For the recent AdventureX Expo in London, I was interviewed by Waypoint's Danny Wadeson about my approach to game writing, Paper Drumpf, and the upcoming title Acts of Supremacy.
Please summarise your role and/or project.
I’m currently finishing SUPREMACY, a text adventure anthology game containing my previous political games PAPER BREXIT (https://gregbuchanan.itch.io/paper-brexit) and PAPER DRUMPF (https://gregbuchanan.itch.io/paper-drumpf) with additional new material and episodes about the nightmares of the past year. The player takes the role of an author diagnosed with terminal cancer; a journalist in the aftermath of Brexit; an adviser to Daffy Drumpf on the campaign trail; and Henry VIII, King of England. The player’s choices in response to each story decide who (and what) will finally be supreme in the twilight of the world 2016 left behind.
In one line, what excites you about adventure/narrative games at the moment?
The increasing complexity of emotional relationships and player involvement in the development of those relationships.
How do you feel about the state of storytelling in games at the moment? What do we have to look forward to — and be aware of?
Narrative games have, for the most part, started to mature from simple binary presentations of good and evil choices to present worlds in which there are no easy answers or quick solutions to problems, where cause and effect are increasingly unpredictable, and where casts of highly sympathetic characters are forced to make impossible choices; in brief, all the conditions for successful tragedies in the classical mould.
I believe procedural elements will increasingly be used in narrative games to further increase this sense of humanity and unpredictability, and the challenge will be to figure out how to produce a best-of-both-worlds hybrid between procedural generation and curated pre-crafted narrative that isn’t inevitably inferior to both. Games that somehow invoke a feeling of boundless unknown narrative possibility without losing the perspective, pathos, and craftsmanship of human authors drawing on their own lives and sense of meaning.
For the uninitiated — what would you say is the greatest appeal of adventure/narrative games? What few games/etc would you suggest to a totally new player?
The appeal of playing a narrative game is the chance to briefly inhabit a curated world that can tell you something about your own life through the choices that you make. Narrative games are stories whose authors have given you the chance to intervene in the lives of their characters for good or ill; at their best, the consequences of this terrible responsibility will rarely be simple or direct.
And if you consider that in the best novels, films, and television series, we are often so emotionally invested as to care about the lives of fictional beings with a greater passion than we afford many elements of our day to day lives, imagine the potential emotional relationship you might develop with a character whose heart you could save, who you could damn to despair or resign to a path of mediocrity.
Imagine how you might feel about a character who can tell you how they feel about what you’ve done to them, and imagine what you might say back to them. Conceive of what it would be like to be present in the stories you love and you’ve started to understand the potential of narrative games.
I was recently interviewed by Polygon's Colin Campbell about Paper Drumpf, discussing my approach to political narrative games and my thoughts on the US Election.
Tell me a bit about yourself, where you live, what you do, what sort of game work you’ve done in the past?
I’m 27, from the UK, and just completed a PhD thesis about identification and ethics in novels and video games. Since then I’ve been working as a narrative consultant for a few organisations and as Narrative Designer for multiple game studios and projects in Guildford. Aside from game jam games with Lionhead staffers and other Guildford developers, Paper Brexit was my first indie game to get recognition and coverage, with Kotaku, Digital Spy, and others writing about it (https://gregbuchanan.itch.io/paper-brexit).
Why did you decide to write a game about Trump? Your man seems smarter than Trump. Did you do that on purpose? How close is he to the real Trump?
I’m interested in the private psychology of someone who would grasp at that position of President, who would respond in this way to perceived slights and betrayals and adulation. Who would clearly profess Democratic and even socially liberal ideals throughout his life, and then turn back and forth towards a side that seems so clearly different from what he once claimed to believe. Who would crave the whole world to tell him he’s right, that only he can save them.
A hypothetical presidential candidate like Daffy Drumpf clearly couldn’t get to where he is without some level of strategy and intelligence. I’m not interested in telling stories about caricatures.
Why a text adventure in particular rather than another type of game, or a short story?
