When Chris Dahlen co-founded Kill Screen Magazine in 2009, there was, in his words, simply a “gaping need” for more thoughtful games journalism that could treat the material with the sort of inquisitive acumen he applied to his work as a music critic and a programmer alike. For the purpose of full disclosure, I should say that I write for Kill Screen, along with several other members of the Bit Creature team. Since the magazine was first founded, Dahlen continued to write for Pitchfork, Paste, the A.V. Club, and Edge Magazine, all while holding down a day job and being a dad who, of course, plays video games with his son every night. Then late last year, Chris stepped down from his post as Editor in Chief of Kill Screen and retreated from the majority of his freelancing duties to serve as narrative designer for “Mark of the Ninja,” a 2D stealth action game from the indie studio Klei Entertainment.
As a fellow person who works on the internet, I always wanted to hear the story of how Chris maintained his interest in video games throughout every step in his career. And now that he’s made the leap from critic to creator, how these two roles have informed one another.
Calling him up on Skype one night a few weeks after “Mark of the Ninja” was released to ecstatic reviews, we ended up speaking for nearly three hours. So in the interest of time and space, we’ve broken this into two sections. In this first one, Chris and I talk about his experience in games journalism.
You have a lot writing experience throughout your entire career. Did you ever think about taking the step to doing it full time?
The short version is that I got out of college in 1995. There was no internet. Or there was, but they had these giant NeXT terminals in the library. That was the first time I got on the internet. I went on Yahoo—I don’t know how I found it, someone told me to use it. At the point, Yahoo was actually organized by hand. People chose what links were in that directory. That’s how long ago this was.
I wrote on the college paper a lot. That was my thing in college, doing all kinds of different things for the paper—I was the photo editor, the op-ed page editor. I wrote columns, I wrote reviews, I wrote some news. That was what I did.
When I moved back to Boston after college, I just didn’t know how to break in. I didn’t know how to get into the Phoenix, I definitely didn’t know how to get the Globe. I remember calling this paper called the Tab and asked if they needed music reviews. They were like, “No,” and I just said “Oh, ok.”
I didn’t really know what else to do besides that, so I kind of just focused on work. I ended up in a computer job, working in educational software. [I] became a project manager, took classes to learn how to code…and I actually really enjoyed that. It was a good gig. In the late nineties I was making pretty decent money doing that, and then getting used to having money.
So I ended up working for a consultancy with State Street Bank for 11 months working on this international trading application in Java, J2EE. You know how these things are, it was just so slow and horrible. So I was reading movie reviews online, killing time, using Napster on their corporate account (if you even tried that today on a network like that, the cops would show up).
I was just so bored with it, even though I liked this career. So I ended up taking an online career aptitude survey. I spent 30 dollars, and this thing opened asking, “Well what do you like to do?” I filled out all these questions, and at the end it said, “You know, the thing you really like to do is to write.” So I started sending out pitches for music writing, which is really what I wanted to do. I just happened to send stuff to Pitchfork when they were looking for writers, and I’ve been a professional freelance writer ever since.
But it’s always been a side gig. Because, you know, you’ve got a mortgage, a kid. I’ve never brought in enough money that I could just ditch the day job, but I’ve always had day jobs where I could fit it in. It used to be that I’d run out to my car and doing interviews on my car with my cellphone, but it always worked out.
Since you wanted to go into music writing, when did the shift to games happen? When did you even realize that writing about games was something that people did either as a hobby or a career?
That’s interesting. I mean, I’m 38. I remember my neighbor when I was six or seven came home with a pong game. That’s what it had; it was a big box the size of an Xbox and the one game it had was pong. Back then (laughs)…”back then!” TVs had an antenna with a little wire and hook that you could screw into a different antenna. The pong thing screwed into that, and you’d pipe it into channel 3 because that was always empty.
I went from that to having a ColecoVision. I was also at arcades a lot. I was terrible at arcade games, but I just kept going back and pumping quarters in because video games were basically the most awesome thing in the entire world. I also had an Apple IIC, that was where I discovered games like the old Infocom text adventures, which the only one of those I think I ever beat on my own was Planetfall. All the old Ultima games…
By the time I got to high school, I’d set all that aside because I was just really busy, so I never had a Super Nintendo—I’ve always been a PC gamer historically. Whenever I’m at GDC now waiting in line for a keynote from [Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s fourth CEO] surrounded by people who are just ballistically excited, I don’t have that vibe. I’m definitely missing the whole generation from Super Mario through the Sega Genesis…I can’t play 2.5 games like Streets of Rage. You know, those games where it’s 2D but there are different levels of depth? Whenever I try to line the guy up, I’m always missing. That entire genre is completely lost on me. Around 2000 I started to get back into them with PC games like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, Grim Fandango. Then I got an Xbox and went from there.
