Comedian, broadcaster, creator of Black Mirror, Gameswipe, Nathan Barley and previous PC Zoner Charlie Brooker and I went to the pub and talked about videogames. If I had to review him I would give him 9/10 for hyperrealistic beard graphics, and 8/10 for volume/sound because he was a tad quiet on my recording due to the man next to us in the corner chaperoning us and being creepy. He gets 3/10 for pint handling but 10/10 for pint buying. Submit to Metacritic. (Which should make clear that I don’t really know how Metacritic works.)
What follows is an hour and a half of chat about arcade machines, free to play games, The Last of Us, Syndicate Wars being the best game ever, Nathan Barley, Black Mirror, Portal 2 co-op, and games journalism as a whole. I also had a message to him from Martin Hollis, which went down better than expected. This is part one of Charlie Brooker's Gaming Made Me.
Like paying to be punched in the face: arcades
Charlie Brooker encountered his first glimmer of the preternatural pixel when sneaking off from his parents at the swimming pool. “We used to go swimming as a family... and they had sort of a couple of arcade machines. They were the first ones that I can remember seeing: Space Invader machines, Breakout machines. Circus or something with a seesaw... two guys who had to... jump up and down?” He gestures, and I sort of shake my head and protest ignorance and say my first arcade machine was Street Fighter II at the ice rink. “Yes, see, I am about a hundred years old,” he says, grinning. “See I remember seeing those and thinking, and thinking clearly there was something interesting about them. I think it was because I was obsessed with television: it was like a TV you could control, basically. ...I didn’t have money to go and play them, but I’d stand there and be and they'd be on attract mode and I’d be sitting there fiddling with the joysticks and convinced myself that I was actually playing the game even though I wasn’t. That would be the highlights of the trip to the swimming pool.”
I say something about the arcade culture in Britain seeming to not really last that long, musing foolishly on an era in which I was probably only the constituent parts of a person. Brooker seems unsentimental about the whole thing. “I wasn’t aware that there was any arcade culture in Britain. I guess if you grew up at the seaside or something there were arcades, but as far as I was concerned the only time you encountered something like that was if they were in a leisure centre or swimming pool. Or when the local fair would come round and they’d have a Star Wars arcade machine... I’d encounter things like Outrun for the first time. ...They didn’t really come very often, and it was expensive - it was really expensive - 10 or 20p or whatever it was, and games were so unforgiving it didn’t last very long, you didn’t get much fun out of it. It was like paying to be punched in the face or something. You just accepted that you’d have a game that lasted 45 seconds and then it was over. That was kind of accepted.”
Bitter angry reviews over a 59p app
We compare arcade machines to the free-to-play balls that is going on now. “I can’t work out if [free to play iPhone games] are actually worse value or equivalent to arcade machines - they certainly were at the time. Similar, I would say.” I say I think there are some obstacles between the younger player and free-to-play. Perhaps though, the reliance on credit cards linked to iTunes accounts is becoming a tad dangerous. “I think [the free-to-play arcade style games on iPhones] are more annoying now,” Brooker says. “The implication is that you are getting something for nothing, which you’re just not. It was more of an honest transaction when you had an arcade machine, it was just flat-nose difficult and charged you for the privilege, at least you knew what you were getting. Mind you, people today wouldn’t put up with that - people leave bitter angry reviews over a 59p app that sort of lasted them less than ten hours.
“...It’s come in slowly hasn’t it, that sense of entitlement? And everyone’s got it. I’m the same. Wherever you are, you could be sitting here, and it could be free wi-fi, and if it goes slow you fucking moan about it.”
Aesthetically irritating: comments threads
I wonder out loud about the entitlement of the internet commenter. Perhaps we should do away with comments sections? “I can kind of understand the value of [comments] if you’re writing things to provoke a conversation or debate,” he muses. “Fair enough, whenever you want to hear from everyone. Whenever I’m writing things I don’t - I’m not really interested in it, I’m sort of doing a little routine basically and I don’t think comments have a place in that. Personally I find them aesthetically irritating whether they are good or bad. And I get an easy ride in the comments generally, because I’m not a woman, which gives you an extra 50% bonus where comments are concerned. And I seem to get a relatively easy ride.” But he says, “I do still find myself annoyed.” I say he must get a lot of replies on Twitter. “Well, that is expected, isn’t it, it’s just a cloud of shit. I think it just depends on what you’re hoping to achieve when you’re writing an article. I’m only ever trying to entertain. And it sort of annoys me that they put comments on the page.
