When I was in my early teens, I would often rush home from another miserable, demoralising day at school to sit in front of Grange Hill, a television programme about children in North London having miserable and demoralising days at school. Often, in moments of crystalline clarity, the irony would hit me – and doubtless thousands of other miserable kids up and down the country: we are rushing home from school to consume more school.
It’s not that weird of course; work place culture has always provided a rich seam of simultaneously self-reflective and voyeuristic entertainment. We actively enjoy seeing our own lives distorted in the prism of art – hence TV comedies like The Office, Dinner Ladies and On The Buses, and those great aspirational movies Working Girl, Jerry MaGuire and, er, Horrible Bosses. Every Christmas, newspaper columnists rely heavily on the crutch of the office party for their comedic musings, and we all smirk – even though very few of us have actually been to one of these things and attempted to photocopy our arses while drunkenly getting off with Sheila from human resources.
Where am I going with this? I am going toward a question: why aren’t more games based in offices? Obviously, I understand why Triple A console titles don’t stray into this territory – an epic Bethesda RPG based around a small accountancy firm in Stoke isn’t going to work. But there is a rich seam of humour and intrigue to be mined by smartphone and indie developers.
Some have come close. Kairosoft’s wonderful Hot Springs and Game Dev Story titles are based in recognisable work places (we’ve all worked as hot tub salesmen at one time or another, right?), but they don’t attempt to capture the politics of office life; neither do the many office-based Japanese dating sims, which are essentially just about trying to seduce the beautiful teenage office junior. Some would say that’s exactly what office life is like in reality, but I wouldn’t, because I don’t live in the seventies.
There have also been some pretty good Facebook titles. Digital Chocolate’s Millionaire Boss and Broken Bulb’s Officie Wars both riff on the ambition and rivalry of the workplace, but they don’t really explore or simulate the mechanics of interpersonal office hell. The closest bet could well be the largely forgotten 2006 PC sim, Coffee Break in which players get to play annoying pranks on NPCs in the workplace. This game also uses fairly realistic 3D visuals, giving it a sort of office training simulation look. But I don’t know anyone who played it, so I can’t say how accurate it actually was.
I’m thinking about this now, because I’ve just seen Zooming Secretary, a homebrew NES game written by experienced console coder Shiru and artist pinwizz. It’s a classic platform puzzler, except here you’re a harassed secretary trying to answer calls and file reports while avoiding garrulous workmates. It’s sort of Diner Dash meets Donkey Kong. A lovely concept, which manages to subvert the conventions of the platform game into a quaint work setting.
Offices are where most of us spend most of our time – they are places fraught with desperation, longing and often numbing boredom: this is the stuff of the modern social game. So why don’t we see more of it?
I wonder if it’s just down to a disconnect between game development and regular office life – the office life so accurately depicted by Dolly Parton in her 1980 hit, 9-to-5. Many indie coders work from home, while those employed by large studios usually work in an environment that more closely resembles a university computer science lab than an accounts department. The average development office is 90% male, so the politics are all skewed, and people tend to want to be there – they keep long hours and drink as many energy drinks as they desire; the eight-hours-a-day culture is totally alien to them. Perhaps you have to truly understand the drudgery of pointless office routine in order to appreciate and recreate it?
Whatever, Mad Men has shown us that there is enough sex, horror and death in the workplace to sate our darkest gaming appetites. I can’t help but feel that with Facebook and smartphone gaming so embedded into our daily activities, the first developer to adequately reflect the office experience in an addictive social title will earn themselves an immediate $500m buyout from Zynga. Or at the very least a decent snog with their boss at the next Christmas party.