There’s a moment in the BBC’s drama The Gamechangers where Sam Houser, the co-founder of Grand Theft Auto studio Rockstar North, says to one of his minions, “We need to make our own game engine.”
In the very next scene, the game engine’s finished and demonstrated to Jamie, another Rockstar co-founder. To the casual observer, it might seem as though the process of making a game engine is as simple as ordering a pizza.
It’s an example of the 90-minute show’s clumsy handling of its subject matter: the video game phenomenon Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, its social impact, and its controversy. This was the kind of drama that felt the need to carefully explain some things in painfully literal terms – exactly what GTA is and why it’s so controversial – while skipping hurriedly over others, like the creation of something as expensive and resource-hungry as a game engine.
We didn’t necessarily have to see hundreds of artists and coders all slaving away at their workstations, or the dozens of playtesters hunting for game-breaking bugs in San Andreas, but The Gamechangers could, at the very least, have got to the heart of what motivated Houser (played by a bountifully bearded Daniel Radcliffe) and his team to make such a sprawling, obsessively detailed game. The most the drama can come up with is that Houser idolises the late Hollywood producer Don Simpson, and has an expansive knowledge of 80s crime and gangster movies like Colors and Scarface.
The most frustrating thing is this: the time is absolutely ripe for a good movie about the games industry. David Fincher’s The Social Network proved that an industry figure as unassuming and reclusive as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg could make for a fascinating drama if approached by an incisive writer and director. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin played heavily on the irony of a coding savant capable of linking billions of people together through a social media platform, yet also possessing a pathological ability to alienate his own friends and colleagues.
Gaming is no longer a new medium, even if it is less established than film, music, or literature. As a result, the games industry has its own history, its own stories to tell. The past 40 years have seen games evolve from matchbox-sized things developed by a mere handful of people to multi-million-dollar behemoths. Like empires, studio and publishers have sprung up, grown to huge size and vanished without trace.
We’ve recently seen the appearance of several documentaries, some essential viewing – King of Kong, Indie Games: The Movie, From Bedrooms to Billions, Atari: Game Over. But games are great fodder for fiction, too, even if the thought of lots of people typing at computers doesn’t necessarily sound like a storyteller’s dream.
Just like movies, video games can and often do have their own fraught production stories: double-crosses, controversies, public-fallings out, successes, and failures.
Take, as an early example, the story of a British outfit from the 1980s: Imagine Software. For a few glorious months in the early part of the decade, the Liverpool-based Imagine was riding high thanks to the success of computer games like Arcadia and Zip Zap. Its rise to prominence was such that the BBC despatched a documentary camera crew to Imagine’s headquarters, where its bosses had bought themselves sports cars and talked excitedly about its coming crop of “Megagames” – games so ambitious, they’d require additional hardware to be plugged into a user’s computer to make them playable. Brilliantly, one of those games was called Bandersnatch.
But as the BBC’s cameras rolled, Imagine unexpectedly went into meltdown. Bills weren’t being paid, and before long, the bailiffs had rolled in and closed the place down. Just like that, Imagine was gone – taking Bandersnatch with it. The whole sorry episode was captured for posterity in the documentary, Commercial Breaks.
Or consider the story behind Tetris, which is like something from a Cold War spy novel. Towards the tail end of the 80s, several games companies were vying for ownership of the Tetris brand – and since Tetris was made within the Soviet Union, its rights were ultimately passed on to the communist government by its creator, Alexey Pajitnov.
A Dutch designer named Henk Rogers headed to the USSR to broker a deal, entirely unaware that a representative from Mirrorsoft, the late Robert Maxwell’s son Kevin, had also landed in Moscow to make an offer of his own. Rogers unexpectedly faced a two-hour grilling from Soviet government representatives, yet managed to use his charm to get hold of the Tetris rights. Robert Maxwell attempted to appeal directly to President Gorbachev in a last-ditch attempt to secure the deal, but it was too late: the rights belonged to Rogers, who in turn had brokered a lucrative deal with Nintendo.
This spelled trouble for Sega, since it had already produced thousands of copies of Tetris for the Sega Mega Drive. These had to be recalled at an unspecified (but probably painful) cost. Nintendo, of course, soon enjoyed the spoils of victory. Tetris went on to become the title that sold millions of Game Boy handhelds.
These days, the games industry has grown to the extent that launching a major game is an enormous high-stakes gamble. Scottish developer Realtime Worlds, for example, spent millions on APB – a game it hoped would be an online answer to Grand Theft Auto (Realtime founder David Jones had worked on the original GTA games). Production on APB took five years, yet after all the hype and anticipation, it was a misfire. Reviews were disparaging, and the players failed to show up in significant numbers. APB was ultimately rescued from oblivion and relaunched as APB: Reloaded. Its creators were not so lucky, and Realtime closed in 2010.
Behind these games are ordinary people with potentially fascinating stories to tell. What’s it like to work for years on a game, only to see it sink within weeks? What’s it like to be the boss of a company that employs hundreds and spends millions on one game? How do they sleep at night?
We’ve seen numerous films about filmmaking over the years: Shadow of the Vampire, the fanciful retelling of how FW Murnau made the classic Nosferatu. Ed Wood, the biopic of one of America’s most well-meaning but inept movie directors. Hitchcock, Sacha Gervasi’s soft-focus look at the making of Psycho.
The games industry is a fascinating collision of art and commerce. Making games rakes in the full gamut of human experience: obsessions, hopes, betrayal, secrecy, shattered dreams. These are all the ingredients you need to write an effective story, and you’re as likely to find them in the behind-the-scenes world of games as you are Nosferatu or Hitchcock’s Psycho. Surely then, it’s about time the games industry got a great movie of its own.