John Walker's Electronic House

On Signing Off From PC Gamer And They’re Back

by on May.31, 2011, under The Rest

It’s the end of a personal era. The edition of PC Gamer that should be arriving with subscribers in a couple of days (in shops in about a week) will contain my last ever They’re Back.

They’re Back is PC Gamer’s budget section. Two pages dedicated to re-reviewing games that are either being re-released at a lower price, or coming out in a new bundle. And since 1999 I’ve been filling it up with as much irrelevant guff as I can get away with.

I’ve written 148 of them, over twelve years, which I think is probably some sort of record. And I’m really proud of what I’ve done.

My passion for magazines was born in the 1980s, reading wonderful nonsense in Your Sinclair, then Zero and the very early (pre its tedious laddish reinvention in the mid-to-late 90s) PC Zone (it got better again, of course). Inspired by writers like Rich Pelley, Stuart Campbell, J Nash and Charlie Brooker, I saw an opportunity for combining a love of silly comedy and playing games. Not an opportunity I was smart enough to realise I could take before a disastrous attempt to become a biologist, but an investment in my future that eventually hugely paid off. As a reader of PC Gamer in my teens, and reinspired by Kieron Gillen’s writing in my very early 20s, I was eventually lucky enough to get freelance work on the magazine, at the same time as pursuing a career as a youth worker. Two of the best jobs imaginable.

Very early on I was asked to take over They’re Back from Steve Owen, who had written it since its inception. The section immediately struck me as inherently pointless. The reviews of the games had all appeared in PC Gamer around six months previously, so readers already knew if they were any good. The whole spread could have been simply replaced by a small box in the corner of page 17 with the five game names, new price, and then a comment on whether they were more worth purchasing at this lower price. Which meant it shone out to me as a space for what I’d always loved about magazines: room to be silly.

I think it was about one issue before I started trying not to mention the games in the reviews. This became the tension it needed to be any good – production editors and editors sending the column back to me demanding rewrites, me getting furious and having a strop, and eventually some sort of teeth-gritted compromise being reached. They were ridiculously over-zealous about this, and early on I was grossly lazy and late with the section every month. It wasn’t ideal, but it so often produced something I’m proud of.

It’s been a different experience under different editors, and fortunately always had the consistent opponent/champion of They’re Back, prod ed Tony Ellis. Tony’s been there since almost the start, firing back anything from irritated emails to wonderful explanations of how to avoid grammatical mistakes I’d often make. My constant foil, and biggest help, much thanks is owed to Tony.

Amusingly enough, my final TB ended in keeping with its history, with my original draft rejected. Rows ensued, and a compromised version eventually went into the mag. That’s pretty appropriate following the twelve years that preceded it.

I’m really pleased to say that the person taking over is Jon ‘Log’ Blyth, who is a better and funnier writer than me. His first They’re Back will be in the issue out at the beginning of July, and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

What I hope is that They’re Back can continue to be a portal to what magazines used to be. Everyone involved in their production tells me that the Old Ways don’t work any more, that you can’t have such personality-driven irrelevances and nonsense occupying large spaces in print. There was an era when every review and preview in gaming mags was packed with waffle, in-jokes and discussions of sweets. There was even a time when PC Gamer had Diversions, two to four pages of daft comedy that had no useful bearing on the gaming news of the day. This, everyone says, could never work today. I think they’re wrong (and I’m extremely proud that I’m a director and editor of a website that proves the size of the audience for such prattle is substantial). And I’m delighted that, albeit less so as time has gone on (thanks to a combination of design changes, word counts, and being wearied through the fight), They’re Back has always tried to stand up for such values. (Of course PCG knows what it’s doing, and I’m an old man who likes things the way they were when I was a boy. And heck – for all my worry, it does still contain They’re Back.)

So this also marks the end of my time with PC Gamer. Which has been a long and often excellent time. Without that mag I’d not be anywhere in this business, and I’m enormously grateful for the opportunities, education, conflict, and space to develop my voice it has offered me.

