GamerGate, Feminism, Cyberpunk: An Interview With 'The Last Night' Designer
At E3, Tim Soret wanted to set the record straight about equality, labor, and the future.
images courtesy Raw Fury
Tim Soret doesn't want to pick a side.
When I met him in the middle of E3, he'd already experienced the emotional whiplash of his Milkshake Duck moment. His upcoming game, The Last Night, had one of the most exciting and widely-praised trailers during the Microsoft E3 showcase, but his newfound notoriety immediately become a double-edged sword. His old comments around feminism and GamerGate quickly came back to haunt him and caused both Microsoft and Raw Fury to reaffirm their own commitments to diversity and inclusion in light of his past remarks. A lot of the initial enthusiasm for his project dimmed, although it became a cause célèbre elsewhere.
I met him at Raw Fury's booth in E3's concourse hall, a darkened cubicle ringed with neon-red LEDs where Soret was talking journalists through his game. In person he was a slight, mop-headed young man in a slightly preppy sportcoat that a nice restaurant might provide if you didn't meet the dress code. He looked tired, though the light of the TV screen and red lighting gave everyone the kind of pallor that you might see in an all-undead remake of Das Boot. Before the interview, Raw Fury's David Martinez emphasized that they were willing to answer anyone's questions without reservation.
As a confession of my own biases here: I have known Martinez for several years and consider him a friend, and his vouching for Soret carries a lot of weight with me, even allowing that Martinez has a business stake in The Last Night.
But a persistent theme to Soret's remarks is a desire for a kind of apolitical or passive progressivism. While it might be overstating things to say he's a GamerGate developer making a work of reactionary cyberpunk, he does share the suspicion of progressive / leftist critique that animated a lot of the people who really, truly believed they were part of a movement to protect "gamers" from a hostile and biased media.
Which is what lies at the heart of my own unease with The Last Night. The confused and thoroughly political apoliticism that Soret often defaults to preaching is too familiar at this point, betraying a hesitation to grapple with the choices and compromises of the status quo. With those underpinnings, I have my doubts that The Last Night can comprehend the present moment well enough to extrapolate an interesting and thought-provoking possible future.
A note about this transcript: Soret has a pronounced accent and is clearly someone for whom English is a second language. Something to bear in mind as you read this is that he is often struggling to articulate his meaning, and that can lead to inartful and even more insensitive-sounding sentences than I believe he actually intends. That said, there is much he says and believes that you might find objectionable however artfully packaged.
The transcript picks up after he had largely finished outlining the game's art style and development. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Waypoint: So, in the world of The Last Night , most people don't have to work. Then who runs and governs this kind of world?
Tim Soret (Designer, The Last Night ): I think democracy will evolve. Democracy 2.0, something like that. I feel that pure-on democracy, and the vote every five years, I feel we can do better. I feel we can do more direct democracy with technology now. Of course, by then, how do you get the voice of 300 million people.
But now, maybe you can do something much better. Maybe you can do something much faster, and you wake up every morning and you have ten minutes of citizen duty. Where you to review some laws and be like, "Ah, okay, I like that!" And vote for it.
And maybe AIs are constantly adjusting parameters at the same time. So for instance, government is basically AIs and they are managing everything for us, but humans are still controlling what is happening. It is like a safeguard. We don't want them to make anything that is completely immoral. So humans are still in control. But in a much more direct way.
So yeah, that's where the game takes place.
Because we are a 2D game, there is no limitation on the size of the crowds you can have. Everything is hand-drawn, hand animation. ...What I'm doing is immersing you into the middle of that world with the floating camera. And then I put all this nice lighting and reflections and reflective materials and rain puddles and everything.
I'm trying to make a sensual game, in some ways. I'm trying to recreate the sensory overload you get in a big city, you know? I want to put you in this dreamy state, there is so much to see and feel and there is so much density, you know? Not only visually but even in terms of gameplay. Every meter, every shop you see, you can enter. I'm trying to make you feel what it's like to be a part of this world like that.
Our main character, because of a childhood accident, cannot enjoy the same gamified life as everyone else. So on the very first night of the game, you know, you are going to the park to go meet some friends and you will see some children playing, chasing after some invisible dragons or something. Or invisible Pokémon or something, I don't know. But they are playing with stuff that is not even real physical toys now. It's in their imaginations, but those imaginations are backed-up by AR [augmented reality] now.
So this creates a disconnect, right? This character is my device to put you into the shoes of this world. I couldn't just drop you into this world as someone who is into it. I needed a device, I needed someone who is living a bit like us today, so you can put yourself into his shoes and experiment with this future, right?
