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Manual Override: Category Seven

When I was young, I used to have a recurring dream where I was falling. Books from the library, interpreting dreams, were of no use in telling me what it meant. I was falling upwards into the sky, pulled by a force towards something I couldn’t see. I knew it was there, some horrific thing, saucer-shaped, abhorrent. Safely invisible, unless I turned. But I was turning anyway. Always waking just before the moment I was caught. Space, I discovered, wasn’t always a source of wonderment. Not yet ten, I resolved never again to look into the sky…

Responding to an advert for an artist, Scott Johnston joined DMA around 1990, while we were still in the first – the old old – office. The first I knew of his programming skills, however, was when he created the head of the eponymous Walker in the game of the same name. Rather than tediously drawing each frame of each rotation by hand in DPaint, he wrote an AmigaBASIC program to generate them automatically. As an encore, he taught himself the 68000 assembly language used by the Amiga and started to write 3DGame, inspired by the genre of game epitomised by the popular Dungeon Master.

Like those adventures, 3DGame was a fantasy epic. Unlike them, it had a four window view onto the world. Also unlike those games, four characters could be controlled by the player. This allowed a whole new style of puzzle and much more besides. Scott worked on it throughout our time at the old old office, but I didn’t see it until DMA had moved into the new Meadowside office (merely the old office). Still freelance, I wandered in on my usual Wednesday afternoons off from college. An early version of 3DGame was being demoed, complete with the gigantic digitised floating heads of Russell and Brian chasing each other around a maze.

While Scott coded 3DGame, I had moved on from converting Amiga Ballistix graphics to the Commodore 64, and was now doing the same for Shadow of the Beast. It was a game of such size that it could only be squeezed into a 5 ¼ inch floppy disk or a cartridge. In either case, only one level would fit in memory at a time. When each was loaded, only a blank screen appeared until it was ready. On one of my regular bike rides down to the large Victorian home of the programmer, with new new graphics on a cassette, the project had reached the point of playability. Now those blank moments between levels were glaring. I offered to write text to fill the gap. It was only a few lines per loading screen, but it seeded the idea that I could provide a narrative for a game.

Outside of work, I wrote in my spare time. In my dream life, I had a day job creating games, while writing novels in the evenings. Candles would be burnt well into the night, wearing down my quill in my cottage’s study, as I rendered philosophical imponderables in the medium of prose. Well the candle was a 40-watt lightbulb, the quill was a Rotring draughting pen and the cottage study was a cupboard in my bedsit. As a location, though, it was auspicious: the very site where in the early 1800s Mary Shelley wes reputed to have had the idea for Frankenstein. There was even a plaque to show it.

My own prose amounted to mere scribblings for my local roleplaying group: scenarios and background material for Cyberpunk 2020. One of those items, both written and typeset by me, was a “screamsheet”; the future equivalent of a newspaper where everything was condensed to paranoid soundbites. I was happy enough with one of these sheets to pin it to the wall of my “cave”. Caves, as they had been dubbed by manager Simon Little, were little chunks of the office sectioned off by moveable partitions. Mine was isolated at the far end of the room, surrounding the network server, where the white noise blocked out headphone leakage (which was and still is a monstrous evil). Personalising my space, I pinned up the screamsheet. Scott saw this and liked what I’d written well enough to ask me to write a story for 3DGame, which was now called Hired Guns.

It was a small indication of the organic nature of development at DMA, especially in the early 90s. Dave Jones, when I told him was I was going to be doing, merely made a noise somewhere between a grunt and what might have been an “OK”. Endorsement enough! It also, as it turned out, spoiled me enormously with respect to the creative freedom I expected.

3DGame had been designed as a fantasy adventure, but with the change to Hired Guns it became a Science Fiction one. I was keen that it be SF because it seemed that almost no other game of that type was, and Scott liked the thought of making it feel like Aliens. A lot of enemy sprites had already been created by the artists, in the fantasy mould, and so to avoid losing that work I explained them as genetically engineered creatures (and not mutants as the box art has it) rather than supernatural. These monsters were designed for psychological warfare as well as physical. This would later feed directly into the plot, an example of pragmatism which would eventually have an even larger impact.

I started searching for inspiration, bringing my love of SF to bear.

Although I began to have a small role in the design of the game itself, with Scott designing most of it, writing very much did not drive game development. Limitations of memory, storage and processor power meant that almost all of the story and background was necessarily contained in the accompanying manual. The story had little impact on the design of the levels, other than names of places. So while I spend an age writing and refining the intro story, it served only as a half-story, deliberately unresolved, with the second half being the game itself. The story was a scene-setting device, with the player providing the ending.

