Games for Change spoke with Darren about their work with Channel 4 Education in the UK, and the difference in experience between creating commercial titles and “games for change.”
1. If we look at the your portfolio, it’s clear that you have done a lot of work for commercial purposes, like the promotion of movies and television shows. But upon closer inspection, you’ve also created many games for the UK’s Channel 4 and their education initiatives – many of which are esteemed award winners. How did Littleloud make the jump from creating games for Iron Man 2 and Dr. Who to winning a BAFTA Award for Bow Street Runner?
Bow Street Runner was one of the first projects out of the gate for Channel 4 Education in the UK. We were approached by this newly formed department to work on a game to support a television series the broadcaster was making, set in Georgian London.
We’d previously worked on games of this scale, had used video in previous projects and had produced our own stories in animated and game form, but this was the first project that brought all these things together on such a grand scale. A key factor in enabling the project to happen was trust and collaboration from Channel 4. The creative freedom we were given enabled us to bring the best out of the studio and the fact that we had control over the script meant we could really explore the story we wanted. Each episode had a theme such as gangs, prostitution, murder as well as an over-arching plot. Each of the themes had parallels with urban existence now to make the themes relevant and to explode the “chocolate box” image of history that period drama can often present.
2. For our non-UK readers, can you explain a bit more about what Channel 4 does as both a television station and as an entity for change?
Part of Channel 4′s remit is Public Service Broadcasting. One of their key objectives is address issues that affect teens and give them some tools to negotiate them. This audience spends a great deal of time online, often playing games. To that end, the broadcaster commissions direct to the web platform in order to reach that audience.
Also as a broadcaster they don’t shy away from difficult or controversial subjects. This opens up the field on what we as a studio can tell stories about and the ways in which we tackle those stories.
3. Can you go into detail about some of the challenges a game design studio like yours goes through when creating a “game for change”?
A lot of these other games involve understanding and working with someone else’s creative property or brand. That’s great and we love working on those ideas, but we’re stepping into someone else’s sandpit and playing in their world for a while, using their rules.
Our projects like Bow Street Runner, The Curfew or Sweatshop are very much our own stories. Commissioned as they are, we can tackle issues and themes that aren’t really present in more commercial projects. As we have a sense of ownership we can really attempt to bring depth and emotion to the story and gameplay.
When creating “games for change” there is a multitude of challenges, but the trickiest is always going to making sure the story and the mechanics are working in harmony, and making a consistent point to the player. It’s also important to find the right tone, and to strike the balance between communicating something and engaging people at the same time.
The trick is always to find out how to immerse the player in your world so you get your message across almost without them realizing.
4. Do you think your studio’s commercial work has helped in creating “games for change”?
Everything we do increases knowledge in the studio, be that creatively or technically. Even with our smaller projects we have to find something to challenge ourselves with. When we get to work on longer projects all this cumulative knowledge and experience comes into play.
On a purely surface level everything we do has high production values and we want that to carry through in all our projects. On a deeper level we understand narrative and game methodology and we’re evolving our understanding of how to marry them up all the time.
5. Can you talk briefly about how your interactive dramas like Bow Street Runner and The Curfew are immersing players? And why are interactive dramas a good tool for awareness and direct action?
They’re an interesting model as they exist in a space between two forms and employ elements of both those forms: film and game. Every time we create one it’s an experiment in balance to see how we merge the two, especially when plot or character can be in direct conflict with what traditional game design may require. For example, you may need the player to fail to make your point, which kind of goes against good game design. The solution can sometimes be allow the player to win but to make them feel terrible about doing so (something that seems to have worked well in Sweatshop).
Interactive dramas can be a strong tool for awareness and direct action because they usually use live actors and voices, and so immediately connect on that human level that good television drama can. Of course, they need to be interactive for a reason and that active power can be used to engage audiences in ways that other media such as film and television cannot manage.
6. Lastly, even though Sweatshop has just been released, are there any other topics Littleloud would like to address in the future?
There are many topics but ultimately we believe there is a huge number of topics out there that games haven’t touched yet. Topics and themes we might not even know about yet. We’re really interested in the challenges that each require in the approach. It’s all about finding a way into a topic and our angle on it in terms of game mechanics that brings it to life in a new way.