In those early days, I remember getting computer magazines. I didn’t really know who wrote them, or what went into the process—I didn’t care at all. The people who made games I was sort of aware of. But the only game maker I really knew about was Lord British, Richard Garriott, and that’s because he put himself in the game. I didn’t really read much of the games press, I really just got interested in it because as I played more and more of them I thought this would be a fun thing to write about.
I’d been writing about technology and music, so I was sort of on that beat already—with music and tech, there were so many things going on though the past decade, so many interesting things going on with people trying to get their work out there. And then when I got involved in the games side, it seemed like somebody was trying to do something new with games every few weeks.
So I started writing for the Boston Phoenix. Mitch Krpata edited me, and we’ve been working together on and off ever since. I pitched a story to Paste, and they said they were looking for a games editor for their two-page games section. So I took that over. That post has since been held by Kirk Hamilton, Garrett Martin, and Jason Killingsworth. So I’ve always been writing about games more from a mainstream perspective. I think Edge was the only truly games enthusiast publication I’ve ever written for. It was always a crossover thing, like the Onion AV Club, or Paste, where games are the weird little section in the back people probably aren’t interested in because they’re reading about alt-country sensations. I wasn’t always a big reader of a lot of the big sites out there like IGN, 1Up, Joystiq, and I don’t have the kind of fan association with the really legendary writers because I would never comb through the games press.
I’ve always wondered what Kill Screen’s relationship with the rest of this cluster of sites is. Whenever I’ve written for Kill Screen versus the WSJ (which would also show up on Kill Screen a lot), I felt like I was getting very different responses as an “insider” or “outsider” of the gaming bubble in some ways.
Yeah, Kill Screen has been positioned really well as having a brand for smart games writing. What’s interesting about it is it started in 2009, when there was nothing else out there. A lot of the best writing going on was on blogs, just personal…stuff. Kirk Hamilton started Gamer Melodico, and Michael Abbot’s Brainy Gamer is obviously the hub of all those writers.
So there was this really fertile community, and it was definitely posted in opposition to the game press, which was just people posting ten times a day like, “oh my god new screenshots weapon reveal BOOM.” Just this idea—that people would write at length when it wasn’t necessarily timely anymore, and compare games to literature, or music, or whatever—was pretty radical at that time. And it’s not like everyone was stupid—Edge and Eurogamer have certainly always been doing pretty serious writing. But on the internet, it was just like, “Boy here’s a gaping need.”
And that’s directly what Kill Screen came out of; in 2009 there were just all these great writers and a sense of, “Let’s do something about that.” Fast forward to today, you have a lot of outlets that are trying to do that, and are doing it really really well. Kill Screen is definitely more of an intellectual one still. But you’ve got Polygon, you’ve got Kotaku, you’ve got Penny Arcade Report. Rock, Paper, Shotgun—that site’s a monster.
When we were first talking about Kill Screen, Kotaku was sort of like people on a Viking ship. You know that image of a Viking Ship in Conan the Barbarian? Just “Row, row, row” for 3 months straight. That’s just how we saw them, they were just writing these fifteen posts a day that were all crap. It was this sort of frat-bro thing. Nobody took it seriously. And now it’s, well, certainly the bravest site. And also probably the best writing of any games site, I think that’s fair to say. Up there with Polygon, you know, in terms of sites that also publish very frequently. I mean, Kotaku’s a monster now.
And so there are two things going into that. One is, writers want to write well. They want to do stuff they’re proud of and endures. With gamers, there are a lot of gamers and you can get a lot of traffic off of gamers. And then there’s this huge untapped market of people who are sort of gamers, or are just curious about it. Maybe they thought gaming wasn’t for them, then all of a sudden they’re playing Angry Birds on the subway. And all of a sudden they’re interested in this.
So writing for grownups, the way Kotaku’s doing and the way Polygon does, is potentially very very lucrative. And I know that’s been part of the Kill Screen conversation too—that you could have this broader reach by writing about culture and not just posting screenshots of the new Mario game. But the competition now is so fierce.
About the Author:
Yannick LeJacq is a reporter for the International Business Times. His work has also appeared in Kill Screen, Salon, the Atlantic, and the Wall Street Journal.