill monsters come to hug each other.

Between nights playing roulette and eschewing all theories of pattern by placing cheap bets on red every time, I spent my mornings and afternoons talking to the fans of the game, trying to understand who they were, why they came, and what they did in the game itself. Each short day in Las Vegas, I would find myself more recharged by their happiness, their freindliness, their warmth, and their enthusiasm. I interviewed a namazu, a mythical creature of mythical lakes whose arms hide within the cavernous shell of its body and erupt out through the mouth with human hands, because yes, the namazu is a person in a terrific costume. At night I changed notes for dollar coins. Tried to gamble and to know that I was gambling. I felt the adder of addiction slowly coiling around my limbs, my fingers, my diet coca-cola, and learned the true goal of the Las Vegas visitor, which is to know that you’re not really chasing dice. You’re playing chicken with your own psychology.

On the first day of the event, myself and a handful of other games journalists from the UK, whom I had not met before and have only partially met since, made our way to a Q and A session with the head creators of the game. We were told shortly before entering this session that our one-on-one interviews with the game’s director, Naoki Yoshida, glowing hero of Square Enix, were now impossible. These private interviews had been dangled before us like so many laminated press badges, yet now time itself dictated that the chattings would not occur after all. We would have only this public Q and A session to ask whatever questions we had. This is not an ideal thing to happen, but it is also not an unusual thing. And so, in a hall filled mostly with subscribers of the game, enthusiastic YouTubers, and supportive Twitch streamers, the most challenging question I would hear came from (I think) a journalist at the back of the room, asking when the game would finally be translated to Spanish. Yoshida’s response was as non-committal as the grip with which I held my pen above my notepad.

In an atmosphere like this (hushed with wonder, eager with wide-eye) there is already a cooling effect on open and free speech. It’s very difficult to imagine that a developer (or at the very least, their squadron of PR spitfires) is not aware of this fluffy cloud of easy talk, the softball mist that forms in such a room. In a room like this, you do not want to ask a hard or unusual question. I know this because I have had to overcome my nerves every time it happens. It is embarrassing to be the negative guy, the weirdo, the naysayer, the killjoy, the muckrakerist, the asker of rude questions. It is extra embarrassing when you are, like everyone else, shackled by time, and the question you have plucked out of your interview-ready list to ask involves players masturbating to cat girls in thigh-high digital socks. This will make sense shortly.

The PR gestured that I should get the microphone. I asked my question. The words came fumbling out of my gullet awkwardly, like fully inflated animal balloons.

“It’s an odd question but, uh, it’s no secret that there are players who have sex in the game… or cybersex if you will, and, uh…”

Yes, I had used the professor-like phrase “cybersex, if you will”. I was tumbling down the chasm. The blood was in my ears. I could hear it.

“I was just wondering… that’s not a problem unique to this MMO… but I was wondering what the position is, what your position is on that. Is it something that you quietly discourage or quietly encourage or is it something that you just turn a blind eye to?”

Yoshida’s interpreter began translating. I realised I hadn’t asked the question. I had not asked it well, and I had not asked it at all. I had wanted to know what the official line was on the game’s brothels. Because I had read an article on Kotaku that went into these in-game dens of sexuality and spoke to their erotically charged role-playing inhabitants, completely free of judgement and moralising, and I was curious. The Kotaku report hadn’t discussed what the developers thought about these houses of assignation that existed in their world of friendly monster hunting. But I reflected that they must know about it, if they have any knowledge about their game at all. They must have splurges of data in the form of dirty talk filling their chat fields every day, unfurling like so many rolls of magnetic tape filled with kink. I wanted to know: what does a developer of video games even do about that? I suspected that their unspoken policy is to do nothing, because, well, to each paladin their own. What happens behind closed doors in unreal worlds (a game producer might understandably conclude) is none of their business. I wanted to ask about this. But it felt now, in the seconds after asking my question, that I had simply asked Naoki Yoshida, rising phoenix and fan favourite of Square Enix, whether he thought plain old cybersex between the people in his game was, I don’t, weird, or what?

