Cara Ellison Turns TV into Videogames for Kids

Games Features Last Commanders
Cara Ellison Turns TV into Videogames for Kids

Sometimes it is hard to pin down how important Cara Ellison has been to videogames, because Cara Ellison doesn’t make a big deal about what she’s done for videogames. In 2014, the Scottish author (and former Paste contributor) released one of the most personal books on the broad world of gaming called Embed with Games, in which she spent a year traveling the world and crashing with people from every part of the industry to tell their stories. She’s worked as an advisor and writer on a number of titles, working on everything from games testing in the Grand Theft Auto series to narratively advising on Dishonored 2.

Now she’s doing something entirely different, and yet entirely the same.

This begins with asking if you have ever taken the time to find the show Knightmare. If you’ve never fallen down a YouTube hole of watching it, you owe yourself some late 80s bizarro delights with violent ends. In it, children had to work together to survive a series of greenscreen videogame challenges by communicating to a friend who could not see the dangers coming for them. The show had a history for being nearly impossible to beat. I would not be the first to call it the Dark Souls of children’s television. Yes, I realize that’s a very specific genre.

Now, with the help of the production team who made Peep Show (and the proprietary technology they control), Ellison has helped bring the concepts of videogame logic into a TV show for kids that brings back the joy of Knightmare and mixes it with the community of a group effort from children in a slightly less stressful gameshow environment.

Last Commanders is set in the future where a rogue artificial intelligence named Sciron has taken over a space station. Programmed to protect the inhabitants of the station from “The Sickness,” this A.I. makes a virus that will keep the inhabitants safe, but something goes terribly wrong. The Perfection Virus has destroyed emotions and free-will for all but two percent of the population. An evil scientist is trying to convert the last remaining non-cured, but a genius coder named Skye leads a group of Freedom Fighters past waves of robots, mutants and more in an effort to retrieve the anti-virus and save her people.

The young teams interact with their chosen avatar (from a list of eight avatars) which each have their own set of skills. The Peep Show first person game element allows the kids to see what their avatar sees and help them deal with high-stakes attacks, chases and puzzles. This also allows for kids in regions far outside of normal filming cities to take place.

Yeah: Cara Ellison made System Shock for kids. And it’s for more than one group of kids per episode, as groups aged 10 to 14 gather with their friends to Skype in and lead their in-show avatars in a battle to save the world. While US audiences can’t watch the show yet, we wanted to talk to Ellison about what it takes to make something this complicated for a genre of TV show that has always been considered cult-level at best.

Paste: You did groundbreaking work as the Hunter S. Thompson of games journalism with your book. What did you take from that? What would you be doing if you were putting the book together this year? What has changed about you?

Cara Ellison: On reflection I am pleasantly surprised at the writing in Embed With Games. It aged okay and the writing isn’t as terrible as it felt when it spurted out of my veins. It’s raw, it’s got a certain something, it’s a nice historiography of what it was to be a writer about “independent” games in 2014 and what it was to make them. Now I think if I were putting the book together I’d do it about people like Katie Rose Pipkin, Robert Yang, Pietro Riva, I’d make my way into Mexico and down through South America, I’d get into South Africa and travel all the way back up and into the Middle East and India. But also, I’m a different person now. I’m not as connected to things that are happening “now” because I deleted the infernal birdsite from my purview. I sometimes look at @fungbunger’s account to laugh at his Hemingway tweet and then go back into my savage pilgrimage satisfied. I’m a lot calmer now, and a lot happier, and a lot less predisposed to risk and the absurd. I try my hand at writing a great many styles and types of things these days. I was always more attracted to creative writing than reportage and I frankly think I’m better at it. You don’t have to write “as yourself” when you write characters, and that’s more difficult and more fulfilling in many ways. I didn’t like myself as a critic. It was a way to survive, not my vocation. I prefer entertaining people to advising or informing them.

Paste: You’ve been in games forever. Can you tell me about breaking GTA with your good-fast driving?

Ellison: I was a very good supercar driver back then just because I got a lot of practice as a QA. Driving very fast was part of the FPS check to see if everything was streaming in properly. I really loved being a QA because there was a lot to examine about the development process in it. You can learn about how a game is put together by how you can break it. Of course, a lot of the time as a QA you can make up the most ridiculous set of events and see if the stress breaks the game, which can be incredibly annoying if you’re a designer or a programmer, because here’s this wee punk that got a bizarre set of events to give the dev team more work to do, but largely if a game’s massive some player at some point is going to do that thing. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the players of games are also looking for ways they’re not supposed to play as well as the ways they are.

