…I realized that if we’re going to talk about the games then let’s just talk about the games and not drag the ugliness of the real world into places where it doesn’t exist.
I’ve decided that I wanted to learn more about my fellow Mages, and I thought what better way to do so than a new set of interviews with them.
Our opening interview is with none other than the esteemed owner, writer, and editor of The Well Red Mage. Of course we are referring to the Well-Red Mage himself: Moses Norton!
This is quite the beefy interview, and in it we will learn about his favorite games, literature, and talk about his earliest writings. Without further ado, let us get started.
Ninja: First off Moses, I would just like to thank you for the opportunity to ask you a series of increasingly personal questions, with the end goal to be a virtual slap, and glass of water thrown in my face.
Red: nervous laughter Haha oh yeah I forgot this is a written interview. Thanks for the opportunity and asking to interview me! I promise to spare the indignation of a slap and the glass of water.
Ninja: Promises, promises. You haven’t heard my questions yet. People might not know you as Moses though, but they’ll certainly recognize The Well-Red Mage, especially considering they are on your website right now. I’ve always been extremely jealous I didn’t think of your finally fantastical moniker first. How did you come up with your alter ego and brand?
Red: So that’s a funny question and set up because you’ll see you can’t be jealous of my wit. I didn’t come up with it myself, actually! When I came up with the idea of doing a video game blog and talked it over with two friends, I originally went with Red Mage Reviews as the title. It referenced the most mediocre of the Final Fantasy classes and the title itself was pretty mediocre too. My wife, bless her, was actually the pun-tastic person who came up with Well-Red Mage, and it stuck! So yeah whenever people say they like the name I have to tell them it wasn’t even my idea.
Ninja: Ha! You should probably keep her around then, just in case you need any more branding done. And, you know, ’cause you love her and stuff.
Red: Haha you’re right! Good reason to maintain my marriage vows and all!
Ninja: I want to circle back to you being a family man later on, but for now I’d like to dig into the creation of your site.
One of the things that instantly drew me to your site was the layout. I adore the Final Fantasy theme, especially the instruction manual. The whole site kind of has the look and feel of opening up a Final Fantasy NES or SNES game. Since we can’t travel back in time when it comes to the layout, was it always like this from the start, or did you slowly evolve it into the motif we see today?
Red: Cool, yeah I’m always happy to talk about the fam. Regarding the layout, the first blog I ran had a black background and I just found it easier on my poor eyes. When I was batting around the idea of a video game blog, my second attempt at running a blog, I came across a few NES themed sites that had black backgrounds and it just felt really appropriate to me, the look of it evoking those old classics with their black screens and vivid sprites. So you guessed right! It’s meant to remind one of the NES! I even used the original NES red mage sprite for my avatar for a long time until we came up with the custom one. We did have a different theme which eventually bit the dust but the current look of the site is still fairly similar with its emphasis on thumbnails on the home page. The two other founders, the Black Humor Mage and the Timely Mage, were big helps in picking out the right theme and look for the site from the start.
Ninja: Yeah, I’m quite fond of the overall aesthetic. Of course it doesn’t hurt that I love Final Fantasy either. I want you to imagine me gasping and clutching my very manly pearls as I say this: So wait, you once had a blog that wasn’t about video games?
Red: Well, to be honest, you can have it. Haha what I mean is, TWRM has evolved over time through the brainstorming process and the think tank of working with a team of contributors that I don’t really consider it my own site. It’s something I helped found and where I now perform some editor duties, sure, but I share the site with people who want to pour into it. That means it’s yours, too. It’s open to your ideas and its achievements are something we as a team can all share in. That helps inspire me to keep going. It doesn’t hurt that I love Final Fantasy, either, too!
