Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the se­ri­ous side of videogame devel­op­ment

EDGE - - SECTIONS - JAMES LEACH James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

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.

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