I was recently stumbling my way through Wikipedia, bouncing from page to page, consuming information like the academic hungry caterpillar that I am, when I found a quote from a review of an old PC game called Times of Lore. The words of the review itself were not what piqued my curioisity as much as the name of the author: Scorpia. That might not mean much to younger gamers, but anyone who was a fan of RPGs and adventure games back in the ‘90s will remember this pseudonym and the sting behind it. Well before the age of influencers was upon us, Scorpia was blazing her own idiosyncratic path through video games. But in recent times she seemed to have just dropped off the grid.
So who is Scorpia, and what happened?
'Angry' video game reviewing is now a genre in itself. Guys like the Angry Videogame Nerd and Jim Sterling have armies of fans who tune in to hear them rip into games both old and new, but that wasn’t always the case. I distinctly remember those halcyon days of the ‘90s being much more respectful in terms of how various publications offered their opinions on games. Of course you still got the occasional explosion when something was unutterably bad, but these were the enjoyable exceptions in coverage that tended to err on the side of optimistic caution.
Scorpia, on the other hand, was at times utterly vitriolic. Writing for Computer Gaming World, her review of Ultima VIII is widely considered to be one of the harshest in the history of games journalism. She concludes it by stating that it’s “a disaster and an embarrassment to Origin, Lord British and Ultima fans everywhere.” Her absolute destruction of Might & Magic II (in which she wrote several paragraphs on how buggy the game is, followed by summarising the plot as “remarkable for its pointlessness”) so upset the game’s designer, Jon Van Caneghem, that he wrote a furious response to the magazine which they subsequently published. His dissatisfaction must have remained for some time, because he named one of the enemies in Might & Magic III after her.
Earlier editions of CGW typically contained a lot of black and white screenshots, such as these from the February 1988 issue.
Still, Scorpia loved and hated with an equal amount of passion and always gave credit where it was due. She concluded her review of Ultima IV by announcing it was destined to be a classic, ending “what are you waiting for? Go get it!” This opinion, like all of her published writings, was peppered with hints and tips on how to get the most out of the game. Reading the review you sense how much fun she had fun playing it, and that she wants her readers to share in her discoveries. You can see why, to those of us who grew up reading her work, Scorpia was a bit of a legend: the first part of the magazine you'd flick to.
She was also an inspiration to young women with aspirations of designing or writing about games. The games industry may still have problems with misogyny and sexism but 25 years ago it was even worse. It was an era when few women were asked their opinion on games and those involved in creating them were rarely visible: yet here was this absolute badass ripping everything to shreds and getting paid to do so. Arinn Dembo, writer for several cult gaming classics including Homeworld, Sword of the Stars and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, had the following to say about her in 2010:
“To this day, Scorpia is still probably the most famous computer gaming journalist of all time; I can't think of anyone working today who has achieved both her level of name recognition and the level of professional respect that she had earned from her audience. Thousands of readers have said over the years that they bought or subscribed to the magazine specifically for Scorpia’s column. She was the sort of reviewer you could count on, not only to be fair, accurate and impartial, but to be an authentic gamer who was in touch with the concerns of real gamers.”
Scorpia wrote for Computer Gaming World for 16 years, from 1983 to 1999, at which point there was an editorial shake-up and she was unceremoniously booted out. Despite being at the height of her popularity, publisher Ziff Davis decided that it wished to go in a different direction with the magazine. Scorpia would, in her only post-CGW interview, state that she felt her firing and subsequent inability to find more work was due to her reputation for harsh criticism.
Indeed the industry was, at this point, entering into the modern age of gaming review scandals. A couple of years after Scorpia's exit we would see the infamous ‘Driv3rgate’ controversy, where a very poor game got very good scores. Then in 2007, reviewer Jeff Gerstmann would part ways with GameSpot amidst rumours about his refusal to misrepresent opinions on cover shooter Kane & Lynch. It’s crazy to think that Scorpia, who wrote consistently for a decade and a half, accumulating a huge fan base, ended up being unable to find work again. But the truth, at least in terms of attitudes, is that the difference between 1999 and 2007 was more than eight years. The industry was an altogether different beast.