Clutch those pearls! I have worked on two blogs before TWRM. The first was a literary and theology blog where I talked about things that inspire me and did book reviews and shared notes from the systematic theology group I used to teach. It was very much “blog like an open journal” kind of a thing. It was also a learning experience. I didn’t have a schedule and I didn’t write for viewership but for fun. It was on Blogger, too. It’s still there, Norton Literature. After that, I had a short-lived blog called Briffits & Quimps (named for those dashing lines and clouds in comics and celestial objects used as symbols for cussing, also in comics). This was a comic book review blog, so I guess I’ve always been about reviewing things so far as blogging goes. I did a handful of reviews and realized quickly that comic books are expensive and that I wasn’t very good at it. The most important thing about Briffits & Quimps was it moved me to WordPress, my current home, which I like far more than Blogger. I still remember receiving my first comment from someone I didn’t know! Sadly, maybe not so sadly, Briffits & Quimps is no more than a memory now.
Ninja: Even before I really knew you it was clear that literature was important to you, its effects on you are visible within the site itself with the quotes, and the long form analysis. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find you dissected novels and comics on a blog previously. Since you are a writer and a fan of literature, this question is going to be difficult for you I’d imagine: What is your favorite work of literature? Not the best mind you, it doesn’t have to be critically acclaimed, but it is something you adore and highly recommend. And yes, I’m counting comic books as literature in this case.
Red: Hoo boy what a question! So I’m going to take the liberty to answer it in three ways: classic literature, theological literature, and comic book literature. Hehe I do what I want. Anyhow, I’d say in this order that A Tale of Two Cities is a book which thoroughly moved me, the Book of Job is one I found fascinating about the human wrestling against the mysteries of the universe, and I absolutely adore this graphic novel called Kingdom Come which is about legacy and the importance of bringing up the next generation to be responsible, to perpetuate virtue over vice. Actually, all three of those were books I’ve been intensely moved by.
Ninja: A rogue element, I like it! I’ve read Kingdom Come myself, it is quite spectacular. What sort of influences have these, and other literature, had upon you and, more specifically, your writing?
Red: Hmm, well I’m sure there are potentially many answers to that question. You are what you eat, right? I’d say that I tend to infuse what I believe into my writing (who doesn’t) without attempting to sound stereotypically preachy or too on-the-nose. C.S. Lewis talked about smuggling truth into fiction, and I always liked the sound of that but I think you’ve got to be delicate about it. Beyond that, though, I’d say most of my writing voice takes cues from the classics over modern writing. That isn’t at all meant to sound like some rousing round of praise for my writing. What I mean is I dislike the sterility of modern writing. The short sentences bother me. Why have such a beautifully rich language like English if you can’t even use all of its words? I get it. I don’t advocate for manuals and text books to read like the Dickens but I like to put a little more color into what I write than what you can get from a text book. That doesn’t mean others want to read that. I just like to produce work that I can be happy about, for myself. So bring on the ineffably inexorable adjectives and adverbs!
Ninja: That is actually always encouraging to hear. There is a lot of culture, especially when writing about video games, that tends to be focused on getting clicks by following trends, but I’ve always felt it is always incredibly important to be happy with what your writing. Otherwise what’s the point right? Do you recall the first thing you ever wrote? Not just practicing your letters, but a true attempt to sit down and put a little bit of Moses on a piece of paper.
Red: Click baiting! That’s always tempting but it misses that feeling of being able to take pride in your work. How much is that worth? Well, it’s up to you. But if you’re not happy with your achievements, your writing, then what good are all those clicks. I say this without having the clicks, you see. 😀 The first thing I ever wrote… so I did a poem about my mother in 3rd grade. I attempted a novelization of Chrono Trigger when I was pretty young. 12 or so, maybe. The longest and more important dedicated piece of writing I ever did was a novel I launched into without planning or outlining when we got our very first computer. The novel was called Lies of the Machine and it was a sci-fantasy epic about a boy who didn’t realize he was an android and refused to accept it, though it turned out he was a mind-wiped spy for some evil machines infiltrating this fantasy world. Haha, yeah that didn’t end well. Or at all, really. It’s not just a 6 inch stack of papers in my closet somewhere. That’s all Moses right there.
Ninja: What I wouldn’t give to get my hands on that attempted Chrono Trigger novelization! Far more importantly though I would say is your original work. That whole premise obviously has a lot of legs, you should polish it up and finish it. I’ve attempted my own novel though, and I know that is far easier said than done. Is it the piece of writing you are most proud of?
