This is an unusual post, and not one that I was expecting to write. Nor will it become a regular feature of this website. Nevertheless, some news impacted me surprisingly hard a few days ago, and prompted me to write this piece.
On the 24th of this month, John Bain passed away.
Most of you will have never heard of John Bain. However, better-known by his professional name of Totalbiscuit, he was an absolute giant of the gaming industry, becoming one of the most recognisable and respected gaming critics online. Arising to prominence at a time when much of gaming content on Youtube consisted of amateurish playthroughs and short, surface-level reviews, he transformed his lets-play channel and created a niche for long-form, quality critique. His ‘first impressions’ or ‘WTFs’ – he never called them ‘reviews’ – soon became wildly popular, blending as they did Totalbiscuit’s dry sense of humour, authoritative persona, acute professionalism and dedication to his craft. Sometimes he was controversial and savagely abrasive in his statements and opinions – perhaps intentionally so – but whether you agreed or disagreed with his critiques, they were almost always cerebral and worthy of consideration.
Despite his obvious success and influence, Totalbiscuit never went ‘corporate’ in any way. Though he would commentate for games like Starcraft II and get involved in a whole host of projects, he never lost his independency. He was famously a champion of ‘indie’ games, bringing many unknown gems to prominence, and was often scathingly dismissive of the big, expensive corporate ‘triple-A’ titles. A tireless advocate for consumer rights and journalistic transparency, he openly criticised companies for extractive, underhand and anti-consumerist practices, even when it might have been more lucrative for him to be quiet – he refused to critique SEGA games for years, despite the obvious income he would receive from doing so. Indeed, so respected was he for his pro-consumer activity that he was actually invited – along with another British youtuber, Jim Sterling – to consult with Valve (one of most powerful organisations in the gaming industry) on changes to their hugely-influential STEAM service.
Furthermore, he was something of a British success story. From being made redundant after the 2008 crash, he grew his Youtube presence into a career and one of the biggest game-critique channels on the platform. Despite living in the U.S and catering to a predominantly-American market, he always emphasised his British roots (his most recognisable motif was a top hat), and proudly titled himself ‘the Cynical Brit’. In an industry and media form heavily-dominated (understandably) by America, he was a loud voice of British sarcasm and good sense, cutting through the corporate spin with his no-nonsense attitude and passion for his work.
Several years ago, John Bain revealed that he had cancer. He continued to work throughout his illness – though his workload understandably was reduced – and cranked out fantastic content all the while. However, earlier this year he revealed that his disease was terminal, and finally passed away on the 24th May 2018. He was only thirty three, and left behind a young family.
Why am I writing this obituary, you might ask. The simple answer is that Totalbiscuit was a large part of my younger life, and I only realised how large upon hearing of his death this week. As a typical teenage boy who loved video games, Totalbiscuit was one of – if not the – go-to sources of my gaming content and critique. I wouldn’t buy a game until I had seen his video on it. His long-running podcast with other guests from the industry kept me entertained for hours on long walks and car rides. His common focus on smaller games was a major influence on the sort of gamer that I became – interested in slow-burning titles with interesting narratives, gameplay and atmosphere, rather than the big corporate triple-As with their fast-paced online gameplay, glitzy graphics and micro-transactions. I still am that sort of gamer, and many of my favourite games are those that were originally recommended by Totalbiscuit. I hadn’t seen much of his content for a while, focused as I have been on university rather than games, but I was absolutely shocked when I heard of his death. The very real sadness I felt hints at how much Totalbiscuit had been a part of my teenage years, and I am certainly not alone; his millions of subscribers, and the thousands of dollars raised already for his family, suggest otherwise.
Whether you are interested or not in gaming, spare a thought for John Bain. He was intensely professional in an industry often stereotyped as amateur and childish, had an incredible work ethic and was an excellent example of an entrepreneurial success story. Not only did he influence his industry and publicly fight back against anti-consumerist practices, but he impacted the lives of millions of people across the globe, becoming a regular part of their gaming lives. He will be sorely missed by many.
Note: Featured image courtesy of Eurogamer.com.