This Is Phil Fish
This is Phil Fish. Th-th-th-th-this is Phil Fish. Phil is, or was, a game designer. He worked at Ubisoft, entered the Indie scene through TIG Source, founded Kokoromi, co-starred in the documentary “Indie Game: The Movie”, and released a game called Fez. Maybe you heard of it. And everybody hates him. That’s an exaggeration; if you don’t hate Phil Fish, you probably either know somebody who does, or you have never heard of him. He’s been called a racist, a liar, arrogant, overrated, and generally, quote, “an asshole”. End quote. This video is not about defending Phil Fish, or about setting him on fire. This video isn’t even about Phil Fish; not really. This video is about everyone in the world who isn’t Phil Fish. We–and by we I mean those who would eventually be Phil’s “public”–first met Phil on the forums at TIG Source, sort of the Indie game CBGB’s. He was a talented artist that delivered very constructive, if blunt, critiques on the art sub-forums. He was one of dozens of strong personalities; he had a tendency to fly off the handle, though rarely unprovoked, even if it didn’t seemingly take much provocation. You could most easily set him off by talking about who was and wasn’t “really indie”. The point being, he wasn’t a shit talker. He was a guy who called out shit talkers, though where you place that dividing line likely depends on your opinion of Phil Fish. Early in development he started a dev log for Fez that quickly became the most popular dev log in TIG Source history. The game around that time blew the fuck up on Twitter, and an early demo won an Excellence in Visual Art Award at the Independent Games Festival. Phil was becoming, quite rapidly, a big deal. He was the subject of dozens of articles and interviews, and quickly received funding from the Canadian government, based solely on his first commercial release, which was, at that time, little more than a prototype. This rankled many developers who had been releasing finished products for years in total obscurity. It is worth noting that Fez’s popularity didn’t really mean people thought it was “better” than other games in development. Fez’s selling points were Phil’s art, guided by his incredibly demanding standards, and its 2D/3D mechanic, which was near impossible to describe but could be instantly understood in motion. The game blew up on Twitter because it was perfectly suited to Twitter. Everything you needed to know about it could be understood in four seconds of video, or even an animated gif. It was a game that compressed well, and the more compressed information is, the further can travel on the web. This took no particular genius on Phil’s part, he simply lucked into an idea that elegantly fit the mold of how games became popular in 2008, and used that system superlatively. Other developers games could be better, deeper, more cerebral, but not half as memetic. But the way Phil acted in the face of this popularity seemed smug and self-satisfied, as if Phil felt it were owed to him. His acceptance speech for the art award at the IGF had no trace of humility or even surprise; in interviews he often ranted about what was wrong with other games, much as he had on TIG Source, with the tacit implication that Fez would be superior. And when folks shared their unvarnished, profanity-laden opinions with him on the internet, he responded right back in kind, as he had ever done. But before, if a complete stranger randomly told him to go fuck himself, no one cried foul if he told them to go fuck themselves right back. This was just two strangers flaming each other on the internet, and if anyone was in the wrong it was the one who started it. But now Phil wasn’t insulting a stranger, he was insulting the audience. This was interfacing with the public. The dynamic between these two people is viewed completely differently as soon as one of them becomes famous. To talk about Phil Fish is to talk about fame. More and more people began to speak toxically about Phil, and to Phil. Resentment began with developers, but soon expanded, either by spreading out from TIG Source or because Phil was just good at making enemies. The complaint that Phil had never released a game, lobbed at him most every time his name was mentioned on the internet, masked a deeper complaint. Hundreds of developers on TIG Source had never finished a game and no one complained about that. But none of them were famous. The deeper complaint wasn’t that Phil was more famous than them, but that he was more famous than he deserved. At this point, Phil was basically Nickelback. Now, people don’t hate Nickelback because they think the music is bad. People think loads of music is bad and don’t give it any further thought. People hate Nickelback because the music is bad and popular. