Irish television writer and comedian Graham Linehan is responsible for such notable TV sitcoms as Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd. His work has earned him a shelf full of BAFTAs and even a coveted Emmy. Like The IT Crowd’s Maurice Moss character, though, Linehan has is own geeky streak, being a lifelong gamer.
What was your first experience with videogames?
Back in the dawn of time, it was Pong and pinball machines before that, and then being fascinated by Space Invaders. What happened with me is that I immediately loved the first computer games and I used to love going to arcades. There were two arcades in Dublin I used to go to regularly and I used to play games like Joust and Ghosts N’ Goblins there, just really pumped money into them. And then they made the trip home, and I went with them. So I started on the Spectrum with Manic Miner. I used to love Bugaboo (The Flea), and I just always stayed interested in it.
I think that’s the difference between people who like computer games and people who don’t. The people who like them can usually remember how basic they used to be so that the graphical improvements you get now are astonishing to those people. The people who didn’t follow it don’t understand. Sometimes I show my wife something like Battlefield 3 and say, ‘Look! The environments!’ She just doesn’t get it.
Many people who were there when videogames arrived might’ve viewed it as a fad, but presumably it meant something more to you.
I think I was too young to think of it in those terms. I just felt every new evolution and I wasn’t thinking of it in a critical way at all for a good long time. The things I thought of critically were books and films. I didn’t really develop a critical sense about games until games started getting much better.
What sort of games do you gravitate toward nowadays?
Well I’ve gone through a long period of being completely obsessed with Battlefield 3. It seems so incredibly deep in terms of different playing styles. And also I love the social aspect of it when I can get online; it’s the first game where I can actually discuss tactics while we’re playing. In previous multiplayer games, you can really talk about anything except the game while you’re playing because the game kind of takes care of itself. In Modern Warfare you’re running around these little rat mazes, it seems to me there’s not much room for tactics, but in Battlefield there’s such an incredible range of situations. Every game feels different and I’m really getting a lot out of that.
When people talk about games being art, I think great art produces a kind of awe in the person who happens to be reading it or watching it or whatever. And I think there are moments in games where you get an equivalent feeling of awe. Something like Shadow Of The Colossus, you got that a few times, and even in Zelda. The first time I felt that was when I got to the end of the first day in Majora’s Mask and thought, that’s the shortest game I’ve ever played, that’s just terrible. And then I suddenly realised that you’re going to be playing the day over and over. And more of the world would become accessible to you during this repeated Groundhog Day. I thought, oh my god, that’s just extraordinary. It’s moments like that that make games special for me. I think Minecraft is the latest to do that for me. I haven’t been able to crack Minecraft, but I can see that it’s giving that experience to many of its players.
You’re a fairly pacifistic fellow. How does the content of a game like Battlefield 3 tally with your perspective on war?
A friend approached me on Twitter and said he worked at a games company that produced a firstperson shooter of some sort, and he worked there when the second Iraq war started. Somebody came into the office and said, "We’re going to be rich". That put me off those kind of scumbag, racist games. But the thing that’s really clever about the campaign mode in Battlefield 3 is that you’re following behind two of your squad, and one of them is kind of coming out with all this liberal, hippie-dippy stuff and kind of being a bit ignorant about the whole reason they’re there. When I sense that there’s intelligence behind the game or when I sense that the writer has actually done some research, then I feel completely ok about playing it until three in the morning.
Do you play with a tight-knit group of friends? Or are you happy playing with strangers?
I never play with strangers, no. The problem with that is that you kind of open yourself up to abuse. So I tend to open up a party when I start so that I’m on my own. So people who are my friends can join.
When we met a few years ago for an Edge roundtable discussion (in E156) about story and dialogue and acting in games, you weren’t very complimentary about the state of the art at the time. Do you feel like there’s been any progress since?
There are individual cases where there has been. In Battlefield 3 it’s extraordinarily good. Sometimes I laugh in delight at the things fellow soldiers are saying within the game. But then you get something like Dark Souls, which is a fantastic game, but the voice acting is maybe the worst I’ve ever heard. And my favourite example of it is one character saying ‘throw me a bone, would you?’ with a tone suggesting, 'how dare you throw me a bone?' It was a really good example of the director of the English translation wasn’t even in the room when it was recorded. Some of these games feel that it’s just not worth spending the money on these aspects of the game.
When I did that roundtable, I think I was suffering from just as much of a confusion around what the role of a writer in a game is. I was brought on at a very late stage to LittleBigPlanet 2, and I did a little bit of script editing on that and offered some suggestions. But the thing I realised – and I think [Media Molecule] realised this as well - is that bringing a writer in at a late stage is almost the same thing as not bringing in a writer at all. The writer has to be involved at a core level.
Somebody once pointed out that writing in games is more a question of world creation, and so the writer has to be involved at a very early level. It can’t be just a case of coming in and doing punch-up to the dialogue. Because sometimes the story is so strange and odd and unintelligible that it’s just impossible to do those kind of punch-ups, and what you get is the kind of default mode of wise-cracks that are familiar to people who watch really bad children’s television. You know that kind of children’s television that’s aimed more at adults than children? That’s the kind of writing you get a lot.
But there are hundreds of games where the writer’s been brought on early on, and it shows – Enslaved, for example. Now I know it’s Alex Garland who wrote The Beach, but you can just tell he was involved from an early stage because all these tropes that you see in games are just so much better explained than usual, and clearer, and there’s not pages of exposition, it’s very character-driven, so that’s what needs to be done. I think basically they can often get away without doing that, as long as they have good special effects of a body exploding.
It always puts me off games when I hear things like Sniper Elite V2 promoting the fact that when a bullet hits the bad guys, you get an x-ray version of the bullet going through their bodies. That for me is automatically a sign the game has no idea, don’t buy it, when you hear something like that. Just ridiculous.