"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 did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge