Games Britannia Gets Digital

By John Walker on December 16th, 2009 at 12:47 am.

A trustworthy face.

There’s something magical in Britain. It’s called BBC Four. Bear with me if you’re a Briton, you’re likely acutely aware of the channel, and how it’s a BBC cable channel for higher-brow programming, a mix of documentary, drama and comedy that perhaps doesn’t possess the mainstream appeal necessary for one of the terrestrial Beeb channels. For those abroad it’s – oh, I’ve cleverly already said. And over the last couple of weeks there’s been a series of hour-long documentaries by Benjamin Woolley, Games Britannia, on the history of gaming. And we’re talking the long view.

Beginning in the Iron Age, the first episode looked at the origin of games, and their influences over the next thousand years. The second investigates the social impact of board games over the last 200 years. Those within licence fee-paying territory can watch the first episode here and the second episode here. However, it’s next Monday’s episode that draws today’s attention, thanks to the phenomenally large link Cigol emailed us. (It was in giant letters, seriously.) It’s about those-there modern games that crackle with the flow of electricity. Sadly due to the bum-wobbling idiocy of the iPlayer not letting you embed promo videos I can’t put this short clip of international super-megastar Charlie Brooker being interviewed about his gaming desires below, so instead you’ll have to watch it here.

(Charlie Brooker, you see, used to be the guy in PC Zone who wrote the grumpy reviews of the crappy games. Now he’s about as ubiquitous on UK television as David Mitchell, money exploding out of his upstairs windows. I’m just saying. I’M JUST SAYING. I mean, I’m just saying I’ve been writing grumpy reviews of crappy games in PC Gamer for TEN YEARS. Is all. I don’t even want to be on the telly! Just the radio. That’s all! Just one little radio programme in which I get to be grumpy. Is that SO MUCH TO ASK? But I wish him well.)

Apologies to non-Brits reading who will likely be prevented from watching the programme via the cruelty of the regionalised internet. (Just imagine how we feel every time someone links to something on Hulu.) You can find out all about the upcoming and final episode of the series, Joystick Generation, by clicking here. Or if you’re lazy, read this:

“In the 1980s, the power of our imagination was harnessed in early video games like Elite, putting the audience at the heart of a space adventure they could influence. The British boom years of the 90s introduced characters like Lara Croft to a world beyond video games and players were propelled into the internet age.

Woolley’s investigation leads to the present day, where he finds our morality tested in the world of Grand Theft Auto and our identity becoming transported to the digital domain with virtual realms like Runescape and World of Warcraft.”

(What’s good is I’m not bitter.)

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55 Comments »

  1. [dandan] says:

    Well from all the things I’ve seen him in one thing’s for sure; Brooker never, ever seems to tone it down. Which is unpleasant and endearing at the same time.

  2. DJ Phantoon says:

    I don’t live in Britain, so I don’t get to pay all of your lovely taxes, but I do love practiced cynicism. Also you can watch Screenwipe on Youtube, though I don’t know if you’re supposed to be allowed to. And all the good bits on that episode about sexuality in television got cut. Because y’know. Youtube.

    There’s a pretty big difference between the mini computer consoles like the PS3 and Xbox which rarely offer anything the PC doesn’t (go go gadget proprietary titles!) and the Wii, which is actually a video game console. I hope they offer this as something for debate, because honestly I regret getting an Xbox, and also regret not buying a Wii sooner, since a PC is still single player per unit (for the most part).

    Obviously the conclusion at the end in terms of gaming will be “just buy a PC, and if you really want a console, buy a Wii.”

    • Jockie says:

      Pretty sure Charlie Brooker said at some point on his Twitter he doesn’t mind at all that his TV shows are on youtube, although the BBC might have a different opinion.

      I just hope the TV show doesn’t wax on for half an hour about ‘The Lara Croft Phenomenon’ or something to that effect.