Red: Well… the Chrono Trigger novelization is something I’d like to attempt again someday. That original version is long gone. I thought it’d be cool to do that thing they did in a couple Goosebumps books I read back then where you could pick your path through the story and jump ahead to designated pages to find out what happened after certain choices were made. As for Lies of the Machine, yeah I’d like to polish that up someday and publish it. Same with the other stories I’ve written, the ones I’ve actually managed to complete at least. Story of my life but now I try to finish what I start. Attempting a novel is really, really hard, especially since back then I knew nothing about the science and preparation of it. I’m all about outline advocacy now! Writing I’m most proud of? Heh definitely not that novel. It’s rough, my dude. Uhm… for published work it’s probably the 17k-word Chrono Trigger thing I did that someone called a “dissertation”. I know I never shut up about it. Just love that game. For unpublished work, there’s a novella I finished called The Last Stitch Goes Through The Nose that’s thematically about how society and the individual perceives the homeless, with the story told from the perspective of a boy in a fictional town exploring the nature of ostracization, if that’s a word.
Ninja: laughs I’ve read that dissertation. It explores a lot of heady concepts as you sought to see if you could definitively quantify the greatness of Chrono Trigger. I found the objectivity vs subjectivity bit most intriguing; it is interesting stuff, and worth a read for sure. Though there should almost be chapters at this point! There are a lot of people out there that see videogames as little more than a child’s plaything, though that viewpoint is becoming more rare these days. So what about videogames do you think makes them worth writing about them way we do?
Red: Chapters! Good idea! I’ll likely never write something that long again but I got sucked into the idea of the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity. It’s interesting, at the least. One of the reasons why I like to write about video games is because of their scope. They are for children and are playthings, and at the same time they are for adults, too. They’re for anyone and everyone that can finds their home in them. I don’t hear too much about games being mere toys anymore, anyway, like you suggested. But even if someone said that, they’d be correct about many video games, just not all of them. Anyway, “adult” isn’t a qualitative term unless it’s being used by someone snooty and I like this quote I ran into today from Satoru Iwata: ” First of all, I’ve never once been embarrassed that children have supported Nintendo. I’m proud of it. That’s because children judge products based on instinct. Everyone wants to appeal to people’s instincts, but it’s not easy. That doesn’t mean we’re making products just for children. We believe that there’s interactive entertainment that people in their 60s, 70s and 80s can enjoy, so we’re doing various things.” Another reason why I decided to write about video games, some which makes them worth writing about for me, is I’ve had many great experiences with games and I want to share those with anyone who will bother to read my stuff! To be absolutely succinct on this, I think games are an art form (products of creative activities) but not works of art in the sense of masterpieces and what not. Some games certainly are masterpieces but I don’t think that by saying games are art and therefore worth writing about that I have to agree with the assumption that all games are these beautifully moving experiences. There’s so much to talk about with gaming, I find it exciting, and that goes way beyond thoughts of legitimacy. Sorry, that was a long answer.
Ninja: I would expect nothing less than long form answers from the Well Red Mage. I agree with you completely that games are for anyone and everyone who chooses to play them. The video games as art topic I’ve seen you have some really good conversations about here on the site, so perhaps no need to go further there, but I agree games can be art. What game do you feel encapsulates everything you love about gaming?
Red: Wow. That is a question…!
So at the risk of giving Chrono Trigger as my answer for everything, I’m going to cite a different game that’s one of my absolute favorites. I think it accurately encapsulates everything I love about gaming! It is Final Fantasy VI. I waffled between that and Mega Man X but I’ve got a Final Fantasy blog, after all… gotta represent. FFVI is a game that has a great cast of characters you come to care about. Maybe not all of them but some of them. It has a powerful, memorable villain, the Final Fantasy villain, imo. Its music so is rich, complex, melodic, and profound. It has the meat and potatoes gameplay of a classic RPG. It has this story of tremendous scale and scope that hits on comedy, tragedy, and adventure. The scene where Ultros hilariously invades the opera stage… the scene where Cyan watches his dead family board the train… the scene where you take to the skies for the first time. There’s so much in that game and it resonates with me every time I play it. Further, it represents something I find inspiring about games, which is its rich history.
