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Gillen Breaks “The Curfew”

by  in Video Game Comment
Gillen Breaks “The Curfew”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was conducted prior to the announcement that Kieron Gillen will join Matt Fraction as co-writer on “Uncanny X-Men”]

What becomes of a society when the bomb doesn’t fall? In the futuristic Britain of “The Curfew,” an episodic online game written by “Phonogram” and “Generation Hope” scribe Kieron Gillen and published by Channel 4, defense against a perpetual threat creates a country in which civil liberties are suppressed, citizenship is earned and secrecy and deception permeate every aspect of life. The game takes place in 2027, 13 years after a failed terrorist attack leads to severe security measures. The player is given a memory stick with data that could potentially topple the government and must entrust this vital information to one of four boarders at a safehouse. The question, though, is which of the four can be trusted, and why should they trust you? Through a series of questions about the events that led to each character’s arrival at the safehouse, the player tries to gain each person’s trust and discern who might not be telling the whole truth. With its real-world themes and focus on civil liberties, “The Curfew” is supported by such agencies as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. “The Curfew” is available to play online now, and a downloadable version will be available soon. CBR News spoke with Gillen about the project.

“Basically, the game’s structure is kind of a ‘Canterbury Tales’ sort of thing. The idea [is] that there are four people, five including the player, who have come to this midway house and are telling each other their stories,” Gillen said. “That’s an appealing structure because I’ve always been into the ‘Canterbury Tales.'” The characters are broadly identified as The Boy, The Immigrant, The Dissident and The Ex-Policeman, but each is revealed in turn to be a much more complex person than their titles suggest.

“Lucas is the first one, Lucas’ is by far the lightest story. He’s an average, not incredibly bright, relatively shallow teenager self-obsessed kid, basically. The point of his story was basically that I didn’t want to start with ‘oh my God, I’m going to be hunted down and killed by this evil government,” Gillen continued. “It’s a game for teenagers. I want to say, with this existing, it would be like this. These basic privileges you take for granted, how in this society might change. You know, Lucas is really bored – the fundamental teenager emotion, in my experience; I come from Stafford, though, that probably colours that experience. There’s things about him basically becoming a criminal just to keep from being bored.

“Aisha is the next character, she’s a second generation immigrant. Due to the Citizen Points system, she’s too young to be a Class A citizen, her parents haven’t quite earned enough points yet. Once you’ve created a sub-class, it’s much easier to do stuff to them,” Gillen said. “Her particular problem is that her parents have lost their ID cards, they’re going to be deported very quickly – they’ve got one strike, they’re out the country. She’s trying to get their cards back. Hers is an incredibly grim story. Hers is actually about complete powerlessness. Despite the fact that she’s smart, she’s resourceful, she does everything reasonable, she doesn’t get those ID cards back. The theme of the character is that, video games give the sense of agency, the idea that you can solve any problem. No, no, you can’t – occasionally there are larger things than you can wrestle with. The subtext being, that’s why people get involved with politics, the idea that you should care about the society you’re in.”

After Aisha comes a character Gillen is especially pleased to present. “Leah is fun. She’s a character I made up myself. The other three characters were roughly mentioned in the draft, at least the idea, [though] the execution was very different. They wanted a boy, an immigrant girl, an ex-cop. The activist was my idea because I wanted to do something about – she’s an amiable, interesting character. She’s basically someone who puts on parties. She’s taken on the idea that these kind of governments cannot last. Historically speaking, they never last, [so] they essentially party in a basement until they ride it out. In previous generations, when endemic cynicism wasn’t as rife, she would have been engaged and doing stuff, something more practical. In this situation, it’s more post-post-modernist capitalist. She’s kind of given up. She’s just as selfish as Lucas in her own way. Her story is basically about, will she end up having a re-political awakening? She’s the character that’s closest to me, she’s very much based upon my experience in my 20s, the question of hedonism versus ‘worthy political behavior.’ One girl I dated, she was a heavily, properly, activist socialist girl. And I was very much the opposite, the flighty, ‘memic infection of the population,’ ‘working the mass media to spread counter-cultural ideas and thus transform the universe,’ that sort of stuff. I made her feel stupid and she made me feel immoral. I think she was far more right than I was. So Leah’s kind a note-to-self almost – sometimes you have to get your hands dirty.”