“I feel it’s just a pain in the arse. It’s like if I’m reading a book I don’t want to read a fucking footnote written by a - have you ever read something on a Kindle, and you can see what things other people have underlined?” He assumes I might not be a technology neanderthal. I have never even touched a Kindle, so again I shake my head. I am currently recording his voice with a smashed-up iPhone.
“On the Kindle there’s a thing called ‘popular highlights’ or something,” he says, “if you switch that on, you can see what bits other people have underlined. Which is interesting, but also spoils the book as you’re reading it because it tells you what bits other people reading it found significant.” I said that sounds like kicking yourself in the face. He says if you’ve written a book, it’s pretty fucking interesting. “You can see what other people have highlighted and then you’re like okay, it boils down to that. Okay.”
“I got my first job writing for the paper because of a website I’d done [TV Go Home], but it was sort of pre-comments. I think the big thing about it is that it’s affecting the way you write. What’s irritating is you know, whatever you’re writing, someone’s going to have a smartarse response, so you try to preempt that - just the worst - like you should have to be thinking about that. None of that should be there, but it is there, it’s part of the ecosystem now.”
I tell him about Soupgate. He looks slightly bewildered and says this wouldn’t happen to men in the same way. “What’s that about?” he says. “I’m fucking glad I’m not a woman. Because there seems to be a whole fucking layer of shit.” I say it’s probably kicking off big time because there’s a critical mass of women now, all not particularly interested in being treated differently any more. Brooker confesses he thinks the games ‘community’ we have is the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy where publishers intimate the sort of people who should be playing games - ‘imaginary adolescents’. “I mean most of the characters in major videogames are dicks,” he says. “Very very rarely are they anyone of interest.”
Something abstract, often for pages at a time: writing for PC Zone
“It’s so long since I did games journalism,” Brooker muses, “and I wasn’t very good at it I don’t think.” (I spray my pint quietly all over a man walking by.) “...I was good at certain aspects of it. What I liked about it was that you were writing about something abstract, often for pages at a time. When I was writing about videogames there weren’t many personalities involved that were really visible. And reviews were so dull... I had to write six pages or something on something fucking dull, and often they were quite abstract, or was after about two sentences, and you had pages and pages to fill with shit. And because the nature of the magazine I was writing for was irreverent, and you know, daft, it meant that you just got to indulge yourself.”
“It’s probably good training for something. But I don’t know if I was that good at being able to grade something’s worth on a long term scale. If I look back... I gave a lot of rave reviews of things that probably didn’t deserve it. I remember a review of Syndicate Wars saying ‘THIS IS THE BEST GAME EVER MADE ON ANY SYSTEM EVER’. It was just because if I really enjoyed playing something I’d get genuinely excited about it, overstating how good it was, which isn’t really fair on people who are buying it - they’d go, ‘What the fuck was he going on about?’”
I say there’s been a small rebellion against reviews being ‘buyer’s guides’ recently, some sites preferring to let the critic decide what in the game is worth expending words on. Charlie Brooker tells me ‘buyer’s guides’ were exactly what they were when he was writing reviews, although he qualifies that with: “It wasn’t, but it was. It ‘wasn’t’, but it was.” I say PC Zone practically moulded the ‘taking the piss’ form (you can read Will Porter's lovely eulogy here). “But we still had scores,” he says. “I don’t know if anyone ever said explicitly, but there was a sense that someone would withdraw advertising. There was a sense...occasionally, that something was expected to do well. How explicit that was...? I wrote a really negative review of something once, and the company involved did... I think they actually did pull their advertising or threaten to. I wasn’t exactly hauled over the coals but I was asked if it was absolutely justified what I’d written.”
