Review / Floor 13: Deep State
I wrote a long time ago about Floor 13, the classic 1991 British cover-up and crisis game, and I was delighted to learn that it recently received a contemporary re-release in the form of Floor 13: Deep State [Steam], with updated graphics, gameplay and stories.
The task at hand is to maintain the British status quo, counteracting interesting evils with a banal one: you, CEO of a shady department under the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. A strategy game focused on gathering information and making decisions, “Floor 13 was considered a bit of a strange path,” writes designer David Eastman of the haunting 1991 original, which shares a lot of narrative DNA with its remake. “Over the years, he developed a cult audience.”
Terrorism suspects and political rioters can be quietly followed, kidnapped and interrogated, and their homes searched or ransacked. They can even disappear. The media can receive disinformation about organizations and celebrities who pose a threat to the government or its popularity, and it is public opinion polls that judge it privately. What an image of the relationship between the vanities and the vices of a democracy!
The game is “document-based”, in which the game consists of reading reports, considering clues, and then issuing commands that lead to the generation of more reports.
Despite the new subtitle, Floor 13: Deep State It wisely sticks to the original ’80s British setting, slightly updated with contemporary surveillance anachronisms, and works well as a misplaced period piece, John Le Carre’s genius realism slowly giving way to Dan Brown’s savage conspiracy. Although driven by the text, the visual context makes it feel like a nicotine-stained BBC drama, shot on video long ago. Knowledge of British politics from the 1980s is very helpful in better appreciating the tongue-in-cheek settings and dark humor of Floor 13.
After writing the original (and the 1990 hit Conflict: Middle East, a simple yet subtly narrative strategy game) Eastman moved into a mainstream development career and the idea for a sequel only emerged as the 2010s unfolded and political conspiracy and mayhem raged again. Fueled by his longtime friend Geoff Foley and co-developer Shahid Ahmad, he set to work building a team to review what World of computer games once condemned as “the most disgusting spy game ever made” and which, by then, was a cult classic.
“By the time the last plots came into play in 2019/2020, the world had fallen off a cliff,” Eastman wrote in an email. “I already had Trump in the game, before he became president. There were two virus plots. I introduced Brexit, of course. Obviously there was terrorism much more serious than anything else in the 90s. I really didn’t have to use it. any argument based on fantasy, although I have borrowed some fiction. “
Eastman adds: “The storylines in the game generally come from two sources, linked through unlikely circumstances. But in these years the facts have made the fiction seem quite timid.”
In the game, the cases are a clever mix of generative text and handcrafted details. You are not navigating randomness or seeing the same faces in every game. Over time, the pressure to uncover and solve problems increases, but solving them too crudely or in a hurry can result in embarrassment and exposure for the government, and for you, the ultimate embarrassment of being exposed to defenestration.
The unfolding universe of secrecy and political evil, all seen through the bureaucratic filter of memos and manila folders, is intriguing. The hidden appeal of the political simulator is to blind the player. Here is an epistemological thriller, then, focused on the lack of knowledge, the filters created by the bureaucracy, and its scope.
I struggled to get far in the game though, because Floor 13: Deep State it is also slowed down by repeated animated transitions triggered by one’s actions. Reading a file means observing how it is browsed, opened, and displayed. Starting a new shift means watching one get to work each morning, gliding past the subway signs, walking up the street, and looking at the low-key but threatening ministry building. It seems that the same procedure also works best for each case: systematically apply all the safe options and only then choose from the riskiest ones, at least until things get weird.
It’s, to be fair, part of the game’s coal-black humor.
“This is my attempt to Every day the same dream repetition, to slow down people’s thinking. And it’s not popular, “wrote Eastman.” However, in the recent update, it accelerates immediately after a normal speed run. “
Welcome to the imagined reality of isolation and misery at the darkest tipping point of statecraft. All aboard!
Floor 13: Deep State [Steam]
(The full text of my Q&A with Eastman follows.)
BB: How did the remake come about?
EASTMAN: While my other old game, Conflict: Middle East, was happily received at launch (for a budget product), Floor 13 was deemed a bit of a weird path. Over the years, he developed a cult audience, but nonetheless, I really didn’t want to repeat myself.
I wrote a design for a game called Global International Terrorist, which garnered only marginal interest from Virgin Games in the mid-90s, maybe a bit lucky as it involved things like destroying the Two Towers for various terrorist groups. So I got a “proper” job in software development.
In 2011, my friend Geoff Foley (who was also a game developer at the time) started saying that so much news had happened that Floor 13 could be rewritten. Shahid Ahmad, my main collaborator and friend, had left Sony and offered to produce the game if he succeeded. So I came back.
We had imagined that the game could come out in 2013 with the obvious name change, but I took the slow development route.
BB: What has changed since you made a remake challenging (or interesting in other ways?)
EASTMAN: So the first thing that made the game possible was Unity. It allowed me to program a back-end, while serious artists (Bismuth Works) could get on with creating scenes and a front-end developer (Myriad fame’s Erlend Grefsrud) could build a structure. I was happy to work within a distributed team (that time spent in the industry had been helpful). Shahid had immediately insisted that the game looked great, and why not? It was a menu-driven game and it could afford to display some lovely art.
As for the news, well, the world was changing rapidly and by the time the latest storylines hit the game in 2019/2020, the world had fallen off a cliff. He already had Trump in the game, before he became president. There were two virus patches. I presented Brexit, of course. Obviously, there was terrorism much more serious than anything else in the 1990s. I didn’t really have to use any fantasy-based plots (although I have borrowed from some fiction).
The plots in the game generally come from two sources, welded together through unlikely circumstances. But in these years, reality has made fiction seem quite shy.
BB: How did you manage to fuse the old Thatcher-era darkness with more contemporary conspiracy vibes?
EASTMAN: So the time period of the game is murky, but clearly it is roughly based on “now” as it slides a bit.
In the original, the state looked stiffer, slower, and closer to “Yes, Minister.” There was no doubt that Thatcher was behind the door of number 10; in the new version there is much less emphasis on the government, instead we see pressure groups, nonconformists, loners, etc.
Today’s conspiracies are much better known to the public; Back in the 90s, a conspiracy actually meant that a group came together to commit some kind of fraud. In a stretch, maybe take down a leader. They had to be serious people. Today something like QAnon has been mentioned in all the media even though it is delusional nonsense.
BB: The mix of procedural / generative elements with artisan content seems very well done. What did it take to get it right?
EASTMAN: Fortunately, my gaming computing skills are quite limited. I can not draw; I don’t understand lighting and my UI skills are not the best. However, I am good at lexical branching and narrative breakdown. Interlocking threads is something I could do, so I do. You may have bitten off more than you could chew when trying to locate aspects of the system, but overall it has worked more or less as expected. This has the added benefit of making the game look good on Twitch channels, as the game is quite different in every match.
BB: Can you turn off the animated transitions between scenes and actions? This is my biggest stumbling block as a player.
This is my attempt to repeat the same dream every day to slow down people’s thinking. And it is not popular. However, in the recent update, it accelerates immediately after a normal speed run. I’m probably the most annoying folks with standard systems, who assumed the game wouldn’t push older graphics cards, but embarrassingly sometimes it does. In the next update, I can admit defeat and allow him to skip the outside part most days.
Floor 13: Deep State [Steam]