I was so excited. A thing that I had written was going to be published on the front page of the newspaper. Granted, it was a college paper and it was more or less an op-ed piece, but it was still mine and it would be my name that people would be seeing. I’m an emotionally dampened person, to say the least, but this was a rare instance where I was feeling pride.
For what? 30,000 students and teachers would read about my opinion mixed in with some research on the merits of PC and Mac. I didn’t really feel all that strongly about the topic, but my editor did, so I wrote about it. It indeed made my self-assured gait that day all the more confusing. But then I began to check my e-mail. It was the first time I’d ever seen a real death threat, let alone one aimed at me. And then I continued to get more and more e-mails, many of them saying they still chose one side or the other but appreciated my words nonetheless. Those were great, but that single, solitary e-mail still sticks with me to this day.
So I can’t imagine what it must be like to put out a game like Fez or speak out in public to hundreds of thousands of people every day, where every word you say is put under a magnifying glass, shit upon, and then told it looks like shit anyways. But that’s the world Phil Fish and many other creatives and figureheads live in. Fish, founder of Polytron and designer of Fez, is, however, especially strange because it seems like he puts himself out there on purpose.
One of the few things people can agree upon when talking about Fish is that he’s outspoken. When Fish has a thought, it seems like he rarely decides to put it through any filter or really consider the consequences. It is, basically, the same reason people love Jennifer Lawrence except the things she says are all around charming while Fish’s words are generally the subject of controversy. Remember the Xbox 360 Fez patch?
It’s sometimes, though, a chicken and egg problem. Consider when he was at an open Q&A at last year’s GDC. A Japanese developer asked Fish what he thought of modern Japanese games, to which he responded, “Your games just suck.” And then the Internet promptly blew up. But the bigger story is that the initial reporting was Fish simply lambasting Japan in its entirety (which he wasn’t) and decrying Japanese game development unprompted (which he wasn’t). At some point, Braid creator Jonathan Blow backed up Fish by saying they are “joyless husks” of games, though people by and large failed to push back against that with similar zeal. (Or possibly think that there was, in fact, some merit to Fish and Blow’s statements.)
Following that debacle, many questions press posed to Fish were directly tied to that incident, some of which were leading and some of which weren’t. But it soon began a case of badgering a very opinionated fellow to give his opinion. It’s like lighting a stick of dynamite and then blaming it for blowing up in your face.
I’ve met Fish before, too, so I can say that he is everything you would expect. Guarded, talkative, paranoid, and incredibly smart. His insight on games is simply astounding. It was at a house party during last year’s Fantastic Arcade in Austin, Texas where he was, coincidentally, being the resident DJ (perhaps still wound up from the previous night’s Dancingularity event) and, at some point, juggling fire. A press friend of mine, however, had spent the whole day and most of the party trying to convince Fish to sit down for an interview they’d long agreed to. My friend wanted to talk about the Dancingularity thing. Fish was afraid he just wanted to talk about games, which he was adamantly opposed to that night.
That is understandable. If I was a creative, I’d be wary of press, too. I’ve shared drinks with developers that open with “this is off the record” when I thought we were just being friends. Better safe than sorry, I guess, but that won’t stop the naysayers of the Internet from spitting fire from their nostrils.
That’s what happened over the weekend. An episode of Invisible Walls on GameTrailers with Marcus “Annoyed Gamer” Beer had Beer saying some less than savory things about Fish and Blow. He was particularly critical of Fish refusing to comment on Microsoft’s revised self-publishing policies for the Xbox One, though such revisions were simply rumors at the time, a problem both developers had when press came digging for quotes. He did also go so far as to call the two indie developers (which he somewhat childishly referred to as “Blowfish”) a “pair of tosspots” and “self-styled kings of the indie genre.” He capped it off by calling Fish “a fucking asshole most of the time.”
Fish and Beer then got into it over Twitter and Fish subsequently canceled the recently announced Fez II and decided to quit game development altogether. Fish made an official statement on the Polytron Twitter account and blog: “Fez 2 is cancelled. I am done. I take the money and I run. This is as much as I can stomach. This isn’t the result of any one thing, but the end of a long, bloody campaign. You win.” (Patrick Klepek over at Giant Bomb has a solid recap of the events.)
It’s a real shame, if this turns out to truly be the finale to Fish’s development career. (It probably isn’t?) He, of course, had his fans. Not just of his games but of his words, too, but as anyone in the public spotlight can tell you, it’s not that easy to get over the hate that never seems to have trouble finding you. For all the compliments and help I get for and with my writing, I can tell you that the death threat I got over five years ago still sticks with me. And all the love and support Fish gets for Fez will never topple the hate he got from an industry professional on a widely viewed show on a heavily visited site. Even #PositivitySunday this weekend didn’t do much of anything to buoy the industry’s spirits.
It’s not an easy thing to get over, but it’s such an easy thing to be the target of. Someone once suggested to Blow that he could ignore all the bad stuff that gets sent his way. “We can’t choose to ignore it. As soon as the words are read, they have already hit emotionally.” Which is quite true. Tweets don’t have subject lines, and those trolls have become smart enough to put innocuous ones in their emails to get the body read. And even then, it sometimes doesn’t stop people from being nasty.
There’s a Tumblr out there that collects all of the horrible things people tweet at David Vonderhaar, design director behind Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, after they changed the DSR’s fire time from 0.2 seconds to 0.4 seconds and the rechamber time from 1.0 seconds to 1.1 seconds (among other things). Every time Anita Sarkeesian puts out another Feminist Frequency, you can be sure people extolling the subjugation and loss of “men’s rights” will do everything they can to abuse, threaten, and discredit her.
And yet people want more frank, transparent people leading the charge. Fans get itchy when designers and developers don’t answer questions in full and press are disappointed when they walk away with half-truths in their interviews. It becomes the question of why stick your neck out when everyone has a guillotine. Fish, for all this outspokenness and hyperbolic statements, was mostly that person, though, who said “fuck it” and then leaned out anyways. After five years of developing a game no one thought would ever come out and then being in a documentary highlighting that struggle, he’s already his fair share of Internet hate. And yet he keeps coming back for more.
Or at least he did until Beer called him a tosspot, and now the industry has lost a brilliant designer who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. But this isn’t an isolated incident; it’s simply one with two high-profile people involved instead of just one. The moment you expose yourself in any creative endeavor, whether it’s writing or designing or filming or commentating, you jump into a sea of hate, and the more popular you become, the more weights you tie around your ankles. You’re flailing, dying in this black, endless ocean of insults and threats and you’re doing it to yourself. Either you cut yourself free in time to swim to the surface or you sink to the bottom with the rest of the wide-eyed hopefuls. We’re all fish out of water, but we’re also the ones drowning.
Enjoy the air up there, Phil. I don’t see this water getting any better.