National Insecurities is a two-person game studio based in the UK with a penchant for making original murder mystery games (and puns, they like puns)! Gary Kings and Lauren Filby have created three unique takes on the genre so far starting with a game jam project in 2016 called Murder on the Disorient Express, which surprised its creators with its success and reception.
The pair followed this in 2017 with the Kubrick inspired 2000:1: A Space Felony, a murder mystery and courtroom drama set aboard the USS Endowment, an interplanetary Spacecraft that has lost communication with Earth. This proved to be another successful title for the studio, leading to the development of their most recent game Once Upon a Crime in the West, also a murder mystery but as varied in theme as the previous titles.
How did you first get into game development?
After school I was looking to study film. You can obviously see that influence in the games we ended up making, but at the time I was already pointing cameras at things and doing a lot of editing, it felt like a natural progression. Then my media lecturer, on our last meeting, said “what about games” and pointed me towards a course at my local college; “I don’t know how to make games” I said. He informed me that’s exactly why you go to college, obviously, and after some thought I realised that making games is absolutely what I’ve always wanted to do. My time at college was a mixed bag, but it ultimately lead me to study Game Design at The University of South Wales, where I met Lauren.
I can probably blame my two older brothers for getting me into game development! I made my first level when I was 6 in Unreal, after seeing them both making levels in it. From that point, Mat inspired me to try coding (At the time it was UScript, none of my weapon edits worked!!), and Alex inspired me along more creative lines. My favourite thing was level design – I spent the whole of my secondary school life making Garry’s Mod maps; I was aiming to do a course in architecture or games design. When I had a horrible experience with the A level Art, I leant fully into games, and ended up at USW studying Game Design!
What was the steepest learning curve you encountered when you decided to start making games commercially?
For me it was how to get paid at all. University taught us a lot about how to make games, but convincing people with money to be excited about our games was something I had to teach myself, and I spent over a year post-university throwing myself at the big brick wall of game funding. By the time I roped Lauren on board for Space Felony after a few failed attempts at getting a previous project moving, I was a lot better at looking for funding, and once we had a prototype for Space Felony, it didn’t take long for us to land a deal with Humble.
For me it was saying something is “done” and moving onto the next aspect – there’s always changes that I want to do to parts of projects and having someone to tell you that it’s all good and move on is so important!!
Three of your games (Disorient on the Murder Express, 2000:1: A Space Felony, and Once Upon a Crime in the West) have murder mystery themed gameplay despite their varying genres; what first attracted you to this style and why have you chosen to stick with it so consistently?
I love murder mystery books and films but found myself enjoying murder mystery games less often. After giving it some thought, I realised that there was a lot of unbroken ground in the genre, its potential tapped into by only a few key titles. This pushed me to wondering what we could bring to the genre, and I came up with too many ideas for just one game.
Despite each game is a murder mystery, we didn’t want to simply create a formula for multiple games to use, we wanted to start from scratch each time and have each be a new take, focusing on different elements of that genre and experience. I think we did that.
For me, it was how the style gives us an opportunity to try and mess with the “connect the dots” style of gameplay, and try and jam it together in a different way each time. 2000:1 and Once Upon A Crime both let you solve these things in (almost) whatever order you want, which opens up a whole new not-quite-linear kettle of fish!
I also love building spaces for people to explore, and having a murder mystery inform the design of the space is so much fun!
2000:1: A Space Felony has some obvious sources of inspiration, what were the most prominent influences while you were creating Once Upon a Crime in the West?
You say “obvious influences” but I have had some people approach me and say things like “that was a fantastic parody of “Tacoma” or “It’s trying way too hard to be Portal” about Space Felony. As frustrating as that is, it’s also deeply funny to me. It also speaks to how insular games often are in their influences. While some of the more expensive and marketable games attract criticisms for “trying too hard to be movies”, those influences are usually only in aesthetics, and I rarely feel like we’re learning the right lessons from other mediums or realising the true potential of having influences beyond games. That’s something we wanted to do better within our games. Beyond simple and obvious references to big movies, we also use a lot of filmic techniques such as hard cuts and non-linear storytelling, but we’re always looking for ways to free everything we take from passive mediums of their passivity. Always give the player a presence.
To finally answer your question, our starting point for Once Upon a Crime in the West was The Hateful Eight, a movie I love despite it being deeply flawed. I just found it funny imagining someone turning up to that movie late, finding a cabin full of dead cowboys and having to work out what happened. I found that way more compelling than what the movie showed and realised it would be a perfect opportunity to do something with that genre that could only be achieved in games.
