The purpose of video game discourse

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PurpleShyGuy

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Edited By PurpleShyGuy

Why do we do it, why do we enjoy it?

I have a confession to make: I’ve kind of been stuck on what topic to write about. Every couple months or so I like to do a post on something that has gained my interest, but lately I’ve been struggling to finish anything. At first I was going to write about remasters and remakes, and the fine line between preserving gaming history and rewriting it for better or for worse. Then my focus shifted on Zone of the Enders 2, since Armored Core 6 has just released and with them both being about giant robots, I saw an opportunity to lavish praise on a game that you should really play if you haven’t already. Finally I thought screw it, and was going to go for the low hanging fruit by talking about the latest season of the anime Baki, which has some absolute pearls of dialogue such as “they weren’t even aware of the fact that they were unconscious.”

But what is at the heart of all this when you really think about it? At the heart of this website that you are reading these words on? Video game discourse of course! And it is everywhere, discussing all manner of video game related things. No game is too obscure to not have a fan breathlessly gush about it in an article, and no gameplay change is too small to not warrant a video explaining the latest updates a new season brings. Everything is analysed and discussed and argued, but why though? Sure, there are reviews to influence a purchasing decision and news sites to tell us all the hot new releases, yet we sometimes seek videos and articles on games we’ve already bought and beaten. And it’s not like talking about video games has any real practical application, you can’t prevent mould buildup in your house with the fact that you know Jonathan Blow’s Braid is actually about the atomic bomb.

So why not actually just play Braid again instead of looking up stuff about it online? One somewhat cynical answer is that we are looking for others to validate our opinion. When we feel positively about a game it can be reassuring that others share our viewpoint — especially from those we respect — and in a strange way it confirms that our happiness towards something was right, even though that shouldn’t actually make any sense. If we’ve had a negative experience with a game, however, there certainly can be a catharsis in hearing someone express the same hatred towards it. I remember how relieved I was when I saw the Zero Punctuation on Ni No Kuni, since I wasn’t the only one who thought the game’s combat was a hybrid monstrosity that should have been put out of its misery.

When opinions don’t align, that’s when discussion can get…let’s just say spirited.
When opinions don’t align, that’s when discussion can get…let’s just say spirited.

Though, beyond just the simple gratification of hearing people agree with us, there are other reasons why video game discourse exists. It can help us to solidify opinions or feelings we have that we can’t quite complete on our own. Bioshock Infinite is a standout example for me, since I was swept up in all the per-release hype and couldn’t put into words why I was left a little cold when I hit credits. What helped me was Matthewmatosis’ Bioshock Infinite Critique, which did put into words all the ways the game had felt lacking to me. While exposing yourself to too many opinions can run the risk of muddying yours, they can often be used to aid in shaping and defining our own experiences.

And then there are games which beg for discourse, beg for minds to ruminate and discuss their cryptic meanings. Signalis is absolutely one of those games, because even when I completed my playthrough and had my own thoughts on it, I wouldn’t say that I felt satisfied so to speak. Indie Xplorer’s A Complete Story Breakdown of Signalis really made me appreciate the game on a whole other level, pointing out details and story threads that I would have never discovered on my own. In this way, discourse can actually be a part of the intended experience. Developers aren’t ignorant of the fact that their games will be dissected to death, so why not give them plenty to dissect?

My final reason is that discourse can give you new insight on a subject you had previously thought you had all figured out. Sexuality, Gender and Kojima Productions by Transparency is one such opinion piece. It takes the humorous scene where Sam Bridges in Death Standing punches the player for looking at his crotch, and manages to make the solid argument that it creates some unintentional commentary on how Hideo Kojima sees objectifying men compared to objectifying women. I adore these kinds of videos and articles because they can completely change how you perceive something, challenging you to think more critically.

