Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the se­ri­ous side of videogame de­vel­op­ment

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

If a game gives me a ham­mer, I will use it on ev­ery­thing I see, whether it looks like a nail or not

It’s al­ways a plea­sure to visit devel­op­ers whose HQs are in city-cen­tre busi­ness tower blocks. One rea­son is they’re usu­ally easy to find – once you rock up, there’ll be no more than four sim­i­larly face­less mono­liths, and the sig­nage will be good. But the teenager in me loves walk­ing across a huge mar­ble-and-chrome vestibule to see a smart se­lec­tion of re­cep­tion­ists, who have to be pro­fes­sional. Look­ing like a tod­dler who’s dressed him­self in the dark, I sham­ble across, past smart busi­ness­folk, and I say I’m here to see, not the Zinc In­sur­ance Cor­po­ra­tion, but Fat Grin­ning Mon­key on the sev­enth floor. I an­nounce this loudly, want­ing all the as­sorted suits to think, ‘Damn, he has the best job in the world, where he can dress like a skater and help do what­ever Fat Grin­ning Mon­key do.’

As I wait, a trickle of peo­ple dressed like me en­ter, usu­ally car­ry­ing un­healthy food and drink. It’s 10am and they’re still wan­der­ing into work. I hope all the suits are dou­bly im­pressed. Then, when I get ush­ered up to the meet­ing, I get all ex­cited be­cause I’m go­ing to see some­thing brand new.

It hap­pened again re­cently. The game was set in a world which had been re­alised to a level of de­tail I don’t think I’ve ever seen be­fore. Lush jun­gles, swamps, rolling forests all spread be­fore me. Ci­ties, bases, cas­tles and space­ports dot­ted the huge land­scape like, well, Earth. But with more space­ports.

I was taken on an eco­log­i­cal tour of the planet. I learnt how the sen­tient be­ings had im­pacted on it, and how the wilder­nesses con­tained del­i­cate, dy­namic food­chains which had led to the di­verse flora and fauna. I was in awe; I was ex­pect­ing a sci-fi com­bat game. They showed me oceans packed with life. Apex shark-like preda­tors hunted in packs, driven by food, tem­per­a­ture and cur­rents. It was breath­tak­ing. I asked the team how I could kill these crea­tures. They looked pained.

“Why would you want to? Your goal in the game is to con­quer the world, rid­ding it of the evil, eco­log­i­cally un­aware en­e­mies.”

“But can I hunt those shark things us­ing hov­er­ships? Do they ex­plode if I fire rock­ets at them? Could I even kill them from space?”

“Well, yes, but these crea­tures are part of the planet. They’re like your friends.”

I think I got it then. “So I can en­slave them and train them up to take out en­emy sub­marines? Can I do that with the swamp crea­tures? Train them to knock out tanks?”

It was as if some­one had spun the dial of the air con­di­tioner to ‘icy’. The team had laboured long and hard to cre­ate a sump­tu­ous world which they were sure play­ers would con­sider worth fight­ing for. As­ton­ish­ing coders and artists they might be; 14-year-old gamer boys they were not. In a game world at war, ev­ery­thing is ei­ther an as­set or a tar­get. Their me­dieval cas­tles weren’t some­thing peo­ple would fight harder to pre­serve; they would be seen only as gar­risons for shock troops. Those beau­ti­ful birds eter­nally rid­ing the ther­mals by the coast? Can we use them to drop bombs on peo­ple? And could a squad of troops wipe out that en­clave of snow tigers, thus pro­vid­ing a safe route through the moun­tains?

The team were vis­i­bly up­set, so I told them I don’t think like this in real life. I don’t think any­one does, to be hon­est. It’s why I am un­con­vinced that games have a per­ceiv­ably neg­a­tive im­pact on so­ci­ety. But if a game gives me a ham­mer, I will use it on ev­ery­thing I see, whether it looks like a nail or not.

In an ef­fort to pro­vide a so­lu­tion, I pro­posed that there be re­wards for not kick­ing seven bells out of the ptarmi­gans and ocelots and pygmy mar­mosets and so on. The gang were un­con­vinced. Sav­ing the planet should be its own re­ward, was their opin­ion. But I started to won­der if there was an­other fac­tor at play here. I have, in the past, writ­ten hun­dreds of lines for game char­ac­ters who, un­der the right set of cir­cum­stances, might ac­tu­ally get per­ma­nently killed be­fore much of these could ever be de­liv­ered. It’s never both­ered me be­cause I take plea­sure in the idea that two play­ers of such a game might dis­cuss it, with one say­ing that the char­ac­ter had some amaz­ing di­a­logue, while the other gri­maces, know­ing that they didn’t get to hear it ow­ing to a badly placed rail­gun shot on level three. How­ever, maybe these guys had sim­ply in­vested such care, time and love into their ecol­ogy that they couldn’t com­pre­hend that oth­ers would see it dif­fer­ently to them.

It didn’t end in stale­mate. I did get to write for them, and they did con­sider my points, but vic­tory was mine be­cause I walked out of their blonde-wood-and-steel cathe­dral-like re­cep­tion with­out hand­ing my vis­i­tor pass back in. It had a nifty lan­yard and ev­ery­thing.

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