When I finally met Jim Rossignol at GDC to talk about Sir, You Are Being Hunted, I mentioned how difficult it had been to find him inside a crowded Starbucks. The only picture I had of him was his Twitter profile picture... which is a shot of Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner. Rossignol, it turns out, does not look very much like Britain’s coolest secret agent and inmate.
Rossignol laughed, but he was off to the races as he explained what The Prisoner meant to him, and why it has endured as a seminal work of British television. In both of his careers as a game journalist and developer, Rossignol has been trying to protect and promote the same values that created some of the UK’s most memorable characters and cultish success stories.
It’s not easy. In both television and games, the trend is toward glossier, less personal works. “The formula’s been sweetened and it’s less weird. That smooths out some of the bumps to consumption, but it’s smoothed out some of the influence,” Rossignol said. “Because it’s the stuff that’s really weird that kind of pushes people off into a new direction.”
Rossignol was pushed in a new direction by odd TV and odd games for most of his adult life. Now he’s tried to return the favor.
The Prisoner is a quintessential blend of the high-mindedness and camp weirdness that defined British TV in the 1970s. One of the show’s most terrifying antagonists is a cross between a water balloon and a beach ball. In terms of unlikely menace, it rivals Dr. Who’s shop-vac Daleks.
This is the model and the moment that inspires Rossignol, even if it may never return for mainstream British culture.
“American TV is so successful, and the model so potent, it’s pretty much swayed the needle for everything. I don’t think we’ll ever get back to the low-fi weirdness that 60s and 70s British TV had. Especially in the sense of threat that they had,” Rossignol said.
Rossignol first saw The Prisoner when he started writing about games. That era of British TV was already a memory, and UK dramas were increasingly a cultural export aimed at a broader, more Americanized global audience.
Games have followed a similar arc. If the 1990s were home to an explosion of creativity, variety, and possibility, the 2000s were increasingly about refinement, polish, and mass appeal. It’s no wonder that PC gaming itself seemed almost to be teetering early in the PS3 / 360 era. Its most successful ideas and developers were moving over to consoles, and ambition and creative daring were increasingly supplanted by a focus on mass appeal and high production values.
The raw and the weird suddenly needed champions, and that’s why Rossignol and his colleagues founded Rock Paper Shotgun.
RPS was a PC gaming blog, but it’s always been defined by the idiosyncratic relationships its writers have with the term “PC gaming”. By stepping out of the mainstream, away from bland cover stories and lackluster ports of blockbusters designed for other people, Rossignol built a place where he and other writers could champion the weird and unique. Early RPS history is full of enthusiasm for janky, post-Soviet gaming like STALKER and the Men of War series.
While building RPS and publishing a book marked major milestones for Rossignol, they also left him with an increasing dilemma.
“In game journalism terms, I’m starting to get on a bit now. I’m 36. It’s that kind of age you start thinking about what else you could do. I’ve done everything, in terms of my original goals. ...I’ve done what I set out to do,” he admitted.
Yet the hunger for those out-of-left-field experiences was still there.“I spent years writing about games and saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if...?’ But I kind of reached the point where, with certain games, I’ve realized I’m going to have to make them [myself] if I want to play them at all.”
Ironically, Rossignol’s experience with RPS had already prepared him for his transition out of journalism.