“I should clarify,” I said, “that the sex is paid for…”

“Ohhh,” said the interpreter, who continued to translate. I had to trust that she understood the gist of my question: what was Yoshida’s position on players exchanging the in-game currency for cybersex? Is Square Enix a lassez-faire overlord, or a Victorian moralist, or something of nuance in between? Yoshida’s translator spoke sideways to him. She had been working non-stop during the course of this monster weekend of Chocobo and Buster swords, and in my downtime I would see Tweets and Reddit posts jest-demanding that this translator, so often on stage and language-dancing for seemingly every Japanese member of the development team, be allowed to sleep for heaven’s sake. She probably did not expect my question.

“…as in, there are player-run brothels.”

It was my final clarification. In the time it took my question to be translated, I was aware of that hum of embarrassment, that familiar sense of dinner table tension, when you bring up something everybody knows about, but nobody wants to acknowledge because it will upset grandmother. That tension dissipated as soon as Yoshida screwed his face up and said:

“Huhhhhh!?”

The room burst into laughter, and I felt fine, even as I recognised the act of using humour as deflection. He then answered the question with all the expected airs of officialdom, telling me what he has probably told dozens of other reporters a dozen times before. If anyone breaks the terms of service, he explained, they will be punished. He didn’t go much further than that, which was disappointing but not surprising. He didn’t reveal any of his personal feelings about the game’s red light districts where one can, if one were so inclined, ask a sex worker in a blindfold to emote at you suggestively and whisper fond lewdnesses into your non-real video game ears. He also didn’t say explicitly what the precise rules were around sex in the game. That was somewhere in the broad-armed terms and conditions, and not for discussion in Q and A sessions. He simply gave a cookie cutter answer: the tickbox of rules acceptance reigns supreme. Square Enix are not Victorian, nor supporters of free love. They’re just another equivocal corporation. It happens.

I considered the topic covered. I was relieved. For the purposes of my article, it was not going to be a big deal. Mention of these brothels and the response by Naoki Yoshida, revered luminary of Square Enix, would, days later, appear in the 40th paragraph of my piece. The fact that this mega-populated fantasy world has fully functioning bordellos was not the focus of my article, nor was it ever intended to be. It was just one more element of a living game that might make it interesting to an outsider. Something to mention. In any case, cyber sex work in video games would be better covered by someone who did not look like most of the sex worker’s own clientele, the spectacle-clad white millenial male. Even before I had asked my bumbling question, I surmised there was no other unseen angle to this weekend’s events. I would do the job I had so often done before. Make gentle fun, admit any bafflement, and sign off with some conclusive happy note.

But there was some lingering unease that, perhaps, I should have sensed. On the way out the door, escaping the positive haze of the Q and A session, the group of UK journalists I had been hanging out with during the trip gave me looks of schoolboy mock-horror. One of them said “fair play” or something along those lines. I couldn’t tell if they were supportive of my line of questioning, or deeply embarrassed on my behalf. It could have been both. Our allotted PR minder walked with us and joked that he would be in trouble now. I laughed, and maybe I even said “sorry”, feeling, against my conditioning, that old pang of sympathy and humanity for these people who are by design my adversaries.

The article I wrote ended on its predicted positive note: “When I think of Final Fantasy XIV from now on,” I wrote later from a hotel room, from an airplane, from above the wastes of Greenland, “I’ll remember the namazu.” (That is, the large, odd creature of fishmyth) “It’s big, it’s slightly unsettling, and I don’t really understand it. But it makes a lot of people smile.”

This is no longer true. Within a week, my defining memorial association with Final Fantasy XIV had become the dog pile, the hate tweets, the froth, the suicide encouragement. The most unsettling mal-tweeter surfaced in my Twitter DMs like a rat from a toilet bowl and said they won’t be surprised when I am someday arrested for paedophilia. I reported all of this. I’m not sure what effect it had. I discovered someone had posted a Reddit thread about me two days after my article’s publication. Two days after that, a YouTuber had made a video about me. If I were to define the resulting mass of communications on the Saffir-Simpson scale, I would judge it a category 2 tropical cyclone of hate. Weatherable, unpleasant.