I suppose when I talk about video game discourse, you could really broaden that to any discussion about any hobby, such as films, books, music, sports or Japanese cartoons about big muscle men punching each other absurdly hard. Yes, video games aren’t important when compared to stuff like having a decent wage to live on or your physical and mental health, but like many other seemingly frivolous joys they give flavour to our lives. And people like sharing in that joy (or that hate), people like to obtain a greater understanding, or fashion an entirely new one. And it can be great to express those views, seeing our thoughts materialise into something that others can read or watch. In Nier Automata you are asked a question: do you think video games are silly little things? I hope that by reading this you now know my answer.

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mellotronrules

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that was a thoughtful reflection on media consumption and what it is to Have an Opinion on Video Games!

personally i think there's no one less interesting than those who consume without reflection (after all, how are you supposed to understand what makes a person tick without knowing how media affects them)- so that's what i get out of it, self-expression or getting to know someone.

that said- for what it's worth- i do frequently find the casual discussions around video games disappointingly qualitative in nature (What's its Metacritic; Is It Good; How Does It Feel; Is It Challenging) which kinda put me to sleep- but you find that in every medium. the product/art duality of games i find particularly troublesome, though.

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wollywoo

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Nice writeup. I think that in general, if you spend a lot of free time doing something, you want to talk about it. Could be sports, music, whatever. It just happens that gaming is a hugely popular hobby and so naturally people want to talk about it. For me, I will say that it's not that often I get to hang around my other gamer friends, so this forum is an outlet for me to put my thoughts out into the world. Otherwise, they'd just continue to circle around in my head driving me crazy. During the times when I'm not playing games much, I still get absorbed into the discussions around the latest releases, even if I have no intention of playing them. After devoting this many brain cycles to video games, listening to and occasionally participating in discussions around them is just a very relaxing head state to be in.

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Retris

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#3  Edited By Retris

@mellotronrules: I was going to say the same thing about casual discussions. The Idiocracyfication of the discourse has been so fucking annoying. You get adult, grown ass men with old console wars tier arguments. Heck, I'll even call out CERTAIN DUDERS unironically using the terms "talkie" and "dooie", which fucking hurt my brain every time I hear them. Those are such empty terms that are not descriptive in any way, and most of the time they're just prescriptive in the dumbest way: talkie = bad, dooie = good. Metal Gear Solids are not talkie, even though they are full of cut scenes, because you like them. And seriously, even if it was descriptive, what do I get from knowing whether or not the game has a lot of dialogue? With a lot of genres that's kind of expected. Same with a game not having a lot of dialogue, I'm not expecting Mario to have long conversations.

It's one of the reasons I gravitate towards Remap nowadays. I find discussions about the themes of the game and how the systems direct play much more fulfilling than whether or not a game is good. It's why I miss hearing and seeing Jess on this site every freaking day. Hot Takeouts were some of the best content this site has ever put out and we were robbed of that.

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sombre

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I used to think the DEFINITIVE place for games discussion was Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but they got really crap over time.

Crate and Crowbar was utterly terrific when I used to listen to it

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mellotronrules

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@retris said:

It's why I miss hearing and seeing Jess on this site every freaking day. Hot Takeouts were some of the best content this site has ever put out and we were robbed of that.

one hundo! i miss jess all god damn the time. i frequently found myself in disagreement (i'm the resident Horizon Forbidden West apologist around here), but good lord her perspective and particular lens was a shot of life in the discussions.

i've just recently started dipping into Remap (i've dropped in and out of Waypoint since inception)- and it's true, it's been really refreshing to hear people engage games on a different level (though if i'm being 1000% honest, i find that gang can get a little echo-chamber-y at times...not in a 'they're bought-and-sold way,' but more 'everyone-is-in-agreement-and-rephrasing-the-same-perspective').

but what i do sincerely appreciate (which is why i'm gravitating away from GB content and more towards Remap and Minnmax) is the effort to get different walks of life/perspectives in. it just inherently makes things more interesting.

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BladeOfCreation

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There are entire college courses dedicated to media critique. As you say, engaging with other people's views on these things can help refine our own beliefs. Now, sometimes media critique is bad. Sometimes it is literally, objectively wrong. That's not to say that what someone thought or felt when engaging with media is wrong--our experiences inform our interpretations. But every now and then someone will write an essay about what a work is trying to say, and they get it wrong because they never bothered to find out what the creator of that work thinks. That's always interesting (at least to me).

