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Road To The IGF: Brinson And ValaNejad's  The Cat And The Coup

Road To The IGF: Brinson And ValaNejad's The Cat And The Coup

February 15, 2011 | By Kris Graft

February 15, 2011 | By Kris Graft
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[As part of a series of "Road to the IGF" interviews with 2011 IGF finalists, Gamasutra speaks with Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad about the mesmerizing 2011 IGF Nuovo Award nominee The Cat and the Coup.]

The developers behind The Cat and the Coup describe the title as "a documentary game in which you play the cat of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran."

That unique premise along with a mesmerizing art style helped make the game a finalist for the Independent Game Festival's 2011 Nuovo Award, which recognizes games that are "abstract, shortform, authorial, unconventionally fun and meaningful."

The Cat and the Coup is developed by Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad, who are professors at USC's Game Innovation Lab. Players control a house cat which "coaxes" Mossadegh through significant parts of his embattled life, including when he was overthrown in a coup engineered by the CIA.

Here, game director Brinson and designer ValaNejad explain how they developed the premise behind the game, the inspiration behind the art style and what they expect players to take away from this "documentary game."

How long has your team been working on The Cat and the Coup?

Peter Brinson: It all started April 2007. No one on the team is full time on the project, to say the least, which means production has not moved quickly. But there is value to spending more hours pondering a project than developing it. I think all artists think about their projects in the shower, on the road, and at work, which gave us a chance to consider many directions.

How did you come up with the concept for the game? It's interesting to say the least.

PB: In college I had made a couple of videos about dismayed people and their cats. These projects were introspective and sort of autobiographical. Years later I felt ready to make a "cat game," but by then I was a different artist. I was now more interested in the world around me, including U.S. foreign policy and history.

By 2007, Americans had been talking about democracy in the Middle East for years, and how we went to war to for the sake of democracy in the Middle East. When I learned about Mohammed Mossadegh, a Western-educated, secular, democratic leader in Iran, I realized he was an important person for Americans to know about.

Our reactions to foreign democratic efforts is quite revealing, and it makes the current wars seem like a case of having no historical memory whatsoever.

Why use a cat?

PB: A key experience in the game is understanding who you -- the player -- is in this story. I think many of us wonder what our own cats are thinking and what they really value about us as owners. Do they really care for us or are we just a source of food and shelter?

Short games depend on efficiently drawing on themes from culture, and players start The Cat and the Coup with personal preconceptions of cats and their owners.

Do you think this challenges the definition of a "game"? Is that something that crossed your mind? Does it even matter?

Kurosh ValaNejad: In the 80s, when I first started using computers for graphics (CG), I remember similar discussions about the word "art." At the time, many artists and institutions didn't accept CG -- claiming it lacked the soul and archival quality of analog art.

Today of course, CG is embraced; artists paint on iPads, and museums acquire websites for their permanent collections. I imagine the definition of "game" will evolve in a similar, but hopefully quicker, way.

What was the inspiration behind the game's art style?

KV: The look of The Cat and the Coup is based on Persian miniatures, which are broadly comparable to illuminated manuscripts. Its general aesthetic principal, whereby all the empty spaces are filled, provides opportunity for story embellishment.

Because of their intricate detail, Persian miniatures are sometimes explored with a magnifying glass. The game encourages similar investigation. When the cat pauses, the camera slowly pushes in towards points of embedded drama. Some of the playfulness of this game is in reading between the lines to decode the narrative.

Persian miniatures became a significant art form in the 13th century before artists understood the rules of perspective drawing. The impossible architecture they illustrated is similar to orthographic and isometric projections that are typically used in platformers.

Persian miniatures are fascinating in their ability to represent spatial complexities which also allow bigger questions to emerge about the perception of history. The Cat and the Coup capitalizes on the many affordances of Persian miniatures from within their cultural context, and hopes to engender an appreciation for this graphic narrative device.

What did you intend the player to get out of The Cat and the Coup?

KV: Our user-testing shows young American students (our primary target audience) want to know more about the game's topic after playing The Cat and the Coup. For us, that makes this project a success.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

PB: The current indie scene is awesome. I think of indie games as projects from independently-minded developers. There are no doubt mainstream titles that are more compelling than some independently funded games, so the financial take on the indie scene is not interesting to me.

But concerning the indie spirit, clearly, not being concerned about pleasing a gargantuan audience positively affects the work. Lots of people are making games these days who place a goal of making out-of-the-ordinary experiences as their highest priority, with a profit motive and a need to please everyone way down the list. It's great.

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