Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
I like Wired. Working for a magazine you believe in, and having some influence in it, makes you a terrible magazine critic – you tend to regard other publications with a mixture of distaste and pity at how sadly unlike your own they are. That would be my verdict in almost every review if I reviewed magazines: 30%, “Sadly unlike PC Gamer”. But I like Wired. It seems to know my stereotype well – I’m not sure myself what my broader interests are, but if there’s a piece on it in Wired, it tends to be one of them. Malaysia’s national obsession with record-breaking. The guy who runs for days at a time without sleep, orders takeaway pizza to cities he’s about to pass through to scarf it on the go, and crazy-glues over his burst blisters to keep moving.
Wow, that was barely relevant. I was just leading into the fact that this one was a party held by Wired and you got this whole thing about mag snobbery and blisters.
This one was the Wired party after the first day of E3, which is sort of a game-journo Triathelon. I’d already been hugged for something I’d written that day, fallen in love with an American PR girl on the basis of a single conversation, and seen around forty-five unreleased games including the gapingly exciting successor to one of my favourites of all time, System Shock 2. Is it geeky that that one’s up there with the other two? Wait, relevance. I also hadn’t eaten all day, but my taste for food, breaks or rest seems to evapourate when there isn’t time for them. I’m a lot like Jack Bauer, in that and virtually every other respect.
Ben Schroeder from Edge was there, and as we sipped something pink and free, he pointed out to me that one of the guys at the table over there with Will Wright was Robin Williams. Will Wright I knew would be there, since there was a Spore presentation later, and his celebrity factor was slightly diminished by the fact that I’d already interviewed him twice that day alone, but Mork himself made it kind of a tough table to go up to and say “Hi, is this seat taken?” Tougher still, all the seats were taken.
Happily I didn’t have to. I was able to accost him on his way to the bar (a few weeks after meeting me he was re-admitted to rehab for alcohol addiction, but I feel like I tried my best) and exercise the most basic human right of all: the right to talk to a celebrity without needing any pretext, association with them or even anything particularly to say. They’re public domain, we can use them as we please. I’m going to be sending a link to this post to pretty much everyone who bullied me in primary school, and it’s especially for their benefit that I’m about to recount what Robin Williams said to me when I introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Tom, I’m from PC Gamer,” I said.
“Oh, great!” he said.
See it? Because I can paste it again if necessary. It was “Oh, great!” I can use a bigger font if you like. I have that power.
It was just a little undermined by the fact that my next words were “Oh come on, don’t pretend you’ve heard of us.” He explained that really he was just glad to meet a fellow gamer, evidently considering me a more kindred spirit than the many generic tech guys, multi-platform journalists and CEOs around us. He’s a big Battlefield 2 fan, and plays as a sniper. Had he seen the then-unreleased sequel? He had, and thought it was great. What did he think of Spore? He thought it was the logical conclusion of the lineage of God games started with Populous, and extremely exciting for that.
For some reason I decided to steer the conversation toward the broader social impact of games, and possibly kids, because more or less the only thing I knew about Robin Williams was that the reason he started doing horror films after all that family comedy was because his kids were finally old enough to watch them, and he just wanted to make movies his kids could watch. This was a mistake. He started his answer with enthusiastic agreement to my hypothesis that Spore would make a great learning tool for kids, combining as it did science, silliness and a sense of wonderment at the universe, but then he wouldn’t shut up.
That sounds rude, but I don’t know if you’ve ever heard him free-associate: it’s a hard thread to follow. I tried to concentrate on what he was saying, but once he veered off topic he didn’t stick to his new topic long enough for me to work out what it was, he just kept on veering. At some point I found myself thinking “This is ridiculous, I’m interviewing Robin Williams and I’m honestly not listening to a word he’s saying.” The man is mad, and possibly quite drunk. Luckily he also doesn’t stop talking long enough to discover that you have nothing to say because you can’t remember anything he was talking about, so when he did wind down I think I just said “Excellent, well, thanks.” and left it at that.
