In May of 1998 I grabbed my primitive digital camera, hopped on a MARTA train, and took my first stumbling steps as a video game journalist. A year later I wanted nothing to do with video games.
I started writing for Kotaku in November of 2006, but my first role as a video game journalist came several years before that, at a website called Videogamers.com. While I feel my initial stint as a game reporter/reviewer makes for an interesting story, one year later my life took a turn that nearly had me giving up gaming for good.
James Stevenson, Insomniac Games community manager and former co-writer at Videogamers.com, recalls the abrupt turn my life took. "I remember pretty clearly when Mike Fahey disappeared from the internet. We used to talk regularly, maybe even daily - though never about anything of any importance, usually just random stuff, where I tried to be funny, and watched Mike be funnier than me.
"Then one day, Mike didn't get online. If you knew him, this was strange, Mike was ALWAYS online. Over the next 3 years, I think I only talked to Mike 6-7 times, and only for a few minutes each time - enough to figure out he was still alive and where he was."
Rather than deliver a linear account of my rise and fall, I feel the two disparate portions of my past play better when layered.
So these two stories are intertwined, but as with any tale, we need to start with...
The Beginning - Late May, 1998
I stumbled over Videogamers.com via Webcrawler, which was once the most popular search engine on the internet. Videogamers.com was an amateurish site even by 1998 standards, but it had heart, and I enjoyed the vibe. It was run by one Skyler Livezey, a seventeen-year-old Internet entrepreneur, and populated by talented writers, including one James Stevenson, who later moved on to bigger and better things.
After reading the site for a few months I began sending in fake news submissions, joking little previews for games that would never be. Games like Dead Man's Hand, which was all about giving zombies manicures, or Pong 64, accompanied by a screenshot that was one-half classic Pong screen, one-half fog.
I'd like to think I charmed my way into writing for Videogamers.com, but more than likely it was a simple matter of being at the right place in the right time. Skyler lived in Los Angeles, I lived in Atlanta. E3 1998 was in Atlanta. I was the cheapest choice.
So on May 28, 1998, sweating nervously and clutching my press badge like a holy symbol, I took my first steps onto an E3 show floor.
And what an E3 it is! Sega just announced the Dreamcast, though it wasn't on the show floor. Square Enix parades out Final Fantasy VIII. Blizzard is there with Diablo II, GT Interactive has Unreal, and Konami flaunts both Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill.
There are trailers on the show floor for Duke Nukem Forever and Prey, one of which eventually sees release.
Every night I come home and breathlessly regale my wife with tales of video game greatness, and she patiently listens, not really feeling my excitement but happy for me nonetheless.
It is the beginning of something big.
E3 1998, in all its not-very-crowded glory - image
One Year Later - Late May, 1999
I've been hanging around my day job later than usual lately. It's not that I'm suddenly warming to telephone tech support seven years in; I just find myself enjoying the work atmosphere a bit more lately. Perhaps it's all the people, or maybe it's the persistent fluorescent lighting, keeping the sprawling office complex where I answer phones in a semi-timeless state, hours marked only by the changing number of empty cubicles.
Once nighttime was gaming time. Now I enter my apartment, ignoring the expansive entertainment center I was once proud of. The Nintendo 64, PlayStation, and Sega Saturn controllers, once constantly splayed out in front of the wooden monstrosity like writhing tentacles, rest next to their respective consoles on dusty shelves.
Once a constant whirring hive of activity, my game center is now a museum exhibit; something to frame the television I turn on simply to provide background noise while I sprawl out on my couch and try to slow my thoughts down enough to sleep.
A few weeks ago I would have been sprawled out in front of the television set, playing through the latest Japanese role-playing game or character-based platforming adventure until my eyelids could no longer contain their own weight.
Now the mere thought of picking up the controller brings makes my stomach turn, and fills my head with more light-speed thoughts, keeping sleep from coming until far into the night.
I just want to forget.
A Star on the Rise - July, 1998
E3 1998 was a success, but more importantly, my job covering E3 1998 was a success, and Skyler and the Videogamers.com crew decide to keep me on.
Writing for a video game website is a lot simpler in 1998. The internet is still a young thing, and news comes at a relaxed pace. We get the odd press release, but much of our information comes from gaming magazines, a trend that wouldn't continue for much longer.
It isn't long before I secure complimentary subscriptions to just about every gaming mag published at the time. Visitors to my apartment marvel at the growing stack in our bathroom, and while my wife complains at first, she soon starts reading them as well. She never admits it, but I can tell her knowledge of my favorite hobby is growing well beyond what I impart to her through my impassioned ramblings on the subject.
I'm secretly proud.
The majority of my contributions to Videogamers.com come in review form.
I try to review at least three games a month, but it isn't easy. Videogamers.com isn't a paying gig, and the big publishers of the time aren't sure what to do with video game websites yet, so buying new games is completely up to me. Luckily I make more than enough doing tech support to warrant two or three video game purchases a paycheck, so staying on top of the latest releases is pricey, but not bank-breakingly so.
Skyler and crew love my work, PR people start to remember my name, and I get to review games like Atlus' Trapgunner.
