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 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

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