Part of me likes to imagine that people will be shocked and reeling from the news. But then I regain reality and remember that no matter what it’s meant to me, or for how long I’ve written it, it is just a budget section. For those who’ve noticed it and cared about it too, thank you SO much for your support and encouragement. For anyone it’s inspired (I realise this sounds a touch arrogant, but it’s something a few people have said over the years), I’m so honoured. Carry on the fight for silliness in games writing.

So thanks PCG. Thanks for letting me do it.

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57 Comments for this entry

  • Rory

    Thankyou so much John, I have always enjoyed your writing, you have just the right blend of silly and informed that I do miss. You shall be missed dearly.

  • Kieron Gillen

    (You’re Fired – Ed)


  • Andreas V

    Awww. Sadface. Still, at least we’ve all still got RPS for our monthly dose of left-leaning, activist gaming writing from Mr Walker right?

    Kidding, kidding. A bit. Honestly though, they’re back has always been a PCG highlight for me, despie never once intending to buy any of featured games. I think that says something :)

  • Alex B

    They’re Back! Was, along with Extra Life, has been my favourite part of PCG. I’ll really miss it.

  • Imperial Creed

    Your work has been some of my favourite stuff in PC Gamer over the years. It’ll be poorer for not having you work on it in some fashion, regardless of who’ll be replacing you.

    So sad to see you go John, yet so looking forward to seeing what you do next.

  • NickR

    Thank you for all those years of wonderful writings. I agree that a magazine shouldn’t be all “on message”. They’re back! always felt a nice diversion.

    I want to say I am sorry to see you are going, but I think I would be saying that not because I mean it but because it is the kind of thing people say. In truth I am not sorry because it is interesting to watch your career evolve and to see where you will go from here.

    Love you work.

  • James Campbell

    They’re Back! has long been my favourite part of PCG and reading this I was seriously thinking of finally cancelling my subscription as there are a couple of regular writers in it now who annoy me to a ridiculously disproportionate degree.

    Then I read “the person taking over is Jon ‘Log’ Blyth”, maybe I’ll keep the sub on for now then!

    (Is this to further concentrate on RPS or have you some other new commitment?)

  • Lewis Denby

    Probably not mentioned this before, but They’re Back’s wonderful ludicrousness informed so much of my games writing when I was just starting out. It’s been a pleasure to read all these years, and while I’m sure Log will do a fantastic job of it (he’s a fabulous writer, after all), it’s sad to see your version of the column come to an end. Sniff! But great work, man!

  • George

    They’re Back and the final joke page are always my favourite parts of PCG – fortunately I can keep reading your work on RPS.
    Thanks John, and keep up the glorious silliness!

  • Colthor

    It’ll be missed.

    PCG definitely needs more angry houses and a higher rate of bat-release these days.

  • Groove

    I am shocked and reeling. This might be the final piece of me cancelling my PCG subscription.

    Sad times

  • Idan Zeierman

    Like all of the other people who commented so far, “They’re Back” was my favorite section of PC Gamer. It’ll be sad to see you go.

  • John Walker

    Thank you for lovely comments. And yes, it allows me to concentrate on RPS.

  • Giles

    I always loved They’re Back. *sniff*.

  • Flameberge

    I am sad. When I first picked up a copy of PCG in late ’99 / early 2000, They’re Back quickly became one of my favourite sections. I was always happy that no matter how many editors or revisions the magazine went through over the last decade, They’re Back was always a constant at the end of the review section. It will genuinely feel like a different magazine without it. Thanks for the many laughs John.

    Thinking about it, did you ever review a budget copy of Force Commander? (I actually would like to know, not just poking fun).

  • John Walker

    I very briefly mentioned it in issue 103.

  • Octaeder

    If you’re cutting back on freelance stuff to focus on RPS will the EG Retrospectives continue? I’ve always enjoyed They’re Back, but I’d really miss the John Walker Retros.

  • John Walker

    The EG retros are continuing for the foreseeable future. There’s one I’m really pleased with going up this Sunday.

  • James Campbell

    Delighted to hear you’ll be able to concentrate on RPS more. Here’s some of the Walker They’re Back archive in case anyone else feels like indulging their nostalgia:

  • Ian

    I’m sad now. :(

  • Nick

    But where else will I be able to get seething reviews of bad French adventure games?!

