Computer games have treated me well over the years. My first printed book was a non-fiction book about a massively multiplayer game, my first professional fiction sale was a Diablo e-book, but of all the experiences of my early writing career, the oddest is hands-down my first professional sale – a review of Myth II: Soulblighter, for the April 1999 issue of Computer Gaming World. Over the course of reviewing the game and seeing it come to print, I ended up with three copies of the game – two of which can destroy the contents of a hard drive – accidental frostbite, and a vampire popping out of her top.
My story begins in the fall of 1998. I was in the fourth year of my bachelor’s degree in Medieval Studies at Queen’s University, and I had made the decision to stop writing Doctor Who fan fiction and make the leap to professional writing. And I loved computer games. I was already thinking of games in terms of more than just a fun thing to play. Unfortunately, the gaming media at the time wasn’t, although Computer Gaming World had started to show some signs of change. I wrote an article titled “The Computer Game’s Place in the New Mythology,” and sent it to Johnny Wilson, the editor of CGW at the time. Wilson didn’t have a place for the article, but was impressed enough that he asked me to write a feature-length review of Myth II: Soulblighter, with a sidebar exploring how the game’s combat compared with history.
Although there may not be that many people who remember it today, Bungie’s Myth series was one of the giant leaps in the real-time strategy genre. Just about every RTS maker prior to Myth: The Fallen Lords had made RTS games that were as much about gathering resources and building bases as they were about battles. The Myth series changed that. They were adult fantasy RTS games with no resource collection at all – just tactics, combat, and lots of blood. And they were 3D, with rotating cameras; Myth: The Fallen Lords was the first game I’d ever seen where you could blow somebody apart and watch their head bounce downhill with a blood trail.
To be able to review the second one was an incredible thrill. Back then, I spent a lot of my free time at Digital Gamer, Kingston’s computer game version of a sports bar. My friends and I would sit, chat, snack, and play network games. And on the table by the lounging area were always two magazines – PC Gamer and Computer Gaming World. Not only would I be able to review a major game release for a magazine I read on a regular basis at one of my favorite places in the city, but my first professional publication credit would be sitting on that table, where my friends could read and share it. That made it feel truly special.
Myth II was due for release in December 1998. As CGW‘s policy was to review the same completed game that would be on store shelves, this meant that in theory I’d be receiving my copy around the same time as the stores. My instructions were simple – play the game from start to finish, and write a review. My plan was to play the game over my Christmas holiday after I had finished my exams, and write the review in January.
Then the strangeness began – not even my published opinion of the game would be immune from it.
The first copy of Myth II arrived right on time, shipped off to me on December 11, 1998. I received a full box, along with a promotional pack containing a press kit, a little comic book, a CD with screen shots and graphics, and a cover letter mentioning there was also supposed to be a pewter figurine that in my case seemed to have been accidentally left out. I felt like a kid in a candy store (although slightly sore that I hadn’t gotten the figurine) – until about midway through installing the game, when the installer crapped out. The CD was faulty.
I called my editor to ask him to get Bungie to send a replacement CD, something any reviewer would have done. I’m fairly sure my next step – figuring out where each file had to go and manually moving them there from the CD – was unique to me. After about six hours of work (and not a small amount of muttering under my breath and flat-out cursing), the game was installed and playable, so I started playing, thrilled that I was being paid hundreds of dollars to play a computer game. At last. After. Six. ****ing. Hours.
It would be great if I could say that as I was playing I was thinking of how wonderful it was to be playing a game for money, or writing the review in my head, but it wasn’t like that. It was fun, make no mistake, but by the end of the first hour it felt like a job, and I remember not forming any real opinion on the game until about halfway through it. I don’t recall writing any of the review in my head until after I’d finished playing. I played, made mental notes for later, and counted myself lucky that there wasn’t any more strangeness to come. Murphy’s Law was apparently paying attention – more strangeness promptly showed up.
A couple of days into my playing marathon – it was a big game – the replacement CD arrived. Almost immediately after that, my editor called me in a panic, telling me that under no circumstances was I to actually use the thing.
It turns out that Bungie had found a bug in the installer. If the game was installed into the default directory (such as I had done), everything was fine. If it wasn’t, however, and you wanted to uninstall the game, the installer would get confused and try to compensate with thoroughness – by uninstalling everything. Yes, Bungie had accidentally created a game that could leave you with a blank hard drive as a parting gift.
To their credit, Bungie caught the problem before the game was on the shelves and issued a recall (although they never did ask for my CDs back). Everyone reviewing Myth II was left with a dangerous copy – in my case, two copies – while we waited for a safe one to arrive. About a week later, my third copy of the game arrived, and this one would apparently leave my computer unscathed. By then, however, I had finished playing.
I returned to Kingston for the last term of my degree ready to write the review. I had given Myth II quite a lot of thought. It was a very good game, and a worthy sequel, but story-wise it really felt like an expansion pack – and that’s what I was going to write about it.
In between a large amount of course readings, I puttered away at writing the review. It was in the middle of January, after a long walk back from campus, that I returned to my rented room just in time for my editor to phone.
Now, I had also returned to Kingston while it was in the grips of the coldest, most brutal winter I have ever experienced. Minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit was common before the wind chill – the wind at times brought it down as low as -40 degrees. Walking out in that weather involved several layers of clothing, and anything exposed – such as my earlobes on this particular day – would become frozen lumps of flesh. It was accidental frostbite, but I still remember it as part of the saga of Myth II because it was the only time in my life that talking to an editor was associated with actual physical pain.
By the end of January, right on schedule, the review was sent in, although due to slow connection speeds and my email program at the time not really being able to attach files, I wasn’t able to provide screenshots to accompany my words. That’s when the disappointment began.
One of the problems with writing a game review for Computer Gaming World was that they were work-for-hire. This means that the publisher owns the copyright and, once the review is handed in, can do anything it wants to it without ever consulting the writer. In my case, the review was edited and revised by a committee, who didn’t agree with everything I had written. The statement that Myth II felt like an expansion pack was tossed out, and gesture-clicking (a feature I had never found useful) was trumpeted. The sidebar was shortened, creating a factual error. And then the style was modified, re-engineered to sound “cool.” At the end of the day, I don’t think more than 60% of the review I wrote actually survived the process.
I didn’t know any of this until the April 1999 issue of the magazine came out. It was the issue where CGW decided to go sexy – they were doing some features on vampire games, and rather than their usual painted cover, they had photographed a busty model in a top so tight that she had popped out of it and they had needed to airbrush out a nipple. The text on it read “Bite Me: Suck Down 3 Horror Games.” The cover actually made me ashamed to show it to my girlfriend at the time (who was a feminist) or to my mother (a published author).
The final experience was unpleasant enough that I never did write another professional game review, and I wanted nothing to do with Computer Gaming World ever again. Even to this day, I’m quite happy that my Myth II review is not one of the ones that was seen fit for archiving on Gamespot.
But looking back, it was a bit of an adventure. In this day of controversies with videogame reviews, I can honestly say that despite a bad editing experience and an embarrassing cover, I wasn’t bribed or cajoled by the game publisher. I did, however, get to have one of those bizarre experiences that can only happen in real life. And over a decade later, my adventure with killer computer game CDs, a frostbitten phone call, and a near-topless vampire cover still brings a smile to my face every time I think about it.
You know what? In the end, it was worth it.
Robert B. Marks is an author, editor, publisher, professional writer, and researcher living in Kingston Ontario.