In late 2003, a friendly, attractive and perfectly normal 38-year-old woman named Joyce Vincent died in her London flat. She was in the midst of wrapping Christmas presents.
No one knew that Joyce Vincent died that day. Not right away. Not for a while.
Joyce's remains were eventually discovered when building officials entered her apartment to repossess it. They found her skeleton where she'd last sat, television still playing in front of her, presents still nearby, though quite a bit more dusty. That discovery happened—someone finally found out that Joyce had passed away from apparently natural causes—in January of 2006.
Anyone who hears Joyce's story is haunted by the same question: how does one die without anybody noticing for two years?
There is now a film about this and there was, for a time, going to be a video game.
Joyce Vincent's story was widely publicized in the British press, disturbing all who read about it or heard it. Who could let this happen? Did I let it happen? Could it happen to me?
Several years ago, the big mystery of Joyce's death and the many mysteries of her life propelled filmmaker Carol Morley to find Joyce's friends and loved ones to make a documentary about this no-longer-forgotten woman.
Films, even art-house documentaries, spawn video games these days. The companies behind these films see games as a way to reach a bigger audience, to cajole them to see a film or to at least think about it and talk about it. They're commercials of a sort, though they can also be art of their own. The folks supporting Morley's film wanted something like that. Enter game designer Margaret Robertson.
The former editor-in-chief of the vaunted British gaming magazine Edge, Robertson had been creating games of the playful public sort at a company called Hide & Seek. The games were sometimes intended to promote movies such as Sherlock Holmes and Green Lantern, sometimes to get people to peruse a virtual version of the collection of art at the Tate Modern.
Making a game related to Joyce Vincent's life and death was so different from everything else Robertson had tackled. "It was a hard project," she said. "Because it was about a very hard thing."
The problem with a game about Joyce Vincent would seem to be the problem with any video game about something serious or sad: people expect video games to be fun. Nothing about Joyce's death was "fun."
But fun wasn't the big issue.
The problems Robertson ran into involved something else, something equally confounding. They would involve the very reason people play games, the thing that urges people to keep playing them: the zeal to win and the way that contorts everything else in a video game.
The troubles Robertson encountered while trying to make a video game out of Joyce Vincent's story threatened to etch a line dividing what games could and could not be. On one side of the line were things video games could handle. On the other there just might be the powerful feelings we can have about a person whose dead body went undiscovered in her home for three Christmases.
Carol Morley began working on her documentary about Joyce Vincent by posting ads on London Taxis and in the newspapers. "Did you know Joyce Vincent?" her ads asked. The ads included her contact information. She hoped they would entice friends to emerge, friends who themselves had been undiscovered by the police and the press.
Morley would meet and film interviews with Joyce's former lovers and associates, friends who remembered her bantering at a party, singing songs in a music studio, slumping through a front door asking to sleep on the couch for days that turned into weeks and months. They remembered her working a job in finance and cheerfully reporting that she'd been in the right room at the right time and, because of that, just met Nelson Mandela.
As Morley pieced together stories of Joyce's life, Hilary Perkins of the British public television company Channel 4 put out the request for, well… she doesn't call it a game. "I was quite careful not to refer to it as a game when discussing it internally," she told me. "To me it was an interactive experience which was facilitated by a game structure." The maybe-a-game would draw more people to the film and expose them to its ideas. It would be weightier than her standard commissions for interactive experiences tied to game shows about winning lots of money off of trapdoors or out of bank vaults.
Perkins hoped, if not for a game, then for something game-like, a distinction both big and small, a distinction that didn't stop Robertson and her team from trying to make… a game.
Actually, the first thing Robertson tried in order to say something about Joyce Vincent's story was Facebook.
"I think everybody has that immediate visceral response to the story," Robertson said. "And we thought, ‘This is about maintaining connections in your life and about not letting people slip through the net and staying socially active.'
"I think anyone who makes digital games at this point in time turns to Facebook and goes, ‘Ok, we do a Facebook thing and we scrape your friends' data and we see what we can do in terms of looking at patterns of correspondence and we tell you things about yourself and all the rest of it.'"
No. Facebook was wrong for this. It wasn't true enough.
