When you worked in games journalism in the late-nineties and early 2000s, you spent a lot of time thinking about wacky feature ideas. The grind of magazine production was extremely familiar by this point. You had your news, your previews and your reviews - they all ticked along in a predictable manner, so it was your features that really gave you the chance to break out a little bit and explore games in new and interesting ways. This was the era of the lad mags, after all, and the likes of Loaded and FHM were changing the way magazines spoke to their readers and presented subject matter. It was okay to have a laugh, it was okay to pretend you were Hunter S Thompson. I mean obviously no one ever actually read Hunter S Thompson, that would have been awful. But we knew enough to pretend.
Also, there was money in publishing back then. Companies actually paid for adverts and people actually bought magazines. It was crazy. So there I was in Bath, working for Future Publishing as associate editor on DC-UK, the company's Dreamcast magazine. We were just three issues in, the console was doing okay, and we had a decent feature budget. That gave us free reign to do daft stuff. And so that is exactly what we did.
Here is an example. The game Sega Bass Fishing had just come out. This was a really fun fishing simulation (a popular genre at the time), which came with a dedicated fishing rod peripheral. You got to fish in a series of picturesque locations, while a brilliant pop soundtrack played and an over-enthusiastic commentator vocally assessed everything you caught. "Ooh a tiddler," he'd shout. How we laughed as we wasted hours of valuable magazine production time trying to out fish each other.
But the game gave us an idea. How accurate was Sega Bass Fishing?
"Hey," I said to my colleagues. "What if we actually hired a boat and went bass fishing and wrote about it?"
I'm not sure what happened next. Maybe a lot of high-fiving, I don't know. I just know that twenty minutes of internet browsing later, we'd managed to track down someone offering a boat and a crew for day-long fishing trips off the coast of Padstow.
"Will we catch bass," I asked over the phone.
"It's unlikely at this time of the year," came the gruff response.
"But possible?" I said.
"Then consider yourself booked."
I had just spent about £500 of our production budget on a fishing boat trip. This, I thought, must be a video game first.
A week later, we hired a car, and me, my deputy editor Esther and my writer Stephen, piled in, together with a freelance photographer, Nick. After a five hour journey, we arrived in Padstow and spent that night in a delightful hotel, draining our mini-bars. That, it would later transpire, was the wrong decision.
Trudging to the harbour at 6am the next morning, we discovered that our craft was a very small, very ancient trawler operated by a crew of two, including the guy I'd spoken to on the phone - who turned out to be the archetypal salty old sea dog, complete with haggard face, white stubble and no-nonsense demeanour. Yes, we were going bass fishing with Quint from Jaws. Except he was actually called Mike, and at no point did he tell us any gruelling shark attack stories. His accomplice was younger and more or less silent for the whole journey.
We clambered gamely aboard, unperturbed by the grey skies and choppy water, and the boat started chugging off, out of the harbour and into the open sea.
"We'll catch mackerel first," explained Quint, I mean Mike. "Then we'll need to head out farther to go for bass."
At this point I expected him to start singing "fair well and ado to you fine Spanish ladies", but it was not to be.
As the boat bobbed and spluttered, we sat on the deck, watching seagulls swoop above us while Nick checked his camera equipment. The air was crisp and cool.
Within minutes, Quint was handing us rods, each with multiple hooks, and telling us to drop the lines and wait. Sure enough we were soon yanking gullible mackerel onto the deck at an impressive rate, and Quint was merrily bashing them with a club. We felt like naturals. Everything was going well. "Ooh a tiddler," we kept saying to each other, brilliantly.
"Right," said Quint. "That's the bait sorted. Now we'll need to head out for a couple of hours."
It was at that point that shit got real. The sea suddenly seemed to change gear from choppy to "really quite wavy", and as the coast disappeared, we started to feel a bit sick. And then a lot sick.
"Oh god," said Stephen, who was pale anyway due to being Scottish, but had now taken on a sort of translucent green colour. He got to his feet, held onto the railing and chucked up over the edge into the brine.
Have you ever seen the movie Stand By Me? There's a classic scene where one of the characters is telling a story about an eating competition where a contestant is sick, and that makes all the others sick, and then the judges, and then the audience, and so on - a total barf-o-rama. That's what it was like on our boat. Almost instantly, Nick the cameraman was hanging over the water, a £3000 Canon around his neck, spewing into the foam. Then me and Esther looked at each other, stomachs bubbling, seconds from joining our team mates, but yet desperate not to be the first to give in. It was a sick stalemate, a Mexican puke-off.
I knew I had to act. This had literally gone too far. The feature idea was funny, but was it really worth this? I looked at my teammates retching hopelessly into the watery abyss and I knew that they had suffered enough for their art.
"Look," I said to Quint, sounding somewhat panicked and impatient. "Are there any bigger fish nearby - something that could maybe pass for a bass, if photographed correctly?"
The fisherman looked at me, then at his colleague.
"Pollock," he said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"We'll be able to catch Pollock. They're like cod."
"Okay that will do won't it?" I said to Esther.
"It's not called Sega Pollock Fishing," she observed, accurately. "But I think it will be fine."
Stephen vomited in agreement.
So the fisherman changed the tackle over and gave us back the rods, their hooks now adorned with chunks of mackerel. While Stephen and Nick continued to empty the contents of their stomachs into the Irish Sea, Esther and I successfully caught several of these strapping fish. Nick even managed to take a few photos in between heaves.
"Okay," I said. "That's perfect, we can head back now."
"But you've only had half a day," said Quint, while skilfully gutting a fish.
"Yes, I know. It's fine."
The two crew members smiled at each other - this would probably make a fun story at the Fisherman's Arms later; and they would get to tell it much earlier than expected.
An hour later, we clattered off the boat and sat at the harbour side for a while, collecting our thoughts, and our stomachs. Brilliantly, just as we started feeling better, a seagull did an absolutely massive s*** on Stephen's arm. It was the final insult.
We drove back to Bath that afternoon, and I asked Esther to write the story. The movie The Blair Witch Project had just come out, so we cleverly designed the feature as a 'found footage' narrative, claiming that we'd discovered the photos and audio recordings from the trip, and that the crew had never been found. We called it "The Padstow Bass Project". It had very little information about the game.
I'd like to say I learned a valuable lesson from that experience. I'd like to, but I can't. A month later I was on my way to an RAF base in Lincolnshire to meet a bunch of fighter pilots and play Konami's flight combat sim Deadly Skies with them.
"It will be awesome," I said as I left the office. "I'll be on a military base surrounded by tens of millions of pounds worth of fighter craft, and several young pilots very keen on showing off. What could possibly go wrong?"
This is not how video game publications work anymore.