Need to Know: a mass surveillance indie thriller
10 Feb, 2016
Are you an enemy of the state, or it’s eyes and ears. Do you rage against governments for violating privacy rights, limiting civil and political rights and freedoms, or are you helping them. In Need to Know, a new indie thriller from Monomyth Games, you play the type of person that Julian Assange, that scourge of the free (within limits) world, really doesn’t like. You are part of the machine that is spying on the public in the name of curtailing crime, terrorism, and all other manners of unpleasant things. Not that this is that black & white in a game as unique and thought provoking as any as I have seen for quite a while.
In the game, you have to attempt to ascend the ranks of the NSA-like Department of Liberty, but you do have choices to make. Essentially, will you stand up for privacy, or will you help create an unstoppable police state?
You must spy on citizens, pick apart their private lives, and determine how dangerous they are. You can also resist these suffocating privacy invasions by aiding underground groups and leaking internal reports to the media. Or, you can just use all of that juicy classified information for your own, personal gain. Your call. all of this adds extra dimensions to the game, making it multifaceted and not just a ‘play it once’ experience.
Need to Know emphasises story, and will sculpt the crushing growth of our real-world surveillance society into a meaningful, gripping journey. It critiques the system by passing the uncomfortable (or too comfortable?) mantle of power onto your shoulders, and testing which choices you’ll make. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sweat bullets under the searing blaze of an interrogation lamp.
Need to Know has just started it’s Kickstarter campaign, and so we at IND13 had the chance to talk to the guys behind it at an early stage of it’s life in the public domain; Quincy Geary, the Technical Director & Programmer and Tristram Geary, the Creative Director & Writer. Not just about Need to Know, the game that is already starting to cause waves in the Kickstarter community, but about setting up their studio, Monomyth Games.
Monomyth Games are a relatively new indie studio, with Need to Know being your first game. What was the idea behind setting up the studio, and do you have a background in games development?
I think Tristram and I had been thinking about working on a project for quite a while, but we never really got around to having a proper sit-down to work out what we would do. We were thinking, ‘mobile games? Maybe some sort of app?’, but nothing serious came out of it. Then, one day, Tristram suggested a game where you played as an employee of an intelligence agency, and worked your way up through the ranks. It just developed from there, and once we’d added in the surveillance aspect we started to get pretty excited about the idea. Thus, Monomyth Games was born. John, the lead artist for Need to Know, is a long-time friend of mine, and along the way we invited him to work with us. Months of development later, and here we are!
None of us come strictly from a game development background, but we all have skills and experience which fit in quite well with game design. Tristram has a background in film, and has done a fair bit of writing, editing, etc. with his production company, Torchborne Screens. I’m in the final year of a computer science degree at the University of Adelaide, which I’ll be postponing my degree if Need to Know gets funded, so we can get the game out to people as soon as possible. I’ve picked up a lot of extra skills while working on the game, and there’s always more to learn. John is a graphic designer by trade, but he also has experience working on website and UI design, and he’s had a big impact on the look of the game and improved it a lot. As we’ve gone along, I’ve become more and more confident that we’ll be able to do justice to Need to Know’s potential.
Monomyth is a very call word, meaning a hero’s journey. It is very games orientated, is that the reason why you chose it, because of the games that you intend to make? Or is it because you see yourselves as taking a different journey/path into the industry with the games that you make?
We should say that we really value characters and narrative. The monomyth is such a fundamental storyline; it’s shared by almost every culture worldwide. It goes back thousands of years to the beginning of recorded history, but yet it’s still perpetually retold even today. To us, the name represents stories in general. Whether they’re told on a cave wall or through VR technology, people will always want and need them. We want to meld the timelessness of narrative with gaming, which is a relatively shiny and exciting medium, to tell stories in a way that only video games can.
Surveillance is an increasingly hot topic, especially with new ways to ‘spy’ on people seemingly being thought up all the time. But normally games concentrate on the ‘watched’ not the ‘watcher’. Why did you decide to take this approach?
