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

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.

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