It could happen to you too. A fan of some massively populated otherworld hears about your stuttering question, a sex question, a question so completely out of keeping with the good and strong requests for official information emanating from good and strong fans like sweet, ambient music from royalty-free internet libraries, and he becomes incensed. He hears about your question. Sex stuff! Maybe he receives a hastily written transcript of your question, maybe it is just a paraphrasing, because whoever was taking the notes for their own fan coverage of the game did not bring a voice recorder, or never got around to learning the Teeline shorthand required to rapidly note all the details of eg. a pathologist’s report on a naive user of heroin who died standing upright in the kitchen of a South Yorkshire home. Maybe another fan sees this Reddit post, this bundle of semi-notes, and he creates a video four days after your article has already been published, quietly scanned by the site’s usual readers, and happily forgotten. He unforgets it for everybody, but mostly for his subscribers. He calls you “ignorant” and “condescending” and “disrespectful”. It gets 60,000 views and is titled “Rock Paper Shotgun Writer Dumps on Final Fantasy XIV Fans at Fan Festival”. Even I can applaud and seek to learn from the alliterative quality of such title case theatrics.

When my father squirmed with joy, all those years ago, to see a member of Her Majesty’s cabinet roasted upon a fire of Paxman, I inherited that joy, for better or worse. I do not know if any of my infinite brothers and sisters did so also but, statistically, they should have. I took that oil-black joy into school the next day, and the day after that, and forever, until one awkward 17-year-old day I found myself facing the head priest of this uber-Catholic all-boys scholastic institution, because yes, Ireland was as segregated by gender as it was by religion during my cold years of secondary school. I faced the priest in a large ring of seated people, composed of every boy in my year. This assembly was called to address some misdemeanor or another and would be using the heretofore unseen novelty of allowing us, the students, a moment to speak if we so desired it, as if this were a town council meeting and not a proverbial dressing down. When it came my time to talk, I channeled my best Paxman and pretended to be good at pointing out all the flaws in our head priest’s commands to us as students, students who would soon be leaving to go to university and finally know the embrace of an actual woman. I argued and cross-examined this priest long enough to impress my friends and infuriate my splotchy-faced maths teacher to the point of internal combustion. He gripped my arm after the debacle and I thought: “Jesus, this fella is gonna hit me.” He didn’t. I felt good. Boys who had never known or spoken to me before winked and laughed and now said my surname with the slightest tones of praise. I thought I was the big dick, is what I am trying to communicate.

I did all this because I hated it when teachers told me to “respect” the school’s priestly overseers. Many years later some internet meme or another explained to me the difference between “respect for other humans” and “respect of authority”, and pointed out that usually those with any modicum of power, or those with a mindset to authoritarianism, tend to think of these things as one and the same. In 2018, months before I flew to Las Vegas to meet a lot of mostly decent people, the head priest of that school was investigated by the police in connection with things that priests are often investigated for. In the meantime, I had long revised my opinion of Paxman as a bastion of democracy, a person to emulate, but I would never really change my belief that sometimes questions cause discomfort. And sometimes discomfort is good for society. Last week a woman put a frighteningly long cotton stick up my nasal cavity so hard it made my nose bleed, all part of the testing process for the howling winds of neo-pneumonia currently blowing across the planet. My viral test came back negative. I had done what the health professionals advised. It was uncomfortable.

At the fan festival, I continued to ignore the idea of respect to authority. I didn’t think anything of it, this is just who I am. Even if that authority was Naoki Yoshida, blinding star of Square Enix. Because I had not asked about downloadable content or new pets or, I don’t know, the graphics, I was disrespectful to him. I was disrespectful, the Reddit fans had decided, the Tweeters had deemed it so, the YouTubers had consecrated the fact thus. Despite the content of my article, written with the same crib-rocking pseudomockery and curious eye as I had employed on countless other topics and countless other games, a small group of annoyed fans (most Final Fantasy fans are pretty chill just so you know – I’m one of them) were willfully ignoring that tone and sending emails to my employer suggesting that he fire me. He did not fire me; he sighed with familiar weariness. For two sweet days before that storm descended I had rekindled my fire for video games, the flicker of a smile I had always held primarily for their absurdity, if not for their creativity, because that is what video games were and remain. They are exercises in absurdity, let us not pretend otherwise as we stab our 200th person in the neck with a makeshift shiv, as we bonk our 10,000th spaceship off the face of the universe. As we kill our fourteenth anthropomorphised cactus. In those days after the event, I even downloaded and played some Final Fantasy XIV. It was OK, as those games go. It was pretty OK.

