Constructing a Game about a Terrorist Cell
by Kozan Soykal
If you have been to our place and had the time to stop and chat with us, chances are you have realized some of us are not, well, as American as some people like. I am from Turkey, a country part of the dreaded Middle East and occasionally suffer from it. Keep this in mind – it’ll become relevant in a few paragraphs.
So around October of 2016, we had our second game, X-Child up and running. We started work on the third game – which we optimistically called The Vault.
It took us about a week to realize building a Fallout style bunker is not a very feasible as a game room; especially if you are in a building which is designed to be a simple office. The cost projections were rivaling rather more rigorous human endeavors such as launching the most recent Falcon 9 rocket. Since we did not have the cash reserves and brilliance of Elon Musk at hand, we had to come up with an alternative.
Well, at least a part of the US society today seems to have some expectations from middle-aged men from Middle East. We are big fans of embracing our reputation, even when the reputation is so very much far away from us. So, half-joking, I proposed a game about a “Turkish prison”. Someone countered with a proposal to build a game about a terrorist cell.
Now, sadly, building a game about a terrorist cell is much easier than building a Falcon rocket (or a vault). The puzzle opportunities opened up like a wildfire spreading in AZ summer. Television series like Homeland or 24 had plenty of sets which we could strive to be similar to in our office location. In a few days, everyone was on board with the idea.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Except… For a game about a terrorist cell, you need to google words like “fake passports”, “fake bomb”, “fake guns”… Which starts to worry you. You start to have second thoughts as soon as you start typing f-a-k-e-_-b-o… “Maybe I should not use the work computer to google this? But is home computer really any better? Err…”
Having watched the movie Snowden, we had no illusions about our searches – anyone from the government who wanted to access our search data could easily do so. We thought using VPN to mask our IP address when googling our more weird searches… But then you don’t get more suspicious than that. Try explaining “We were using VPN to avoid complications regarding our search…” to a couple of complications in black suits at your door.
Interestingly, the agencies (FBI, NSA, Jack Bauer’s CTU, whatever) were not our top worry. Any agent who looked at our online data would realize we were building a game room in about 2 seconds. And failing that, we had a rock solid strategy – we had a 25% discount coupon ready to present to agents who came over to arrest us. We figured we would hand the coupon over right after our 3rd hour in the interrogation room… You know, as an apology for wasting their time and as a thank you for not killing us. That coupon exists and is still active, by the way.
Our design meetings were more of a worry. We held, in total, about 35 hours of face-to-face design meetings discussing our props at various relatively public locations. One of our props is a fake bomb. So here are a bunch of people, some of them very not American, talking about a bomb, occasionally using a foreign language. Any sane neighbour or person on the next table would call the cops on us.
We actually felt so uncomfortable, we did end up using keywords for the bomb, and the fake passports and such in our speech. Which made us even more suspicious:
“911, What’s your emergency?”
“Here are some guys which are trying to use keyword for a bomb and are frequently failing at it…”
The props, including the famous fake bomb did get built amidst all this hardship. The crowning point came when we were transporting the bomb to the game room. The bomb is on the backseat of a car. A middle eastern guy in the front. Then a cop pulls him over. After a look in the inside of the car, asks:
“What is in the suitcase? Why is it marked with a skull and bones?”
Yes, we lived through that… “See sir, these wires are not… No no, those are not dynamite sticks, they are wooden dowels… That’s the battery – six c-sized… Please sir, I have children… Can I give you a 10% off coupon?”
Another funny problem was the automated advertising algorithms for Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc. You may have realized how a search results follows you around in advertisements for a while – search for a shoe and suddenly all your ads show shoes for a month.
When your searches are “handcuffs”, about 90% of the results return handcuffs of the fluffy, kinky type… and that follows you around. Facebook insists on showing you various bondage apparatus; handcuffs, marriage collars, leather whips… Your spouse realizes this and starts asking questions. How can they not – you have recently disappeared for hours and hours of “design meetings” and now Facebook suddenly starts showing this? The clues add up nicely, very nicely.
The Cell has been an adventure for us. Come to our place and let it be an adventure for you as well.
Stay safe. Don’t cut the wrong wire.
Game Design Team Member
Dare to Escape AZ