Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
James Leach rallies the tropes for devs obsessed with invaders
At an indie developer, I was recently treated to this description of a new game: “It’s a war against unknown extremists. You get to kill truckloads of them.” That made me rather uneasy – an opinion I carefully shared with them. “Just think of the enemy as Nazis, but in a modern setting,” they replied. This didn’t help a great deal.
It’s all a bit scary. Yes, precedents have been set, but unlike aliens or Nazis, these are people we’re talking about. Anyway, moral stances are all well and good, but the developers are prepared to pay, so on we go. I argue the evil empire must have some clear aims, which can’t be like any seen before. Not only does this give a reason to go to war with them, but we can cite these outlandish aims in our defence if we run into trouble. The notion that the team likes the most is of the evil force manufacturing a new synthetic drug that will enslave their people and, owing to its moreish qualities, will spread round the world, earning them some decent bank. It’s all far enough from poppies to make everyone feel safe.
A recording session is booked for the bulk of the dialogue, which the team fondly and incorrectly believe isn’t going to change. A trio of voice artists are procured and there’s a line run-through. The voice guys are utterly unfazed by their immediate assumption that the enemy are the ones that crop up in the news every day, of course. I implore them not to default to Middle Eastern accents, but they can’t seem to shake this. In desperation, I get them to try the clipped tones of the Raj, and while this does the trick, it also makes the evil force sound like its soldiers were all educated at public schools in England in the ’20s. Ideal.
As is the way with smaller games, it’s now aimed at various portable platforms, and the project goes into a little development cycle whereby it’s tailored, squashed and otherwise mashed badly to fit. For some reason not fully explained, nobody worries about the quality of anything but the iOS version. It doesn’t need to be fully explained – we all know why. During this time, changes are wrought. Out go the dune buggies, replaced by pickup trucks with flags. A lot of the dialogue is binned for more shouty versions of repeated phrases. To say the unease is back in my mind is to commit a gross understatement. Where are these ideas coming from? If the game is good, and it sort of is, why would anyone want to relate it to the real world? The answer is, I’m told, that we’re not fooling anyone. People, they now tell me, are disappointed if they don’t get to see the tanks and trucks and helicopters they expect. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, they also want the shouting. Somebody has had a change of heart.
Back in the studio, the voice people are back and I’m determined to hold out for different accents. For a while, Scottish fits beautifully, but there’s a chance this might harm sales north of the border, so it’s rejected. Dutch is too Austin Powers and Swedish – one of the voice actors is half Swedish – just sounds like they’re doing a bad impression of Swedish people. Nobody is impolite enough to mention chefs, but we’re all thinking it.
My work is soon done, and the game comes out. I await the inevitable backlash: the questions asked in the House, the waving placards. There’s nothing. It sells quite well, but that’s because it’s very cheap unless the player wishes to upgrade to nothing-likeApache helicopters and tanks that are in no sense the M1 Abrams seen on Newsnight. Luckily, the best in-app purchases lie down the safe route of railguns and lasers. Which, it turns out, the US military is developing. Is there no escaping this nightmare?
As is the way of things, the next potential project I’ve been lined up for is very different again. Alien worms are threatening a city of humans on a faraway planet. It’s a tower defence effort with a story attached; no dialogue, just a few chunks of sweet text. But in an email, the developers of this game are adamant about one thing: because the title is targeted at children, it’s vital that we aren’t seen to foster any animosity towards aliens. It transpires they are worried that if SETI yields contact with another lifeform in the next few decades, we haven’t created a generation of people whose instinct is to destroy them for stealing our water and crucial mining stocks of Unbelievium. This isn’t political correctness, it’s galactic correctness, and it makes for a nice change. The team sends through some artwork and the worms are rearing up with dripping, poisonous teeth. Luckily, there’s a squad of humans with silver Kalashnikov-type weaponry firing wildly and defending the freedom of the settlers. I decide not to care.
It sounds like a bad impression of Swedish people. Nobody is impolite enough to mention chefs, but we’re all thinking it