A Look Back At Consolevania, With The God of Games
I sit opposite Robert Florence, the emotional heart of games TV show Consolevania, and try to read his expression. He seems nervous, as if one remark he makes could suddenly wash all those fond hours of Consolevania out of me. He has nothing to worry about. I think about the Shenmue drinking game and smile.
Consolevania is not only the sole thing besides Rockstar North that is famous in the gaming community; it is also the only reason that the BBC ever commissioned a regular TV programme about videogames (Videogaiden). A small video project set up between writers Robert (Rab) and Ryan Macleod and with ample assistance from Joanne Daly, Michael S. Hoffs, and later Kenny Swanston, Consolevania was posted on forums at its inception in 2004 and was immediately embraced. From there, it grew and grew, and reached its tendrils across the pond, leaked through the internet, touched other gamers who claimed to not even understand the Glasgow patois. “You can see on your server where your hits are coming from,’ Rab explains to me. “Outside of the UK was where we got most of our hits.”
Not only is Consolevania unashamedly colloquial, lovingly derogatory of the gaming community, and hugely funny, it just cannot hide its love of the very act of playing videogames. The first adorably fuzzy episode opens with the Shenmue Drinking Game, where Rab suggests we get some ‘booze’ and ‘f***ing Shenmue’ and drink every time Ryo Hazuki says ‘I SEE…’ Which is a lot. At times, the adoration of our little passtime that radiates from Consolevania approaches the sort of reverence even the most fervent games fans keep secret. Consolevania is our touchstone. Everyone who loves games should watch the whole run, at least once.
Part of the charm of Consolevania comes from its rebellion against everything: it rebels against the trend that games should be talked about in high falutin’ language (New Games Journalism is sent up at every turn; Received Pronunciation is kicked in the arse in favour of Glasgow slang); it rebels against political correctness (Hitler reviews Nintendo games); it rebels against age old obligation to game publishers (hardly any of the titles were supplied free for review, despite its latter fame). That freedom comes from having no budget, distributing through the internet, and being utterly guerrilla in spirit. Rab begins his very first review by wandering through the Glasgow Cathedral’s Necropolis, extolling that he doesn’t think he can film here, ‘so don’t tell anybody’. Consolevania’s cheeky and passionate content is the sole reason it has become such legend. It’s by us, for us.
I ask Rab how he feels about Consolevania. Initially, he seems reticent to talk about it as passionately as he talks about it on Twitter (his personality @robertflorence is somewhat exaggerated on there); instead the God of Games tells me, soft spoken, “It’s quite a nice thing, because it was always a hobby. [Later] the BBC show [Videogaiden] was really just…a laugh. It was going out at midnight or something so we were pretty much told we could do whatever we wanted.” It takes a confession of my own to get him to open up: I tell him that I miss Mid-Level Sub Boss and End-of-Level Boss a bit. He smiles. “They were our favourite characters to be honest.” I ask if he kept the cardboard boxes. “Yeah we’ve got pretty much everything still. …Too much emotional attachment still.” I ask after Ryan. What’s he up to these days? Do they still game together? “Ryan doesn’t really play games any more. He’s sold a lot of his consoles.” I can’t help but feel slightly gutted.
Much of Rab’s time seems to be spent lamenting how little the mainstream cares for games – the main reason the BBC put Videogaidenon past my bedtime. Rab knows I have a crush on TV & games critic Charlie Brooker and says so when I mention I follow him on Twitter: he grins at this and says, “I still run that gauntlet of losing followers every time I mention games. See if I mention a game on Twitter – I lose like 10 followers. That’s … interesting. See when Charlie Brooker talks about games he apologises – have you noticed that? It’s important to see how turned off people are about games.”
Here’s Charlie reviewing two games Rab and Ryan made on Videogaiden.
There have been no new videogames series’ on terrestrial TV for quite some time. It is still taboo to put that you like videogames on dating sites; I too am often grilled by middle-aged women as to why I would ever ‘like those violent things’. Though so many people are playing games these days, it is still hard to see evidence that the general masses understand them.
Part of the reason Rab has to be careful on Twitter with his games patter is that he is primarily known as a comedian. Having carved out a prestigious role in Scottish comedy, writing shows such as Chewin’ the Fat, and recently Burnistoun, its third series in production for BBC2, the main body of Rab’s followers are fans of his comedy only. But Rab’s comedy chops had a huge impact on Consolevania’s content and style, and for that we must be grateful. For example, the End of Level Boss and Mid Level Sub Boss sketches clearly have a need to send up US sitcoms like ‘Cheers’, and comes off gloriously nihilistic. And yet it still seems to indicate admiration for both sitcoms and games.
But the real guts of the show is the silly stuff they indulge in; in Consolevania season one Rab gets a spot on a national news programme to talk about the outrage over Rockstar’s violent game Manhunt. Instead he uses it to say ‘bummed in the gob’ live on air.
Although Rab seems like he regrets being very critical of a lot of games in the past, he is still critical of the industry as a whole. We talked particularly about the way that the games industry looks at storytelling, and women’s roles in development. Writing for television has afforded him a unique perspective on the differences in media. “So few games are written… properly written by people,” he says. “A TV show can have racist elements or sexist elements or misogynistic elements and because it’s written, authored – the author can say, ‘I was meaning this…’ and “I was trying to highlight this…’ or ‘It was a satire…’ or it was ‘this’, but games are a… hotch potch of ideas and brainstorming sessions. So when they are kind of sexist or [have] these racist elements in them, there’s no way it can possibly be some kind of authored attack on things… I don’t believe that games are mature enough.”
We talk about games coverage now, and I refer to Consolevania as games journalism – but Rab shrugs the term off. He doesn’t believe that games journalists are feeling their responsibilities keenly enough. “People are so used to games being attacked that they take this automatic defensive stance. Nobody wants to stand up and properly attack games for how properly puerile, how violent… Rockstar is an example. They make 18 certificate games, violent games, with sexual scenes, extreme violence… and they’re definitely marketed to underage kids. That’s why you can say well there isnae games journalism… because there’s nobody really attacking …publishers.”
Whatever you think of ‘games journalism’ as a whole, Consolevania had something very important to give us, which was laughing at ourselves. It’s pretty hard to get away with criticising gamers or games for anything without an internet backlash, but Consolevania’s gentle satire on everything from Peter Molyneux to PC gamers didn’t only get away with it, but flourished quietly. The show’s influences clearly show in developers’ work, such as the Addiction Level ‘bummed in the gob’ in GTA IV (a throwback to Rab’s previously mentioned TV appearance); legend also has it that The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion expansion pack Shivering Isles has shoes on the roof of a house in tribute to Rab’s preference for throwing them there in the original game.
Rab now writes for Rock Paper Shotgun on tabletop games. He does an excellent job. I catch RPS’s Kieron Gillen in the pub and I mention Rab. “You know,” Kieron says, “Once Rab did this sketch where he sent up a games journalist that was clearly a mixture of me and Tim Rogers.”