This feature was originally posted on June 20, 2013.
“Someone nicked my physical copy, so I don’t have anything to put on my bookshelf either!”
That’s Stephen Marley, a science-fiction author based in the UK. He and I are lamenting the loss of an object we both once owned. I treasured it. He wrote it. And the chances of either of us finding it again are slim to none. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If the tale of a tangible object ever needed a backstory, its this one.
A digital-only future for video games is something that has been agreed upon by most corners of the industry to be inevitable. Valve’s PC game client Steam has long been the template for the ideal vision of games distribution. For convenience sake, it sounds wonderful. No more searching for sold-out copies of major releases on launch day or risk of scratched or lost discs. All those (admittedly minor) worries will be a thing of the past. Compact discs are considered obsolete by today’s standards. Soon, so shall physical game discs.
It might be nice to no longer fill our shelves with rows and rows of game boxes but there’s an underlying tragedy in this transition. And if we’re honest, it started to happen long before Steam existed. Most game manuals are now glorified pamphlets. As in-game tutorials have become standard, we no longer require page after page of instructions on the mechanics or controls. The only reason these ‘manuals’ still exist at all is to include legal information and epilepsy warnings.
As such, any bonus physical items that seek to add to the game are increasingly rare. Extras like guidebooks, maps and comics are now solely the exclusive inhabitants of expensive collector’s editions. Which makes sense to a point. Why else would you want to spend extra money on special editions if not for the bonus material that adds to the experience?
The items themselves can vary in quality. Anything from soundtracks to art books entice the customer to part with more money. Even downloadable codes for in-game weapons have become commonplace. But the real loss with this move towards an all-digital future is a very specific item. Books or stories that flesh out the universe of the game. To help the player fall even more headlong into the world that the developer has created. These items are even more hard to find these days. Most likely they will be part of a 100+ hour old-school role-playing game as a novelty. Financially, it doesn’t make much sense for major game publishers to commission such extras and put the necessary effort into their production.
In 1991, Neil Dodwell and David Dew were the total staff of UK developer Creative Reality. They were in the midst of making the game that would take them from obscurity to cult fame. The game was the dystopian cyberpunk adventure Dreamweb, a game I have written about before.
It revolves around a protagonist that may or may not have lost his mind and turned homicidal. As the game starts, his grip on reality is already gone. A deliberate and calculated murder spree begins and the player starts to wonder what to think when directing the actions of a serial killer. The beginning of the game barely explains his motivations.
That’s where Stephen Marley comes in.
Included with copies of Dreamweb was a physical notebook. A diary. Filled with disturbing entires that become more and more erratic with every passing day. The main character, Ryan, details nightmares of robed figures telling him to kill. ‘Diary Of A (Mad?) Man‘ was not only a disturbing and compelling read but it is an absolutely integral piece to the full experience of Dreamweb.
Marley was hired to write the diary and interviewing him, it becomes clear he was the right man for the job. “It was, I think, towards the end of 1991 that my literary agent put me in contact with Jacqui Lyons, who operated as an agent in both the literary and video game businesses. At that point I had three published novels to my name, one a historical fantasy and the other two were dark fantasies.”
“What Jacqui was looking for was someone who was ‘off the wall’. My agent obviously thought I fitted the bill. I met up with Jacqui, Neil and David in London and we got on well. A few weeks later I visited them down on the south coast and they gave me an outline of the game they were in the process of finishing.”
Diary Of A (Mad?)Man serves as a prequel to the story of the game and gives the player an understanding of what Ryan has been through, who his closest friends are and more importantly, how broken he is.
It’s rare to find a video game today or even in the nineties where the character was completely insane when it began. But is Ryan insane? This was the main question throughout the diary and the game. A question that made them inseparable.
Marley agreed on this vision before he wrote a single word.
“Neil and David, left the diary’s storyline pretty much up to me. I wrote the title before anything else: Diary of a (Mad?)Man. Everything in the diary flows from that title. Let’s face it, in the game, Ryan, the protagonist, has a dream in which a red-robed guy tells him to kill seven people. Ryan’s response is essentially “Oh, okay then!” Of such stuff are serial killers made!”
“I took the view that the reader and player should be in two minds about Ryan’s mission, as in are they following the progress of a hero in an urban fantasy, or are they keeping track with a psychopath? When I put my take on Ryan to Neil and David, they had no problem with it. In fact they liked the ambiguity.”
Dreamweb tells such a downtrodden and bleak story that it’s difficult to find any character that is redeemable. Unlike Beneath A Steel Sky, Syndicate or Deus Ex, Ryan’s descent into madness is one completely without hope. Perhaps that is why it so compelling.
The diary delivers on its promise to tell how one man is consumed by the fear in his dreams. But it also proves to be crucial to the playing experience. On the back page, Ryan has scribbled a few notes to remember including computer passwords, door codes and his girlfriend’s birthday. Without this information, the player cannot progress in certain sections of the game.
Today, it would seem ludicrous to make a bonus item so important. Nowhere except in the diary are these notes present. They cannot be found in the game itself and as a result, would make the game impossible to finish these days were it not for a few PDF copies of the diary pages scattered around the internet.
Tales of dystopia and corrupt futures have always been a part of games and Marley understands their influences. As far the influence of the diary on him, that’s another question. “I’ve always been a fan of dystopian fiction. That pessimistic strain in literature dates back at least as far as Mary Shelley. A book I loved when I was ten, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which is dystopian to the core, was a major influence on the nascent writer in me. As for cyberpunk, not so much a fan, although some books and movies in that genre do appeal to me. I’d say I was much more a fan of steampunk. As for whether writing the diary later influenced my own work, I’m really not sure. To date, I’ve not written anything in the same vein, but if in the future I do compose something similar it would probably be set in London’s East End – in 1888, to be precise.”
Creations like ‘Diary Of A (Mad?)Man‘ have a very special place in video game history. Tangible objects that further push the player into the game. When you commit yourself to delving deep into a game’s fiction, you want to drink heavily from its cup. And Marley’s diary is the apex of such a desire.
Marley still plays games. And takes notice of bonus items that mirror what he tried to accomplish in the early nineties. “Of course we’re now in the process of phasing from paperbacks and hardbacks to ebooks which the sentimentalist in me regrets but the realist embraces. I’m all in favour of ebooks linking up with interactive entertainment although so far I can’t say anything has blown my socks off.”
Part of the reason is because the diary in its original form will always be superior to some soulless documents you can scroll through between Adobe Reader updates. To actually flip through its pages was important. Important in a very personal way.
Here was a game that very few people knew about at the time. And an object that someone put their heart and soul into creating. All for this obscure little tale of murder and nightmares. To hold the diary when I was young felt like I was part of some exclusive club. To fully realise the true potential of Dreamweb‘s story felt special and ‘Diary Of A (Mad?) Man‘ played a large part. With the potential for an all-digital future for video games on the horizon, extras like Stephen Marley’s diary will remain a relic of history. Save for an occasional novelty items included in ultra-expensive collector’s editions, that feeling of total inclusion into a game’s universe will be lessened. And if you boil video games down to what matters most, that’s what they should strive for.