Ninja: My man! What a fantastic answer, but maybe that’s because I feel the same way. You brought up Final Fantasy VI so indulge me here. What is your favorite playable character in that entire ensemble cast?
Red: One of the great things about Final Fantasy VI is how well it balances that large ensemble cast, the core characters at least. I think it’s the sort of game that’s broad enough and not so limited in its thematic presentation as to allow many different kinds of players to find their own characters within it. That said, Locke has always been the main character of the game for me. Not the protagonist but the character who I felt was me, my window into the world. Remembering the game, I see a lot of it through his eyes. I suppose that makes him my favorite, even though there are so many other cool playable characters. Like Mog!
Ninja: Locke is a great answer, he was always in my final four. Never just for gameplay purposes, I just really enjoyed his story.
Since we’ve been talking about creative endeavors, if you were to design your own video game, what would it be.
Red: Okay so the game is called Mage Academy and it’s part-school sim, part-RPG, part-adventure about taking a variety of 8-bit mages through their various years of magic school, teaching them their abilities, upgrading their job classes (the classic RPG classes, of course), battling on the field or against school bullies and in P.E., which is a concept that I think could work given the breadth of the idea which of course will make liberal use of smoothly animated pixel art, music that’s evocative of the golden age RPGs without being directly lifted from them, tight gameplay not too over-concerned with inaccessible, esoteric crafting or stat-building systems, so a level of depth without needing to read a wiki to play it, a good chunk of post game content, the final boss has got to be your rival (just like in Pokemon), though such a game would definitely be built to satisfy the tendency toward DLC with more mages, more rivals, more field tests, etc., which I think could potentially give it legs, because who wouldn’t want to play Mage Academy!?
Ninja: You need to get to work, I need to play this game right away. What a fantastic idea, and why someone hasn’t already made this I can’t really fathom.
To pivot here, I told you we would get back to the family. I’ve seen the adorable Labo video with your son. As a Dad gamer myself, I feel compelled to ask how becoming a father impacted the way you interact with games, if at all?
Red: It impacted me and my relationship with games in a large way, Daniel! I actually struggled a lot with having a baby in the home in the early days and I had a lot of alone time when my wife and firstborn rested, so actually that was the foundation for creating TWRM! I was playing a lot of games and starting to feel like I was alone and that I was wasting my time. Writing about the games I completed was something which filled up that time, connected me to people, and made playing video games much more worth it to me. That’s not for everybody, that’s just something that helped give my extra time extra meaning. Things have grown since then and my son has become a little companion. Being able to share in games with him is so much fun. I see in him the wild-eyed boy that I was years ago with my NES. Honestly there are a lot of things which drive me to continue doing what I do on TWRM, but having my family is one of the biggest inspirations!
Ninja: I know he is on the younger side, so when I ask this I don’t necessarily mean something he has played yet, but maybe you’ve just introduced him to. What has been your favorite gaming experience, or the one you were most excited to share, thus far with him?
Red: We’ve been able to play with some rudimentary action a bit of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Kirby Star Allies, as well as Nintendo Labo of course, but it was something as tactile and tangible as the Vectrex which really captured his attention and got him engaged. The Vectrex is this ancient retro system that played vector art games on a miniature tube tv with an attached controller reminiscent of an arcade cabinet’s buttons and joystick. It was something he instantly gravitated toward when I bought it off a friend and one of the first games I think he ever asked for. He’s not very good at it, neither am I, but we have fun blasting away in Berserk or Mine Storm, nonetheless. For me this was really special because while the Vectrex was even before my time, it’s evocative enough of the arcade experience that I felt like I was able to share in my childhood with him.
Ninja: I’m learning all sorts of things today, I didn’t even know that the Vectrex was a thing. You are training him up really retro! Is there a franchise or series you just can’t wait for him to be old enough to share with you?