The truth is that at any given time, at least half of Giant Bomb's staff just isn't full of the type of person who wants to engage critically with media. Patrick and Austin were unique voices in part because of their willingness to engage with themes. The only other person who really did this was (and he wasn't always actively part of GB) was Alex. I actually think that Vinny has gotten more willing to engage in this sort of discussion over the years, in large part because of working with Austin, Alex, and Abby.

The ancient Greeks wrote and talked about and dissected Homer's epic poems for centuries after they were written. Talking about the art (or "media," or "content") that our culture produces is inherently human. The waters get somewhat muddied here when we're talking about projects that cost many millions of dollars to make, and corporations own the rights to characters. I try to look past that stuff and engage with the art of it; you know, the stuff that is actually written by human beings to connect with other human beings. Sure, Spider-Man is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Marvel/Sony/Disney, and it's easy to get cynical about that. But that doesn't really change the fact that some writers wrote a really compelling and emotionally captivating story for the 2018 Spider-Man game.

I find this stuff incredibly interesting. Earlier this year, I had my capstone history course to get my degree. The course was on 9/11, and we were given the broadest possible leeway in choosing the topic of our papers. I served two tours in Iraq, but I wasn't interested in writing about the wars that came after 9/11. That's just history, after all. Instead, I wrote about the culture. The tonal shift in media--movies, TV, and video games--that occurred post-9/11. Because when it comes down to it, what inspires people to go the next war won't be the history books. It will be the stories we tell. Do you know what the quintessential post-9/11 movie is? It's Zack Snyder's 300.That is, of course, a ridiculous thing to argue. But it's also true. To most people, it's just a fun--if stupid--action movie. I guess what I'm getting at is this: whether or not one agrees with my personal takes on media doesn't really matter to me. What matters is someone at least having the ability to look at something and see that there's themes that go deeper than "pretty visuals" or "satisfying gameplay." And, as others have said, that's part of the reason GB doesn't have the most interesting discussions about games.

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Nodima

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As a former music critic, a lot of what compels me to purchase games I might not otherwise care much about (Deathloop being the most recent example that comes to mind) is simply discussing the hows, whys and inspirations behind what a game is. The medium is also so dependent on how any individual player can or can't interact with it that the pre-release marketing cycle specifically but even so much of a game's first month, even year, in the wild often tells several stories at once.

And again as a former music critic, who fell out of the industry primarily because releases and the mechanics enveloping their rollout were eroded so rapidly in the mid-2010s that I came to feel like I was often late to a house party at the exact time everyone was starting to wonder if there was anymore beer, what I enjoy about criticism in general is the simple experience of putting myself in somebody else's head.

I understand the euphoria of agreeing with somebody who either likes or hates something as much as I do...but I'm also so confused by the seemingly dominant perspective that most critiques people find disagreeable are given in bad faith, lacking in context or expertise, written just to either lap up the kool aid or drive traffic to a dose of haterade or any other brand of the confirmation bias/paranoia driven dialogue of post-Bush (take your pick) politics. I can't begin to comprehend the feeling that game criticism is something to be "trusted". While I also vehemently disagree that whether someone writing about Sekiro ought to have mastered its mechanics, or even necessarily beaten it, I do at least get it. Most games are designed to be beaten (despite, ironically, often being abandoned long before end credits) and that structure predictably inspires an attitude that you can't possibly really know Super Mario World until you've, yup, beaten not just the game itself but each of its special worlds.

On a long enough timeline, that sort of structure inevitably fertilizes the ground that eventually sprouts folks who insist that using a Spirit Ash in Elden Ring sullies it, no matter how foregrounded that mechanic is.

