Cosmic Top Secret, and a path to autobiographical game design

Produced by Danish film and game studio Klassefilm, Cosmic Top Secret recounts the experience of game director Trine Laier as she discovers her parents' role in the national security of her country.

Cosmic Top Secret is an unusual game, about as close to non-fiction as video games get. Games like the Cold War board game Twilight Struggle may seek to simulate historical events, but Cosmic Top Secret, in an abstract and whimsical way, is autobiographical.

Produced by Copenhagen-based film and game studio Klassefilm, Cosmic Top Secret recounts the experience of game director Trine Laier as she discovers her parents’ role in the national security of her country of Denmark.

Laier's background in game development goes back to the 1990s as an animator, and in 1998 she established her own company, Those Eyes, co-producer of Cosmic Top Secret. Here's Laier in her own words on the topics of storytelling in games, personal journeys, and game design.

Games as storytelling and means of expression

Cosmic Top Secret is produced by Klassefilm and co-produced by Those Eyes, hence it’s probably more like a joint venture taking advantage of our different backgrounds and mutual interest in telling ”real” stories, if possible as video games. We met at the conference Nordic Game seven years ago, when we were both scouting for business partners and possibilities in the cross-media area.

Games are by many still considered to be a waste of time, and that’s what we’re humbly aiming to change with Cosmic Top Secret. By working with serious matters that are usually dealt with in film, literature, art, graphic novels, etc. At the same time we totally honor games as a suitable form, if not better than any other media to tell this particular, for us important, story about being estranged from one's origin. 

It is about both, in terms of the history of the Cold War and my parents' role in that, what we call ”The Big Circle,” and ”The Little Circle,” about my personal relationship with my parents. You may ask, ”Why does it need to be personal?” It’s because we believe it’s through honest and detailed descriptions of other people's lives that we reflect on and evaluate our own life. We believe those kind of themes can be dealt with both via mechanics, involving your body more directly than a film can, and via regular story elements.

A personal journey as a game premise

For us [a personal experience] was quite suitable as the backdrop for an investigative game, where you have to explore and put bits and pieces together to form a bigger picture; where you the player, to a certain extent, can design your experience, like how much do you want to go in depth into specific areas and missions. 

About 50 percent of the game’s content is in optional missions. If you, for instance, take a special interest in early computer technology, you can freely choose to pick up all the ferrite cores for the ”Bits” dossier that are used as ”guiding coins” during the game, and if you find them all, you’ll get a video about cryptographs etc. 

If you’re more up for crazy (but true!) anecdotes, you can choose to complete the ”Khrushchev’s Poop” dossier and get the story about the Soviet leader’s visit in Copenhagen in 1964, where Danish Intelligence installed extra pipes in his hotel room to take out a stool sample because of rumors that said he was seriously ill. He was not. 

Should you care more about how it was like to be platoon leader for the Danish queen in the Women's Auxiliary Force, and be headhunted to the flight division O3 at Intelligence as my mother did, you can choose to follow that branch.

So many game premises are alike, and we believe there’s a vast potential for developing new interesting games with unseen, unheard of premises without compromising quality of gameplay. They may even add new angles to the development of gameplay.

On the design process, game construction, and papercraft

We stuck to the initial idea of the game all the way through: You, the player, controls me trying to reveal what my dad worked on for real at Intelligence during the Cold War. It should consist of real people and real material and real feelings. And it should, as much as possible, integrate the story in the mechanics, and vice versa.

Actually, we aimed for developing the game’s mechanics and the story simultaneously, not favoring one from the other. That may just be an idée fixe, but it has encouraged us to keep prototyping on the mechanics, without exactly knowing what would happen in the story.

This was a method that was met with a lot of skepticism from the outside: “First you have to write the story and then you can do the game.” Instead we tried to form a structure of the possible story elements: we had game jams where we played around with those elements, and chose the ideas that seemed to correlate the best with the theme. For instance, we discovered there was a good connection between the story aspect, where you have to follow dad, and the mechanics that suited that aspect of motion. I would then follow my dad in reality with some sort of recording equipment, and be especially focused on capturing him while in motion.

In that way, we went back and forth with story and mechanics, and the ideas of fragile paper characters in a just as fragile paperworld (tip: throwing a hand grenade on the right spots can open secret passages) emerged, and we prototyped the best ideas. [Ideas were] pretty much based on the ‘natural’ abilities of paper: paper can crumble, fall apart, shred, glide as paper planes, etc. Then we mocked up the levels very roughly. Early in development we decided on a six-level structure, and to have each level represented by one side of a cube and each side divided in nine fields, meaning you need to collect nine objects for each level and 54 objects to complete the game.

It was, in my opinion, a good plan to decide on this structure early, and then keep an open mind to other aspects of the game during the further development. It’s never too late to add crazy ideas, but it’s impossible to change the game fundamentally.

