It's 2023 and I still get most of my gaming info from a paper magazine

I've been thinking about the history and the role of print magazines in gaming recently. I read Level, it's my main source of information on games, and I wondered whether there actually are any good magazines in other languages still in print. (Level is in Czech.)

Some time ago I've read a post on Tobold's blog that mentioned the topic, and that spurred me to write down my thoughts here.

But first, two clarifications: one needed in case you weren't born in Slovakia or the Czech Republic, the other in case you were born in this millennium.

First, the language thing. I'm Slovak, and the magazine is Czech. The technical term for how close our languages are is "mutual intelligibility". That basically means that, when a Slovak and a Czech meet, we can just go on speaking in our respective languages, and the other party will generally understand everything. It's great. It may be in a decline among zoomers, especially in the CR. When you go to a bookshop or a magazine stand here in Slovakia, Slovak and Czech magazines are all stacked together, with no separation by language. You're just expected to understand[1].
So while yes, I'm reading an imported magazine in a foreign language, it's also generally available in any magazine store and not at all unusual.

If you haven't grown up in the previous millennium, on the other hand, the very idea of a print magazine about video games might be weird. But consider: in The Before Times the general populace either didn't have any access to the 'net, or only a slow, dial-up one (which also meant your parents couldn't make or receive phone calls when you wanted to check out a web page). You wanted to see a web page? You clicked and prepared to wait a minute. Or more, if it had bigger images. Which might just fail to load partway through, so you only saw the top quarter of them, or whatever. There also were a lot fewer web pages. (Remember, they were only invented in 1991 or so, and Google didn't exist.)

So there was a vibrant scene for magazines about videogames. The biggest ones came out monthly and contained game reviews, previews of upcoming games, walkthroughs, cheats (that was a thing back then, and they're an awesome concept), and the usual magazine stuff, like letters from fans.
Later, the magazines started attaching CDs, once the technology was widespread enough. They usually contained one full game (which often was the main reason for buying the magazine, because it was often cheaper than buying the same game in a shop, and of course digital distribution - such as Steam - didn't exist), and a lot of extra goodies - demo versions of games, fanzines, patches (yes, actual patches for games, in case you might need them), trailers, various freeware/shareware/trial versions of software and games, et cetera. Especially once the CDs got updated to DVDs, you had quite the batch of stuff to keep you occupied, even without internet access.

It was fun, but not surprisingly, all of that became irrelevant once broadband internet became a thing. All of the magazines folded[2]. Today, only two still remain in the Czech Republic, and I don't know if there are any Slovak ones, but probably not.


How does a magazine still make sense in 2023?

The story of Level almost came to an abrupt end when a few years ago[3], its publisher just announced to the staff it was being canceled immediately. But three previous editors-in-chief offered to buy it instead. Then they thought long and hard about how to keep it relevant in this era when if you want a review, you won't be waiting for a month until it comes out in a magazine, and if you want a game, you will just buy it on Steam.

By some stroke of genius (and luck for me), they landed on basically exactly what I always wanted the magazine to be. At first, they replaced the CDs with a Steam redeem code; then they even dropped that. They reduced the length of reviews, some of them getting only half a page. They also reduced the length and number of previews. In both cases, everyone just googles if they want to know more.

And they shifted their focus to things that aren't as easily replaceable by googling: essays and analyses of various trends in gaming and/or the broader culture, interviews with developers, profiles of indie gaming studios.

There's a rubric called "the Reactor", where people from the Czech scene write their monthly columns. (The previous month, it was extended from 5 people to 7; one of the new additions is the owner of a network of physical stores where games are sold, which I think will nicely complement the others - mostly game devs. The other has something to do with AI, and unfortunately, both his articles were in the vein of 'AI will solve all the problems with society and game-making within 10 years'.)

There is a Retro section where in each issue an older game is revisited and checked if it still holds up, basically a kind of a retro-review; there's a story about the development of a different old game; there's something about some kind of old or exotic hardware, etc.

And the entire structure of the magazine was moved around to accommodate this. For instance, there no longer is a long section of the magazine where you'd find reviews; instead, the longer reviews (i.e. not the half-page ones) are preceded by an essay on a topic related to that game.

In the previous issue for example, there's an interview with Jason Scott (@textfiles), a "historian, filmmaker, archivist, storyteller" who works for the Internet Archive, and worked to make lots of games for old platforms not only available in the Archive but also playable in the browser.
There's a longer analysis of how mythologies of extinct civilizations are handled in games, with references to academic papers on the topic. There's an article about the history of the Need for Speed franchise, followed by a review of Need for Speed Unbound. There's an essay the title of which could be translated as "Conjure me up a pop-culture phenomenon", which describes the role and impact of various super-famous and influential pieces of media (such as Alice in Wonderland, The Matrix, Star Wars, Harry Potter and others), followed by a a review of Hogwarts Legacy. There's an essay titled "Of dragons and men" on the history of dragons in our myths, and how they differ from culture to culture, followed by a review of World of Warcraft: Dragonflight.

I like this concept. But even if I skipped all of the previews and most of the reviews, I still often didn't manage to read the entire thing before a new one came out. But even that got addressed: They decided to increase the number of pages in an issue somewhat (currently at 134) but decrease the number of issues from 12 per year to 8 per year. They are spaced out to match the general game release cycle. There aren't many games coming out in January or in the summer months, so instead of filling the space with weaker content, those months are simply skipped. And I have a chance to catch up on my reading. 😅

Oh, and one more thing. Something I'd always wanted was a digital archive of the magazine. When Level put out a call for comments and letters in 2019 (because the release date of the 300th issue was drawing near), I asked them (in the Slovak section of the blog) to please release the archive of old articles, if they have one. In 2021, they started a crowdfunding campaign to finance high-res scans of the entire archive and the creation of a powerful search interface. One thing they definitely could do better here is communication; the updates have been few and far between. But I asked about the status of the archive by mail just this week, and it should, hopefully, be just around the corner.

This post has turned out to be quite long. But maybe now at least y'all know what you're missing out on, if you can't read Czech. 😊

PS: By the time I finished writing this, the magazine's archive was released. You do need a paid subscription to access it, but it does provide all they promised: full-text search, faceted search, and the ability to download either the entire magazine, or specific articles, in PDF form.

Screenshot of the Archive page

  1. I hear this is not the case in the CR today. ↩︎

  2. Pun of course intended. ↩︎

  3. I checked, and turns out it was in 2013, not "Maybe 5 years, tops" as my memory insisted. ↩︎