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

We, on th­ese tiny, cold is­lands, make some of the best games in the world, but they al­ways get cat­e­gorised, es­pe­cially in the United States, as Bri­tish. Apart from, I sus­pect, the GTA se­ries, which satirised the US so ef­fec­tively that they think it’s Amer­i­can over there. Sweet irony. Which, like satire, I think could be lost on them. But be­ing Bri­tish about games isn’t a de­sign thing. There isn’t a Bri­tish look to our games, and nor do we use Brit­ten and Vaughan Wil­liams ex­clu­sively for sound­tracks. It stems from two sources. Firstly, the time when it’s set. Any­thing vaguely fantasy and sword-filled ticks the box the rest of the world calls ‘Mer­rie Eng­land’. Se­condly, di­a­logue. We talk funny. We sound clever but ar­chaic. We have slightly sur­real and oc­ca­sion­ally mean flashes of hu­mour. We stand out.

Be­ing Bri­tish is, as re­cent his­tory proves, im­por­tant. But we take on a vast avalanche of US cul­ture all the time. It’s been go­ing on for 70 years and there’s more each year. It doesn’t regis­ter with us that some­thing – a film, a game, a song or a TV show – is Amer­i­can first and fore­most. We just like it for what it is. Or, frankly, hate it for what it fails to be. Just had to get that in there.

We’re doomed, as game cre­ators, to be lit­tle brother. The os­mo­sis by which we ab­sorb so much of their cre­ative out­put, and they get to see the best of ours makes us look good, but also keeps us in our pi­geon­hole as old fash­ioned, po­lite, aris­to­cratic and pos­sess­ing a glo­ri­ous dis­re­gard for den­tal hy­giene. And ap­par­ently we spell things in­cor­rectly. Huh.

It’s worth not­ing that out­side of pol­i­tics we don’t stereo­type Amer­i­cans. This is partly be­cause there are 320 mil­lion of them, but also be­cause they all have guns and are daft red­necks. See? It doesn’t en­tirely work, so we don’t bother.

So off I set to write some quirky Bri­tish­ness for a game be­ing de­vel­oped in Cal­i­for­nia. They tell me they love Monty Python and Ricky Ger­vais and I de­cide that, if I was John Cleese or, in fact Ricky Ger­vais, this game would prac­ti­cally write it­self. And they want eru­di­tion. This isn’t the word they choose, be­cause they don’t know it, but I’m good at read­ing be­tween the lines.

The trou­ble is, as I start, I’m aware of how I sound. I’m not just flesh­ing out char­ac­ters and writ­ing di­a­logue: I’m talk­ing in an ac­cent I don’t nor­mally think about be­cause I’m English. I find my­self laps­ing into a sort of Vic­to­rian ar­got, which has never worked in a game ever, and never will. So I do a lot of delet­ing and start again. Now I’m aware of how many Amer­i­can­isms I use with­out think­ing. My USP is in dan­ger of van­ish­ing.

The an­swer is to stop think­ing about it and just write what needs to be writ­ten.

Over the years I’ve dis­cov­ered that in the first draft of any di­a­logue, the closer I can get while writ­ing it to the speed at which it’s de­liv­ered pays div­i­dends. Surely, it’ll be rid­dled with ty­pos and some­times, when my fin­gers are all one key to the left of where they should be, it looks like flu­ent Klin­gon, but over­think­ing is the killer. Once it’s there, it can and will be re­fined, but writ­ing how peo­ple talk must come first. If I didn’t hate the sound of my own voice, I’d prob­a­bly be bet­ter off dic­tat­ing it into a recorder.

This is odd be­cause game de­vel­op­ment is achieved by the very op­po­site of gung-ho speed and the de­sire to smash it all out as nat­u­rally as pos­si­ble. Ev­ery­thing is about mak­ing it seam­less, work per­fectly and then get bur­nished to a glow­ing fin­ish. And yes, the words do get that treat­ment, but some of the best, most piv­otal or, dare I say it, emo­tional scenes and lines I’ve writ­ten just tum­bled out and usu­ally made it in with­out changes (ty­pos ex­cepted). Record­ing the VO is sim­i­lar. Once ev­ery­one is in the zone, the qual­ity in­creases and we all get home at a rea­son­able time too, which is im­por­tant if we’re in cen­tral London.

Here’s a thing – I was once com­mended by an Amer­i­can uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor for the way I wrote fe­male char­ac­ters. The rea­son I think they sin­gled me out is be­cause I didn’t write them as fe­male at all. Like writ­ing Bri­tish, it’s a mis­take, as a male, to con­stantly be aware that the words you’re typ­ing are go­ing to come out of a fe­male mouth. The orig­i­nal script for the Alien movie of 1979 didn’t as­cribe gen­der to any of the char­ac­ters. And when they were cast, prac­ti­cally none of the lines changed. And the re­sult? Ri­p­ley. So it’s a fine ap­proach. They’re peo­ple, or elves or war­riors or what­ever, and it works. Al­though when they play games I’ve writ­ten lines for, peo­ple who know me well of­ten say it sounds like me. Again, ev­ery­one wins.

I find my­self laps­ing into a sort of Vic­to­rian ar­got, which has never worked in a game ever, and never will

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