On Christmas Day in 1992, my parents gave me a computer game. The game was called Turrican II: The Final Fight and I knew from reading recent copies of Zzap!64 magazine that it was regarded as the crowning achievement of Manfred Trenz, the greatest programmer of his generation. Saying Trenz’s name out loud in the playground could cause sun-deprived children to stop still and give thanks that they lived in the era of true artistic greatness. The game’s cover showed a biomechanical man-machine roaring in existential pain. After spending the minimum polite amount of time in my parents’ company, I disappeared upstairs to play it in my attic room and remained there, crosslegged in front of the screen, into the evening and all through the night without pause or hydration, only returning downstairs just before lunch on Boxing Day as the smell of microwaved leftovers rose through the house. Stewed cabbage, my madeleine. When I entered the kitchen, my parents – who had not been concerned by my absence – simply asked me to set the table. Couldn’t they tell that I had travelled to the year 3025 and died a hundred times? I understood in that moment that there was an uncrossable distance between us.
When I was interviewed 26 years later for a job writing the script of a new video game, I mentioned a version of this anecdote. I was trying to flag up my inherent nerdiness but what I didn’t realise is that games have moved on. Or at least they’re trying to. My interviewers explained that their project wasn’t aimed at hardcore or even casual gamers but, rather, at people like my parents. The game’s characters weren’t space marines or mutants but a family living in contemporary Wales and, in fact, I was advised not to call it a game at all – it was an ‘interactive drama’. They made it clear that the last thing the project needed was another gamer. They wanted me for my mundane domestic fiction. I asked them how much of the existing story I would be allowed to change and they said everything. They asked me if I wanted to read the abandoned script of the previous writer – the writer they’d just fired, the body beneath the floorboards – and I said no thanks.
In a spare meeting room which we called ‘the cave’ – to make a feature of it having no windows – I started from scratch. In planning an interactive, permutable story, the important thing was to find interesting dilemmas for the player to decide on the protagonist’s behalf. Many of the choices I created were to do with how the protagonist should communicate with his family. What secrets should he hide? What should he share? What version of ourselves do we allow others to see? How much of our loved ones’ hidden selves do we really want to uncover? And if this description seems a bit vague to you then you’ve picked up on the fact that, when I got the job, I was required to sign an intimidating ten-page non-disclosure agreement. As such, I cannot use, modify, copy, reduce to writing, record, distribute, sublicense or create derivative works from anything I wrote, read or saw during my time in the unnamed location working on the unnamed project with the unnamed colleagues. (Perhaps this explains why the game’s central narrative became increasingly about secrecy: hiding my work life from friends and family at least counted as research.)
Even though most of the individual choices I outlined were simple and binary – should you lie or confess? fight or flee? – they quickly accumulated into a complex network. At the end of the first draft, there were more than a hundred thousand potential story pathways. The walls of the room were postered with forking branches of possible outcomes, colour-coded Post-its, lengths of string stretched between drawing pins like a homicide detective’s cork board. My colleagues had to stick a note on the door telling the cleaners not to instinctively dump it all in the bin.
One of the big challenges when writing a branching narrative is that, ideally, every different outcome should be equally satisfying. In reality, of course, this is impossible. There were branches I loved and those I found embarrassing. If I were working on a novel, I’d obviously cut the weaker branches but, in this case, I not only had to keep them, I had to spend the majority of my time trying to salvage them, expending huge effort on storylines I dearly hoped no human would ever see. And whenever I tried to subtly direct players towards what I deemed the ‘best’ story, my colleagues reminded me about one of the central difficulties of video game design. While many players will earnestly engage with the game (making decisions for a character based on how they would behave in a similar situation) and others, like myself, will be led purely by a sense of entertainment (the pleasure, for example, of watching a character make terrible life decisions), there is also a notable minority whose guiding principles are perversity and chaos. They get their kicks from mocking the game designers’ intentions. On YouTube you can watch videos of these kinds of players squealing as they throw grenades at the hostages they are supposed to be saving, measuring their success by their comrades’ howls of outrage. Whatever the game designer wants for them is what they most hope to destroy.
Accordingly, I learned to treat players as one might parent a teenager. Let them make their own mistakes. Respect them, even when their behaviour is preposterous and childish. Don’t push too hard or they’ll rebel. And at the end of it all, understand that whatever they choose – if they torch the school just because it will look pretty as it burns – then their life, their choices, remain your responsibility. It was possible, for instance, for players to get the protagonist killed halfway through the narrative. If they really, really tried, he could end up bleeding out at an airport transfer bus stop, ending the story prematurely and ruining all my beautiful character arcs and nuanced final-act reveals. Though it was tempting to deny the player the option of butchering the story in this way, I was made to understand that it was necessary because – in order for the protagonist’s survival to feel earned – it had also to be possible for him to die. There can be no wisdom without stupidity.
