ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Escaping The Escapist —

Recently, Escapist Magazine won one of those most chummy of awards, the Webby. I can’t pretend to know the exact manner and approach the “Webbys” take to choosing the winner of each set of candidates, but no doubt votes and cries from the web-browsing public are somewhat involved.

I will contend that the reason for Escapist’s victory in these awards is due to one thing only: Zero Punctuation. I will go even further than that, to make it clear that the only reason The Escapist exists for many people is as a shipping container for Zero Punctuation, requiring it to merely not damage its precious contents on a weekly basis. More on this shortly.

This situation, where this website is a forgettable bunch of shredded newspapers used as padding for a golden egg of criticism freshly arrived from Australia, wasn’t always the case. A mere three years ago or so, PDFs appeared at this new site called The Escapist, and it was, while not without predecessors, a real splash of a magazine.

The layouts, both on the website and in the PDF format, were distinctive. At a time when gaming websites became more and more screaming, blinking billboards, breathlessly regurgitating press releases and screenshots provided for them by game company mechanisms, the Escapist was almost a calm Gibraltar rising above others with its calm lines and clear writing.

It may seem odd to call back a mere 3 years as being ancient history, but this is the nature of gaming magazines, which are truly and completely some of the proudest whores on the street corner of publishing, not just aware of their shallowness and proximity to corruption, but prone to wallow in it frequently. Occasionally, a writer or editor will bleat out a “but we want to be honest to the fans” editorial, mostly due to being caught out in yet another new and spectacular way they have sold out, a way previously unknown but quickly becoming an “industry standard” as if the fact that “everybody does it” washes it clean of moral decay. Month to month, it’s the little jabs, the shifted size of advertisements, the addition of “skins” to utterly sell out to a soon-forgotten product. Within a year you do not even notice the slide having gone so far, and the “controversy” raging is merely a slight disagreement on a point of procedure in a depth previously thought unthinkable.

Such a surprise were these magazines, these PDF-downloadable versions of an interesting layout, that I started to collect them. I would pull down these self-contained magazines and sock them away on my website, considering them a worthwhile addition to my archives. Strictly speaking, this magazine was more a “zine” than anything else; they were relatively small issues and the layout allowed for only the lightest of overviews of the subjects at hand. But they were free, and pretty, and I couldn’t argue that for a zine it was a very very nice zine. The first issue was an anaemic seventeen pages, but there were no advertisements and who could really argue with that.

The zine was also weekly, which may seem like forever in website output but in fact harkened to a simpler time and approach. You can fill your news site with “content” by merely raping every RSS feed around you, ending up with a scrolling set of text showing how absolutely on top of it and awesome your crack staff is. (Naturally, this monoculture means that if one site falls prey to a hoax or a misprint, all the sites do, but that’s why they make the words “Ooops, our bad”.) To step back, to request essays and musings on subjects both recent and stale gave this zine a particularly classy air.

Note, please, that I’m not saying this work was uniformly excellent. It just presented what it did have in an excellent form that showed effort, talent and clarity of vision. The actual article quality itself is generally outside my realm, because what I want and like differs from others and so on; I can attest, however, that for the price and the availability, I was a delighted, satisfied customer.

A highlight relevant to my own interest is issue number 55 which contains the article/essay “The Short, Happy Life of Infocom” by Lara Crigger. The article is non-distinct, possibly cribbed from the MIT Business Case Study “Down from the Top of Its Game”. But it is pretty, and laid out nicely, which is more than one could say for a lot of other articles on the subject on web pages. The issue contains other pleasant articles, typical for Escapist’s approach: an overview of game theorist Raph Koster, an interview with John Romero, a pseudonym-laden overview of a game company falling over, and an overview of The Sims Online, defined as “the 20 million dollar failure”. Again, no ads pollute this work, the 55th weekly edition of the zine.

Naturally, this could not continue forever.

Issue #104 is the last issue produced until this old paradigm. Continuing the tradition of being relatively small (a mere 21 pages), its articles are a blend of game review and theory, with a public service page (making it 20 pages, really) and a cross-property advertisement for a sister publication owned by the same parent firm.

I have collected the sum of the released issues for you, as they became harder and harder to find on the site itself. I’m sure they’re still buried in there, but it’s not worth the effort. I have all 104. (My mirrors do too, should you find my connection slow.)

As I have implied, this short and delightful party came to an end.

In June of 2007, Escapist magazine editor Julianne “Andraste” Greer merrily announced that they would no longer be providing the magazine in the PDF form and layout. The congratulations and accolades quickly faded to be replaced with discontentment and disenchantment at how things had devolved into a look utterly without distinction or usefulness. Art director Jon “Landslide” Hayter, in a tone not outside of a waitress apologizing that the pancake house was out of pancakes, said the old approach had been too “time and man-power intensive” and so while they were sad to see it go, they were not bringing it back in favor of being available in more platforms.

Greer showed surprise that people would be up in arms or dismayed by the change. As the person who founded the endeavor, she appeared to have even forgotten her own history, when this little effort showed some quality beyond the usual tripe.

I wrote off The Escapist then, as I’m sure many did. And then Zero Punctuation happened, and I swear that it took me a while before I even connected the two, the place holding this wonderful little creation and that PDF-based zine that I once enjoyed glancing through less than a year earlier. Once I did, I was pleased that there was an excuse to stop by, even though I had no overarching need to browse the rest of the site.

