Unraveling Conspiracy!: Q&A with the Developer of the New QAnon Satire GameGames Features conspiracy
Conspiracy, the latest game from British developer Tim Sheinman, is about as timely as games get. Made in three weeks in December, Conspiracy is a satire of incoherent conspiracy theories like QAnon and the American political media apparatus that feasts upon them. Players sift through articles and recordings from partisan media hacks, liberal podcasters, oblivious social media influencers, and more, piecing together the timeline of a conspiracy theory that threatens to undermine American democracy. Although its central conspiracy is fully fictional and not a direct one-for-one translation of Trump’s election denialism or QAnon, there are clear references to the last two months throughout, with Sheinman’s clever script and realistic voice acting weaving an absurd story that would’ve seemed implausible before the last few months but now feels almost quotidian.
Although Conspiracy’s political satire is a new tool in Sheinman’s kit, the game’s structure will be familiar to anybody who played Rivals and Family, two games he made in 2020 about fictional musicians. You have to unravel the major goalposts of this conspiracy, deducing the timeline of its events by reading newspaper and blog articles and listening to recordings of interviews and radio shows. As you correctly organize these incidents—including the mysterious death of a Congressman, a supposed trip to Bohemian Grove, the sudden introduction of a shady trafficker, and more—you’ll unlock more documents with more clues buried within. Unlike Rivals, which focused on an Uncle Tupelo-esque country rock band and the subsequent solo careers of its two songwriters, you’re not actually piecing together a coherent narrative or history. Like most conspiracy theories, Conspiracy spirals out into an ever-growing cloud of nonsense, a tangle of spurious claims and coincidences that never gets close to making sense but can seem just plausible enough to those who want to believe.
For Sheinman, the point of Conspiracy isn’t the conspiracy itself, or even the cultural and political context that has made something as transparently ludicrous as QAnon possible. Sheinman’s main interest, as it was in Rivals, is in the media, and how it shapes the appearance and understanding of what it covers. As you play Conspiracy, you might feel an uneasy recognition of how the fractured and too often partisan media of our real world has helped lies and misinformation flourish over the last couple of decades. It gives the game a legitimate sense of weight.
I recently talked to Sheinman via email about Conspiracy, how a British citizen came to make a game about American politics and media, and about some of the specific decisions he made in depicting American culture.
Paste: So you’ve already explained to me via a direct message that you started working on the game on Dec. 9. Had you been thinking about making a game about QAnon and other conspiracy theories before work started on that day?
Tim Sheinman: I had not. I was working on a game about art forgery, which I’d commissioned some artwork for, but wasn’t really feeling. I wanted to do something more visceral and exciting to me and the idea just came.
However, I need to state at the outset, while this is a game concerning conspiracy theories, their spread etc, I do not believe that it is a game thematically about conspiracy theories at all. Rather the game has more humanistic concerns, as well as principally being a media satire. It is about the way that people insulate themselves from each other and weaponize narrative to do so. In this respect, its closest relation is the work of Chris Morris, in The Day Today and 4 Lions.
Paste: Was there a specific moment or news story that made you want to tackle this subject?
TS: There were two. The Four Seasons press conference, which I parody at the start of the game and in particular Sidney Powell’s “I’m about to blow up the state of Georgia” speech, which was mindboggling.
Paste: What media sources did you look to for inspiration? What specific MAGA leaders and conspiracy theorists inspired the characters in your game? And what other kind of research did you do into conspiracy culture?
TS: I have been following conspiracy culture for at least 15 years. I started off by reading Them! by Jon Ronson (who features in the game and to which it owes an exclamation mark), then Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. Since then, I’ve always been fascinated with them. Because of this grounding, I felt able to get into the mindset of the game quite easily.
Specific research was trawling through lists of contemporary American conspiracy theories and deciding what to use.
Paste: As a Brit, how concerned were you about your level of understanding of American culture and politics when making a game like this? Could this game have worked if it was about British politics? Did you have Americans advising you while you were working on the game?
TS: In short, no. I’m married to an American and have spent a lot of time in the states. However, above all I consume an enormous amount of American media, mostly podcasts. This game was in many ways a sort of existential scream of trying to get Nate Silver, Ezra Klein and Maggie Haberman out of my head.