I'm trying to make a sensual game, in some ways. I'm trying to recreate the sensory overload you get in a big city.
And this character feels that this world, in a way, is maybe a bit hopeless. Because nobody has any job. So sure we have universal income, which is great, but at the same time maybe the social ladder is completely broken now. There's no way to really grow up. And maybe the families that were wealthy before are still wealthy, and there is no way to have redistribution because it's completely static now. It's something I'm trying to explore.
As much as I like the idea UBI [universal basic income], I want to explore its limits or shortcomings. Maybe in a world like that, where you wake up and you don't have anything to strive for, you can experience an existential angst. And I'm trying to explore that, especially with our main character. Because he's disconnected from all that, all around him. And this frustration is making him mad, because everyone is living this gamified world.
But you're describing a not-too-far-distant future. A lot of this already does exist under our current market structure. Like, a lot of the dystopian things you're describing are already here. The UBI aspect of it… all that does is eliminate a lot of the bullshit jobs that people need distractions from.
Yeah, it's not a critique of UBI. I love the idea! It's a thing we should go for! Because with automation and the loss of jobs, I think we won't have a choice anyway. So it's a good thing anyway.
But it's not UBI alone, it's UBI combined with loss of jobs entirely. The fact that you're not the ultimate form of life on earth anymore. You're not the center of the universe anymore. We've not been created by some god. We are evolved from apes. And the next step is probably: We're not the most intelligent thing on earth anymore. And this is going to be… a bit worrying, right?
How can you strive for anything, right? You cannot create anything new or interesting because AIs are using all the social media and everything to probe what is going to work. And they can make a new series, you know? And create new trends. And they can also make them obsolete in the same week.
They are going to be so much faster than anything we can do as humans. In the future, I guess I show this trailer on stage, and in five hours there are ten games like mine. That's what's going to happen. Right now, if someone wants to do what I do, then it will take 2-3 years to catch up, right? But that's what I want to describe! In the future, how can you get any advantage? How can you compete with machine learning, basically?
So that's the situation. In a world like that I feel I can't be dogmatic if I want to make any kind of interesting contemporary work. I can't just push an agenda and say, hey, UBI is awesome right? I have to be able to explore its beauty, and some people are going to be super happy under it, and some people in the game are going to be maybe you know be enriched. Because a rich family that's had a lot of wealth, they've inherited a lot. And I've got nothing, I've just got UBI as a basis. I don't have the same power as these people who had so much capital before.
I'm not trying to dismiss UBI, I'm just trying to be critical of it.
Huxley, for instance, in a Brave New World explored the idea of this perfect world and realized of course that they are never perfect. I'm trying to explore that, right? Every time we think we reach a state of balance, maybe some stuff is still worth being angry at? I'm trying to do that. To show the appeal of trying to change this world.
For me it's also a game about the danger of being too entrenched in your dogma.
David Martinez (Publisher, Raw Fury): The other thing you were alluding to is a lot of these systems are already in place. It's interesting because I've heard this presentation now twenty times. And one thing… did you say the part about how we're already living in a cyberpunk world? It's crazy when you think about it.
Soret: Cyberpunk, we already living in it I think today. It means we have cryptocurrencies, we have a machine army, we have drones, they're delivering stuff. We have multinational corporations evading taxes. We had Snowden expose massive state surveillance. All of that is textbook cyberpunk. So we are already living in it.
So I don't think it's that interesting for me to just make a game about that. So I want to put back the future and anticipation in cyberpunk. So I wanted to go the next step, and see whats there. So the game takes place in a world where we failed to address climate change and social and political issues. The game doesn't take place... it's not Neo-Tokyo, it's not Neo-Los Angeles. I don't want to spoil it. It's a completely new city, which I feel is completely original and new. So hopefully you will see that.
In terms of the game itself, what form does your resistance take? What are you going to be doing in this game? It looks amazing, it's evocative, but what are you going to be doing in this world?
It's a great question. So what you're going to do, it's over each night, and the very first night you're free to explore and meet people, basically. It's not a power fantasy. You aren't going to get more and more powerful, get a better weapon, more health. It's more similar to Breaking Bad or a Tarantino movie. It's a spiral that's going to become worse and worse over time.
What's happening is going to be that you're going to meet some questionable characters who are going to prey on your weaknesses, and I want to use the suspension of disbelief by the player to tell them 'Don't trust everybody, and maybe don't even trust me as a game designer.'
Maybe those missions you have to do? Maybe you shouldn't. Maybe you should think about this. You don't have to do that, right? That's where it becomes interesting. For me it's also a game about the danger of being too entrenched in your dogma. And I want you to be careful about being so sure about your ideals. Especially in a world that is just incredibly confusing, there is so much noise, it is so hard to filter the truth.
