Call it research if you like but Jon Brown – veteran TV writer-for-hire and now creator of Dead Pixels, a sitcom centred around compulsive online gamers – has sunk a fair few hours into near-future looter-shooter The Division. After so much time clearing out the gang-ridden grids of Ubisoft’s detailed simulacrum of a trashed New York, you might expect him to already feel at home in the Big Apple. But speaking down the line from a noisy Manhattan sidewalk during a break from location filming, Brown cannot quite get his bearings. “I don’t really know where I am,” he says cheerfully. “Somewhere near 47th Street? To be honest I just get in a van every day and they take me somewhere.”
The 40-year-old has spent most of 2019 working on the second season of HBO’s Succession, the heroically profane boardroom dramedy starring Brian Cox as an unravelling media baron. But shuttling between the UK and the US means Brown has not been able to closely track the response to his gaming baby Dead Pixels, which debuted on E4 last month. “I was at home when it first came out but I’m not the sort of person who would go on Twitter or Google to see what the reaction was,” he says. “I knew I was writing for a demographic who are very discerning and have a keen eye so I was aware that it might be polarising. But gaming is something I’ve always wanted to write about because it was something that I’d never really seen portrayed on-screen in a way that felt real to me.”
Anyone who has blearily looked in the mirror after an all-night Warcraft session and tried to brush out the incriminating indent of a gaming headset in their hair will likely feel a jolt of recognition watching Dead Pixels. It is a rousing, ribald tale split between two distinct realms: the verdant animated world of fictional MMORPG Kingdom Scrolls, where chunky fantasy avatars battle to free the Ninth Kingdom from insectile tyranny, and the rather more grubby Northampton flat where single-minded (and relentlessly single) gamers Meg (Alexa Davies) and Nicky (Will Merrick) spend long hours neurotically needling each over castle management and raid strategy while avoiding aggro clans like the Flaming Shitheads.
The disconnect between the halberd-swinging high fantasy lore of Kingdom Scrolls and the slightly more prosaic keyboard-jabbing reality of murdering cows for EXP might be a rich wellspring for sarcastic comedy but Brown’s long journey to bring Dead Pixels to the screen does indeed feel like the completion of some sort of mythical quest, or at least the natural culmination of a lifelong obsession.
His earliest gaming memories are poring over the tape inlays for blocky classics like Maze Gold and New York Blitz while they slowly loaded on the family VIC-20 before rapidly graduating through 8-bit and 16-bit home computers. Then, with the UK arrival of the MegaDrive, consoles took hold. “We even had a 3DO at one point, if you remember those,” he says. ” After a brief break from gaming in his early 20s, Brown was lured back by the Dreamcast: “And then came the PlayStation, and I’ve basically had one of every console since.”
Brown’s a veteran player, having owned everything from the VIC-20 to the Dreamcast via the 3DO – “I really loved all that FMV stuff!” – and before he got to working on shows like Misfits, Peep Show and Fresh Meat, he even worked as a games journalist, recruited by now-defunct UK publisher Computec straight out of university and assigned to PC Gameplay, a scrappier rival to the dominant PC Gamer. “It was a whole different world for me to get into PC gaming, a real eye-opener,” he says. “I had to fill in all these tech specs for 3dfx graphics cards and often I had no clue what I was doing, I’d just have to kind of guess it.” As a swashbuckling young critic, Brown was prepared to wield the sword of truth and stand as a bulwark against the predictable tide of popular opinion. “I remember I reviewed the original Max Payne and gave it seven out of ten,” he says. “That was me thinking I was really cool.”
Despite a later stint at PlayStation World magazine, Brown would eventually focus all of his creative energy into writing for TV (and surveying the sorry state of print publishing, it was probably the right choice). But gaming – with all its recognisable rituals, evocative language and personality types – stuck with him as a potentially fertile setting for comedy. It just needed the right approach.
“I had an idea years ago about a group of people playing online games but it always felt a bit flat because very rarely would they get together in person,” he says. “There’s a reason why phone call scenes on TV always seem pretty dry; if people are separated and sat in their own rooms there’s just not the same energy between them.” After a few years in development, Brown landed on the idea of setting half the action inside an actual video game. “So you make it animated and turn the fact that the worlds are so disparate into an advantage. You’ve got a whole other visual level to your show that is bright and has its own tone and its own jokes. That’s when I finally thought it could work.”
The next big step was ditching the male lead Brown had originally had in mind. “Partly because it’s still such a male-dominated world, it just felt like a different energy when you put a woman at the centre of it,” he says. “Really early on in casting we found Alexa and it was an immediate thing, she had had this amazing personality and presence and we really built the show around her.” If Meg is swept up the epic story of Kingdom Scrolls, her gaming partner Nicky is more focused on maximising his stats. “He’s a guy with a very addictive personality who has a tendency to take something that is ostensibly enjoyable but then, through a process of repetition, get it down to a fine art while draining the fun out of everything,” says Brown. “Basically, like I can do.”
An on-set bonding exercise involved the cast members playing Ultra Street Fighter 2 on the Switch. One unlucky actor felt the wrath of Brown’s long-honed skills as vanilla brawler Ryu. “They may refute this but they were basically just mashing the buttons,” he says. “And I felt like if I lost now at Street Fighter in front of everyone then I am never going to get the respect of the cast and crew, the whole show could crumble. So it felt important to mark my territory.”
The gaming tunnel-vision of Meg and Nicky means they are capable of being petty and selfish particularly when it comes to exploiting the hopeless but usefully affluent Kingdom Scrolls noob Russell (David Mumemi). But despite an abundance of scabrous, colourful insult-throwing there is an undeniable sweetness to Dead Pixels, particularly as it approaches its climactic final raid to free the Ninth Kingdom from the chitinous claws of the diabolical Hive-Mother.
Considering how easy it would have been to populate a comedy with the worst gamer archetypes, it feels like a conscious creative choice. “I mean, obviously you do get people who swear at little kids over voice chat,” says Brown, “but I feel like that’s a very small proportion making a lot of noise. That’s not my experience of playing games or the people who play them. You couldn’t hope to meet a nicer, more welcoming, more diverse, more accepting group of people so I suppose that interested me more.” The result is one of the most resonant and weirdly heartwarming depictions of gaming ever seen on screen, albeit garlanded with some puerile and enthusiastic teabagging.
Next on Brown’s personal gaming to-do list is returning to the world of The Division, although due to faltering wifi in his New York hideout he already has some serious catching up to do. “My friends are playing The Division 2 and they’re all on level 28 and I’m only on level 9 and it’s one of those aggravating things where I’m falling further behind every day.”
Then there’s the question of his own sequel. The epic season finale of Dead Pixels smartly leaves the door open for a return to the world of Kingdom Scrolls. If it is renewed for a second season, Brown already has ideas bubbling to expand the scope of the show. “I’d like to explore the company that actually makes Kingdom Scrolls, put a face on the creator of the game. Maybe they get bought out and are under pressure to bring in micro-transactions. That might make it feel even more real!”
The season one finale of Dead Pixels is on E4 on May 2 at 9.30pm; the entire first season is available to stream on All4