Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Goodbye to GFW Radio

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.


Nels Anderson said...

Heh, I actually feel the very much the same, just about different podcasts (like Firefly, I hadn't gotten into GFW until it was too late). Most of my "RL" friends are tabletop gamers, so taking part (albeit passively) in conversations about games helped me feel engaged.

Michael Abbott's, Penny Arcade, Gamastura; all these podcasts encouraged me to think more deeply and more intelligent about games. It sucks that I'm so late to the GFW party, but now that I've only got two Gamastura podcasts left, I may have a new podcast archive to load up on the ol' iPhone.

Denis Farr said...

I've yet to fully immerse myself into the gaming Podcast territory, but it's something I keep meaning to do eventually. Luckily enough, I've always had gamer friends around with whom I can debate, argue, and tease out conversations (even if nothing more than lists of things we all laud or loathe).

What's very curious to me is how many of gamers seem to go on a hiatus during college. I was very much in the same boat, though mine was really just a minimized interest compared to how much I used to play.

As with anything, at least it has seemed to inspire more conversation, and if achieved that goal, we can at least remember it fondly.

Anonymous said...

You're not the only one who feels this way, of course. There is not a gaming podcast that came close in terms of holding up as good talk. I'll miss them as well.

Unknown said...

When I read things like this all I see is opportunity and not regret, remorse or "bum outage". You have identified some part of yourself that is shared by others here. Is it enough to post about it or will that desire find some new outlet?

Ben said...

I highly recommend the Gamers With Jobs podcast. It's not the same exactly, but they're a quality collection of folks. Not to mention Ken Levine's a fan and comes on. Last week Jeff Green was on, and Shawn Elliot is on this week.

Anonymous said...

That was very well put, and sums up a lot of what GFW Radio meant for me.

I'd also fallen out of love with gaming during college, just because my academic life was so demanding, I was presiding over one relationship meltdown after another, and my friends and I were hitting bars five nights a week. (Believe it or not, this all worked out rather brilliantly.) I was still a gamer, in that I played games, but I no longer followed the industry. Or cared that much.

GFW Radio brought me back to the fold while simultaneously helping me survive the worst job I have ever had. It was my first real job out of college, it was horrible, and it took place entirely in front of a computer in a cubicle. My girlfriend got me an iPod for Christmas and once I was sick of my music collection, I went in search of podcasts. And stumbled into GFW Radio, which led me to a lot of other things.

But here is the really life-changing moment I had with GFW Radio. It was during Shawn's Safeway story. "What's gonna sell, what's gonna sell?" And Jeff brought up the guy who got fired for giving away a free bag of popcorn at Disneyland.

That's when I realized that I hated my job beyond words, I didn't care if I lost it, and that there were people out there who loved going to work in the morning. If I really tried, I might be one of those people. But I wasn't going to get there if I stayed in that cubicle, using podcasts as anesthetic.

So in a way, GFW Radio made me quit my job. But I haven't told anyone else that part. The official line is, "It wasn't a good fit."

ImpureAscetic said...

I am sorry for your loss. What's to stop you from rounding up other interested bloggers who echo your thoughts and churning out a podcast of your own? You typically render some of the most insightful and interesting thoughts about video games yourself. Why not speak it and give your fingers a break? Why do we HAVE Skype and its ilk if not to close the borders between the opinionated masses who wish to be recorded and heard?

Laez said...

Very well said. I don't know how many realized the relative importance of GFW Radio until the outpouring of love that's come in the weeks since Jeff and Shawn's departure. It's been a weekly highlight for many of us who enjoy games but always want a little more than "How awesome is COD4?" "So awesome."

It's great to think that the two of them are going to bring something tangible to the teams they're going to, and I have no doubt they're going to continue to do the great things they do, and that is a benefit for everyone who enjoys games. The downside is that now instead of having the two of them in a small group where their voice was distinct and audible time they had something to say, they're both now a part of a much larger group and we might never really know what exactly their influence is, though I'm positive their respective projects will be better for it.

What I'm really saying is, dammit, I'm gonna miss the Brodeo.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@nelsormensch: like I said the GFW podcast is pretty much the best one on the 1up site. (1up FM has been getting better) the great thing for you is that there are years worth of stuff to listen to.

@ben: I've actually just started listening to the GWJ podcast this week (I was looking for a rebound podcast) and you're right it's really quite good.

@rob: I remember the exact podcast you describe, and I know a lot of people had the same experience. Anthony Gallegos on the last podcast talked about almost the same thing: he had a job he hated and the GFW Radio podcast was the thing he looked forward to. I know the podcast made me look forward to the tedious tasks back when I worked at the Starbucks, because I could listen to GFW when I was doing the deposit.

@impureascetic: Man, I don't have the production chops or network to pull off a podcast myself. I am going to be on the brainy gamer podcast at some point over the next few months though (I'm not sure where I am in the batting order), and I'm totally looking forward to it.

Duncan said...

Rob Zacny: I'm really happy you cite that example. I found the final GFW last week to be poignant in a lot of ways but no moment more so than Shawn Elliott describe his former, lousy job and how he'd use his ten-minute breaks to write in a carpark at night. Out of nowhere, this story so completely articulated my own feelings about my current shitty job and using writing as an escape. Seriously blown away. That's why it was one of my favourite "anythings" and will remain so.

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