Shut up about games
It is at this point I remember that Goldeneye 007 director/designer Martin Hollis told me to call Charlie Brooker a cunt, because his adoration in the games industry seems fairly widespread. So I tell Charlie Brooker that Martin Hollis told me to tell him he is a cunt. Brooker seems slightly flattered, if that’s a legitimate interpretation: “Well I would say to him,” he smiles, “that that’s not universally true. But I guess I’m one of the few people who still continues to talk about computer games in an area that is not to do with that. That’s rare. ...If I tweet something about computer games the number of people who just say, ‘Oh shut up talking about fucking kids’ games’.”
The comedian Rab Florence, RPS’s boardgames columnist (who also features in Brooker’s Gameswipe) told me he gets the same thing. When Rab tweets about games, people unfollow him. “I guess if people went on and on about sports that would be annoying. But that’s not my bag...” Brooker sort of interrupts himself. “What the fuck am I talking about? ‘Not my bag?’” I ask him if he is Austin Powers. “I dunno,” he says, a tad sheepishly. “That was a real cunty phrase I used wasn’t it.”
Games in wider media: actually really popular
“You only ever get one item on videogames in the mainstream media generally, and they’re fairly apologetic. ‘Wow, did you know they’re actually really popular?!’ is the item you get. I looked up - I found on Netflix a video game documentary from 1999 or something that was just obviously done for like, the learning channel or something... and it’s exactly what you’d expect - it starts off ‘actually videogames are a really fucking big industry, and some of them are like movies’ and because the graphics look so fucking shit by today’s standards, I just think if I was the average viewer... Why would anyone be bought over by this argument? Trying to compare it to a movie... There’s literally a bit where... I’m not sure what year it is but it shows something like the very first Driver game or something [Brooker completely cracks up at this point] and it goes, ‘It’s indistinguishable from a movie!’ Today that looks like the Dire Straits Money for Nothing video... something running on Teletext...”
Charlie Brooker's Gameswipe
But isn’t it the themes that are letting us down, not the graphics? Crysis 3 is beautiful, but show a clip of it on TV and it would look a little ridiculous still. “Well... I just played through the Last of Us, which I thought was brilliant. Really really really enjoyed it a lot. But it is still... My wife plays Portal 2, plays things like that, and I got the Last of Us and I was very excited: ‘Right, we’ll play this together’. And she wasn’t having any of it. After five minutes - as soon as they start talking about ‘The Fireflies’ and... I think it was pretty much the first time I smashed someone’s head against a table. And I played through the whole thing anyway, regardless of her feelings on the matter, even though it’s a brilliant brilliant game, there is something that I can’t quite square. It’s one of the best stories that I’ve seen in games, but there is still a ridiculous amount of just non-stop peril that’s slightly divorced from the story and I know there’s a logical reason for it to be all going on in the story - you’d never sit through a film with that level of violence going on for so long - like this is the most mental film I’ve ever seen.”
“In Farcry 3, the guy’s making an odd journey from being a fucking dick, to a murdering dick, but he's become like a warrior or something. The action consists of him killing about five hundred thousand fucking people." Brooker laughs. "The best I've seen is probably in the Last of Us, which was really really well done. It's got the best ending I've ever seen. And I understand that some people were disappointed with it."
"My theory is that video games are like speaking Esperanto," Brooker says. "Videogame players are like people who learnt Esperanto years ago. We all learnt Esperanto. And there's all these brilliant Esperanto-language films available, to use a metaphor. They only make sense if you know Esperanto, they don't have subtitles - but they're brilliant. And we keep telling people how good they are. But there's this learning curve which is that you have to learn fucking Esperanto. Because you only have to sit down with someone who doesn't play videogames to understand how high the bar to entry still is." Brooker goes on to talk about how his wife latched on to Portal 2 in a big way, and how conceptually it's not a simplistic game, and yet she was willing to overlook the barriers to playing. "It's not running and gunning," he says. "It's walking and thinking. She liked it because we were playing the co-op mode as well. It wasn't like I was standing behind her going 'no don't press that button, you can't open that door, no trust me that's part of the scenery'."
It is at this point we break for more pints. Second part of our chat can be found here, where we talk David Cage, Nathan Barley and Black Mirror, and, um, bums.