Within a short time, even Zero Punctuation was corrupted. Until very recently (this week), when you brought up the animation, a little window within the animation would blow an ad into your face like a spitwad. If you take no action, it sat there for the entire length of the presentation, a hubris even network television and youtube won’t exhibit. You could “close” it, but it merely sat there, a closed line that your mind had to try and ignore, waiting for the opportunity to spring back out again. It is a moral compass for this modern Escapist that something as pleasant as a column could be overlaid with yet another worthless, generic ad for something I don’t have an urge to play, with yet another cover portraying someone or something holding a weapon. The true irony is how this ad is overlaid on a column/presentation that skewers this very same lameness.

The layout for Zero Punctuation changed again recently, removing this ad, and I am sure it is some methodology to increase the exposure to advertisements. In any given shift of action, I assume it is to further ad revenue. It is the beginning, the middle, and the end of this culture’s literary output, with only the style and depth of intrusion of the various methodologies changing.

I am sure the creators of the Escapist might feel the need to stop by and explain to me, utilizing some unknown quantity and justification, why the choices had to be made and why they decided that being like every other rag online and off was a brilliant move. I am not overly interested in this explanation, much as I would be uninterested in the explanation handed to me by a prostitute, readjusting her short skirt, justifying the actions taken for fifty dollars, a hot shower and a place out of the rain.

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  1. Darius K. says:

    I got my article in issue 103. Does that make me one of the cool kids?

  2. Jason Scott says:

    It makes you an astute individual, putting your work on a stage mere weeks before it closes down, signaling the end of an era.

  3. Jim Leonard says:

    The reason you will never see MobyGames “nominated” for a Webby is because you must pay a high three-digit processing fee to become nominated. I’ll say that again: You must PAY THEM to NOMINATE YOURSELF.

  4. Mirka23 says:

    Ah, agreed, Zero Punctuation is kind of brilliant. So much so that it didn’t even bother me that I had no idea what a JRPG was before watching it.

  5. Shii says:

    The Webby Awards cost $200 to be nominated for. Strictly speaking they are a scam.

  6. I don’t care, but did not know you had to pay to nominate yourself for a webby. Dear me.

    In any case, The Escapist was a great PDF ‘zine, as you said Jason. Not necessarily the article quality or content (I too, although a gamer, was not enticed by every one). The layouts were excellent though, brilliantly done, and usually readable.

    I posted about the change, my first comment to the site editorials and the new comments they had (although never published, of course). It’s a loss, but oh well. The Escapist still has odd articles I read, since I get the email digest, but it won’t be the same.

    A shame, a small corner of the game journalist sites which I enjoyed reading. While I still do, it’s to a lesser extent. I started in the forum when it started – was okay, until Zero Punctuation brought a lot of crap in (unintentionally I’m sure…), and I stopped posting.

    At least they got rid of the embedded advert service thingy on Zero Punctuation too. Finally. But a shame the site is only riding on it, more then making more of it’s articles.

    Thanks for putting up the PDF’s – for some reason I only have 50 to 100, which is obviously when I started reading it I guess. I never caught the earlier ones, or I deleted them perhaps. Grabbing them now, Jason, you’re awesome for putting them up, and utterly insightful commentary on it too.

    Let’s hope some new article site with regular updates appears sometime. Some competition might be good for The Escapist.

  7. Chris A says:

    On the Webby thing, don’t assume that sites pay for themselves for inclusion. Back in 2001 when was nominated, we were just as surprised as everyone else to hear the news.

    When The Escapist went from magazine-style (I always read the just as prettied up html version) to its current run of the mill style, it went from being, for me at least, a weekly event to just another feed in the RSS reader.

  8. Jason Scott says:

    There’s been a fee for the Webbys for no small time:

    But yes, that submission doesn’t HAVE to be the website being nominated, although I’ll bet there’s been some amount of encouraging websites to nominate themselves.

  9. Chris says:

    Wow.. thanks much for archiving the PDFs.. I think this is going to be my breakfast reading material for the next few months while I’m writing. I always loved the PDF layout even if it was sometimes unwieldy on my smaller monitors back in the day.

    I get the feeling that because web-style columns are so easy to update, edit, change, fuck with, they admit a lesser professionalism – one that isn’t “set in stone” as it where. They have to be sure they *really* want to say something before inscribing it in a zine. Blogs, not so much.

  10. Is the link down? Or just swamped? 🙂

    I’ll try again in a few weeks to finish off my downloads, since I got up to 96. I guess it’s just serving a lot of people right now. Thanks again Jason, really!

  11. Chris Barts says:

    It’s interesting to note that the AP wire was (and is) the equivalent of RSS for the newspaper world going back to the days when ‘wire’ meant ‘telegram’ and the clicky susurration of Morse code. It’s always had the exact same problem: If the wire gets it wrong, newspapers across the country (and likely around the world) will get it wrong the same way. The even more interesting part is that the wire has a good amount of meta-traffic: Reports that update, modify, and kill outright previous dispatches, meant to be seen by editors (and bored summer interns) but not the general public. If the news is the first draft of history, the wire reports are the first draft of the news. I imagine all wire services work exactly the same way.

  12. ross says:

    hey man why you gotta bring prostitutes into this.