25 Sep 2018

EGX 2018: Powerless, An Interview with Lauren Carter

While at EGX, I happened upon a mobile narrative game called Powerless, billed as "an interactive fiction experience set in present-day London which explores the devastating effect of a global power cut." It plays similarly to those choose your own adventure books you read as a child, where you'd be placed into the mind of a character and have to make life-or-death decisions to progress. 

Before the game began properly, an artificial intelligence began speaking to me. Its name is MAUDE (Mobile Assessment Unit of Doomsday Events) and its goal is to assess how well humanity can survive through catastrophic events. It then told me I had ten minutes before all global power was cut off, and asked me if I would rather use that time to call my loved ones or print off useful survival information. I chose to call loved ones, as I figured survival information could still be obtained from books. I was then asked if I thought the internet was good or bad for humanity's progress. I said it was good. It only replied with a single word: "interesting." I was already both scared and intrigued.

After that, I was presented with a character selection screen. Each one of these people have their own survival stories to be told and interacted with. In the demo, I could only choose two. I went with a man named Abdul, who works in a tall building in London. One day he checks his phone to see that his signal has no bars, and that the lights in the building don't seem to be working. Over time, he learns that no electronics seem to be working as he witnesses several other catastrophic events occur as a result of the power loss.
After playing through the first chapter, I spoke with Lauren Anne Marie Carter, the developer behind Powerless.

Olly Writes: Where did the idea to do a narrative game come from?

Lauren Anne Marie Carter: I've always loved reading, so I studied English at university, and I've always been a fan of hypothetical survival situations. So saying "what would you do if...?" and seeing how they get around troubling situations. I think a lot of games that do the survival angle always follow a routine. It's like "You must collect seven water nuggets and three buckets of seed. Now you have survived," they don't really consider if it was you in a personal situation, and what you would actually do.

OW: I suppose these types of games are more accessible these days, there weren't as many back in the nineties.

LC: Yeah, it's definitely more accessible now that there's mobile games. We used the Ink engine, which is the same one as 80 Days uses. I've always loved 80 Days and the work they've done so it was a big inspiration.

OW: I did think while playing, it was giving me heavy 80 Days vibes.

LC: That's good! Yeah, I really love that game.

OW: Was the idea of there being no power always there or was it something you developed over time?

LC: When I started the company, it was with my boss at the time and we put our money into this idea based on the novel he was working on. We hired people, we outsourced a lot of the work as well as working on it ourselves, and we created the game within about nine months. We were just about to release when we realised it was a bit shit. It was too big and too ambitious and we couldn't release it in the way that it was. So we took a year off and went back to our jobs and didn't really do anything with it. Over time it was just getting to me that we hadn't done it, so I quit my job and decided to finish it by myself. So it's always been about there being no power, but the concept of the game, the gameplay and how it was going to work has changed massively. There used to be animation and maps and all that stuff. 

But the heart of the game has always been looking at how people respond in these situations and - when faced with difficult decisions - do people choose themselves over other people. Or even looking at how when people play these games, do they play themselves, or maybe a fantasy version of themselves, or do they roleplay. It's very interesting to see at these events how people play the characters. There's a character called Harry, who's this banker, prick, Canary Wharf-type guy, and people are like "I'm gonna play it like him" and they play it really mean just to see how that feels like. It's a really interesting way to play and I never thought people would do it like that.

OW: That's really interesting. Has seeing people play it at these events made you see the game in a new way?

LC: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it's been really hard because it's my first game and obviously not everyone's going to love it. Some people do leave quite mean reviews and sometimes they email quite mean stuff, but others have sent me things like "this game has changed the way I think about real life and electricity, I played it with my kid and we talked about this stuff afterwards" and that is really cool.

Another thing that is really nice is people send in ideas for characters. There are currently eight characters in the game now and I've got four more planned to be added later. I'm just going to keep adding in more for the same price. So people contributing ideas I hadn't thought about is really cool. I think someone emailed saying they had an idea for a fireman who had a baby, and I was like "okay?", but I love that.

OW: So this is a game you're going to be working on for a long period of time?

LC: I think so. The idea is to keep growing the world within this game and then maybe see how other cities cope with the loss of power. So maybe Tokyo, or Paris. Then in the future, if Powerless does well, the idea is to explore other disasters. Anything that's a real world issue like war, tsunamis or hurricanes, just because I think it's important to think about how these types of situations affect other people.

OW: I see. Well that's a fantastic idea and thank you for showing me.

LC: Thank you very much.
As Carter said, the idea for Powerless is to work on it over a longer period of time and eventually branch out from the power loss scenario to write about other catastrophic situations. With MAUDE working as a framing device in this game, it seems like an easy way of integrating different situations into the world she has built. 

The game is currently only available on the iTunes App Store for $4.99, but Carter is also planning to bring it to Android. She has indicated that she may have to take a different approach to releasing the game on that platform, as it has a 95% piracy rate compared to 5% on iOS. Carter also wants to release a PC version, but no concrete plans have been made for that yet.

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