An Interview: Nicky Case

I was quite the prolific Newgrounds user at an early age. When I got home from Primary School, more often than not I would boot up my parents’ computer and binge play flash games for hours. From Alice is Dead to Haunt the House to No Time To Explain, I spent a lot of my youthful years playing weird flash games that have forever stuck in my mind. One series of games that left perhaps the most lasting impression however was Nicky Case’s :The Game: series, a trilogy of silly, violent and sarcastic interactive things that made fun of politics, the internet and, yes, video games. Despite the fact that they aren’t as proud of it as they once were, the :The Game: series put Case on the map.
They continued to make flash-based games for a while before launching their biggest project yet: a crowdfunded anti-stealth game about internet surveillance called Nothing To Hide. Launched on a custom crowdfunding site not dissimilar to Patreon, the game was able to raise the required funds, partly due to their previous Newgrounds fame, and partly because of an interactive blog post that detailed an aspect of the game’s coding entitled Sight & Light. Although they had now begun work on NTH, he found his interests in game design and what they wanted to make soon began to change.
Recently, their work has gone from being traditionally “gamey” to something else entirely, rejecting traditional game mechanics and structure in order to deliver different sorts of messages.
Case proved their worth as a storyteller with the blisteringly real and fiercely powerful Coming Out Simulator, the IGF-nominated “half-true game about half-truths” that detailed Case’s experiences of coming out as bisexual to their extremely conservative parents, and the subsequent fallout (in my opinion, it’s their finest work). Following on from, they developed the adorable yet powerful Parable of the Polygons, an “explorable explanation” about collective bias, made in collaboration with Vi Hart. Both works were picked up and talked about at length by many major publications. It seemed Case had finally figured out what kinds of games they wanted to make, which was confirmed by the recent cancellation of the crowdfunded project that set the dominoes in motion, refunding backers and promising to make a game about the same topic, albeit in a completely different way than was first intended, fully reflecting the new direction that they have now found themselves going in.
Over their career they have amassed a loyal following, as well as having worked with several notable industry figured and having a successful Patreon campaign (OBLIGATORY DISCLOSURE: I’m a patron of theirs. I was also an NTH backer. Sorry. A thousand pardons. My corruption levels are SKY HIGH).
Join me as I talk to Nicky Case about notgames, procedural rhetoric, and dragons.

Do you think you’ll ever want to return to the crowdfunding platform to find funds for a future project, and do you think you’ll ever want to make a project the size of Nothing to Hide ever again?
As for crowdfunding, I really do still believe in it. In fact, the pledging-in-parts mechanism I used for Nothing To Hide‘s crowdfunding campaign actually proved its own worth, ironically, by the project failing. Because pledging-in-parts was meant to mitigate risk for the backer, should I not deliver all the goods.
So, I think crowdfunding-in-small-pieces is probably the way to go, which is why I’ve been happily on Patreon for the last few months! I just hit 100 patrons a while back (now at 111 at the time of writing). I probably won’t do a large all-or-nothing campaign, like a Kickstarter, for a long time, though. And if I ever do attempt another project on the scale of Nothing To Hide, it will be with a much larger team, rather than just literally me for art + code + design + pretty much everything else.

In a blog post released earlier this year you revealed that you’d temporarily put your project “Riot Cop Selfies” on hold. Considering recent occurrences, do you see yourself returning to the project anytime soon?
Probably not, mostly because I think the message would be better served in an Explorable Explanation than a traditional videogame (this is also partially the reason why I’m ending Nothing To Hide).
Besides, the mechanic of Riot Cop Selfies is fundamentally about the camera, and while that’s a really interesting and socially important dynamic, it’s a very small part of the larger systemic issues regarding police militarization in the US.

What can you tell us about any future projects?
So right now, I’m working on an augmented reality game that messes with your face in real-time. Here’s a GIF of that.
After that, I want to focus a lot more on Explorable Explanations. Right now, I have working prototypes for an Explorable on neurons & learning, and another one on privacy & context collapse. (which I gave a sneak preview in my Goodbye Newsletter to NTH backers!) I have many other topics planned for Explorables, but I don’t want to over-promise stuff.
(Also, for the last 5 days, I’ve been really tempted to make an Every Frame A Painting-like series for the craft of play design?)

Your recent “explorable explanation” about collective bias (Parable of the Polygons) was made in collaboration with the talented Vi Hart. Out of curiosity, who did what in that collaboration? Was it as simple as one did coding and the other did writing, or was there crossover?
Other than code, (which was all me) there was a lot of crossover in art and writing. She actually designed all the in-between-text playable segments. And my favorite: she designed the puzzle where you have to bring all the polygon-people together (resulting in confetti)!

