Monday, July 06, 2020

I liked pirates before Pirates of the Caribbean made them briefly fashionable

I don't know why, exactly: I suppose there is an aesthetic or style, the idea of baddies who wear lace; the idea of baddies who can do whatever they like; the idea of baddies who are totally lawless and cut off from civilisation and are resigned to the fact that they will be hanged and go to hell. (They really believe in hell.) They spend their cash on looking flash and grabbing our attention. It is a glorious thing to be a pirate king. Although we're kings of all dry land, yet they're kings of the sea. Jack Sparrow is an idiot, but he is a stylish idiot. The idea of the pirate is the idea of Hannibal Lecter and Jacob Rees-Mogg: it is okay to be entirely lacking in human empathy provided you do it with style. 
Heroic pirates are no good. Heroic pirates are forced into it. Douglas Fairbanks in the silent movie and Errol Flynn in the talkie: they are posh Jacobites forced onto the high sea by circumstance and they despise the low-life they have to work with. 
Like Robin Hood. He started out as just a common man, standing up for his rights—not even for his rights, just for his dinner. Then he became a nobleman, exiled into the greenwood, with a hey-nonny-no; then a Saxon rebel standing up to the Normans; and finally the pagan spirit of the woods, Hern the Hunter. Which is all good fun, but rather spoils Robin Hood the Outlaw. 
Is there a Pirate story where the captain is the personification of the sea? The Nephew of Neptune? I suppose if the Sea is an alluring woman, the King of the Sea has to be a rollicking man. Pirates of the Caribbean turned Davey Jones into an actual character. Conflated him with the Flying Dutchman they did; and turned him into a squid.
You need the whole package. Flags and parrots and bandanas and tricorn hats and desert islands and sleazy Tudor streets and the cat of nine tails and the plank and rum cocktails and bodily modification. And sea shanties. Arrrr....!
Pirates only say "Arrrr" because Robert Newton said "Arrr" in Disney's Treasure Island and a TV spin-off. Many pirates were from the West Country: Edward Teach canonically came from Bristol and Gilbert and Sullivan thought Penzance was a good place for pirates to live. But they didn't say "Arrrrr..." Talk Like a Pirate day is "Talk like an American doing an imitation of a Bristol Accent day."
People in Bristol never say "I be..." for "I am...", but they do occasionally say "It makes I thirsty" or "It made I laugh". Curiously, a certain sort of cod-Jamaican patois also inverts pronouns. It would not be very surprising if the Brizzle pirates had picked up some Afro-Carribean mannerisms, and vice versa. 
My granny was Cornish. She made pasties; great huge pasties that you could hardly eat in one sitting, circles of pastry cut out with dinner plates; full of meat and potato and onion and turnip; cooked very slowly. It wasn't an affectation, in the way that Scotch Haggis is arguably a signifier of identity; it seems to have been what Cornish people really ate. "Now, your daddy, 'ee were some 'orror for pasties!" She never called anyone "me 'andsome" let alone "me 'earty" but she did bake dry fruit loaves and buns, very yeasty and strongly flavoured with bright orange saffron. They used to say "as expensive as saffron" because you just used a couple of little stems; one tiny bit of a rare flower; and threw the rest away. It took hundreds of flowers to make enough saffron to flavour one bun. My mother bought some once; a little plastic bottle like a pill dispenser with a few grains of the precious stuff. She never really worked out how to use it to flavour a cake. Saffron doesn't grow in Cornwall and the Jamaicans have a spicey meat and pastry pie called a "pattie". There is a pub in St Pauls that plays reggae and sells Red Stripe beer. It is called Jamaica Inn.

In the final issue of Aslan I said that I would never become a professional. 