    • Tom Camfield says:

      @ DJ Phantoon

      I own a 360, but no PC.

      While I wouldn’t recommend a 360 to a PC owner, my Xbox lets me play PC games from the couch, and lets me play games like Left 4 Dead split screen with buddies in the same room, so it’s pretty neat.

      NB I read this site because it’s well written, even if I can’t join in with Zeno Clash style hijinks :)

    • Premium User Badge oceanclub says:

      ““just buy a PC, and if you really want a console, buy a Wii.”

      Hmm, that was my exact reason for buying a Wii, but I still get more use out of my XBox these days. Don’t think I’ve even turned the Wii on in months, while the Xbox – which I play the occasional game on – is great for streaming music and TV.

      P.

    • Dr. Wily says:

      @ Tom Camfield

      Surely you mean you own no gaming-capable PC? Unless you made that post from the comfort of your local library, in which case – as the husband of a public librarian – I salute you!

  3. 12kill4 says:

    (this was in response to a comment claiming that if you wanted a Console experience you should buy a wii, otherwise just buy a PC and that the Xbox 360 and PS3 offer comparitively similar experiences to the PC. The post was seemingly deleted whilst i was writing the response… go figure… but damn it i wrote it, so im gunna post it!)

    That might be true if it weren’t for the fact that the vast majority of wii titles are shovel-ware. Furthermore the assumption that the wii’s motion input differentiates it from the more traditional inputs of xboxes and ps3s is largely in error given the fact that the majority of motion inputs used in wii games are simply substitutions for button presses with little or no dynamic or analogue variation as a result of the fluctuations in physical motion. While theseissues are largely a result of the software being developed, the limitations of the hardware are also responsible. I feel that the development culture aimed at attracting non-gamers may also have a hand in this as casual players are hypothetically less likely to/familiar with engaging with complex control systems. To be clear: I’ve been a PC gamer since my dad introduced me to lemmings at the age of 4 (now 20), I do however own a wii (which I bought at launch expecting the exact same thing as you stated above) and this time last year I picked up a 360. I use the 360 mainly for the media center and the only thing I’ve played on my wiii the last 18 months is new super Mario bros- which essentially ignores motion control.

    • JuJuCam says:

      My take is that the wii suffered from developers not understanding how to take advantage of the unique possibilities of the device. It should be noted that first party Nintendo titles are both extremely well polished and generally make good use of the controller’s options. Second party wii exclusives vary in quality greatly and the less said about ports from more PC-esque consoles the better (although here’s a hint – they’re often worse than ports to PC. Imagine that.) As always, exceptions etc, but the fact is Nintendo marketed the wii – also the DS – as family oriented toys for nonserious gamers and they have reaped what they sowed in terms of developer and publisher support.

      Ultimately I definitely agree with most of DJ Phantoon’s sentiments. If you own a decent gaming PC then an XBOX 360 or PS3 is almost vestigial. Almost. There are two major reasons I think they still may be worth having if you have the spare change. Firstly even largely single player experiences can be surprisingly social. I’ve said before Just Cause 2 looks like a perfect beer and pretzels night in to pass the controller around with your mates. I have friends that do it with Assassin’s Creed 2. Secondly playing games on a computer monitor is a different experience entirely to playing on even a half decent home theatre setup from the couch. Especially in terms of point the first.

    • Chaz says:

      I think the problem the Wii has, is that in setting itself aside from the crowd, it can’t support any of the big name AAA cross platform titles that get all the dev money, and usually the sales at the shop counter. The hardware isn’t powerful enough and it has an unusual controller system to support. So far the Wii seems to be akin to the Cube in terms of games out put, i.e. a few must have 1st party Nintendo titles and the odd 3rd party gem. Most Wii owners I know don’t own more than 2 or 3 games for the system anyway, and one of those being Wii Sport that came free with the console. I mean does anyone actually buy a Wii as a serious games machine? On the flip side it has meant that the DS and Wii have cornered the market for non gaming applications like Brain Training and Wii Fit.

