Big Time Designers: Space

Creating a real world simulation combines many different disciplines: game design, yes, but also writing, direction and physical design. Game designer Ben McKenzie talked to the team members covering all these things to find out more about how Small Time Criminals is coming together. First up are Experience Director Sayraphim Lothian and Production Designer Anastassia Poppenberg, talking about how they’re creating the space for the game, and everything in it.

Ben: What are your roles in the design and making of Small Time Criminals?

Sayraphim: I’m overseeing all the physical design on the game, working with Anastasia.

Anastassia: I’m designing the set and props and the way the aesthetic will all come together.

Ben: You’ve both worked with theatre and film sets, where you get to create a space from scratch, or close to it. Here you have to work with an existing space. How is this different?

Sayraphim: The building is actually an old bank!

Anastassia: I love that. You’re going to walk into the space and be sympathetic to the world that already exists there, that’s a really exciting design challenge. It’s good problem solving: we want this space to fulfil a certain function; this is what we have in the space; how do we achieve that? That’s exciting! It’s a different kind of design.

Models used in the set design for Small Time Criminals, created by Anastasia Poppenberg with Nick Sanders.
Models used in the set design for Small Time Criminals, created by Anastassia Poppenberg with Nick Sanders. Photo by Anastasia Poppenberg.

Sayraphim: The main play space is an office, so we need to design an office space. That isn’t just about desks and shelves and books, it’s also about the staff who work at these desks every day. Who are they? What do they bring to work? Do they have photos of their families, are they that kind of person? Our role is designing that and making sure that it’s a coherent whole. The theme and the feel of it should be consistent, not clashing with itself. It all needs to fit together in the same world.

Ben: What’s that world like? Where’s it coming from?

Sayraphim: Well, I’ve worked in a lot of offices!

Anastassia: I like talking to the other creators and asking about the world. Kind of what Sayra was talking about: who owns the bank? What’s the manager like? Is he an arsehole, does he treat his employees like shit, or is it a really loving work environment? All of those things will contribute to the atmosphere of a space. That’s where I often start, and once I have enough to go on, I’ll start finding references and source images, bringing them together to create a cohesive style.

Sayraphim: The start of The Wolf of Wall Street was really useful inspiration. Before he becomes a really slick Wall Street investor, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character works out of a really dingy office, but he’s still corrupt. That was an important realisation for us. Even though it’s small, we want to make sure this investment bank feels like one of the bad guys. It’s not the kind of bank that holds old ladies’ pensions and things you’d feel bad about stealing. They’re a dodgy investment bank that have been ripping their customers off, so you feel okay, a bit Robin Hood about stealing from them.

Anastassia: I’ve also been looking at old bank source material; I found this great web site that went through bank advertisements from the 1920s to the 2000s, mainly in America. The ads are just ridiculous! It’s amazing, the manipulation that goes into some of this advertising on a corporate level. They play on people’s insecurities. “You will die if you don’t have this bank card! What if you end up in hospital? You’ll need this credit card, because otherwise you won’t be able to get medical treatment!”

Ben: What are the different parts of the design that you’re overseeing?

Sayraphim: In a general sense, in theatre and film, set design is the stuff that actors don’t touch, and prop design is the stuff that actors do touch, that they pick up and mess around with. For Small Time Criminals, the “actors” are mostly our players. We’ll be designing the set: all the chairs and tables, what’s on the walls, the dressing. And we’ll also be designing the props: the stuff that players will be stealing. So not just files and folders for the office, but jewels and necklaces and other valuables.

Ben: How does this differ from a film or theatre gig?

Sayraphim: In theatre or television, a giant diamond only has to look real. The actor will pick it up and give a bit of a strain and the audience believes that it’s a giant heavy diamond. But the trick to making live games is that it’s real life; the audience get to pick up the diamond. If it feels really light like it’s plastic, that instantly breaks the illusion. So for live games you have to take into account the right feel and weight of a prop, as well as how it looks. We’re looking carefully for things that help the experience feel real.

Anastassia: Yeah, the immersive aspect of it dictates a higher level of detail be put into the world. In the theatre, you’re not going to walk up onto the stage and see how something looks from 10 centimetres away. So there’s a level of detail that has to go into everything, from the character of the desks right up to how the whole world is portrayed.

This article was originally published at popupplayground.com.au on March 4, 2016, during the Small Time Criminals crowdfunding campaign. Some elements of the game may have changed during development.

This interview series continues with Story (Robert Reid on narrative design) and System (Kevin Turner and Ben McKenzie on game design).