Big Time Designers: Story

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. In this second of three interviews, Ben talks to Pop Up Playground’s Artistic Director Robert Reid about his role in directing the narrative of Small Time Criminals.

Ben: How would you describe your role on the project? Are you the head writer?

Robert: No, it feels weird for me to be a “Head Writer” when we have Nic Velissaris, Bridget Mackey and Emilie Collyer. Sayra and I are the equivalent of a director on a theatre show, so we’re experience directors – me from the fictional side, and Sayra from the fabrication side. We’re looking at the overall experience from a player’s perspective and how that translates to a narrative understanding of the world and the experience they’ve been through. So when they walk into the world, they’re having a phenomenological experience; it’s my job to make sure that whatever they do, and whatever anyone brings into the project, it becomes a narrative when they’re done.

Ben: So you’ll combine forces, but Sayraphim will be primarily looking at the physical aspects of the space, and you’ll be primarily looking at its narrative and story aspects?

Robert: I’m looking at the lies we tell; Sayra’s looking at the lies we make.

Ben: Very quotable! What’s the difference between experience design and game design?

Robert: The game designers are looking at the overall structure: what players are asked to do, the problems they’re asked to solve, and the mechanics by which we give shape and meaning to their experience. Games have rules, even if they’re quite obscure and environmental; that’s game design. As the Experience Director, I’m good at saying “I want it to feel like this”, “I want these kinds of problems”, to serve the experience and the narrative, but then I leave it to the game designers to answer “what are those problems?”

Ben: There are four writers on the project, including yourself. What kind of things are you going to be writing?

Robert: Memos, diary entries, reports, post-it notes… All the bits of evidence that we leave in our daily lives. We’ll be constructing a sense of the characters that work in the bank, so when we get actors in, I can hand each of them a character sheet which tells them who they’re playing and what they know, and they can improvise from it. Of course if we make our final stretch goal for the Small Time Criminals web series, we’ll also be writing scripts! Because we can pay actors to learn them, and I can make them say exactly what I want. Which is what I like as a playwright!

Ben: Most of it sounds very different from a regular writing gig, though?

Robert: That’s true, and that’s the thing that excites me about it!

A read-through of #TrueRomansAll.
Robert and Ben during an early read-through trial of street game #TrueRomansAll.

Ben: How are you going to coordinate the whole process?

Robert: The tricky thing is negotiating with the other three writers and working out how their work fits into the overall world. I’ll be giving them that world, and saying “okay, write this bit”. One of them already had ideas of how the gameplay will work, so I’m having some back and forth to make it clear what kind of experience they’re writing for. They’re all theatre writers, they’re used to writing dialogue, and I am asking for dialogue – but in a very different format.

Ben: What other strengths and styles are the writers bringing on board?

Robert: Emilie has written prose, including essays and crime fiction. Nic is really interested in Mafia, the game, so he’s bringing that kind of aspect in. Bridget is super intelligent, I brought her on board because she’s really clever!

Ben: The idea is that they’ll each be writing separate scenarios, each providing a different experience for the bank. Will those narratives intertwine? How will you manage that?

Robert: I did something similar on one of my plays, All Of Which Are American Dreams. That had five writers, me included; I wrote the overall story for it, then they wrote in response to my prompts, and it was my job to decide “oh, that fits into the world here”, or “this character might that interaction with this other character”. I sort of knit them together so they sit in the landscape alongside each other. So for Small Time Criminals, I’ll say to the writers “Here’s your character and the kind of story; go write it!” Then we’ll go through a drafting process, the writers will send me a draft and I’ll say “that’s great; one of the other stories has this, can you work it into yours?”

Ben: The first alternate narrative, or game mode, will be live when the game opens, and the other stretch goals will come in later; do you see opportunities for adding more to the game as time goes on?

Robert: Oh yes! Small Time Criminals is going to be amazing fun, and it’s a really interesting way to explore the notion of live performance and live games. But the thing that interests me most about it, the real motivator for me doing it, is the potential for this to be an ongoing story. With the actors on YouTube, and the contributions that players inevitably make by playing, we have the opportunity to tell a year’s worth of story. It’s like a sit-com, a soap opera, a serial – but it’s a serial you can walk into and explore. Potentially, if you’re smart about it and following the narrative, players could write notes for characters. You know, find out what Kevin is doing behind Anastassia’s back, and write a note for her. If we find it we should take that into the story. We’re building a machine for a year’s worth of immersive story to come out of.

This article was originally published at popupplayground.com.au on March 8, 2016, during the Small Time Criminals crowdfunding campaign. Some elements of the game may have changed during development.

This interview series began with Space (Sayraphim Lothian and Anastassia Poppenberg on physical design) and continues with System (Kevin Turner and Ben McKenzie on game design).