Charles Ardai, another former freelancer at CGW, remembers all-too-well how the industry was changing. “Scorpia was always writing for what [CGW editor] Johnny Wilson called the grognards: the hardest core of hardcore gamers. I think the publishers wanted a break with the past and with the image of the magazine as being for grizzled, bearded, middle-aged men who'd otherwise spend their leisure time pushing lead soldiers around hexagonal maps or arguing about the hitpoint count of a beholder.”
Charles Ardai now owns and operates Hard Case Crime, a publisher of hardboiled crime novels.
Ardai is certainly no stranger to ‘grognard’ culture. At the tender age of just 13, he had his first article published in the abysmally named ‘Electronic Fun with Computers and Games.' By the time CGW came knocking, he was an established journalist and would go on to write over a quarter of a million words for the magazine.
Ardai clearly has a lot of respect and fondness for Scorpia, something which is universal among everyone I speak to. “Her columns had personality, which much writing in the field did not back then,” Ardai says. “Maybe it still doesn’t. You felt she was talking to you, and that she knew an awful lot about what she was talking about. She was better than you at what she did, more knowledgeable than you – more knowledgeable than anyone. It was like getting a lesson from the best golf pro ever, or taking a kung fu class from the most revered sensei. You respected her and felt not just entertained but improved by her columns.”
You could be forgiven for assuming that Ardai knew Scorpia well but, even as a former colleague, he only ever met her in-person once. “It was at a press junket, possibly held by Infocom, possibly at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan,” he recalls. “There was a large crowd of people and a quiet, unassuming, shy woman not interacting much with any of them. We spoke briefly. I admired her columns quite a lot, always enjoyed reading them, and I hope I had the good grace to tell her so. She seemed nice, and smart, but very clearly uncomfortable in a crowd, and the overwhelming sense I had was of someone who would much rather have been behind her computer screen than holding a plastic cup of white wine while PR people jabbered around her.”
Ardai’s idea of an enigmatic computer game sensei was all the inspiration I needed to start trying to find Scorpia, and find out how and why she disappeared from the gaming scene. It strikes me as somehow insane that, in a world where every Joe and Jane Bloggs has a huge internet footprint, this major cultural critic was somehow able to go quietly into the night. I ask Ardai if he can help me out and he gives me the email address of Johnny Wilson, former editor of CGW, as well as a telephone number, which he says is several decades old.
Johnny Wilson remembers how the industry was moving on at the time of Scorpia’s dismissal. She had traditionally reviewed RPGs and graphical adventure games in the kind of style which had its heyday during the ‘80s and ‘90s. “There were fewer and fewer titles that fit Scorpia’s predilection," says Wilson. "We had always tried to provide at least two articles per issue for her, and it was becoming more and more difficult.”
This change in the market’s taste was only exacerbated by the editorial desires of publisher Ziff Davis. “They further squeezed us by cutting the ad/editorial ratio. They felt that our 50:50 ratio of ads to articles was too generous. They wanted closer to a 75:25 relationship.”
The more I speak to Wilson, the more I realise that the folks writing for CGW were there because of their interests outside of computer games. He gives as an example M. Evan Brooks, another writer working during Scorpia’s time. “He’s still respected by professional soldiers and airmen for his breadth of knowledge of wargames and simulators," says Wilson. "I don’t want to sound like an old man in decrying the influence of the web [laughs] but the exigencies of web publishing and the realities of web publishing work against this idea of journalism.”
Scorpia’s Gaming Lair looks just as it did when it went into stasis over a decade ago.
Wilson would also leave CGW at around the same time Scorpia left, eventually finding himself at Wizards of the Coast, working on the likes of Dragon, TopDeck and Star Wars Insider. Scorpia, on the other hand, tried to make a go of running her own website, but it was not to be. Amazingly it’s still up, and among the broken links and nostalgic design you’ll find what I think is Scorpia’s last-ever online article. On June 3rd, 2009, the culmination of 26 years of consistent computer game reviewing ended in a frustrated paragraph about the impossibility of keeping up with an industry that felt increasingly alien.
…I re-opened this site as a blog. It was my hope that I could finally make a go of it on the ‘net. But things didn’t work out that way.
At best, the site pulls in just enough to cover expenses; I haven’t made a penny from it in all this time. What is worse is that I’ve fallen behind the curve.
My system can’t handle new games at all. There is no way I can afford a computer that could. And let’s face it, it was on game reviews primarily that my reputation was built.
So between no income and no modern system, I’ve lost heart. I’ve been struggling with this since the weekend; it hasn’t been an easy decision to make.
The site is going into suspended animation. No more posts will be made, unless my situation changes for the better.
It’s a sad, oddly relatable tale, and one that we’ve seen repeated by many a budding Twitch streamer and YouTube reviewer. The instability of trying to go solo in an online world, with no guarantee that you’ll be able to make rent, can be an incredible culture shock.
As we say our goodbyes, Johnny Wilson gives me an email address for Scorpia. I try it and get no response. At this point I try the decades-old number that Ardai had: there's no dial tone but an ancient answering machine message still plays, the words of which I can barely make out. I leave a message and try several more times, but get nothing and am left with no more lines of inquiry. I begin to think that I won’t be getting in touch with Scorpia and that, in fact, she probably doesn’t want to be found by some nosey upstart. I draft up a conclusion around the idea that perhaps Scorpia’s legacy is best left alone, alongside some fruity hyperbole about how she was a victim of her era, the last gunslinger in the old west, a templar in a dying order.
Then I stumble across something that I wasn’t expecting – a very recent article, penned by the lady herself.
RPGWatch is one of those old-school gaming sites. You probably know the kind: a place where the forums are more active than the front page and where little, pocketed communities exist beyond the scope of the major gaming press. It was here that I saw a post about an upcoming anthology book to be released by Bitmap Books. It’s titled The CRPG Book: A Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games and it contains a review by Scorpia.
The CRPG Book contains new reviews by a number of old favourites.
I get straight on the phone to Bitmap Books and explain what I’m trying to do. They're surprised but humour me. Emails are exchanged back and forth to prove I am who I say, that yes Kotaku UK wants to publish this, asking about the article's angle... it's all rather like a vetting process but, praise be, I’m deemed kosher and am finally able to get in touch with Scorpia.
I'm not going to use Scorpia's real name, but it is the topic I want to ask about first: how and why did she write under a pseudonym for decades? As it turns out, the answer is less complicated than I expected. Scorpia was known as Scorpia long before her CGW days.
“[Former CGW editor] Russell Sipe was a member of the GameSIG (Games Special Interest Group) on CompuServe, where I, as Scorpia, was one of the three people in charge,” she says. “I already had some reviews and walkthroughs in the database and he liked what he saw. One night he called me into a private chat and asked me to write for the magazine. It was as simple as that.”
As for actually maintaining her pseudonymous status, Scorpia never put much thought into it. “There weren't many people who knew my — let's call it — dual identity. The gaming and non-gaming parts of my life were quite separate. Perhaps that helped. Of course the folks at CGW knew my other name, although the cheques were made out to Scorpia: yes, I had a bank account in that name. I just used Scorpia for any and all things related to gaming, and had the PO Box for people to send me their questions.”
On the subject of her Might & Magic II review, Scorpia says to the best of her knowledge there was never any truly bad blood between her and Jon Van Caneghem, and says of her reincarnation as a monster: “I was disappointed; he ought to have made me big and nasty!”
As for that legendary Ultima VIII review, she's equally cool about the whole thing. “My intent was always to tell readers about the game — good and bad — so they could decide for themselves whether it was worth their time and money. It's never bothered me if someone disagreed with my assessment of a game, including developers.” Scorpia points out that Origin actually patched a lot of the technical issues that she uncovered: “perhaps some good came out of it.”Scorpia's logo adorned her CGW work
Scorpia has been quizzed in the past about her experiences as a woman in the early days of games journalism. In her last interview with Gamasutra, she stated simply that she’d never experienced any issues over her gender, saying, “after considerable thought, I can't come up with any incident of discrimination.” Chatting with me on the subject, she elaborates a little. “I've given this topic the most thought, but have no answer. It is both amazing and distressing that this situation exists. My experiences off and online were not like that. The GameSIG was originally started and run by three women, on a proprietary system where you had to apply for an area, and most SIGs at the time were managed by men.”
