"The struggle of games writing is finding ideas that are the right size and shape"

Ed Stern, lead writer of the upcoming first-person shooter game <em>Brink</em>, on auteurs, bad acti

This week sees the release of Brink, a first-person shooter set on a floating city in a dystopian future where the earth has flooded and two factions -- Resistance and Security -- are battling for control.

The emphasis is very much on the gameplay rather than a linear narrative, which presented particular challenges for the writers. I spoke to its lead writer, Ed Stern, about story "postcards", French structuralist literary theory (really) and what Monty Python can teach games studios.

Brink is the first original game from Splash Damage. How did it come about?

I'm wary of ascribing praise or blame in such circumstances, because it's been through so many pairs of hands. It's much more ridiculous than a director saying "my film". A lot of the bits that sound like authorship are by me but that's a laughably tiny portion of the game.

We started off by saying: "We want to make this sort of a game, for this sort of a budget, that will allow the player to do this sort of thing -- so where is it set and what is it about?" I can only answer the last two of those.

One of the struggles of game writing in general is coming up with ideas that are the right size and shape. Quite often, the bits that don't work are perfectly good solutions to the problems but they don't work in the context of the game. That often means cutting all your favourite bits.

So you don't buy into the idea that games need an auteur?

You need a hand on the tiller but they're not doing the rowing. A game is hundreds, if not thousands of people's work. But hopefully there's an original impetus.

I felt that's what happened with Assassin's Creed 2 -- they succeeded in making the game they were trying to make the first time round.

People talk about development as if we know what we're doing and, of course, we don't. If we did, we could stamp these things out in weeks. And remember that while the roles on a film haven't changed for decades, with games, there are job titles that didn't exist two, five, let alone ten years ago.

The old joke that, a month after the game ships, you find out what it's about, is one I no longer find funny. It's a bit like bad acting. You think: "Don't they know how stupid that looks?" And, of course, they don't, because they're stood in a room with a camera pointed at them, possibly a long way away.

I think there isn't that much bad acting; it's just the wrong size, or it's in the wrong genre. As soon as you see that shot among all the other shots, it's glaringly obvious but that's a viewpoint that is denied the performer.

And that's exactly how every element of games work: you don't know how the whole package will turn out. When it goes wrong, it's often because one element seems to be in a completely different game. When it goes right, everything is mutually reinforcing.

And we get one chance to get it right. Of course, there are some companies that are so wealthy that they can go: "That didn't work, let's redo that."

Do you have a pet hate about game writing?

When I got to do this professionally and studied other people's work, I was hoping I'd get more critical. And I'm not: anyone who gets anything finished, in any shape or form, is a hero to me.

How good are games now, as a vehicle for telling a story?

Oh, terrible. Incredibly awkward, clumsy and indirect. They pass through so many pairs of hands. But that's not what they're good at -- story with a capital S.

I suppose it depends on whether you think of it as a stumbling art form that will one day rise and crush everything artistically as well as commercially, or whether it's an entertainment medium. And there's that joke: it's a medium because it's neither rare nor well done.

Anyway, the old saw is that the story of the game isn't "the story of the game" but "the story of the player playing the game". The narrative is an interactive one, not the back story or plot or exegesis.

There's also that -- is it Lacanian? -- distinction between the events in the order that they are retold and the timeline. [Helen's note: it's Emile Benveniste on histoire/recit -- I asked Jonathan Derbyshire.]

I think there are several risks to calling it art and there's no drawback to not. I prefer the head space of thinking of myself as a hack.

Erik Wolpaw, writer of Portal 2, said something similar -- there's nothing wrong with making the Caddyshack of games.

I would respectfully submit that it's much harder to make Caddyshack than some fraught Sturm und Drang drama, because with Caddyshack -- yes, it's a big-crewed comedy, but the tone is perfect throughout.

That's really hard -- but if you can just cut to something looking haunting in the distance, or someone looking glum, that's a drama.

Making a funny game does seem to be harder than making a good first-person shooter.

