Sunday, November 15, 2009

Alison Rowat and the Licensed Imagination

This post is possibly ever so slightly out of date, being a letter to the Glasgow Herald which I posted on the Intrepid forum three years ago but never quite polished to the extent that I was happy sending it to the herald itself.  Prompting this, and other rejoinders by Intrepid members, was an article by Alison Rowat about the then [Glasgow Science Fiction convention] which some of us considered tantamount to bigotry, had it been said against one of the traditional minority groups.  I've rewritten my rebuttal so that it flows better.  At the time of writing the original, I was very, very angry.  Perhaps it could function as an open letter to other media types – and there are many – who see us poor SF types as an easy and not altogether human target.

Dear Sir,
    It's long been a truism that to gauge the accuracy of a newspaper, you should simply read a column about a subject with with you are closely familiar. So it is rather disappointing to be presented with Alison Rowat's article 'You wouldn't believe the warp factor' which contains nary a shred of anything approaching a keen observation, let alone a solid fact.
A little research surely couldn't have gone amiss?

Such as this odd obsession with tin-foil. It's a nice little hook to hang the rest of the article from, so it's a shame that tin-foil hats are synonymous with 1950s paranoia about communist 'mind-control'. Not exactly Star Trek or Star Wars, which are precisely two entries in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction out of some four and a half thousand. Perhaps it's a surprise that there can be such a thing as an Encyclopaedia, but sure enough it turns out that SF is even a literary genre stretching back hundreds of years. Surely the people described in her article couldn't be... atypical?

Of course, says Alison, why would anyone wish to dress up as their favourite character at all? It's not like anyone dresses as characters from soaps, after all, although the remarkable upsurge in little girls named 'Kylie' at the height of Neighbours should give pause for thought as to exactly who is 'sad'.   I'm sure that a few of us have waved a lightsabre, imagined or otherwise, in anger. But so far as I know, no SF fan has ever sent a real cheque for 5000 pounds to help free a fictional character from a fictional prison, as happened with Coronation Street.
    I'll save myself time by blithely assuming that all non-SF fans have a blurred line with reality.

Of course I myself cannot 'fathom the insanity' that makes grown men dress in football tops. After all, on the basis of the last few years, you're seemingly more likely to be killed or seriously injured by a footballer than a terrorist. What kind of aspiration is that?

But I'm not a football fan, I'm an SF fan and as such I'm generally fair game to be mocked in the press and on television.  Somehow I'm now a stereotype, not an individual, but of now part of a group whom you can malign with impunity.

How well do I measure up to this image that you have in your head?  Spandex?  Don't own any.  Social skills?  Got some.  Women? Some close friends.  Relationships?  Had them too.  In one now.  Beer belly?  I'm a man in my mid-thirties, what do you expect I'm going to look like?  Would you like to call me a fat bastard, or is that not politically correct?  I wear glasses too, so I expect you'd like to call me four eyes or speccy or something.  You know, make fun of my appearance in the absence of anything with any thought behind it.

Or don't we do things like that in the 21st Century?  Such niceties don't apply to SF fans it would seem.  I like SF and so I'm some kind of freak and to hell with how it makes me feel when I hear you say that.

How appropriately ironic, then,  that one of the central themes of Star Trek, which you deride, is that in the future we all have respect for one another.  Imagine that.

I did, however, manage to retain my imagination.

Not, admittedly, a valuable commodity in these cynical days, cynicism being a theme often reflected in... oh... modern SF. Just as the subtext of some of those old novels about aliens was about what's it's like for a society to look upon anyone, anything, point and laugh for being something different that we don't understand.
Hmm, now where have I heard that before...

But soft SF is OK apparently – I can imagine Alison campaigning for tolerance zones where one may have an imagination with an appropriate license – but anything more that is implicitly 'hard' and to be discouraged.

Well this is where research comes in handy (you were once columnist of the year weren't you, Alison? Do you remember what “research” is?) since there really is a term called 'hard SF' which deals stories more closely coupled to real, solid, actually existing science and logic. About as far away from dressing up as your favourite character as it's possible to get.
Enjoying a story where you have to think? Preposterous and dangerous!

At this point I do have to apologise for attempting to use a 'philosophical' and 'intellectual' defence of my 'art' without exploring believers in flying saucers, on the grounds that the two groups are not the same.  Is this a surprise to you?
Oh sure there are UFOs in Science Fiction, but only in the same way that Eastenders is a police drama.

Without getting deep about it, I simply like Science Fiction. I'm in a minority, and don't I know it when there are so many pejorative terms for me. To deny that there really are people – people, not just men – with a more than everyday interest would be plain wrong. But to say that all of them are like the colourful minority is equally wrong. I was at a convention just recently and almost an entire half of the attendees were woman. One of them was dressed as Lara Croft and nobody there or in the press, oddly, felt the need to complain about that...

I'll anticipate the defence that the article was humour. Not a gentle humour by any means, not well observed humour, definitely not original and with an obvious lack of contact with, or understanding of, anyone being talked about. Just mean-spirited barbs thrown at crudely sketched caricatures.

Alison, it's obvious that you don't even know who your target is and would it be churlish of me to point out the logical flaw of writing 'they want to stay in their safe little worlds, not connect with others' in an article about SF fans gathering together in the world's largest convention?

Seriously, did you really write that?  I must have just imagined it.

But the final word must surely go to one of my SF loving friends who saw the article, read the part about sad single men and exclaimed: “That's hilarious, I'll have to show my wife.”

