It’s not often that first-person shooters turn to Australia’s most ocker icons for inspiration. But when it came to Redeye, Dirty Bomb’s latest smoke and sniper expert, lead writer Ed Stern couldn’t help but refer to some of the most Australian experiences - because he lived them.
There’s almost a whole world between myself and Stern: 16,983 kilometres, according to Google. That’s the gap between myself and London, where Stern works with Splash Damage on creating backstories and characters for the free-to-play team shooter Dirty Bomb.
Stern and I are talking over email about Redeye, the game’s latest mercenary. But in that process, he’s referenced classic Test matches with Allan Border and David Boon, the legendary Footrot Flats comics — something I’ve not seen or heard outside of a GP’s waiting room, the kind that belongs to a doctor who refuses to take more patients as they quietly build towards retirement — and rural farmers.
We’re supposed to be talking about the Australian SAS. That is the inspiration for Redeye, a stubborn character with a record of insubordination. But Stern’s not talking about his sniper rifle, IR goggles or his smoke grenades. Instead it’s a chat about the Royal Australian Engineers, Mel Gibson, and life as a jackaroo in rural NSW.
"I quite fancied riding the quad bike, but I soon realised that leaves your head at cattle height, you’re deep in the dust cloud, and you can’t see anything," Stern, who insisted he was the world’s worst jackaroo, said. “So I was given an incredibly patient pony to ‘ride’. I heaved myself inexpertly up into the saddle and spread my arse over it like a family size sack of rice. The boss feller appraised my posture for a moment and then muttered, 'Well, there’s no point having bits of the saddle you’re not going to use.'"
It’s the kind of experience you would describe as uniquely Australian, an experience that is becoming increasingly rare — and not the kind of stock you would expect someone working in video games to come from. But drawing on that experience can be difficult, he says, as it’s incredibly easy to buy into national stereotypes.
"Like all national stereotypes, there’s a fleck of truth but they end up being a sustaining and comforting myth that usually falls apart when you deal with real individuals," Stern explained. "Australia loves to think of itself as a nation of lantern-jawed strong, silent Men (and women) From Snowy River types. But do you remember Hey Hey It’s Saturday?"
"Just like the Brits love to compare ourselves with the No-Thought-Goes-Unexpressed emotionally-incontinent Americans (as if anyone’s ever mastered irony more than Twain, or Mencken), and love to think of ourselves as stiff-upper-lip stoic ironists in but Jesus Wept, have you seen The Only Way Is Essex? Downton Abbey it is not."
It’s a brusque remark from Stern, who without encouragement outlined his concerns about how modern life — living in an office, working a desk job, the kind of environments most gamers inhabit on a daily basis — often leads to a fascination and fantaisation with the military and military characters. “I’m a bit cautious about game devs’ relation to the military. On the one hand, I don’t like how little understanding or common experience there is between the civilian and armed forces.”
"You want to do right by [servicemen and women], recognise their service, maybe even nick some of their more vivid turns of phrase. To some extent you’re using them as Cool Sauce to spice up your design, implementation and player immersion. But you have to be careful you don’t just salivate all over them and get all sweaty-palmed."
Perhaps partially to avoid being too deferential, or maybe playing into his own larrikinism, Stern admitted he nearly asked Edward Dogliani — the voice-actor for Redeye, who also played the raider Rattleshirt in Game of Thrones — read lines from The Twelfth Man during the recording sessions.
"Redeye sounds like Russell Crowe in Gladiator when he’s in control, but a bit like an excited Bill Lawry when he’s rattled,” Stern recalled. “I nearly gave him the line “Got him, yes! **** off, you're out!”, but relented. I also toyed with the idea of a Richie Benaud-style taunt “What a shot! What! A! Shot!”, but thought it disrespectful of the great man, and now he’s sadly no longer with us, I’m glad we didn’t record the line."
But that balance between deep respect and total irreverence is Australian to a tee. It’s an echo of the kind of way many Australians like to banter with each other. Take a bit of stick, cop a joke on the chin but don’t take it personally: that’s the Aussie way, really.
It’s the image that first came to my mind when I heard the line, "I see you, you galah," something Redeye muttered during his announcement video. I asked Stern whether or not this was inspired by Ray Meagher, the actor most known for his recurring role as Alf on Home and Away.
"I think I stole the line from a Footrot Flats strip," Stern admitted. "There’s more than a little of Wal Footrot in Redeye. Yes I know Murray Ball is a Kiwi, but FF rings true to more than one of the farmers I’ve met in NSW, Victoria and Queensland."
"Also, for some reason, I think I took some inspiration from the great David Boon, the best, most pugnacious and tenacious opening batsmen I’ve ever seen." Being a cricket tragic myself, having just endured the ignominy of That Fourth Test, it was nice to read Stern’s passion for a period in Australian cricket when we were known for our fighting spirit, rather than our hubris, arrogance and world dominance.
But as Stern told me, it’s the personal experiences that come through the strongest. When making Redeye, Splash Damage ultimately wanted a grizzled veteran. Someone who, in his words, “someone who’d been there and shot that”. “He’d be the old lag the training sergeants turn to on Selection at Bindoon. How d’you fancy this one, Red? Like the cut of his jib? A pause, a glance away, a tiny shake of the head, and that’s it for that candidate.”
The kind of experienced, subdued character you expect to be a product of the military. The kind of character like Stern’s great-uncle, someone he described to me as a "lovely quiet old gent". "I must have been about 8, on a family holiday, sat on my grandmother’s sofa in Killara," he told me.
"We were watching Mel Gibson in Attack Force Z, an action movie based extremely loosely on Project Opossum," Stern went on. "After a particularly Hollywoodish action sequence, my great-uncle quite casually remarked ‘That’s not quite how it happened.’ Turned out he’d been in Z Special Unit, and completed some very scary missions."
“Then after the war, he settled down, played a bit of golf, wore a cardigan in all weathers, just another quiet old feller on the bus treating himself to the occasional Cherry Ripe. Odd to think of him as a young, lethal, super-fit Special Forces guy."
The kind like Redeye, really.