Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
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.