Saul, the ex-policeman, also has a bit of subtlety to his situation. “The last guy was basically around when the bomb in 2014 didn’t go off, he was in the town. He’s actually an adult who helped precipitate the system. We do quite a lot with him in the story. The reason he’s interesting, it’s kind of subtextual. He’s as old as teenagers now would be in 2027,” Gillen said. “If you’re a teenager playing this game, he is your future. You will eventually be in a position to shape the world and have your decisions. There’s a whole set of stuff we didn’t put in the game, there’s a whole series of scenes set in a pub that didn’t end up in the game – they’re playing Halo splitscreen in the pub. What do all men do? Pretty much what they did as young men.”

The game’s system of communication occurs on two levels: the player’s character asks questions of each of the other four characters in turn, and during the course of the interaction with the player, each character goes through a flashback sequence, during which they talk with others such as fast food workers, illicit video game dealers, cops and more. Asked about writing this sort of call-and-response dialogue with many possible options, Gillen said, “You sort of know the characters – a lot of it’s kind of natural in that way, if you know what I mean.

“You kind of know, what would the player want to ask him? How could I phrase this to create a different sort of response? We went back and forth with the questions a few times. I think the first set of questions were quite obvious, and it became a lot more interesting in later drafts. Hopefully, anyway,” the writer continued. “A lot of it’s coming from the other side – the game’s goal doesn’t explicitly tell you you’re trying to talk people into trusting you; the game’s explicit objective is to find out, can you trust these people? There’s a lesson in the game where you learn, no, I want to be doing something else as well as trying to be trusted. A lot of the questions are trying to figure out if this bit is true. Asking a character, ‘Have you still got footage of the riot?’ He shows you the footage – which at least proves that he was at a riot. There’s that sort of question.

“So it’s just logical, what could you ask and what would it be entertaining to ask? There’s often a stupid question to ask. We deliberately – we didn’t want this to be ‘1984,’ we didn’t want this to be a proper Incredibly Bleak Dystopia. It’s quite light and deliberately playful. The satire is often quite broad., so there are some really stupid questions. There’s often completely funny questions you can throw at somebody and get a good response, when the character is relaxed enough to be able to joke about it.”

As to how he became involved with “The Curfew,” Gillen said, “I was approached by Simon Parkin, who was a producer at Littleloud – I kind of know him from way back, when we were games journalists together. He’s done other projects and he just basically thought that I would be suitable for it. I’ve got experience with comics, I’ve got experience with multimedia, threaded narrative, which is kind of what the game is.” Another of his assets, Gillen said, was that, “I’m quite used to the concept of what video games as a medium can do.”

Gillen said that Littleloud had previously produced “Bow Street Runner” for Channel 4, which was a historical crime game, and “wanted to make a spiritual sequel.” “Channel 4 have these kind of broad educational themes and one of them, the one we ended up doing with ‘The Curfew,’ was civil liberties,” the writer told CBR. “One of the other ones we were considering was mental health, so we had a rough idea for a mental health game. But it ended up gravitating toward ‘The Curfew,’ which suited me fine, because I think a.) that’s my idea and I get to keep it, and b.) I think it kind of works if the core of the game came from this side of the team. Video games really are, especially a game like this, it’s a group effort. As a project, it feels much more like a ‘we’ rather than an ‘I.’ This stuff, even the stuff you might think comes from me, comes from the execution, from somebody else, and vice versa. The things I do in the design side, the structure, wouldn’t be presumed as mine. So it’s a team effort.”

After pitching their concept for “The Curfew,” Gillen said, “We got the full development budget, which we spent on crisps and sweeties and eventually got a game out of it.”

Though “The Curfew” is an educational game, Gillen said, “it approaches the themes quite tangentially. It’s not a game which is a big long list of civil liberties. We just have a theme and show how the concept of fear can be used to allow people to erode their own liberties, and the idea of what can or cannot be lost. That’s the sort of general theme,” he explained. “The other theme that runs throughout the game is communication. The questioning and the back and forth, and it kind of posits the opposite idea to a closed, quiet society is basically about honest and genuine communication with other humans and sympathy. The way you have to act to win the game – when I say ‘win the game,’ I mean get the best, most difficult ending – is to understand what somebody else wants and understand what you want, and how you can compromise to actually put your position across. You can do well just by sucking up to somebody. To do really well, you have to tell them stuff they don’t want to know, and work out a way to ask it in a way that won’t offend them.”

