Alex Zane’s passion for movies might be a prominent part of his CV, what with his Sky Movies show 35mm and position as film critic for The Sun, but it’s videogames that kindled his love of an epic yarn. Wii Fit board – “there’s no more tragic image” – cast aside in favour of a comfy chair and pad, we settle down to discuss the Amiga golden age.
What’s your earliest gaming memory?
My uncle was quite into computers and he programmed a game of hangman on a ZX Spectrum. I remember playing it when I was five or six years old, just watching this little stickman gain a limb every time you got a letter wrong. But my first personal experience of going, “Right, this is gaming” was when I got an Acorn Electron. It came with a handful of games – one of them was Sphinx Adventure. It was all text-based, and I think you could type in ‘yes’, ‘no’ and which direction you wanted to go. I didn’t get very far – the only thing I remember is that no matter what I did, text always came up saying: ‘A dwarf has killed you with an axe’.
Are you a big adventure gamer?
I am, yeah. I like a good story. I think it probably comes from my love of film. And I love scale; an epic world that you become immersed in. I had an Amiga 500, and that was my golden era of gaming. Playing Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge – that was just a phenomenon for me. I always sought out games like that. I’m fully aware there are gaming worlds out there such as Xbox Live, but I just don’t do them – I game in a very solitary fashion. I think it’s because part of playing for me is escapism, as opposed to using it as a social tool. One of my friends was saying he plays FIFA Online, and because he’s not very good all he ever hears once his player gets the ball is people just screaming “Pass it!” into his ear. I don’t react well to being shouted at, let alone by a stranger. [Laughs.]
As a film fan and critic, what did you think of LA Noire?
I felt let down at the end, I expected more. I appreciated the dark ending, but I just felt that I’ve sat next to that dick in the pink jacket for so long having to listen to his crap that I wanted something bad to happen to him. Even if it was just an epilogue with some text on screen that read, ‘He fell over, couldn’t get up and starved to death after the funeral’.
Do you tend to do most of your gaming at home?
When I’m not actually working I’m doing a lot of writing – movie reviews, preparing interviews for my Sky show or writing the Rude Tube script. All of that takes place in one room where my computer is, and at the far end of my flat is the room with the gaming equipment. I’m so easily distracted that if I had something on my computer… I bought Civilization for it, and I lost days that I needed. Now I actually have to physically stand up and walk to the other end of the flat to sit down and game. This is probably something for a therapist, but I had the old chair I used to game in at my mum’s house in Leeds shipped down to London, so that I can sit in the exact chair that I gamed in from ages six through to 19!
What systems do you have?
When the chair came down I had it shipped down with my consoles. I have pretty much every console – I don’t have my Acorn Electron anymore, but it is in Leeds. I also don’t have my Commodore 64, but I do have both my Amiga 500 and the worst buy I ever made: my Amiga 1200. I was one of the few people who went, ‘You mean it’s got 128k graphics? I think I must own that’. Then Commodore went bust. So I’ve got both of those set up here, and I’ve got my Sega Saturn – another bad buy!
That’s a good bad-buy, though.
Yeah, I loved it. I’ve got Virtua Cop with two guns, so I’m quite happy with that. And then I’ve got my SNES as well. I’ve got everything that I could want, they’re all here. But really the Amiga has a burst of activity when it arrived, and now I’m just back on the Xbox.
Do you think it’s possible to have something like Film 2011, Guest List or 35mm, but for games?
I actually got into TV because when I was younger I was enamoured with Dominik Diamond on GamesMaster. I used to think he was the coolest guy on TV – I watched GamesMaster religiously. The problem with bringing gaming to TV has nothing to do with the size of the industry now – I think I’d be right in saying that it’s the biggest entertainment industry on the planet. But I think the people who make TV have this fear that putting actual gameplay onscreen will be a turn-off for the audience. I think that’s the problem it has to get past.
There seems to be a clear distinction between certain types of gameplay, though. If you say you’re going home to play WOW or Gears Of War, you’re put in a very different bracket to someone who says their heading back to play Wii Fit.
Right. And yet I come from completely the opposite angle: I have a Wii Fit, it’s buried away somewhere gathering dust. Because for me, sitting playing Gears Of War in my chair is acceptable. But me standing on Wii Fit board in the middle of my room, on my own, well, there is no more tragic image that I can think of.
Comedy and games aren’t always the most comfortable bedfellows. Are there any games that you’ve played recently that have made you laugh for the right reasons?
That’s a really good question. A funny game? Although I can’t remember anything off the top of my head, I recall some of the conversations in Red Dead Redemption having some nice, humorous moments in them. It’s all down to scripting and voice acting, and I think both of those in the last couple of years have increased in quality tenfold in videogames. Oh, and Conan! It was outright, unashamed, unabashed misogyny! It’s thoroughly enjoyable [laughs]. So that was quite funny, in a gratuitous way.
Finally, then, which game do you cherish the most?
It’s a difficult one because, like I said, story is so important to me. If you asked me my favourite movie, I’d go, ‘Jaws’. Bang, done. And I don’t know why but picking your favourite game is a tough thing.
The best game I’ve played recently, and unfortunately it’s a little bit out of date as I haven’t gotten around to settling down to the sequel which is sitting still plastic wrapped next to my Xbox, is Mass Effect. People often talk about BioWare and Bethesda games and which is better, but I’d say BioWare because Mass Effect was just a triumph, for me.
As for my all-time favourite, I don’t want to say the obvious ones – Mario Kart and GoldenEye just are the greatest games ever – so I wrote down a list of all my favourite Amiga games, and I’m going to read the list then I’ll tell you what I think is the best one. Because for me, like I said, that was my golden era of gaming, the point where at 13, 14 you don’t have real life to deal with so you never have that slight tremor of guilt in the corners of your brain which goes, ‘Oh, you really should be doing something productive’ while the rest of your brain goes, ‘Saving planet earth is kind of productive, you dick’.
So, these were my favourite games: North & South, Stunt Car Racer, Cannon Fodder – which was utterly, utterly amazing – Syndicate, Prince Of Persia, Another World – the first really cinematic gaming experience I had. But I’m going to go for Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe as my absolute favourite. It’s probably the most outright fun I ever had playing videogames.