I wrote long ago about Floor 13, the classic 1991 game of British crisis and cover-up, and was delighted to learn that it's recently received a contemporary re-release in the form of Floor 13: Deep State [Steam], with updated graphics, gameplay and storylines.
The task at hand is to maintain the British status quo, countering interesting evils with a banal one: you, the director-general of a shady department under the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. A strategy game centered around information gathering and decision-making, "Floor 13 was considered a bit of a strange path," designer David Eastman writes of the unsettling 1991 original, which shares much narrative DNA with its remake. "Over the years it did develop a cult audience."
Terror suspects and political troublemakers can be discreetly followed, abducted and interrogated, and their homes searched or ransacked. They can even be disappeared. Media can be fed disinformation about organizations and celebrities which pose a threat to the government or its popularity, and it is by public opinion polls that you are privately judged. What an image of the relationship between a democracy's vanities and vices!
The game is "document driven", in that play consists of reading reports, considering the clues, and then issuing orders which lead to the generation of more reports.
Despite the new subtitle, Floor 13: Deep State wisely sticks with the original's 80s'-ish UK setting, lightly updated with contemporary surveillance anachronisms, and it works well as an offkilter period piece, the cool realism of John Le Carre slowly giving way to the wild conspiracy of Dan Brown. Though driven by text, the visual context makes it feel like a drizzly nicotine-stained BBC drama, shot on video way back when. Knowledge of 1980s UK politics goes a long way, to better appreciate Floor 13's ironic scenarios and dark humor.
After writing the original (and the 1990 hit Conflict: Middle East, a simple but subtly narrative-driven strategy game) Eastman moved into a conventional development career and the idea of a sequel only came about as the 2010s unfolded and political conspiracy and chaos roared back to the fore. Prompted by old friend Geoff Foley and co-developer Shahid Ahmad, he set to work building a team to revisit what Computer Gaming World once condemned as "the most unpleasant espionage game ever made" and which was, by then, a cult classic.
"By the time the last plots came into the game 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 had been some far more serious terrorism than anything in the 90s. I didn't really have to use any fantasy based plots—although I have borrowed from some fiction."
Adds Eastman: "The plots in the game are usually from two sources, welded together via unlikely circumstances. But in these years fact has made fiction look quite timid."
In the game, the cases are a clever mix of generative text and handmade detail. You're neither plowing through randomness nor seeing the same faces on every game. Over time, pressure builds to uncover and solve problems, but solving them too crudely or hastily can result in embarassment and exposure for the government—and for you, the ultimate embarassment of being exposed to defenestration.
The unfolding universe of secrecy and political nastiness, all seen through the bureacratic filter of memos and manila folders, is intriguing. The hidden appeal of the political simulator is in blinding the player. Here is an epistemological thriller, then, focused by the lack of knowledge, the filters bureacracy creates, and its scope of action.
I struggled to get far into the game, however, because Floor 13: Deep State is also slowed by the repeating animated transitions triggered by one's actions. Reading a file means watching as it is riffled to, opened and lifted into view. Starting a new turn means watching as one arrives at work each morning, gliding past subway posters, ascending to the street and peering up at the inconspicuous yet menacing ministry building. It seems that the same procedure works best for each case, too—systematically apply every safe option, and only then pick from the risky ones—at least until things gets weird.
It is, to be fair, part of the game's coal-dark humor.
"This is my attempt at Every Day the Same Dream repetition, to slow people's thinking down. And, it is not popular," Eastman wrote. "However in the recent update, it speeds up immediately after one normal-speed run through."
Welcome to the imagined reality of isolation and misery at statecraft's darkest inflection point. All aboard!
Floor 13: Deep State [Steam]
(Following below, the full text of my Q&A with Eastman.)
BB: How did the remake come about?
EASTMAN: While my other old game Conflict: Middle East was happily received back at release (for a budget product), Floor 13 was considered a bit of a strange path. Over the years it did develop a cult audience, but nevertheless I didn't really want to repeat myself.
I wrote a design for a game called Global International Terrorist, which got only marginal interest from Virgin Games in the mid 90s – maybe a bit fortunate as it involved things like destroying the Two Towers for various terrorist groups. So I got a 'proper' job in software development.
By 2011 my friend Geoff Foley (who was a games developer back in the day too) started saying that so much had happened news wise that Floor 13 could indeed be rewritten. Shahid Ahmad, my main collaborator and friend had quit Sony and offered to produce the game if I made it. So back I came.
We had imagined the game could come out in 2013 with the obvious name change, but I took the slow dev route.
BB: What's changed since that made a remake challenging (or interesting in other respects?)
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 scene making and a front end developer (Erlend Grefsrud of Myriad fame) could build a structure. I was happy to work within a distributed team (that time I spent in industry had been useful). Shahid had immediately insisted that the game looked great – and why not? It was a menu driven game and could afford to show off some lovely art.
As for the news stories, well the world was changing fast and by the time the last plots came into the game in 2019 / 2020 the world had fallen off a cliff. I already had Trump in the game, before he became president. There were two virus plots. I introduced Brexit, of course. Obviously there had been some far more serious terrorism than anything in the 90s. I didn't really have to use any fantasy based plots (although I have borrowed from some fiction).
The plots in the game are usually from two sources, welded together via unlikely circumstances. But in these years fact has made fiction look quite timid.
BB: How did you go about melding the old Thatcher-era murk with more contemporary conspiracy vibes?
EASTMAN: So the time period of the game is murky, but it is clearly based roughly 'now' while sliding around a bit.
In the original, the state was seen to be more rigid, slow moving and closer to "Yes, Minister". There was no question that Thatcher was behind the door of No.10; in the new version there is much less emphasis on the government, instead we see pressure groups, mavericks, loners etc.
The conspiracies of today are much better known to the public; back in the 90s a conspiracy really meant a group coming together to commit some type of fraud. At a stretch, maybe take down a leader. They had to be serious people. Today, something like QAnon has been mentioned in every single media outlet even though it is raving nonsense.
BB: The mix of procedural/generative elements with handmade content seem very well done. What went into getting that just right?
EASTMAN: Fortunately, my abilities with games computing are pretty limited. I can't draw; I don't understand lighting, and my UI skills are not the best. However, I am good at lexical branching and narrative breakdown. Intertwined threads are something I could do, so I do that. I may have bitten off more than I could chew with trying to localise aspects of the system, but overall it has worked more or less as expected. This has the added bonus of making the game look good on Twitch channels, as the game is quite different on every playthrough.
BB: Can you turn off the animated transitions between scenes and actions? This is my biggest sticking point as a player.
This is my attempt at Every Day the Same Dream repetition to slow people's thinking down. And, it is not popular. However in the recent update, it speeds up immediately after one normal speed run through. I am probably annoying people with standard systems the most, who assumed that the game would not push older graphics cards – but embarrassingly it sometimes does. By next update, I may admit defeat and allow you to jump the outside bit most days.
Floor 13: Deep State [Steam]