But even leaving that idea of skill, mastery, whatever you want to call it aside that is, very obviously, intrinsic to video games in a way no other medium demands in quite the same way (though I'd argue fiction, music and film are also full of people who've "mastered" the form and critics don't get it like they do, they're just better about keeping to themselves) I wish more people would recognize that games allow critics to write about fiction, music and film all at once (with some gameplay on the, uh, side). It should be more fun than anything to read through the Backloggd page for a Dragon Age game, but for some reason so many people are inclined to read writing about games as a right/wrong proposition that the discourse surrounding them is rarely as constructive as it could be. Even worse, it often forces the critics themselves to double down and take a combative stance with their own readers, because it so often seems to be the case that publishing a review requires raising the gates or digging a moat immediately.

For lack of a game comparison, I think Pitchfork's retrospective of Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream is a shining example of what the public discourse about the critical discourse of video games prevents. It's a review with an exceptionally positive score, and a ton of commendations and applause that nevertheless acknowledges Billy Corgan's flaws and why this album became an icon of "selling out" at the height of grunge culture. Hell, that's not necessarily fair, the album's 30 years old (yikes) and the writer had all kinds of reverb to draw from. Closer to my point, this review of a new album by the Pittsburgh band Gaadge, scored 7.0, hints at why that score is "low" while clearly elaborating what's to like about it. Turns out, it's one of my favorite albums released in 2023 so far, which I can only say because of a review I read that hinted I might feel that way alongside the writer's reasonable reasons they'd disagree.

To be fair to this era's game critics, I enjoy their writing just as much as the folks whose names I still remember 20 years later. I've even got a handful of names I still get excited by when I see them in a byline. But unfortunately, thanks to GamerGate and the curious idea that simply uploading a thought to Youtube makes it more trustworthy than getting it published in Eurogamer it seems most of the gaming culture despises the "discourse" aspect of said culture. Which, as a sidebar, I find bizarre because the two most popular YouTube critics, SkillUp and ACG, both behave like and slowly but surely are becoming a part of the so-called establishment that it throws the entire perspective in disarray. The main dude behind SkillUp in particular might be the closest to this generation's Gerstmann I'm aware of, but in the same way his credibility didn't blossom to publications like Edge or Famitsu, one Youtube channel doesn't guarantee the value of the others. Most of which I'm totally unaware of, because I myself am a shameless corporate shill - surprise!

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mellotronrules

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I guess what I'm getting at is this: whether or not one agrees with my personal takes on media doesn't really matter to me. What matters is someone at least having the ability to look at something and see that there's themes that go deeper than "pretty visuals" or "satisfying gameplay." And, as others have said, that's part of the reason GB doesn't have the most interesting discussions about games.

yeah, this is a pretty great summation of how i try to approach media. i'm looking to understand a work's resonance in someone- it's so much more meaningful to me than mutual admiration or deriding of a thing.

or put another way- i'd so much rather talk music to the bloke that goes to the Nickelback show every time they come through rather than shoot the shit with aloof bud in the Godspeed You Black Emperor shirt. as long as there's thoughtful reflection taking place- it doesn't matter to me what language or signifiers it's cloaked in- i just wanna know why you feel the way you do.

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Nodima

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#9  Edited By Nodima
@mellotronrules said:
@bladeofcreation said:

I guess what I'm getting at is this: whether or not one agrees with my personal takes on media doesn't really matter to me. What matters is someone at least having the ability to look at something and see that there's themes that go deeper than "pretty visuals" or "satisfying gameplay." And, as others have said, that's part of the reason GB doesn't have the most interesting discussions about games.

yeah, this is a pretty great summation of how i try to approach media. i'm looking to understand a work's resonance in someone- it's so much more meaningful to me than mutual admiration or deriding of a thing.

or put another way- i'd so much rather talk music to the bloke that goes to the Nickelback show every time they come through rather than shoot the shit with aloof bud in the Godspeed You Black Emperor shirt. as long as there's thoughtful reflection taking place- it doesn't matter to me what language or signifiers it's cloaked in- i just wanna know why you feel the way you do.

As an aloof bud in a Sunny Day Real Estate LP2 t-shirt who just pontificated the way he did but also can rarely quote lyrics, name band members, describe live shows I've seen nor reliably recall exactly which part of which song by which band lured me in, I feel appropriately seen and belittled. LOL.

