It's PMQs -- the video game

A turn-based battle with odd-looking men . . . has been turned into a game.

PMQs

You might have heard people saying that politicians treat Prime Minister's Questions like a game. Now, you can, too! Mark Richards of Pixel Politics has created PMQs, a text adventure where you duel with competing wild accusations and attempts to blame the previous administration. It even features the dulcet tones of John Bercow.

What's your day job?

I don't have a day job. I'm a graduate seeking employment. PMQs is part of what I'm doing at the moment as work on my portfolio; I'm hoping eventually to get a job in the games industry.

How did you get into games design?

I must have been about 14 when I decided to start designing games. That was when I began to play games with stories and characters that the player could really invest in. I didn't decide it was the career for me, however, whether independently or in the mainstream industry, until I started loathing my degree about a year ago. I talk about what inspired me to start developing adventure-driven games using Adventure Game Studio (the engine PMQs was built with) in an article I wrote for A Hardy Developer's Journal.

What was the idea behind PMQs: the Game?

The idea came directly out of what I was doing with Pixel Politics. I had really enjoyed doing retro video game-style caricatures of political figures and, one day, it just occurred to me that Prime Minister's Questions is a real-life turned based battle, like those bits from the old Pokemon games. The game also happened not to be the straightforward, easy-to-script adventure game format I was used to, so it provided a nice challenge in terms of coding.

How long did it take to make?

It is pretty difficult to pin down how long it took before I was developing it in fits and starts during my final year at university. I suppose it took a few months, maybe. It was a relatively short project.

What were your influences?

As I've already mentioned, definitely "those bits from the old Pokemon games". The HP bars are a mix of all the role-playing games I have played with a hint of fighting games like Street Fighter. The biggest influence, though, of course, is politics. I am obsessed with the drama and image side of politics and Prime Minister's Questions embodies all of that perfectly. I suppose it wouldn't be inaccurate to say I made the game just to use the line "I lead my party; he follows his!"

What do you think of PMQs -- valuable democratic check or juvenile shouting match?

This has been the most-discussed issue since I released the game and, funnily enough, I did not intend for it to be. I made the game purely because Prime Minister's Questions could be squashed nicely into a standard game mechanic and I thought I could make it quite funny.

As a direct response, I would say this: I admit the pantomime of it all is silly and the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition do end up exchanging scripted insults but Prime Minister's Questions is a very important part of holding a government to account in the public eye for a couple of reasons. First, the PM has to be fully briefed for the event and this means he knows what's going on in his own government. Second, it gets all the parties in one room to face each other on the issues of that time and, most importantly, their differences are made public. At least then they are not able to pretend the other does not exist.

As the for the shouting-match issue: the Commons is a small room, so it must be pretty terrifying. Surely the PM should be terrified at his weekly public trial, rather than relaxed?

Are there any other political games out there people might not be aware of?

There are a few but I would be lying if I said I had played them all. Politics-based games hardly occupy a saturated market and people should certainly make more of them.

What's next for you?

I do have another political game planned out but next on the list is a short, quirky platform game. Hopefully, I will be using the release of that to launch my indie games studio, for which I have had the logos and blog prepared and sitting around for a while, now. It will be nice to get that up and running and to have all my projects under one banner. Oh yeah, sorting a job out would be great, too. One can hope!

You can download PMQs here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses