Culture

TotalBiscuit, Gaming Critic, Dead at 33

TotalBiscuit (John Peter Bain) You Tube gaming critic and commentator, changed the way I looked at game critique and had a marked impact on my buying habits. Is there a better eulogy I can offer for a man who devoted his life to games, and substantially to game critique?

When I started watching TotalBiscuit, I had not quite hit my limit of tolerance for ThatGuyWithTheGlasses and the new era of review-as-entertainment. As a consumer of actual critique of artistic media, I was a devout worshipper at the altar of snark. The rest could go begging.

Not that TB was never snarky. Good lord, one of the last videos he ever did, with Genna, was called “Snark Tank”. It’s just that so many others I watched at the time fell more into the mold of MST3K, and their “reviews” were more an intellectual demolition derby— often of the media equivalents of stupid little European pod-cars— the better to juxtapose the destructive might of the monster-truck host. TB was the gateway drug to a better class of review, that took things and tested them against the personal standards of the host in order to deliver a—not objective, but rather a reliably subjective—appraisal of the work you could take into the world and use.

TB was the person who introduced me to the breadth and depth of the indie gaming field, at a time when I dismissed it out of hand as a succession of interchangeable platformers and pretentious belly-button gazing. What can I say? My first exposure to indie devs was through NewGrounds and Kongregate (Yeah, I was probably one of the older users on those sites, but my life was relatively undemanding at the time. I’d noticed those sites were halfway to being a pipeline to advanced-release free demos for the next big hits on mobile, and I had illusions of becoming a game reviewer myself, so I was “keeping up with the industry”.). He gave me the language and the compass that I needed to explore on my own. It wasn’t even really the specific games he recommended. “Cold Synapse”, “Hotline Miami”, and insert-the-“XCom”-title here do very little for me. But TB’s systematic approach—from his much maligned focus on options menus at the beginning of every video, to his well-elaborated personal theories on game design—gave me a lodestar by which to develop my own evaluative approach (Fitting, in that sense, that TB’s network was Polaris). Some themes his long-time fans have come to recognize can reasonably be called a classical standard for game critique—it’s better for a game to do one thing exceptionally well than do a hundred things poorly; all games have an inherently repetitive core gameplay loop, the question is what it is and whether you enjoy going around on it; the tolerability of said loop, iterated by progression and indexed by replayability, is the fundamental basis of a game’s longevity; it is neither common nor especially desirable that a game appeal to everybody, but most will appeal to somebody, who can likely be identified with due thought and patience.

TB was the reason I learned to play shy of early access titles, he was the person who argued best and most forcefully against blank-check fanboyism and its corrupting effect on the industry, and he was among the first to call out low-quality shovelware frustration games that were being produced for the sole purpose of giving Pewdiepie something to shriek at. He called game consumers, of all people, to a higher standard, and damned if he didn’t have a clear vision of what that meant, and a meaningful philosophical basis to back it up. He believed in our power to do good by being thoughtful about what we put money into.

No, I didn’t always agree with TB on the subject of games. I agreed with him far less on his personal beliefs. He was British, and he was young. Not only was he was raised to the predisposition, but given his position, he had every reason to side mostly with the people who stood up on a podium and promised free healthcare. May none of us ever endure a test of the kind he faced. But this you can’t take away from him— in his chosen field, he was a giant. He fought for every inch of that height, and he did it with integrity. He stuck to his guns despite a terminal illness at a young age and despite flak from both sides of the aisle over various issues at various times. Both sides. Whatever else you remember of his beliefs, remember this, too—he was down in the trenches with us when GamerGate happened. He may have been to our left on a lot of things, but he walked the incredibly hard road of supporting ethical industry practices over cookie-cutter attempts to hide blatant corruption behind the impenetrable force-field of social justice crybullying. He had a monster work ethic and unflagging standards that anybody ought to be able to take inspiration from. His last video was released just one month before his extraordinarily untimely death. And he did more that most to resist the corrupting influence of celebrity. He didn’t beg for subscriptions. He explicitly invited people to hit the dislike button if they disliked his videos. He’d go as far as to pull down and redo a video if he decided later that he didn’t like the quality of what he’d done. I never fully liked his choice to move his comments to Reddit, but neither could I really deny that YouTube’s comments had become a meaningless open sewer, and I at least understand his attempt to channel feedback into something more helpful. If anyone could credibly say they wanted meaningful feedback, it was TB. Maybe uniquely among YouTubers, he did not want his audience to develop a cult of personality. He sharply critiqued the concept of “the cynical fleet”. On principle, he didn’t want anyone to be an uncritical fanboy of anything, and that included himself. He defiantly and courageously idealized growth and improvement right to the last, and that meant believing nothing, and nobody, was beyond fair criticism.

There is so much more I could say—of how his work introduced me to “Hearthstone” and “Starcraft II”. Of the enjoyment I got from listening to him commentating eSports games. Of his efforts—ongoing and multifarious, across a half-dozen variously named series—to give at least a tiny sliver of spotlight to the dozens of games he couldn’t devote a full “WTF Is…” to. To his curation of games on Steam, as a companion to his series and an extension of his role as a tool for consumers. TB did so much, in so many ways, with the little time that he had, that we may never be able to fully reconcile what we lost with his passing. He was so unique in his field that although I sincerely hope his legacy of higher-quality game critique is built on, we may yet never see his like again, and we are poorer for it.

Yet, of course, we are hardly the ones hit hardest by his passing. My thoughts and prayers go out to Genna and Orion, and to TB’s whole family, in what must be the hardest moment of their lives to date. And to the readers on this blog, I would like to take a moment to make a small personal appeal.

I know we are in what is increasingly acknowledged as a social civil war. All of us, myself included, are increasingly loathe to reach across the aisle, if we even do anymore, because we, and our close friends and colleagues, are suffering real damage, indignity, and slander. We’re facing peril to our careers and occasionally our actual person. And I know many of us had ideological disagreements with TB that are hard to put aside in that context. I’ve seen so much of this firsthand for so long, that if all you can find it within you to do is express sympathy at this time, I won’t think less of you for it. But I would also say this: a man who devoted, more or less to his last breath and his last ounce of will, his life to achieving the highest standards of game critique, has died at the age of 33— leaving in his wake a widow and young son who have any number of serious financial problems to work through beyond the emotional devastation they must be suffering. Maybe you’ve made your last donation to anyone who was an exponent of any of the other side’s beliefs. But supposing that you haven’t—or if you’re looking to make your last donation of that kind a meaningful one, in memory of someone who was, at the least, shoulder-to-shoulder with us when it mattered— the John Bain Memorial Fund can be found here, at https://www.gofundme.com/TotalBiscuit .

John, wherever you are, I hope you’re beyond the pain and turmoil that has been the last several years. May your options menus overflow with separate sliders. May your FOV extend all the way to the infinite reaches of space. May you be greeted with a metal soundtrack and a fleet of Dauntless Light Cruisers at your command. May your family be safe and cared for after your passing. And may your legacy of high standards and the courage to stand by them be remembered and built upon in coming years. For better or worse, it now falls to us to carry them forward.

Rest in peace, TotalBiscuit.