But that brief moment of passion-bellowsing was cut short when the DMs came rolling in. I tried to defend myself in the comments of the article, dropping in to give a classic Paxman defence. I am not at these events to be polite and respectful, I told one commenter. I’m there to ask my question.

“Makes me laugh,” replied an anonymous internet person to this defence. “Like, dude, you write about games, you’re not a real journo.”

I cannot dispute the veracity of this assertion. It is what I routinely say to other people when they ask about my job.

By this point I had already written a full article about the cosplayers of the festival as an accompaniment to my report. It was basically a list of impressive people I had spoken to on the show floor about their fantastic costumes, their wild plastic plumage, foam swords, false beards, wondrous sleeves. In the hatred-wake that followed, this would never be published. I would disappear from the Slack channel of my employer, where my workmates offered knowing condolences, and stand around my home grimacing into cups of tea and glasses of cola that contained precisely zero millimetres of alcohol. My workmates had all visited this precise point in life. It was my turn in the trash compactor. I had disrespected the fans, I had disrespected the developers, I had disrespected the game.

I had asked about the sex stuff.

The most disappointing thing in the quieter days that followed was to notice other journalists, or former journalists, even some I had worked with, shaking their heads with that crowd. Some of these people played the game themselves and, feeling their subculture more significant than their vocation, they judged my work as poor. I should not have asked this question, they said. It was not relevant. It was not appropriate. It was hack behaviour. Some of these people, I realised as I checked their bios with a sadness I have often known since, were no longer journalists after all. They now worked in PR or community management.

I would not say the sex question haunts me. But it has given me enough emotional ammunition to create a 6000+ word piece of autobiographical tumblethought, so it must have left some lasting psychological damage on the tissue of my brain. Even tonight, as I played back the recording of my own question (always back up your work) in order to transcribe the real, actual words I used and not the paraphrasal conglomeration of bogus sentiment produced elsewhere, I found my heart thumping. The honey badger of public humiliation coming to gnaw at my throat once more. I was assuaged when I heard the question end. It was not that bad. I’m glad I asked it. If I had asked this question, as planned, in a room solely consisting of Naoki Yoshida, shining light of Square Enix, his over-worked interpreter, the PR, and myself, there would have been no Reddit post, no YouTuber video, no outrage, no rats in the toilet bowl of my nightmares screaming “arrest the paedophile”. It would simply have been the 40th paragraph of my article and nothing more. Again, it is hard to fathom a public relations company who does not understand the self-policing mentality of fandom. It is hard to envisage a reality where public relations might care to function in any other way. I say that as someone who personally likes the PR man who accompanied myself and other journalists on our trip to Las Vegas. I know him as a good person. But just as all cops are bastards, all PR are spectres of conformity. You would be too, if the man dispensing your monthly pay cheque was not a man at all, but a giant spreadsheet housed in glass and steel.

I knew then, and I still know today, that what I had just lived through was only a taste of what women and other people less schoolroom chalk in complexion as I, less beardspectcled in demenour, have been through in our accursed kingdom of video games and beyond. It is a single flush of the cistern compared to what they go through with maddening regularity. I had experienced a vertical slice of harassment. A category 2, not a category 5. A touch of the bad stuff. I recognise the tactics today used to far greater degree against academics in the US, mentioned in the very article which made me open this word document and begin to write and never stop. Video game hatred has infected reality, or the other way around, it is hard to tell. Life and its digital counterpart has become the thrall of fandom, and yes, we journalists, Paxman apologists or not, have played our part in the ongoing limescaling of democracy. Even if all we do shake our heads at our peers in anti-solidarity because of a perceived disrespect directed at our favourite starlets. Even if all we do is encourage a fellow wage slave to buy this fun game about shooting more soldiers in the knees, and to think no more about it. Don’t get me wrong. I love to shoot a soldier in the knees. I’m from County Armagh. But even I must reconcile my place in the degenerative disease currently fingernailing its way through the gut of the body politic. Even I get tired of the endlessness of it all.

