Peter Molyneux is in the news again, thanks to the recent abandonment of the kickstarter’d god-game Godus. It’s been a real clusterfuck of discussion, things that simply can’t be conveyed in a tweet being jammed in, not helped by shitheads directly attacking the man, directly attacking a parody account that isn’t him, and journalists falling over themselves to ‘humanise’ the man or also to ‘do hard journalism’ by being assholes to him.
It’d be nice if there was an easy narrative for me to point and say that. Nobody I’ve seen is saying it, though, and so, here we are.
The Burning Bush
Videogame developer culture is one that’s currently paralysed by this idea of trying anything revolutionary. It wouldn’t create something like Curiosity, which was… something, and it wouldn’t create interesting god-games like Godus. Well, okay, From Dust came out, but that was Eric Chahi, who’s someone we only know about because a game he made thirty years ago. Nothing to do with this. The point is, we want dreamers, we want strangers, we want weirdoes and we want to create this big multicolour canvas of the odd and strangled and the things that try weird things. We don’t want to turn into Double Fine, creating riskless, soulless games that iterate endlessly on an economic model!
To this mindset, the importance of Peter is not so much what he does, but what he tries to do. I understand this. I really do, it’s a goddamn struggle to find people who are striving to do interesting things in an industry that’s right now going through its worst conservative phase hopefully before a collapse and rebirth. The man is one of those rare videogame icons, someone we can look to and fill with what we want him to be.
There’s also the way Kickstarter culture is misunderstood and misapplied. See, Kickstarter isn’t a platform designed to let you pre-order games. It’s a funding platform, it can fail, and it is intended for artistic projects that won’t get funded otherwise. If you backed Godus thinking you’d get a Godus box and thank you very much come again, you’re completely wrongheaded about it. That’s a store. Acting entitled from a kickstarter backing position is really crappy and shows no real appreciation for what Kickstarter is and promises it will be. You backed a thing with the promise that you might not get it. You didn’t get it. That’s just how it works. You took a risk, and you got a lot of what you were promised.
The Voice Of God
Then we trot out the other side of this, which is, Peter Molyneux is kind of an asshole who has a lot of power and that’s damaging to the industry and the people in it. The people who made the videogames without a big rockstar name like Molyneux, Schafer or Levine on the box.
I don’t just mean to say ‘Peter’s an asshole’ speaking as a consumer with no direct interaction, who is dissatisfied with what he offers me. Peter isn’t a modern programmer, doesn’t make things, just directs other people to do them. And he lies an awful lot. During Curiosity’s struggles, he spoke airily about complicated network problems showing he had no idea what he was talking about, suggesting that Peter’s direct involvement in projects is not in the creation of assets or systems, but in okaying things other peoples do in compliance with his vision. This isn’t new, though.
During Fable development, Peter promised that the Fable game would do things that it quite clearly could not, and we kind of just shrugged it off. Well, you gotta take Peter’s claims with a pinch of salt, we said. Except I don’t think that’s fair because Peter’s co-workers don’t have to do that. Peter’s co-workers turn up at the pit in the morning hearing the Ideas Guy saying he wants real-time growing trees and procedurally generated romance and real love. You have to then tell the Ideas Guy why you can’t do it, and then twist on the end of a needle while he makes a point that if you’re bounced from the project, nobody will give a shit, but he’s Peter Molyneux, who is probably the greatest man in history.
Still, I haven’t met Pete. I don’t know if he’s genuinely an asshole and a bully; I can only cede to the reports of people who have worked with him. I can however, extrapolate from his behaviour… like the Milo video.
Just look at the opening line. Science Fiction Writers haven’t conceived of what we’re doing today. Yes they have, Peter. They have been for generations. They have been since the 1500s.
Peter pledges in this video that this isn’t a preconstructed scene. It’s not staged. It’s not constructed. Basically, Peter is saying that we, now, have real, learning, organic AI capable of interacting realistically with a human. This is, as you should be well aware, not true, not now. It wasn’t true in 2009 when he promised it either. It wasn’t even close to being true. The notion of it is farcical – and yet here he is, sitting in his video, proudly talking about this as a Real Thing that Actually Exists. Peter is not just talking about the unicorns down the garden, he is showing you a remarkable facsimile of a unicorn that he has to know was created.
It’s one thing to say something untrue while you’re building rhetoric in a speech and telling people about features in a game list. You can misspeak, and it’s often easier to commit to a misstatement there than it is to try and walk it back. This isn’t a slip. This isn’t an error. This has to be a deliberate instance of deceit.
Nothing much came of Milo. There are no digital AI boys sitting in basements sobbing to themselves about why the market didn’t love them enough. And this huge elaborate lie was seen as ha-ha-ha, a goofy thing, a Peter Molyneux weirdness and that was it. The man persisted, he had credibility and investors and he got kickstarter backers despite this. Despite all of this. Despite this history.
That’s kind of shitty.
Folie à Neux
I’ve met men – and women – who proudly massage reality and lie to people around them and do it in such a gentle way that when you confront them on it, they will wheedle and manipulate and try to tell you that what they really said was. I’ve dealt with some of the cruellest kind of snake-oil salesmen, the white-collar thieves and conmen who convince themselves that everything they do is okay, it’s justified, because they’re trying, because what they’re doing is part of a greater vision. That kind of behaviour really, really sets me on edge, and it’s rife in the religious background I was raised in.
