2200 words. 17 magazines. Welcome to Book Club.
Magazines! Remember those? From the early years of Mean Machines to PC Gamer and EDGE in more recent times, magazines have always been a part of my gaming life. I love them, and I want people to make more. It seems fitting to finally publish this article, which I started writing in 2012 (!), off the back of Critical Proximity.
Games magazines aren’t limited to the elite publishing houses any more: just as the Internet has democratised other media, magazines can also be designed and published anywhere, by anyone. With that in mind, here’s a look at some titles at the forefront of the digital publishing revolution. As you may know, I think good writing is worth paying for, so I would encourage you to buy lots of these zines and find some new favourites. I’ve focused on my personal favourites, so get in touch if you think you’ve been overlooked.
The magazine scene is evolving all the time: new paid publications have been added, while others have ceased to be. I’m not sure if I’ll keep this piece updated or let it vegetate for another two years – I should probably add some pictures – but either way, I hope to add lots of magazines to the main section and not ‘In Memoriam’.
Without further ado…
Print magazines aren’t irrelevant yet: the problem with the proliferation of games websites is that there’s a huge signal to noise ratio, especially in terms of news and content that I just don’t care about. What really interests me are features and interviews from people who can invest time and effort into the research. Sometimes it’s good to read things that wouldn’t normally pique your interest for a little intellectual diversity: this is where a publication like EDGE or Custom PC succeeds where websites haven’t caught up, or perhaps can’t catch up. That’s the nature of choice vs curation.
EDGE is one of the most iPad-friendly games magazines: it’s a proper native app rather than a mere PDF, offering interactive 3D models, text that flows beautifully from page to page, video clips and external links. The digital version isn’t just cheaper and more convenient than traditional print; it’s also a more enjoyable read. I love getting a push notification when a new issue has been automatically downloaded and is ready to read (shame they’re 350mb each, though).
EDGE may have its faults – its reviews are a love-em-or-hate-em-thing, abstract and old-fashioned at times, and their lack of inline writer credits is a shame – but if it’s a dinosaur, it’s one you’d definitely photograph on a trip around Jurassic Park.
Kill Screen has been around for a while, although it was recently only available as a printed magazine. New issues are now available digitally, complementing their expanding infrequent online features and news reporting – the latter of dubious worth. I don’t know how often they release a new issue (I did check, honest), but they seem increasingly sporadic.
It’s clearly designed to be read as a printed magazine: the double-page art spreads are cruelly chopped in half by an tablet’s screen. This wouldn’t be a problem if the ePUB versions were satisfactory, but Kill Screen relies heavily on its design to complement the articles. The writing is of the longform culture variety rather than explicit videogame criticism. Depending on your stance, that’s either ‘pretentious’ or a breath of fresh air. Naturally, I lean towards the latter.
If anything was worth reading in print, it would be this, but at £17 an issue (including shipping time of 3–5 weeks) it’s a little pricey for non-US readers. The digital version is still worth a look, though.
Scroll is “a magazine about the coolness of video games” edited by Ray Barnholt. Barnholt handles both the writing and design: the former is off the beaten track, focusing on retro videogames of the late 80s and early 90s. The latter is frankly stunning, arguably more of a treat than the writing.
I love the uniqueness and attention to detail of Scroll. It goes to exciting places – at the time of writing, the current issue focuses on WARP, the late Kenji Eno’s game development studio. Again, it’s probably better experienced in print than PDF, but if you could see my buckling bookshelf you’d understand why I go for the digital versions!
Five out of Ten
Let’s face it – Five out of Ten is the elephant in the room here. You were waiting for me to mention it. I know I was.
Where do I start? FooT has been around for a year and a half now, and I think the results speak for themselves: seven great issues from some of my favourite writers, a lot of satisfied customers, even an award nod. One unique aspect is that profits are split between all of our contributors. The magazine will continue to evolve – I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve for the year to come – while not straying from the original vision of writing what we want to read, because we can.
Are we succeeding? I’ll let you be the judge of that.
The Arcade Review
The Arcade Review is a brand-new publication from Zolani Stewart and Alex Pieschel, focusing on experimental games. The first issue is a promising one, with an eclectic selection of features from cool people like Lana Polansky and a cover that’s like a beautiful space lava lamp.
It’s early days for The Arcade Review, so I’ll just say that I think it’s really neat and will have a long, bright future ahead.
I reviewed Dreamcast Worlds for Issue 5 of Five out of Ten, and I haven’t changed my mind. Here’s what I wrote:
Dreamcast Worlds: A Design History is Zoya Street’s first book, expanding his master’s thesis work on Skies of Arcadia to include Phantasy Star Online and Shenmue. Regular readers of Five out of Ten will know I’m a fan of all things Sega, and it’s a real treat to have these classic games covered in so much depth.
A ‘design history’ is a history not just of games as mechanical objects, but also as the product of cultural context, the people who make them and the societies they create. Street’s introduction to the Dreamcast is packed with original insights and titbits gathered through interview. It’s clear that the author understands Japanese corporate culture, although it is a little heartbreaking to learn the console was canned immediately after launch in the USA and Europe.
Dreamcast Worlds is well-researched, timely and fascinating. Although a little dry and analytical, which fails to convey Street’s obvious passion for the subject, it remains mercilessly free of academic jargon. It feels like an important book: the kind you regret buying in ePub form instead of a physical copy, the kind you’ll dip into again and again.
