On Gaming and Game Design (Part 2)

Talking about Paranoia is where it’s at.  It’s what all the cool kids are doing.  You know they’re doing it, even if you don’t hear them.  It’s so obvious.  You look up and someone is turning away, and what else could they have been talking about but Paranoia.

Paranoia and you.


Paranoia is a role-playing game dating from the 80s that involves a conspiracy against the players by the person who is running the game, by the game itself, and by the other players.  There is no one you can trust in this RPG except yourself and the rules, and you can’t trust the rules, either.  In fact, you probably can’t even trust yourself so you might as well give up now.

In the future, we’ve done the worst we could and most of the world has been destroyed by a cataclysmic apocalyptic nightmare scenario such as nuclear war or bunnies.  All of humanity is now under the protection of The Computer, the computer system (naturally) that controls all aspects of The Alpha Complex, which is where you, and the rest of humanity, now live.

The Computer is your friend.  Trust The Computer.

Although the truth is, everything you’ve been told is a lie.

Hey, stop that!

You can’t stop the truth, baby.

Okay, so what’s the truth.

That The Computer is a homicidal maniac who keeps the human population under control through liberal use of drugs and conditioning.  The Computer figured out that the worst threat to humanity’s survival was humanity itself and so keeps humanity under a tight leash.

Well, still, what’s really the problem?  At least we’re all still alive.

But au contraire mumble mumble because the computer is breaking down, and if it’s systems fail, then so do ours.

Like our limbic system?  Because that wouldn’t be good.

It was a metaphor.

Our limbic system is a metaphor?

I think you should go sit in the corner and be quiet.

Will it help my limbic system?

Oh yes.

Okay, now that he’s gone I can stop talking in bold and also get down to business.

The way that Paranoia works – the game, not the condition – is that you and the other players are troubleshooters (think adventurers in a normal RPG) who are directed by the computer to go out, find trouble, and shoot it.

Straightforward, except that The Computer is breaking down and humanity has been so mollycoddled that no one knows what they’re doing, no matter how up they are in The Alpha Complex hierarchy, because The Computer assigns tasks just to keep us busy, not because it couldn’t do the tasks itself.  You are a person who has six clones, of which you are hopefully the first.  Each time you die, another clone is sent out to wherever you are, it’s memory going all the way back to the last time you had your personality downloaded by the computer (which means that you never have any idea what killed you, whether a “natural” catastrophe or another player).  Your equipment is ill-defined and often malfunctioning.  As a troubleshooter, you have to find trouble, but your security clearance is just above the regular menial worker, so you often don’t have clearance to know the information you need to solve the “trouble” you were sent out to “shoot”.  And if you show knowledge of what you aren’t supposed to know, then you are killed.

Which happens a lot, because Paranoia is a game designed to kill you, but to entertain you while doing so.  For example, everyone belongs to a secret society, but to belong to a secret society is considered treason, and treason is punishable by death.  Everyone has a mutation, but being a mutant is treason, and treason is punishable by death.  Everyone is required to be happy, and being not happy is treason.  Which is punishable by death.

Hopefully, by now, you can see the reason why I want to make this into a video game.

There was a video game made of it once.  Called The Paranoia Complex and released in 1989, it was apparently a typical adventure game, poorly made, and all around reviled.

Of course, it’s quite possible that my theoretical Paranoia game will be reviled as well.  See, Paranoia is not designed around the player surviving or even having knowledge of the rules of how to survive.  In fact, knowledge of the Paranoia rules is treason, and is punishable by the death (of that player’s character).  Equipment often malfunctions, which leads to death, and complaining about computer-distributed equipment shows a lack of faith in The Computer, which is treason and is punishable by death.

My version of Paranoia is more a concept than a game (though a concept that would be wonderfully illustrated by Fallout 3’s game engine).  In my “vision” of the game, the farthest I progressed was the idea that the game wouldn’t always load when you tried to load it which, admittedly, doesn’t sound like much fun.  The idea behind that frustration (which, ideally, would be executed better – maybe with the game emulating your actual desktop and the game having started without you recognizing it) is that Paranoia is a game about creating pleasure through player-frustration, that frustration keyed into satire of the present day and the history of science-fiction and role-playing games.

I suppose what I love about this concept is the struggle to make such a game viable, to create an engine that reproduces what it’s like to play the paper role-playing game.  This would mean creating an AI that successfully mimics a good game master, as well as writing a story that builds itself slant through various types of frustrations and failures (each leading to an interesting conclusion/progression) as well as the more straightforward narrative quest.

As designers, we could learn something from the most recent (and execrable) Postal game, which allowed the player to complete the simple quest of, say, buying milk at the store, without going postal.  Which, of course, is the “fun” of the game – the going postal.  But what always interested me about that scenario is that you could complete the game successfully by simply completing the quests, not having to shoot anyone even once.

In Paranoia – outside of the engine and the way the player interacts with it – the player would also have the choice of A) Following The Computer’s instructions or B) Discovering the truth behind The Alpha Complex and trying to save humanity/take over the complex/escape to The Outdoors.  Either way would lead to success and, hopefully, be narratively satisfying.

Well, anyone want in on this with me?  I promise to write it, and write it slant.  Now all I need is a team of programmers who are interested in working for free in the hopes of long-term payoffs.


Oh, nothing, I was just—


Of course!


Yes, Computer.


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