Interview: Alex Garland – Part One
When a lauded novelist and screenwriter – of a zombie movie, no less – shows an interest in making videogames, the phone rings off the hook, right? Wrong, says Alex Garland, whose works include The Beach, The Tesseract, 28 Days Later and what looked like being the Halo movie. An avid gamer keen to take videogame narrative to the next level, he endured years of rejection before Ninja Theory, well underway on its action odyssey Enslaved (which we recently reviewed), decided to enlist his services. Meeting us at the outset of his latest project, a new Judge Dredd movie starring Karl Urban, he finds time to pass some sentences of his own.
Why do you care about videogames?
That’s really easy, though the real answer will sound like PR bullshit. I’m a big gamer – I love games, always have done. When I was a kid there was a record shop, which for some reason had a Space Invaders machine. I used to play whenever I could. Then there was a boy on our street whose parents got him that early Atari. In fact, one of my best friends before that had Pong. I was just always completely fascinated and hypnotised by them, and just really wanted to play them. I grew up with them.
When I went to university I suddenly stopped being able to afford them. They just kind of dropped out of my life, having been a really big part of it. Games for me were always social – it would be about four or five friends sitting around a console or a Spectrum taking turns. Anyway, I couldn’t buy games. And there were these things like the Mega Drive, and the games were incredibly expensive. I stopped being aware of them.
Then university finished and this friend turned up at my house with a Mega Drive and Sonic, and it blew my mind. In my absence there’d been this huge jump, and from that point on I was stuck on it. My expenditures for years would revolve around either trying to get money to buy a plane ticket to go backpacking, and then in the downtime finding £40 to buy a videogame. So, from the Mega Drive/SNES period onwards, I never really lost touch. I kept pace the whole time, would buy Edge and get very excited if there was a 10 review. And I guess what was happening concurrently was that, slightly to my surprise, I became a writer, first with books and then films. And I began to get seriously interested in the possibility of narrative within games – about the time of 28 Days Later, I would say.
We made some attempts to contact some game companies and get them interested. Absolute zero interest. There was one group of really nice guys, actually, who did show an interest – it was John Pickford and his brother Ste. They were lovely but, retrospectively, now I understand how game financing works, I can see that they were in a tight spot, really.
There was also a debate that began then within games… it was like anti-narrative and pro-narrative. There was this cable show I used to really like with journalists sitting round reviewing games, and there was this guy who did… not Paul Rose’s Digitiser thing, but something for the BBC, who felt really quite fiercely that games shouldn’t have narrative. And I was there throwing cups of tea at the television saying, “Yes, they should”.
28 Days Later
Anyway, I thought about it more and more and more. Getting knocked back by 28 Days as a game certainly didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. I just see games as being like cinema was in the ’20s and ’30s. It’s moving at a more accelerated pace than cinema but it’s got unbelievable potential. And I wanted to be at the coalface at some point, trying to figure out that potential. So, when Tameem [Antoniades, creative director at Ninja Theory] approached me I’d actually been waiting for a game company to show any sort of interest in anything I could do for ages. I’d been approaching them and getting knocked back, and had sort of given up. Then Tameem turned up and I thought, ‘Here’s my opportunity’, so I grabbed it.
Were you surprised by how involved you became?
My role was pretty well defined, and different to my day job in film. An example of the process might be: they would have a level – say, a collection of streets in New York. They would also have key gameplay elements, such as finding a robotic dragonfly to get over a minefield, and a need to describe that to the player via dialogue. So primarily my job was to help map out that dialogue within the action.
I was struck by their friendliness and open-mindedness. I never felt compartmentalised by Tameem or the designers. They were very inclusive in their discussions, and patient when I was struggling with differences in the game-making and the film-making processes. I genuinely looked forward to the weekly trip up to Cambridge. As much for just chatting about game philosophy over coffee as anything else.
Tameem Antoniades has said he learned as much from you in two years as he would otherwise in eight. What did you learn?
A huge amount. Hard to quantify. I once heard a physicist state: “The larger the searchlight, the larger the circumference of the unknown”. I think that sums up how I felt at the end of the project. But to me that’s not a bad thing. The learning curve was very steep, and I was frustrated by my failure to get stuff right. I think I was probably a bit like a bull in a china shop at times. I’d be more capable if I did it again.
Have you played Heavenly Sword?
Well, typically in interviews, what one does is kind of lie about certain things, so I’ll try to avoid doing that. I had not played Heavenly Sword at the moment I met Tameem, then I went and bought it. The reason I hadn’t played it is because I’d bought a PlayStation 3 along with an Xbox 360, and by the time I met Tameem I’d already stopped playing on the PlayStation 3 because I was so fucking sick of it. There weren’t any original games that really blew me away. I was really into Xbox Live; I was much more into playing Call Of Duty 4 on Xbox Live. So Xbox really had its claws into me, and I just never bought Heavenly Sword.
Playing it eventually, though, what I thought was that there’s an enormous amount of skill and polish here. To be honest, if I’d played it and thought it was crap, then I’d politely have found a way to close things down. But actually I was very impressed, because by then I knew more about my industry, the film industry, and knew how hard it is to get something which isn’t pre-existing – which is to say the licence – financed and off the ground, with enough money to actually do a decent job. There were all sorts of things, and some were imaginative and some were pure production values. And a third thing, I guess, would be ambition. I liked Tameem straight away – he’s a good guy.