    They’re Back has been a consistent slice of fairy dust and magic even during the summer gaming drought, thank you John for writing it.

  • Feet

    I remember reading a They’re Back review with you doing a joke about being two people in the world, those that fold and those that scrunch. I have no recollection of what game you were reviewing, but believe me I still remember it and the tears of laughter streaming down my innocent teenage face. To me that was properly edgy comedy, and in my PC games mag! Madness!

    Also I think you got distracted by a bee in one review as well, this also made me chortle heartily and again I don’t recall the game you were reviewing.

    Good times, well done John. Maybe you should do a similar weekly feature for RPS. :P

  • Xercies

    They’re Back got me into PC Gamer, which got me into the great games like Deus Ex and the like, which got me into the forums to get some nice friends that i still kind of have today, which got me into RPS which i’m still entertained by and think your posts are some of the best, which got me into Rum Doings.

    Basically John Walker, if it wasn’t for you I probably would definitely be a different and rubbish person.

    Hope because of this you have more time to do more wonderful things :)

  • Blissett

    I really identify with your thoughts on what magazines should be like and have long lamented the creeping sanitisation and commoditisation of PC Gamer and the like.

    Like others above the next issue will also be my last as a PC Gamer subscriber after over 10 years of readership. Whilst not directly linked to John’s departure, that certainly helps validate my decision.

    What really bothers me is the gradual decline of content that I can’t get from any other source. News, previews and reviews have very little value any more and I’ll inevitably have consumed the vast majority from other sources long before it drops on my doormat. To continue to compete, magazines have to rely on the quality and personality of their writers. Sadly with John’s departure PCG now only has one writer left with a genuinely distinctive voice that I would pay to read.

    I wish someone would realise that daft comedy and nonsense is a USP but I can’t imagine there’s much chance of PCG turning the tide of blandness the way things stand.

  • Coccyx

    NO! Like so many people have said before me in this comments thread, they’re back was pretty much my favourite section of the Mag. It’s a real shame to know your leaving it – my question is why? In this post you seem to purely be saying how great it was writing for it! Do you have any other reasons for leaving other than so you can focus more on RPS? And just so you know: the they’re back section of Pc Gamer was what made me a regular reader of RPS. I saw your writing, liked it, and promptly googled your name to see everything else you’ve done/ were doing. I’m now a weekly listener of Rum doings, a daily expectant listener of the RPS podcast and someone that refreshes your website at least twice a day to see if there’s anything new. I wouldn’t even know of your existence were it not for they’re back. And also, your writing partly contributed to my desire to be a journalist. Significantly.

  • John Walker

    @ Coccyx – It was time for it to be done. As I suggest in the post, I’ve had good times and bad with Gamer. I don’t think I was writing it anywhere near as well as I have done in the past, and really, 148 issues of one section is an awful lot. I’m fairly sure it’s more than anyone’s ever written for any section in any gaming mag, ever. And PCG is now a real rival to RPS, with their site. It doesn’t make much sense to be working for both sides, when I could be spending the time I spent on TB instead generating money for my own business. Just common sense said to move on at this point.

  • Ridiculous Human

    If more of PC Gamer had remained as funny and irreverent as They’re Back always was, I’d probably still be buying it to this day. The Worms review where you spent half the wordcount telling a long, pointless joke about a guy with an orange for a head remains one of the most oddly inspiring things I’ve ever read.

  • Niall

    Sad day’s for PCG now, TB was the best part of the mag. With the decrease in articles written by Tom, Graham and Craig the mag has really fallen on hard times recently. Many of the new writers simply have no spark, with their prose feeling more like somthing posted on IGN or some other ghastley PR outlet. Our Angry Houses raise their turrets in salute to you Mister Walker.

  • Wolfshield

    I hope PCGs current direction doesn’t cause me to look elsewhere for the kind of articles you wrote when my sub is up. Those black pages were my highlights of the mag and the only reason I can be arsed to give you a virtual pat on the back. All the best John and now I’ll be following RPS.

