"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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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