Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Heroes , Idols & Role Models (Part Two)

Right about the time I beat the first Legend of Zelda my mind was pretty much all but made up as to what I wanted to do with my life, career-wise. And it was to play video games forever and ever. Now, as a grown man I'm slowly starting to realize that I may have to make a few adjustments to my plan. But maybe not! As the two heroes I talk about today are basically living out my dream, with a few minor tweaks. And I'll be damned if I don't admire the HECK out of them:


The Penny Arcade Duo

Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik - or 'Gabe and Tycho' as they're known via their online personas - are living a bit of a dream life right now. For nearly twelve years they've been publishing a webcomic (Penny Arcade) based on their love of video games, and since they got started, they've gone on to become their own industry - not only did they eventually become one of the few webcomic sites in existence to become self-sustaining, but they also are responsible for starting the largest public gaming convention on the planet (PAX, which I've gushed about a number of times here) as well as a video game donation-themed children's charity that has generated over a million dollars in donations each of the past two years.

If that wasn't enough, they were also just recently voted into the Time Top 100, so clearly I'm not the only one whose life has been affected by them. But enough about how awesome their lives are - what is it I specifically dig so much about these guys? Well, for starters, they succesfully made a living doing something they love, by turning their passion into a career, which is always admirable. And at the time (and even to this day) it wasn't something anyone even thought you could turn into an actual career. Though they attribute most of their financial success to their business manager Robert Khoo, who stepped in a few years after they got started and really took the reigns and helped them grow in ways they never imagined (side note, for any budding 'Robert Khoos' out there, you know how to reach me) even before he stepped in they were already making a living with the comic, mostly based on donations, which is a testament to how much their fans loved them. To this day, they are constantly acknowledging that they owe their fans for all their success.

They've also done a tremendous amount of goodwill for an industry that is still seen by many as either a child's indulgence, or a serial-killer-in-the-making's proving grounds. They've spoken up against critics like Jack Thompson, Roger Ebert, and many others who feel the game industry is dangerous or unworthy. And between all of this - the podcasts, the conventions, the games, the merchandise, the accolades, the charity, the documentary currently being filmed about them, and of course, their wives and children - they are still churning out a product that is consistently smart, funny and enjoyable three times a week, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. And I don't see them stopping anytime soon (unlike some people we know).

What have I learned from the Penny Arcade Duo? 

Justin McElroy

Games journalism is a bit of a sticky wicket, to borrow an expression I really ought to use more. In a field where a lot of the "journalism" comes down to a lot of regurgitated press releases and fanboy flame wars, it's undoubtedly hard to really feel like you've got a unique voice. Nearly everyone involved in writing about video games has pursued it out of their pure love for the industry, and yet once you strip away all the window dressing so many gaming blog and news sites ostensibly have a lot of the same content. There are of course, exceptions to this that stand out, and if there weren't, this would make for a really strange transition.

There are a handful of really great video game journalists out there who time and time again not only show their love and knowledge of all things video game related, but also give some personal insight into what makes this industry special, and quite frankly worthy of reading about other than press releases and fanboy ravings. A short but by no means exhaustive list of people in the industry I've come to know by name and follow regularly: Steven Totilo, (who I've met before and is super nice) Leigh Alexander, (who I once asked out for a drink and never heard from again - though this was pre-cooties shot, to be fair), Robert Ashley (who interviewed me for A Life Well Wasted last year), Yahtzee from Zero Punctuation, and the crew over at Giant Bomb and Cheap Ass Gamer are all really talented people who all have a unique voice. But my personal favorite video game journo? You guessed it: Mr. Justin McElroy.

My admiration for Justin McElroy can almost entirely be summed up by this video he just posted earlier today, going ballistic in a review/shaming of a really really bad game (cut to 4:40 if you're short on time for his final word). I don't even really know if there's a way I can totally capture it in writing, either. Like everyone else I mentioned before, McElroy is a passionate gamer, a great writer, and a total professional. He's also really fucking funny. I guess ultimately what separates him from everyone else is just a matter of personal taste. There's a certain level of light-hearted giddiness that goes into his work that's a constant reminder of him saying: "hey, guess what people? We're talking about video games here, so let's all just calm down and get back to having fun."

The funny thing is during my very first encounter with him via the Joystiq podcast, I HATED him. I don't know if at the time I wasn't in the mood for his bits and I just wanted straight news in my podcast, or if he's calmed down a little since then - but man alive, the first time I heard his voice I wanted to reach through my headphones and strangle him! But lo and behold, some 3 years later I'm sitting here talking about him like a schoolyard crush. But you know how it goes - the well known pattern of complete and utter contempt to blog-boner idolization has been well established by now.

In a way McElroy and the Penny Arcade Duo are polar opposites: Mike and Jerry write their silly little multimillion dollar comic strips but keep a straight face when it comes to speaking about and defending the industry. And Justin is covering dry, serious (relatively speaking) news and writing reviews, but he's doing it with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. So I guess what I'm saying is he is the Peter Pan of the video game journalism industry. And Wendy and the other children are us, his readers. And Captain Hook is...bad video game design. I think I've lost control of this metaphor.

In summary, I think it's safe to say the things I've learned from Mr. Justin McElroy are:

One more entry in this series to come. Who will I be showering with praise next time? Stay tuned!


PS: Whoa! I totally didn't mean to do this, but I just realized I wrote the Penny Arcade section almost like a Wikipedia article and Justin's section like an episode of the Colbert Report. I'm tempted to change it right now as it seems inherently flawed, but I'm going to leave it here untouched as a display of my blatant, unsubtle subconscious.

Currently Playing: Finally got around to playing The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, which is a lot of fun (who'd of thought trains would actually be a good idea?) and am now patiently trying to get in more than a game or two of the Halo Reach Beta without getting dropped due to server overload. Come on Bungie! You had to see this coming!

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