INTERVIEW - Charlie Brooker (Part 1)

Ben Parfitt
INTERVIEW - Charlie Brooker (Part 1)

For Part Two of our Charlie Brooker interview, click here.
For Part Three of our Charlie Brooker interview, click here.

In Part One of our three part interview, we discuss what Brooker makes of the criticism of the show and find out that gaming hasn’t always been seen as something for the kids…

MCV: First off, we really loved Gameswipe at MCV, though I’ll admit that there were some split opinions.

CB: Well, of course. It was a weird thing to do, partly because it was a one-off. You sort of realise early on that it was really aimed at people who don't necessarily play games, but equally you think quite quickly that, you know, gamers are going to watch it as well. So it was a bit weird as you realise that if you don’t play games you really literally know nothing about them. I felt we almost had to explain what they were. It was a weird balancing act that we had to do.

MCV: Absolutely. Of the criticism that Gameswipe did receive most of it was from ardent gamers, with some saying that they didn’t need to be told what a game is. But I watched the show with my girlfriend who knows of games through me but doesn’t really have an interest – at the end of it she felt that she knew a lot more about it. Whereas I, of course, enjoyed it for other reasons. The way you hit both audiences was spot on.

CB: Oh good. There’s a bit where I say that lots of people don't know what these genres are. And people like hearing things just being read out. Apart from anything else it was a novelty, being able to drop in shots of games like Skool Daze on the Spectrum. You literally just don’t often see stuff like that on the TV.

MCV: Agreed. Mentions of games like Flower were great.

CB: We were keen to get in some stuff like that. If we’d had a bit more time to put the show together I’d probably have replaced either the 50 Cent of Wolfenstein review with something else because there was quite a skew towards games that are quite funny. It’s what we do on Screenwipe, to focus on shows that are quite flabbergasting.

MCV: With regards to games TV up until this point, I’ll presume – hopefully correctly – that you think it’s as dire as I do?

CB: Pretty much. I liked Videogaiden and what I’ve seen of Consolevania. But the problem is that all games shows, basically, have been aimed at teenagers or children.

It’s interesting – when you look back at the BBC archives the first thing we found, was the Electric Revolution piece from 1973 where you had Raymond Baxter playing Pong. He doesn’t present it as a recreation for children.

Then we got in a load of Micro Lives , which was a show from the ‘80s where they didn’t really cover games very much – it was mainly about buying a BBC Micro so you could do a spreadsheet or something. It was all very responsible and very British and very BBC. It had this slightly disapproving air when it came to video games.

There was one thing we were going to use that we didn’t which was a clip from Micro Lives where they review some video games for Christmas and they have a journalist from Punch in a bow-tie. He sits there saying it’s all terribly silly, talking to Ian McNaughton. You don’t see clips from any of the games. They’re just discussing what a load of silly nonsense they are.

But they’re not discussing them as being aimed at children – they’re very much seen as for adults. So it’s interesting to see that when you go back the very first coverage we had of games wasn’t assuming they were for children. That belief was something that cam about in the late ‘80s.

MCV: When it became a bit more commercialised?

CB: Yes. That was when Sonic the Hedgehog arrived. I think really Sonic the Hedgehog is to blame in making people assume games are for children.

MCV: Another thing that struck me about the show was that there an obvious affection and interest in gaming from you but at the same time your style of humour and presentation is based in cynicism. Did you have difficulty combining the fact that you’re obviously sympathetic towards games but people at home are expecting you to rip the piss out of them?

CB: Well, yes and no really. With the reviews, which I felt I hit my stride with so it's a shame it's a one-off, it really was quite different from doing a Screenwipe review. Think about the logic – I’m in my flat and you’re watching me play a game. I’ve got to have a controller in my hand.

When I’m doing Screenwipe I’m passively watching footage and then glancing down the lens of the viewer. Obviously because of the way it’s constructed I’m not actually watching footage – it just looks like I am. It would be a nightmare to edit if I was. It would be impossible. It just needs to look like I’m watching it live in the room.

With Gameswipe it was a similar thing. I was playing a lot of those games whilst recording the footage of them but I wasn’t playing them live whilst I was talking about them. It sounds weird, but pretending I’m playing games live whilst talking about them – you can’t do both. Look at the footage of gamers playing games in old shows.

One of them says something like “Games are realistic and not realistic so it’s good to kill people but not think about killing them the next day”. Often gamers came across as inarticulate because they were being interviewed as they were trying to play a game. You can’t concentrate on both at the same time.