I meant of course that I would never become a "professional", with fifty foot high air quotes around the word. 
Shortly thereafter I got a job working on a failing magazine called Games Man; and shortly thereafter I became the Product Manager at Hogshead Games (working out of James Wallis's spare bedroom); and shortly after that I got a job designing computer games in Bristol; and then I tested mobile phone games in Cambridge and Manchester and then I thought "fuck this" and came back to Bristol, took a course in journalism and became a librarian, and I have been happy ever since.
All the disappointing and annoying periods of my life have arisen from trying to make money out of my hobby; I am always at my happiest when writing a book, like this one, which only 48 people are likely to read.
48 people are likely to buy it. Not all of them will actually read it. Dave Sim said that he thought that only sixteen or seventeen people read Cerebus right through to the end. I know three of them personally; I still have a notion that we could track down the other fourteen and hire a function room in a pub. 
It was a mistake to think that I could work with, by, or for James Wallis; it was a mistake to move to Bristol and bluff my way into the computer business. It was a mistake to move to Cambridge when the Bristol job died and it was an act of suicidal insanity to follow the Cambridge job to Manchester. 

Not even Manchester: Macclesfield. Not even Macclesfield. Sodding Bollington. Bollington has literally nothing to recommend it except a folk club and a quite good Indian restaurant. Guess who was not interested in folk music when he lived in Bollington? 

It was hard to admit that "gamer" was no longer part of my professional identity. 
And yet here I am in Bristol, on what is sometimes nominated as the trendiest street in England, sitting in a vegan cafe typing an extended essay which I am very interested in over a bowl of sweet potato soup. 
I am not a vegan. The cafe has gone dairy free. I drink my coffee black. 

I came to Bristol in an attempt to go professional. I came to Bristol in order to work 9 till 5 for a computer games company. It was an unmitigated disaster. I have treated this as a great joke. It used to be on my C.V. "His first game, Cutthroats, was described by the Daily Telegraph as 'adequate'". What I did not say was that that "adequate" description was by some miles the kindest thing anyone said about the game including the producer, artists and programmers. "I suppose it is possible to play this game for some minutes without suffering any actual physical injuries" was the second kindest.
Hell; I was young. 
Actually, I wasn't all that young; I was way past thirty but had still not learned how to interact with human beings; and I certainly hadn't learned to interact with computer coders, who are a special case. I was writing a computer game about pirates so I invested in the piratical subject matter, reading Defoe and Stevenson and playing all the previous pirate games. 
I was a gamer. I was not going to let any of these pesky artists and programmers divert my game into something I didn't want it to be. I was the great Andrew Rilstone and this was my hour. 
Sadly I didn't know the first thing about computer games and didn't even play them to any great extent. I got to the end of Doom and quite a long way into Diablo but that didn't qualify me to be the lead designer on a major project. I don't know what the company were thinking when they hired me. I think the other designer had also been a board-gamer so they may at the beginning have positively wanted people who knew lots about games and lots about pirates but were not really that much into computer games. Perhaps I was meant to have the vision of what I thought a wonderful game about pirates would be like and then the techy boys were going to turn my vision into a game which could actually be realized on a PC. I believe that approach was tried successfully with some comic books in the 1960s: the major creative sat in his office and had big ideas, and then handed them over to any old artist to turn into marketable product. 
So there was I in a posh office block overlooking Bristol with a huge pile of imposter syndrome on my desk, trying to conceal how few computer games I had played and trying to come up with a spec which wasn't quite what I wanted but which was a little bit like the one that I thought that they thought that the punters would like. The poor bastard coders had to turn my RPG spec, full of matrices and charts, into something code-able, in some cases retrofitting my ideas into something PC savvy without telling me, so that when I said "Oh, I have decided to change one line of the matrix" they had to rewrite a thousand lines of code. 
Probably they did tell me and I wasn't listening. 
I had taken the bosses seriously when they said that they wanted a game about the historical pirates, Morgan and Kidd and Teach and all. So I found out what I could about historical pirates and I found it fascinating but everyone else remained resolutely unfascinated. "When is someone going to swing in the rigging or slide down a mainsail with his dagger between his teeth?" they said. "Oh", I said, "They never did that in real life, but I have found some really interesting stuff about how they paid out a kind of insurance for injured pirates and have come up with a way of putting that in the game." At least once I started shouting and yelling and throwing things around the fucking open plan fucking office, and the boss, rather than firing me, came up with a quiet office where I could work without being disturbed or disturbing anyone. 
As I said, I was young: who has grown out of temper tantrums at 35? 
The project was about two years late and the whole team was laid off and I imagine they were very pleased to get rid of me. 
My big idea was that Piracy was all about reputation. There was no money in sinking ships; there was no money in killing people. The whole point of having a big black flag with a skull on it was to scare people and make them give up their cargo without a fight. It wouldn't have been gold-laiden galleons, of course: it was much more likely to have been some poor tradesman getting relieved of his salt-pork. Blackbeard's reputation survives into the 21st century, but he arguably never did anything very horrible: he set fire to his own hair, and burned sulphur in his cabin to find out what hell would be like, and shot one of his own men to show everyone else who was boss, so everyone assumed he was a monster and gave him their stuff. 
Come, let us make a hell for ourselves and try how long we can endure it. 