    • archonsod says:

      So plug your home theatre into your PC and use wireless peripherals. Problem solved :P

      In fact, plug your TV into your PC, disconnect your external arial and only watch things on I Player and you can avoid paying the TV license to boot.

    • neems says:

      I wonder if the Wii is somewhat hamstrung by over adherence to gaming convention? Developers try to shoe horn motion controls into existing game types, and try to make casual gamers play first person shooters and platform games and what have you.

      Games like Wii sports are perfect for the target audience, as you are actually trying to directly ape known behaviour / skills rather than introduce mechanics that are decidedly counter-intuitive to the average non-gamer.

      Of course this poses problems from a developmental viewpoint, as the only people who know how to make games may not be ideally suited to designing them for such a platform.

      I hope that made sense?

      Also, if you unplug your TV aerial and only use it to watch BBC I-player… you still need a licence. If you are using a television at all, then you need a licence. Sad but true.

    • JuJuCam says:

      @archonsod plugging the PC into the home theatre may be a viable solution for many, but I personally would find it frustrating for a number of reasons. Chiefly, when I sit in front of my home theatre I want immediate, trouble free entertainment. DVDs, music, gaming, I expect it to Just Work(TM).

      A PC is a different beast entirely. It’s a sad state of affairs that I almost expect there to be problems with any given game on any given setup and I generally take the time to read up on anything that might crop up while I wait for the game to download, or look for possible optimisations for my system. But it’s fine, because it’s a PC and I have the level of control to deal with it and a twisted part of me that was raised on tweaking config.sys and autoexec.bat enjoys the heck out of this type of problem solving. But it’s not something I want to go through with a TV.

  4. Gabanski83 says:

    John: Can’t you get involved to some extent with something similar to Gaming Gents, a new thing I’ve seen with Ryan off Consolevania involved in it? I mean, it’s no BBC4 documentary, but wouldn’t something like that be somewhere to start?

    I’ve always enjoyed the more acerbic reviews in PC Gamer and PC Zone; it’d be good to see more of it from just Charlie Brooker hitting the more mainstream media outlets.

  5. Santiago says:

    “Woolley’s investigation leads to the present day, where he finds our morality tested in the world of Grand Theft Auto and our identity becoming transported to the digital domain with virtual realms like Runescape and World of Warcraft.”

    Why that solemnity as if you were a Doctor or something? Are the viewers of this show “game virgins”?

    • dadioflex says:

      On a BBC 4 show – it’s possible they are.

    • l1ddl3monkey says:

      The target demographic for a lot of BBC4′s programming is the same people least likely to own TV sets. Cynically I think that may be the point of BBC4 -to help snap up those last few non-licence payers.

    • Rosti says:

      l1ddl3monkey: That’s not really cynical at all – the BBC exists to provide worthwhile entertainment to the whole country. True, in this case it’s a little visionary…

  6. Gpig says:

    If it’s not The Longest Journey then it’s Charlier Brooker. Always crying over something, that John Walker.

    • Gpig says:

      See me next Kieron Gillen post where I’ll drop by to make a hilarious quip about how new games journalism is good, but if only you could talk to the journalists.

  7. Mike Russo says:

    David Mitchell is on UK TV all the time? Like, the guy who wrote Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas? That is cool enough that I am fairly convinced this must be a put-on.

  8. Magos says:

    @Mike Russo:

    Nah, it’s not David Mitchell the author, but David Mitchell the Cambridge educated comedian (c.f. Peep Show, That Mitchell and Webb Look, and almost every British comedy panel show ever).

    To be honest, I did spend a few weeks thinking the two were the same person, and couldn’t for the life of me work out why he was writing bittersweet postmodern novels as a sideline to his TV work.

