Fun! I’m doing a wheelie down a ruined high street at high speed, totally unable to tell where I’m going, while heavily armed North Koreans spray machine gun fire at me. This is the best motorcycle game I’ve ever played and it’s not a motorcycle game. I drop my iron steed out of the wheelie just in time to see my surviving teammate back into the road in front of me. I can’t avoid running him down and I don’t. As his body bump-bumps under my tyres, I berate him for not obeying the Green Cross Code. It’s fine though, as I revive him under heavy fire, get back onto my bike and speed off, ignoring him, the enemies, my other downed pals, and the mission.
When people I’ve not seen for a while ask me ‘what are you working on right now?’, I give them this kind of glassy look that says ‘how long do you have?’ It’s this kind of look:
This has been a hard, good year. Apart from coping with a new baby, I’ve probably worked for a wider range of media than ever before, and finally haven’t needed to chase work. Indeed, I’ve had to turn work down on occasion, or at least show a distinct lack of enthusiasm and raise my rates to put people off. That hasn’t always worked, so I’ve been *very* tired this year. What did I do this year? Ahaha. This:
Achtung: Cthulhu: Dark Tales from the Secret War
A short story for a collection. It’s about Llandudno, Oswald Moseley, Alistair Crowley and is a bit of a farce, really. I must stop writing farces. You can buy it here.
The 100 most influential video games for a book that’s 100 lists of 100 things. This was written in 2014, I think, so I wonder if it’ll be out of date by the time Quarto releases it in 2016?
Design: The Whole Story
Six chapters for a book about the history of design, published by Quarto. I covered subjects as diverse as the creation of disposable culture, military paraphernalia, and the internet revolution.
Unannounced Book Project 1
A book about the culture of Minecraft with Alec Meer. Has a publisher!
Unannounced Book Project 2
A book about videogames and philosophy with Jordan Erica Webber. Has a publisher!
There’s so much to list here that I don’t think I can be arsed including it all. So here are the highlights of the last year!
The magazine of the Royal Geographical society sent me to the former coal town of Ostrava in the Czech Republic to cover Europe’s biggest air show. Again, it’s fun writing outside of my comfort zone, but the piece reads unexpectedly well – I’ll be showing it off when it’s out in January… thanks to the editor Paul Presley for setting it up!
BBC Radio 5 – Let’s Talk About Tech
We did two end of year’s discussion of video games for Radio 5 here and here. I’ve just relistened to the second one and it’s actually a damn good discussion, if messy at the end.
The New Statesman
I did a simulation of the British political party manifestoes for this well-regarded left wing website. Lots of fun!
I did a few articles about Global Development for the Graun. I now know about Global Development, kind of.
I think I may be one of PCG’s longest-running writers. Longest-writing runners? Whatever. This is my 14th year working for them. IIRC, my interview consisted of Kieron Gillen introducing me to Matt Pierce, the editor, as he was walking by. He asked, frowning, “what’s your favourite game?” I said System Shock. He stopped, shrugged, said, “Hired” and walked on. Cue 14 years.
I did a couple of pieces for these guys, which completes my set of the huge games and tech media. I think I’ve written for every one that’s got a UK branch now, so I can turn them into a big robot or something.
Techradar / T3
I got back into doing hardware reviews and list features for these two tech sites, because the pay is good for the work needed. I can’t say it’s wonderfully enjoyable, but I do appreciate the income.
Max PC / PC Format
PC Format, the first magazine that gave me a writing job, was closed this year. It had been on life support for ages, but because it supplied articles to Techradar and because it was incredibly easy to sell ads for, it kept going even as its sales dropped to unheard-of lows. However, as PC Format only had one remaining staff member at the end (the delightful Alan Dexter), it was incredibly cheap to produce – and he’s now moved onto Max PC, North America’s biggest PC magazine. So I’ve moved with him and are writing for them…
Three Moves Ahead
Had a nice chat with Rob Zacny on this podcast about the superb Shadow of the Horned Rat, presaging Total War: Warhammer.
And tons more sites, like Expert Reviews, Kotaku, OXM…
I’ve done a lot of consultancy this year too, for a range of clients. Much of it was done through the amazing Martin Korda at Videogame Consulting. I owe Martin a huge amount, both personally and professionally – he’s been astoundingly supportive this last year.
Sadly, the only projects I’m not NDAed to the hilt about were The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries, but I do get to say this awesome sentence; “I worked on some of this year’s biggest games”. That’s pretty wonderful.
I also did media training for a bunch of developers, at the request of UKIE and PR firm Indigo Pearl. That’s where you help people get acclimatised to talking to the media, because otherwise we’ll just eat them up.
Seriously, lots of developers are terrified of talking to journalists or scared about being asked difficult questions. For these sessions, I run mock interviews that go substantially through their CV and their corporate history, pushing them harder and harder depending on how well they respond. My aim is to both put their mind at ease and ensured that they were prepared for the worst sort of questions they should face from the media, whatever their capability – including telling them the questions that they should just ignore.
