Astrolabe (17): Transmission Received with Patrick Klepek
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In Astrolabe 17, I spoke with veteran games journalist Patrick Klepek. Since he first started hanging out at the offices of legendary gaming magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly as a 14 year old, Klepek has been immersed in games writing. Over the course of his career, the 36 year old has helped give games journalism a "sharper edge," thanks to his tireless reporting and knack for finding compelling stories about games and the people who make them.
This edition of Transmission Received shares my full conversation with Klepek, and digs deep into what it's like to grow up in public, what we can learn from our old work, and what Giant Bomb's high profile departures mean for the future of games journalism.
Patrick Klepek on Growing Up Alongside the Games Journalism Industry
Aidan Moher: You've been a games writer for what feels like forever, and have bylines with many of the major publications in the industry—from 1UP to Gamasutra, Kotaku to Waypoint. How'd you get into games writing?
Patrick Klepek: A mixture of luck and happenstance, really. My early years on the Internet were spent on IRC, an early form of chat rooms. I, unsurprisingly, played a lot of video games as a kid, and when my family gained access to home Internet, I started searching for video games online. That lead me to the IRC chat room for the online website Gaming Age, the original home of the Gaming Age/NeoGAF/ResetEra forums. Some folks who contributed to Gaming Age were foundational to the 90s era of Electronic Gaming Monthly, which means I somehow, by chance, ended up hanging out online with the editors of EGM at the age of 14. I started writing for Gaming Age, and getting paid enough money that my parents were taking the majority of the check away from me.
The next bout of luck? I lived maybe 30 minutes from where EGM was being produced at the time, prior to them moving to California, as the era of 1UP began. They let me hang out at their office, and many of them became lifelong friends of mine. They were an early resource for someone who didn’t yet know they were going to become a writer, and by the time I was heading to college and fumbling my way into a journalism degree, I had a bunch of friends who were the editors of major magazines. They offered me my first paid writing gigs, which helped me pay for rent and beer in college, and when I graduated, the current design lead of Destiny, Luke Smith, was leaving 1UP for Bungie.
1UP offered me the news editor position, and I immediately move to San Francisco.
AM: So, you were a kid hanging around with the grown-ups—which seems to me to be the absolute best way to learn on the job. You're young enough to still be impressionable (while thinking you know everything already), a sponge for information, and eager to rub elbows with your heroes. But, I imagine it wasn't quite that easy. What was it like being a kid knowing you were already working with the big names in the business?
PK: Being young and naive helped, I think. If I were plopped into the same situation in my 20s, I probably would have been a nervous wreck. Instead, getting to know these people online and then playing early versions of games in the EGM offices while my dad went to lunch just seemed normal to me.
The part that still throws me, though, is my dad. Can you imagine your kid coming to you and saying "hey, I met a bunch of older dudes online, and I want to go hang out in their office?" It's absurd. I can't tell if it being the early days of the Internet makes that story better or worse, but it's such a testament to my parents' own mix of trust and naivety that opened this door for me; my entire career is owed this moment. Of course, my dad always met these people before I had an interaction with them, and showing up at a Very Official Looking Office probably helped things. But still, it was weird.
AM: Yeah. My parents let me drive their van full of my friends from Vancouver to Calgary for Warped Tour 2001 when I was 17, and, as a dad with two young kids, I literally have no idea what they were thinking. BUT. It turned out okay. We had a blast, and it really allowed me to understand personal responsibility, etc. Sometimes you've got to let kids take risks.
I'm just getting into games writing in my mid-thirties, but, like you, I've been writing publicly since a pretty young age. The reason I wanted to talk to you specifically is I wanted to hear about your experience growing up out loud in a very popular industry. Carving out a career as a writer, not matter what you write, takes a LOT of learning and experimentation. It's one thing for fiction writers, who can trunk a bad book, but I've got a lot of... inelegant blog posts from my early 20s floating around. What did you learn from growing up as a writer in front of an audience?
PK: Part of the appeal is that you're always writing a new piece. I don't spend much time thinking about something I wrote 10 years ago, despite suspecting I would now think it's trash. I've moved onto the next piece of reporting, the next rabbit hole to go down. It's something I have trouble comprehending about working on video games, where you toss all this time and energy into an unwieldy project that you barely have any influence over over the course of many years. It's also why I've never written a book, though having kids and losing all my free time has given me a convenient new excuse for that.
It is also true I'm part of the generation that grew up alongside the creation and mainstreaming of the Internet, during the same period when shows like South Park were very popular amongst me and my friends. You can make some pretty accurate guesses at the way I was talking in my formative years as a writer/person. I said a lot of shit when I was younger, when edgelord felt like a radical identity, that I'm not proud. Some immaturity was semi-permanently crystallized online and has become fodder for far right goons who hound me and my work. It used to stress me out, but the people I work with know what my values are, the person I'm always trying to be, and that I emphasize empathy.
Plus, what I've come to realize is that part of living life is, at times, reminding yourself of that person you used to be, because you can't appreciate how far you've come without sitting with the past.
AM: It also seemed easier to me back then to get your voice out there and build a platform entirely on your own as a young writer—for good or ill. Rubbing shoulders on message boards, running a blog, contributing to fan publications, etc. all helped you climb that ladder in a way that doesn’t exist now when so much of the conversation is dominated by big corporate publishing magazines and websites.
So, you had a chance to really let your thoughts out there in a raw, unfiltered way… but without the benefit of an editor to help steer you away from bad ideas.
What’s your advice for young writers looking to get into games writing nowadays?
PK: I should be clear, I don't think my writing was infested with edgelord bullshit. It's mostly the way I conducted myself online at a young age. A combination of not knowing any better and a limited world view from suburbia proved to be something I've had to grow from in the years since.
What's different about 2021 is that it's never been easier to get published, right? There are loads of places publishing material in various forms, whether it's audio, video, or text. It's extremely easy to start your own blog, write a clever tweet, and hope that goes viral. In that sense, games writing—criticism, journalism, whatever—is more democratized and accessible than ever. But that's also a curse, because so many people are in the field, too, and it's harder to get noticed in the haze.
In the past—and I think this advice still stands—is that writing is the most important part, however it happens. Even if no one reads it. It's so much easier to sit on a good idea and watch it wither away, than it is to see that piece to completion, even if no one reads it. It's the only way you get better!
In terms of getting the attention of editors and trying to make this your profession, I'm such a bad person to ask advice on that because everyone already knows me. I'm in an extremely privileged position that I do not have to wonder if a gaming editor knows who I am—I know that they do! And so how can I reasonably give advice to people when I haven't had to climb the modern latter myself?
The one thing I'll say is that I do read a lot of pitches for freelance material, and the art of the pitch is really difficult. It's the part most people don't think about. It's the equivalent of a cover letter to a resume. Nobody wants to write a cover letter, and nobody wants to write a pitch. But you can't get an editor to sign off on a piece without a good pitch, and a good pitch is all the more important if your name isn't well-known, and an editor is deciding whether to take a chance on you. Spend more time working on your pitches, even if that means having people edit your pitches. It's that important.
AM: I was fortunate to have had someone mentor me through the pitch writing process—which I think gave me a leg up early in my freelance career. It really is an art, and something I find harder than actually writing the article itself, sometimes. What do you like to see in a pitch? What helps a new writer stand out from the crowd?
PK: Being concise, clear, and specific about the piece is critical. I also notice that younger writers really inflate how many words it'll take for the story. The moment I see a writer saying it'll take 2,000 or 3,000 words to fully write whatever they're pitching, my eyes roll into the back of my head. You need to be a pretty established writer to pull something like that off, because in most cases, you can do a lot more with a lot less. That many words is just a way for a young writer to get into a lot of trouble, and for an editor who's taking a risk to realize they may not want to work with that writer next time.