The last people I interviewed (Tale of Tales) recently announced that due to the commercial failure of their most recent release, Sunset, they are bowing out of the commercial market? What are your thoughts on this occurrence, and how do you think it relates to the games market as a whole?
First, huh. I had no idea that Michaël (Samyn) of Tale of Tales coined the word “notgame”. (which my :The Game: series has been described as multiple, multiple times.)
Second, huh. I totally missed the recent news about Sunset. I’ve been nose-to-the-grindstone in the last two weeks over my face-messing-up game, since I’ve got a deadline for it.
I’m reading their post-mortem on Sunset right now, and I’m thinking, wow, I totally dodged a bullet with Nothing To Hide. Because I can so painfully relate to the goal they attempted, “making a game for gamers”. Which was exactly what I was doing with Nothing To Hide, going through the whole… ritual… of indie gamedev. From the crowdfunding campaign w/ demo, to getting press on all the big sites, to the promise of Steam Greenlight and everything, to make a four-hour mechanically-engaging indie game where you’re a lone hero in a dystopian world, yada yada, so on and so forth.
As for how it relates to the games market, I think Chris Crawford said it best 20 years ago in his Dragon Speech (paraphrasing):
“What the customers want is depth. What I want is breadth.”
20 years later, Crawford’s quote still resonates today. Thought I guess every entertainment industry has that conflict between artists wanting to explore the medium, versus customers who want more of the same.

Are there any video games that you hold in higher regard than all the others?
Oh, wow. This is a hard question because I don’t rank things on a single dimension, from 1 to 10, from bad to good. I use several scales when measuring something, and even then I consciously know I’m oversimplifying.
In any case, here’s five games/interactive experiences I consider masterpieces:
-Telltale’s The Walking Dead, for its new approach to interactive narrative design, and punching me in the feels.
Portal (1 & 2) is a masterclass in puzzle mechanic design, going from depth over breadth.
The End Of Us is proof you can tell a powerful story solely with play, using minimal visuals/audio, and no words at all.
Papers, Please for merging gameplay with narrative.
Thirty Flights of Loving is groundbreaking for so many reasons I can’t even list right now.

Who in your opinion are the best game developers currently working today?
Anna Anthropy is at the top of my list! Dys4ia meant a lot to me, and was the game that gave me the courage to publish Coming Out Simulator. But on top of that, Anna Anthropy’s writings show she has a deep and solid grasp of game design, she examines games in a way I’d never seen before, and each one of her games is a self-contained game design experiment. (Triad is my favorite – a puzzle game with level progression yet only one levelHOW?!)
Also, I gotta praise Telltale Games and Simogo. They make consistently great and groundbreaking interactive experiences.

Looking back, which one of your projects are you the most proud of?
So, I’m one of those people whose pride in a piece of work quickly diminishes over time. Creative peeps tend to be their own worst critics. The more time after I’ve already released a project, the more I realize I could have done in hindsight. But that’s good! Because now I do those things in a new project. And the cycle repeats forever.
Anyway, right now I’m the most proud of Parable of the Polygons. But that’s most likely because it’s the most recent project I’ve actually done. When my next game or Explorable comes out, I’ll probably be most proud of that.

You are to be abandoned on a desert island by a scheming cabal of cutthroat pirates. You’re allowed to bring one film, one book, one album and one video game along with you. What do you bring?
I’m going to be an asshole, and say I’ll bring some mobile game that has geolocation and a post-to-social-networks feature, so I can get rescued.

Your original flash-based “the game” series is was thrust you into the spotlight. Those games were very political in nature, and expressed many observations about life and game systems. How much have your opinions on all of the above changed since you made that series?
You know how I just said I become far less proud of something over time?
I have really mixed feelings on the :The Game: trilogy. Because I feel it was all fake. It had the same amount of cleverness and wit as a newspaper political cartoon or JibJab video, and yes, I was very hooked on both political cartoons and JibJab videos at the time I made :The Game:. I wasn’t really making insightful observations, I was just taking whatever I found on Wikipedia and presenting it in the silliest (and/or most violent) way possible.

Eh, maybe I’m just being too harsh on myself.

But like I also said, realizing all the things I could have done better in hindsight, drives my future projects. In fact, you could already kind of see this in Reimagine :The Game:. At the time, I felt like an impostor with the first two :The Game: installments because they didn’t have any actual game mechanics, they were all relying on crude humour and parody. Reimagine :The Game: was my first real foray into good game mechanics! (My next game, Gap Monsters, a negative-space sliding puzzle game, is still the game mechanic I’m most proud of making, coz it’s so mindfucky)
Now, all my thoughts on how to do social/political critique better has gone into my work on Explorable Explanations!
But even now, I’m still thinking about what could I have done better. For example, I’m starting to have doubts about Explorables & procedural rhetoric. My mentor Bret Victor recently emailed me, saying the real power in Explorables isn’t to put forth an argument, but to let the reader argue back. Bret proposed that I shouldn’t just focus on rhetoric, but also anti-rhetoric.
It’s a cycle. It’s always been a cycle. And the cycle will continue.

You can follow Nicky on Twitter HERE.
You can also check their website HERE.
You can also follow me on Twitter HERE, if you so desire.

Thanks for reading! Do please check out Nicky’s work, and have a nice day!

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