Conspiracies and the theories that “explain” them have been an intrinsic part of humanities love for storytelling for millennia. We can’t get enough of the things. Joining the dots between entirely random events and concocting an explanation (usually involving shadowy organisations responsible for everything bad that has ever happened) is something people seemingly love to do.
Some theories are so ridiculous as to be funny, but others are so insidious that they are responsible for some of the worst atrocities humankind has ever committed. A cursory glance at the key moments and trends of the last twelve months shows that conspiracy theories are still rife, increasingly newsworthy, and likely here to stay for the foreseeable. Which makes the recent release of Conspiracy! rather apt. The latest game from Brighton-based developer Tim Sheinman attempts to expose how the human brain is predisposed to seeing patterns and thus coming up with a doozy of a conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy! – I can only assume the startling exclamation mark is to avoid any comparison with the 2001 TV movie ‘Conspiracy’ – tasks the player in the role of an investigator attempting to unravel a Machiavellian plot that cuts right into the heart of the Presidential election. This is achieved through a minimalist set-up; the player is shown a screen of twenty blacked out polaroid photographs, each one labelled with a title that’s either something sinister or just plain weird. On initial glance, headings of ‘killing the pervert’, ‘two thousand dead geese’ and ‘5G in rural areas’ mean very little, though your investigation will ultimately reveal how all these events are linked.
To do this, you’ll need to read through reams of emails, letters, newspaper articles and files to uncover further information. There are also cassette recordings to listen to, all in an attempt to uncover when the elusive events took place and in which order. Do this and you’ll be able to choose a date from a limited selection and add it to the relevant polaroid; eventually revealing the hidden images and uncovering further clues to begin the process all over again.
There’s a well structured plot to uncover here, one filled with misdirection and red herrings. There’s also a healthy dose of satire to invoke a wry smile or occasional guffaw. The written sources are an interesting enough read in their own right and the vocal performances are a highlight throughout. Special mention must go to the distinctive tones of author Jon Ronson, whose excellent investigative work makes him an ideal fit for this game. Indeed, it was Ronson’s involvement in the project that initially brought Conspiracy! to my attention.
Conspiracy! attempts to show how the online world has played a significant role in the construction and spreading of conspiracy theories in recent times. As such, the game has an intriguing mechanic that blurs the lines between the game and the real world. As well as scouring in-game resources, you’re also able to go off-piste and give the events described a quick DuckDuckGo – other search engines are available. Scouring the internet is often the quickest, and sometimes the only way to gather the dates you need to unlock further clues.
Now, in theory this should all be very engaging, as the game bleeds into the online world and fiction becomes plausible reality. Conspiracy! seemed to want to cast me in the role of a bearded and over-caffeinated crackpot, frantically opening tabs and furiously double clicking in an attempt to join the dots, piece the puzzle together and finally blow it all wide open. I sense that my response to the game should be to emulate Mel Gibson in ‘Conspiracy Theory’; that I’d feel wild, uncouth and handsome. Instead, the only parallel I can make is that the game made me feel like an office administrator. Not even an exciting office administrator with an automatic pencil sharpener and pocket calculator. Conspiracy! made me feel like an office worker with a clip on tie and a centre parting.
A big part of this is down to the gameplay being so very flat and boring. Going online to scroll through a website to find a reference to a month and year is frankly far too much like real work. Reading through an email several times to uncover its hidden meaning is, again, too much like real work. It all becomes so painfully unengaging – hampered even further by the fact that once you’ve done it once, you have to go through the process all over again.
This issue is likely exacerbated by there being too little visual feedback. Conspiracy! will only respond when you correctly input five dates, meaning that for the most part it was like playing the game in a vacuum. Curiously, despite the use of real events requiring real internet searching, nothing really seemed real. Maybe this is a statement on how disconnected online conspiracy theorists are from the real world? Either way though, it made for an uninspiring few hours sat in front of my PC.