Already today we are worrying about fake news and it's very hard to know what's true. Imagine a world where we can synthesize speeches, I can put words into your mouth and have footage of that, right? And if the world were like that, how do you know if someone has said something?
You're going to meet some people who are going to offer you opportunities to do whatever you want, basically. And then you're going to go into the city, and you're going to get onto the radar of criminals and maybe even the police.
So the city is going to close down on you. It's going to be like a trap. You will have less and less freedom over time. All the freedom you enjoy at the beginning, because you can move between places with taxis and monorail and ferries… at some point in the game you won't have access to these.
So I'm trying to use this space to just create a game where you're always repeating places you've been, these hubs, this city that you're a member of. You're always going out you're going to bars and restaurants and places, and then shit happens. It happens in the open world. It doesn't happen in separate levels; you're on the street and someone is like, 'Hey, let's go have a drink.'
And then someone goes into the restaurant and draws a gun on you. What do you do? This restaurant where you go every day, maybe it's going to blow up. And then it's closed forever, and maybe there were casualties, and you go there the day after and there are lots of candles and flowers there and you feel terrible about it because you know it's your fault!
So the branches react to what you're doing?
I'm trying to follow a story, because I'm still trying to bring you somewhere. You'll feel you're anchored in this world. You're not just adrift, you're not just a free agent and you can kill anybody and it's fine.
I stand completely for equality and inclusiveness. I've already stated that in the past.
What I think will be fun for the community later is to figure out, well, could I have had a gun at this particular moment earlier? Or what if I had told this person that they were coming for her before they arrived. Would it have been possible to save her?
Questions like that. I want people to explore what was possible depending on the order of things. Because we have this system in the game where every NPC in the game remembers what you do to them. We have a database of the players actions and every choice you make in the day goes into the system.
So it goes from the most mundane detail, like from the cocktail you had last time at that bar and the NPC bartender will say, "Oh yeah, you had an old fashioned the last time you were here." If you were a bit to rough or brutal with some people at the beginning, then maybe they're going to be a bit more angry at you.
Speaking of long memories and unintended consequences, let's get into what's happened with you this week. A lot of people were very keen on this game, and then U-turned on it while members of GamerGate and the alt-right have latched onto it as a cause. What's this been like, and where do you stand on all this now?
Yeah, I appreciate that you ask that because I can clarify. And I think you'll get a much better understanding of who I am and what I'm trying to do. I stand completely for equality and inclusiveness. I've already stated that in the past. You can look it up.
I'm sad that there is no… I don't have a female team member on my team, right? Because among all the hundred of applications we received from people who want to work on this game, very few women came. For me this is really sad. I want women in this industry.
It's very simple. I feel very sad. I feel terrible about bringing back all that. I know the wound is still fresh for a lot of people. And it's been—
(Pauses, visibly starting to choke-up)
I regret using the hashtag. Really. I think I could have said the same thing, still standing for journalistic integrity. Still standing for the same thing without using the hashtag.
About feminism for instance, when I said I'm against feminism… that's the thing I was coming from a European background, I was quite strong in my stances and I was just starting to navigate all these complex socio-political issues. It's not at all that I'm against the goal of feminism, which is equality right. Actually, if you take the definition of feminism, I completely stand for it and I would call myself a feminist.
The thing is, between progressive persons, we can completely strive on the same end goal and destination, but still disagree on the way to get there. And the reason I say that is, you know, yeah I grew up in the 90s. And I kind of miss when the social fights were about being united together instead of these endless divisions between gender, races, sex, and everything. I loved when we were just… when it was about unification and fighting back together.
In a way I've seen the election of Trump and Brexit and everything and… did this new strategy work, you know? Did this way of fighting for equality and everything work?
It's not that I'm against these goals. But we have the right to be critical of the way to get there. In the same way, democracy we are all for it. But we can be critical of its implementation.
How can I make any interesting, thought-provoking anticipation work if I'm dogmatic and am just pushing an agenda? People don't want my opinion when they play something, right? What they want is to experience something and make up their own mind. I'm not here to provide the keys. I'm not here to shove my opinions down your throat.
I'm here to let you experience something. And you know some of it is good and some of it is not good and some people are going to like it and some people are going to think this is a terrible dystopian society. Everybody is going to make up their own mind.
I'm trying to make that Gattaca of video games. Like sure it's cool to have kids that are not [born with birth defects] anymore, but maybe that creates other problems. And that's interesting! It's not reactionary, right? And even Wall-E, it's a movie about people becoming apathetic, and it's not exactly a right-wing movie, right? You get my point.
