Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
James Leach on the blind spots that hamper game development
Being charitable, I’d have to say everyone is allowed a blind spot – one thing they just don’t understand. With me, it’s chemistry. Not the sort that subconsciously lets you know when an attractive girl you’ve just met has immediately taken a deep dislike to you, but all the covalent catalyst bonding stuff. Yet this in no way lessens the glee I feel when others don’t get the things that I do.
An entire wall of a studio was once covered with sumptuously drawn artwork of military aircraft. My job that morning was to move along looking at the images and cooing appreciatively as the artist explained them.
One combat aircraft looked particularly impressive. I asked, “Are those guns angled downwards for ground attack?”
“No,” the artist replied. “It’s so the plane doesn’t shoot itself down.” I laughed. He didn’t.
“This is a supersonic fighter,” he went on. “It goes faster than the bullets it fires, so the guns have to be angled away from it, otherwise it’d shoot itself down.” At that moment, I’m fairly sure I invented the facepalm.
The same guy went on to describe the trails in the sky he’d drawn behind every aircraft as “jet lag”. Later, he showed me a sleek, futuristic navy vessel with a unique property he’d come up with himself: “This ship has the ability to bob down briefly under the surface to avoid enemy fire. Neat idea, eh?” “So it’s a submarine.” “No. Submarines can’t surface because of their weight. This is a ship that can go underwater and come up again.” I left for an early lunch before he could show me the tanks.
It turns out that, although the line between genius and utter idiocy is a fine one, those camped on the moronic side have little chance of crossing over, though some come perilously close. I once had the pleasure of being present when a producer pitched the idea that nobody in our complex, story-driven RPG should show emotion. Their faces should be utterly still and not even their mouths or eyes should move. This, he said, would reflect the trauma of the postapocalyptic world they lived in.
The same guy went on to describe the trails in the sky he’d drawn behind every aircraft as “jet lag”
“It’ll look like they’re wearing masks,” someone said.
“Exactly. What’s more scary than that? Their faces show nothing, but we still know exactly what they’re thinking and feeling.” “How?” “Well, because we’re in the world with them. And they’ll still be talking. We’ll make the dialogue really, really moving. We’ll get proper voice actors and everything.”
“But they’ll look like robots,” I said. “These are people fighting for their very survival…” I was stopped by the producer’s raised hand. “It doesn’t matter if people think they’re robots; the Terminator was a robot and everyone loved him. Also, we have to get this game finished in less than a month. Meeting over.”
What always impresses me is how sure people are when they have no right to be. No, we don’t just use ten per cent of our brains. No, the Romans didn’t vomit between food courses. No, Bowser is not a dragon. He’s a damn turtle. You should know that one, at least.
In the distant past, someone on a dev team I was working with brought up the subject of humour. We were making a cartoon-ish, comedic game, but he had concerns.
“The trouble is,“he said, “that all humour is personal. I don’t see how it can work.”
“It works,” I said, puffing on an imaginary pipe, “by personally making people laugh.”
“Yes, but what I mean is, everyone’s humour is personal to them. You don’t know any of the people who’ll buy the game, so I don’t think we should have anything funny.”
It was starting to dawn on me that here was somebody who didn’t believe in the concept of people laughing at anything said by anyone they didn’t know well. Upon questioning, I discovered that this guy claimed only to laugh at things his flatmate said and did. I almost gave up, but I persisted. Eventually, there was the vital breakthrough: he admitted he also found Red Dwarf funny.
“Aha! So do you know any of the people who make Red Dwarf?” It turns out he didn’t. “So we can assume they don’t know you. And yet they make you laugh?” Note how insufferable I get when I’m right.
“No,” said my colleague. “I don’t know them, but they make me laugh because their humour is personal to me. We’re making a game for lots of people, and we don’t know what they’ll find funny, so I think we should leave the attempts at comedy well alone.”
“One day, years from now, I’ll write about this in a respected videogame magazine,” I said. Then I killed him with an unplugged 486, which was cutting edge at the time.