Back in May 2017, I was approached by Sony about taking part in a retrospective video on WipEout. I happily attended the recording in Liverpool and, in addition, answered a series of questions that were to be part of a feature for the Official PlayStation Magazine.
For whatever reason, the feature was never published so after writing recently about how WipEout changed my life, I thought I’d share the Q&A here.
When – and how – did you enter the world of WipEout?
As a fan? That would be late 1999 when WipEout 3 was released. The aesthetic, the music and the gameplay just blew my mind and I was hooked. That led to me launching the fansite, WipEoutZone.com in January 2001.
As a member of the team? Well, I began working at Studio Liverpool in 2002, but it wasn’t until late 2004 until I started copywriting for the game.
What WipEout titles were you directly involved in writing for?
WipEout Pure, WipEout Pulse and WipEout HD.
Was there a lore bible that you inherited (and if so, how robust was it, and what did it look like), or did you look to create one?
Not as such. There were lots of different files stored randomly on the server at Studio Liverpool. The WipEout Fusion documents were readily available to me from when I had started at Sony and we also had a complete archive of the Leeds Studio server.
The content wasn’t really stored in a consistent fashion, though – I had to sift through it and organise it all to give me a foundation to build upon. The first thing I did was create a timeline of waypoints, from Pierre Belmondo’s first demonstration of anti-gravity technology to how the F9000 collapsed, then work forward from there.
How much freedom were you given to develop or deepen that lore?
Far too much, almost! For the most part, I could do what I liked but ultimately it had to work with what we were trying to do with the game.
I would chat with our concept artist Darren Douglas, or Colin Berry and the other game designers on the team, as well as the graphic designers, to ensure I wasn’t just throwing stuff in for the sake of it.
Sometimes I’d have ideas and jot them down and then find out if I could work it in somehow. For example, I had the idea of showing the remnants of the WipEout Fusion track, Katmoda 12, on the moon in the sky in WipEout Pulse. However, I was told that the texture for the moon was so small it just wouldn’t be noticeable. I still think it was a fun idea but I guess I had to measure my expectations!
Now and then I’d check on stuff in-game to ensure it worked with the backstory and gently nag for changes if it didn’t. It was a role I grew into, really. I was somewhat tentative initially but I came to see myself as the “keeper of the universe” and would always ask questions if I didn’t think something fitted.
Take the track Sol 2, for example. I went to Ashley Sanders, who built that track, to ask why it was named that because I couldn’t think of a good reason. He said it was because Earth was the second planet from the sun and, because the track was in the sky, it would then be the second thing from the sun – something to that effect.
I just blinked and told him that didn’t make sense because Earth was the third planet from the sun! Ashley was incredulous – he had to take to the internet to confirm what I’d said was true. It was too late to start renaming in-game assets so we decided to go with the idea that there had been a prototype track called Sol and this one was the second one, hence Sol 2!
How much of the anti-gravity, weaponry and ship tech is based in real-world or near-future technologies?
Actually, that’s something I always tried to be vague about. WipEout is set in this futuristic universe of technological marvel and the back story has only ever offered a few scant breadcrumbs hinting at the path we took there. I thought the inclusion of anything that has too much grounding in the present would age quickly.
When I was initially writing about the fall of the F9000 I wrote a short story about some fans who acquired the PDA – a Personal Digital Assistant, like a Palm Pilot – of a nefarious player high up in Overtel (the media corporation that owned the league). It was the data gleaned from that device which led to the hacking attack that uncovered the corruption in the league.
In 2004, when I was writing that, PDA’s were pretty common but a decade later tablets and smartphones are ubiquitous and PDA’s are landfill. Although it set the scene for what I wrote later, I’m glad that story never saw the light of day at the time because having a PDA as a plot device would have dated badly in the space of a few years.
Was there any notion to use the current world, its politics, cultures etc as a basis then project a possible near-future to shape what the world of WipEout would be like?
Not intentionally, no, aside from some locations. I mentioned things like solar power, as I liked to think of the WipEout universe as being free from fossil fuel but that came more from my own hopes for the future than any political message. Just like with the technology, I felt that any reference to the present-day political climate was a bit of a trap.
FEISAR’s structure is clearly a nod to the European Union that came from Damon Fairlcough’s original back story. I just went along with that without adding to it, so Damon got me off the hook there. I imagine he thought the concept of a “Federal Europe” was a reasonable projection of how the European Union could evolve, but here we are on the brink of the UK leaving the EU.
Giving the universe enough detail to make it compelling but not so much that it comes back to haunt you is a fine line to tread.
Sometimes things would unfold in the real world that meant I had to edit the backstory. When I wrote the scene-setting content for WipEout Pure in November 2004 I said that the island, Makana, had been created by an underwater volcanic eruption. When I showed it to my boss he said it seemed a bit far fetched but it was up to me!
A month later on boxing day, an underwater earthquake caused the tsunami that led to the tragic events in Sumatra. When I got back to work in the new year I felt I had to remove the references to the “underwater eruption” because it was a bit too close to reality for comfort.
How much were you inspired by concept art, and how much did concept artists use your lore to shape their designs?
