There aren’t a lot of video games about reporting and journalism. Despite often featuring characters who are journalists, the closest that games get to this is by having photography as a fun side venture for players to do in their free time. Or maybe they'll allow for shades of reporting with investigation mechanics that turn them into a more of a detective than anything else. Those are all well and good, but the actual feeling of being a news reporter isn’t really something that can easily be found in a video game.
With its newest game Times & Galaxy, developer Copychaser Games (maker of Speed Dating for Ghosts) aims to show what goes into the profession. Players take the role of an intern for the titular outlet as its first-ever robot employee, and are sent out to pursue stories across the galaxy that’ll hopefully catch readers’ attention. In the demo provided to the press, gameplay requires players to look for leads around the area and interview nearby people by choosing from a list of responses.
At the end of the investigation, players have to literally build the story themselves, from the headline and subhead (or deck) to a key quote and opening paragraph. After submitting it, they see how their story has both struck a chord with readers and affected the paper’s overall reputation. Just like in real life, seeing your paper’s reputation grow thanks to your writing is immensely satisfying, and operating through the world as a journalist carries a different weight to conversations. One character agrees to talk to you if you don’t quote them by name, and another was surprisingly candid to you, a robot, about their thoughts on robotic cats being allowed into the cat show. And since you’re playing an employee of a known outlet, acting on some of the information given feels like it has a higher chance of blowing up in your face.
Since your intern travels from planet to planet and can chat it up with their co-workers and potential story leads, you wouldn’t be wrong in likening it to the Mass Effect games. That’s fitting, as Copychaser’s founder Ben Gelinas previously worked at BioWare on Mass Effect: Andromeda and at WB Games Montreal on 2022’s Gotham Knights. Both of those games featured investigation mechanics, and Gelinas also used to be a newspaper reporter before getting into games. Other staff at Copychaser also had previous journalism experience, which was very apparent in the demo just from how the characters are written.
Times & Galaxy is currently intended to release on PC in 2024. Game Developer recently got an opportunity to talk with Gelinas about the game’s reporter perspective, his own time as a reporter, and how the writing team’s previous journalism experience came into play.
Game Developer: Other than the sci-fi setting and cast of characters, how did your time at BioWare (and with Mass Effect specifically) affect the way you developed Times & Galaxy, particularly in regards to the conversations?
Ben Gelinas: I would sometimes go to cons and hear from fans that they wished they could play a character-driven sci-fi or fantasy roleplaying adventure without needing the plot to pivot regularly to combat. What if your central role was instead to travel around and get to know weird, memorable characters without needing to kill some of them?
Pretty much everything I learned about branching dialogue and world building from the geniuses in that BioWare writing room that doesn’t count as trade secrets informs this game in some way: how to write a conversation without one right answer; how to balance player agency with a coherent, well-paced plot; and most of all, how to develop a character players can relate to, or hate, or fall in love with.
You were once a journalist, and now you’re a game developer. That isn’t an uncommon job transition, but journalists-turned-developers don’t usually do games about journalism. What made you want to make a game like this, and did you ever feel a kind of clash with these two parts of your professional life?
Clash, never. But journalism absolutely helped me be a better game designer. My background in reporting was a big reason why I got a job at BioWare. They first hired me to essentially treat Thedas (The Dragon Age Setting) with the same rigor I would reporting and editing on real world events and people. When I started there, a lot of the lore for DA was in the heads of the writers and other devs on the team. I interviewed them. Asked questions. Collected every playable and published fact I could about Dragon Age--and assembled it all into an internal reference that they still use today.
Newspaper reporting is also such a crash course in humans and the world around us. You meet new people and encounter new stories every day you clock in, and when I started writing fictional conversations for video games, my experiences in my old job helped inform how characters, however divorced from reality, might reasonably react to these moments in ways that ring true.
I’ve long thought reporting in general would lend itself well to a video game, and the handful of games that have been made about journalism tend to focus on the role of an editor or turn the journalist into a detective. But every day at a newspaper job (especially in your first years and before newspapers really started hurting) you encounter a new story, new characters. Sort of like levels or chapters in a game. And depending on the manner with which you conduct yourself and the questions you ask, you get different and/or better answers. There’s a challenge there that puts a fresh spin on branching dialogue.