As I was writing the protagonist’s bus stop death monologue, the whole floor of my office began to be refurbished – everything except for ‘the cave’. Day by day, my colleagues decamped upstairs, and the desks, sofas and computers steadily disappeared until I was left alone in a large, empty open-plan workspace, the size of two tennis courts, light flooding through floor-to-ceiling windows framing a beautiful view which each morning I ignored, entering instead the small windowless meeting room to work on the part of the story I most disliked. Though it’s normal to go a little insane while writing any large project, this felt different. With my colleagues all elsewhere – taking with them the social expectations of a shared working environment – I began twice daily to visit the cheapest dessert shop for miles around, bringing my private shame back to the empty office, slurping luminous custard from a paper bowl or inhaling huge slices of what must be the most affordable by-the-slice chocolate gateau in the whole of this unnamed, overpriced city.
Whenever I complained to my writer friends about my non-specific problems with the non-specific job, they told me to be thankful it wasn’t worse. I heard stories of other writers in the industry, how all their attempts to pursue depth of character had been regarded with contempt. I spoke to a friend who spent a month writing three hundred different ways for Navy Seals to say ‘reload’.
I couldn’t make myself feel lucky, though. I had the constant sense that the next small edit would balance the whole thing out and I was always wrong. A branching story is like a creature with ten thousand limbs – if you tweak one toe, the whole thing convulses. Luckily, I got regular guidance from the game designers, for whom I have unending respect. These are people who can hold the multiverse in their heads. They would take a few hours to talk me through the shape of the story, the myriad directions in which players might travel and, for a few precious moments, I would understand exactly what I needed to do. Then the door shut behind them.
One day I heard that there was going to be a guided meditation class for staff at lunchtime, and I immediately signed up. We all gathered in the big meeting room. The focaliser was a young woman in a many-zipped black leather jacket that camouflaged her against the huge executive sofas on which we were all sitting. She dimmed the lights. We closed our eyes and she began to lead us down a long corridor in our minds. We had to choose one room opening off the corridor and go into it, finding a place where we could let go of our fears and worries. All of us were skipping lunch to be there and our stomachs creaked like the doors in horror films. As everyone entered their special place, I stayed in the corridor of possibility, knowing that whichever room I chose, there would always be a better, more special room nearby. After a while, I opened my eyes and was relieved to find that one of my colleagues had opened her eyes too. We remained sitting in silence together, taking comfort in each other’s failure, staring at the massive wall-mounted TV screen that hovered in the darkness like a portal.
Afterwards, as I was heading outside to get a sandwich, I happened to enter the lift at the same time as the focaliser. We smiled at each other awkwardly and she asked me how I’d found the session. It was a classic binary choice of the kind that gets used in branching narratives: I could either lie or confess. This is a useful dilemma in a game because, whatever the player chooses, it’s easy for the situation to escalate. If the player opts to tell a friendly lie, then the person they’re speaking to might see through it and confront them. If the player speaks the unfortunate truth, then the person might get upset or angry. In real life, I thanked her and told her that it had been amazing and she smiled and said she was glad to hear it. She said she could sense that we had really travelled somewhere. She was obviously lying and I was obviously lying and we were both hungry and waiting for the doors to open. The walls of the elevator were mirrored and we could see our more interesting selves multiplying into infinity.
Months later, when it was clear that the script was defeating me, the producers brought in a writer-director who had been nominated for a prize I shall not name. My colleagues asked me if I was willing to hand over the script so that the writer-director could help with ‘final tweaks’. And in one branch of my life I stubbornly insisted on carrying my artistic vision through to completion, displaying the particular quality of arrogance that is associated with genius. And in another branch – the one I am living in – I handed over the script, half hoping that the writer-director would indeed find simple solutions to the problems I deemed insurmountable, half hoping that it would destroy their life. The writer-director said it might take them a couple of weeks. We waited. They were still working on it, they said. Almost there. Oh how I recognised that ‘almost’. And then, one day months later, after a meeting in which my colleagues told me the writer-director had stopped answering their phone, I was cycling home and happened to pass the writer-director in a garden square, surrounded by actors, back in their safe place: linear narrative.
Hard to blame them. I mean, I do blame them. But it is hard.
A few months later still, I got some news about the project. And in one branch of my life, the news was good and I am now heralded as the creative force behind what became a multi-award-winning interactive experience, one that has changed for ever the way stories are told: my parents play it and, for the first time in their lives, they truly understand the power of the thing that robbed me of my childhood. And in the other branch – the branch I am writing from – the project I spent a year working on was axed and yet I will never be allowed to talk about it or use any of the material I wrote or even describe the story to anyone. In this branch, I try to ignore the noise from the other side of the wall: my happier self in his brand-new office chair, spinning, spinning, spinning.
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