Kieron Gillen Interview: The Curfew

As Channel 4 prepares to release the online game The Curfew, we spoke to its writer, Kieron Gillen about its creation

A satirical science-fiction game that deals with the subjects of civil liberty and state control, The Curfew is a collaboration between developer Littleloud, Channel 4 and writer Kieron Gillen. We caught up with Mister Gillen to discuss the game, the creative process of making it, and how it’s likely to disgruntle the Daily Mail…

Could you give us an idea of the story behind The Curfew?

It’s a near-future science fiction story. With this kind of science fiction, you don’t want flying jet cars. The game’s set in 2027, and we’re not going to have flying jet cars by then.

You have to choose enough sci-fi to make it work as a near future situation, but almost underestimate it a bit, because there are some areas of the world which will change very quickly, and some areas that won’t.

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We’ve kind of leaned towards something that’s a kind of satirical look at various trends. I mean, one of the best sci-fi ideas, and one which I fear may be prophetic, is the idea of turning potentially anything into a game. So, the idea is that people will receive achievements from their work place.

So, we had the idea that everybody, at some point, will get to a stage of citizenship where they earn certain rights. Which, on some levels, may sound like a perfectly reasonable system, but what we do is take it apart, because the rules of any system always bias towards turning entire groups of people into substances.

Not that we refer to people as substances in the game because, frankly, we’re too good at hiding our obvious leanings.

So, the game’s set in 2027. Someone basically tries to set off a dirty nuke in London, and this was stopped, but led to an enormous uprising of fear.

There’s a tradition in history where extreme parties get into power on a climate of fear, so we created a party called Shepherd Party who sweep to power on a mandate for security, because all the old parties have failed.

In 2018, this new party introduces the curfew, and the curfew is, basically, in the hours of darkness, citizens who haven’t earned a certain class aren’t allowed outside. It’s not a complete curfew – some people can go out and others can’t – and that’s where the game picks up.

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The idea is, with free elections, there’s some degree of strain in the system, and through the four characters and their individual stories we see how they can possibly impact the future of the country.

So, how did the idea for The Curfew come about?

Developing a game like this is very much a team sport, and so the idea of everybody being invested in the concept of a kind of group is worthwhile, and I think leads to a much better game. It’s everyone’s game, and I approached it with a complete lack of ego. I was aware that I was being hired to be part of the project and, as such ,I knew what my limits were in terms of design.

I’ve got friends who work as game writers, and in terms of the amount of control and input I had on the game, it’s much, much more than most people have had on a triple-A game.

I mean, the way we worked was, after the original concept came up, I went away and wrote these four stories, essentially, and the actual game structure came from me, which is completely the opposite way to how most triple-A games are made.

Normally, the levels are made, and you give those to the writer to work out how to tie them together. You’re basically wallpapering.

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You’re normally working a story around scenarios that have already been created…

Yes, yes. And this was the total opposite of that. The story came first, and the story altered depending on the demands of the game, but the actual characters, the world-building, what we were trying to say with the game, the metaphors, all that kind of stuff came first.

The fact that I’ve got a couple of years’ experience in games meant I knew how much interaction we could get away with, and also what the designing of the interaction would be. There was an awareness that this was the sort of thing they’ve done before with Bow Street Runner, so the idea being that there’s room for designers finding different interactions.

So, that was the kind of thinking. I’ve gone much further than you’re initial question asked, haven’t I?

How’s the game being distributed?

It’s entirely in Flash, and entirely browser-based. It’s worth checking out Bow Street Runner, which is still on Channel 4’s site. That kind of shows you what it looks like. You’ve perhaps got an idea in your head of what a Flash game looks like, but Flash is a lot more versatile than that, and Bow Street Runner shows what happens when you have a medium sized budget to create a game.

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So, at the end of this month it should be online. It’s free to play and isn’t region locked or anything, so people will be free to go and play through the whole world.

Obviously, I haven’t seen the finished version yet because I’m sure the studio’s racing around trying to get everything together – the cheerful anarchy of game development. But it’s probably between two and three hours, to play through, I think.

The fact that there are four main areas to the game makes it quasi episodic, so you don’t have to go through it in one go. There are places for you to stop and come back later.

Bow Street Runner was something like five episodes, whereas the four stories in The Curfew are a connecting framing device. The framing device is actually the point of the game, really.

So, what were your influences when writing it? Were you influenced by any science fiction writers?

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A little. It’s very much in the British dystopian tradition. You could mention Children Of Men and its near-future vision as being very contemporary, and a classic example of a British dystopia.