When I left BioWare to go freelance in 2017, I decided I would make a game that focused on these ideas, and I would do my darndest to make it fun. It took a while to really get going, but now it’s actually going to exist. And it’s super weird!
Did you know what journo beats (ship crash, cat show) you wanted in the game before giving that to a particular writer?
When we were brainstorming stories to cover, we started with bad intern assignments. What does the editor get you to do when you’re new, and how can we twist clichéd intern stories like cat shows and county fairs into something weirder and funnier.
Most journalists start out the same way, puzzling our way through the basics, talking to strangers and hoping to know them deeply by the end of a single conversation. The story ideas just poured out when we began writing the game. Interns may cover sporting events or product launches. Press conferences and puff pieces. If you’re lucky as an intern, you’ll get to fill in on court or cover breaking news.
This is I guess a long way of saying we didn’t really give ourselves beats. You could say we were all general assignment game writers.
Copychaser’s made up of different ex-reporters/journalists like yourself. How did the experience you all had in this field color how you came up with assignments for the player?
Three out of the four writers on this game have worked in journalism. I worked at daily newspapers, covering crime and breaking news for most of my tenure. Paul Blinov was the arts editor of an alt weekly (and still does arts and feature writing). Sunny Evans worked in student journalism. Together we brought different perspectives on the craft and unique anecdotes. Our video game is ultimately fiction, but there’s a heavy helping of reality underneath the space alien wrapping.
We brought it all into this game, but only in a few cases did we base the stories on real assignments we covered. I took the shuttle crash because I had experience interviewing police. Paul took some of the most feature-y stuff because he’s so good at finding a meaningful angle in a field of fluff. But it was more about which concepts inspired each of us. And while one writer owns each story, we pass everything around a lot to find different angles and jokes.
Of the writers, only Tess Degenstein has no experience in journalism. But she’s a phenomenal improviser, actor, and screenwriter who happens to be extremely funny. Naturally, we gave her the saddest and creepiest stories.
In the cat show assignment, the player can end up causing some friction with some potential sources. What did you draw on to convey that without making it feel like an instant failure state for the player?
One theme of our game is that you can’t please everyone any of the time. This idea is central to our approach to interviewing. Like real life, if you ask a question in a certain way, or ask a certain question at all, it can outright alienate you from a specific source. But very rarely will that be the end of your story. There’s always another way to tell it. Always more than one person to talk to. We focused on small failures and small successes that would translate into the overall quality of the material you’d have to construct each story.
There are few ways to truly fail a story in Times & Galaxy. Each angle has its own positives and negatives. Informational stories might be the most responsible and most likely to boost your paper’s reputation, but they are also typically the least read. Sensational articles might sell more papers, but often at the cost of reputation. Alien interest (our version of human interest) can draw readers in or push them away, and often the hardest to explain “why it matters”. There’s far more gray area than simple success or failure in our game.
Different interview subjects and colleagues may support or disapprove of your methods. But the only way to really screw up a story completely is to phone it in. Thorough reporting is always a plus.
Usually, investigation games put you in the perspective of a cop or cop-adjacent job. As someone who has worked on games with investigation-lite mechanics, did making journalism the core mechanic of Times & Galaxy require you to change how you view investigation in games?
To go along with that, how do you think investigation mechanics can change beyond sending out a pulse or pulling up a scanner to look at a thing?
Playing as a reporter instead of a cop changes the “why” of an investigation. It opens up the kinds of stories we can tell and the tones we can take. As an intern reporter with boots on the ground, you’re trying to gather facts and perspectives on an event. It’s generally not up to you to solve anything. This isn’t a game about being an investigative reporter, working for weeks on one project. You bear witness to something and come back hours later with the information you think people will want to hear. One of the best things about this is it gets us away from one right answer. You don’t solve cases in Times & Galaxy; you learn what happened and why it matters.
In designing the game, we decided to embrace existing investigative mechanics that we think work best and tried to improve those mechanics as much as possible. We leaned all the way into investigation by way of interviewing, for example. There’s a lot of potential in branching dialogue to uncover or miss facts and clues.
Classic adventure game mechanics like observing level details also play a significant role in reporting. We wanted every interaction in the game to have purpose, to feel worthy of the interaction. Not every observation will help your story. Some might instead flesh out the setting or crack a joke. And it helps to play as a robot with x-ray vision. You can see the odd telling detail others might miss.