It's kind of hard to describe the podcast thing to a layperson. Whenever I tell an average citizen that I'm voluntarily listening to an online radio show in which members of the enthusiast press talk about video games, I get some confused looks. It's harder still to explain why those shows are something I look forward to every week. But nearly everyone who is into games these days listens to them: the kids, the fanboys, the bloggers, the aspiring game scholars, we all love them. Duncan Fyfe over at the “Hit Self-Destruct” blog said that “Over the past year the GFW Radio podcast quickly became my favourite gaming-related thing but also one of my favourite anythings across every form of entertainment,” and I felt the same way. GFW Radio had its last podcast this week on the heels of Jeff Greene and Shawn Elliott's departure from Ziff Davis Media for new careers in games development.
Why does this bum me out so much? For me it has a much to do with the fact that I'm not close friends with any gamers. When I got back into gaming in grad school (I took a long hiatus from gaming during college), I got this inchoate feeling that something terribly exciting was going on, a fuzzy sense that games were beginning to becoming increasingly sophisticated and were trying to become a kind of art. I thought all of this was really interesting; but since none of my friends were regular gamers, I had nobody to talk about these ideas with.
That's why I loved GFW Radio so much; listening to it each week was like sitting in on a conversation about games with some really smart people who understood what it was all about. When I played a game like Bioshock or Portal I had someone to talk about it with. I came to look forward to hearing the cast's take on the new games that I was playing because they always managed to say things that enriched your experience-- they noticed little wrinkles in the game's design, came at it from unexpected angles, came up with creative ways to describe what it did to the player.
The regular cast of GFW Radio-- Jeff Greene, Shawn Elliott, Robert Ashley, and Anthony Gallegos-- brought an unusual set of skills to the table. They were entertaining storytellers and determined scatologists, but they were also palpably literate. They could be startlingly articulate and perceptive about the medium, and they had an uncommonly sharp handle on the craft of game design. They had a set of principled convictions about the role of game criticism that they put into play week after week. Simply put, they gave a shit, and it showed. They were uncharacteristically serious about the importance of quality writing, and they were passionate about the task of games criticism-- they wanted to critique games in the same way we critique other works of art, and they had the knowledge and literacy to pull this off.
They did all this without every being stuffy or precious; Greene and Elliott in particular had a gift for putting complicated ideas about game design and art into clear and straightforward language, and even the earnest attempts at critique and analysis were leavened with low humor. The show managed the difficult task of being incredibly highbrow and lowbrow at once-- half literary salon and half bullshit session. The conversation could easily ramble from talking about the ethical implications of war games to talking about the most disgusting filth imaginable (the last episode had a lengthy anecdote involving human feces, star wars memorabilia, and Taco Bell). It was always hilariously crude but never boorish.
So, now it's over. There will be other podcasts to listen to but I can't shake the feeling that the loss of Elliot and Greene is a huge loss. It's a shame to see some of the few people in the industry who were truly disciplined about games writing, journalists who took the time and effort to create legitimate criticism, leave the profession for good. I don't think I knew how it was possible to talk intelligently about games until people like Shawn Elliott and Jeff Greene showed me how it was done. When I started this blog and was trying to figure out what kind of conversation about games would be worthwhile, their work on the podcast was an inspiration to me.
It's like the nerd Cheers has gone off the air-- I'm going to miss spending some time with the characters each week. Raise a glass.