[This time we're going retro, and UK-retro at that. On our blighted isle, Cannon Fodder was one of the more iconic games in a generation of software with one of the greatest theme tunes of all time. For the making of the sequel, I talk to Stuart Campbell, the designer. Stuart is better known for his games writing, where he remains the most controversial journalist the UK has ever produced. That is, a lot of people hate him, which is always a sign you're doing something right. If you like this, Stuart has gone into enormous detail on each level of the game over at his site. CF2 is also available on The Underdogs.]
Cannon Fodder had everything. A pixel-perfect blend of action and strategy with a small squad of men versus intricately designed levels. The greatest game theme tune of all time in the form of the lazy skank of “War’s Never Been So Much Fun”. A splash of controversy over its use of the military poppy, with national outcry from the tabloids over its insult at the old boys. Ironic, when you consider that Cannon Fodder was one of the most anti-military wargames of all time. How do you follow all that?
Well, that was the task which faced Stuart Campbell. Star reviewer for seminal videogames magazine Amiga Power, he stepped behind the curtain to design the sequel. “I'd loved CF1 when it came out, for its originality, sense of humour and intuitive, accessible controls,” Stuart recalls, “But by the time I got to Sensible I'd been horribly frustrated by the sudden brick wall of difficulty it hit you with on Mission 8, and liked it a lot less. I wanted a game that was very much like Cannon Fodder, but better.”
The time-travel high-concept had already been decided before Stuart even arrived at their head-quarters. That left him to concentrate on removing what were the worst excesses of the first game. “As far as I was concerned, my job was to amplify all the good stuff about the first game, and prune out the dull bits,” he recalls, “So the first things to go were those vast levels where you spent 10 minutes trudging across a massive landscape and wading slowly across massive rivers, only to get instantly twatted by a rocket-launcher and have to start again”. The rivers are a good example of something snipped away. “I absolutely hated going in the water in the first game - it was slow and annoying and unfair and unrealistic,” Stuart argues, “I mean, if you're crossing a river and someone starts shooting at you, you wouldn't just stand there getting wet and dead, would you? It made no sense that you didn't just lift your rifle to shoulder-height and fire, and since there was nothing I could do to let the troopers fire from the water, the obvious solution was to not have them go into any water in the first place. I wanted the sequel to be all meat, all action, no padding. And I wanted it to start off hard and get steadily harder, not have half-a-dozen levels of tutorial
then suddenly fling you off a cliff.”
Compared to most developers we talk to in this column, Stuart’s path to designer is unusual. He didn’t climb the development pole, but move straight from writing about games to making them. Was there much culture clash? “The pace took some getting used to - compared to working on a magazine, development goes at a crawl,” he recalls, “Otherwise, it's pretty similar. In both cases you're a group of young men doing a fun creative job in a fairly small and close-knit team, and then going to the pub quite a lot. You do get a much broader perspective from working on mags, though, because you see so many games - as a developer you're naturally quite narrowly focused. You have to make a conscious effort to stay aware of the outside world, which is probably why CF2 is so full of cross-cultural references from music, movies, comics and the like.” He doesn’t lie. Cannon Fodder has more references to the Jesus and Mary Chain than any game other than EA’s ill-fated Need for Speed: Psychocandy edition.
Cannon Fodder was what we’d probably call a semi-sequel now – the stand-alone add-on pack. As much content as the original game, with all new graphics but with no major changes to the actual structure. Working from tried and tested technology did have its advantages. “Well, obviously it cuts out most of the problems with bugs and stuff, which is handy when you've got a programmer who can't be arsed coming into work half the time,” Stuart ruefully notes, “But mostly it was limiting, because I didn't want to just churn out another 72 levels of the same thing as the first game, but because it was using the existing engine I couldn't introduce so much as a single new gameplay element. So the big challenge was trying to use the ones that
were already there in new and inventive ways, to try to keep the game fresh for people who'd played the first one to death.”
It’s this creativity in the face of technological adversity where Stuart’s most pleased with, looking back. “I'm really proud of how sneaky some of the levels are,” he claims, “I designed lots of them to have a really obvious - but extremely hard - solution, and another one that required a lot more cleverness to figure out, but would reward you by being much easier to actually do. I was really chuffed when people found the "proper" routes. But what pleased me especially were the levels where people worked out solutions that I hadn't even thought of. I love games where you can outsmart the designer and get away with it because there isn't some artificial barrier stopping you from completing a level the "wrong" way. It's like a little challenge between you and the player - a designer should always work on the principle "I'm trying to make you go this way, but if you can spot a weakness in my defences and exploit it, fair play to you."”
Conversely, there’s little which he dwells upon too negatively. “There are a few levels that are just TOO hard, because it's such an easy pitfall to stumble into when you're making your first game - you play and test it so much that you get supernaturally good, and you keep making it harder because you think everyone else will breeze through it in a day,” he muses, “But there's nothing in there as hateful as CF1's Mission 8.” There’s also the small matter of the slightly random sense of progression through the level. “I really wish Virgin hadn't cheaped out on including the storyline I wrote in the manual, because without it the game makes no narrative sense at all,” he claims, “But hey - if you want narrative, buy a book.”
Upon release, many critiqued the Alien-world levels. Stuart remains unrepentant. “They can kiss my pie-hole,” he exclaims, “It's weird - I actually think the medieval levels, for example, are much weaker visually. But people get strangely exercised about alien worlds for some reason - I remember all the flak Perfect Dark on the N64 took for having them, and Half-Life too. (Not that I ever saw Half-Life's, of course. Life's too short.) As a designer and as a gamer, I don't much care about graphics - it's the gameplay that occupies my attention. Graphics are only there to show you where everything is. They're like a good football referee - if they're doing their job properly, you shouldn't even notice that they're there. If people are looking at the graphics, your game's boring.”
Over ten years on from Cannon Fodder 2, and the industry has changed completely. From his experience constructing the game, what would he say to the creators today? He’s characteristically outspoken. “I can't even begin to imagine what goes on in the minds of modern developers, so I wouldn't presume to offer them advice,” Stuart exclaims, “PC gaming left me standing by the side of the road, watching in helpless despair, years ago. CF2 pretty much happened on the cusp of a hideous paradigm shift in game development, in which all the previous values - accessibility, fun, a sense of humour, that sort of thing - were ditched for endless sub-Tolkien fantasy shit, nerds-only controls, online play in place of proper challenge, and bogus "realism". The last ten years of PC gaming have been like watching a slasher flick when the stupid teens decide to split up to search the spooky house for the psychopathic murderer, and the cutest, most innocent girl heads for the door to the cellar. Come to think of it, that's the lesson I wish most modern game developers would learn - "Hey, we should go and look for the deranged axe-wielding murderer in the basement!"”