And So The Sun Sets on the Penny Arcade Empire

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Back in 2001, I was a huge Penny Arcade fan. I’d print out strips and paste them to my dorm room door, exhorting the few nerdy guys in my hall to read them whenever they’d walk by, even if they had no idea what Red Faction was and why jokes about lepers were so funny. For the first time outside of my small social circle, there seemed to be people who were making jokes just for me.

It was Penny Arcade that first made me feel like being a videogame nerd was something normal. I’m sure it did the same for a lot of people, either through the strip itself or via regular pilgrimages to whichever PAX happened to be closest. I know people who found family in the Knights of Arcadia World of Warcraft guild, who lost themselves in the volunteer spirit for the first time with Child’s Play, and who could probably indirectly credit Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins with saving their lives. It’s intense. It was important stuff. Was.

But today, I’m done. The Penny Arcade I fell in love with over a decade ago finally died today and I’m not waiting around to mourn.

Checking the site used to be essentially religious for me, my mourning prayer. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I’d wake up, roll out of bed, and load it up. I was late enough to the game that I missed the Loonygames run of the strip, catching up with the first book they printed, which to date has been my only Penny Arcade related purchase outside of the games. In those early days I didn’t miss a single strip, regardless of what was going on.

Monday. Wednesday. Friday. A mantra of sorts. Other comics came and went, but nothing replaced the big PA in my heart.

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The first time I broke my habit was in 2006, after nearly five years of perfect attendance, with The Hawk and the Hare Cardboard Tube Samurai plotline. It wasn’t the first time they had departed from the three panel punchline driven format, but never to this level before. For over a week they continued on the same path, telling a somber and serious story without words, leaning heavily on the art.

By the third strip, I had stopped checking the site, only coming back after a few weeks. Sure, whatever, Krahulik had earned the right to play around with his strip, I wouldn’t begrudge him that, it just wasn’t what Penny Arcade was to me — a comic about videogames and the culture surrounding them.

Over the years, they would dip into the world of serious fiction again and again, each dalliance sending me on another hiatus from the site – each time longer than the last.

Then, one day in 2010, I looked up and realized I hadn’t checked Penny Arcade in nearly a year. I went back and got as far as The Lookouts before finally losing interest completely. Over the next two years I’d touch back on the site every now and then, always ending my run when I’d hit another expanded fiction experiment.

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All the while, I found myself spending more and more time with the Penny Arcade Megacorp’s other videogame related outlets. There was the Penny Arcade Expo, which was rapidly shifting between a force for good and an almost hilarious springboard for Krahulik’s growing social ignorance. Child’s Play had become far more than just a tiny little charitable function. They had even started their very own videogame reporting site, the Penny Arcade Report.

I won’t say I was ever a fan of PAR and Ben Kuchera. I rarely agreed with his take on the world of videogames, but I found myself drawn to the site as a chance to recapture that which had drawn me into the Penny Arcade web in the first place. I was especially enamored with the initial core focus of the site, which was to strip away the blogroll-style bullshit that videogame news had begun descending into with ‘The Cut.’ Ambitious and ballsy, it was something I respected, even if I didn’t always agree with it.

And shit, at least it was about videogames.

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Then, on December 6th, they announced the closure of PAR alongside the Penny Arcade TV program, which hosted programs like Extra Credits, which provided pretty solid critical commentary on game development.

In his post about the why behind the closure, Holkins spoke of the rapidly expanding Penny Arcade “Empire” and feeling like they weren’t able to pursue their true goals as a result of it. He alluded to big things coming in the next year, things that they had been putting off in favor of maintaining projects like PAR and PATV. He even said kind things about the ballast named Ben before cutting it.

And then he revealed what the future held for Penny Arcade. This is from his news post – “things like the Pins or The New Kids or Daughters of the Eyrewood or Thornwatch or The Lookouts or Automata deserve every ounce of our resources. Novels and albums, too…”

In short, not videogames.

It was a clear message to me, the nerdy-ass kid who saw Penny Arcade as the only port in a stormy sea, that Penny Arcade just wasn’t for me anymore. Penny Arcade, once the foremost sarcastic and critical videogame webcomic, was going to double down on fantasy, sci-fi, and collectable pins featuring their faces.

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If my currently haggard and bearded self had crawled out of a time machine in 2001 and handed my whimsically clean-shaven past self a copy of this news post with grave tidings, I’d have laughed in his face. The punk rock, fuck-the-man, scathingly critical Penny Arcade couldn’t sell out that hard. No…fucking…way.

But, like countless aging white dudes in studded leather jackets that don’t quite fit anymore, Penny Arcade has found itself mired in a world filled with promotional materials, business deals, and financial management. The razor sharp wit of decades past has been replaced with the kind of mildly offensive ignorance that your drunk grandfather exhibits at every family function, less biting social commentary and more inane defensive rambling.

Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps part of growing up is watching the things you used to latch on to wither into obsolescence in front of your eyes. Is this what it was like for my father to see the members of The Who or Led Zeppelin slowly slip away? Will I find myself sitting alone in a dusky room, casually flipping through old Penny Arcade strips, mournfully sipping from a glass of scotch and remembering the dangerous all-or-nothing days of my youth? Is my fate inexorably tied to Holkins and Krahulik, an inescapable gravity softening my resolve until I’m enjoying softly lit fantasy epics and shimmering holiday pins?

Fuck that.

Enjoy your sunset Penny Arcade, I’m going to keep on walking towards the dawn. You’ll always have a special place in my heart, your records will always be on my shelf, but I’m done paying attention.

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