  • Coccyx

    @John You make a good point, but I think that writing TB generates more interest in YOU and RPS than it does for Pcgamer, in particular their site. You’ve said yourself how different the section is to the rest of the mag; it essentially advertises your style in contrast to Pc gamers’. I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s discovered you through the magazine medium – I’d have thought it would make sense to keep some of your words appearing in one of them, in particular one of the most respected Games magazine around. But never mind, if this means that I’ll see more of your work on RPS then I’m happy.

  • Blissett

    Holy Shit John! That joke in your Worms review that Ridiculous Human mentions above is literally my favourite joke ever. I have pissed off god knows how many people over the years by telling more and more elaborate and elongated versions, never knowing where on earth I got it from in the first place. I’ve often wondered but couldn’t even remember if I’d read it, heard it or being actively told it. And it was you all along! You have instantly become something of a personal hero and I must thank you for the years of irritatedly befuddled expressions I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying as a result.

  • Nick Mailer

    John’s too much of a gentleman/namby-pamby girl to say, but Future have constantly treated him very badly, and as disposable dime-a-dozen replaceable trash. They did this right to the end. If they hadn’t, they would still have him and other non-banal press-release-rewriters in their stable. As it is, they deserve the fate that’s about to befall them. Good riddance.

  • El Weasel

    You are the best! THE BEST!

  • Mo

    “Simply put, putting is simple”

  • Man Raised By Puffins

    Though I suppose this has been on the cards for a while, what with that there RPS thingum and all. ’twas a good read while it lasted, cheers John.

  • Ben Dixon

    John, thank you for They’re Back, which has been my only justification for buying PCG for the last couple of years. It genuinely is the end of an era. I look forward to reading more of your warm, compassionate and unapologetically silly writing on RPS.

  • Flameberge

    Nick Mailer appears, holding aloft the torch of truth. If what nick says is true, I wouldn’t be hugely surprised, sadly. I agree though, it is definitely their loss, and Rock Papers Gun’s gain.

    I did just read John’s last They’re Back (and it may as well be the last They’re Back – after ten years it is pretty much John’s section in my mind, and without him, kind of pointless) and I was filled with a strange poignant sadness. I enjoyed the poem. I agree, John: you were under-appreciated and I will miss you!

    It’s now got to the stage that the only reason I’ll continue to read PCG is pretty much just for Tom Francis’ work – he’s really the only individual whose own style really stands out on its own in the magazine (for me, anyway). Unfortunately there are now a couple of contributors to the magazine whose work I actively dislike, which is a shame.

  • Coccyx

    @flameberge I share your dislike for some of the other, newer writers, though I find that Tom, Graham, Craig and occasionally Tim all have distinctive styles which are nearly always a pleasure to read.

  • EthZee

    I still remember one of the first They’re Back! reviews I read. It was for some sort of action strategy game? And the review was John going off on a complete and utter non-game tangent, interrupted by paragraphs in that old (here is where the editor interrupts to say something relevant – Ed) style, so it appeared that the editor had gotten tired with John constantly going off-topic and had decided to take the review into his own hands. I still remember the end:

    “…and then it broke in my hands, and went all over the floor.”

    Good stuff, John. Hope you find better conditions in RPS.

  • Blissett

    Coccyx – of the four people you listed, one is great, two are ok and one is terrible IMHO. Personally I prefer the US writers when taken as a whole. BUt sadly my love affair with PCG is now over. I’ll be getting my game info almost exclusively online from now on.

  • Alan Williamson

    Your writing in They’re Back! was brilliant and inspiring. Although I haven’t read PCG in a few years now, I remember that section fondly. It was great to read something different from the usual tat about polygons and bump mapping.

  • zipdrive

    Hallelujah! Now, at last, TB can turn into the somber, serious, solemn piece of writing respectable, tottering old games can expect , when re-released, just before being buried face down in a ditch.

    Goodbye, John, and thanks for all the…fish…jokes?!

  • Arathain

    I’ll join the chorus of folk for whom They’re Back was the best section of the magazine. My non-gamer wife often grabbed the mag to read it (as well as any review you would write of the terrible games they used to give you).