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s because someone at a studio heard Nickelback and thought, “I can sell that.” It’s because the music was so aggressively overplayed on the radio, and aggressively advertised, as if a PR department were trying to sculpt a mediocre band into a sensation regardless of worthiness. It’s because, despite all the hate, Nickelback’s fame proved that this was actually working, that millions were buying into it. It’s because Nickelback represented the apotheosis of an existing trend of shallow, whiny hard rock, which they made even more popular, and spawned legions of shallow, whiny imitators to continue the trend. It’s because every step of this process seemed to have been taken solely for the benefit of the people getting rich off the record sales. “I hate Nickelback”, as a sentence, voices a complex opinion on cultural trends in popular music, and aligns the speaker with those who hate not just Nickelback, but all that Nickelback represents. They resent Nickelback the concept. Nickelback the actual band is of secondary importance. The band’s crime, other than the writing of the actual songs, is their complicity in this system. They signed the record deal. They deemed themselves worthy and deserving of this studio-constructed fame. In a phrase, they bought into it. The ire felt for Nickelback the band is only somewhat harsher than the ire felt for the fans that buy the records. They are just the first and last links in a chain of politics; studio politics, radio politics, and record politics, that are seemingly ruining music. This entire chain comprises Nickelback the concept, and when people say “I hate Nickelback”, this is the Nickelback they’re referring to. And when someone tweets “I hate Nickelback” at Nickelback, they aren’t really talking to the band. They’re talking publicly to culture about what Nickelback represents. The actual tweet to the actual band is just a shorthand. Saying “I hate Phil Fish” became the same sort of shorthand. Phil was friends with a few dozen other indie-famous developers, so he came to represent circle-jerking; the idea that you got indie-famous by being friends with the Indie-famous. Phil had government funding and impressive pixel art skills, so he came to represent the idea that money or polish or retro aesthetics, rather than gameplay, were what guaranteed press attention. So much of the conversation was about Phil, not just about Fez, that he came to represent shameless self-promotion, egomania, fame breeding fame, over-emphasis on personality over product, or whatever else. Phil was not just getting undeserved attention, he was the embodiment of undeserved attention. It’s worth noting that these popular beliefs about indie politics are not necessarily, any of them, true. But they are firmly believed. Phil Fish the concept and Phil Fish the human being orbited around each other for the four plus years of Fez’s development, and a small cottage industry grew up among reporters and bloggers of announcing whenever the two were in alignment. Indie Game: The Movie was filmed while Phil was legally divorcing his business partner, whom the film anonymized, and the end credits said he’d asked not to appear in the film. Shortly after release, Phil’s business partner said he didn’t “ask not to be in the film”, he was not asked to be in the film, and that he’d actually been given no opportunity to rebut Phil’s account of events with his own account. This quickly became subject or citation of several articles, and quickly flourished as a topic on blogs, forums and social media. At an Indie Game: The Movie panel at GDC in 2012, when a Japanese man in the audience asked developers what they think of current Japanese games, Phil took the mic and said, bluntly, “They suck”. Within a day, “Phil Fish says Japanese Games Suck” was headline news on Eurogamer, IGN, and Kotaku, among others, and the comments filled up with people calling Phil a racist. And when, later that week, Fez won the Seamus McNally Grand prize at the Independent Games Festival, Phil took his victory lap by telling a stranger on Twitter to choke on his dick. The stranger had, per usual, insulted Phil for no reason. This also became news. Two years later this is still cited in articles about Phil. Now, game-related news, editorials, reviews, and criticism all fall under the same vague banner of “games journalism”, but none of these things are “news” in any traditional sense. They have no material repercussions on gaming as a whole, on how games are made and distributed, or even the development of Fez. This is merely gossip, unless… Phil is functioning as a symbol. Which is precisely how he was being used. Because talking about Phil is talking about fame. It is a known secret that Phil’s former business partner is musician Jason DeGroot. For all his statements that the filmmakers were liars and that he’d never gotten to tell his story, DeGroot never told his story. The only specific he ever shared was about that line in the end credits, which no one disputed. The line was immediately removed from all digital copies of the film and was not included on the DVD. As for why he quit the company, or why he took so long to sign the papers despite the very real damage it could do to the game, many choose to believe DeGroot’s entirely hypothetical explanation, usually assuming that it centers on Phil being such an asshole. At GSC following the “they suck” comment, Phil Fish and Jon Blow had a back-and-forth conversation about overarching trends in both Japanese and American game design traditions, offering criticism of the American trends as well as exceptions to the Japanese trends. The moment where Phil wrote off Japan entirely simply didn’t happen. Something Phil did say, however, was “you guys need to get with the times”, “you guys” directed at the Japanese man in the audience, essentially casting him, intentionally or otherwise, as the representative for his entire culture. Problematic generalizations like this happen all too often in games culture. It’s a topic that deserves to be discussed, that sorely needs to be discussed. It would have been entirely justified to use Phil Fish to have a conversation about tokenism and cultural insensitivity. But instead, people used tokenism and cultural insensitivity to talk about Phil Fish. The useful discussion, the one that is larger than Phil Fish, didn’t happen, and when that discussion does happen elsewhere, not nearly as many people show up to the conversation. In fact, many who do show up insist It’s not a problem. People cared about racism only inasmuch as it let them hate Phil Fish. Finally, consider the “choke on my dick” tweet. Then consider this one from the following year. Neither is any more newsworthy than the other, the headline for either could be “Phil Fish has Strong Opinion”. But one is news and one is not. Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist critic who talks about the portrayal of women in games, and cyber mobs, and because of this she has accepted that she will get constant rape and death threats for the rest of her career. And though she was a major figure at the time, Phil praising and defending Anita Sarkeesian didn’t become news. Nothing positive Phil ever says becomes news. Because the headline isn’t really “Phil Fish has Strong Opinion”. Phil Fish is a symbol of everything that is supposedly wrong with indie games. He’s newsworthy when he acts like a symbol. Anything that doesn’t fit the narrative is ignored on blogs, forums, and social media, and news sites cherry-pick the moments when Phil Fish the human being looks, from the right vantage point, like Phil Fish the concept. The real headline is “Preconceptions about Phil Fish Confirmed”. Confirming preconceptions is what makes it news. Which is not to say that Phil was necessarily blameless in any of these situations, but that given many angles to view them, people consistently choose the harshest ones. This is a deliberate choice, made to preserve the idea that Phil is just an asshole. The philosophy here, which is troubling, is that there are right ways and wrong ways to be famous on the internet, and while there may not be any consensus on what the right ways are, there is sometimes consensus on who is doing it wrong. As with most philosophies, this can’t really be proven or disproven. There’s no sense trying to argue someone out of the opinion that Phil is an asshole for not acting the way famous people are supposed to act, or, crucially, for not acting the way we would act in his place. This is a popular argument because it’s an argument you can’t lose. No one can empirically prove whether Phil is or isn’t an asshole. What gets alighted from this argument is the assumption that famous assholes, people who don’t act the way famous people are supposed to act, deserve to be punished. In 2013, Phil quit the games industry, cancelling Fez 2 one month after it was announced. The final culmination of Phil’s punishment came in the form of a blowout with Marcus Beer, The Annoyed Gamer. Guesting on an episode of Invisible Walls, Marcus Beer called out Phil, calling him an arsehole, wanker, and pisspot, for refusing to comment on Microsoft’s new self-publishing policy when asked by journalists. Marcus’s argument was this: that because Phil was famous, journalists wanted his opinion, and that Phil should give it freely; that Phil should be grateful they were asking for it, that many would envy his status in the industry, that he owed journalists for all the attention they’d given him, that he had no right to refuse the press now after having shamelessly promoted himself online and in Indie Game: The Movie, and that the press should give less attention to his next game if he wouldn’t drive on the two-way street. Phil was being famous wrong. Now, one incentive for people like Marcus Beer and the staff of Kotaku and Eurogamer to say contentious things about Phil Fish is because contentious things about Phil Fish are guaranteed thousands of page views. People are invested in hating Phil. The announcement of Fez 2’s cancellation on his company website presently has almost 2,000 comments, most of them insults; long, consecutive, unbroken strings of insults. People saying good riddance, suggesting he fuck off, kill himself, or, of course, choke on their dicks. At this point, Phil is practically as famous for being hated as he is for making Fez. The hatred of Phil leaves no room for reconsideration – people have to commit to it. You can’t publicly, repeatedly, encourage someone to commit suicide, and later reevaluate, think “maybe he’s not an asshole”, without then thinking, “well if he’s not, I certainly have been”. It becomes psychologically necessary to hate Phil, and permanently. Here, finally, is my point. Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine you’re at some Manhattan cocktail party, and in conversation with a stranger you’ve only just met, you say, “Can you believe this bullshit Phil Fish said on Twitter?” Do you think the more plausible response is A: “God I know, what an asshole”, or B: “I don’t really care”? The correct answer is C: “Who the hell is Phil Fish?” Phil is not famous the way we are used to thinking about celebrities. Despite being in a movie, a documentary about video games, the average random passerby has no idea who he is, nor do they know Jon Blow, and while they’ve probably heard of Minecraft, they probably don’t know who Notch is. Same for Cliff Bleszinski, same for Ken Levine. The world at large does not know or care who makes video games. Fez has shipped a million units, so