Iain Banks: A Player of Games

Jonny Lee Miller as Cameron Colley in the film of Complicity
Category: Reading

Iain Banks was in my life a startlingly long time, starting in 1993, and continuing every couple of years up until his death. However I hadn’t read any fiction by Iain in a very long time, something I only corrected recently when I read The Quarry. I cannot claim to be a dedicated fan. 

But his earlier contemporary fiction stays with me. In particular, Complicity and The Crow Road have stuck in my head. Perhaps it’s because I can’t view much of the Scottish landscape without framing it in terms of one scene or another from those books. One of my earliest memories of Edinburgh is cycling out to the Forth Road Bridge. It’s a blustery, sunny day, and I lean my bike up against the railings of the bridge, halfway across. Turning to the Rail Bridge, I suddenly understand the source of Iain’s obsession with all things engineering. It’s writ large across the Forth. Then I look at Inchgarvie below, and I’m unexpectedly stuck in the final scenes of Complicity, played out on nearby Inchmickery. Iain’s books were slowly turning to reality in front of me.

Yet the thing which stays with me most from Complicity isn’t the descriptions of Edinburgh or the Highlands. Instead, my mind turns to the imagined places of its computer games.

There are two games in the book, Xerium and Despot. They both play an important part in the texture of the narrative. The first is a kind of exploration game (in my head, a snazzier version of David Braben’s Zarch for the Archimedes) wherein the player has a high-tech plane, weapons and an island to slowly discover. There’s a section of the landscape Cameron Colley can never reach even after he’s beaten the rest of the game, and every so often he goes back to try it again. When he finally discovers the solution, it’s an indication that he’s perhaps not as adventurous and capable as he thinks himself.

Despot is, by all accounts, a souped-up version of the titanic strategy title Civilization (although I actually imagined it looking something like Bullfrog’s Powermonger with added political intrigue). Cameron’s tending of his computer empire is as much a part of his daily routine as having a cup of coffee in the morning. It’s one of his many vices, playing at being the kind of bastard he wants to take down in his journalism. And the descriptions of how his game progresses act as another metaphor for his life. Ultimately it stands as a reminder of the futility of his former life.

Computer games often end up the focus of a plot within fiction these days. They rarely get used as imagery or any other kind of literary device, although I think that’s slowly changing. But what I liked about both Xerium and Despot, what makes them significant, was the sense of games just being a part of people’s lives. More than that, the simple use of two different games suggests a spectrum, a sense of whole hinterland of gaming variety – a far cry from the traditional portrayal of first-person-shooters which are the inevitable focus of mainstream media coverage these days. Once you accept that variety, the door is open to a more expressive use of gaming as a literary device.

Games appear elsewhere in Banks’ work, and they seem to fulfil a similar role. There’s the boardgame which Prentice McHoan’s dad makes up for his kids in The Crow Road: a deliberately non-aggressive game which Prentice and his brother quietly subvert, much to the indignation of their father. There’s the game of Empire! in The Steep Approach to Garbadale, the family business that starts out as a boardgame. And most recently in The Quarry, there’s the massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game that Kit plays, a world which he can understand so much more easily than the world of people around him.

I’m told by a reliable source that Iain wasn’t much of a gamer following his time with Civilization. But he clearly recognised the increasingly common role they played in people’s lives today. Games weren’t a hard-to-understand rarity, an incomprehensible artefact of youth culture. They weren’t a gimmick or a plot device. Just a thing which people did to amuse themselves and others, something which could fascinate, something which you could lose yourself in. As valid as an image or symbol to reflect our existence back to us anything else in the world.

I’m a child of the 80s, meself. I grew up with Usborne books explaining how computers worked to me and lost myself in the endless wireframe graphics of Elite. I spent too much money on rulebooks and maps of imagined places, intrigued and absorbed by systems and mechanics of play. In writing games into Complicity and some of his other novels, Iain expertly captured a world I had grown up in, and it made his writing all the more memorable. 

It was such an effortless wee thing. But it was important. Don’t just take my word for it. Go read this piece by Kieron Gillen, a comics writer who used to be a computer games journo. We’re not the only ones, I’m sure, who remember Banks’ imaginary computer games as strongly as we do his memorable characters and his intricately structured narratives.


Listen to Oisin discussing The Quarry by Iain Banks with Ken McLeod and Paul Gallagher on the Book Talk podcast:

Oisin Murphy-Lawless

Oisin is an editor and literary events organiser, and currently Project Co-ordinator for Scottish Pen. You can connect with him on Twitter at @BikesnBukes.

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