Espionage and Cutouts

INTERVIEW. Game director Trine Laier's 'Cosmic Top Secret' delves into her parents' past as secret agents during the Cold War. The documentary game format pulls the player into a playful intelligence process activating the body, senses and mind. IDFA Doclab Competition for Digital Storytelling 2017

As a child, Trine Laier had no idea what her parents did for a living. She only knew it was top secret and involved national security. When she got older, she found out that they were secret agents for the Danish Defence Intelligence Service (DDIS) during the Cold War.

What exactly did they do, the game director asks in her documentary, autobiographical adventure game, 'Cosmic Top Secret.' The player helps Laier's character, T, unravel her parents' roles as agents, in the process shedding light on intelligence methods used in the Cold War.

"My character is a ball of paper rolling and bouncing along in the game. The ball might come apart if my character feels bad."

- Trine Laier

The story consumed Laier both personally and as a piece of cultural history.

"I think it's important to deal with our baggage, on the intimate level of your immediate family and in the broader context of Danish history, in this case the Cold War and the relationship between East and West. What's worth passing on to our children and future generations?

"I tried to explore that by telling my own story within the greater historical context," Laier says.

Briefing by a Retired Colonel

Laier's parents were onboard with her project from the get-go. They wanted to tell their story, but they were bound by their oath of secrecy. In turn, Laier called the DDIS and requested a so-called declassification briefing for her parents.

'Cosmic Top Secret' by Trine Laier. Photo: Klassefilm/Those Eyes

"I figured maybe all their work wasn't classified, so why not call up and ask? That caught both my parents and the DDIS a bit by surprise. The DDIS had never received an inquiry like that before. But it worked out. My parents went to a briefing with a retired colonel who told them what they could talk about," Laier says.

Then the work began of interviewing and filming her parents and delving into DDIS documents in the National Archives.

"That was a fun stage, because we had to learn to talk with each other in a new way. They had to get used to the fact that it was okay now to discuss certain topics."

The Main Character? A Crumpled Ball of Paper

'Cosmic Top Secret' began as Laier's graduation project in the animation programme at the National Film School of Denmark in 2012. Later, she continued to develop both the story and the form.

"I was especially concerned with making the mechanics interact with the story. As an example, my character is a ball of paper rolling and bouncing along in the game. The ball might come apart if my character feels bad. You have to use that actively to figure out how to advance in the game," Laier says.

'Cosmic Top Secret' by Trine Laier. Photo: Klassefilm/Those Eyes

The game's visual style combines 2D and 3D animation in a collage-like stage-set world, where everything is made from cardboard and paper. Documentary material like film clips, interviews and archival photos open up curious details and colourful anecdotes. There is a naïve, cutout feel to the style. This is also the case with the avatar, T, which is a picture of Laier with cartoon eyes and a red mouth.

"The collagey look added lightness and a sense of cutting out the characters and playing with them. It's very important for me to leave room for fun little details and have the game simulate that making the game itself was like play. You should want to be in the game, and it should feel like play, not like a dusty Cold War documentary," Laier says.

The Body and the Senses Come into Play

Laier always knew that she would be telling her story in this format. She loves to play games and thought her investigation would work well as a game. Games have a huge potential for communicating documentary material, she believes.

"In a game, you can choose how much time you want to spend in the different parts of the game, and how much to explore. 'Cosmic Top Secret' includes a wealth of bonus material you can dive into. If you have a particular interest in, say, the history of Women's Auxiliary Air Force or DASK, Denmark's first computer, which my dad used to run calculations, you can spend time finding out about that. You get to design your own experience."

"The game also includes challenges where you have to use your gut feeling, your hands and your brain to solve puzzles or jump. Games have potential that way to activate the body and the senses in a different way than films"

'Cosmic Top Secret' by Trine Laier. Photo: Klassefilm/Those Eyes

About the game

'Cosmic Top Secret' is directed by Trine Laier and produced by Lise Saxtrup for Klassefilm, with production support from the Danish Film Institute's Games Scheme. A broad release is expected in early 2018.

It has already won awards at international game festivals – in 2016, at A MAZE in Berlin, and in 2017, at IndieCade in Los Angeles.

Screening at IDFA 2017 (15-26 November) in the Doclab Competition for Digital Storytelling.

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