Phil Fish and the hate mob: an internet tragedy

Phil Fish is dead. He’s not dead, obviously. He’s just stopped posting on Twitter, cancelled Fez 2, and apparently abandoned games altogether after the hate got too much. In the aftermath of the cancellation, it’s not hard to see why – just a brief look at the comments on Polytron’s website is enough to make you not only swear off games, but the internet, words, and nerds aged 18 – 35 with very strong opinions about things.

But now he’s gone – and assuming he stays gone – it’s worth remembering just what we all loved about Phil Fish, with “we” in this instance referring to the part of the internet that isn’t currently on blogs accusing him of being a gay criminal or a woman.

Ask yourself whether you’d like a high-profile developer who doesn’t filter their opinions and isn’t shy of coming out with something that’s a bit controversial. The answer, cleverly suggested by the format and tone of the question, is yes. Most people on the internet would probably agree with that. But there’s a hidden clause to that agreement, which is “provided said controversial opinions agree entirely with everything I hold dear, on pain of going berserk and throwing around a few death threats.”

Phil Fish absolutely fulfilled his side of this bargain, with a big chunk of the web fulfilling the other side. It’s tempting to say that Fish tells it like it is, if ‘tells like it is’ wasn’t a euphemism for ‘is a mad bigot with no off-switch’. Phil Fish isn’t a mad bigot; only the most perspective-challenged self-identified fans of Japanese games would accuse him of being a bigot, which is admittedly still at least 50 per cent of self-identified fans of Japanese games.

And the thing is, Fish didn’t even tell it like it was. There’s no pretence that his pronouncements are the objective state of the world; when he said that Japanese games sucked, it was reported as a unilateral attack on Japanese developers, their Japanese mums, and Japan in general, with Fish rearing out of the ocean and kicking over some CGI skyscrapers with ‘ALL OF NINTENDO’S BACK CATALOGUE’ written on them. There was no context and no intimation that hey, maybe there was some discussion and explanation attached to the original statement. You could blame this on Chinese whispers, except that implies a gradual process of a message’s content degrading through retelling, rather than it going straight from zero to a lurid account of Phil Fish draped in a Canadian flag, being disrespectful towards a photograph of Toshiro Mifune while confidently stating to an agog press corps that Western game development’s most cynical freemium child-enslaving bankruptcy enabler was a more satisfying and rewarding experience than Super Mario 64 and Street Fighter II combined.

This refusal to pipe down and stop being mean to angry 18-35 males isn’t surprising when you think of Fish’s history. Fez’s development took in half a decade and a whole series of personal, professional, and financial setbacks. It’s astounding that he and Polytron finished it at all, let alone to the point where it’s a beautiful, brilliant reinvention of gaming’s equivalent of the wheel – the platform game. Fez is an incredible achievement, with the layered, nested levels of design taking you right from the basics of jumping from platform to platform, through the mind-punching flipping of perspective, all the way up to decoding alien languages and working out what the hell those owls are all about. It’s a game that doesn’t hold your hand, but at the same time never deliberately lets you fall – it trusts you with its puzzles so implicitly that it rarely even tells you that there is a puzzle.

The gigawatt-laser intensity required to push that through meant Fish was never likely to use his Twitter account to quietly push out press release-toned news updates and blandly positive statements that he’s looking forward to various things. He didn’t use Twitter for that. He used it to say that “gamers are the worst fucking people”. And why not? Everyone who plays games and reads about them, or has read any online comment section at all ever knows this is broadly true. Most people would joke about it; some people would even take a kind of weird pride in it. But when Phil Fish says it after the internet threatens to pirate his work because they don’t like him, then it’s action stations oh God everything’s on fire.

We’re so used to seeing developers’ public personas through a mesh of corporate hierarchy and external comms policy that seeing someone filtered through the mesh of being a sarcastic real-life person is frightening and confusing. And following this weekend’s announcement, it looks as though those meshes were there for a reason; the corporate mesh deflects and absorbs abuse, deforming and ricocheting off to one side like a bullet on kevlar, whereas Phil Fish’s normal person mesh just lets everything through unhindered, to grim cumulative effect.

The game industry needs more people like Phil Fish, and it’ll be all the poorer for his absence if he’s really gone. The internet isn’t short of people saying things are rubbish, in the same way that there’s probably enough creepy artwork of characters from Mass Effect already, and Sonic-themed erotic fiction is so oversubscribed as to be on a one-in-one-out system. But there are precious few people in Phil Fish’s position who are willing or capable of stirring up such debate, and almost none who are as entertaining. You might hate him, but he made Fez – and as such, he’s probably better than you.