Noah Caldwell-Gervais didn't set out to make a career of reviewing video games. At first, he just needed something to take his mind off the job he did have at the time, working as a line cook at a Seattle pizzeria.
"It was boredom," the 32-year-old says of the impulse to post his first critique online. "I wanted really, really badly to have something in my life that wasn't just, like, pizza."
In February 2013, Caldwell-Gervais uploaded a 50-minute analysis of the Fallout series to YouTube. Fans often debate what the best game is in the franchise, and as a devotee since age 12, Caldwell-Gervais felt he had something to say on the matter. For him, it wasn't about arguing for a favorite but understanding the evolution of the series as a whole. He didn't expect anyone would care about his opinion. But without much else going on in his life, what reason was there not to spend an hour talking about one of his favorite game series?
Seven years later, the video has over 300,000 views, and is one of many equally detailed, thoughtful breakdowns found on his channel. In the world of video game criticism, Caldwell-Gervais' reviews stand out for their writerly prose and unique perspective. Inspired by classic travel literature, and usually clocking in at more than an hour long—and sometimes much longer—his essays often go beyond the game itself, placing it in a wider historical and personal context. He talks about what he found in the games, and why it mattered to him. In doing so, he makes the viewer see the game in a different way.
At a time where video games are transcending their lowbrow reputation, Caldwell-Gervais, who now lives in Bend, is playing a role in both legitimizing the form and demonstrating what it can accomplish. It's earned him a sizable following—and a healthy income.
It's a far cry from where he was seven years ago. Without a college degree or much in the way of prospects, and a résumé made up entirely of food service jobs, Caldwell-Gervais says he couldn't even get hired at Blockbuster.
"Once you get on paper as being a certain way, that's sort of what you are," he says. "On paper I was just a 'low-end cook person.' I'm not knocking food service. That's just the nature of the job. You do the same thing all day, and then you do the day again."
Video games were his escape. As a kid, Caldwell-Gervais persuaded his dad to buy work computers more powerful than necessary so he could play games when his father wasn't using the machine. It was the discovery of Fallout, however, that opened his eyes to the potential of the medium. In the game, the player is free to roam and explore in an expansive, apocalyptic desert. Caldwell-Gervais recalls the wonder of having a whole world inside a small box. Open-world games that allow for exploration and discovery, on the player's terms, continued to absorb him over the years.
After his Fallout review, Caldwell-Gervais' video essays got increasingly more ambitious: He's spent 150 minutes exploring the Mass Effect trilogy, and four hours examining the Red Dead games and the cultural legacy of the Western. Despite the intimidating length, the videos remain accessible and entertaining, with a charmingly lo-fi presentation. They often open with images of record players or old television sets, and old jazz music fuzzily piped in over handwritten title cards. Sometimes, he reads his credit sequence outside, beneath the Oregon sky, the camera microphone picking up the wind and giving it the feeling of an old home videotape. It's hardly a slick production—it feels like you're simply having a long, engaging conversation with a friend.
His channel now has 130,000 subscribers, and over 13 million total views. He also receives monthly donations from 800 Patreon subscribers, earning him just over $4,000 a month.
It's afforded him the ability to live out a lifelong dream: touring the United States in a VW Bus, with little more than a gaming laptop and his wife, reviewing as he goes. He and his wife originally bought their van from a relative in 2013. It didn't run for two and a half years, but they eventually fixed it up. In 2015, they took an eight-month road trip across America, which they documented on YouTube, and the van, which they named Lawretta, became something of a mascot.
Video games might seem incongruous with the open road, but travel is a recurring motif in Caldwell-Gervais' reviews. In one video, he even revisits his Fallout roots by driving through the Southwest to find the real-life locations depicted in the games—a trip made possible entirely because of the success of that first review, and the others that followed.
"It's just been an indescribable process," Caldwell-Gervais says, "to go from imagining the rest of my life as working in the pizzeria to actually having enough of a professional portfolio at this point, to where I don't have to do that anymore."
Noah Caldwell-Gervais’ Quarantine Gaming
1. Death Stranding (2019)
Hideo Kojima's latest game has players traverse a ravaged landscape in an alternate-timeline U.S. to deliver packages to the last holdouts of civilization. Against both the elements and more intelligent threats, delivering cargo safely requires logistical thought and careful execution. It's a slow-paced and mysterious work with more emphasis on hiking than action. "In a world of social isolation," Caldwell-Gervais says, "playing Death Stranding is a great way to see that feeling tackled artistically while also reminding yourself that, hey, things could always be more inconvenient."
2. Civilization 6 (2016)
In Civilization 6, geopolitics and human history are presented on a hex grid with rules like a board game. Players direct their chosen civilization to prosperity from the Stone Age all the way to the future. Warfare, diplomacy and scientific development must be balanced and managed to succeed over thousands of years. "Somewhat simplified rules and the whole arc of human history condensed into one or two sittings make this an amazing pick for a living room time killer," Caldwell-Gervais says.
3. Far Cry: New Dawn (2019)
The newest installment in the series takes the familiar, open-world shooter formula and applies it to a fictional, rural county of Montana devastated by a nuclear exchange. "Things are stressful and turning your brain off feels soothing," Caldwell-Gervais says, "so why not go nuts in a post-apocalypse playground that's verdant and scenic enough to feel on the nose?"
4. Kentucky Route Zero (2013-20)
Kentucky Route Zero is a point-and-click adventure game dripping with atmosphere. A delivery driver for an antique store, lost on the way to an address off Interstate 65, discovers a hidden highway in the dead of night. Journeying onward brings the player into increasingly bizarre and ethereal lands. Caldwell-Gervais calls it "a strange, slow game about loss and regret." "It takes time to build its imagery and themes, time which we all have more of than we wish now," he says. "A great choice if you're looking to try something different and more difficult to parse than an average game."