I hit the booze pretty hard then, but the presentation started soon after. I’ve now seen it enough times now to feel a bit like a Will Wright groupie, comparing setlists from previous shows; that night we got the babyfication algorithm, but not as much on deep space travel. Then – and anyone who read gameblogs at the time will be have seen this plot point coming – Will said he wanted to demonstrate how easy the game’s editors are to use by getting a member of the audience to try them. He said that ideally he’d like someone with some experience playing an alien. My close personal friend Robin Williams bravely volunteered.
My favourite part of his mostly excellent adlibbed stuff was the Jewish hands of uncertainty. During the presentation Ben and I got talking to a Wired writer whose hair was two different colours, who was also hugely impressed to learn that I was from PC Gamer, although it was again undermined; this time by him being completely floored that Ben was from Edge, his favourite magazine in the world. I could have taught this guy a little something about mag snobbery. He was nevertheless an extremely nice guy, and it was via his T-shirt (whose design I do not recall) that we got talking to the girls in front, who were film-makers there on behalf of some kind of… political… local… thing? Paper? I remember imagining something like a more radical Village Voice for LA, but I was pretty drunk and I know very little, about anything really.
I interviewed Will Wright again after the presentation, pointlessly. After about ten or twenty questions, you just want to prod him and tell him to “Say more cool stuff!” He clearly has no shortage of it, and in his nasal stammering way, he’s remarkably articulate at getting it across. Usually you pitch questions to edify murky areas of your understanding of a game, but with Spore you quickly learn that the most exciting complexities of it come from things you thought you knew, but were wrong about. I thought most of the universe would be computer-generated when you first played the game, and only mentioned this as a prelude to a better question, but he corrected me to say that the editors will be released long before the game, as a demo, and the creatures, buildings and vehicles people design with them will discreetly build up in a central database so that there’s a huge backlog of user-made content at launch. It’s possible that his absurd cleverness and absurd wealth are somehow related.
Back at the party I ran into my other close personal friend Mark Wallace, an American journo who writes on occasion for the New Yorker and the New York Times, and, once, the best magazine of all: PC Gamer UK. I’d never met him before, and barely did here, but he was extremely nice, and had as it turned out been half-recognised me when I half-recognised him earlier. Mark got this blog a huge influx of readers when he linked it at the same time as scans of Murder Incorporated, my piece about the Eve Online assassins that also got me the hug that day.
I lost Ben at some point, and ended up talking to the film-makers long after the other people from my hotel had shared a lift back. They were sisters, it turns out – a writer/director and a producer – and I cannot for the life of me remember what they were working on. We – I, they and a group of friends who would later turn out to be Persuasive Games – eventually moved on to The Standard in a car far too small for that many of us, where they knew how to mix a goddamn Caucasian. I say that like that was the reason, it wasn’t. I’m not sure what the reason was, but I can tell you that the other LA Standard, on Sunset, keeps a live woman with a laptop in a class cage behind reception. She just gets on with e-mail and stuff.
I also met – and I honestly don’t remember this, I’m just reading it from an e-mail I wrote later that night – a girl who was about to launch the LA branch of a chain of restaurants owned by the ex-Atari CEO who founded Chuck-E-Cheese, in which the tables are touch-screens on which you can play PC games. My point, really, is that interviewing Robin Williams wasn’t the reason this was one of my highlights of the year. It was that this was profoundly my kind of party, and I honestly didn’t think I had a kind of party. Just the right mix of important people, interesting people, friends, comrades in game geekery and new people who have nothing to do with my specific interest, but are nevertheless invariably interesting. As with their articles, Wired seemed to have a knack for cherry-picking people I like without my knowing the kind of people I like, let alone my telling them. My own invitation actually came to me third-hand, but once they found out they seemed pleased I was coming – they knew me from, dammit, the same wretched article Mark linked and CCP hugged me for. I think it’s time I wrote something better than that.
Dunno what else to say!
Jason L: This contains only the most tenuous links to creationism. I demand my money back.
Alex Holland: Robin William's fondness of gaming is quite well known - he named his first daughter Zelda, as he was addicted to the game on the NES.
I'm expecting any progeny of yours to be called Shodan or JC.