Honestly, Blendo Games has definitely had an impact on us – they manage to get a tactile feel to their gameplay that feels absolutely lovely. I tried to get more meticulous yet slightly clumsy interactions, like taking the camera, setting up the tripod, then scrolling the focus until you have the shot.
In our previous games we never really had too much real-time interaction between characters – a lot of the communication was directly to the player and we found that static poses worked quite well. With situations like Ground Control in Space Felony, we had a few different static variants that we’d switch between randomly whenever you switched back to the interrogation room (with an ever growing pile of coffee cups). In Once Upon A Crime we tried to explore a slightly more animatronic animation style, which worked great but we found out that going from my horrible placeholder audio things to proper amazing lines by our wonderful actors, we had to remake a whole lot of the poses to match the new (and so much better) emphases!
Visually we wanted to keep the clean-cut style that we’ve had in Disorient & Space Felony. A lot of the old westerns we were leaning on had some pretty cool lighting that we hadn’t really explored, which resulted in me making a shader to try and catch that definition while keeping our style!
The landscape surrounding the cabin was influenced by a particular song and photo combo I found on YouTube while working on the game. The song was Vivian & Ondine by William Basinski, and the photo was a cloudscape taken by Ken Douglas. It happens a lot in projects I work on where I hear a song and it is the catalyst for sorta seeing how something should end up looking; in this case, it was a particular feeling of isolation, like a crisp morning.
What are some of the biggest hurdles you’ve had to overcome throughout your career in the game’s industry?
The first hurdle was for A Space Felony – getting past actual release, and seeing your work as something that might actually be good? It’s taken me a fair bit before I could look back and realise that, hey, I really like that thing! Being close to a project gives too much perspective sometimes – you can see what the project was, is and could have been, rather than necessarily seeing it as what it REALLY IS.
The second hurdle was burnout; the processes that lead to it and everything that came after. During late 2018 I was putting in what I can only afterwards see as a dangerous amount of hours into Once Upon A Crime’s development. Burnout is just so … Insidious. I was making good progress with it and it felt sustainable at the start, but the momentum didn’t stop for months. I was my worst enemy throughout the time and didn’t even realise it – to not keep that momentum felt like failure. Even after a project is done and you are out of crunching, that pain still grows for months before it starts recovering. It’s mid/late 2020 and I can still feel that pit, and it’s awful. I still can’t open the project files without tension building up inside me.
It has (I hope) taught me the warning signs that lead up to it. I just hope that I can catch myself, my friends and my workmates before they slip into something like this too. It cost me a year and a half of mental health, and I don’t want anyone else to go through that.
Which of your games are you most proud of and why?
A part of me wants to say Disorient because against all odds I managed to make that entirely on my own and got some very positive attention for it. But in the end, I think Space Felony wins this one. It’s exactly what we set out to make and so much more. It’s so focused and contained yet really ambitious, and I think it lives up to its ambition. I smile every time I play it. I know we did excellent work with Once Upon a Crime in the West but after all it put us through it’s hard to look at it the same way. It’s complicated. Space Felony isn’t, it’s just awesome and I love it.
Space Felony, definitely. It’s such a tight little artefact, and the development for it was a lot more playful – from building a centrifuge that spins the map, trying to write little expressive states for my precious AI, MAL. The first time they blinked made my heart jump and I love them to bits!!
Are you working on anything new at the moment? If so, what can you tell us?!
After our year+ break, we’re only just starting to discuss our next projects like they’re things we might actually start working on, rather than just hypothetically batting them around. But right now we have two games in mind. One is small and weird and stylish and – yes – a murder mystery. I said I wouldn’t do it again, but I got a cool idea so I chased it and somehow Lauren hasn’t shot me down on that. The other is a much bigger project we’d want to unearth some funding for to even start it, and it’s absolutely not a murder mystery. It’s so different from what we’ve made so far but so very National Insecurities. It’s a game we’ve been thinking about since before any of our other games were even ideas. It’s a game that should already exist but somehow nobody has even tried making yet. So I guess we’re going to try it. I can’t wait for that one.
The bigger project is something I’m always excited about and I honestly hope we can pull off. Right now we’re still gathering skills and getting ourselves in a more stable place to be able to pull it off. Gary mentioned the small weird project recently and honestly when he excitedly tells me about a game idea, it’s very hard for me not to get excited with the possibilities!! There’s ways in which it might end up being more data and time oriented rather than our previous ones that have been a bit more object driven, but it’s still early days; we will have to see where this shot takes us. 😉
Get the Games
Murder on the Disorient Express
Released: June 2017
Price: Name your own price
Platforms: Windows, Mac
Available on: itch.io
2000:1: A Space Felony
Released: June 2017
Price: £3.76/Name your own price
Once Upon a Crime in the West
Released: August 2019