Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "A Life Well Wasted"

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Your Podthinker's normal standard of podcast-journalistic integrity demands that he listen to no fewer than ten or fifteen hours of each show under review. This is an ironclad, uncompromisable rule, except when it isn't. In no normal case would less than four hours of material constitute background material adequate for a reasonably descriptive review. A Life Well Wasted [iTunes link], however, is not a normal case.

Its first and most apparent distinguishing feature is the hyperbolic-sounding, borderline ridiculous praise it receives from its fans. "The best-produced podcast around," they say. "Without a doubt the finest video-game-related thing in circulation on the internet, even if you hate video games," they say. "We would trade our immortal souls for the next episode of this podcast," they probably say. Hear all this once and it sounds like mere fanatic enthusiasm. Hear it again and again and it sounds suspicious, especially given that only three full episodes have been released. Host and producer Robert Ashley has somehow managed, with just a few hours of content pertaining to the still-kinda-sorta-niche-y sphere of video gaming, gained a listenership ready to hard-sell his product at a moment's notice.

A Life Well Wasted has been described as "the This American Life of video games," and not without good cause. The format, such as it has thus far emerged, is nearly identical to that of Ira Glass' brainchild, except there's a lot less wistful commentary on humanity's foibles and a lot more pressing of the B button. If you momentarily stopped understanding spoken English, though, you'd mistake it for This American Life itself. Ashley conducts and dramatically recuts interviews, he weaves his own words in with others' and he aligns the whole shebang against a low-key but sharp musical score. It's a slick package.

It's also hard not to read some sort of symbolic changing of the guard into the fact that the program not only sounds as good as the behemoth that pioneered its format, but that it sometimes sounds even better. (And it probably costs a damn sight less per minute to produce, at that.) Its choice of subject matter will no doubt keep it from unseating the unseatable, but that's no bad thing: video game culture has always lacked accessible coverage of not just the people who make them, but the people who journalize about and simply play them. The show has thus far tidily covered all these bases in a way that, to concede a point to those unsettlingly zealous subscribers, may well appeal even to those who continue to regard video gaming as the unchallenged domain of the dateless wonder.

Episode one, "The Death of EGM" MP3, finds Ashley at the staff party following the demise of the once-beloved magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly, reminiscing about the salad days of print game journalism with the likes of Crispin Boyer and Sean "Seanbaby" Reiley, exhuming the kind of memories that are hugely resonant for the kind of gamer now likely, still gaming or not, to reside in his mid-twenties. Episode two, "Gotta Catch 'Em All" MP3 is, rather than an ode Pokemon — though that would have been good too — a first-hand exploration of extreme collectorhood, from a guy with a sprawling underground warren filled with every console known to man to the proprietor of an all-vintage-pinball arcade to a Stanford academic bent on preserving our increasingly distant gaming past. Episode three, "Why Game?" MP3, delves into deeper issues surrounding the pressing of buttons and the watching of onscreen actions corresponding to said button-pressings, but it's probably most memorable for its conversation with an eccentric conceptual game designer who rides a recumbent bike and somehow survives on about fifteen cents a year. Runner-up for memorability is an interview with a developer who, despite talking through a voice filter that puts him on the edge of unintelligibility, makes with the juicy details about how bad games become bad. (The fourth episode is an extended version of the conversation with that game-preserving academic. Considering the infrequency of the main episodes, periodically releasing a handful of in-between supplements wouldn't be a bad idea.)

The best-produced podcast around? It's one of them, certainly. The finest video-game-related thing in circulation on the internet? Sure, but the competition ain't much. One immortal soul for another episode? Sorry, but if we're talking souls, your Podthinker demands at least three A Life Well Wasteds.

Vital stats:
Format: "the This American Life of video games"
Running since: January 2009
Duration: ~1h
Frequency: monthlyish, plus supplement(s?)
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Podthinker Colin Marshall does most of his gaming str8-up Turbografx-16-style. Share Turbo tips with him at colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Comments

If you momentarily stopped

If you momentarily stopped understanding spoken English, though, you'd mistake it for This American Life itself.games

More Robert Ashely

You can hear Ashley's voice more frequently on "Out of the Game" a "guys talking about whatever over Skype" roundtable style podcast that comes out more-or-less weekly.

Other regulars are N'Gai Croal, Jeff Green, Luke Smith, and Shawn Elliott.

Topics vary, but usually get back to games at some point. It's nowhere near as slick and produced as A Life Well Wasted, but it can be fun to sit in on what is essentially a salon of people who think about games professionally.

Uh.

1: I think you mean 15 thousand a year.
2: For the confused, the fourth podcast he mentions is a B-Side, an unedited interview (the unedited version is longer than the first two podcasts combined) from episode two.

3: Fuck yeah, this podcast is amazing.

It works

The reason Robert's podcast is so good is simple, but something that is sorely lacking in the majority of games journalism. It's thoughtful and doesn't treat it's audience as simpletons to be fed the usual regurgitation of pr points sent out with most game code previews. Long live a Life Well Wasted.

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I whole-heartedly agree.

Great review of a great podcast. Robert Ashley works very hard to produce this show out of his love of the medium of gaming completely for free and using his own time. So far he has shown us fantastic work and I cannot wait for the next episode.

-bryGPO

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