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

One of my bosses of old once spent three weeks in Ja­pan in an at­tempt to work out what they wanted from games de­vel­oped in the west, and as­sign­ing blood types to ev­ery in-game char­ac­ter was pretty much the sum of ev­ery­thing he learned. I have no idea if this in­for­ma­tion was true, or was true once but isn’t now. I like the idea that for a brief pe­riod in the ’90s and 2000s all the Pa­cific Rim na­tions were ob­sessed by blood types, only for it to dwin­dle and be re­placed by a fas­ci­na­tion for some­thing equally weird, like the shoe size of com­bat­ants in side-scrolling fight­ing games.

Tech­ni­cally, blood-type in­for­ma­tion comes un­der the ban­ner of back­story. Back­story has of­ten been the bane of my life. For some rea­son it’s not usu­ally enough for a game to just start, ex­plain what the player has to do, and just get on with it. Peo­ple, it seems, want to know what the sit­u­a­tion was be­fore the game starts. If two fac­tions are at war, the rea­sons why are al­ways go­ing to be im­por­tant be­cause it sorts out the good­ies from the bad­dies, but do we need to know what was go­ing on be­fore the war even kicked off? Why is the land like it is? Have there been other con­flicts? If so, were they re­solved peace­fully? And while we’re at it, what are the main crops of this world? Where does that river flow? How did those moun­tains form? You see how it can be never-end­ing.

The per­cep­tion is that con­sumers are go­ing to want all this info. They’re go­ing to swamp the fo­rums with ques­tions about char­ac­ters, lo­ca­tions and his­tory; no­body is go­ing to en­joy the game if they have a sin­gle unan­swered query about it. In some re­spects it’s a com­pli­ment, in­di­cat­ing that the game­buy­ing pub­lic care about the ti­tle enough to think about it in de­tail. But I be­lieve that not many of them do. In all like­li­hood, play­ers just start, learn how to play, and then crash on un­til vic­tory or bore­dom over­comes them. As de­vel­op­ers, we’re just se­cond-guess­ing what peo­ple want to know, and the fact that one vo­cal fan asks some vaguely per­ti­nent ques­tions on a Face­book page doesn’t mean every­body is clam­our­ing for back­story and won’t sleep un­til they get it.

The thing is, I do rather en­joy flesh­ing out game worlds. I’ve al­ways been fas­ci­nated by canon – where games, films or se­ries of books have a set of known facts and truths, not all of which are rel­e­vant, but which all fit to­gether to make a big, ex­plorable uni­verse one can im­merse one­self in. Not long ago I worked on a fan­tasy game, and those are eas­ily the best for back­story cre­ation. For ev­ery item in the game there had to be a his­tory, and ev­ery place had to have a tale of how it came to be. The char­ac­ters – and there were lots – had fam­ily trees, and wher­ever pos­si­ble links had to be made be­tween them to pro­vide in­trigue and pos­si­bly plot points for the fu­ture. Mak­ing all this up was frankly glo­ri­ous. And ev­ery so of­ten there was the chance to con­nect things up in neat ways. For ex­am­ple, the tree from which a vi­tal NPC gets hanged turns out to have grown from a staff thrust into the ground by the same char­ac­ter’s fa­ther. It’s not earth­shat­ter­ing stuff, but lit­tle con­nec­tions like this are ex­tremely sat­is­fy­ing to me.

Hav­ing cre­ated a tome of lore for this world, of course the team wanted to use it wher­ever pos­si­ble. They pro­posed a whole load of flash­backs to show some of the clever lit­tle links we’d de­vised in the world. And this, of course, was where it could all have gone dis­as­trously wrong. Back­story of this sort has no place be­ing thrust into the faces of the play­ers. First, as we’ve dis­cussed, how many peo­ple re­ally want to bother with it? And se­cond, ac­tively pre­sent­ing it stops it from be­ing back­story and makes it story. And any­thing pre­sented to a player will be per­ceived as some­thing they need to know in or­der to com­plete the game. Stum­ble across some­thing in a game and you know that, while it might be help­ful in some way, it won’t be vi­tal. Be led to it by the nose, as in the case of these flash­backs, and you pay at­ten­tion be­cause you’re be­ing told. And frankly, shov­ing the depth, con­sis­tency and his­tory of a world into some­one’s face is show­ing off. And it’s very an­noy­ing.

So the great in­ter­lock­ing world be­hind my fan­tasy game con­tained a trea­sure trove of nice but use­less in­for­ma­tion and rich tales of char­ac­ters and lo­ca­tions you’d never get to see. And the re­sponse of the three play­ers who cared enough to ex­plore it was not what I ex­pected. I mean, they liked it, but de­cided among them­selves that we’d done it cyn­i­cally sim­ply so that we could write a pre­quel. Which, come to think of it, would be amaz­ing.

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