Novelist Alan Campbell on videogames

What happens when a games designer becomes a novelist? Alan Campbell worked on the original Grand Theft Auto game, but these days he writes cracking fantasy books. So he seemed like the perfect guy to talk to about how the games industry is changing.

In the latest issue of SFX we take a look at the best videogames of all time, and those yet to come, and Alan was happy to contribute his ideas:

SFX: What can games do that other media can't?
Alan Campbell:
Interactivity, a flexible plot, and characters developed by the player rather than the author. To a certain extent, many modern games hand the player a world and say "go write your own story."

How has games development changed since the early days?
Campbell:
Back in the day, we had to squeeze every drop of performance from miserable hardware. I remember rewriting chunks of the original GTA in assembly language so it would run on my Pentium 100. Now 3D programs are typically bought in, which means some boffin has already done all the difficult, low-level rendering and physics. This eliminates a lot of the early headaches, shortens development time, and lets the team get on with the fun, creative stuff. It's like being given a nice, shiny box of Meccano, rather than having to fashion all the nuts and bolts for yourself.

How is world building for a book different from games design?
Campbell:
Here's a helicopter. Job done. (In a game that would take some poor guy two days on 3D Studio Max, followed by a design meeting, revision of time-sheets and another two days of work. And then someone from head office will phone up and say, "Can we make it a biplane instead?")

Are you able to enjoy games for fun these days?
Campbell:
I've always enjoyed games, even when I was a coder. But I could never play a game I've worked on. After you've spent months debugging code – trying to find out why the player gets stuck in lamp posts, or why the game crashes when you pick up a hooker – you can't bear to go near the thing again. Other people's games, no problem.

Is there one single game you think SF fans should play?
Campbell:
If, like me, you're a fan of Iain M Banks's Culture novels, then you'll probably enjoy Halo, since truckloads of his ideas seem to have found their way into that game. Was it supposed to be a homage?

Has being a games developer had an impact on your take on writing?
Campbell:
I enjoy fragging mutants with a BFG as much as the next guy, but I've not yet experienced the same level of wonder from a game as I have when reading authors like Mervyn Peake, Cormac McCarthy, and M John Harrison. I like games, but I love books.

Do you think videogames will ever be accepted as a credible art form?
Campbell:
They're already, deservedly, starting to be accepted as a credible art form, with SF titles like Crackdown winning BAFTAs. And I think it's a trend that will continue to gather momentum as the industry comes of age. The talent and imagination can now rival anything in Hollywood or the literary world.

SFX: Thanks Alan!

Alan Campbell 's book Iron Angel is out now and you should also read its forerunner, Scar Night - the third book, God Of Clocks arrives in June. SFX 182 is on sale now with a big feature about videogames, and don't forget there are dedicated areas for both games and books on our forum.