Games about current events frequently draw on platformers or quick abstract mechanic-driven genres to carry out their comment upon the state of the world, and it feels to me that while shooting a virtual politician in the face or hurling them up to the moon can be cathartic ways for players and developers to express their anger at a situation, they hardly address the complex emotion and pathos of the huge power that crowds and politicians wield.
And while a lot of sim games make excellent points about the nature of how various systems operate in the world, they rarely try to make a sustained emotional argument in the same way that narrative games can, just as narrative games would struggle to make complex points about the distribution of wealth arising from specific public policies.
Our leaders tell us stories, and we buy them or reject them; that’s how democracy and tyranny work. I feel that narrative isn’t used enough in games to explore real world political situations, and what’s more narrative heavy than a text-based adventure game? I wanted to tell a story about the role of an individual who is close to the heart of the political machine but who has to negotiate their relationship and feelings about what they’re doing on a daily basis, who has feelings both private and public. The capacity of text adventure to communicate both interior thought and exterior action with ease made it ideal for this project.
Why did you want to make the protagonist one of his supporters? What do you hope players get out of this? What were your creative aims for the game, and do you think you achieved them?
At a certain point in the story, Drumpf demotes Abi for a not entirely illegitimate reason, though the way he goes about it could certainly be criticised to put it mildly, and whatever you choose, Abi is quite clearly salty about this for the rest of the game. And although a lot of people who might be anti-Trump prior to playing this game might be really really ready for a moment where Abi suddenly wakes up to her boss’s policies and politics, she doesn’t, and very few people who have played Paper Drumpf have really noticed this. If Abi Thoreau tries to stop Drumpf under the player’s control of her choices, she does so not because of any real thought-through objection to his politics, it’s entirely because of the way she’s treated as a person and as an employee throughout the narrative. This isn’t a game about Drumpf’s policies, not directly; though race, gender, sexuality, Islamophobia, terrorism, and gun rights are present as concerns at various points throughout the story, they’re ghosts at the feast. This is a story about how a person makes choices in relation to how those they personally know treat them. Which is the route of all politics, of all empathy, of everything we do. Few people are naturally left or right wing; we are shaped by those we meet, by those experiences we have, by selfish, sometimes ugly reasons, whatever side of this political spectrum we’re on and whatever rationalisations we may make to tell ourselves stories about our own righteousness.
A big inspiration for this game’s design and script came from Brian Azzarello’s graphic novel JOKER, which was told from the perspective of a goon who just started working for the Joker, is readily and warmly accepted by his new boss who doesn’t seem to be such a bad guy after all. He’s charismatic. He’s even a little funny. But the Joker is his own worst enemy, and it’s not his strategy and brilliance that lets the Joker down, it’s his hatred of himself and the world, manifesting in all he does.
Do I think Trump wants to do anything other than make America great again, just like he claims he does? Of course he does. Of course he wants to use the situation to his best advantage at the same time. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, not at first. But it’s the fable of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion wants the frog to help it cross a river; the frog knows it might be stung, but the scorpion assuages its fears by saying that it wouldn’t do that, they’d both drown and sink together if the scorpion attacked its new friend.
And what do you know? Of course the scorpion attacks the frog. The frog, about to die, asks the scorpion why it did this. The scorpion replies that it was its nature.
Some people can’t help but be who they are, can’t help but repeat the patterns of the past. Whether in the actions of Drumpf or the player character, that’s what this game is about — the inevitability of our natures re-asserting themselves, and how we decide to carry who we are.
Where can people get the game, and when?
PAPER DRUMPF is available now on itch.io (https://gregbuchanan.itch.io/paper-drumpf) on a pay what you want basis. I’m currently working on a longer anthology title, SUPREMACY, that will include both PAPER DRUMPF and a reworked version of PAPER BREXIT in addition to some new stories about Henry VIII, fireworks, life, and death, with branching and carried-over variables between each chapter. We’ll be exhibiting a demo of SUPREMACY at AdventureX in London on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th November.