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On Pandora, Mars and making games.

Pandora: First Contact

There are these things we call games journalists – they’re funny creatures, all angst and acid, and they call themselves journalists, which these days has the connotation of news-discovery, which they rarely do, and truth-telling, which they mostly attempt, despite often having access to highly misleading sources. They also think of themselves as writers, because it’s all they do. But like all sports journalists wanted to be strikers and all music critics wanted to be the lead singer, all games journalists want to be designers. Or writers. Or just get to put their two pennorth in on a design. They – I mean, we – are so cute.

Anyway, what I’m saying is: I want to be a writer. You know, a real writer, with a Shakespearean ruff and a quill and a tilted leather desk and an antique spittoon full of discarded drafts of my great work. And I want to be a designer.

Along those lines, I’m drafting, loosely, a book with the theme of “What videogames can teach you about philosophy” and an inevitable embarrassing work of fiction that’s sitting in digital sheaves in my Google Drive – but I’m also attempting to make games.

The Martian Question

So anyone who’s been following me on Twitter (rather than here, which I update about my personal life all too infrequently since the trauma of the Ox-Bow Incident) knows that I’ve been working on games this year. Along with Byron Atkinson-Jones, I got Wellcome Trust funding for The Martian Question, a game loosely based on the Frederick Pohl novel ‘Man Plus’, about adapting a man bio-mechanically to live on the surface of Mars. It was a wild little ride, and we made a prototype (which you can see through that post). We’re probably going to pick it up again as soon as Byron finds the time. I’ve written a little more about that here.

Pandora: First Contact

More immediately, I’ve been working with the excellent Proxy Studios on Pandora: First Contact. Essentially, they were making an Alpha Centauri-style game, which was nearing completion, when they realised they didn’t have a backstory, dialogue, and the rest of the things you need a writer for. They told Adam Smith, he tweeted about it, I saw that and wrote them a piece of fanfic about their world that weekend, and they said “write our world.”

Now, it’s odd, but writing fiction for a world is a different joy. Obviously, there were hoops to jump through – the world was almost totally designed when I started on it, with a particular start date that threw up all sorts of madness in technology, and six factions that had been inspired directly by Alpha Centauri – but I still had a lot of freedom.

There are five different parts I’ve been doing. The first was defining a world history. The second was, following that, defining a history for every faction. The third was writing faction-specific diplomatic dialogue. The fourth writing colour and flavour text about every last object in the game. And the fifth, joyously, was to write six faction-specific short stories for the manual that were due in a week.

I made things difficult

Writing the world history and then the faction histories was fun. I just saw the endpoint (six factions on Pandora); found the nearest star (Gliese 667 e); looked at the science needed to get there and wrote it from the present day.

Then wrote it again. And again. And again.

Basically, when I came up with factions to fit the faces, it screwed around with start dates, as our timeline was so packed. Each change to the faction’s intermingled backstories mucked around with the possible science, narrowing our options. If the nearest habitable planet is 26 light years away, and we need a probe to get there, message back and then we need to fly out… well, you don’t get that much change from 100 years, which was all we had. There were times I should have defined the history and written out a clearer timeline.

I also should have got a clearer brief from the team. My sample piece was deliberately evocative of Warhammer 40,000 – a nascent base under siege from an alien foe – which gave them the impression that I was a hard-nosed pulp writer. And then they saw the dialogue I wrote for the Scientific faction, which turned the icy Professor Schreiber into a dappy buffoon, employing lab mice as his secretarial staff. You don’t take a game seriously when the brightest mind on the planet says things like “Oh! Um. We’ve been making a map. Did you want to see it? The 2 dimensional version, of course — the 11 dimensional ones always end up looking like donuts.” Or when he’s complaining your assault on his last bastion is spoiling his bathtime. The team were right to push back and ask for a more serious take.

But the short stories were, after the trudge of the endless XML object files, the simplest part. Sure, I haven’t written a short story for five years. Sure, I’ve never written pulp SF. But just banging a story out a day meant that there wasn’t time to dwell and overcomplicate them. They mostly came out as a straightforward narratives – one political intrigue, one black ops mission, one child’s fairytale, one biopic, one horror pastiche, and the base assault I mentioned before. I hope they work, but I’m mostly proud about how fast they were written.

Anyone, Pandora’s due out this month (November). I’ll probably update on it again soon, as I’m still working over the dialogue and object text. Thanks for reading this far and let me know if you want a beta code – I really need the feedback.

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