Red: Gotta give that kid a classic education! French, Latin, History, Literature, Vectrex, NES! We’re starting The Last of Us together when he turns 3. Haha jk! I definitely cannot wait until he’s old enough for RPGs and that’s going to include just about anything I can get my hands on, Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts (for his age range), especially. I played through a few Final Fantasy games with my wife and that was such an enjoyable experience, I can’t wait to repeat it. A while back we were all talking about the joys (and challenges) of raising children and among those are being able to share our world with them. It’s gonna be great!
Ninja: It really is one of the coolest experiences being able to share what you truly love with your children. Right now I’ve been casually replaying Kingdom Hearts, but my five year old daughter absolutely forbids me to play without her. Speaking of us all talking, the Mages have this incredible Discord channel that we get to be a part of, and some fantastic conversations take place there. Most notable about those conversations are the way they almost never get out of hand, and everybody is able to respectfully agree or disagree and have real, meaningful, conversations. What about the Mages, and the Well Red Mage in general, do you think makes such a rare microcosm possible?
Red: I really enjoy being a part of the mage community. It’s one of the very pleasant surprises that TWRM brought into my life. I never thought that it’d grow beyond my immediate circle of friends and include people across the world! That’s why your question is a difficult one for me to answer. I don’t really know why it played out the way it did or why people decided to join. I do recall that early on one of our focuses for blogging was to provide a space online where civil conversation and disagreements can be shared without resorting to name-calling, character assassination, or general toxicity. Of course I can’t control anyone or cause they to interact in a certain way, but I guess having that platform of “hey this is going to be all about the games and civility” attracted likeminded people. That became especially more important to me and some I began to actively promote after the recent U.S. presidential election. Those that know me know I’m not interested in what I call “politicization”, that is an overemphasis on divisive political views especially when it’s taken out of largely a-political content. So it’s not the same thing as addressing politics in games where they pop up, but instead making everything political when it isn’t by intent, context, presentation, etc. To my mind, that kind of stuff dominates and therefore polarizes a lot of games writing, especially in the mainstream. I’m not saying those things are unimportant, of course, but I realized that if we’re going to talk about the games then let’s just talk about the games and not drag the ugliness of the real world into places where it doesn’t exist. This might be one reason why people come to share their thoughts with us and why we can maintain some element of civility. Of course we have our robust debates here and there but I think we’ve done okay.
There’s an incident which happened on the blog some time ago which I think highlights this. One of my good online friends, LightningEllen, is an avid Lightning fan (from FFXIII) but we all know what kind of reception that game has received. The very first review I ever wrote for TWRM was about FFXIII, which I’d just finished, and I laid into that game, tore it up, used every lame joke I had at my disposal. It’s the ultimate example of a novice, cringe-worthy article that I’ve now really tried to distance myself from in terms of style. Well, LightningEllen found out I’d written it and she read it and we ended up having this great conversation where we both could share our viewpoints without persecution, without assuming something was wrong about the other person because of the opinions they held. It was so refreshing. It’s what I came to see as the addiction of virtue. I think that goodness is addicting. The more you do it, the more you want to do it. You get a taste for doing good and that’s how I think you get some people who spent so much of their lives living to help others. That exchange was such a wholesome conversation that I had to ensure it became a part of TWRM’s DNA. So I invite people to share their opinions. I welcome it. I’m very much against echo chambers, passionately against them. I couldn’t believe my mind when I saw people advocating for echo chambers on Twitter. Who wants to live in a bubble and risk never having their incorrect or misinformed opinions corrected or informed? Or worse, risk never being able to have the kind of conversation I had?
Anyway, I think that readers and contributors latched onto that. There are more of us out there who want to communicate with our fellow human being than I expected, I guess. It’s incredibly inspiring to me. I know I get snarky and rude sometimes, nobody is perfect in my view, but with likeminded people we can all be examples to one another. The WordPress community of bloggers at large has been absolutely incredible for that! I’ve had many polite scuffles with people and it’s been wonderful. Only maybe two or three horrible people have come my way over two years on WordPress, the kind who are interested in labeling me in some way because I have a certain opinion about a game.
