Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Saturday 11 May 2013

Gamer Saved: Empty Slot

In 2012 I decided to start a podcast.

It was a foolish idea coming at a foolish time. The videogames market was saturated with podcasts, many following a familiar, tired execution: news, what the presenters had been playing, what they were looking forward to, and letters from their listeners. Threading these beads together was banter, a factor wholly dependant on the charisma and interaction of the hosts. The best podcasts made this an artform. Though it’s presented by four game writers Regular Features rarely mentions gaming at all. Neither does it rely upon a tired formula. It’s carried by wit, irreverence, spontaneity, and is a stronger product for it.

Few podcasts scale such heights, or even attempt to. Instead, they act as the recorded minutes of social gatherings. Once a week, gamers talk about what they’ve been playing, at the end of which a recording is uploaded to iTunes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I decided if I was to make a show I didn’t want it to be another formulaic ‘bantz’ fest, lost in the crowd.

At around the same time Roman Mars launched a campaign to fund the next season of 99 Percent Invisible. 99 Percent Invisible is a shortform podcast about design that packs research, interviews, professional production and, yes, the odd moment of banter into ten-to-twenty minutes of the very best podcasting has to offer.

I’d always thought of it as one of the Internet’s best kept secrets, but Mars’s Kickstarter campaign proved me wrong. Fans donated in their thousands, raising its profile and making the third season stronger, more polished. Season three is littered with field reports from a wide roster of co-presenters, something the show had hitherto been lacking. Thanks to its fans Roman Mars’s small, personal podcast now spoke with the voice of thousands who were passionate or otherwise interested in design.

Another podcast in ascendence at that time, produced by a sometime contributor to 99 Percent Invisible, was Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace. Produced intermittently, it would soon find itself produced regularly for the Maximum Fun Network, the independent production organisation behind shows such as Judge John Hodgeman, RISK! and My Brother, My Brother and Me.

In The Memory Palace, DiMeo describes small, often forgotten stories from history in evocative and haunting detail. There are many fine history podcasts out there--Hardcore History and BackStory come to mind--but none are so vivid, so atmospheric, so magical as The Memory Palace. Whimsical and heart-wrenching, whether describing the hanging of a rogue circus elephant or the scammer who wormed his way into New York nobility, it is always essential listening.

And that’s what I wanted: a small show about the fun and wonder in games. I wanted it to conjure in my audience what it’s like to win or to lose and have a great time either way, to lose yourself in fantastic landscapes, to fret over decisions that in the real world matter not, to care about code and character, the moving of a piece or the roll of a die. What keeps us at a table, playing cards? What holds us in front of a screen, motionless bar the flicking of our thumbs?

All this and more I wanted to convey, in a short form podcast easily consumed on the way to or from work. The thrill of opening a new console. Staying up at E3, watching keynotes overnight. The joy--and perhaps I’m dating myself here--of standing in front of an arcade machine, watching the attract mode and pretending to be playing.

And if stories from past and present weren’t good enough, there was always the exhilarating march of technology. Who knows what gaming will be ten years from today? When I had the idea for this podcast I hadn’t heard of the Oculus Rift. But now, when I think of the future, I imagine gamers in VR headsets, lost in other worlds like kids in an arcade.

I called the show Game Saved. Hardly the most distinctive of titles, but there was something nostalgic about it, something fond.

After writing a number of scripts and recording a couple episodes, it fell by the wayside. Reactions were positive--and I thank those who offered advice--but it seemed gamers were uninterested in short form podcasts. A few months later Joe Martin would produce Unlimited Hyperbole, a short and nontraditional podcast about gaming. I don’t know how big a success it’s been, but I’m sure however many listeners it’s had, it isn’t nearly enough.

In the past year I’ve lost much of my passion for gaming. It’s a sad thing, to lose part of one’s self in such a way. Hopefully one day it will again find me.

Until then, here are the scripts for Game Saved. They were written to be spoken aloud, and some contain production directions, prompts for sound effects, beats of silence and such. By turns nostalgic, hopeful and bittersweet, they yearn for how things once were, how things might one day be, for other times and other days, for the probable, the actual, and the impossible.

And that, I think, is as fine way of summing up gaming as any.

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