Plot – technically background info – was delivered via lines of dialogue triggered by the character stepping on a particular location. Much of this was “ambient” dialogue, with characters complaining or delivering one-liners. However I had created an extensive backstory of which the only way to reveal it, aside from the manual, was to hint at it via characters talking. It was effectively an expository layer added on top of the other game elements, none of it affecting how the game progressed. No alternate paths through the game were possible. Only the Amiga version had this text, the PC version had a lower resolution screen by just enough vertical pixels that the dialogue feature had to be sacrificed entirely.

Not that the story remained the same from the beginning to the end of the project. I was lucky enough that Scott had given me /carte blanch/ to create whatever I felt best. And my best work was done away from the office, at home in winter, in a darkness banished only by the glow of the screen.

It came together slowly. Deciding that the characters would be mercenaries was easy, having read Iain M Banks’ Consider Phlebas and imperfectly taking that feel into the game. The rest of it came from diverse areas and even fears about unknown things in the sky. I deliberately wanted to set the story against a well-rounded background, even if none of that background was explicitly mentioned in the game.

It was a legacy from playing tabletop roleplaying games like Cyberpunk 2020, The Call of Cthulhu and especially Traveller. The richer the background, the more apt the story. And so I chose to make faster than light travel impossible in the HG universe, taking established tropes and inverting them. In Star Trek, getting from world to world is easy. Not so in HG. I wanted it to be difficult, extremely so. But it wasn’t arbitrary, it fed into the plot.

Those dark winter nights had an impact and the tone of the story began to get darker in lockstep. Reading a non-fiction book First Contact about the possible reasons why we haven’t detected any sign of alien life, I realised it would make a powerful backdrop to have humans alone in the universe. And the reason for that? First Contact had a list of categories for what it called the Great Silence. Category Seven scared me. Genuinely scared me. I was reminded of how, looked at in a particular way, the sky could be frightening in the Lovecraftian fashion of having madness lie in the vastness. And again that fed into the Hired Guns background.

Some writers will also tell you that – just occasionally – it is no longer the case that they are creating a story, they are discovering it. This is part of the answer to the old question of where writers get their ideas. It is from everything you experience, everything you read and everything you feel. It’s also a feeling which can sneak up on you at two in the morning and sometimes it doesn’t go away. I began to feel that I was no longer writing the HG story, but discovering part of a larger truth.

And you thought writers just made stuff up?

But what pragmatism brings you, it can also take away. Writing for computer games in the 90s (aside from the obvious counterexample of text adventures) almost never drove game development: programmers did. Artists began to have a greater influence over the game’s direction towards the end of the decade, but for now the gameplay was entirely Scott’s doing. Any story was added as a kind of layer on top. I thought of the story more as a set of extras surrounding the game, and in the case of short level descriptions, as set dressing. Working around the existing game elements meant developing the story in, if not exactly isolation, then at a certain distance.

That pragmatism caught up with me on a rainy day in 1992, when – I think, I may be wrong – in-game memory became tight and something had to give. None of the material in the manual was affected, but the in-game story had to change. I resisted, to no avail, and after an uncomfortable conversation with Simon, a reduced plot was needed. It became a make things go boom story, finding four nukes for a purpose that I can’t even recall. I lamented in my diary that “they” only care about what gun does what. At one point Simon told me “It’s only a game”. I was surprised, then depressed, to hear it. I had been taking it seriously.

But I knew what the real story was, even if it led to some dark moments at unhealthy hours of the morning, and even if it was three sequels down the line. All communication had been lost with Earth in a /Boundary/ event, as the backdrop. Distant, mysterious and frightening. The team is sent on a mission to an unrelated world, a hostage rescue where the hostages don’t exist. It is in fact a weapons proving ground and they are live, expendable, test subjects. There was a connection to the story of Earth, but even in 1993 I wasn’t in a hurry to reveal it.

It wasn’t upbeat. In the end, I provided the text for several booklets. To save me extra effort, and therefore valuable time, Scott had written notes for the player’s manual – itself to be written by someone at our publisher, Psygnosis. They would also do typesetting, superseding my own effort in that area again for the sake of saving time. Everything was submitted to them in the face of an advancing deadline. Eleven months were then wasted and with mere weeks to go, they hired a third party to rush the typesetting of the booklets. Scott’s notes were pasted in wholesale and my backstory material printed and published with all of the punctuation missing.

My first professional writing, and the darkness had somehow spilled into the waking world.

So what happened to Earth?

A spoiler, if you assume I will ever finish the story, and even then there’s a twist yet to be had, but of all the forces in the universe which could silence a world, the one which frightened me – and still does because they are non-fiction – is this one.

Category Seven: Dangerous Unnatural Forces.