The worst part about guys like me is how eager to we are to tell you why the Monks' Black Monk Time is a fascinating album before you even press play, but we get a quarter of the facts wrong, don't know any of the band members' names and have no idea what the name of the one song you should listen to to figure out if you're interested is.

(Edit: Not knowing I was gonna bloviate as much as I did, I should add that the actual worst part about guys like me is that we just keep talking and talking until we're bored with ourselves, long after everyone else already gave up.)

But for whatever unfortunate reason I and any mustachioed orthodontist in their 60s can tell you Ringo Starr sang "With a Little Help from My Friends" like it's the most important thing you ever heard.

Though in the brief second I thought about that before pressing post, I realized even that's still preferable to almost all game dialogue I encounter outside of the GBCU. I'm reminded of, having never realized this for whatever reason, the moment Gerstmann showed off Rygar's apparently infamous XP exploit. Like somebody explaining a drum solo on Genesis' Abacab I can't ever really care, but I love being in the moment of realizing that something creative I'd never give a second thought to has drawn intense passion out of someone else.

Which again goes back to the main thrust (I think) of that rant: it's so confusing to me that discussing video games has so enthusiastically belittled itself into good or bad, right or wrong sorts of phraseology. An example that comes to mind is Outer Wilds. I uninstalled that game because I'm terrified of beachfronts, let alone the deep sea, and I refused to navigate the Dark Bramble and it's big spooky boys. Still, I played that game for about 20 hours, and I read a lot about it both before and after those 20 hours - I don't think I personally needed to join that final campfire. I'm certain I'd grasped the loneliness, futility and astonishment that game wanted me to feel. And hell, if I'd made it happen myself rather than chicken out and watch a Youtube video, there's an absolutely compelling argument to be made that I'd have been even more astonished by the idea that that's what that game wanted to express than I was, or am.

But that's often not the case with the endings of games, and even when it is those really good, thematically sound, comprehensive, capital S Statement© endings don't have much to say about the actual game you played to get there. A recent, powerful example is Red Dead Redemption 2, which resolves the nature of its external character work and internal character development flawlessly - in other words, wandering around and taking in all the world has to offer is absolutely the point, but because that's the point it's also how you, through Arthur, will interact with it - and in the process becomes a game thousands of people authoritatively bellow "unplayable!" Yet if you see that game through to the end - or maybe the end's end - you get to see the miracle unfold.

Or you don't, because you've just gotta finish the goddamn game and open every drawer and damn wouldn't it be nice if there less of both.

Usually, games just sort of end, and I'd confidently say that about a lot of games I like a lot if not love. Norco is one of them. The Witcher 3 is another. Both recent God of War and Horizon sequels emphatically qualify. If anybody told me the point of either Middle-Earth: Shadow of... game was resolution I'd assume they were working out a tight five for a comic book café. Final Fantasy XVI is at it's best (which it rarely is) when it's building its world, not when it's tying up plot points (let alone establishing them). If Assassin's Creed: Origins is good at all, it's because no other game has that amount of Egypt in it. Though in full deference to my earlier point, I'm glad so many people loved Bayek. It was a decade of video game characters and he was certainly one of them.

IN CONCLUSION, as the most boring special teams player on the JV football team would begin, when it comes to video games and discussing them, most people, especially people younger than me, would notice this post begins with a paragraph, scan the rest of it and flip a coin between closing the window or offering a snarky "lot of words for a guy who can't do anything about it." Which is nearly enough words to make one long for the days of the simpler, pithier "sucks to suck". But a post like this used to be not just fun to read, but niche. It's incredible to me that guys like @arbitrarywater, @mento, @zombiepie, @bigsocrates, @imunbeatable80, @unclejam23, @gamer_152, @borgmaster and I'm sure some others I'm forgetting continue to post such thorough, passionate, curious, authentic, humorous, insightful, and most of all fucking self indulgent essays about things they love, at arguably greater quality than ever, to a forum that's, politely speaking, seen better days.