I like to think it was quite a symbiotic relationship. I’d write some back story and the concept artist, Darren Douglas, would take that and create amazing images, then the track artists would create their 3D models based on those. I would also go back and flesh out the back story once I’d seen Darren’s work because his creations brought a lot of clarity to the universe I was trying to portray.
Really, the stuff that Darren came up with made it seem like I was a much better writer than I really was. I remember an image he created of the Anti-Gravity Rebirth Festival that I’d written about that showed all these anti-gravity ships in the desert and I was just speechless. It was incredible – exactly what I was trying to describe but lacked the vocabulary to do so. Darren just understood the WipEout universe really well and is an exceptionally talented artist.
The racing teams are arguably the most recognised element of WipEout’s fiction. But beyond branding, did it feel important to flesh out the stories of their companies behind them?
Absolutely! I love that the fans identify with the different teams and its the “personality” of the team that draws people to them. For reasons that I don’t fully understand myself, I was an AG Systems guy – probably because they were there from the start.
Also, some teams are seen as goodies, some teams are seen as baddies. I would always want to play as the goodies, but I know there are folk who like the more physical teams like Tigron and Triakis. What was difficult was making them distinct when the roster of teams grew – some of them lacked personality and that was maybe a result of us spreading things a little too thin.
Qirex had been burned at the altar when the Designers Republic were no longer involved. Bringing them back for WipEout Pure was a real challenge so I came up with a reasonably well fleshed out backstory as to how it came about. I didn’t want it to be airbrushed away and, suddenly, Qirex was back. I wanted there to be more to it. Something that was heartfelt that would resonate with the fans when they read it.
This meant hours of trying out ideas and also researching Russian anthroponymy (family names) to get the lineage for the characters. In the end, it really paid off as I think the fans loved it and I was really proud of the end result.
Trackside details may be easy to miss when you’re hurtling past at 1,200kph, but was it a case of giving buildings and landscapes a history, a story, behind their existence to make them more than just eye candy?
I’m afraid I can’t take much credit for those amazing buildings – I’d write some back story for fictional companies that would end up on the billboards, but it was the graphic designers, the concept and track artists who brought those to life.
I’d come up with things like MAGEC – the Mirage Anti-Gravity Excellence Centre, Lunar Parcs or Synchro Logistics, for example, and the graphic design team; Eddie, Chris and John, would conjure up brand identities for them. The next thing I knew they’d be in the game and it was a real buzz to see what they’d come up with. Lunar Parcs has to be my favourite – Eddie nailed that!
WipEout Fusion was notable for focusing on individual pilots rather than their craft. Why was this?
I’m not sure, as that was from before my time at Studio Liverpool. I just think they wanted to go a different direction and give people a more granular choice of in-game persona to choose from rather than just a team. I don’t know if it worked – I always just chose the fastest ship from a given team – but the pilots in Fusion became part of the lore and it gave me a good foundation for what I’d go on to write.
2048’s intro offers a historical montage from present-day to the Anti-Grav Racing League, but how much of that had already been mapped out before players got to see the birth of anti-gravity racing?
I wasn’t at Studio Liverpool when 2048 was made, but it is a really cool intro and I’d love to know how it came about myself.
Are there any small details about the in-fiction world that you’re particularly proud of that the fans may have missed?
I’m not sure if they’ve missed any – the fans have always been amazing at pulling on a thread to see what unravels. I’d occasionally leave things in the back story as Easter Eggs to see if anyone would pick up on it.
With Icaras, for example, I made their base the real-world location of North Weald airstrip. I figured that if they could only test on the historic runways in a straight line then that was why the Icaras craft were crazy fast but not that agile. But the real reason I chose North Weald airstrip was that the hangar there was the filming location for The Crystal Maze TV series and I thought it would be fun if somebody joined the dots!
There was also a crazy group of fans down in Le Havre, France who regularly spent entire weekends playing the game. The Icaras back story gives mention of the team taking part in a “Le Havre endurance event”, which was a nod of recognition for those guys. I know that got picked up on almost immediately.
Why do you think the original game was so successful?
I think it was maybe just perfect timing – the soundtrack went perfectly with club culture at the time and there was plenty of depth for hardcore racing gamers.
When did you realise the game had such a huge cultural impact?
Not until I got into it later on, with WipEout 3. I was so late to the party that it was incredible to discover this active community of fans that had all been into it since the beginning.
Favourite race track from the franchise and why?
Ooh. Manortop from WipEout 3.
Favourite WipEout team?
AG Systems, closely followed by Icaras and Qirex.
Favourite music track from across the franchise?
Tough one. I have favourite tracks from each game but it’s hard to pick a favourite overall because they’re separated by years. From WipEout 3 it would have to be Avenue by Paul van Dyk. From ‘Fusion it’s Sick by the Utah Saints. I don’t actually have a favourite from WipEout Pure but I still love Exceeder by Mason from WipEout Pulse.
What is it, for you, that makes WipEout so special?
For me, I think it’s the aspirational vision of the future it depicts. For some, it’s the hard-to-master gameplay that gives it a lot more depth than most arcade racing games.
What’s been the standout piece of fan appreciation you’ve seen?
I think I’ve seen it all over the years but one that stands out comes from a fellow Scotsman, Steven Hunter, who got a WipEoutZone tattoo. To me, that’s probably the most bonkers example of fan appreciation there could be!