Dead Pixels creator: ‘So many films and TV shows get gaming so badly wrong’

Dead Pixels, starting tonight, is a delightfully crude, nerdy E4 comedy about online gamers. We chatted to its writer Jon Brown…

As much as you may fantasise about it, says screenwriter Jon Brown, the moment a prospective sexual partner clocks the gold Grand Prix star next to your name on Mario Kart and, intoxicated by your prowess, leans in to breathily ask how you ever achieved such a feat, is never going to happen. Unlocking all the trophies on Splinter Cell won’t earn you a promotion at work. Nobody will throw you a party to celebrate you having collected every Korok seed in Zelda: Breath Of The Wild.

You could argue that’s unjust, as does a gaming character in Brown’s new E4 comedy Dead Pixels. Why is unlocking videogame achievements of any less value than, say, running a marathon or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro? “A marathon isn’t inherently meaningful,” says Brown, “as a society, we’ve just agreed that it means something.”

Was it meaningful when Brown spent the equivalent of several real-time days flying a helicopter from one site to another in Ghost Recon: Wildlands? “That I don’t know,” he tells Den Of Geek. “It’s one of those philosophical questions: is it the journey or is it the destination?”

Dead Pixels characters Meg and Nicky, online clan members in the comedy’s fictional massive multiplayer online role play game Kingdom Scrolls, have the same ongoing internal debate. They’re well aware that spending their lives mining for digital ore and collecting magical objects might be a waste of their time, but they’d still rather do it than almost anything else.

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“There’s a guy who completed the entirety of Dark Souls,” Brown continues, “using bananas as controllers. He said something afterwards which I’ve used in the show, ‘who’s to say that that’s pointless?’ Why is gaming considered any more a waste of time than watching TV shows? 99% of that time is wasted. At least when I play The Division 2 or Ghost Recon with my friends, at least I’m interacting with somebody and there’s an element of creativity that isn’t involved in watching Killing Eve or whatever it might be.”

In danger of talking himself out of a job, Brown returns to what he loves about the gaming community – its awareness of “both how pointless and how profound gaming can be.” There’s a website, says Brown, called Wasted On Destiny, “you can enter your avatar name and it’ll give you a tally of how many hours you’ve spent playing Destiny. Gamers that do that aren’t stupid, they are aware enough to know that they could do a lot with the 800 hours that they spent on the game. It’s kind of dead time, but what else are you going to do that’s more meaningful?”

It’s a fair question, one intrinsic to Brown’s previous Channel 4 comedy writing gigs on Loaded, Fresh Meat and Peep Show. Is material wealth meaningful, asked Loaded, the story of a group of childhood friends who made millions selling their gaming start-up. Is university meaningful, asked Fresh Meat. Is friendship meaningful, asked Peep Show.

A dedicated gamer since childhood, having less time to play after becoming a parent gave Brown the perspective required to write Dead Pixels, a comedy about what gaming is really like, showing both its comic absurdity and profundity. “I didn’t want to write a show from the outside saying ‘this is pathetic and games are bullshit and they’re a waste of time’,” he tells Den Of Geek, “because that’s not my experience of playing games.”

Dead Pixels is executive produced by Peep Show creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, “incredibly sharp comic minds who knew nothing about videogames,” he explains, which was useful as a yardstick to judge how accessible or niche the show could be. He spent an instructive afternoon showing the pair around MMORPG Elder Scrolls. “They had no idea what was going on!”

Bain and Armstrong’s experience on Peep Show, a double act comedy with “not a gimmick, but a specific format in the point of view perspective” proved invaluable on Dead Pixels, which has its own not-a-gimmick format. It’s part live-action set in the real world and part computer-generated animation set in the world of the game. Whenever Brown would worry that the animation might become grating for the audience, Bain and Armstrong told him to hold his nerve and push the format. “Keeping the train on the tracks, they’re very good at that.”

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In the edit, Dead Pixels ended up using less animation than planned, says Brown, because the comedy performances were too good to cut away from. After casting Raised By Wolves and Detectorists’ Alexa Davies in the 2016 Channel 4 Comedy Blap from which Dead Pixels was developed, the show was written around her and new cast-members Will Merrick (Skins, Poldark) and Charlotte Ritchie (Fresh Meat, Call The Midwife).

Davies plays Meg, a libido-driven, foul-mouthed gamer who was first conceived of as a male character, until Bain and Armstrong suggested the change. A long time before the Comedy Blap was made, Brown had a version with two male and one female characters, which was reconfigured “to put Meg front and centre. Not in a cynical way, but I didn’t want it to feel too male or too boy-sy.”

Merrick plays fellow gamer Nicky, a character with a keen sense of how the world must view him, and a healthy streak of self-interrogation when it comes to his hobby.

