It may not be possible to make a game that tastefully examines the tragic death of a real person.
This was the conclusion of Margaret Robertson, development director for Hide&Seek, who last year was commissioned to create a game to support the release of Dreams Of A Life, a documentary film by Carol Morley examining the death of a 37-year-old woman Joyce Carol Vincent whose body was left undiscovered in her London bedsit for three years.
Vincent's body was found when debt collectors came to the house to claim for unpaid electricity bills. Despite the unpaid bills her electricity had remained on, with her television tuned to BBC One for the entire three years since her death.
Vincent's neighbors didn’t know her and nobody reported her as missing. The police were only able to identify the body by checking her teeth against holiday photos in the flat in which she was smiling.
Hide&Seek was approached by Film4, the film's funder, who was eager to make this a production that went beyond film in an effort to make the story and wider subject more accessible for people.
"The minute you start poking at the proposition you find all kinds of challenges that affect the design," Robertson said. "For one thing, the film and game were to be made in parallel, so right up to the last minute new information was emerging about how the film might look and appear. We didn’t know what for the recreations of Joyce’s life would look like and had no access to the creative team working on the film. There were clear aesthetic challenges for this reason."
"Beyond that there were legal questions about libel in terms of the game suggesting if there was negligence that led up to her not being discovered," said Robertson. "Creating a game that allowed you to 'save' Joyce by doing things differently could easily have implied this. But also, the problem with a project like this is it’s not just about keeping the lawyers happy; it’s about not being an asshole."
"You read the story and have a reaction that you should ring your brother or granny or neighbor and you very quickly start having ideas about how you might structure a game experience that revolves around doing those things," she explained. "Scraping people’s Facebook accounts for the size and richness of their social group and prompting them to get in contact. Then you realize you have no business doing that. Nobody has a life that is full represented on Facebook or Twitter. The minute you poke a it it becomes clear it’s not a good idea."
"Even if you say: how long since you last called your mother... In truth, my game has no business telling you that you should call your mother. You may have a good reason for not having done so. Then you go more oblique and abstract and end up with something so wishy-washy and vague that nobody could care about."
"So we did something clever: we made something that isn’t a game," said Robertson, who collaborated with author A.L. Kennedy and photographer Lottie Davis to create the web-based interactive journey Dreams Of Your Life
"In the end we were just not able to make a game about a real person's death," she said. "We were able to make a pretty good thing on the subject - something that has been pretty well received that stands well next to the film - but it is not a game. For that reason I am not thrilled because I wanted to make a game and I couldn’t find one within the constraint."
"I wanted to come and be honest about a real project," she said of the talk. "There’s been a shift in my previously held view that games can do anything. This isn't necessarily a negative realization. If we start to butt up against hard edges of what games can’t do we shouldn’t feel as though games are somehow lacking."
"Rather, it should delight us about what it is that makes games special; we are zeroing in on what games can do that other things cannot."