A Locker-Room Talk Might Have Spared Us From Yesterday's Fez FiascoS

The things I said were out of line and the mouth that said them would soon be out of alignment, too. That's the polite version of a one-way conversation about 20 years ago in a far off arena, when the difference between criticism and a harangue was expressed to me in very physical terms.

In the spring of 1992, our freshman year of college at N.C. State, Mark Davis pumped in 25 points to sink our school's most hated rival in basketball. Two years later, under my pretentious middle initial and awful Bill Cosby sweater in the column logo, I demanded he be sent to the bench, in shrill words read by everyone on a Wednesday before their 11:05 class.

Yes, he was shooting poorly. But it was the way I expressed it, professing that I had seen, in his eyes, a fear that led to miss after miss in loss after loss in front of a constituency that deserved more. It festered until we came face to face in the visitor's locker room at Georgia Tech.

"You get the fuck out of my face," Davis told me, "before I bust yours."

Had Twitter been around then, I doubt this encounter would be something my friends and I—and who the hell knows, maybe Davis does, too—laugh about now. Social media turns everything into an immediate, vituperative shouting match, as we saw yesterday.

Sports and video games are covered in similar fashion: They're entertainment products; they're covered under shifting rules of access and restriction to it. The game's owners and promoters are so coin-operated, they don't care for many storylines beyond those that focus attention to all the things they're selling. Individual performers become celebrities; so do commentators. There's a frothing, reactionary culture surrounding it all, offering swift and terrible judgment of every word.

At least there's a locker room in sports, that grand tradition I could not avoid 20 years ago. You could say that Marcus Beer and Phil Fish met yesterday in video gaming's locker room equivalent. Beer, a commentator on GameTrailers, insulted Fish, the creative force behind Fez, over some intramural industry slight and the resulting boil-over left Fish so disillusioned he said he had quit not only the work on Fez's sequel, but all of games development, for good.

I consider Twitter, message boards, and the comments under this post and others a poor locker-room substitute. For all the hostility of the medium, no one truly faces anyone they've wronged in such an environment. It's why "kill yourself," which Fish hurled at Beer, is so commonly slung around video gaming discourse. Everyone knows a death threat, much less any physical threat, has zero meaning online. Inviting someone to commit suicide communicates the same total lack of respect for their life without giving an idle threat to mock.

Davis' threat to me 20 years ago was certainly not idle. Yet the man was a civil engineering major, so I think he was smart enough to know beating my ass over this would not be worth the headache that would follow him. Still, that wasn't a bluff I was willing to call.

Though Beer and I are both paid observers of our subject, I end the comparison there. It is breathtaking to me that a commentator with his platform—GameTrailers isn't some chicken-feed brand—would go on the record to call Fish or any prominent industry figure a "fucking hipster," a "fucking asshole," a "wanker" and finally a "tosspot," which is the kind of regional insult snide enough to require you to look it up, and then correct you when you choose its wrong variation.

Beer stylizes himself as the "Annoyed Gamer," as if instant and constant annoyance is not already the defining feature of video game discourse. These comments went well beyond the boundary of some caricatured Lewis Black-style comedic rant. Beer took offense that Fish and Jonathan Blow, another independent developer of note, declined to comment to a third publication on a rumored policy change at Microsoft regarding independent games publication to its new Xbox One platform. That's it. Fish later said he declined to comment because he didn't want to put himself out for unconfirmed information. One assumes this was Blow's reasoning too.

Fine. Phil Fish and Jonathan Blow may be aloof, may be arrogant, may have contempt for the writers and publications covering their industry. I have no idea. I've never met Blow. Fish has a very provocative record of public statements, including a well known attack on Japanese developers and a declaration that "gamers are the worst fucking people," about as bad a thing as you could say in making a consumer product.

So what. Those transgressions have been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, and they are irrelevant here. Yesterday, Beer failed to articulate why Fish and Blow's refusal to comment on an incremental industry matter should mean anything to someone other than him, or to a games writer like him. As his rant tails off, he advises the rest of the specialty press to remember this, and ignore developers like Blow and Fish when they have something they wish to discuss.

Well, for Fish at least, he won't be giving people like Beer the satisfaction of that blow-off any time soon. Yesterday, Fish canceled the sequel to Fez—the game which won him so much notoriety and acclaim. Though he couched the decision as cumulative in nature—just tired of all the bullshit that goes with being a public figure in this subject—it was certainly provoked by Beer's uncalled-for rant and the ugly screaming match that resulted. I'm half imagining a future in which Fish is almost a Salinger-esque figure, and fuzzy-cheeked idealists in the year 2030 go take pictures of his mailbox and ponder what could have been.

I go back and reread what I wrote about Mark Davis and even now, even though I apologized to him in print later, it frankly doesn't seem that unreasonable. I called out a poor shooting percentage (29 percent) and how moving him back to guard disrupted a better tandem in place there. I mentioned the fact he struggled to inbounds the ball when called to do so. Yeah, this had to have been hard to hear, coming from someone who never coached or played basketball at his level, or any other.

But I didn't call him a wanker, or a tosspot, or a fucking asshole. And Mark Davis didn't quit his game, either. We met in a quiet locker room and came face to face with the thing causing us so much unhappiness, and decided, in the end, it just wasn't worth it.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports and video games. It appears Sundays.

To contact the author of this post, write to owen@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @owengood.