The Duncan Dunfoyle Interview
a B Page item by J Nash (Monday November 30th, 2009)
I always look up when walking, but you knew that.
It’s August 12th and Bunkerby Bones is bang on time. The most famous computer game artist you’ve never heard of: neither have I because I seldom do research: the reclusive Bones meets me at the Cafe Poshish to speak publicly for the first time in my exclusive interview. Tall, dashing, the trademark searing eyes — I am pretty and delightful. I forget what Bones looked like. We meet here because I can tell the expenses department it was a much grander restaurant in an unadjacent county.
DUNCAN DUNFOYLE: Bunkerby Bones. Welcome.
BUNKERBY BONES: No, I’m the sommelier.
DD: Bunkerby Bones. Welcome.
BUNKERBY BONES: Hello.
DD: Please tell my readers what you do while I consult the sommelier.
BB: I draw the ceilings in computer games.
DD: Remarkable. And you began in… ?
BB: 1962, that’s right. Spacewar had just been designed and we were all tremendously excited, looking for something we could contribute. Suddenly it struck me what I could do — draw the ceiling. I rushed back to my bungalow to sketch out a simple, effective design suitable for the primitive video circuitry. I struggled with my roughs for a week of sleepless nights before my conceptual breakthrough.
DD: Just leave the bottle, thanks. And this was… ?
BB: That Spacewar was an overhead-view 2D game set in outer space on a wraparound screen without any capacity for ceilings. So I transferred the design to a large easel instead and nailed it to the wall behind the players’ stools, where — in perspective — the game’s ceiling would have been if it could have had one.
DD: And… ?
BB: Well, the trouble was, the lab was quite long, so to maintain Euclidean consistency the ceiling had to fill eleven-twelfths of the far wall and you could only get in or out of the room through the windows. But it was an arresting piece; the easel caught the eye of the bursar and after he was discharged from hospital he suggested I might pursue this full time.
DD: And we next hear of you in…
BB: 1983. It was a quiet time for computer games. But in 1983 I had my big break. Manic Miner. Like Citizen Kane, not the pioneer of ceilings, but the hit that really put them on the map.
DD: These ceilings were primarily stalactites.
BB: No, stalagmites — that’s chiefly why people suddenly took notice. Actually, there’s a funny story attached to that. One player —
DD: Yes, something very similar happened to me. I was in Le Club on Tuesday and… Ckk, my Blackberry. Look, take the mike and carry on talking; I’ll jump back in later.
BB: Oh. Well, as I say, Miner really made my name. From that moment, when game companies wanted a ceiling, they thought of me. I must have drawn thousands — clinical girders, loamy caves, convex modernity, th…
DD: No, Wendy, I would not call that an appearance fee. Tell them to keep adding noughts until I ring back. Tsss. So. Your inspiration was… ?
BB: Er, ceilings.
DD: And… ?
BB: Um. The collapsing ceiling in Another World was the harrowing catharsis of a house fire where I lost my left thigh, if that’s what you were…
DD: No, not really. Next… ?
BB: Well, 3D was the next step. Not isometric 3D, of course, though I did experiment with dangling swatches of corkboard over the monitor from a mobile, but the duplication costs were prohibitive and there were frame rate issues. We were almost there with Wolfenstein — I must have been scrambled in that jetcopter with my portly satchel a dozen times over five months before they decided on the Monster Maze approach — and of course Doom required those tantalising slivers — but Mario 64 was really the epiphany. I realised then, doodling a fitting, the two fundamental truths of ceilings in computer games: there’s infinite potential for designs of powerful delicacy; and nobody will ever look at them.
DD: Belm… ?
BB: You’ll have noticed, of course, that people when they’re walking never look up. Too much of a hurry. And it’s the same in games. Players race through and, as they have no gaming reason to look upwards as far as possible, they don’t. FPSes — you’ll generally be staring straight ahead, occasionally glancing a storey above, or squinting resolutely at the floor if it’s Doom III. Third person — you’ll have the camera high so you can see far along before you get there, or low but close to fine-tune a manoeuvre. No ceiling I’ve drawn since 1996 has been seen by anybody.
DD: Hworngh… ?
BB: It’s a shame, but I take pride in knowing they’re there; that months of work provide an invisible, valuable authenticity, like the way you’d miss accurately modelled hair if you noticed it existed and then suddenly it didn’t. And, of course, now and again someone will make that miraculous discovery there’s 40% of a whole world above their head, by having a spasm and jerking the camera back too far, or dropping the mouse or something. I like to think they’d then play the game through again to see the ceiling.
DD: Yes, I expect you would.
BB: My favourite mo…
DD: Stop talking now, as I have to leave.
Bunkerby Bones’ work can currently be seen everywhere but isn’t. A photo-essay book, Thief 3: a Crick-Necked Odyssey, is in preparation. Next month, Duncan Dunfoyle will be unwell.