As far as dystopias go, The Curfew‘s actually quite light, as we deliberately took a step back from “a boot stamping on a human face – forever”, to quote Orwell, just because we didn’t want to make an overly grim game.

We don’t want to show the complete extremes of the system. One of the four stories is basically about a character called The Boy. Games are banned, and he just wants to get hold of a game, so his story is basically about him trying to get out after curfew and get hold of this illegal game.

So, it’s incredibly low-scale, but we wanted the story to show how, on a low level, day-to-day basis, how laws affect ordinary people.

The game, as a whole, is a kind of meditation on the corruption of power, basically, and the reason why our freedoms are important and worth believing in. And by giving them up you facilitate situations like the curfew.

One of the reasons we didn’t use an actual party was because we weren’t interested in negating an individual political party. We’re interested in castigating behaviours. And the idea of using fiction for it gives us necessary distance to talk about the issues, rather than people just going, “They’re angry with the Tories,” or “They’re angry at Labour.”

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I think, in the end, there’s something in the game to offend everyone, I think [laughs], no matter which party you’re aligned to. Even the Green party might get offended, because the actual Shepherd party colour is green – green grass, Jerusalem, etc.

It’s good fun. I’m glad I’m outside the country on the day it comes out, because it could get interesting…

So, how did writing the game compare to the things you’ve done in the past? You’ve obviously done comics and journalism in the past. Is it a very different process?

On one level it’s exactly the same. I wrote the game incredibly quickly, and the way it differs is interesting. I supply a synopsis that then becomes the story, and then that, in turn, becomes like a technical drawing of a story, like filling in an enormous quiz question.

So, I know I need three lines of dialogue in one instance, so I work out those three lines of dialogue. So, the grid I’m filling in, of the answers, is generated from what I originally did.

It’s a mixture of creative and technical aspects. All writing is a question of technicality, of structure and attack and so forth. The strongest difference is that I feel like I’m in more of a team

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When I’m writing comics, I’m willing to accept that it’s ‘mine’, whereas The Curfew is ours. It’s the product of a lot of creative people.

Can you see yourself writing more games in the future?

Maybe. The Curfew suited me down to the ground in some ways. People ask me, “Why have you spent fifteen years as a games journalist, and were you ever tempted to go into games development?” and I’ve always said no, because I was very aware that I’ve got friends who have been in the industry for a decade, and they’ve never released a game. They’ve had a full career, and gone from developer to developer, but the game’s been cancelled, all that kind of stuff.

So, you can be involved in a game for two, three, four years, and the plug will be pulled, and no one will ever see what you’ve created. I’m interested in communicating with people and, as such, mainstream development is very high risk.

I’m not keen on giving two years of my life to anything, so something had better deliver something in the end, and in the mainstream games industry you can never guarantee that.

The Curfew‘s a very different sort of thing. It’s a smaller commitment, and a smaller length of time, and a different approach to game making. The idea is that anyone can play it online, and all the advertising and other stuff Channel 4 deals with.

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So, it’s a very different format. Instead of giving two years to a game, it’s more like two months. So, something in the indie field, something with a limited commitment might be of interest to me.

So, what’s next for you? What do you have lined up now The Curfew‘s finished?

Apart from being dragged through the streets and shot by Daily Mail readers, comics mainly. Lots and lots of comics. I’m doing some stuff with Marvel, which will be announced at San Diego, and some other stuff that won’t be announced at San Diego.

I’m doing a couple of books for Avatar, and that kind of thing, basically. So, in the near future I see myself concentrating on comics. I can’t see myself doing a game in the next year again. I’m that booked up.

But, I’m throwing myself over to storytelling narratives for the next year or so, and see where that leads.

I hope you still find time to play plenty of games…

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I describe myself as a game journalist fundamentalist, in that, if I had any sense, I’d stop doing it. But there’s something profoundly useful about writing videogames that satisfies me in a very interesting way. So, yeah. I still play loads of games.

I think the fact that I’m not writing about games for a living anymore means I kind of gravitate to things that are more aligned to my current needs. I don’t need to play the current big game. Stuff like Red Dead Redemption I want to play – I’ve got a copy coming in the post at the moment – but there are big games I haven’t played.

But, if I want to play a turn-based strategy game that only four people have played, and enjoy that for a month, that’s fine.

Games are a very big space, and the thinking that some games are worth more than others because they’ve been created by teams of 300 people I find very offensive.

Kieron Gillen, thank you very much for your time!

The Curfew will be free to play on the Channel 4 website (here) from 28 July.

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