Photography was ridiculous this year, even if it was only a minor part of my time. (I never push for more work because of discomfort over the colourblindness – I just take what comes.) I continued to manage the event photography for the Develop Conference, as well as Tandem Events other symposia. I also took pictures for several other clients, including Edge Magazine, Blizzard, Warner Bros and Pokemon.
The highlight though was taking photos of celebs like Mark Hamill, Gillian Anderson, Mark Strong, John Rhys Davies and Gary Oldman for the Star Citizen filming at Ealing Studios. Thank you to Gareth Williams for sorting that one out!
I’ve been working on five games this year, variously as a writer, narrative designer and designer,. I can’t really talk about any of them, but obviously it’s hugely exciting for me to be involved in them. I’m guessing that my developer chums won’t mind me mentioning that I’m doing this, but I’ll update the list below with studio names once I’ve checked in with the relevant devs.
Unannounced Game Project 1
Unannounced Game Project 2
Unannounced Game Project 3
Unannounced Game Project 4
Unannounced Game Project 5
And that’s it! Five years of fulltime freelance writing under my belt. My god. How long can I keep this up?
A piece I did for Maximum Piece about how games have learned from art, music, and math—and how the world might learn from games.
“And on the third day, God made the world. And He saw that it was quite crummy. And He then looked at the other worlds that He’d made, and thought, “They suck a bit, too, infallible as I am.”
So He pondered for silent indefinites, as the void drifted tetchily on, waiting for time, space, gravity, bicycles, and all the other concomitants of virtue and vice. Eventually, He got a bit frustrated. “Balls to it all,” He thought, blasphemously. “handcrafting a universe is for losers. I’ll procedurally generate an infinity of them and just choose the best one.” And lo, that was the morning of the third day, and He saw that it was good. So He went and watched fractal zooms on Youtube for the rest of the week.”
Source: Generation Proc – Maximum PC
As we know, I was lucky enough to get to write a game, Pandora: First Contact. It launched last week and is doing relatively well, as I understand it. It’s unlikely this is its full audience either, given the parallel console nonsense. And, as I don’t want to steal Slitherine’s thunder I won’t go into detail, but there’s a lot more fun stuff coming.
I have to be careful, for fear of swelling their heads, but, honestly, working with the Proxy Studios guys has been stunningly good. I’ve worked in bars, restaurants, shops, journalism, PR and even politics over the ten years of my career, with a lot of different teams and types of people. But these three guys are the best team I’ve ever worked with.
(Now, that’s not to denigrate the individuals I’ve worked with before. They’ve always been fine human beings and, after we’ve stopped working together, I’ve become friends with most of them. But there’s almost something about the standard hierarchical system of every capitalist office job that turns men into monsters. For an old, old example, Adam Oxford is one of the gentlest human beings I’ve ever encountered and I’m myself hardly a model of o’erweening aggression and hubris – but there were times when his job as PCFormat’s Editor and mine as a writer, his inferior, made our relations have all the familial sweetness of jackals snarling over a carcass. And now we’re friends albeit, carefully separated by a continent or two.)
It’s true that I feel joy at doing every aspect of this job – writing science-fiction, sketching out ludicrous dialogue for our extremist faction-leaders, and writing a plausible future history of Earth – that might colour my appreciation for the three guys – Rok, Lorenz and Soheil – who are Proxy. Perhaps the problem for all these years has been me – perhaps, working in office environments is just wrong for me. But I doubt any of these is the key factor.
In my opinion, it’s just this Proxy team, and their long growth through the modding scene. For the guys have been super-respectful and gentle when directing me – maturely admonitory and forgiving when I make egregious mistakes, as is my wont – and when praise comes, they’ve been effusive. In such a small team, there’s no room for dead weight – and they’re all excellent at their multiple jobs, with the maturity of developers ten years more experienced. When under fire from exterior criticism they don’t jump at the first report, nor do they ignore a full barrage – they look at every problem, with an impartial eye, and make their own judgements. It’s been an absolute wonder to behold.
Anyway, writing a game has reminded me that I love the act of creation. The other things I do for money – ghostwriting, editing, copywriting, consultancy – are strictly financial transactions, which I don’t have to enjoy, theoretically to allow me to do the things Ido enjoy – writing, photography, art and journalism. The joy of creation is something else – the feeling I get when I’m lost in a canvas or bent with my macro lens over a scuttling beetle or parsing the thought process of an alien mind – that feeling is only replicated for me alone on mountaintops in the snow. Which is a harder spot to find.
(And, like many of my contemporaries, I wonder how much longer I can keep working on the journalism side of games and whether I still enjoy it. A lot of the games journalism I get to do has the whiff of formula about it – there are certain bounds within which it operates, even at the highest levels, which are unduly compromised, whether by linguistic expectations, consumer knowledge, the need to maintain relations with companies with aggressive marketing departments, and so on. Very few positions allow you the total freedom to write of RPS – and I do wonder if I’ve already written away a lot of the anger and love that is behind the best journalism. Even blogging, once the hobby of my idle hours, is slightly tiring to me these days.)
So, I guess what I’m saying is: thank you, Proxy, for giving me this chance to realise how good working in a team is and what I enjoy doing for a living. I’m looking forward to writing more for you in the future.
And if there’s anyone else out there that wants me to write their game? The answer is yes.
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.