A year after the events laboriously described above, I quit my job. I did not quit because of that window of hatred that I had briefly opened, the incident I now call the dog pile. But I can’t look at you through the flickering glow of this screen and say with honesty that this scurrilous lowlight of my career, this Final Fanticide, did not contribute to the snowballing feeling I had been living with for years, that video games have been, for me, a simultaneously glittering and dark obsession. They have been, since my box-engineering days of childhood losery, a lightning rod for all my purpose and drive. They are the Zahir I can’t leave in my pocket. Even now, in October of the bad year, I have become ensconced in a personal project of questionable scope (it’s a podcast – I’m sorry), completely and utterly reliant on the whims of our cracked industry, resplendent as it is with slimes and firearms and anime-flavoured sexual safehouses.

The quitting of my full-time job came from a long way off. The sentiment had bubbled away quietly within me. The burnout had a long tail. I long ago made the decision, on a terrible, sober summer evening during which I glimpsed at that endless ticker tape of internet and saw the phrase “Kingdom Hearts 3 will have 80+ hours of content” and knew that I wanted out.

Some time between the dog pile and my last day, I went to another event, this time in the Basque Country, close to where I lived and easy to reach on an idle weekend. I thought of it as easy pickings. A chit to this developer, a chat to that publisher. I stood in the cacophonous hall and drank a shot of café solo from a medicine cup. I listened to a famous game producer speak her truth not quietly nor clearly but with the assertive dominance of a Victor Frankenstein of language. I sat with the rest of the audience, subjected to a wall of verbal vaguenesses, trying to absorb her responses well enough to write a sensible sentence, in Teeline shorthand or otherwise, inhaling the fog of executive-grade non-answers she gave to her on-stage co-nonsenser and I wished that everyone in the room would turn to crystal or granite or smoke, so that there would at least be peacefulness alongside the ungraspable mundanity of it all. As I later pissed away the futility of my whole Saturday afternoon into a too-white urinal, I could only hear the word “jaded” ringing around in my ears, because that is the one thing I could remember her advising the crowd of aspiring code wranglers – not to become jaded. A small god ray of truth streaking down into the toilets, bouncing off my skull and landing on the tiles, unabsorbed. I frowned at my own urine and felt the world not much more bright or interesting than the piece of self-flushing ceramic in front of me. Well, at least a urinal has cake.

On the way out of the center, I discarded my press pass for the event, lanyard attached, atop a rubbish bin outside the glass doors, leaving it there for some kid to find, some chancer to abuse. It was both a pelt I had not earned, and a trophy I didn’t want. I took the train home remembering only one other thing from that vaprous talk. “Be honest with yourself about your goals,” the speaker had said. But after years of workmanlike and completely non-real journalism about video games, I didn’t know what my goal was anymore. If I took that itinerent executive’s cloudlike advice to heart, the only admission I could make now was that I no longer wanted anything to do with this ultrastrange sideshow of an industry, that could produce both wonderful namazus and life-threatening DM rodents with the same colourful breath of code, crunch and community.

Two years after the Final Fanfestasy, I was eagerly unemployed. I wrote a handful of listicles every month, and thought of them as a sort of gentle retirement. I took a course to teach people the English language for money, and then bitterly remembered that if my ancestors found out I taught the Queen of England’s language to people, and not the old tongue of the ancient Tuath Dé Danann, I would be relegated to all sorts of bog hells. I supped from my savings as a sailor dips his hands into a barrel of rumbullion. Gladly, warmly, generously, without thought. One night, I received a DM of friendly warning from one of the good people of my past. Another YouTuber had made a video about me.

