Novelist Iain Banks might be better known as Iain M Banks, the pen name under which most of his speculative fiction is published. Of this oeuvre, his Culture series is most widely celebrated, depicting a utopian, galaxy-spanning civilisation whose citizens (when they aren’t meddling in the affairs of lesser races) have plenty of time for gaming.
What’s your earliest gaming memory?
I did get kinda hooked on Asteroids. I just loved, and to some extent still love, Asteroids. I love the abstract beauty of it – there was something so simple about it, and obviously the simplicity came from the constraints of the CPUs of the time. I always had this theory that eventually, one day, I would ram the rocks with my spaceship and somehow survive due to skill or luck. It never worked, obviously. Later on, I got really, really hooked on Civilization in all its different forms – up to IV, anyway. I think that what attracted me was the abstract sense of a godlike view of something underneath. I kind of noticed that my interest – or obsession – with Civilization started to fall away a bit when it got a bit too… graphics-friendly.
As a writer, does the interactive nature of games interest you?
I’ve always liked the idea of that quite a lot, but when I sat there and thought about it, I said, ‘No, maybe it’s not for me.’ And that might just be because I’m an old dog trying to learn a new trick, and it’s not a good idea. If you write a story really well, like Shakespeare, the whole point of tragedy is that there’s a kind of inevitability. But at the same time, I do love that there’s the potential for something fabulous in making it more interactive. I just haven’t really thought of a way to make that work.
Do you write on the same computer you play games on?
I certainly used to, but nowadays I’ve got separate computers for writing, doing music on and another for the internet so they’re actually quite sub-divided and make a mockery of having a computer in the first place.
How in touch with current gaming trends are you?
One thing that’s put me off continually is the whole thing where you get these cutaway bits. You have your fun, then you have to go back and be lectured and brought back into the story. I hate that.
Games are a huge part of the Culture. Do you think that’s inevitable in a post-scarcity society?
Definitely. They’ll become more and more immersive – we’ll go from being surrounded by screens, and then eventually it’ll be implants. And people will end up in that state to the extent that it’s indistinguishable from real life. There’ll be people who just self-medicate with games, especially in the Culture where there’s not much of a chance to become – because money is irrelevant – a hyper-billionaire, but you could pretend to in a virtual reality. So people who have a desperate need to exploit others, or be cruel, or whatever, they’ll self-medicate with games. The rest of us, us nice normal people, we’ll just have fun.
Do you find it worrying that people could become so fully immersed?
I don’t know. In a sense all I can do is say that if anything like that comes to pass, then we will find out what we’re like as a species. You’d hope you can create a society in which people don’t need to spend their entire lives in their heads, a society that was sufficiently interesting and fulfilling that not everyone would choose to stay in a virtual environment all the time – because there’d basically be a sense that you’ve failed. If reality is so boring that games are the only way to go to enjoy yourself, then you’ve kind of failed as a society.
In Player Of Games, the games discussed clearly have origins in board games. Looking at the state of videogames today, do you think that’s accurate?
I guess it goes for the big game, the main game, Azad, that’s played in the empire of the same name – it became set in stone at a very early stage and became more and more complicated within its own parameters. A bit like imagining chess, but with a much bigger board, or multiple boards, dimensions and so on. But because it became part of the fabric of the physical system of the empire itself at such an early stage, it was always going to resist any attempt to turn it into an electronic form.
The way people play Azad reflects aspects of their personality and philosophy. Is that the thing that attracts you to games like Civilization where you have a rule-set and you can express it however you see fit?
Definitely, yes. A lot of the best games – classical games, if you like – are very simple. There’s a very simple set of rules that are quite easily mastered and an almost infinite set of possibilities that open up, and your own particular character starts to come into it to that degree.
You’ve written hard and soft sci-fi. Which is better suited to games? How would a Culture game play?
I’d like a game that’s a cross between the two. Different types of people can go into the game and choose to focus on different aspects – a sort of comprehensive game. If it was based on the Culture, you could either have a completely fulfilling shoot ‘em up, with all the exciting adversaries the Culture’s come up against in the past, or a much more subtle political game – that’d intrigue me. If I had the complete freedom of a team of programmers at my command, the game would be adjustable… [it wouldn’t] force you to play in a certain form.
Until then, what’s your favourite game?
Civilization. It’s the one I still have to resist going back to in a sense, even though I’ve slightly fallen out of love with it. I think Civ III might have been my favourite of all. It is still my favourite game, and I do kind of have to resist its lure. Because I’ve discovered that I can spend months playing it and realise, ‘Uh-oh, not only have I not read a book for ages, I haven’t written one either.'