AM: *quietly tucks his pile of 3,000+ word essays under the bed before Patrick can see*
Not only do writers grow up, but we've also come a long way from the days of Game Players comparing Chrono Trigger to a wet dream. What sort of changes have you seen in games writing since you first started at EGM in your teens?
PK: It has a much sharper edge than it ever did, and it's for the better. And that sharp edge is being pointed in the right direction (most of the time), which definitely wasn't always the case in the past.
People are smarter, and there's a wider group of voices contributing to that shared base of knowledge, criticism, and reporting. Most people used to look exactly like me, and while that's still mostly true, it's also changing rapidly. (I wish that audiences were less hostile about it, because I think we keep losing potentially transformative writers who, understandably, do not want to be harassed!) It's been encouraging. One way to view that change is to be afraid of it and become defensive. Another way to view that is as a challenge to stay interesting, relevant, and introspective.
As games writers have diversified, I've been kept on my toes! I have to find a reason to keep sticking around, and it's made all of my work better as a result. I'm grateful for their presence.
This also tracks alongside the rise of video and podcasts, neither of which were part of my skill set until I landed in jobs where, suddenly, I was being asked to do both. I still consider writing and reporting to be where I do my best work, but it's basically impossible to get a job these days without having the chops to show up on a podcast or be part of a video, and so a lot of work has gone into figuring out, "OK, how do I fit in here? What am I good at, what am I bad at?" It's scary and exciting.
AM: A decade ago, Giant Bomb redefined what people could expect from games journalism, and they've continued to be leaders in the field—publishing many fine games journalists over the years. Just a few days ago, we saw Vinny Caravella, Alex Navarro, Brad Shoemaker announce that they're leaving Giant Bomb. What do you think Giant Bomb has meant to the gaming journalism community, and what do these high profile departures tell us about the future of games journalism?
PK: This is an overly simplistic reduction, but 1UP.com accidentally stumbled into the notion of turning previously anonymous games writers into bonafide personalities. Bylines mattered, because you aligned your taste and preferences with them. You knew people's names. Giant Bomb took what 1UP.com stumbled into and turned it into a business model. Giant Bomb wasn't just a website to a lot of people, it was a family. It's part of the reason some elements of the audience were hostile to me being the first person hired over there; I wasn't "part" of the family. That welcoming atmosphere was genuine, and helped break down the barriers between fans, commentators, and developers.
But all things come to an end. Giant Bomb only happened because Jeff Gerstmann was fired from GameSpot. Austin Walker was only hired by Giant Bomb because I decided to leave for Kotaku. A door closes, a door opens. That's what's happening here, too. I'm not sure it tells you much about the future of games journalism yet because it matters what happens next. Too often, we lose veteran voices, people who have seen decades of the industry with their own eyes, to roles behind the scenes at game developers for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it pays way better.
If this trio leaves to work on games, it'll be a boon to those developers but a loss to games criticism. If they decide to stick around and try something new, maybe it's the new Giant Bomb? Maybe it's something else entirely? Who knows. But all of us feel the pull to try new things. Giant Bomb was, at one point, a new thing. Now, it's an institution and it's a lot different to work for an institution, even if you helped build it.
AM: Thanks so much for chatting, Patrick. What sort of stories are you looking for these days, and how can writers pitch you?
PK: Appreciate you having me! Most of my work pops up at Waypoint, and every once and a while my wife and I find time to sit down and record a podcast about horror movies under Til' Death Do us Part. People can pitch Waypoint at firstname.lastname@example.org, and your best bet for trying to get something past us is looking beyond the 24-hour news cycle. What are the things that keep cropping up in the discourse, and what's it say about gaming culture? We don't run a lot of "news" at Waypoint, but we're always looking for takes on broader trends. Surprise us!
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