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