Meet Adrian Chmielarz, Video Gaming’s Most Divisive Designer and Critic
A founder of The Astronauts, makers of 'The Vanishing of Ethan Carter', Chmielarz is notorious for his own #hottakes on the games media.
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. Bulletstorm is the classic did well with the critics, didn't sell loads kind of game; a lot of fun in practice but ultimately a commercial failure. At The Astronauts, where he's worked since 2012, Chmielarz 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 and the recipient of a GameSpot 9/10, and the same score from Polygon.
But then there's the other side to his public-facing persona. He's gone to war against Anita Sarkeesian's Feminist Frequency blog, disagreeing with its claims that The Witcher 3 was racist and sexist, writing that he finds "the 'real world' work of Feminist Frequency damaging to the world of video games". He's taken shots at Polygon for what he sees as its failure to actually love the medium it's covering, singling out an excerpt published on the site from Phil Owen's book, WTF Is Wrong With Video Games?: "One conclusion is that I wish the book were re-titled WTF Is Wrong with Video Game Journalism: How Gaming Critics Refuse to Grow Up." Apropos of nothing, he also grew up in a communist dictatorship, and is currently addicted to Destiny.
He's loved by many, then, but also loathed by others, not least of all for what can be seen as a "pro" stance on the Gamergate fiasco that engulfed gaming culture in late 2014. By taking what he considers a neutral stance on the discussion over whether or not the games media requires better regulation, more frequent disclosure over why certain games are given coverage over others, or more favourably, he's been bracketed as one of the bad guys. This, despite his assertion in February 2015 that what he saw as the main thrust of the Gamergate movement, the call for journalists, editors and publishers to be transparent where necessary, had been successful, and that was that. "We have seen most websites adapting new ethics policies like the need for disclosure," he told TechRaptor. "I'm not entirely sure there's anything left to do here for #Gamergate other than being the watch dog."
He clearly feels that Gamergate, beneath the awful toxicity and harassment of individuals within (and beyond) the games industry that became the headlines-generating core concern of press coverage, had a purpose. That it did some good. And of course you're welcome to disagree with him on that, but when he writes, "I never expected public figures, people calling themselves journalists, to attack a veteran game developer without ever exchanging a word with him or asking about his motives," you have to ask yourself if the liberal, progressive media, the kind that VICE Gaming considers itself a part of, wanting the best for video games and all those who sail in her, couldn't do with being a little more balanced, too, and analysing the wider scenario.
Whether you consider Chmielarz an acclaimed games developer or anti-feminist supporter of shit-flinging on social media, or maybe both, to me he's actually one of the best video game critics around. By dint of being a games-maker, rather than a journalist or editor who might have to protect commercial interests by sugarcoating certain slices of coverage, he's able to be completely honest with what he sees happening in the industry. (I'm certainly not saying that games journalists, or those covering any other form of media, are regularly encouraged to be sympathetic towards particular titles when there's advertising money on the line; but you'd have to be incredibly naive to think that this situation never arises.) Chmielarz also has no qualms about flirting with controversy, using #gamergate on Twitter and criticising popular figures like Sarkeesian knowing full well how it could see him cold-shouldered by the media he needs to support his studio's work. My guess is he does it deliberately; but I think a little stirring is healthy, in moderation. It's okay to ask questions of even the commentators we appreciate the most.
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 straightforward 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, "whereas it's the socio-political pieces that are about the facts."
Yet it's the pieces on politics, such as his Feminist Frequency article, that provoke more "napalm" amongst those who want to paint him as a villain. 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. Personally, I like his piece about Polygon, linked above, in which he criticises author Phil Owen's issue with The Last of Us requiring four scissor blades to make one single shiv. Owen 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 Owen'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 his is the kind of critical voice, and bullshit filter, that every industry needs. Nobody is ringing the death-bell for games writing, nor will they anytime soon, but it shouldn't have a free pass either. There is more great games writing out there, online and in print, than ever before; but some of the time it feels lost in the flood of pieces that exist primarily to represent #content. "There's barely any actual journalism," is Chmielarz's opinion on the state of modern games journalism. "It's mostly PR replays, clickbait and wrapping Reddit posts in a nicely coloured ribbon."
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"A big problem for me is the fact that most gaming websites don't really have any personalisation," he continues. "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. There's nothing wrong with that, and long may it continue while the audiences demand it. 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 target market. We are assaulted by the cynical monetisation and infantilising mechanics of mainstream games on a daily basis. And while the games press is more transparent than ever, it doesn't always stop to fact-check, according to Chmielarz.
"Facts don't mean a lot when you already have a strong view of belief," he says. 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 arguing, with detailed study on his side, that there were just as many female leads on show a year earlier. (Draw your own conclusions on their "prominence", as there's no doubt that bigger characters took the stage in 2015, but the raw numbers are comparable.) By laying out his research, Chmielarz saw "a very strong reaction, that's supposed to kill the dissonance those facts created".
A trailer for the award-winning 'The Vanishing of Ethan Carter', the first game from The Astronauts
Stopping to question what he views as bias-confirming narratives often gets Chmielarz in trouble. "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, a speculative fiction author who found success writing for American TV in the 1960s, wrote: "You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant." And I think 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 up the wrong way too, such as Tadhg Kelly, TechCrunch columnist and industry writer. "This whole loop you've fallen into is just sad," Kelly wrote, referencing Chmielarz's support of Gamergate. "None of this GG stuff is anything to do with anything than a kind of truther pathology that starts and ends with some people feeling that other people have invaded video games, but being unable to just admit it." Kelly has a point, just as Chmielarz does. Their perspectives are two sides of the same coin, one we're still tossing today, waiting to see how it lands and what that means for making gaming a more accepting, inclusive space for everyone.
Provocation aside, I think Chmielarz 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 conclusions. Take this in-depth explanation of what Her Story reveals about the broader state of game design, for example. He will often come to a big game months after its release, when the hype has cooled and the next 30 "must-haves" are released into the wild. This runs contrapuntal to the FOMO-fuelled success of quasi-sociable Skinner boxes like The Division, when everyone clamours 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?"
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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 of his critical 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 can't 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 get on with mashing buttons? One thing is for sure: respect him, revile him, or simply see him as a small cog in a machine that can't be stopped at this point, the games industry is a more interesting place with Chmielarz around.
This article was originally published on April 18th, 2016. It has been edited to better explain its subject's position in Gamergate, how this has influenced his critical writing, and bring a more balanced tone to the piece.
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