"The minute you start scrutinizing that at all, it kind of falls apart," Robertson said. Facebook wasn't intimate. It wasn't, believe it or not, sufficiently sweeping. People's entire lives aren't on Facebook. Mom might not be on Facebook. Dad may not even know how to turn on a computer. And do people on Facebook really share their genuine feelings? About the stuff that matters? Hide & Seek, Robertson realized, couldn't turn people's Facebook communications into anything profound. "The minute you are trying to say something actually meaningful about somebody's life and not just some glib little throwaway, Cosmo personality test, you can't do it."
Facebook was no good. But, a game? Hide & Seek had many options, many quickly discarded.
They barely considered any kind of interactive Whodunnit. The film wasn't going to dwell on how Joyce died but on how she lived. The game would leave the death alone, too. They dismissed the idea of letting players explore Joyce's apartment because Robertson considered the options of either including or excluding Joyce's body from the interactive scene to be "grotesque."
This wasn't Robertson's first challenging game-making assignment. She had faced tough issues of design and tone before. Her team's iPhone game involving the Tate Modern's collection had run into the problem that the museum's collection included a photographer's self-portraits of herself as a rape victim. She'd been tempted to exclude it. "That had been a long and quite difficult process in figuring out: What right do we have to be censors? This stuff is art and displayed publicly. Where do we get off saying we should be protecting you from that in a game? But, equally, you're not expecting that in a game and to be confronted with this image." Robertson's team decided to include it in the game.
Eventually, the Hide & Seek team began to think they'd found the right kind of Joyce Vincent video game. They started designing something basic that would treat the story of Joyce Vincent in the abstract. They chose a graphical text adventure format, a throwback to early video games that told stories mostly by pulling players through a narrative while requiring them to type answers to questions and issue basic commands to advance, usually past a series of puzzles.
"You're facing structures, classic lock and key puzzles," Robertson said of the game they began to conceive. "Rather than the game giving you meaningless tokens—‘you're inflating rubber dinghies' or ‘looking for seagulls' or whatever it is—you'd arrive in a room and it would say, ‘this room wants you to leave something…a memory of someone you never told you loved.' And that becomes a token in the game.
"So all of this stuff is completely private and just to you, but you wind up winning the game—rather than by opening the blue door with the blue key—you win the game by giving your grandmother's engagement ring to your teenage crush at your best friend's wedding. Or whatever that thing ends up being."
Robertson sketched that out on paper. It seemed promising.
"From the player point of view, I was hopeful there would be some sort of self-examination or self-discovery," she said. "You would suddenly have more interesting conversations than you'd ever had, because you were suddenly saying: how long do you think you would lie dead for? Is there somebody in your life who you are neglecting? Those are much closer-to-the-bone conversations than you'd normally have."
And then the problem revealed itself: people who would play this game would treat it as… a game.
"We were confident that posing those questions would get people to think about things they're not usually thinking about," Robertson said. "The problem was that, the minute we enclosed them in a game structure, we tainted their answers. Even if this is a game that isn't about winning or losing or dying or enemies or anything like that, the minute you understand that your progress is being impeded and that your inputs and choices are going to free that progress, you want to free that progress. We can't not want that. So the minute you say: ‘Who do you want to give the ring to?' I'm thinking, ‘Well, shit, what does the game want me to say here?"
The game undermined itself. Players would not be tempted to provide an honest answer. They would be tempted to inject an efficient answer that would enable them to win. Why input some long name or hard-to-remember heartfelt fact when a short name or a cliché would be easier to wield? Players wouldn't be able to help themselves, Robertson decided. They'd make the point of the game to win. Everything else would be secondary, including any big ideas about what Joyce Vincent's life and death meant. They'd focus on beating the system. It's what gamers do.
Robertson was facing failure.
"I have a thing about ‘big-piece-of-paper problems,'" she said. "There are some projects where you get to the point where the only way you can solve them is with a massive sheet of paper and a really sharp pencil. This had turned into a big-piece-of-paper problem."
She knew she was on a frontier, trying to make a video game about a difficult topic. She also knew about the doubters, the people who say games aren't art or beautiful or worthy of the respect you might give a book. She knew how skeptical some people were that games could be about anything other than violence or competition. She knew that plenty of people didn't think those things because it never occurred to them that video games would ever have anything to say.
She knew what it meant to decide that, as best she could tell, this topic-this life and death-could not be a video game. But that is what she concluded. Maybe someone else could figure it out. Hopefully, they could, she thought. She could not.
The story of Joyce Vincent would become a documentary. That story would not become a video game.