So Trapgunner really is a mixed bag. The aesthetics are slightly above average, and the gameplay ranges from OK (single player) to outstanding (multiplayer). Purchase accordingly or ignore me totally, it's just what I do.
Perhaps my style still needs work, but it feels like this is really working out for me. The only question is how to turn this non-paying video game reviews/news gig into a career.
Oh well, I'd figure it out eventually.
Fading Away - July, 1999
The phone rings. Annoyed, I get up from my computer, storm into the living room, and lift the receiver to my mouth.
It's a friend of mine. Well, more than a friend once, but that's neither here nor there. I'm busy, and that's just what I tell her. She says she is worried about me; everyone is.
"I'm fine. Nothing is wrong. Now leave me the hell alone." Click.
My reaction is harsh, but I've got more important things to do. I'm trying to become a dragon rider.
In the past month I've started gaming again, but it's far from what anyone would consider video gaming.
A good friend I'd not talked to for years invited me to over to her house to play a pen-and-paper role-playing game called R.I.F.T.S. with her husband's group. I started spending the weekends there, just to get out of the apartment. During my first visit, she introduces me to the world of MUSHing.
You may have heard of MUDs - multi-user dungeons. They are text-based role-playing games that early internet gamers could log into via Telnet, fighting monsters and gaining levels through simple text commands. They're like traditional turn-based role-playing games, distilled down to their simplest possible form.
MUSHes, at least the ones I play on, are text-based games where there are no statistics or levels. Instead, coders create rooms with basic descriptions, game masters determine the setting and backstory, and players act out their actions by way of 'poses' - paragraphs of text describing what they are doing and how they are doing it.
At best, it's like participating in the writing of a collaborative novel.
There are MUSHes for every fiction imaginable, from Transformers to Star Trek, Dungeons and Dragons to Vampire the Masquerade. Most are filled with guys, with the odd extremely popular female player, and the rest of the opposite sex population filled in with men cross-playing female characters.
The MUSH my friend gets me hooked on is called Harper's Tale, based on Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series of fantasy novels; fantasy novels with a primarily female readership. This means the female characters are all female, and many of the male characters are also female. As one of the few real males playing the game, and one with more than a smidgeon of writing talent, I quickly become popular.
Craving human interaction, but wary of establishing strong ties with anyone, I find that MUSHes are the perfect place for me. Soon I'm rushing home from work, logging on, and spending most of the evening pursuing fake friendships with people all over the world.
At the end of the night, I simply turn them off, and go to sleep.
My friends and family worry. The Videogamers.com staff is beginning to wonder if I'm ever going back to writing for them.
I'm beginning to wonder that myself.
Gaining Ground - September, 1998
My wife and I move into a two bedroom apartment so I can have an office to accommodate my writing and my growing collection of Transformers merchandise. Perhaps that eBay account was a bad idea.
Still, this is one of the happiest times in my life.
My work output is impressive enough that Skyler makes me the Head Writer for Videogamers.com, a title that means very little but sure looks impressive on a business card. I do him one better, establishing myself as the site's Peripherals Editor as well.
Until now, the focus at Videogamers was purely on the games. I figured we needed to branch out into the growing video game accessories market, and within weeks I had contacts at just about every major manufacturer, from Mad Catz to Saitek.
A recent merger between the computer giant I worked for and another well-known computer company saw a substantial rise in my average paycheck, which I use to feed my video game and action figure collecting habits. My office walls are lined with carded action figures, a fold-out table piled high with rare Japanese Transformers - a collection I am immensely proud and protective of.
I know they are just little bits of plastic and metal, but with my career and relationship going so well, I've got room to focus on the little things.
Pieces of Me - September, 1999
I choke on the dust that billows from behind the entertainment center as I plug in my Sega Dreamcast.
The excitement accompanying the release of Sega's latest console is a dull buzz in the back of my head. While other gamers flock to stores to be the first in North America to play Sonic Adventure and Soulcalibur, I'm driven purely by a sense of duty. I'm still affiliated with Videogamers.com, and I need to help them cover this launch.
I half-heartedly stumble through a couple of reviews, but mainly I just leave the Dreamcast on, running the Soulcalibur demonstration movies over and over again. I admire the way it looks, but have no real urge to play.
Soon the Dreamcast is sold to a co-worker. I use the money to buy my first DVD player and a copy of The Matrix.
I've made some friends online, in my MUSHes - I'm playing four at a time now - but no real solid connections, which is just how I want it.
I play various roles in these little online dramas, working through my emotional issues via proxy. One character is mistrustful and wary of new people. Another is dependable and caring no matter what is thrown his way. There's an innocent young man, looking at the world with the eyes of a child, and there is a devil, weaving plots and pitting acquaintances against one another.
I tell myself it's therapeutic. Perhaps in a way it is.
The Big Buildup - March, 1999
I'm going to E3 1999 in Los Angeles!
Despite the fact that my boss Skyler lives in Los Angeles, he's decided that Videogamers.com would be better served by sending two writers from Georgia, myself and a seventeen-year-old named Josh, to cover E3's return to the West Coast.