     Steve Hammond

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Grand Theft Auto (via Gameswipe)

Yes, this was me in 1997Charlie Brooker's Gameswipe, being a BBC overview of computer games history, inevitably got to the point where it mentioned GTA. The programme was a fun once-over by the jaded eye of Brooker and I enjoyed catching all the old games I recognised, with a spark of memory, the ones I was familiar with and being amazed by the new ones since I departed the industry. Although I'd known of the controversy at the time, I hadn't really paid much attention, and seeing it in context was quite enlightening. Just how much passion had flared over this game was put into persective, with archive BBC news clips and talking heads decrying it. All the controversy, all the hype, but not much that I didn't know or was surprised by except for this little nugget: GTA was “directly inspired by” Turbo Esprit, a game for the Spectrum.

Um. What?

That was... different. Quick summary: I worked for DMA Design from 1991 to 1997, and hung around Dave Jones doing freelance graphics work for him before that and attending the same computer club and college as him; all going back to around 1984. Turbo Esprit is a new one on me. And naturally this is just an excuse for me to talk about GTA again and by extension, me. My involvement with GTA was tangential, as at the time my main concern was writing the story and background material for Body Harvest, but it did mean that I was present for a handful of meetings and acted as a kind of low-level disruptive influence. Other than dialogue writing, I play-tested it at my desk within the design department, so I had a fantastic view of the process of creating the most controversial game ever to come out of Scotland. Which is not to say that I necessarily remember all of it!

I've read a number of the “histories” of GTA which are dotted around the web and they all cover pretty much the same ground in not very much detail. GTA IV gets the bulk of the commentary unsurprisingly enough, being the acme of the supposed “murder simulator” genre. Not any of them that I've seen were written by anyone connected with the project. Dave is interviewed, but the origin of GTA isn't given much, if any, space. Indeed it's mentioned in places that if you are familiar with GTA IV, GTA the original will come as a surprise.

Everyone knows, it seems, that the original name was Race 'n' Chase, but no-one knows that one of the suggested names was Freeway, a name that I pointed out was also the name of the dog in Hart to Hart, at which point it got dropped. Mike Dailly coded up the graphics engine that was the basis of GTA. This system was informally called Legovision and I think the engine predated the concept of the game itself, which makes the Turbo Esprit influence nonsensical. No-one had ever mentioned it.

I have a better candidate for the influence of GTA and it dates back to 1990 when Dave had the very first office (I was freelance at the time), and we were taking part in the ITV Telethon. Our goal was writing an entire game in 24 hours, and it was a car racing game with a top down view. Being an amalgam of all the racing games we could think of, we called it Super Off-Road Hot Turbo Buggy Simulator. And at the same time a game we had been playing in the office was a Commodore 64 game where you drove a car around a city, called Siren City... How Dave got the idea for GTA, I can't say for sure, but there were more potent influences than Turbo Esprit.

One of the curious things within the histories is the occasional reference to the low production values of the graphics, especially since this was 1997/98. It's possible I was insulated from the outside world when GTA was being put together, but at the time – and as far as I can see it hasn't changed – all the big name games had the same colour palette. Doom set the template, and for years after it was murky greys, browns and dark greens. Most first person shooters looked the same. Indeed in one of the design documents I wrote at the time – unconnected with GTA – I pasted screenshots from Quake, Unreal and a few others to illustrate at a glance how difficult it was to tell the games apart. One of the other guys in the Design Department, Stewart Graham, was especially keen on not having dowdy visuals. Bright, cartoony graphics were specifically intended to make GTA look unlike other games. As a secondary concern, it fitted the nature of the gameplay which wasn't deadly serious; it was fun. What many people fail to remember is that GTA was in large part a pisstake. You only have to look at the faux adverts around the printed map to see that.

This I the point that I have to introduce Brian Baglow. Brian has, so far in my life, been the only person ever to land me in shit with the management on a charge of blasphemy. As architect-in-chief of our freshly minted intranet, I apparently bore the responsibility for everyone's profile Q&A. Brian's answers were slightly spicy, and not at all respectful of the, say, devout believer in a higher power. I passed them without comment because they were fantastically funny. But a single individual disagreed and I had to carry the can for it. Brian's response was to rewrite them to be as fluffy and cute as you could imagine... and equally funny. Brian's sense of humour drove much of GTA.

At the same time as I was writing never-to-be-used dialogue for the original, I was also throwing around never-to-be-used ideas and occasionally acting as a sounding board for Brian. Which is why for a brief moment, controversial though GTA was, it could have contained a rather different message. At the time, a number of arcade games had a prominent FBI logo stating “Winners Don't Use Drugs”, though quite how FBI jurisdiction extended to the high street of Dundee was never clear. Nevertheless, we both thought it was pretty amusing.

GTA, even before it was released, was obviously a pretty subversive game. In one of those meetings of just myself and Brian, more to get away from the hustle and bustle than a proper meeting, I came up with the idea of subverting our own subversion. When the main character opened the suitcase at the end of the game, the thing would explode and the game would end with a parody of the logo saying “Crime Doesn't Pay”.

We thought it was a funny thing to do, to be able to say “Hey, we're responsible and are conveying a responsible message!” Needless to say it never ended up that way, because it was around that time that the carrot of becoming freelance was once more dangled in front of me and I ended up taking it. It was only ever intended that I'd spend two months on GTA, and I'd like to think that my most lasting effect was inspiring Brian to ever-greater heights of lunacy. And as for Gameswipe, surely there is a case for digging out all those old industry mainstays and the BBC making a full in-depth series about computer games history. I for one would be delighted to contribute.
Images in this post taken from Mike Dailly's Flickr stream, who got much of them from my DMA Design Macintosh (which I had from them as a leaving gift) where I stored them all, packrat style, in the first place!