I did have extensive support in making the game by my principle tester, John Gorenfeld, who is a published author on The Revered Sun Yeung Moon and wrote on many conspiracy theories. He gave me lots of details and tidied things up.
This definitely couldn’t have worked in the same way about British politics because, while conspiracy theories do exist in England, it isn’t to nearly the same extent. This is part of my Canadian joke later in the game, because they don’t really have them either.
Paste: You also told me via a Twitter DM that it’s “an equal opportunities satire.” Some would call this bothsidesism—which would probably seem especially egregious to some after the regular increase in violence over here. What would you say to people who think the game should come out more strongly against the conspiracy movement?
TS: So this is interesting. I’ll address it on two levels. The first is that I meant it was an equal opportunities satire of the games principle sources’, which are the media. You have demented video bloggers, incompetent public radio types, Carole Baskin style kooks, academic pods, dangerously persuasive right-wingers and shitbag “pod save America” types. Everyone gets a good going over.
As to whether it should condemn conspiracy theories, I feel that it certainly suggests that they are often ridiculous. I mean, gay frogs, dead geese, mattresses, the Canadian metric system. Surely such nonsense counts as mockery. As to a more vocal condemnation, I see it as antithetical to the more subtle powers of the game. I’ll give you an example.
At the start, the dates draw is closed, with two quotes—one by Oliver Sacks and the other by Joe Exotic. The second (and more important one imo) basically expresses the cruelty that humanity can inflict when they are trying to defend their turf.
In order to solve the game, you press a button and cover up these quotes – essentially obfuscating them with your desire to solve a mystery and feel clever and rewarded. If that isn’t a condemnation of conspiracism, I don’t know what is.
Paste: Southerners can get a little touchy about how they’re portrayed, and it’s especially fraught politically—there are significant numbers of liberals and Democratic voters in every Southern state, but many liberals from outside the region are quick to write all of us off when elections go towards Republicans. It’s a steady source of distrust and tension—everybody I know here in Georgia was preemptively pissed off at how liberals and Democrats outside the south would treat us if we lost those Senate runoffs earlier this month. So as a Southerner already a little defensive when it comes to politics, I was struck by some of the voice acting in this game. The most prominent conspiracist characters in your game—the lawyer, the radio host / organizer—all have pronounced Southern accents, and honestly, it felt to me a little stereotypical, a little lazy. Why did you decide to go with that accent?
TS: I understand your point, however, the President’s lawyer is a straight up Sidney Powell impression (who grew up in Ralegh and worked in Texas). Laurie is inspired by Alex Jones, who is from Texas, as well as Kayleigh McEnamy, who is from Florida.
As a Jew, I remember when Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein were getting indicted and thinking ‘uh oh.’ Sadly that’s sometimes the way things land. This is a satire of right now and there should be a degree of adhesion to the people it is satirizing, rather than creating some kind of generic cipher. Satire can be cruel this way.
However, there is a very significant part later in the game where Laurie addresses this by calling out the Lib types on their radio show. This was very directly inspired by the Randy Newman song “Rednecks,” about the treatment of 1960s Georgia Governor Lester Maddox. In that respect, I feel like I kind of addressed the point you’re making. Laurie isn’t also necessarily that unsympathetic—she is convincing, steely and dynamic.
I personally have a great deal of sympathy for Georgia, which feels like even more of a lightning rod than when I started. The state is clearly at the center of enormous political upheaval, in main part because of the righting of historical discrimination. It is in many ways the new bellwether of the nation and must be a fascinating place to be.
Paste: So structurally Conspiracy is very similar to Rivals. What appeals to you about that format? I’m assuming part of what made it possible to turn Conspiracy around so quickly is that you were basically able to build off of what you had created with Rivals.
TS: I couldn’t tell you. I go into a trance and wake up with a videogame. I actually find the length of time that people take over games very mysterious. I don’t see the act of creation in the same way—a slow act of this and that. I see it more like songwriting—you wake up with an idea in your head and you need to get it out as quickly as possible before it dissipates.
But seriously, I turned it around quickly because I found it pleasurable and easy to write and had a ready ensemble of great actors and testers to help. Call me strange, but that’s just the way it happens. Both Family and Rivals were three week builds and that includes recording eight songs each.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.