Ritchie plays non-gamer Alison, who may seem to have it all sorted on the surface, but who “has her own problems.” If a second series is commissioned, Brown plans to spend more time unpicking Alison’s compulsions. “Everybody’s got some dysfunction. Nobody’s a complete straight bat.”

Dead Pixels seeks to correct a few common misrepresentations about gamers and gaming. Meg and Nicky hold down jobs and have had romantic relationships. “They’re not virgins who live at their parents’ houses and can’t function,” says Brown. “Gaming is the thing they spend most of their time thinking about and doing but that’s not to say that they can’t have normal conversations and be normal people. It’s just harder for them.”

Playing a videogame is comforting and insulating, he explains, real-life social interactions, such as this interview, often aren’t. As a gamer, “You get an invite and go along to something and you feel like, this is fine and I’m okay, but if I had my choice, I’d rather be at home playing Ghost Recon or on the Switch.”

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Speaking as a gamer, Brown knows that they can be “quite an unforgiving audience to write for”. He’s hopeful that part of that community that will take the show to their heart and see its intense affection for their world. He and the team have taken real pains in the creation of the show’s fictional MMORPG. It was very important to get the logic of the game right, he explains, “what happens when you die? Where do you spawn from?” Private chats, muting other players, speed of travel, the inventory, the map… all of it was meticulously planned.

The physical reality of gaming too, is something Brown says TV and film often get wrong. In an attempt to make gaming look more visually exciting, characters are “always swinging the joypad left and right and on the edge of their seat.” When you play a game, says Brown, “you’re basically in a semi-catatonic state where you’ve left the vessel of your body. It’s tiny movements.” Being able to cut between that and the bright visuals of the animated gameplay stopped Dead Pixels from ever looking grim or claustrophobic.

When discussion turns to other representations of gaming on screen, it’s a mixed bag, agrees Brown. He enjoyed the Ready Player One book but struggled to invest in the life and death stakes of the film’s virtual world. “I really struggled with that. I couldn’t really get past the feeling of ‘so what?’ Something that worked to our advantage is that we had a virtual world with limitations on it, and instead of making it a really high-definition virtual world, we made it quite crappy and glitchy and a kind of older thing, so I think that works better for comedy.”

He hasn’t watched Felicia Day’s The Guild, or the World Of Warcraft instalment of South Park. He enjoyed Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and the Resident Evil spoof on Spaced. “You can always tell when something’s written by people who actually play games.” A scene he uses as a watermark of friends getting together to play a game is from 1996’s Swingers in which Vince Vaughn and Patrick Van Horn’s characters play NHL on the Sega Mega Drive. “It’s just two of them sitting around the console playing and it felt like that was drawn from life.”

A Swingers actor, coincidentally, becomes key to Dead Pixels’ second episode, when they’re cast as the lead in a planned Kingdom Scrolls movie adaptation. Meg, Nicky and the rest of the fandom, it’s fair to say, don’t take the casting news well. Does the episode put Meg, who makes her unhappiness about the casting choice publicly known, in the same bracket as the people who hounded Star Wars and Ghostbusters (2016) actors on social media?

“The Ghostbusters thing, when it’s based on misogyny or it’s based on racism, obviously that’s unforgivable,” says Brown, “but when it’s based on people mishandling a property that you really care about, and you feel like, well, these people haven’t been following this comic for 20 years and haven’t been collecting it, and now this director is coming in and he’s going to fuck it all up. I think it’s acceptable to be upset about that. It is important to people. For Meg and Nicky this is not a small detail, this is something really big.”

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Brown thinks the gaming community has gained an unfairly negative reputation in recent years. “It’s funny. Up until Gamergate, you never would have made that [misogynist, far right-supporting] assumption about people who played videogames. It’s funny how pervasive that has been because five years ago, if you’d asked people about what the politics of people who play videogames might be, I guess you would think lots of students play games and younger people so they might be more liberal. It’s really sad because that’s such a minority of people who play games.”

In the casting controversy episode, Brown was keen to include a sense of why it mattered so much to Meg. “She makes a rallying speech to Nicky saying this is our thing and we’ve invested our lives in this game and we don’t have much else, but this is ours and now it’s going to be co-opted and taken away by people who just want to make money and churn out some Hollywood shit that will define the game in the public consciousness for a very long time.”

“People feel a bit sniffy about comic books and videogames, as if they’re not as important or as valued as say, Charles Dickens. But if [an inappropriate casting choice] happened in that, there’d be a different reaction.”

And with that, Brown’s off to unwrap the cellophane from his newly purchased copy of The Division 2 and settle in for a night of sociable insulation. Would he be better off training for a marathon or learning how to play the flute? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. 

Dead Pixels starts tonight on E4 at 9.30pm.