As I think I’ve mentioned a couple of times in the past, I keep a few copies of defunct UK games magazine PC Zone around as a reminder of some early forays into writing about games professionally. These ’90s issues of the dead magazine feature nothing more exciting than a few walkthroughs by me, but it’s the rest of them I find so fascinating to read with modern eyes.
What particularly caught my attention recently was a section called “Sick Notes”. This was one of the many different things the magazine did with its last page before the back cover — over time, this included a regular column by “Mr Cursor”, a look back on the month’s gaming and what one of the editorial staff had been up to, and numerous other things.
Sick Notes was the brainchild of Charlie Brooker — yes, that Charlie Brooker — and was intended as a complement to the magazine’s other letters pages. PC Zone at this point had several different “reader input” pages, including a traditional “letters to the editor” page, a “Watch Dogs” letters page where readers could write and complain about service they’d received from hardware and software manufacturers, and a “Troubleshooter” letters page where they could ask technical queries about PC problems.
Sick Notes, meanwhile, was marketed as “The Place to Write for Abuse” so you knew what you were getting when you wrote in — and you had to write specifically to Sick Notes. It certainly lived up to its name. Here’s one memorable example that won the monthly £50 “Loser of the Month” prize, with Brooker’s response in bold beneath.
I see that in issue 67 of your “magazine” you asked us to send in a game idea. How’s this then: You start off in a primary school where all goes well and you please the teachers. You then progress to secondary education and achieve above average results and so decide to sit A-levels in your local college and finally, after four years in university, end up with an honours degree in English language and English literature.
AND THEN YOU END UP WRITING YOUR PATHETIC [swearword] PIECE OF [swearword] PAGE-FILLING SO-CALLED COLUMN.
There was a boy called Mark Richardson at my school. Everyone called him ‘skids’ because once, in the PE changing rooms, somebody noticed that he had huge brown skidmarks in his underpants. Not that this inability to tackle basic personal hygiene was restricted just to poor wiping skills. He smelled bad pretty much all the time. He was a mess. His face was permanently coated with a faintly shiny film of sweat and grime, his hair so caked in grease it recalled television footage of unfortunate seabirds in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil slick. His clothing was dirty. To use the Whizzer and Chips terminology of the day, it ‘ponged’.
But the worst thing about Skids was the way he picked his nose. He was always at it, plugging a finger in as far as he could, corkscrewing it around inside the nasal cavity, unhooking entire strata of half-dried mucus, drawing out measureless strings of oleaginous grey-green slime. Then he’d take them to his mouth, puckering his lips as if sampling some exotic delicacy. Skids devoured snot. He relished it. Guzzled it. Chewed it up and swallowed it whole, then painted his finger clean with his pink, stubby tongue. Made you sick just to watch him do that.
Anyway, sorry, what were you saying?
This was pretty much par for the course back around the time of PC Zone issue 70 (December 1998) but looking back on it now it’s hard to believe that this existed. And don’t worry, I’m not about to go off on a whole big “This Is Not Okay” social justice rant here; quite the opposite, in fact. I find it a bit sad that people who write for a living — usually for websites rather than magazines these days, though print is still hanging on in there — don’t really have the freedom to express this side of themselves any more; the means for some much-needed stress relief, and for the readers to try their luck against one of the most notoriously acerbic wits in the business.
I mean, sure, these days we have the people who have made a name for themselves with strong opinion pieces — people like Ben Kuchera and Jim Sterling spring to mind immediately, and there are others, too — but it’s not the same thing at all. Brooker didn’t just blindly insult people in Sick Notes — though he always did so with carefully-considered barbs rather than mindless abuse on that page — he also wrote witty, creative, unconventional articles that were entertaining to read far ahead of fulfilling some sort of amorphous “obligation”. And he wasn’t alone, either; the writers of Zone, among them, did all sorts of things with even their most mundane articles, with particularly memorable examples including entire reviews written as movie scripts, a “Franglais” preview of Flashback follow-up Fade to Black written from the perspective of its protagonist Conrad Hart, and countless others I’ve doubtless forgotten.
What’s my point? I’m not quite sure, really, but I think it’s that people who wrote about games used to seem like they were having more fun with it. This isn’t to say that there aren’t great, entertaining writers out there whose work is a pleasure to read, but rather there seems to be something of an unspoken rule that things need to be taken very seriously these days. You’ve got to get that SEO; you’ve got to get those clicks; you’ve got to capitalise on the popular things of the time; you’ve got to be seen to be criticising the things other people are criticising.
Cynical? Perhaps, but it’s why things like Goat Simulator feel so obnoxiously forced; what should be a silly little game that people stumble across organically and then tell their friends about has become something heavily promoted and treated with, in a number of cases, considerably more respect than I think even its creators intended. Fair play to them for successfully capturing the imagination of the press and the public, I guess, but it’s just not the same as the magic I feel reading an old PC Zone and comparing it to its rivals PC Format and PC Gamer as well as multiformat magazines, each of which had their own distinctive tone about them.
We can’t go back now, though; the world expects daily updates as things happen these days, rather than a monthly digest of things the editorial team thought were interesting, intriguing or just amusing. And the world certainly doesn’t expect a member of a site’s staff to hurl such an amazing torrent of intelligent abuse at them as Brooker did to Mark Richardson above; these days, treating your readership with such contempt is probably a firing offence.
Which is kind of weird, when you think about it; websites deal with reader numbers that magazines, even in their heyday, could only dream of, while for a magazine like PC Zone, every reader counted and thus you’d think posting something like Brooker’s response would be taking something of a big risk.
Maybe it was too much of a risk. Maybe that’s why PC Zone doesn’t exist any more. But I’ll be honest with you; I miss those days. I’d much rather be working on a monthly magazine than a constantly-updated website, but this is 2014; that’s the way things are, so I must, as the saying goes, “deal with it”.