This time, it was OK. Because it wasn’t really about me. Internet man and axe-wielding fury of the Left, Hbomberguy, known as Harris Bomberguy, known as Harry Bomberguy, known as Harry, known as Harris, known as the man who sticks his head through a wall to shout at ill-educated fascists, had summoned onto the cables and capacitors of Earth a two-hour-long video about the plague-themed video game Pathologic 2, timed a mere two months before an approaching real world pandemic (kinda sus). It was a game which I had had the misfortune to review some – let me check – six months beforehand, in a blistering whirlwind of impatience and concision for my now former employer Rock Paper Shotgun. I had given the game no score. Because we don’t do that. This game was also OK.

As a YouTuber Harry Bomberson was unlike the previous hitsquad commander who had sent angry internet people to my inbox and who shall remain nameless lest he materialise before us like a spirit of Christmas malice. But he did start the video by insulting me and calling me a bad critic. Me! A bad critic! Doesn’t he know, I am the man who asked the sex question. I have seen Jeremy Paxman for many nights in a row, I have known the fury of that aging interrogator before he was let go and sent to host a University quiz show with (for some reason) none of his questionable sneering misanthropy removed.

I watched Harris the Bomb Boy’s video. It was good. It made me want to be better at the job I no longer did.

The low-frequency anticipation of incoming hater-mail I had been feeling since my friend sent their helpful heads-up was unnecessary. After a day or two it became clear that I would, this time, receive no entreaties to hang myself. Although I do have Harris Bombardier, video game acknowledger and noted AOC necksnapper of the Left, to thank for one thing. The top suggestion after my name in Google is now “brendan caldwell pathologic 2” bringing attention to a piece of criticism I do not rank anywhere near my best work. That would be my review of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown.

Since this savaging at the jaws of talent, I have spent the last few months rolling hateful ideas of a comeback around in the place where my brain once yelled endlessly for cheap Polish lager and cola-flavoured rum. For a brief time there, I was quiet and happy. Then the old obsession wormed in and did its darkness. Also, I was running out of money. I started once again to slurp up the work of other video game journalists, writers, YouTubers, even the dreaded Twitch streamers, in an attempt to understand what is good about each of these things. Could I, with my cracking courtroom knuckles, with my aging head, sagging and wordless, infiltrate and destroy these people? But, y’know, in a good way?

I didn’t know. I still don’t know. Probably not. But I have long suspected that I produce my best work under pressure. Like one of those magic escalators that only goes up or down if someone is standing on it. I read an article tonight about online harassment and it made me wretch, gag, and vomit out these 6000+ words of… what? Foreshadowing? While I write, I do so comparing myself to those around me. I am conscious to “anxiety of influence” levels that I am replicating the rolling wordseas of Tim Rogers, a writer of known quantity, introduced to me many years ago by a friend and colleague who asked in the confines of a prisonous London if I had ever read this man’s work.

“No,” I said.

“He’s really…”

My friend struggled to find a word.

“Dense?” I offered. I had read Austerlitz. I knew that “dense” meant “good”.

“No,” said my friend, “he’s SPARSE.”

And so I learned that “sparse” can also mean “good”. Isn’t writing unusual?

I make this digression so that I might divulge to you that, in the past week, I have watched 100 percent of Tim Rogers’ own 3-hour long video unreviews of Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, and Doom, including all bonus material, asides, and epilogues. Roughly two and half hours into the infamous wordhoser’s review of Doom, Rogers interjects with a recording made months later, interrupting his flow of observations only to apologise for said observations, visibly depressed in a way that makes it hard to know if this is part of his ongoing self-fictionalising or a genuine, grasping, human doldrum of auto-brutalising, recorded self-consciously over a backing of sorrowful piano. “Some day,” he says, “I’m gonna do something good” fully understanding (or perhaps not understanding at all) that he has been doing something good for decades. The parenthesised possibility is terrifying, because it means none of us will ever be happy. Still, this is how I proffer myself to you now, having platinumed a man’s YouTube channel and absorbed, for one night only, the sum total of his Funesian powers. I will not apologise. I am buoyed as much as I am saddened by the human drive to do something good while standing in a litter of failure. I will continue to write, about video games or otherwise, until the aquifer runs dry. But writing, it feels increasingly to me, is not enough. I’ve got to build myself a new machine. Even if no one looks at the results.

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