Say hello to Off Grid, a game about privacy in the digital age

Off Grid is a game about privacy in the digital age. Which means it’s also a game about the presence of an absence.

This paradox at the heart of Off Grid became clear even as Rich Metson and I were trying to work out a time to talk about his team’s game. Our conversation—planned on Google’s servers, executed on Microsoft’s, zapped across the Atlantic by fiber optic cables owned by Comcast and Xilo—wouldn’t have been possible without the very technologies that Off Grid expresses serious concerns about.

I mention this to Metson.

“Our root notion was to try and physicalize it, to make data into something manipulable…” 

“What’s funny is I’m not a privacy nut,” he said. “I’m not the kind of guy who only communicates via PGP encrypted email or whatever.” In fact, it wasn’t until 2011, when he tagged along to INET with a friend, that Metson first started thinking critically about digital privacy as a public concern. He heard a talk by Eben Moglen—a lawyer and digital privacy advocate—which planted the seed that would take root as Off Grid.

Because Metson depends on a lot of the services that define many of our digital lives—Gmail, Skype, Twitter, etc.—he brings a uniquely average perspective to the digital privacy conversation. Off Grid isn’t some paranoid manifesto published on the Deep Web by a hacker who buys all his food with Bitcoin. The way Metson sees it, Off Grid’s raison d’etre is to get average internet users to think more critically about the data that they reveal and create about themselves as they’re browsing pictures of Lil Bub.

“We really wanted people to start thinking about what data is,” Metson explains. “Our root notion was to try and physicalize it, to make data into something manipulable, something that people would be able to go and play with and see as a thing you can walk around.” The way Metson describes it, data points from characters’ digital lives follow them like breadcrumbs, showing where they’re going, where they’ve been. They hunt at their weaknesses and their motives. It’s up to the player to put that data to use to affect the other characters and advance through the environment.

For example, every time a security guard receives a text message, it leaves a little waypoint behind. The player can then read the content of the message (e.g. “Come up to the 7th floor.”) and modify it at a guards’ terminal to reassign their routes (“jk 8th”).

“The data is the thing you have to use to navigate the level and solve puzzles,” Metson says. As a matter of principle, there are no weapons in Off Grid. Unlike, say, Metal Gear Solid, where the illusion of obligatory stealthiness can be broken by the report of a rifle, data is the only weapon the player has in Off Grid. Metson laughed, “It’s more Hack’n’Slash than Watch_Dogs.”

Metson and the other half of Semaeopus Ltd., Pontus Schönberg, have built the game from the ground up with these design principles in mind. “When we first came up with the idea of talking about data privacy, we got straight into the notion that, mechanics-wise, a stealth game is the best way you can talk about what is and what isn’t secret. But one of the major flaws of any stealth game you play is that, as you’re playing, you do your best to stealth around, but when you eventually get discovered, you run around until the four people who’ve discovered you follow you into a small room and you massacre them all. Then everyone forgets about it, and you get back to crawling around as if nothing happened. If this really was a crack security team, one man down is enough to go into high alert forever, not four minutes.” By weaponizing NPCs’ data instead of giving the player the traditional stealth arsenal, Off Grid shows players just how dangerous the pieces of ourselves we leave all over the web can be.

Off Grid takes a satirical approach to the Big Brother problems that Snowden uncovered, and even the Snowden narrative itself. 

Having this conversation in 2014, the elephant in the room is Edward Snowden. I was surprised to learn that Off Grid predates Snowden and Greenwald’s revelations by a few months, having started development in March of 2013. “In those few months prior to the first revelations, we really struggled to explain to anyone why what we were doing with Off Grid was important or would be interesting to them. There wasn’t really a point of reference. Then, almost overnight, Snowden gave everyone the vocabulary to talk about this thing, and all of a sudden people just got it, like ‘Oh, you’re making a game about that!’ Which, yeah, now we are.”

Off Grid takes a satirical approach to the Big Brother problems that Snowden uncovered, and even the Snowden narrative itself. “Our tonal point of reference is Brazil. Sometimes it’s easier to get at big problems through satire rather than dour on-the-nose interpretations.” The demo level that the team has assembled takes place in the offices of a major investigative newspaper not at all unlike The Guardian, which published the Snowden leaks last June.

This mission has the player navigate to a reporter’s computer to offload some sensitive files before they’re destroyed, dramatizing a rather hard-headed attempt by the British government to destroy some of the early Snowden documents. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist Snowden partnered with, had read many of the files from his MacBook, though they were stored on servers all over the world. Taking the eminently British approach of getting what they came for, UK intelligence officers showed up to The Guardian’s offices and mashed Greenwald’s computer, brushed off their hands, and left, having done precisely nothing to destroy the files they’d come to erase. This almost perfectly encapsulates the danger technical illiteracy poses today. When the people responsible for protecting data related to national security take this (literally) ham-fisted approach to data privacy, our collective lack of concern about privacy makes a lot more sense: Most of us don’t know how it works, so we don’t care.

As Off Grid shows, that’s a dangerous attitude. Metson hopes the game will help continue the conversation that Snowden brought to the public—and that Off Grid anticipated—when it releases sometime next year.