Beyond its themes of civil liberty and communication, there is also a level of satire present in the game. “There’s been a lot of talk lately about turning nearly everything in society into games, like using achievement systems in training at work – the idea that if you turn it into a game, people kind of process it better,” Gillen said. “So we turned citizenship into a game. This is a society where people essentially earn their vote through being a good citizen. And we posit a few ways that will change who earns citizen points and who doesn’t. It’s a quite dystopian thing, looking how what’s at on one level quite a sensible system, but in practice would end up working the way it is. I mean, what are a society’s laws other than the rules of the game it plays? And the laws will always shape who wins and loses the game within it. That was one of the themes of our game.”

Discussing the surveillance culture of Britain, which plays a role in “The Curfew,” Gillen noted that the recent change of government in the UK, where a Conservative-led coalition took over for the Labour Party which had been in power since 1997, has produced an interesting effect on laws and initiatives that some say curtailed civil liberties. Gillen described the situation as being “inverted,” saying, “Traditionally speaking, looking at the last 100 years of culture, the governments which have been most about infringing civil liberties have been Conservative, right wing-leaning governments, and the governments which have been about opening stuff up, they’ve been the Labour, left wing-leaning governments. The noughties [2000s] were personified by the fact that it was the Labour government, an abstract Labour government, that did all this stuff.” Some of the policies enacted by Labour that had raised privacy concerns include an increase in CCTV coverage in public areas and a plan issue national identity cards. Now, though, the Conservatives in power are rolling back some of the programs, notably the ID card scheme which has been scrapped entirely. Gillen attributed this reversal partly to a sense of, “Oh, the last government did that, we’ll reverse all their positions” and partly because many such programs are “incredibly expensive.” “There’s an element of austerity, which is obviously due to the worldwide economic recession. A lot of these things are expensive. We’re also at a relative length of time since the early noughties and the terrorist disasters, so it’s easier to do this sort of thing, there’s less immediate public cry for it,” the writer said. “It’s a weird one, actually. A part of me really hoped the game would come out before the election. It would have been great for a game to be that openly controversial. As it is, it’s kind of after-the-fact.”

Though “The Curfew” is a distinctly British game, some of its themes will resonate with American audiences. Aisha’s situation, for example, evokes issues raised by SB1070, the controversial law recently passed in Arizona that requires anyone suspected of being in the country illegally to provide documentation of their residency status. “The broad themes are similar but the specifics are different,” Gillen said of the way civil liberties dilemmas manifest differently in the UK and US. “This is such a British game, it’s deliberately British – it’s set in Brighton for God’s sake – but there is stuff you would recognize.” The writer also noted that the rights Britons and Americans hold most closely to differ between the countries. “There are rights which Americans would get very very angry about [losing] which we’ve never had. We don’t have a written constitution, we don’t have freedom of speech in any real way. Nothing gets Americans angrier than discussing the First Amendment,” he said. “[But] in Britain, I think the fact that we are part of this larger structure – the EC [European Community], where there’s proper freedom of movement and absolutely anyone can go anywhere. There’s more freedoms with that for people to go from X to Y. Like any political situation, what’s important is always to do about context and history.”

Gillen told CBR that writing for actors rather than for a comic book page was “a really interesting experience,” and quite unnerving at times. “I’ve never written for screen before; I’ve never written for performance. So seeing people act words that I’d written was deeply disturbing,” he revealed. “I was only there for little bits of the filming, but I had my fist in my mouth the entire time. Not because the lines were bad or anything, not because the performance was bad, just because the idea of anybody performing something I did was awful beyond even imagining. But by the end I got over it, it was really interesting.

“We had enormously talented developers – this was really a quite innovative thing Channel 4 have done. The actors were brilliant. There’s lots of different ways video games can be pushed, and the idea of these essentially quite small-budget games being produced via more like broadcast media and being free on the internet. ‘Curfew’ is like an hour and a half, two hours of game, it’s a different way of looking at a thing. Games don’t have to be these 40-hour behemoths you sell for 50 quid a shot. I find the idea that there’s other ways of doing it very exciting. I’m just more interested to see what other people do in the similar sort of matrix, not even using a similar tact as ‘Curfew’ but the idea that there is an economic niche there that people can explore. That’s what most excites me.”

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