"That moment of failure was also a moment of kind of excitement and freedom," Robertson said. "We get to go, ‘oh, it's not just a game.'"
It would be something else. Something interactive, but something she would never call a video game.
In the months since her so-called defeat, Robertson and the team at Hide & Seek have created two companion pieces to Carol Morley's Dreams of a Life. The first is called Dreams of Your Life. It starts on Facebook, as a quiz, and drives you to a website where you are asked more questions—the very questions you would have been asked in Robertson's lock-and-key game—but you are asked them out of the context of a game. You are simply compelled to think: how long would it take for someone to find your body? What would people say about you? Who misses you right now?
"We kept that conversational intensity," Robertson says of Dreams of Your Life, "but now there is no gaming structure around it. The hope is you are now at liberty to tell the truth or as much of the truth as you want to."
The second project from Robertson's team is a game after all. It is called Would Anyone Miss You? and was produced in partnership with British Film Institute and British Council. It is a simple game and not a video game, more of a running-around-and-talking-to-people kind of thing. It's being run at this years SXSW arts festival in Austin, Texas. Players are encouraged to give stickers to people they meet and ask them questions similar to those asked in Dreams of Your Life. The respondents can follow a Twitter feed and have their photos taken. It's all quite abstract and more about memory, love and loss than it is about winning or losing.
These projects are, Robertson believes, about "time passing without you realizing, of things changing when you're not looking and things changing faster than you might realize." They connect to Joyce indirectly, but importantly.
"I am very proud of what Margaret and her team have made," Channel 4's Perkins told me. "It is a beautiful, immersive response to the film. I think it's absolutely right that they didn't make it a video game." She describes both of Hide & Seek's creations as something only partially intended to sell Morley's film. "The aim of Would Anyone Miss You and Dreams of Your Life is to draw audiences who would not normally choose to see an art-house documentary film to the film, and give them an experience that will hopefully be intriguing and compelling enough to make them want to watch it. At the same time they give audiences who may never see the film an experience which is about Joyce's story and the meaning that the film seeks to make from it."
Margaret Robertson never stepped foot in Joyce Vincent's apartment, but she did go to Joyce's neighborhood to look for a window to photograph, a window that would be the main visual of Dreams of Your Life. The visit to Joyce's neighborhood has stuck with her.
"I remember the day very clearly," she said. "It was gray and wet and nasty. And it's a busy but not particularly vibrant part of town. It's a run-down shopping center. Lots of traffic. Lots of noise. No kind of comfort or space. Mostly, you think about her last walk home and [wonder] what was the weather like on her last day?"
Morley's movie makes it clear that Joyce Vincent wasn't a woman to pity any more than we'd pity ourselves. She had good relationships and bad ones, good jobs and bad ones. She may have suffered domestic abuse. Her final home was subsidized to support battered women, but she was not without the connections we all have. Her family was thinned, but not in a very unusual way. Her mother had died when she was young. She was estranged from her father. But she had three sisters. She had neighbors, who would complain, after her death, about the noise from her TV. She was ordinary.
"She's emblematic of a larger issue," Robertson said. "That's the thing. If there was just this one particular haunted corner, where you could go, ‘Oh! The rest of the world is fine, and this is the place where we stand and feel sad about Joyce'—especially when it's not somebody you know—but it's not that...
"You walk three blocks away, and you go, ‘Well now I don't know who the person is who I should be feeling sad about.' Somebody behind one of these doors is lost and ignored and we all just walk past. Every block I passed, particularly in those high-density-population areas of London, [I thought], ‘This is happening in one way or the other and we're not seeing it.'"
Beneath that bleak cloud, it seems to matter less that Robertson couldn't figure out how to handle the emotions of Joyce's story in a video game. "Our experience isn't saying for one minute that you can't make a game about death. Or that you can't make a serious game."
She doesn't think her design struggles with the Joyce Vincent story condemn games to being some sort of lesser art. Quite the opposite: "I think it started to reassure me that games are their own thing. It doesn't make me sad that games can't be all those things, that games can't be a symphony and a sculpture and a film and all the rest of it…The idea that we're learning the hard edges is exciting to me, not terribly daunting.
There is no Joyce Vincent video game after all. Or is there? "I know from a theory point of view that this isn't a game," Robertson said of her creations. "I'm perfectly comfortable if the rest of the world thinks it is." There are more important things in life about which people should know the honest truth.