Memory Insufficient is another publication from Zoya Street, but this one is available for free. It’s a regularly published games history e-zine that goes where no others dare to tread, tackling histories of gender and diversity, imperialism, disabilities and even ecology.
Even I hadn’t contributed to this (you may not be aware of this, but all games journalism is actually produced by twenty people writing under pseudonyms), and even if it wasn’t free, and even if you had too many magazines to read, it would still be worth making time for this intelligent and fascinating publication.
Killing is Harmless
Brendan Keogh is a freelance games journalist, PhD student and good friend of mine. Somehow, in a prolific year by anyone’s standards, he managed to write a 50,000 word book about Spec Ops: The Line called Killing is Harmless.
The Line was one of the most thought-provoking and important games of 2012: a scattering of my thoughts can be found at Square Go. Rather than considering The Line as a whole work from a distance, Keogh attempts a closed reading of the game: he plays through the game, narrating chapter by chapter on his thoughts and gradually pulling in different themes. This is both a strength and weakness: you wouldn’t want to read Killing is Harmless without having finished this game, but this also removes much of the enjoyment from reading the earliest chapters of the book. Like a slow-burning videogame introduction, you’ll want to skip ahead to the action.
As criticism it doesn’t always hit the mark, sometimes reaching for meaning in desperation, but as a concept it is truly exciting. Hopefully the launch of Press Select, with Brendan’s publishing company with fellow writer Dan Golding, will mean this is just the start of such works. An auspicious beginning.
It’s Just a Game
It’s Just a Game is a magazine curated by Elizabeth Simins. Here’s my review from Book Club in Five out of Ten:
Delightfully lo-fi and idiosyncratic, It’s Just a Game is a real zine: a lovingly crafted anthology of unorthodox games writing and charming faux advertisements.
Despite the eclectic selection of authors, it’s a surprisingly consistent collection of ideas: most essays are deeply personal, continuing the trail of soul-bearing blazed by Reaction and Bit Creature, if lacking the righteous anger of the former and the sheer panache of the latter. As the title suggests, games are not just games for these writers, illustrated as they tackle the thorny zeitgeists of sexism and bigotry in modern videogame culture.
It’s Just a Game is a unique publication, confident in its own identity. It’s not trying to be the next Kill Screen. It’s just a charming read that will brighten up your bookshelf – no mean feat for a black and white zine.
Flushed “Volume 1, Number 2” is an e-zine by Samantha Allen, Lana Polansky and Elizabeth Simins, the three horseriders of the toilet-gaming apocalpyse. Like all great trips to the toilet, it is unflinching – it’s not safe for work, but with contributors such as the aforemented editors, Kaitlin Tremblay, Soha El-Sabaawi and Darius Kazemi on board, it’s very much safe for home.
Funny and flippant in a way that’s similarly as appealing as It’s Just A Game, Flushed is a quirky little publication that made me laugh and smile. Read on location, but don’t bring your laptop into the bathroom to play the games. That’s just weird.
Ghosts in the Machine
Ghosts in the Machine is a short story anthology edited by Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh, featuring a story by yours truly that at least one friend of mine really liked. Maybe you’ll like it too! There’s only one way to find out.
Seriously though, this was a great project to be involved in and I’m in the company of some very talented writers. If you like fiction and want something a little different, this is well worth your time.
One Day at a Time
Alright, I’ll admit it – I have not read One Day at a Time, but since I’ve never read a bad piece by Richard Moss, this seems like a safe bet. The fact it’s about Football Manager makes it even more intriguing. I have just purchased my copy. You should too.
Heart Container is a real zine: limited supply, only available in print, with an emphasis on heart. The editor, Albertine Watson, has assured me that the second issue is definitely coming out soon and I’ll finally be able get my hands on a copy. Until that point, I’ll just run on the assumption that it is very good.
I know you shouldn’t judge a magazine by its cover, but since that’s all I’ve got to go on right now, the cover is very nice.
Our friends over at Unwinnable just launched a Kickstarter for a weekly selection of some of the best and brightest in independent games writing. I’m in. Are you?
Here, we honour our fallen comrades.
I liked Continue, especially the design and emphasis on features, but unfortunately it’s on hiatus right now. In many respects it is the digital reincarnation of an old print magazine. This means that it’s a straight-up PDF like Kill Screen, but more than that, it also has a ‘news stream’ that is out of date by the time you’ve read it.
Having said that, once you get into the features Continue offers more depth than most printed magazines. They don’t only cover videogames, including articles about alternate reality gaming and board games as well. The design is of a consistently high standard.
The best way to get a fourth issue is to go and buy the previous ones. They’ve got a Year One pack for a discounted price.
In the time it took to write this piece, Haywire went from a digital magazine to a ‘regular’ blog. While I’ll miss downloading the magazine, I (more than most) understand the effort that goes into producing such a magazine, and I’m glad that Joe Köller is keeping the spirit alive through regular blog posts. Haywire’s whole heap of nominations for the Games Journalism Prize says more about the publication than I ever could.
After eight issues it seems that ctrl+alt+defeat has, well, been defeated. But since it’s a free publication with a selection of luminary contributors, it won’t do any harm to skim through the old issues. Similar to old issues of Haywire, it’s got that lo-fi ziney crunch to it that I quite like as a contrast to the slickness of a major publication.