Yes, and making something that's funny the fifth time. There aren't that many jokes that will stand up to that.

I keep waiting to see who will make the first Monty Python-ish game. Obviously, there have been Monty Python games but . . . [In] the Michael Palin diaries, [you see them] doing voiceovers or writing scripts for adverts or sketches for other performers -- it's amazing how many Python sketches are about deconstructing sketches or terrible adverts or ridiculous public-information films.

So they had to write straight and struggle with the limitations of the genre. But, as soon as they started mocking it, breaking the fourth wall, it gave them such freedom. I'd love to see a game that silly.

There's some stuff a bit like that -- Ben There, Dan That is a ridiculous, scatological and very funny puzzle game by Zombie Cow, a British developer with that "bums are funny" sensibility.

I suppose that as video games create more tropes and stock characters, there will be more to parody.

I'm surprised people aren't doing more of it. You start off with a blank page and all you've got are game-isms and tropes that you're trying to Velcro together.

To come back to Python, in one of the films there's a Gilliam still image of someone reading a story to a child and he describes this incredible scene of a thousand knights in sparkling armour -- and says: "It's far too expensive to be animated in a film like this." Which is brilliant as a joke about the limitations of film-making.

But games don't get to do that. They don't make jokes about their narrators, or the weird plight of their non-player characters -- OK, a few do; Valve is fantastic at it.

The great thing about Portal is that it's almost as fun to watch as to play.

And it's not just games that do that -- where the fun is in the room. One of the great pleasures of watching a football match is the crowd.

But literature is very lonely, now that we no longer read things aloud around the fireplace or wait for the next instalment of Mr Dickens's monthly opus.

There's a great cartoon addressing the idea that video games make you antisocial. It started off with a couple holding controllers, looking blank-eyed. And it says: "How terrible! Look how cut off from each other they are! They could be watching a film instead!" And the next frame just removed the controllers. So this accusation that games are solitary isn't particularly dangerous.

I think games are much hipper than they're given credit for; they have awareness of the ridiculousness of their own situation and the fiction of the game. You become a connoisseur of the difference between the narrative significance of your action and what you've done to achieve it. "I'm a hero -- I pressed a button!"

What was your route into game writing?

Complete accident. I was working in television; I still think I'm much more of a reader than a writer. It was a weird combination of previously useless skills, like being interested in games, being able to hack copy together.

With Brink, what are you most proud of?

I'm really proud we were allowed to try to do something different -- and I think we pulled it off. If the great button-mashing public don't find it to their taste, it won't be for lack of us trying to jiggle the formula a bit.

We're very lucky as a studio that we get to do that -- there are lots of people who are stuck doing "games of the film", where they are basically handed the design documents. Of course, there were things that didn't work and had to be cut, which is screamingly tedious, but mostly it was very fun.

I'm impressed that you're reaching out and trying to make the game more accessible. There are series that make me think: "I've missed the boat."

I'm probably never going to play a Final Fantasy game.

I worry it's already happened to me with first-person shooters. I have a friend who admits that he plays games on "easy" and that's very appealing.

I think it's Bad Company 2 that has a difficulty setting of "content tourist" -- which is me. I'm not really interested in a hard boss battle. I just want to see what happens in the game.

I think the challenge [for a writer] is that you're not making one game, you're making dozens of different games for every profile of player and they all go in the same box and they all have to be valid representations of what the game is about. So you can't just have a slider for how much damage the AI opponents do.

Think about it in terms of pop music: at some point, you could just be into pop music, before all those sub-genres formed. You'd just be interested in "the new singles".

Now it's not possible. No one's into everything. Other than movie reviewers, who watches every kind of film? And who on earth can play every kind of game?

Now that you work in the industry, do you still play games for fun?

There's a bad habit of just playing games technically -- here's the art direction, here's the music style -- like a student rampaging through books looking for quotes to use. You're not really reading it; you're just trying to fillet it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of games I don't have time for.

Brink is released on 10 May in North America and 13 May in Europe and Australia. You can follow Ed on Twitter here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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