  9. Malagate says:

    Tom Camfield said:
    …even if I can’t join in with Zeno Clash style hijinks :)

    Oh but you will be able to, and soon! I do believe Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition will be coming out on the 360, with some extra content somewhere and multiplayer. Go find the Zeno Clash blog, it’s got info there (and not yet confirmed for PC yet iirc).

  10. Kieron Gillen says:

    Gpig: The problem with talking to the new games journalists is the risk of the new games journalists talking back.

    (“Don’t mention the War” – NGJ Ed)

    KG

  11. phil says:

    Wasn’t Brooker’s big break TVGoHome, which led to the Screen Burn column, the Nathan Barley series and ultimately to him becoming a grumpy screen behemoth?

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Phil: Yes. Games journos – not John – who roll eyes at Brooker should try doing some work occasionally.

      KG

    • Premium User Badge AndrewC says:

      @KG: John isn’t a journo now?

    • John Walker says:

      I think (hope) that Kieron is acknowledging that my complaining is irony – Brooker worked phenomenally hard to get where he is, and deserves every bit of it.

    • Premium User Badge AndrewC says:

      Actually do either of you know him? I just want to know if, deep down, he’s alright and capable of joy. I want him to be happy.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      AndrewC: As John says. Typing quickly as am only passing internet. John’s being playful. There’s others who have been more seriously whiney. Fuck ‘em.

      And no, don’t know Brooker. Though did know a girl who dated him, oddly.

      KG

  12. MadMatty says:

    likely theyll skim modern computer games- an hour programme wont cover much- but HEY- its on TV or whatever.
    I think i´ve compiled so much computer game info from reading alone, i probably have enough for a 1 hour programme every week for a couple of years :0

  13. Umpaidh says:

    Been watching this and so far have enjoyed it.
    Had to chuckle when they said AD&D was Games workshop tho hehe.
    Think they got the idea from Kieron’s 7in1 review tho ;)

    • archonsod says:

      Games Workshop originally made their living importing D&D from the States, alongside Traveller and stuff. They would probably have became the British wing of TSR if Messrs. Livingstone and Jackson hadn’t read a couple of Moorcock novels and thought they could do a better fantasy game themselves. Wasn’t until the mid – late 80′s that D&D in the UK didn’t have a GW stamp.

    • Umpaidh says:

      true aye, but this was the only time games workshop was mentioned.

  14. adamface says:

    BBC Radio 4′s ‘Front Row’ program had a feature on Super Mario on Monday night. Maybe the BBC are finally coming round?

  15. LewieP says:

    If USA folk really want, I can rip it from the iPlayer and post it online elsewhere.

  16. mandrill says:

    For those of us who cannot access TV on the Iplayer, there are always proxies, or piratebay

    BBC 4 occasionally has some things which are worth watching and seeing as the Beeb won’t let me pay a subscripition to access their programming via iPlayer from abroad (a model that is pretty much as old as the internet) I feel quite justified in getting them via Piratebay. They can send me a bill if they like and I’ll pay it (as long as it is reasonable).

    I wonder If the Beeb realises how big a market they are missing out on.

  17. Dubbill says:

    BBC4 aired a 1-hour documentary on krautrock a while back. It’s the best channel ever.

  18. sfury says:

    I remember had been looking for a way to watch Hulu and iPlayer for out-out-landers like me, and found this link with a solution:

    http://www.kaisersblog.com/2009/01/how-to-watch-hulu-and-bbc-iplayer-outside-us-or-uk/

    Now, I still haven’t tried it, but if anyone’s in the same situation and wants to try it – do say if it works.

  19. Muzman says:

    Spare a thought for the Antipoders who can’t watch Hulu orhalf the stuff on the BBC. Is it any wonder we turn to crime?

    Anyway, is Brooker really rolling in it? The ~wipe series seems to have been made on a shoestring with a rotating staff of about 6-8 people, which is madness. Maybe all the money went to paying him. Who knows.
    Anyway, envy is unbecoming. I’m sure whatever disused ammo dump the RPSers huddle in is full of character.