I've started branching out on the website, taking on more responsibilities than simply writing reviews. Along with creating original features, like the Pokenomicron – the dark Pokedex of Abdul Al Hazarad the Mad Pokemaster – I've started working on a redesign of the site as well, attempting to transform our simple text interface into something with a little more graphical flair.
So I suppose sending me to L.A. makes sense.
My wife shares my excitement, helping me look for hotels, making plans for a couple of our friends to stay over while I am out of town to keep her company and help her get around, as she's never learned to drive.
She's so supportive of my work. I'm lucky to have her by my side.
All that remains of Videogamers.com, from The Internet Wayback Machine.
A Time For Change - March 2000
I hate this place…this large, cluttered apartment, this stifling hot city. I need to get away.
I tried a few months ago, flying out to San Francisco to meet a girl I met online, testing the ground for a place to put down new roots. That trip went well, until a suicide attempt by the girl's ex-fiancé brought it to an abrupt end.
I've had enough of hiding away from the world, but the only place I feel comfortable socializing these days is on my MUSHes. I begin to make real connections, or as real as they can be, given the situation.
One of my connections is a girl from the other side of the world, who is coming to spend a month with friends in Austin, Texas in April. At first my plan is to meet her at the Atlanta airport and take a road trip to Austin, but it isn't long before I decide that hot Texas town is the perfect place to relocate.
I arrange a job, secure an apartment, give notice at my job of seven years, and begin packing everything I own into little boxes and bags. The comic books, DVDs, action figures; even the dusty video game consoles are wiped clean and bundled in packing paper, ready to join me on this great adventure.
E3 1999 - Early May, 1999
On the first of May, my wife throws me the most amazing birthday party I've ever had. Friends and family come from all over town to eat, drink, and celebrate the day I clawed my way out of my pod to greet the daylight.
I am moved by the turnout, and even more moved by the fact that my wife did this all on her own. My birthdays with her had all been quiet family affairs, and this – this is special.
A week later I board a plane for E3 1999. My wife gives me a grand sendoff, complete with candles, music, and a lacy little green thing she bought just for the occasion.
I spend E3 1999 completely high on the sights and sounds from the show floor.
It's Sega's show. Soulcalibur for the Dreamcast is the most beautiful fighting game I've ever seen, displayed alongside its arcade counterpart to show just how powerful Sega's new console is. Games like Sonic Adventure, Shenmue, Power Stone, and Ready 2 Rumble pale in comparison, but still manage to impress. I can't wait to get my hands on this console.
Sony shows off Gran Turismo 2000 on the PlayStation 2 hardware, not quite showing up Sega but definitely making a big splash.
Nintendo announces the Dolphin, which eventually becomes the Gamecube. Valve shows off an extremely early version of Team Fortress 2.
E3 1998 was impressive. E3 1999 blows it out of the water.
I can't wait to get home and ramble on about it to the wife. I've been calling every day, but she's been busy.
There'll be plenty of time for that when I get home.
It's thinking - Sega's booth at E3 1999, courtesy of Giant Bomb.
There and Back Again - Early May, 2000
My trip to Austin doesn't go so well. My friend and I don't get along. When I arrive in Austin my car breaks down, an issue that costs me the job I moved there for. I spend the month of April holed up in my new apartment, whittling away at my bank account, anxiously counting down the days until rent is due.
I cann't find a job, though honestly I'm not trying too hard. The initial failure in this new city sends me down the road to depression, and there is no pulling out. Austin is poisoned for me.
At least I still have MUSHes. Another female friend wires me money to come out and stay with her in San Jose, California. I pawn my television set, remaining game consoles, and DVD collection, and set off across the country to yet another new home.
Within a week we are at each other's throats. Completely humbled, I call my last remaining resource for help – my parents. They wire me funds, and I start the long drive back home.
In Arizona, my engine dies. Four days and a $2,000 loan from my parents, and I am back on the road.
I sell my last remaining video game system, a red Game Boy Color, to a family in a gas station 10 miles out of Lawton, Oklahoma for gas money. Once I get to Lawton, my starter dies. My aunt and uncle bail me out.
And now I'm here, in Georgia once more. I have no job, no money, and my possessions all fit in a 1995 Nissan Sentra. This could be the lowest point in my life.
Yet I am strangely happy.
The End - Mid-May, 1999
Five days after E3 I sit alone in my apartment, trembling with conflicting emotions, holding her note in my hands. From complete euphoria to utter desolation in five days.
It doesn't matter what the note says. All that matters is I spent the previous week having the time of my life, immersed in the sights and sounds of an industry that seemed so important to me, while she was making plans to leave.
It would be a long time before I stopped equating video games with this desperate, crushing sorrow.
A New Beginning - Late-May, 2000
An old friend found me a job doing web development, I've started hanging out with this lovely girl named Emily, and now my first paycheck is burning a hole in my pocket.
I stop by the Target near my brother's apartment, and pick up a copy of The Sims, a PC game from Maxis that I'd heard was pretty nifty.
Within hours I've trapped my first virtual human in a box, where he eventually starves to death.
A familiar smile slowly spreads across my lips.
Of course my triumphant return to gaming would soon take a turn for the worse, but that's another story.