Thank You For Playing: Iconic Video Game Magazines describes a bygone era, an era in which magazines could take risks and ‘every game was new’.
The insights in this documentary are not blinded with nostalgia or sentimentality, however, but give an honest warts and all account of the rise and fall of the foremost video game magazines in Poland from the early 90s through to the early 00s. The most impressive thing about this documentary is how despite its apparent niche, it really is of interest not only to gamers more broadly, but anyone who’s ever had a passion for anything. Its commentary on the emergence of the internet and how that has affected our culture, the concept of the “brand”, and the market, is fascinating as it is tragic.
Adrian Chmielarz, a Game Developer interviewed throughout Thank You For Playing, describes early 90s Poland as a “schizophrenic” state in which: “we had gamers with the newest games and completely empty fridges”. The obsessive nature of gamers (prioritising games over food), the “fan” culture, is something which becomes a recurring theme. The writers of the gaming magazines (Top Secret, Gambler, Reset, Computer Games World, Secret Service) are clearly themselves fans, enthused and devoted to their games, often getting sidetracked playing Quake marathons and not actually going about the business of producing articles. The new video game culture is portrayed as a kind of drug. Copyright didn’t exist at the time and so most people acquired their games by producing floppy-disk copies or buying them at “electro-markets”. This is an alien world now. It is hard to imagine that it might be difficult to acquire games, or that the games we purchase come on a “compilation disc” made by a friend. Though the ease with which we can access games now is much to be desired, there is clearly a level of creativity and innovation, not just in the game developers themselves, but in the actual community, which is being eroded.
“There were no set rules of how to make a video game magazine because it’d hardly been done before, and so they got experimental. Often it paid off”
There’s a huge parallel here with the early days of table-top war-gaming. There was a concept in war-gaming called “conversion”; it’s when you alter a miniature so that it becomes uniquely your own. This could be anything from changing the way they stand, giving them a different weapon or head, or entirely building them with spare parts from scratch. This was a difficult and complex process. It required skills with modelling putty and an eye for design. Now, all the miniatures you buy come with a huge number of permutations of arms, legs, heads, positional and basing, so that you don’t have to convert your models: the options are already there for you. Whilst it makes it easier for new people to get into the craft (which is a good thing) one cannot help but long for the days when giving your standard-bearer a new sword was an artistic, skilful procedure. So too, video games have been made more accessible in one sense, but less catered for the gaming community as a niche market. The introduction of family games, kinect and other tools prove this shift toward making gaming culture mainstream.
But it did not begin this way. It was made by geeks and for geeks. Most of the people working for the magazines had yet to finish their A-levels. Everything was amateur, there were no set rules of how to make a video game magazine because it’d hardly been done before, and so they got experimental. Often it paid off. Superstars such as pseudonym ‘Gulash’ were born out of radical decisions to have an entire spread devoted purely to fighting games, Kombat Korner, which also featured images of Gulash enacting martial art stances and a CD of him breaking apart a frozen cob with his forehead. The magazine Reset was made famous by incorporating a Departures section, 15 pages devoted to talking about non video game related material, from film to comics to world events. Ironically, this became one of the most popular parts of the magazine, and when it was removed, quickly had to be reinstated.
Sometimes the risks didn’t pay off of course (for example: the graphic design choice to use yellow text on an orange background rendered a few articles illegible). Just as the magazines were experimenting with how to write about video games, the video games themselves were constantly breaking new ground: almost every game that came out was the first of its genre. Watching this documentary will remind you of those old titles and bring into sharp focus just how widespread the concept of ‘re-skinning’ games has become in the 21st century. Take a look at an early Xbox One/PS4 title, Shadow of Mordor. On the surface, a Lord of the Rings RPG, but really, nothing more than Arkham Asylum with Orcs (press Y to counter, Y and B to finish etc.; all the moves and skill trees are the same). The number of games using the Arkham engine is indicative of the unwillingness to deviate from a successful formula. Businesses across the spectrum are all following this terrifying pattern. Look at publishing, another industry in which I am closely involved. Why publish a startling new book, which may or may not be a huge hit, when you can publish Twilight over and over, just re-skinned? People have proved they will buy it, after all. Not everything has to be original: there’s much to be said for taking an old story, an old idea, and re-imagining it in a new way. But that way should be a re-invention, bringing new light to old matter as opposed to wheeling out the old matter again and again, plastering it with new make-up, and hoping for the best.
“Passion” is a word that is used throughout this documentary time and time again. The writers, artists and designers wanted to be in the office. They wanted to be there at the cutting edge even if it meant four days without going home. They confess, sheepishly at times, that it was easier then given they were so young and had no partners, no children, no mortgage. But still, the dedication and enthusiasm for their work is admirable, even when they also confess to periods of nil-productivity: “There were times when we talked the whole day through and shot toy guns at targets…” These kind of sociable working environments still exist, but they are rarer and rarer.
And that’s where this documentary really hits home. These young people could start something crazy, distribute their magazine to 100,000 or more readers, take risks, be creative, and best of all, talk about the thing they loved all day long. The majority of the interviewees claim it wouldn’t be possible today. As Aleksy Uchańsky remarks: “People these days don’t believe in their work… They say it’s all stupid, meaningless rubbish… then they go back into the office with their smile in place.” He doesn’t say this with condemnation, merely sadness, and also, a kind of gratefulness that he himself has gotten to experience doing what he loves. It is ironic that the internet, which is supposed to “give everyone their niche”, has actually meant a near-universal conformity, and rather than providing opportunity, precipitated the destruction of all of the gaming magazines in Poland (and almost everywhere else) which began in the 90s. Another problem remarked upon by pseudonym “Dr Destroyer” is that since the internet: “People think everyone can write, that it’s easy”. There is no longer any authority in the printed word (or if there is, it is only in certain very established publications). How can a company make their articles heard and stand out, with 100,000 other people also blogging and vlogging? Let alone make a living out of it (with so much on offer for free).
Of course, it would be unfair to dismiss the internet out of hand. It has, in many respects, leveled certain playing fields, and there are innumerable indie-games being made every day by amateur or semi-pro developers, breaking ground, and taking games new places. One only has to scrawl through the Reviews section of GameSpew to see that in many respects the industry is alive. Thank God for Darkest Dungeon, Undertale and No Man’s Sky. However, I would not say the industry is “well”. Examine the closure (or imminent closure) of Lionhead Studios, the increasing pressure on other studios worldwide, it all points to the fact we are in a precarious position where one day it will become impossible to innovate due to financial constraints.
So although this documentary will make you feel warm as you see images of the original Baldur’s Gate, Lemmings, Civilisation, Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy VII and many, many more classic genre-defining video games, you’ll also be left feeling slightly lost. The HQ of the magazine Reset is now a strip-club. The grounds for the offices of Secret Service is rubble awaiting housing developments. An era has passed. A bright (slightly over-colourful) era. And the only thing we can do now is try, in our small personal ways, to keep that rebellious and experimental spirit alive. So, my advice is that you should watch Thank You For Playing: Iconic Video Game Magazines. You’ll learn something about video game magazines in 90’s Poland, about the industry in general, but most importantly, about the state we’re in.
And hopefully, after you’ve watched it, you’ll feel like going out and doing something really crazy and really creative. And who knows, perhaps we can reclaim the innovation, the enthusiasm, and start doing what we love again.