  20. BAReFOOt says:

    Well, their regionalized Internet just means, that instead of them having a chance to ask us if we want to see the ads, or maybe pay a little, we will be pulling it off of BitTorrent & co. Yeah, way to go… ^^

    • sfury says:

      …if someone is kind enough to rip it.

      Fellow British RPSers:

      *nudge* *nudge* *wink*

    • sfury says:

      forgot a wink there…

    • TeeJay says:

      They have been trying to set up a service like this but “Project Kangaroo” an online TV-on-demand joint venture between ITV, Channel 4 and BBC Worldwide, was blocked from launching last January by the UK Competition Commission: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kangaroo_(video_on_demand)

      It’s replacement – “SeeSaw” – is currently in invitation-only beta: http://www.seesaw.com/

      Having all programmes available internationally is complicated by ‘BBC Worldwide’ also selling its programmes to overseas broadcasters who then have exclusive broadcast rights in their territories. Also some content in BBC programmes might only be licensed for broadcast within the UK.

  21. Rei Onryou says:

    I have never seen one of these “crappy game reviews” John claims to have written for the past 10 years, even though I’ve read PC Gamer for around 10+ years. However, his “reviews of crappy games” are brilliant.

    As for being on radio, you have at least TWO podcasts behind your back to be grumpy on. But you’re always so pleasant. Time to take a leaf out of Alec’s book, mayhaps?

  22. LionsPhil says:

    …Charlie Brooker…

    Well, that’s that ruined then. Gameswipe was bloody terrible. As I noted at the time:

    Any programme that starts off with “games aren’t for losers”, even if
    doing it via sarcastic inversion, starts off at -5. It is pretty much
    pure emo “nobody understands meeeee and the world is so harsh”.

    “Acerbic” critics like Yahtzee (who apparently cites Brooker as an influence!) and our esteemed Mr Walker can complain without slitting their wrists at the same time. This makes the infinitely more tolerable and entertaining.

  23. Howl says:

    PC Zone hasn’t been worth wiping your arse with since around the time that Dave Woods stopped being the editor and Charlie Brooker disappeared from its pages. For at least 5+ years it’s all been excitable reviewers, barely out of adolescence, heads full of hype, giving out overinflated scores to every generic piece of tosh with a big publisher behind it. The magazine seems only interested in getting exclusives on the cover. Not nearly enough dick jokes or litigious comments about Frenchmen and Americans imo…

  24. LionsPhil says:

    @jsutcliffe: I clicked the first gaming-related article on that list, and the whole first paragraph is full of the same “wah, we’re not taken seriously” complaining. I couldn’t see another article on the topic on that page.

    My opinion remains unchanged. I’ll spend my Guardian-column-reading time on David Mitchell instead, ta.

    • TeeJay says:

      Reading almost any one of the other 500-odd not-game-related articles might give you a better idea about his writing/comedy style. Personally I think he is at his best when riffing on bizarre/random day-to-day subjects and social observation.

  25. dadioflex says:

    So what did we think?

    I fell asleep about three quarters of the way in, and didn’t feel the urge to “rewind” the recording. Seemed like a harmless, positive even, introduction to the subject, hamstrung by trying to explain a global phenomenon from a purely UK viewpoint.

  26. adamface says:

    Yeah it was a good overview. The presenter showed at the least open-mindedness and enthusiasm at a lot of points, but the attempt to organize the changes and trends in game development into a coherent timeline fell a bit flat. Worth watching though.

  27. dadioflex says:

    It was interesting to see someone who had obviously never played a game get a real rush from shooting something in Elite (or an Elite remake?)

  28. Tim Miller says:

    Yes – it was Elite: the New Kind. I had it on my work laptop along with some save states, so we were able to get it working much quicker.

    Ben really was that excited to kill something. He never managed to dock though.