Every now and then a writer comes along and makes you realise – oh jeepers, this is how it should be done. I’m reading Albert and the Whale, by Philip Hoare, at the moment, and it’s slow going because every other page – oh jeepers.
There’s so much to talk about, and this isn’t really the place. Instead, let me tell you about this one thing. Albert and the Whale is a book about Albrecht Dürer, one of those artists I’ve always avoided because their work is so vast and so varied that I wouldn’t even know where to start. Maybe this is where to start, Dürer’s St Jerome of 1494, one of his first paintings. A saint in the wilderness. But don’t worry about that. The picture is small. Turn it over. And on the back?
On the back is what Philip Hoare calls “a galactic event”. A star, “radiating orange-red rays, careering through the perpetual night.” Jerome and then this glimpse of a violent universe, a comet, a meteor, a Newtonian horror.
What’s it doing there? What mattered more to me when I read this section is that it is there at all. Oh gosh, paintings have a reverse, a verso. It’s obvious – it would be startling if they didn’t, from a geometry point of view – but it feels like a surprise.
A while back I read in the Guardian about an art exhibition called Verso. The work of a Brazilian artist named Vik Muniz, Verso is a bunch of facsimiles of famous paintings. But not the paintings themselves: the frames, the backs of the paintings. I am fascinated by frames, and about how the importance of frames has changed over the course of history, but that’s a discussion for another day. In Verso, you go into the gallery and these famous paintings are all hung facing the wall. “The Mona Lisa has a note reading “this way up”, Rembrandt’s Lucretia is screwed together with car parts, and Matisse’s The Red Studio is covered with chicken wire.”
This hidden world! Perfect stuff for a game, right? But what kind of game?
At first when reading about Verso I remembered an episode of the old kids’ cartoon Mask in which the goodies go to Paris to foil a plan by the baddies. The baddies seem to be robbing the Louvre, but when the goodies get there, none of the paintings have been stolen. They’ve just been turned around so the backs can be photographed, and on the backs are a map!
That’s lovely. But then I found myself thinking about Fortnite, and I couldn’t stop. One of the appeals of Fortnite for me is that it’s so skilfully made, such a perfect sealed Tupperware piece of game design, no loose elements, that you never get a glimpse of the inside. Or the verso. What would the verso of Fortnite look like?
I often marvel at the way it tells its story. Storytelling by way of the shoemaker’s elves. You leap into a map and something’s changed. A star in the sky has become a comet – Dürer would be pleased. Or the TV sets have turned on. Or a hill that used to be bare now has a telescope at the top, pointed at the sky. And then add to that all the Westworld chaos the players cause, tearing down buildings in Lazy Lake, setting trees ablaze. Is this the verso? What about a game in which you have to go into the Fortnite map after the battle royale has been fought and fix everything, get it ready to run again?
A few years back I was talking to the people who made Dangerous Golf, which is a wonderful game, about what the team had to do to speed up restarts. Dangerous Golf is golf indoors from the people who made Burnout. It’s chaos! And what the team had to do, it turned out, was rethink the way they tidied up the level when the player pressed restart.
The moment between the end of a round and the restart. Is this the verso of games? And what would it look like? What would it be like to be stuck there?