Polish designer Adrian Chmielarz is a man who has split gamer opinion right down the middle. On one hand, his playable output is widely revered. As a founder of the People Can Fly studio in Warsaw, he worked on one of the most underrated murder-kicking simulators of the previous console generation, Bulletstorm (as well as Gears of War: Judgment and the Painkiller series); and at The Astronauts, where he presently works, he designed the astonishingly atmospheric narrative game The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a winner in the category of Game Innovation at the 2015 British Academy Game Awards.
But then there's the other side to his public-facing persona. He's gone to war against Anita Sarkeesian's Feminist Frequency blog for its claims that The Witcher 3 was racist and sexist, and taken shots at Polygon for what he sees as the site's failure to actually love the medium it's covering. He grew up in a communist dictatorship, and is currently addicted to Destiny.
And he's also, in my opinion, one of the best video game critics around. By dint of being a games-maker, rather than a paid-up journalist, he's able to be completely honest with what he sees, rather than sometimes sugarcoating the message so as not to piss off publishers. He also has no qualms about flirting with controversy. My guess is he does it deliberately, but I think that's healthy. If you'll allow me to pull yet more milk from the leathery teats of modern cliché, Chmielarz might not be the critic we want right now, but he's definitely the kind we need.
When he writes, he does so in one of two general directions: there are his pieces on the socio-political talking points surrounding contemporary gaming culture, and then more straight-forward design essays. But it's the latter that can cut closer to the bone of the video games industry. "I guess it's surprising to some, but it's the game design [side] that's often about the provocation," he tells me, "and it's the socio-politics that's about the facts."
Of course, it's the pieces on politics, such as his Feminist Frequency article, that provoke more "napalm." But why is that, exactly? "The reason is simple," Chmielarz explains. "I believe that humans are inherently, irreparably biased creatures who remain biased even when they are aware of their own bias. Myself included, of course."
We all have our biases, of course. Personally, I like his piece about Polygon, linked above, in which he criticizes author Phil Owens's issue with The Last of Us requiring four scissor blades to make one single shiv. (That, and with the fact that the piece is written by Owens and can be seen to advertise a book by Owens, titled WTF Is Wrong with Video Games.) Owens calls the crafting in The Last of Us a "bit of blatant absurdity," which is like an underhand, soft serve to Chmielarz, who subsequently applies Owens's wonky logic to other mediums: "…and don't get me started on the books. Why are most of them artificially divided into sections (so-called 'chapters')? Why are they presented in a code we need to decipher… so-called punctuation?"
Whether you agree with his politics or with his shooting of fish in a barrel, to me this is the kind of critical voice and bullshit filter, that every industry needs. Nobody is actually ringing the death-bell for video games writing, nor will they anytime soon (sorry, YouTubers), but it shouldn't have a free pass either. I'm certain that there is more great games writing out there than ever before; it just gets lost in the flood of pieces that exist primarily to represent #content. "There's barely any actual journalism," is Chmielarz's opinion. "It's mostly PR replays, clickbait and wrapping Reddit posts in a nicely colored ribbon."
"A big problem for me is the fact that most gaming websites don't really have any personalization," he continues. In this modern world of synaptic overload from the always-on news cycle, and the algorithmic time-traps of social media and Netflix, the need to offer something that really connects with readers somehow is crucial. "You go to a site and most of it is something you have zero interest in, like 'Halo 5 adds Harry Potter Quidditch Mode.' I am sure there are people out there who were shaken to the core by the news, so the existence of it is not an issue. The fact that I wasted a few brain cycles and seconds reading a headline that does nothing for me is an issue. Not that I know how to solve it."
Naturally, massive video games will always have interested and engaged players, eagerly consuming all updates, however trivial. But it's also easy to see things from Chmielarz's perspective—click your way to a traditional, specialist video games site, and its news feed will usually be stuffed with, basically, Stuff That Doesn't Matter. At least not to anyone outside of the game in question's audience. We are assaulted by the cynical monetization and infantilizing mechanics of mainstream games on a daily basis. And while the video game industry might be more transparent than ever, it doesn't always stop to fact-check.
"Facts don't mean a lot when you already have a strong view of belief," says Chmielarz. A case in point is the reactions to E3 2015's assortment of female leads, when several commentators in the games press declared it the most diverse showing in years. Go deeper and a slightly different story unfolds, Chmielarz argues, with research on his side, that there were just as many female leads on show a year earlier. But the problem with 'facts' is that, "on the contrary, they can ignite a very strong reaction that's supposed to kill the dissonance those facts created." So, pinch of salt at the ready.
A trailer for the award-winning 'The Vanishing of Ethan Carter,' the first game from The Astronauts
And stopping to question what can be seen as bias-confirming narratives often gets Chmielarz in trouble, especially in this world of Reddit/Twitter-endorsed pitchforkings. "You don't need that extra press, and thus I think the only people talking [honestly] are people who don't have it in them not to. People who cannot shut up, even if shutting up is the most logical thing to do. Like, you know, Harlan Ellison." Ellison wrote: "You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant." That's something we could all do well to remember.
Yet not all who disagree are trolls, and Chmielarz's writing has a knack of rubbing his fellow professionals the wrong way too, such as Tadhg Kelly, TechCrunch columnist and industry writer. Bear in mind that if someone of either Chmielarz's or Kelly's cachet wrote a public rebuttal of one of my articles, my career would probably wrap up quicker than a Zen Bound pro sparked on Adderall.
Provocation aside, Chmielarz really is a gifted analyst of video game tropes, mechanics, and design, and that much is clear regardless of whether or not you agree with his findings. Take this in-depth explanation of what Her Story reveals about the broader state of game design. He will often come to a big game months after release, when the hype has cooled and the next 30 "must-haves" are released into the wild. This runs contrapuntal to the FOMO-fueled success of quasi-sociable Skinner boxes like The Division, when everyone clamors to chip in their two or more hot cents while the commission bucks and hits are freely flowing. "Do you know how many games were not bought because Counter-Strike, League of Legends, or Destiny players neither needed them nor had the time for them?" Chmielarz asks. "Or how many will not be bought because The Division players are neither going to need them nor will have the time for them?"
Maybe this is something a new game by his studio, The Astronauts, could fix? "I'd always take a great atmosphere with a weak story over a great story told in a world that is unable to put me in a certain mood," he says. "So now that we got Ethan out of our systems, we have this hunger for a highly atmospheric, mechanics-focused game. I think we found a sweet core idea, and now it's the question of execution." And as for more writing, his last Medium post coming in October 2015, Chmielarz says: "I also like headshotting aliens, robots, and demons in Destiny, so that's in the way." You cannot argue with that.
Will questioning our own biases and dissecting cynical design improve the games we play? Or are we all just gnashing teeth while the majority mash buttons? One thing is for damn sure: the video game industry is a more interesting place with Chmielarz around.
Follow Danny on Twitter.