    You actually taught me a lot about what a really good review could be. You would write 3 paragraphs of terrifically funny, almost totally irrelevant prose, and then you’d write the final paragraph, in which you would perfectly encapsulate the game in a couple of sentences, along with giving the reader a sense of whether they were the sort of person who ought to buy it. More often than not it was a breathtaking example of concise, meaning packed writing.

  • Mezzamine

    Mr Walker,
    I may be only 18, and unable to truly appreciate a large amount of the games you have brought to light for me (I still have Planescape Torment waiting in the wings of my backlog list), but I just want to say that you, along with people like Tom Francis and Kieron, are what made me love Games writing, and probably journalism in general.
    Your section was always guaranteed to be well written, interesting, and funny, and I like to think that in a few years I might be able to take on a similar line of work, writing about stuff I like for a living.
    So…thanks for the laughs, and for the inspiration.

  • Martin

    Thank you for all the They’re Back columns John. In recent months I also felt that it was the best of PCG, whatever you feel about the quality of your work. Certainly the first thing I would turn to in the mag. I’m glad for RPS.

  • Josh04

    They’re Back was always a highlight of PC Gamer for me, way back when I was a lad wondering why on earth this game was called ‘God From’. Consistently funny and insightful. I think I’ll go pick up the mag if this is going to be the last one.

  • Haphaz

    End of a splendidly silly era. It was always a must read. You have my eternal thanks. I am shocked to realise there were very nearly 150 of them; I’ve read the lot I think. Glad to know RPS will benefit from more of your time. Must remember to subscribe (again). I will still read PCG – I think PCG can still do amusingly silly – extra life, the podcasts etc, but JW’s loss will hurt. Good luck Jon B!

  • Steve

    All good things…ect. I wish they didn’t.

  • Nurdbot

    God I’ll miss those silly columns that helped me decide on what World 2 RTS game re-releases not to buy. Good luck with the future John!

    Bet you’ll miss not having to review another Blitzkrieg expansion.

  • asdasd

    Oh, John.

    Getting an apologetic email back from you about the They’re Back Planescapegate was a crowning life achievement of my 13 year old self.

    That column, along side other work you, Gills, Atherton et al did for the mag really gave me a new perspective on what writing could BE. Long before I ever picked up a Pratchett or Adams novel, this whole world of funny, subversive prose was opening up in front of me in the pages of games mags – NMS and NGamer first, then PCG.

    I don’t know if that can count as much of a difference in the greater scheme – but it’s one that you made, for me.

    So thanks.

  • Scott

    I came here after reading They’re Back in this month’s PCG. It made me rather sad. PCG in my mind will always exist in the halcyon days of Rossignol, Gillon, and your good self.

    I started reading PCG when I was 12, and I’m now 24. I think They’re Back has probably been my favourite bit of the magazine for the whole of that time. I have literally grown up on your writing. I hope that sounds sufficiently creepy.

    Huge thanks for the many years of entertainment.

    (And on the bright side, I think I may now finally start reading RPS.)

  • Scott

    …and I would like to nominate this as a suitable tribute to what They’re Back has stood for.

  • Scott

    …and I would like to nominate this as a suitable tribute to what They’re Back has stood for.

  • Colthor

    You certainly left on a high note.

  • John Walker

    Gosh, thank you all so much. I’m glad I wrote it : )

  • Cirius

    Best of luck for the future John, been an avid fan of ‘They’re Back’ and even more so of the ‘irrelevant guff’ as you so delightfully put it contained therein.

  • Lorna

    It’s good to see someone standing up for the sort of waffle, endless digression, odd trains of thought, and comedic nonsense that I enjoy. Good writing should have character – there is always a time and a place for serious pieces (a great deal of it, probably), but such things should always be tempered with articles which don’t quite take themselves so seriously.

    To have (and still) championed it is something to be proud of – perhaps I’m as much of an old fart as you ;) I look forward to reading more from you in the future, whether at RPS or wherever else you wake up after a night on the cough syrup.

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