Also, on Screenwipe often what I’m doing is undercutting the seriousness of a programme or mocking an individual who’s on a programme. In games you don’t really have characters so much. We used 50 Cent as it has got a very clear character in it. It’s a different consideration you have to do when you’re doing a review of a game.

If I was doing more of this what I’d like to do is get in more bits like in the Wolfenstein review when I’m bored during a cut scene so I start running around and jumping up and down. It’s the sort of observation that lots of people can relate to. I think we got there in the end.

MCV: Arguably my favourite part was Dara Ó Briain talking about Gears of War and the content he couldn’t access as he couldn’t beat the Beserker.

CB: I saw that he’s come in for a lot of stick about that. That seemed to open up the biggest debate.

MCV: It was as if a lot of the core games audience had the feeling that he hadn’t earned his place on the show because he wasn’t hardcore enough.

CB: It’s weird – clearly Dara plays a lot of games. Anyone who saw him at the video games BAFTAs will have seen him open with a whole routine about video games. It was a good 10 or 15-minute routine. I had no idea he was such a committed games player but he absolutely is. He totally knows his stuff. Yet you saw people online saying that “well if he’s shit at games he shouldn’t play them”. That’s totally the wrong attitude. I could completely understand where he’s coming from.

I’m a browser. I tend to buy anything good that comes out but very rarely will I complete things. Very rarely. There was something I wanted to get into the show that we didn’t have time to do which was to do with why games are now seen as something for younger people. And it’s partly because as you get older you have less spare time. If I’ve got a game that’s 40 hours long, that’s a commitment and a half.

MCV: Indeed. I’ve got a three year old and my gaming has really suffered since she arrived.

CB: Exactly. So wouldn’t you like it if there were games aimed at you? Shouldn’t there be more games that you can play? More episodic games that are structured so you can choose the length of play yourself? What’s wrong with that? Why are people so vitriolic about someone who doesn’t have the time to play games? I remember that I got past the Beserker in Gears of War but I got bored of it after that. I hated the characters. Mind you, I had a similar thing with Halo 2 and 3.

MCV: These are the reasons why I loved the Dara piece. Having a kid and with my partner and I both working life is very busy. If a game doesn’t save my progress as I go along or I can’t put it down and come back a week or two later and remember what I was doing and I can’t play it for either five minutes or five hours, that’s it. It needs to be flexible for my life to allow me to play it. The subject of content you’ve paid for that you can’t access is pretty dry, but he explained it in an entertaining way and a way that was understandable.

CB: That’s what we wanted. The show had to be graspable. People who didn’t have any interest in games had to grasp what we were talking about and find it entertaining. And it’s difficult as there hasn’t been any games shows that have been aimed at such people. Going on about an FPS on the PS3 – to a non-gamer that’s like listening to Cantonese.

It’s a really fine line we were trying to walk. And I think we got it relatively well. I mean we showed Project Natal and we showed Braid and stuff like that, though if I’d have had a bit more time I would have liked to have done a mini-review of something like Portal. 

MCV: One of the show’s other great successes, and this applies to the Dara piece as well, is that we had a normal bloke sitting there talking about games. He wasn’t some sort of self-qualified games academic. He was just a bloke. He could have been talking about Eastenders or absolutely anything. You never get that on TV. A bloke chatting normally about games. It’s not his life, he doesn’t devote everything to it but he clearly knows a lot about it and he likes it. You can imagine that conversation happening down the pub.

CB: Simon Wilson, the commissioning editor of the BBC said he was a big gamer himself – he even corrected a mistake in the script very geekily – but he realised that it was very unusual to get people just discussing games and the experience of applying them because they are now so sophisticated.

Talking about the experience of playing them is interesting in itself. That wouldn’t have been the case 10 or 15 years ago. There’s not much you can say about playing Sonic the Hedgehog whereas now they are much more immersive. There’s a whole range of experiences you can have. When you’ve got Graham Lineham saying that he doesn’t like playing a game because of the way the characters are portrayed and the way they are behaving – it’s a sophisticated territory that games have got into. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

I was kind of hoping that it would make TV about games palatable and acceptable. But I feel it went down pretty well and it won’t have gone unnoticed.

For Part Two of our Charlie Brooker interview, click here.
For Part Three of our Charlie Brooker interview, click here.


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