I know how it is. You look at me, and you think, “this guy’s got it made. This guy knows what’s going on.” Well, it’s an act. I have no idea what’s going on at any time. Most days I can barely remember to put on trousers.
See, games journalists don’t get what you’d call “training,” the same way you do in other jobs. There’s no period where you practice writing reviews off-site for a bit; do a skills assessment day with other journos, or watch best practice videos gathered around a dusty VHS unit in a room full of old boxes.
No; you do the job, and if you do it right, people give you money. If you do it wrong, people don’t give you money and you starve. Occasionally, if you’re lucky, some prick might turn up in the comments section and correct your punctuation. Or an editor might say “Yeah, it’s great, but it needs to flow better. Can you make it flow better by this afternoon, please,” and leave it at that.
I started out working the web content role at FHM, kicking out stories day after day that saw a frighteningly scant level of editing -- on one hand it was because they were all basically fine, and on the other hand they were for a genre of journalism that is generally pretty low on available Fucks to give.
(This one time, though, I got in trouble for a throwaway gag describing soldiers as “Goverment-sanctioned murder enthusiasts.” Which may have been a poor choice of words considering our readership at the time. After that, everything had to be at least glanced at by a sub editor before it went live.)
So you muddle through on a freelance budget, and often the money that you should have been saving to buy a professional dictaphone gets spent on discount red wine. The money you should be spending on a camera -- a proper one, not the shitty one on your out-of-date phone that makes people seriously doubt that you’re a journo for a multi-national brand -- generally gets spent on sausage rolls, supermarket sandwiches, medium black americanos two sugars; that sort of thing.
And so, one day, I had to interview Nolan North about Uncharted 3. Nolan North is an absolute dude. Nolan North is a fucking hero. Nolan North demands your respect. Nolan North is every voice in video games ever. The second I got Nolan North’s personal phone number to ring him on, I did a little dance and immediately rang up my best friend to tell him.
(I imagined Nolan and I would ring each other, and I’d be like “Oh hey N-Dog I’m in LA, we should do lunch” and he’d be like “No worries G-Unit, hey, why don’t you come over to my house; we’re firing up the grill,” and we’d kick back and play with his dogs -- I assume he has dogs -- and we’d laugh and laugh and laugh and there’d be a lingering second of eye contact but we’d move on, we’re both married men; there’s no need to let our passions get the better of us, and as I wave goodbye he’d smile softly and shake his head and think about what could have been.)
So I had actual Nolan North’s actual phone number but -- and here’s the kicker -- I had a phone on credit and I hadn’t been paid for the best part of 10 weeks. I’m eking out an existence day-to-day on the financial bumfluff that could laughably be called my “savings.” I go to the corner shop and put £10 of credit on it, all that I could afford, and sit stewing for the rest of the day. How much time will that buy me? Will I be able to ask all my questions?
It’s only after an hour of stewing that I realise I have no way to record the conversation and half an hour until the interview starts. I’m panicking. I’m panicking hard. This is the first person I’ve ever had to interview that I gave a fuck about and I’m going to mess it up. This is going to be worse than the John Carpenter interview where he asked me to slow my speech down no fewer than three times. Worse than the Hulk Hogan interview where I asked him “Can you lift me” and he simply responded “No.” Worse than the time I did a video interview with rapper Sway and held the camera the wrong way round for half of the interview.
I improvise. I grab the microphone from our copy of Rock Band on the PS3 and plug it into my computer. It works! I open Sound Recorder -- the only sound recording program I have, who’d download another one who ever has to record sound? -- and I balance the fucking thing on a paperback sat on my desk, over my phone (my battered Sony Ericson, at least five years old at the time, set to speaker mode) and hope. And pray.
And, you know, it goes okay. I get through the second or third time I ring him, and for a while I entertain the notion that it would be wonderful to not have to talk to this man, this hero, this leading man of my industry; that I could call the whole thing off and just slump quietly into another Friday evening and my heart might finally, gradually, stop trying to rip itself out of my chest and do laps around the living room. But he picks up.
We talk. I have twelve minutes overall on my credit to squeeze in the interview; I spent around four of those listening to him complain about the way he was treated after I tell him he was credited as a “motion capture performer” in the promotional video and not “voice actor,” too. He gets pretty pissed off about it. I hope it’s the sort of thing that might lead to a good interview but, well, you know, it doesn’t. This is FHM I’m working for. They’re not interested in Nolan North getting pissed off about the way his talents are perceived. They’re interested in girls you’ve never heard of wearing wooly hats and pants, photographed through some daft Instagram-like filter.
And I get the serious part of the interview out of the way; the bit where I talk about the video and the game and stuff like that, and I ask him my first stupid question -- namely, as he’s billed as one of the voice actors in Goldeneye 007 on the N64, what on earth he actually did because as far as I can remember there’s no voice acting in that game.
But it cuts out halfway through his answer, and a minute after I said “Oh shit Nolan I’m um I’m running out of credit we’ve only got a minute left” and I don’t think he understood me because surely if you were the sort of journalist to work for a world-famous magazine website you wouldn’t also be the sort of staggering manchild numpty to still have a prepaid credit phone at the age of 25. But here we are.
I cobbled it together into a piece. I wrote to the PR to thank her for the interview slot and to tell her that I’m very sorry but the phonecall cut out 12 minutes in and she responded like I’d said I was very sorry but the phonecall cut out because Nolan North was run over by a bus; she said it was a “disaster” and that she’d “try to get some more time with him next week” and generally treated me fairly appropriately, I think. She’d not met me. She didn’t know what sort of a useless prick I was. She had no idea what to expect.
Later on that week, some money came through and I put another £10 on my phone and immediately sent a very expensive text to Nolan North thanking him for the interview, as though that would make any difference to what happened. I’d embarrassed myself and the worst part was that he probably didn’t care; I was probably the third guy to interview him that day, for God’s sakes.
Anyway. I’ve posted the interview here as part of my own version of the Official Secrets Act. I’ve not listened to it since I transcribed it into this article over a year ago, and I’m not going to either because if I had to sit through all twelve minutes of it I’d cringe up like a concertina and it would take four stout men an hour to unfold me. It’s there if you want it. I’m done.
POSTSCRIPT: “Oh, Grant, why didn’t you use Skype?” “Oh, Grant, why didn’t you go into the office and use their phones?” Because these are the words of a SMART and PREPARED person and I was and am still NEITHER OF THESE THINGS.
Grant Howitt writes the brilliant Look, Robot gaming blog, and pens pieces for The Guardian, FHM, Videogamer and PSM3, in addition to having published a book, and running live-action Zombie LARP, and Serious Business games. Follow him on Twitter here, and catch up with his previous stories on Giz UK here.