He never said that; Daniel Defoe made it up for him after he died26. But it's a good line. Neil Gaiman was right about stories. 
I think I had a decent idea for a board game. Develop a reputation. Strike a balance between being so feared everyone will surrender to you and so hated that everyone will run away from you. Maybe allow the British to think that you are a Patriot sinking Spanish ships. (But watch out: if England and Spain make peace the whole deal will fall through.) Eventually divide up the money and live like a king in Patagonia. It might even have been a good idea for a computer game a decade earlier. But when the artists said "Do we get to animate sword fights yet?" I said "I've come up with a new idea for representing the political model in the game." There was an amazingly detailed economic model; in theory if you sunk all the coffee ships then the price of coffee would go up and you could sell coffee back to the coffee ports at inflated prices. I think it was entirely invisible to the players. 
I believed in the game. I thought the idea of building up a pirate ship with a cast of characters and having a sandbox model of the Caribbean through which you sailed your virtual pirate ship could have been incredibly cool. I could have sold it to the team and management in six words. "Like Elite, only with sailing ships." But of course I had never played Elite.
When I started to talk about a sequel I started to talk about things which barely qualified as games. In the original game, "crew" was a statistic: you might have a crew of 76 but lose 20 of them in a battle and recruit 15 more in port. The more crew you lost the harder it was to recruit men; the more treasure you found, the more people wanted to join your band. For my imaginary sequel I wanted a computer-based pirate RPG. I wanted a 3D model of a boat. I wanted little animated pirates. I wanted ship-to-ship engagements to end with the player saying "Poor Mr Sands has lost his left hand and replaced it with a hook" or "Mr Teach went berserk and killed twelve of the Kings men"...
Almost immediately, a game called The Sims came out in which you built houses and populated them with humans who studied and cooked dinner and went to the loo and had babies. It was intended to be a game about interior decor, with the construction of interesting and pretty houses the main driving force; but it quickly became a dating game; where creating situations where your Sims would make friends and have partners and get married was the main objective. 
Or possibly it was about shopping. The happier you were, the more money you earned. The more money you had, the more hardware you could buy. The more hardware you had, the happier you would become. 

Or maybe it was a Soap Opera Game; a way of looking in at the lives of little people who lived in your computer. (This was before Big Brother.) The abstraction of it; the fact that you were always two or three levels removed from the characters tended to heighten this sense of "reality". You could see that the characters were fighting, but not hear what they were saying. You could hardly help yourself imagining what was really happening—seeing the shapes in the animated Rorschach blot. It could feel extremely real because you were imagining at least a third of it yourself. 
So I vaguely pitched Pirate Sims, waving my hands around and quoting Defoe and quite convinced that if everyone had stuck more closely to my wonderful spec Cutthroats would have been a runaway success. 
Pirate Sims. You don't fire the canons: you send Shooty McShootFace down to the gun deck. And maybe Shooty is a good shot; but maybe also he is prone to get distracted with a bottle of rum and start fights with other gunners; so you'd better position Catty McWhipface down there as well to maintain discipline; except a strict officer ordering everyone about makes for miserable pirates who are likely to desert at the next port. And of course the enemy ships would have crews with personalities as well, and there was always a chance that Pegleg McLimpy would fall in love with Cross Dressed Mary in the middle of the battle. You would have to have a pretty small crew; but in children's books and fiction we seem to accept the idea of ten or fifteen people running a pirate ship on their own.
Not a game, really, just a lot of virtual pirate Lego that generates stories whether you are controlling it or not; a role-playing game which circumvents the need to interact with pesky human beings. Has anyone done anything like this in the years I've been away?

26      Pretend there was a long digression about the authorship of the General History of the Pirates in this space.

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