One of the unique things about video games is that they allow players to inhabit a perspective, and make choices which can carry some serious emotional weight. In Shadow of the Colossus, when you get a pang of guilt when you kill your first colossus, it’s not because you saw someone else kill the colossus, it’s because you did it yourself! You’re made to think, “Oh gee, why did I do that?”.
We like the idea of the player being the ‘watcher’, because power bring about conflicts which make things more interesting. If you’re the one being spied on, there’s not too much moral ambiguity there; it’s not really your fault, so you’re the good guy. When you’re the one doing the spying, the line between right and wrong is really put under a spotlight. You’re getting rewarded for looking at private information, like a teenager’s text messages or a sick person’s medical records, on the off chance they have something to hide, which makes you wonder, ‘Is what I’m doing OK?’
In the game, the player can often choose to follow a different path, but who wants to do ‘the right thing’ when toeing the line gets you more money and recognition?
Do you see the game developing as it goes along, adding more to it as the user base grows? Or as a single stand-alone game. I can see this as a game that grows, maybe with a community?
We’ve got a pretty clear narrative for the game in mind, and a journey for the protagonist, but we’ve also spent a lot of time thinking of how to expand on the game in different ways: different choices and sub-plots, along with ways to add in more assignments after the game is released. Although the game will be mostly self-contained, one of the reasons we’re putting it on Kickstarter is to try and build a community around the game. If people are contacting us and suggesting ideas for the game, it’ll mean they’re emotionally invested in it, and we couldn’t be happier about that.
I have talked to various games developers/studios, and they sometimes tell me they already have the ideas for their next game before they have even released their current one. Is that the same with you?
Soon after we came up with the idea for Need to Know, we started to brainstorm ideas for other games. We really liked the Need to Know concept (at that stage we were calling it Clearance), but wanted to test it against some other ideas before properly getting into development. We came up with a list of about 50 concepts, some of which were pretty interesting. In one game, you play an unscrupulous paparazzo and uncover the details of a crime in which you are implicated. (If you’re sensing a recurring theme here, I swear that most of our ideas weren’t about breaches of privacy; another idea was to make the player escape a glitching game, which would allow us to play mind tricks on the player and really mess with them along the way.)
We ended up with three or four ideas which we thought were really strong, but some of the concepts were a little more abstract, so we thought those stories would be better told once we had some more development experience under our belts. More than anything else, though, we picked Need to Know because we just love the concept, and the stories it allows us to tell. Hopefully we’ll be able to show off some of the other ideas in the future!
Looking at your site, you have a team of three? A Programmer, a Writer and an Art Director. Are all your roles very clearly defined or are you all working on various things together all the time, on all aspects of the job.
We each have specific roles as you’ve described, and most of our work is in the corresponding area, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t overlap between our roles. Although I’m nominally the ‘Programmer’, I’ll frequently delve into story or visual design, and vice versa for Tristram and John. We each have the most knowledge in our respective roles, but many good ideas have come from one-on-one discussions rather than just from the person who technically performs a role.
And yep, we currently have a team of three. Although, we may be expanding to four very soon, with the addition of a musician who will work on our soundtrack and audio design. Keep an eye out!
What platforms are you aiming to launch Need to Know on?
The plan is to release the game on the main desktop platforms: Windows, OSX and Linux. If we can make the game work on console platforms, and if there’s enough interest, we’ll look more into that. The Need to Know world could be a pretty good setting for a mobile game, with shorter assignments that would let players spy on others wherever they are; maybe we could call it Need to Know on the Go!
For now, though, making Need to Know for the desktop is our main focus.
Need to Know is on Kickstarter now, with various ‘clearance level’ pledge offers, ranging from early access to the game, exclusive celebrity scandal storylines, and to having your profile in the game itself. Get backing now, I know I am…