Do Not Feed the Monkeys preys on the fear that drives people to put tape over their webcams. In it, you’re tapped into surveillance cameras that spy on different locations and people going about their lives. But developer Fictiorama Studios did not necessarily mean to make it dark or dystopian. The studio describes it as a “digital voyeur simulator” that lets you peek into other lives and sometimes affect them. It’s slated for a PC release in early 2018 with possible console versions to come in the future.
I was a bit disturbed but intrigued when I played the demo at Double Fine’s Day of the Devs indie game showcase last weekend. I was a part of the Primate Observation Club, a shadowy organization that gives its members access to cameras all over the world. In return, members have to help grow its system of mass surveillance, buying a certain number of new cameras by the end of the month to renew their memberships. Each camera is referred to as a “cage”; the unwitting people in them are “monkeys.” As the name of the game implies, the club insists that its members don’t interact with the monkeys at all but remain silent observers.
“There are all kinds of stories in the game,” said Fictiorama cofounder Luis Oliván. “The cages tell stories – not all of them, but lots of the cages tell stories. And of course there are more dramatic cages. There are some fun cages, some horror and sci-fi cages. But it’s not supposed to be dark and disturbing. If it is, it’s in a light, fun way.”
Oliván and his two brothers Mario and Alberto started Fictiorama. They’re based in Madrid and Do Not Feed the Monkeys is their second title. Their first, Dead Synchronicity, is a post-apocalyptic point-and-click adventure that Oliván tells me is quite grim. They wanted to get away from that, though, and took a more lighthearted approach to their latest game.
Do Not Feed the Monkeys has an innocuous retro pixel art aesthetic, but it’s rather bleak when you dig into it. I was deep in a rabbit hole of obsession, sinking all my resources into my voyeuristic hobby. I could click between two screens: the computer and the rest of the apartment, where I could answer the door, sleep, eat, and take odd jobs to earn money. When I wasn’t spying on people, I had to maintain my health and earn money to purchase cameras and groceries as well as pay rent.
That’s not to say that the game wasn’t fun. It was a little too fun.
“In the game you can make decisions about how you’re going to interact with the monkeys,” said Oliván. “It’s fun, because we’ve seen some people on the edge of making some bad decision or good decision, and they’re thinking about it, because they know it’s going to have consequence. Some of the choices you make can close off different stories.”
In one of the cameras, a woman is spying on a famous actress who lives across the street from her. She takes incriminating photos and plans to sell them for money. You can decide what you want to do with that information. Clicking on objects on the screen marks them down as notes in your handy journal, and you can use an in-game web browser to sleuth for clues. Once you have enough information, then it’s time to make a decision: Do you turn her in to the authorities? Do you blackmail her for her illicit activities? Do you blackmail her and the actress? You make the decision knowing full well that you’re breaking one of the cardinal rules of the Primate Observation Club: do not feed the monkeys.
Oliván says they were inspired in part by Insecam, a fascinating though paranoia-inducing website that enables you watch real-time security camera footage from all around the world.
“It’s really scary. It’s terrifying,” said Oliván. “But when we saw it, it was like, wow, there is a game here. Someone has to make this game, so let’s have it be us.”
Fictiorama spent some time tweaking the mechanics and going back and forth between the gameplay and narrative, developing them side by side. The core of the game, though, are the stories that it tells. One camera is situated in a museum exhibit featuring an Egyptian bust. It’s illuminated with a bright spotlight and roped off from the crowds of people who come to view it. Seeing it automatically makes you wonder: When’s someone going to come and try to steal this? What’s going to happen? Each of the cameras has a different hook and highlights varying aspects of the world.
“There are lots of different stories, and then there’s an overarching story, which is the story of the avatar themselves, the decisions they make, and the world the avatar is living in,” said Oliván. “The game gives you information about the government, the president of the country, the economic situation, the crazy startups that are being created all the time, the poverty of the people. It gives you information about this complex world as well.”