Anyway, yeah, I feel like those tweets were extremely misguided. Twitter doesn't lend itself real well to an in depth understanding of my mindset. And especially back then, I was a nobody, right? Three years ago, I had no idea that I was going to be in the spotlight. So when I wrote those statements, I was careless. I was not considering explaining the context of what I think.
[Note: A reader has pointed out that Soret's change of heart came well after GamerGate had peaked, and there is at least one social media post in mid-2015, almost a year after GamerGate began, where he is spreading a very ugly lie about a frequent GamerGate target. Seeing that, it's worth noting that the facts don't entirely support Soret's recollection of his relationship with GamerGate.]
Why did GamerGate appeal to you?
My own… The day when we just had so many articles about the death of the gamer identity. I knew… I don't come from America. I came to it from a European point of view. And from my side, and maybe I was in my echo chamber, but on my feed it was people just being like can you stop evaluating games on this scale of progressivism.
The Witcher for instance was attacked because because there are no black people whereas it's a game about Slavic mythology, right? Can we rate games on their qualities and a bit less on… it's really good to talk about these things, right? But maybe they should be more opinion pieces and blog posts without being games reviews. That's how I feel. That's just what I was trying to say back then.
I completely condemn any harassment, and that's why I—
That's why I stopped using the hashtag. ...I still say I stand for equality, I still stand for journalistic integrity. But using the hashtag is bad because it put me in a group and a trench that I don't want to be part of. I prefer to build bridges. Not being entrenched.
Because I think nothing good ever comes out that is interesting or positive from this trench war. That's why I started distancing myself from GamerGate. I can't accept any part in harassment. As soon as that was happening I stopped using that. I regret reopening that wound for many people who were hurt by it. I really, really do. I am working with people, at Raw Fury and everything, who have been suffering with it. And so… I saw the consequences directly. And I just feel terrible about that.
When did you start… what did you start to see that turned you away from GamerGate and NotYourShield?
When all the alt-right? When all the fringe… back then it wasn't the alt-right. But there is a fringe of people who are just here for blood, basically. And not for any interesting debate. And that's where I'm not interested anymore. And so I just left. I didn't feel the need to make a statement back then. I was nobody. I just stopped using the term. I couldn't imagine that I would get so much spotlight. I still stand for my values, but I regret what I said and especially the way some of them were written. They were incredible misleading and misguided.
I don't want people to have the wrong impression of what The Last Night is about. When I was talking about how feminism has an impact in the future… the way I said it was really bad. For me I was toying about the idea of what social movements can lead to in 50 years. There are so many themes in The Last Night that I wanted to cover, if I'm going to paint a comprehensive view of the future.
I can't accept any part in harassment. As soon as that was happening I stopped using that. I regret reopening that wound for many people who were hurt by it.
And so about feminism, the thing is, I was thinking that some feminists say the last barrier between men and women is the fact they carry children. Pregnancy. And because it makes it harder to get hired for instance. When you're pregnant you can't party, you can't drink, you can't smoke, everything gets really complicated. I understand that.
And I was thinking maybe in this future we came up with artificial wombs. Where you are free from having to carry your kid. And so then you know, cool, you can continue to do what you want. You can work, you can continue to drink or smoke if you want. That's it! I don't think it's bad or good in any way. The only thing I'm trying to say is I'm trying to imagine what could happen if I push that into the future.
[This detour confused me at the time, but I think he was explaining some of thinking that led him to arguably equating birth control with eugenics .]
And you know, I'm not passing judgment on it. And I guess you know. Yeah.
So this game, you're kind of alienated and disaffected from this society. Someone comes along and offers you the chance at rebellion. How is this positioned? Is this someone who is disaffected and gets a Tyler Durden-ish inspiration?
I get what you mean. Maybe you realize you completely misjudged some aspect of this. Maybe trying to do something for the greater good actually did a lot more harm. And maybe you can only realize that in hindsight. It can be a confusing world. It's really hard to… I'm trying to use the suspension of disbelief.
I'm trying to say don't believe everything. Don't believe me. As a game designer. I'm trying to make you do stuff that is maybe immoral, and I'm going to make you pay afterwards. I want to explore this fine line between morality, and what you believe in. I want to make a game against dogma, in a way. I feel that dogma is detrimental to any interesting clause. And that's why I'm saddened by what is happening right now in this world. All across the political spectrum.
NOTE: An earlier version of this article had Tim Soret quoted as saying he "condones" harassment. He does not. There was a mixup with his language and he said "condone" rather than "condemn" and he corrected himself a moment later. The raw transcript included that moment, but in editing it I left in "condone" and thus misrepresented what Soret's meaning. I regret the error, and the text is amended above.