Ninja: What an answer! I have to agree that the Mage community is very special, and the Discord chat has been such a fantastic surprise to me. To be honest, when I came on as a writer it was mostly for the exposure for my own blog. I did not expect to end up being welcomed into a community that I would regularly contribute to, both in debate and content. From what I’ve seen it is similar to what you’ve said, a tone is set where that sort of aggression and indecent treatment of individuals just isn’t supported.
Unlike a lot of forums or communities where sometimes it feels like you are competing to see how hard you can tear someone down, Well Red feels like a place where it is frowned upon to a point that people just don’t typically do it. The more people experience that, the more they want it. I don’t know any of you personally, but I feel like I’m talking with a group of friends all the time, and that is really cool. Fast forward five years down the road, where do you see The Well Red Mage?
Red: I’ve been a part of some forums too where that kind of behavior seemed to be the normal. In the age of the internet, hyperbole stands out in the sea of claims and name calling, so the worse something is the more notoriety it receives. I think at the very least moderators and admins and founders, what have you, need to establish an atmosphere where being a genitalia isn’t going to be applauded. I don’t take full credit for TWRM or this community because it’s created so much everyday by you and the other mages, many of whom I’ve never met as well. That’s a wonderful thing, finding people who you can talk with like friends. As far as your question, well I always joke around that IGN is going down! Hahaha kidding obviously. There’s a distinction to be made here. I have aspirations for The Well-Red Mage, certainly, but it’s not merely to replace the already existing mainstream gaming journalist sites. They got to where they are along certain paths I’m not willing to follow, and I’m certain that automatically disqualifies TWRM from the same impact that they have. Instead, I phrase one of the goals of The Well-Red Mage as creating a future for games journalism. I know I’m fed up with Kotaku and Polygon, the patronizing, the politicking, the putrescence (I just wanted to use that word), and I believe that if I at least want to see some change somewhere in the world then there must be others who feel the same. I hear all the time how people are migrating away from the mainstream to the substream, to the smaller writers, blogs, channels, etc. The question is, is it enough to start a movement?
TWRM has surprised me so much in just two years that I don’t know. Maybe. I can’t really say what the concept will look like five years down the road. I mean, I’m sure it won’t fundamentally change. It will always be able gaming and thought provoking content, so long as we can maintain that. There are a lot of lone wolves in the substream. Part of TWRM is figuring out a way to unite everyone. That doesn’t mean I want everyone to write with us. Of course not. Let each pursue their own vision, but I think that if we believe in the same future together than we can support it together. I’m super thankful for the people who have come alongside us, our contributors and our patrons, to build this future timeline with us where games journalism doesn’t suck so much and where gamers can talk with each other without toxicity. Really, it’s not THAT big of a dream. It’s not even the same thing as the ubiquitous pipedream of making it big!
Ninja: Well, I for one am excited to see what comes next. I think you nailed it when you said that people are moving from mainstream journalism, and instead finding individual voices to follow. You see it with podcasts exploding like they have, people want to feel they have a connection with other people, and want to know their opinions about things. It becomes less about some random stranger telling you stuff, and more someone you feel like you know discussing a game with you.
Red: Right! I think that we have the capability with technology now to be able to connect with people in really cool ways. The faceless corporations of the mainstream don’t have the same kind of immediacy and personality as the substream, tethered as they are by the responsibility of their size.
Ninja: Talking about the future seems like the perfect place to end the interview. This has been fantastic, thanks so much for sitting down with me!
Red: I had fun! Thanks for everything you do, the writing, the chatting, the debating, and now the interviewing and enduring my long-windedness. It’s been a pleasure.
The Mail Order Ninja Mage loves video games across every console: an assassin of fanboy nonsense. He also really loves martial arts and pizza, though that is of no consequence here. To read more of his random word soup, or to view daily(ish) photo mode screenshots from his favorite games, visit him at Home Button.
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to games writing. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a community of authors with paid contributors, a fairer and happier alternative to mainstream games writing! See our Patreon page for more info!