Failbetter Incubates: Top Secret

By Hannah Flynn, October 12, 2015 · Incubations

We’re delighted to welcome James Long as our second incubee, with his game Top Secret.

Incubation is a way for us to share what we have (a nice office, indie game expertise, fruit) and pass some advantages on to new developers who are making games we like the look of.

We know James from the Oxford and London Interactive Fiction Meet Up, which is hosted at Failbetter HQ (the next IF meet is on 27 October). His idea for a real-time email-based game about surveillance, featuring the actual emails of individuals involved in the Snowden leaks (with permission!), really grabbed us as a perfect meeting of subject and mechanics.

James is 75% funded on Kickstarter at the time of writing, and is planning to release Top Secret in May 2016.

How did you come to make Top Secret?

I’ve been a games developer for the last four years and have always wanted to make something narrative-based. Something a little different.

I had become increasingly fascinated by the Snowden leaks. Mass, big brother, government spying carried out by the secretive National Security Agency (NSA). But I also became fascinated by the man behind the leaks, Edward Snowden. The man who extracted Top Secret documents from the most powerful surveillance agency in the world, to let the public know what was going on. Why did he risk everything to show us these documents?

I realised this was a story that needed to be told.

Tell us a little about your interest in interactive fiction, and your inspirations for Top Secret.

I play games for the stories they tell. Emergent, linear, branching, as long as it’s narrative-based I’m interested!

I love 80 Days, there’s so much content you don’t see which really adds to the sense that it’s a living, breathing world. I want Top Secret to be a ‘wide’ narrative – you won’t get dragged back to the main narrative path after every choice.

More recently, I was really inspired by Her Story. Top Secret and Her Story are both non-linear investigations which place a lot of responsibility on the player. One of the things I found myself doing when playing Her Story was taking some time out to reflect about the character and her possible motivations. With Top Secret, because it’s played over hours and days, this reflective process is built in to the gameplay.

Outside of games I’m hugely inspired by the fierce, adversarial journalism of Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. Citizenfour (the Oscar winning documentary by Poitras) is a heavy inspiration for the game.

How does Top Secret work?

Top Secret is played in real-time by email. You receive real emails from the characters in the game. Read and reply to them just like any other normal email you receive, directly from your inbox!

The story unfolds over 2 weeks. You play as an NSA agent tracking down the source of Top Secret leaks. You email selectors (names, email addresses, phone numbers) to your NSA team and receive surveillance reports on your chosen targets. Analyse the intel to choose your next target.

The game is voyeuristic. You’re deliberately invading people’s privacy to look for evidence. I want it to feel a bit uncomfortable. How far will you go for ‘national security’?

What is your Kickstarter funding going towards?

Your support will allow me to spend 100% of my time finishing the game. After Kickstarter fees and physical reward costs, the money will go towards coding, writing, servers, databases, and promotional art assets.

Just as importantly, I need your feedback and knowledge to make this game the best it can be! There are many people out there who have a passion for digital rights, and others who love new gaming experiences. Top Secret is going to be a collaborative experience, I want you all to get involved!


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