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Keith Stuart


Keith Stuart is an author and journalist who has been covering video games culture for 20 years. He is the Guardian's games correspondent and his novels A Boy Made of Blocks and Days of Wonder are published by Sphere Books.

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FeatureVideo games don't love or hate you - they're just built that way

Keith Stuart on how code develops a personality.

When I played Kevin Tom's Football Manager as an impressionable child in the early 1980s, I was certain there were teams that had a genuine grudge against me. This is why I still harbour a dread of Middlesbrough that feels partially unwarranted. I saw the same sense of malevolent intent in the rival god from Populous, who seemed to predict and mock my every tactic at later levels, and in Civilization with those darn Aztecs.

In the very early days of video game development, most studios designed their graphics and levels on graph paper. At Atari in the 1970s, legendary designers like Ed Logg and Carol Shaw didn't have access to personal computers, instead they sketched out their ideas on paper, then hand coded them into a shared central terminal, line by line. Graph paper is also how Nintendo planned out the Super Mario Bros titles, every section of the landscape drawn on vast maps which were passed between artists and programmers, gathering hand drawn corrections as they went. The iconic Pac-Man maze existed first as a drawing. This is also how I started making and, crucially, thinking about games. But of course, on a much more modest scale.

There is a phrase in the media, you've probably heard it: 'development hell'. It refers to a film, television programme or, yes, video game, that has languished for many months, perhaps even years, in a state of tragic semi-production, often cast from one studio to another, perhaps re-written a few times, perhaps abandoned, only to be picked up later. Well, I have been to development hell - it is actually where I began and ended my career in game design, and where I learned one incredibly valuable lesson about why people play games. This is the story of Swarm Troopers.

It was the summer of 1992. Nirvana dominated the airwaves, Batman Returns squatted resolutely in multiplexes all over the world and Alan Shearer became Britain's most expensive football player with a now laughable Ł3.6m transfer from Southampton to Blackburn. But to be honest, I had to look all this up on Wikipedia, because I really didn't notice it at the time. I was locked in a small office on a Leamington industrial estate testing Game Genie codes for the Game Boy.

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.

FeatureWhy is video game lore so awful?

And finally, the truth behind the Jordache Dig Master.

There have been times during my career that I've found myself at a press event, listening to the creative director of a role-playing game, talking about their forthcoming release. Very, very often they will say something like, "there is such a rich story behind our game, there is a lot of lore for players to discover if they want to go deep". And, I have to admit, I inwardly groan.

Recently two interesting events have made me think about this idea of lasting happiness specifically in relation to video games. First, Liam Edwards asked me to take part in his podcast series, Final Games, in which he asks his guests to name eight games they'd take to a figurative desert island. A few of the interviewees have taken this as an opportunity to just talk about their favourite titles of all time, which is fine, but I really considered the prospect of being alone with these things for the rest of my life. What sort of game can bear that level of responsibility? In the end, I went for a lot of simulations - The Sims, Civilization, Minecraft - because I felt the way these titles combine systemic depth with user creativity meant that I wouldn't get bored with them.

Imagine you have just hit 'start' on a new first-person video game. You find yourself in a room facing a doorway with 'this way' written in large letters over the top. You take a very quick look around and notice a few closed chests and cupboards beside you and then a door behind you marked 'no entry'. You turn back toward the first door. Without thinking, answer the following question: what do you do now?

FeatureKeith Stuart on: horror, madness and control

From Darkest Dungeon to Dead Space.

There is a famous phrase, often attributed to the Greek dramatist Euripides but likely much older: whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. The loss of control and identity that "madness" represents (and we should all be aware that madness is a colloquial term for an array of complex mental health issues) is a primal human fear - our sense of self is the only constant in our lives so to lose that is an unthinkable horror.

In 2007, game developer Clint Hocking wrote a hugely influential essay about the problem with video games. Entitled Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock, the article looked at Irrational's classic shooter and saw in it a terrible contradiction. While the interactive (or 'ludic') sections of the game require the player to be selfish and powerful, the story sequences seek to cast your character as a selfless aid to the revolutionary leader, Atlas. As Hocking wrote, "By throwing the narrative and ludic elements of the work into opposition, the game seems to openly mock the player for having believed in the fiction of the game at all." Openly mocking the player is... not considered good form.

Julian Togelius has an idea about where open-world games are going. Let's call it the infinite world theory. In his version of the future, titles like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto will have no set missions or narrative arcs, and no pre-defined landscapes. Instead, the game engine will use procedural generation, artificial intelligence and creative computing techniques to dynamically build environments and experiences to suit every individual player. In the Togelius infinite world, you'll be able to drive a car in one direction for several miles and find that the game has built a city at the end of the journey, just for you. What's more, that city will be populated with characters who act like real humans rather than bizarre automatons. It will be the player's interactions with these characters that creates the stories.

FeatureKeith Stuart on: Influences

From John Ford to Frank Zappa.

When I was a young kid first discovering video games in the early 1980s, I used to go to the huge Wythenshawe library in Greater Manchester, where I could rent Commodore 64 titles for 10p a week. Usually, I went home with piles of fighting games and shoot-'em-ups like Yie Ar Kung Fu, Green Beret and 1942. But one day, when someone had been in before me and grabbed all the popular stuff, I glumly picked up all that was left: a copy of Deus Ex Machina, the bizarre multimedia art game by Mel Croucher about the birth of a living organism within a vast computer. I was 12. I wanted to shoot stuff, I did not want to watch a fetus gestate in a databank while Jon Pertwee narrated a story about a mouse poo. But I played it anyway.

In the 1950s and 60s there was a whole series of films that asked the same fundamental question: what the hell are we doing when we go to the cinema? Hitchcock's Rear Window, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom and Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up, are all about the process of viewing and interpreting, often with a distinctly voyeuristic undertone. It's as though film-makers of the era were suddenly having a sort of existential crisis about their craft, and their audiences. Hang on, they were saying, what the hell are these things we make and why do people want to see them?