Paste: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about games writing that you’d like to pass down to others?

Ellison: Writing for games is not a process where you get to be god. You have to surrender that at the door. Writing for games is about using every tool you have as a person and as a developer to help design flow well and to make the future of the game world you are in seem mysterious, wild, and worth seeing. At its core game writing is poking a hole in a design framework to see how deep it is. If you’re in games narrative for the accolades and kudos and ego it’s not going to happen, because you looking good depends on so many other people. People say for example that the “writing” in Crazy Taxi Gazillionaire is great, but much of that game is fantastic character art with writing that understands and bolsters the exuberant character art. I’m not saying that one is stronger than the other—I’m saying that everything in games is teamwork, and sometimes something that looks like “good writing” is a robust design framework that makes the writing job easy, or a team willing to listen to your design ideas too means that you get more out of what you’re doing. If you don’t listen to your team, and if they don’t listen to you, good writing or good narrative design simply doesn’t happen. You have to respect and trust each other’s roles. The best “writers” in the world can be terrible at writing for games, and that’s because it’s demanding in the game design arena, the writing arena, the branching narrative arena, the communication arena, the audio arena, the visual arena, every aspect of the game. The bigger the game is, the scarier that job gets. You have to love and understand the medium from the inside, and drop the “I’m brilliant, obey me” stance right at the door.

Paste: What’s your favorite “trick” of games writing/design? A little shortcut or something you find yourself using all the time?

Ellison: I find myself looking at what the designers are doing in the team and trying to use their prototypes to feed mechanically into producing more interesting, deeper narrative. I think that’s the way that you get the best results, is the back and forth with how you get the game to tell the player your story without you needing many words. That’s the “design” part of “narrative design.” That’s where you stop being a writer and start being a designer, by eliminating words. I also make my own tools these days often with the help of others, which is liberating.

Paste: This was made by the production company behind Peep Show and was initially intended to use that technology to do the game in a first person way — since no one is using that tech right now. What was the technical evolution of this show? How did it change the writing? What did you try and what went wrong along the way?

Ellison: The show was a massive team effort and from the very early development stages it seemed to me like a Herculean task to have a TV show that was purely first person exploratory. In videogame terms, this TV show is a spiritual successor to the “immersive sim” genre of game, the Thiefs, the System Shocks, the Deus Exes of the world, because it relies a lot on the players trying out a number of ways to solve puzzles, but through a first person camera that is a character you can chat to. The biggest problem in translating the immersive sim to television is that a first person camera view can be very disorientating and makes for a lot of tunnel vision and lack of spatial awareness in the viewer that doesn’t happen as much in games—because gamers personally have control over the camera. The team was initially not keen on breaking the tension and fear by cutting away to the traditional Crystal Maze view so the audience at home could see an overview of the room. But we did end up doing some of that. This is because there’s a really interesting tension between “game” and “narrative” that we came up against there that I grapple a lot with in games. Perhaps this is much less clear to people just arriving at the concept of games. But it was a question of: do you want to have people constantly scared and unable to understand your puzzle? Or, do you want to break that tension momentarily and show them how it might be possible to escape your doom? We went with a compromise in the end and we show a short overview of the room as your avatar enters. Of course then you get to see your avatar, which we thought would be weird, but actually I really like seeing them because holy crap didn’t the costume department do an amazing job?

Paste: Is a room called “Perfection Lab” the best thing that has ever happened to science fiction?

Ellison: Sciron is a terrifying AI who took over Ykarus Biotech. But… She has a woman’s voice. She strives for “perfection” at every turn by eliminating emotion. And you know, there’s not a day goes by where I think, wow, I can really relate. She’s just trying to get by in the AI boardroom meetings.

Paste: What’s the prep that you give the kids before throwing them into the show?

Ellison: Objective gives them a brief backstory of the world, and a run down of the characters they can choose to play, and the rest is honestly just them. You can see for yourself that they are the absolute best part of the show’s “emergent narrative” sometimes.

Paste: How do you make something this dark for children? Is this too dark?