All video game discourse should be likethat. Good writers with unique or personable constructs clackin' on keyboards 'til they've made it clear how they feel about whatever bit of digital gunk they - and only they - enjoyed or didn't. One might argue that halo swirling around 2012 seemed to imply the video game criticism coke was only getting more pure from then on - until three years later it became a Wild Wild West-esque guillotine, forcing writers who thought they were discovering their voice to find their own Air Gordon or submit to their rent and utility bills trying not to.

So we're stuck with this mess, far more questionable than it should be given the total cultural import of the medium and yet understandably stupid given video games would've never been anything without idiots.

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imunbeatable80

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@nodima: I am honored to be included in your list, my write-ups aren't nearly on par with the thoughtful and well researched write-ups of others (yourself included). To answer the OPs original proposal, everyone seeks or writes for their own reasons.

For me personally I don't wade much into the recent game discourse, because I know I'm always years behind the trend and will have nothing to add. I still find it interesting to hear about new games from people's opinions who I at least understand. But I'm an adult who has been playing video games forever, I have long been in a stage where I don't need validation for games, and I don't have scorn for games I won't play (shoutout to every MMO). Giant bomb is the only gaming website I follow, and while I told myself I would follow the guys to nextlander, or support remap, honestly I know that I don't have the free time to listen to everyone.

As for why post on a "dying" forum? I'm still trying to figure that out. I never write with the intention that it is going to get a lot of traffic or that I am going to persuade someone to play/not play any game I talk about. It's a collection of loving organizing (thoughts, rankings, etc), loving the format of ranking of fighters and Danny O's old podcast where he tried to rank every video game ever, and just wanting to spit out thoughts in my head. I have close friends but none that are so entrenched in video games who want to listen to me talk about why I felt Ni No Kuni was a huge letdown.

So I'm fully prepared to write or post my thoughts with the expectation that 0-1 person actually reads it. Anything over that number or even any engagement is just gravy.

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eccentrix

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@retris said:

the terms "talkie" and "dooie"

This is the first time I've heard these terms and I don't know what they mean from what you said about them, which speaks to your point.

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ArbitraryWater

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@nodima: thank you for your endorsement. as a self indulgent bloggeman I can confirm I only keep doing this because my brain is broken and I need to express stupid thoughts about bad old video games somewhere. Please look forward to more discourse on horror games nobody has played in the near future because I still enjoy writing.

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PurpleShyGuy

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@mellotronrules: I had no idea that the Waypoint crew went on to do Remap Radio, thanks for introducing me to it. I should have known that you can’t keep good game critics away from podcasting.

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PurpleShyGuy

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#15  Edited By PurpleShyGuy
@nodima said:

Like somebody explaining a drum solo on Genesis'AbacabI can't ever really care, but I love being in the moment of realizing that something creative I'd never give a second thought to has drawn intense passion out of someone else.

This is something that I‘d completely forgotten to mention, the fact that somebody’s pure enthusiasm for a subject that you personally care little about can draw you in regardless. I suppose this can be down to the person being able to describe the subject in a way that allows the clueless outsider to understand why the thing they’re describing is so incredible.

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UncleJam23

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@nodima Appreciate the shoutout! Would've acknowledged it much sooner, but I was trying to think of something to contribute to the conversation that wouldn't be book-length and I failed.

I will say this: Though I've been lurking around the site since 2012-ish and premium since 2014(?), it wasn't until album club that I started writing in here with any amount of regularity. I do have a desire to talk about games, and art in general. But I've always done it on a personal blog I still contribute to every month where I write about games or movies or music or TV or whatever. (I've taken a 2 month break, but I'm working on something for this month.)

I read scripts for my day "job" and I'm a screenwriter by training. And even if I wasn't, art matters and it matters to me. Using language to express my passion for art in one style of writing (be it a blog post or a forum post on the Giant Bomb dot com or whatever) helps me tremendously when doing the other kind of writing I do. Expressing myself via the act of language and rumination on why I feel the way I feel for the sake of emotional clarity about a thing so on and so forth hopefully you get the bigger point I'm getting at. I'm tired haha