Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
How James Leach’s pursuit of RPG narrative took to the skies
Behold the land of Eragor – thousands of square miles of beautifully realised landscape. There are towns, villages, woods, rivers and mountains. And at its heart, a mighty citadel called The Mighty Citadel. I haven’t thought of a better name for it yet, but the point is, this is quite a setting for an RPG.
And the story is as sprawling as the land. Everywhere you travel, there’ll be characters, magic and combat. In the deep woodlands, the dwarves dwell. Under high, icy peaks, elves forge metal weapons of unimaginable power. And under the shallow seas of Shallowsea, there are armies of men. All this was my idea: I argued we should do something different. The team bought it because it was utterly original.
And around Eragor there are The Six, powerful mages who hold the key to controlling the land and defeating the evil hordes of ercs. These horribly misshapen beings pour forth from the sunny, canal-crossed grasslands in the west, under the rule of the all-seeing Sormon. Again, note that it’s grasslands – this is totally unlike any other story that has ever existed.
As the writer, I’ve got the worst PC in the building. And that includes the car body shop on the first floor still using an oily-print-stained 386 to produce invoices. I’ve done much of the dialogue, though – not on this thing; mostly on my phone as I sit on the train to and from the studio. Now it’s time to explore the world of Eragor and see how the story works in situ.
I start on a Tuesday morning. By Wednesday, I’m nearly out of the first town. The game is huge, the computer slow, and the NPCs are too chatty. What I need is a cheat to move me around faster. And to my rescue comes a programmer called Mick. It’s not his real name. No programmer has ever been called Mick. Mick’s coding combat AI, but he looks keen to help me get places quicker.
Mick enthusiastically knocks up something he calls KestrelCam, a mode that lets you rise up and fly around the world of Eragor using the cursor keys. It’s fast, brilliant and I can finally get to see all the locations and marvel at all the great things the characters there say.
This is still at an early stage, Mick informs me. He’s working on moving feathery control surfaces at the moment
Towards the end of the week, Mick beckons me over. He’s been refining KestrelCam. Instead of using cursor keys to slide around the game mechanically, you can now swoop, bank and smoothly ascend or descend. Mick plugs in a force-feedback joystick to demonstrate this. It does look good. Then he toggles a key and turns on what looks like a greyish-brown pillow at the front lower part of the screen. As he banks left, this pillow swivels in the same direction and reveals itself to be the back of a kestrel’s head, looking where he’s flying. I gasp in pleasure. The game doesn’t require a kestrel, and it would render the whole adventure pointless if you could zoom around on one, but I’m impressed that Mick bothered to put the bird in, even if it is only the back of its head.
Days later, Mick calls me across again. He fires up KestrelCam and it’s even smoother. And with a proud keypress, he turns on a cockpit display. Fringed tastefully in feathers, this has an altitude readout, airspeed, various navigation displays and a warning panel should any one of five things go wrong in flight. In short, it’s a work of fluffy genius.
Mick updates KestrelCam on my PC, and it’s even easier to find my way across the forests and hills of Eragor to refine the words spoken by the people there. I can’t check on the combat taunts, reactions and general dialogue because the combat AI doesn’t seem to be working yet. That’s only about a quarter of the whole story, so I go back to swooping low over the Mighty Citadel. I even discover by accident that hitting the K key causes the bird to emit a rather chilling squawk.
Again, the days pass and the deadlines loom. Late one night, I stroll over to Mick to tell him about the squawk. He’s pleased I found it and makes me sit down next to him. My eyes widen. KestrelCam now has retractable talons for landing, a kind of raptor radar to detect other birds (of which there appear to be none), a raft of power options, a map-linked autopilot, three different squawk settings and the ability to set up to 256 waypoints anywhere in Eragor.
KestrelCam also has 360-degree external views, and you can even zoom out and see the majestic bird itself. This is still at an early stage, Mick informs me. He’s working on implementing visible moving feathery control surfaces at the moment.
After a few days spent working from home, I come back in to find the game has slipped. Someone else is at Mick’s desk, furiously coding combat AI. Mick’s stuff has gone. And from that day to this, whenever I look up and see a bird of prey hovering above a hedgerow, I remind myself what an idiot Mick was.