In the sceptical community I learned people can reinforce untrue ideas in other people, to the point where two people can start sharing unprovable ideas with one another that they believe as absolutely true. The phenomenon is known as a folie a deux, a madness shared for two, which I learned of while studying the phenomenon of conmen preachers. It was surprisingly common for people who entered into religious circles explicitly to commit confidence crimes with a religious front to become convinced that they were in fact, doing what they were doing because of a very real religious conviction – and even then continue doing it. This was more common in situations with an accomplice – the pair reinforced and convinced the other as their schemes grew.
What I’m saying is the faith healers of the world are probably also sincere. They’re probably also trying to Do The Right Thing. They’re probably doing it in the name of The Vision.
Another thing I learned in this period was about how charlatans, spirit mediums, can convince people of their powers. It’s the compliance of the listener – it’s the habit of people looking at the successes rather than the failures. It’s the rose-tinted memory most of us have. It’s very powerful. It’s why Peter Molyneux is introduced as ‘the creator of Populus and Fable’ rather than ‘Peter Molyneux, creator of Gene Wars and Syndicate Wars.’
This creates a weird loop with the media figure. We’ve been treating Peter Molyneux as a visionary and genius who creates revolutionary games for twenty-five years, a man who never iterates, a man who isn’t beholden to the modern gaming landscape. A man who isn’t just churning out sequels… which is a nice idea, except it sort of isn’t true?
Peter Molyneux made Populus. Then Powermonger. Then Populus 2. Then Populus: A New Beginning. Then Black and White. Then Godus. Sure, it’s smeared out over twenty-five years, and he’s made other things, but none of these ideas are revolutionary after the first time he did it. Theme Park, Theme Hospital, Theme Aquarium. None of these were revolutionary games – they were fun, they were charming, but you can credit that as much to the work of artists and programmers making engaging sandboxes.
We don’t talk about the way Dungeon Keeper 2 was basically an expansion pack marketed as a full-cost title. We don’t talk about how Populus’ core game is bad, or how the vast number of levels are just repetitive, unbalanced random strugglefests, basically generated randomly. We don’t talk about how Black and White was capable of crashing elite systems when it was released if you left it on overnight.
And while this is going on, what about the games that didn’t get iterated or tried? Where’s our modern remake of Magic Carpet? Where’s Hi Octane 2? We complain about Syndicate becoming an FPS, but Christ on toast, it’s actually doing something different with its game formula rather than just iterating on it. Hell, the Syndicate multiplayer sounds like something that fits really well in that grim corporate dystopia. An FPS of Syndicate, where you could experience the persuadatron first hand, would probably really excite 1994 Molyneux.
Interviews indicate that Peter Molyneux is a man who is both convinced of his own genius, and who lies a lot. I think that those two elements together are not entirely his fault, though ultimately he bears responsibility for what he does. We say ‘you have to take Peter’s words with a pinch of salt’ but the man still got funded for Fable. And Fable 2. And Fable 3. You know, the guy who takes risks and doesn’t iterate on existing formulae.
What Is He Then?
What I’m certain of here is that the truth resists simplicity. It would be a simple answer that Peter Molyneux was just a bad guy, or just a good guy, and the details worked against him. It would be easy if Peter Molyneux was a starry-eyed dreamer, failed by reality and his own means. It would be easy if he was just a money-grubbing asshole and mentally ill. I don’t think he’s any of these things. I don’t think there’s an easy narrative here.
What I think, and this is for my personal space, is that when you have a name like Molyneux’s, when you’re bulletproof from criticism, when you’re capable of pulling money and investment like he is, despite a history of failures studded with occasional successes, there is some… moral impetus to be respectful of your audience. Developers I know have said nobody is beating Peter Molyneux up as hard as he is, which is a lovely empathic position for them to take. My problem is much in the same way that TotalBiscuit should respect the power he wields by his elevated media position, Peter needs to respect the cachet he has. When TotalBiscuit throws around his power irresponsibily, we rightly call him a knob and are disgusted with him. When Molyneux does it, there has to be an acceptable position for dissatisfaction with the disrespect that shows.
That said, it’s also dead wrong to harass Molyneux for what he did; it’s flat out against journalistic ethics to open an interview by asking him if he’s mentally ill; and it’s possible to express this distaste, even this anger with Peter’s actions without wanting to stifle and destroy all innovation in the form.
There isn’t a smart solution at the bottom of this list. I’m more angry with Peter than I am not, because I see all the indies and innovators who are currently struggling for food while he gets to sail on an achievement from 1989 that goes unexamined. But there is room for dreamers. It’s possible to admire him for trying while considering how he can try in a way that cares more for other people in the future. A world with Peter Molyneux is more interesting than one without him, but I think I would like for us to look into some potential Peter Molyneux substitutes for a while now. How about we give $800,000 to Alpha Six Productions, who I can say have so far, never lied to millions of people with a multimedia video featuring a fake child. Or why not Owl Cave? What about GodJamIt?
The choice is not ‘no Peter or all Peter.’ The choice we have is how we respect this piece of living history in videogaming. In my case, the way it looks to me… well, look: When someone spends twenty years lying to me, and doesn’t want to call it lying… well, I wouldn’t give that person any of my money for any promises, at all. But that’s my baggage.