in a random sampling of 7,000 strangers, it would have been played by one of them. Phil is subculturally important, not culturally important. He’s only famous to us. And Phil is famous because a lot of us talk about him. Algorithmically, this is how search engines work. The more people talk about him, the higher he appears in searches. Similarly, the more we talk about Phil, the more articles get written about him, because they are guaranteed high readership and high ad revenue. People discussing how much they hate Phil makes Phil more famous. We’re used to thinking about fame as something granted to a person by people with media access. The reason people hate Nickelback is because of that record contract, that Faustian bargain. They bought into it. They had to be discovered, someone had to connect them with video directors, record producers, stylists, advertisers. This is not what fame looks like on the internet. There, fame is not something you ask for. Fame is not something you buy into. Fame happens to you. Phil doesn’t have an agent. He doesn’t have ad executives. He doesn’t tour the country on press junkets, and he doesn’t have a PR department. (Obviously.) He talked on social media. He did interviews when invited to do them. He was invited into a documentary. People read these things as shameless self-promotion, or a desperate need for attention, or both, but that’s projection. Nobody knows Phil’s reasons for doing them but Phil and the people who know him personally. Phil never asked to be famous. We made him famous. Maybe in part because we found him entertaining, maybe in part because we found him irritating. Largely because many of us were once sincerely excited about his game. But he became a big deal because we kept talking about him. On the internet, celebrities are famous only to the people who talk about them, and they’re only famous because we talk about them, and then we hate them for being too famous, and make them more famous by talking about how much we hate them. Could there ever be anything more self-defeating than this? If Nickelback decided tomorrow that they didn’t want to be famous anymore, they would have to give up the tours, the roadies, the record labels, the billboards, things most of us don’t have. They would have to settle for normal life. The only way out for Phil was to give up what most of us consider normal life: openly being ourselves on the internet. Because his normal life is what made him famous. Anything Phil says in public is newsworthy. He had to quit or privatize all social media, he had to stop speaking to his friends in public, if he goes to GDC or Pax or Indiecade, even as an attendee, there will be photos. My impression of Phil Fish is that he was young, and hungry, and talented. He seemed to perversely enjoy when people started talking about him; that cockiness usually comes with an arrogant assurance that you deserve to be spoken of, and a gnawing fear that you actually don’t. For me the most telling scene of Indie Game: The Movie is when Phil realized that an article about Fez he thought had been very popular had actually gone largely ignored, and, looking destroyed, he asked, “Why do I care so much?” I read him as a guy who took a weird joy in fucking with people’s expectations of him, but knew that he actually cared what people thought of him, cared about being accepted, and also wondered if that wasn’t very bad for him. What is this impression of Phil worth? Nothing. Everything I know about Phil comes indirectly, from the internet. I have access to the same set of information as everyone else, and we all draw wildly different conclusions. We project different things on Phil, which says more about us than it does about him. I will not say that Phil isn’t an asshole. I will only say that none of us know him. And why this matters to you is because if you’re watching this, you are on the internet. On the internet, there is no hard line between those who do and don’t have access to the media, because the internet is media access. There is a wide, fuzzy gradient between the famous and the unfamous. The person whose cat video has 2,000 views is slightly more famous than the person whose video has 15 People can be WordPress famous, Tumblr famous, Facebook famous. People can dedicate 20 years to their career and suddenly get very famous very fast in their 40s thanks to the internet, or they can find themselves famous without trying to be. You may wake up and find something you tweeted last night has 45,000 retweets, and you will find yourself suddenly held to different standards. You won’t necessarily know why this thing was the thing that made you a big deal. You won’t necessarily know how long you’ll be a big deal, but suddenly the people who follow you aren’t just people anymore. They’re an audience. And they want you to be something and they don’t necessarily agree on what that something is. How would you want them to judge you? Two final points about Phil Fish. One: Phil is an exception. He is white, male, middle-class and presumed to be both straight and cisgender. If you lack one or more of these traits, expect this kind of backlash sooner. For people who are any kind of social minority, they can expect Phil Fish levels of hatred, or worse, for any perceived offense. Sometimes the perceived offense is having any opinion at all. Two: Prior to the release of Fez, Phil released Glee and Super Hypercube through Kokoromi. Fez was his third Indie game.