Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the se­ri­ous side of videogame devel­op­ment

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

James Leach con­tem­plates send­ing Scrappy Doo to war

Noth­ing in popular cul­ture ages as fast as games. They date with greater ra­pid­ity

than Rus­sell Brand

As Max­imus out of Glad­i­a­tor once said, “Broth­ers, what we do in life… echoes in eter­nity.” This is true of peo­ple do­ing bor­ing stuff like science and war and medicine, but it’s also of true of the real pi­o­neers: the he­roes who make videogames.

Noth­ing in popular cul­ture ages as fast as games. They date with greater ra­pid­ity than Rus­sell Brand. Of course, most of this is down to the ad­vance of tech­nol­ogy. Games are, af­ter all, not just games, but show­cases of com­put­ing prow­ess. What this means is that we can watch a movie from the ’ 70s and while we’re likely to be shocked (or in­spired) by the fash­ions, we’re quickly go­ing to be able to over­look the poor-qual­ity film stock and lack of de­cent light­ing. We’re also go­ing to be able to re­late to the story. Sto­ries are, af­ter all, time­less. And there are only seven vari­a­tions of them, as ev­ery writer knows. For the record, th­ese are: Star Wars, Avatar, Saw I, Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV and Frozen.

Games are, or were, writ­ten by gamers, though. When Aliens came out in 1986, ev­ery game in devel­op­ment at the time was in­flu­enced by it. I re­call, although my mem­ory might not be per­fect, that even Su­per Mario

Bros 2 fea­tured the lit­tle plumber in a me­chan­i­cal loader suit burning the faces off Goom­bas. And dur­ing the early ’90s, when ev­ery­one in the UK loved and quoted Harry En­field, his Tele­vi­sion Pro­gramme and his Chums, there were, for shame, games in which dia­logue like, “You don’t wanna do it like that!” fea­tured. In­deed, Tarantino not only changed the movie world, he also changed gam­ing, be­cause we watched the movies, ab­sorbed the new style and al­lowed it to leach out into the games we were mak­ing.

Nowa­days th­ese things stand not as weath­ered mon­u­ments an­chored to the living bedrock of the age in which they were crafted, but – at best – as homages to the Big Thing of the day. Far into the fu­ture, his­to­ri­ans will gain a rare in­sight into our world, not just by see­ing what was popular, but what was so popular it mi­grated across en­tire en­ter­tain­ment me­dia. At worst, we’ll just look like a bunch of id­iots slav­ishly copy­ing our new favourite thing onto a com­puter the next day.

Big games take a lit­tle longer to write nowa­days, which is a good way of pre­vent­ing them sim­ply bor­row­ing the day’s wa­ter-cooler sub­ject. Also, with more peo­ple work­ing on them, there are more checks to stop this. All of which means that there aren’t a load of games on the brink of re­lease that fea­ture hi­lar­i­ous ref­er­ences to the “Such happy!” Doge meme. Or Grumpy Cat, or that gin­ger kid. Shiver.

I think I hate the in­ser­tion of time-coded chunks of out-of-game re­al­ity into prod­ucts for many rea­sons. Ob­vi­ously, it looks am­a­teur. It looks needy. It also drops the player out of the world. A great many games are still set in very dif­fer­ent re­al­i­ties. Sci-fi, fan­tasy, ab­stract planes – all sorts of places. A pop ref­er­ence in those realms is like the Cu­rios­ity rover see­ing a dis­carded burger wrap­per on Mars.

There’s con­ceiv­ably one place ref­er­ences could sur­vive, though: mod­ern com­bat games. All the gung-ho ban­ter of the COD: Mod­ern

War­fare- type game is the nat­u­ral home for chat about the out­side world. Of course, by the time real memes, movies and tunes are men­tioned, they’ll be old hat, so the way to do it is to use things so in-the-past and clas­sic that a few ex­tra years won’t make a dif­fer­ence. Films work up to Pulp Fic­tion. Mu­sic, but stop at Oa­sis. But, nope, you can’t use any on­line memes and net-based stuff. It’s all too soon.

And yet it’s in­creas­ingly my be­lief that you might in fact be able to ref­er­ence ab­so­lutely any­thing in a mod­ern com­bat game. First, there are things blow­ing up ev­ery­where, and that puts a bit of chat about what’s on TV into some sort of con­text. Sec­ond, as play­ers, we’re all aware that the army is full of tough peo­ple who some­times seek to con­tex­tu­alise the world in which they live (a world where there are things blow­ing up ev­ery­where, re­mem­ber). They do this us­ing things they all know: popular cul­ture. And the big­gest rea­son you could get away with this in a mod­ern war­fare game is that for quite a while now they have been fea­tur­ing bru­tal and graphic de­pic­tions of Mid­dle Eastern con­flict. And no one’s bat­ted an eye­lid. Just think about that. Games fea­tur­ing the in­hab­i­tants of the man­i­fold coun­tries east of the Mediter­ranean bat­tling for con­trol against the armies of the west. All that vi­o­lence go­ing down in-game and there hasn’t been one news story, let alone any­one get­ting shouty about it. No, I reckon you could even ref­er­ence Scrappy Doo in glow­ing terms in a mod­ern com­bat game and no­body would think twice.

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