A "need to know" basis

When I followed my dad during recording and he accidentally fell and hurt himself while throwing a hand grenade, it became the turning point in level 1, because I realized there was something important for me, connected to the memory of a physically strong and active dad always protecting me, and the scary fact that he was getting old and fragile, and somehow it corresponded with the history of the little kingdom of Denmark and its role in the Cold War. 

The term ”need to know,” used in Intelligence, means you’re only allowed access to information you’ll need for your specific mission, nothing more. It became the emotional mission, so to say, to get to know dad as a human being and not only a dad or somebody who worked for Intelligence. We have worked with it as what you would call a C-plot in a film. The B-plot is about the relation between father and daughter. Whereas the A-plot is the main plot: What did they work on? Was dad a spy?

Around the same time I called Danish Intelligence and asked for permission to investigate my parents' dossiers, which became the turning point in level 2. They were very kind and helpful and actually invited my parents (not me) for a ”declassification” meeting where they were briefed about what and what not they could talk with me about. But I’ve also talked with less helpful former employees at Intelligence who advised me not to proceed. 

So I’d say, under the googly eyes and the relaxed everyday chitchatting lies a more uncertain no man's land kind of atmosphere, where you never really know when to stumble over invisible threads connected to automatically firing machine guns. It might be an imagined thread or unexplained subconscious fear of doing something wrong both in term of family traumas and national security, but I think that might be the root of the tension one may feel dripping from the trailer.

On those distinct googly eyes, and establishing your own style

The eyes came on a little later in the process. Actually me and [producer] Lise Saxtrup where at a talk at Nordic Game and I was working on the model sheet for the characters on my laptop, when I maybe, just for fun, added those googly eyes to the dad model. It was hilarious, and when I showed it to Lise next to me, we were dying of laughter and ruining the talk we were supposed to be attending.

But actually [the eyes] solved a problem with communicating feelings. In the previous design it was only the mouth that could animate and that is not enough--the big white round eyes show clearly the different moods of the characters and they can easily be reused between characters, also making it possible to work cost-effectively with a cast of more than 30 personalities.

A piece of advice [for establishing your own style] would be to do silly stuff and believe in it: to encourage the team to not be afraid of trying something outrageous. I read a long ago that Walt Disney always asked his visual artists and animators for something more wild. “Yes, that’s great, but try to exaggerate it even more!”

Another bit of advice could be to combine, to crossbreed different genres, like what would happen if you mixed Warhammer with chick lit, etc. In our case it’s probably '60s cool spy style The Spy Who Came in from the Cold mixed with a more humorous Fritz the Cat kind of style. I think we should initiate more visual jams - we operate a lot with game jams but actually the visual style is not up for jamming in the same way. I’m sure that there would come up some interesting styles, if we tried to do that more. 

On music and sound design

The music is made by electronic composer and performer Bjørn Svin and the sound is designed by Anne Gry Friis Kristensen. Bjørn Svin composed some of the music as live sessions while we played early versions of the game.

For instance the track ‘Underverdenen’ (Underworld) was composed like that, while playing a level that took place under the paper tapes, so to say. If you fell down the holes of the paper tapes you would land in an abstract black world together with all the mistakes and bugs. That level later became the fourth level in the game and instead of having a dark underlying level under each level in the game, we introduced the sudden nightfall in each level and the dual idea of objects being easier to find in the dark, but at the same time it’s easier to get lost in the dark.

Anyways, Bjørn was part of the development from the very beginning and we talked a lot about the feelings operating in the game, especially those more subtle ones about feeling insecure and feeling like doing something you’re not allowed to do or not supposed to do.

Why aren't there more realistic games about spies?

Well, I think there’s a lot of tendencies here, one being the general opinion in the game business that we need to categorize games and be clear on the target group, style, genre etc. before anything else. It makes sense, but it also cuts down on the possible variations you could come up with before you reach decision makers who would actually be able to acknowledge the quality of your original game.

And yes, games are still perceived as childish, but you would also need to be pretty involved in following the indie game scene or triple-A [in order to find games that] actually try to do work with more subtle storytelling and mechanics; to know that there’s much more to be found in games than just having casual fun.

With Cosmic Top Secret, for instance, we’re dealing with quite heavy matters, but dealing with them in a humorous way and using a child character as the helper throughout the game. Together with the googly eyes it lead some people to think that this is only for kids, but on the contrary, it’s a game for the mature gamer on the lookout for something that actually reflects their life and feelings--a meaningful experience, we call it. Whereas you can find lots of games with huge amounts of storytelling, most of it is so very conventional and seldom surprising.

Getting started on your own autobiographical game

Grab whatever tools you have at your disposal and get something started: Write, draw, talk to a friend or record your thoughts, build paper or digital prototypes, test it out as early as possible. Ask yourself and your team, is there a theme? Is there a situation from your life that fills you with joy or haunts you and what is it about? Can it be formulated as a statement, a premise? Can it be played out as a game? Can you come up with mechanics that resonates with your statement? Or if you started with the mechanics, what kind of statement would suit? Can you exaggerate it more, make it wilder? Voila! There’s your concept. :)

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