Ellison: Well, I asked a legendary indie game developer friend and writer to watch it with his wee kids. At the first player death in the first episode, the youngest clung to him like a limpet but she didn’t stop watching—so maybe the darkness is just about right. You know, when I was a kid I was reading Redwall books that are all about anthropomorphic animals slashing the F out of each other, so there’s part of me that knows that kids grapple with very dark themes in fiction already. I think, on quite a deep level, children want to identify with the idea of a powerful “avatar” that might be able to do a lot of things they can’t, because being a child can be a very powerless thing, your world is often a controlled experience. Getting to instruct an adult superhero character and support them and help them and do things for them that they can’t, I hope, is an empowering experience. My favourite moments in the test pilot Objective put together were moments where the kids actively comforted and built up their avatar by telling them they could do it, they could get through. I think the fact that it’s scary isn’t a big barrier to kids. Have you seen outside?

Paste: What were the influences on this show? What were the influences that you consider the best writing in games? What’s your favorite games setup?

Ellison: Ryan, the development producer, is just a massive videogame nerd, and he brought me on board. I watched the film Hackers at least fifty times. I read a lot of Mirrorshades. I am a big fan of William Gibson and cyberpunk writers of the Mirrorshades era, and in some ways I’m sad that some utopian ideas of the egalitarian or anarchist, socialist hacker are dying thanks to far right and libertarian hackers. I want an outcome of this show to be that kids conceive that it’s heroic and beneficial to use kindness and care as a hacking skill (which is what the kids do every time they talk to their avatar character in this show). I wanted the show to be less scary than your average Resident Evil, which I find pretty unplayable unless there’s someone else in the room too, so I tried to be a little more exaggerated, more over the top, more cartoony with the themes and style in the worldbuilding than I would have otherwise been. I mean, “Ykarus Biotech.” It’s me being cute. I giggle every time I see it on the propaganda posters on set.

Paste: Is it difficult to make a game where the characters are directly rebelling against the players?

Ellison: I wouldn’t say that our avatars ever directly rebel an order from the players, because it’s all about dialogue. All of the actors are excellent improvisors, and they were briefed before they began the show with very in-depth histories from our guy on the ground Alan MacDonald, so what happens when something is not possible from the avatar’s point of view is that they start a (sometimes hilarious) in-character discussion with the players as to why that’s not possible. I remember in the pilot Objective made a team ask their avatar to take her shoes off to solve a puzzle, and she’s like, “No way, I’ll need them!”

Paste: Why is Zoe Barker (Skye) so good at what she does?

Ellison: She has boundless energy. I love her so much. She’s always got a comeback and she really looks like a hero hacker. The costume department did an amazing job with her Kaneda-like outfit. I named her Skye early on and Objective weren’t sure if that was going to be her name until right until they started filming—I chose it because it was androgynous, the sort of name a hacker would choose.

Paste: You’re doing games problems that should be recognizable as games problems. You’re doing games problems that resemble so many similar setups that there are three decade echoes down the chamber of games design that both parents and children might recognize. How do you balance nostalgia and education at the same time?

Ellison: I think the key is to acknowledge that both parents and children can enjoy things together. For a generation of parents that grew up on immersive sim videogames, I think the appeal is that they can watch a TV show that acknowledges that love in a knowing way. And they can experience their kids seeing this stuff for the first time—there must be a small thrill in that. And also, with the way that digital games are going these days, games get dated, and the sad thing is maybe your children will never get to play the original Deus Ex, maybe they’ll not have a computer it runs on, or maybe it simply will be too baffling to look at and understand in the future. This way we get to preserve a bit of the past and enjoy it as a feeling of passing things on.

Paste: How do you scale these puzzles to the age group you’re working with?

Ellison: I’m sure there was also a testing process that I was not involved with, but my answer is, you employ amazing escape room designer Mink Ette, and you provide a hints system and support to the players in the form of the avatar going “WAIT, what’s this?” or “Remember, we found this…” Just like in real videogames!

Paste: What’s next for you?

Ellison: I’m working on the story for Dreams on PS4. Before that I worked on a good number of different games but you might have to wait a bit until they come through. On the literature side I’ve written a comic for Hope Nicholson’s Secret Loves of Geeks, an incredible and beautiful anthology of personal stories from people like Gerard Way, Margaret Atwood, and a number of other talented artists and writers—that’s out on Valentine’s Day this year. And I’ve also written a robust gonzo essay on Scottish and Irish mythology for Katie West’s Becoming Dangerous book, which I think is probably one of the best essays I’ve ever written. Other things are on the backburner, but really, I think you should be watching Last Commanders. Why aren’t you watching Last Commanders? Watch it here (if you have one of those VPN type things.)

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