"In all the years I wrote for the mag, no one ever made an issue of my gender that I was aware of. For that matter, I wasn't the only woman who wrote for CGW, either. Offline, it was similar. Gender was never an issue. Some department heads I worked for were women. At one bank, a simple project I was working on mushroomed into something so large, an entire consulting team was called in, and it was headed by a woman.”
I find myself wondering if this is perhaps a modern phenomenon, maybe owing to the more mainstream appeal of gaming. After all, most early computer programmers were women, an area now dominated by men. It seems Scorpia is thinking along similar lines, suggesting that maybe she just showed up early to the party.
“The start of a new industry is always exciting. It’s usually the most creative, the most innovative, the most boundless time. Anyone with something to offer can get in, because such people are still rare. Now the industry has grown tremendously, and there are more people around to choose from. Yet that doesn't explain the situation. Women are in many professions today that were unthinkable not so long ago; why should game design/journalism/etcetera be any different? Maybe the industry needs more maturity before women can get in on an equal basis.”
Scorpia has, in the past, cited Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father as an example of how many of gaming’s earliest classics were designed by women.
It was the industry’s semi-maturation that found Scorpia running her own website. Looking back on it, she explains why going solo was tempting. “My own area would give me more freedom of choice in what I covered or reviewed. No deadlines, either. At CGW, you had to think about the advertising. Johnny [Wilson] told me once that one company had pulled their ads after several less-than-stellar reviews. I felt badly about that, since I had no axe to grind with the company; the products just weren't that good. Since my site would have no direct advertising, there'd be no problems in that regard.”
As we already know, it didn’t quite work out that way. The main reason was her difficulty in translating her print appeal into enough online traffic to make advertising pay. “My appeal was mainly to those who were already familiar with me through CGW. The Internet was a much, much bigger venue, with much larger websites, and plenty of them.”
Another major contribution to Scorpia’s lack of impact is that, to be frank about it, she doesn't seem much of a self-promoter and being a solo success on the internet depends in large part on doing that. She’d never had to push her own work before and at CGW had a captive audience. “I'm simply not good at self-promotion. Also, for a while, my kind of gaming was drying up. Looking over the posts for the last year of the site, I had only one game review. So with all that in mind, I decided it wasn't worth going on. Yes, it hurt a lot to make that last post, but there's no way you can go on without making money.”
It seems a sad end to such a sparkling legacy but, if Scorpia feels that way, she certainly doesn’t show it. After all, she’s achieved a hell of a lot and it shows in her response when I ask her if she’d ever consider coming back into the industry. “I still do some gaming,” she says, “however I have no desire to go back to reviewing games. Once was enough! It's really more work than most people realise and I do enjoy playing just for myself.”
We say goodbye, and Scorpia signs off with the following: “you can consider me retired.”
Scorpia is a fascinating and unique thread in the games industry's history. I certainly owe her work a debt of gratitude: she’ll always be my hero for keeping the flame alive for point-and-click adventures and traditional CRPGs, two genres which fell out of fashion in the late ‘90s, when the industry moved onto shinier things. The recent resurgence in the popularity of those genres, which I credit to the enthusiasts who refused to let it go, will hopefully provide Scorpia some decent entertainment in retirement.
It's a reminder of the other side of her appeal as a writer, too. Scorpia's legend may, somewhat understandably, always be told with reference to scabruous takedowns of games she didn't like (and the Ultima VIII: Pagan review really is a stone-cold classic). To those who followed her work, however, the deep knowledge of and love for games was what really kept us coming back. Perhaps the name Scorpia lasted because what it suggests fitted her so perfectly: some sort of cosmic enigma, with a sting in the tail.