Tumo Center for Creative Technologies houses within its sleek modern walls a boisterous lively energy. It seems like this is the place to come up with something – a sporadic strange neuron connection, a bizarre project, an idea, anything really – and form a team to bring it to life. A quick detour before we get to talk to the creators of the EU-supported Anti-Corruption game is Yelling Animation Studio, where I’m introduced to a peculiar pet, a Madagascar hissing cockroach which quickly lives up to its name. The walls of the studio are covered in colourful attributes of clay animation, and the jewel of the collection is a huge cake that blinks and eats light blue cupcakes when you spin it into endless repetition – the Studio’s gift for TUMO’s fifth year anniversary.
When we get to the room designated for the Anti-Corruption game team, I can’t help but feel the sense of something monumental ending and, maybe, beginning. With only a few days before the game’s official launch on App Store and Play Market on International Anti-Corruption Day, December 9th, the “To-Do/Being Done/Done” list on the blackboard has only a few items left.
It wasn’t like this during the project inception, the team members say, it used to be hectic. Vardan Kemechechyan, the Lead Game Developer says,
“After about two years of working on the “Tales of Neto,” it’s similar to the emptiness one feels after a good book or a movie ends. It’s almost like we’ve been living on the planet we created.”
The game was designed to talk directly to and exactly like its target audience, and children, of course, see everything differently or simply better, with more hope.
“The adults can get so pessimistic and depressive. They accept corruption as something inevitable. We’ve tried to encourage children’s active participation in creating change,” Vardan says. “We’ve set the game up, so the protagonist, Sevan, is in the same position as the children: he isn’t himself involved in any corrupt schemes, but he sees the impact of corruption all around him and on him. He isn’t a direct participant, but he tries to solve those issues. The game starts with Sevan fishing in a contaminated pond, and while trying to solve one problem he encounters bigger and more complex problems, finding out how intertwined and ever-changing corruption is.”
Though there are little nods and hints to Armenian reality – the name Sevan, the “dolma” and “ghapama” listed as his stepdad Smbat’s favorite dishes – the creators say the game is not about Armenia’s corruption, but corruption in general.
“Doing research – and we’ve done a lot of research – we were surprised to find corruption types that seemed “Armenian” to us in other parts of the world, say in South Korea. It’s a common syndrome that easily spreads even without any explicit connections. It’s like the flu, which you can get anywhere. In the game we often say “you cured corruption,” instead of saying fought or destroyed it, because that’s how we see it. A good environment for the illness to develop is isolation. In fact, our game’s planet Neto becomes corrupt in part as a result of isolation: when neighbouring planets break contact with it, it becomes easier to abuse power,” Vardan says.
The current version of the game is available in Armenian and English, but the creators see the potential to make it available in other languages in the future depending on feedback. After the launch they plan to work with schools and universities to promote the game or even to organize special classes dedicated to anti-corruption. The difficult question of whether an individual can make a change simply by personal choice that snowballs into social impact gets an answer in the old-fashioned way: it is not merely about the choices the next generation makes individually, but about its representatives uniting with peers to cure corruption on the systemic level. “Tales of Neto” also seems to reveal the many layers of corruption and conflicts of interest it causes. Sevan’s grandfather, for example, is a scientist which has a factory set up on the lake. Now can the important scientific progress offset the environmental damage done to the lake? A question of relativity.
All quandaries and political education aside, “Tales of Neto” is an exciting and stylish game with an elaborate storyline. There’s Sevan’s stepdad with “curly dark hair full of love” and “shorts full of laughter.” There’s the elegant ghost who’s “definitely not going to die again” because “coming back is too annoying.” There’s Sevan’s dead grandfather who used to be quite popular with the ladies in his youth and a prog-rock-rap-metal-pop-folk-electro-indie-punk band called “Justice” with a band member who “once spent a year living her life as three baby penguins.” The enthusiasm the team members have for the project is easily to explain: almost all of them are previous or current TUMO students trying their hand at game creation for the first time. Everything that comes with it – the creative disorder, the cardboard cut-outs of characters, Sevan’s wizard hat, all the trivial details of world-creation, made-up weird backstories, and the actual physical copy of Neto planet’s “Bible” – are merely tokens of the first steps into the coordinated madness that is creation.