I had the privilege of interviewing Dave Proctor, creative director at Mighty Yell, about The Big Con. Launching this week, The Big Con has inventive designs on the point and click adventure genre and set in a pop and nostalgia version of the 90s. Proctor indulged many of my big questions: about the benefits of partnering with ID@Xbox, the various game designs that inspired his studio and the unique challenges presented by writing to a specific decade.
“I always wanted to work on a con artist game,” says Dave Proctor when describing why Mighty Yell studio pursued their development of The Big Con. “The idea of hustling, grifting, con artistry, I always thought […] would work well in an adventure game setting.”
The Big Con casts players as Ali, who like many young teens in high concept comedies of the late 20th century, has a big mission. Hers is to save a struggling video store. It’s not quite the Last Blockbuster, but it’s her family’s video store. So she hooks up with the local con artist, really the only person she knows to turn to when it comes to making a quick buck.
So much of the collective pop culture’s memory of the 90s is leveraged into the aesthetics (and the marketing) of The Big Con. It’s something that couldn’t help but come up in questions I sent for interview. I just had to ask about striking that balance between fond whimsy and the reality of the decade. Of that balance, Proctor says, “None of the nostalgia is so deep that you require an almanac to understand our jokes, but the game is still grounded in real 90s experiences.” Its evident in the material reality of The Big Con’s cartoon sitcom world. “Land lines and payphones, no internet, collectible plush toys, we wanted to bring the spectre of the 90s without hitting you over the head with it.”
Ultimately, the team at Mighty Yell leaned into the 90s references at the pre-production stage and the planning of environments rather than at the writing and content creation phase. “It’s better to make a world that reminds us of an era than to tell a story specifically laden with references to that era.” It’s an apt sentiment, deftly cutting down on the risk of stray lines invoking references that are too specific. “The jokes, the stories, the subquests, these are all existing IN the 90s world, not the other way around.”
““It’s better to make a world that reminds us of an era than to tell a story specifically laden with references to that era. The jokes, the stories, the subquests, these are all existing IN the 90s world, not the other way around.”
That being said, fewer genres are so 90s as the point and click graphic adventure. Its the decade when the genre had its heyday. A decade that began with Conquests of Camelot: The Search for the Grail and LOOM, and ended with Grim Fandango and Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned. One would think that this entire decade informs The Big Con on a gameplay level, but other more unlikely influences come into play. Proctor cites immersive sims like Hitman or Dishonored as among them with their “promise to ‘say yes’ to the player when they want to try something.”
Proctor also name checks the aforementioned LOOM, the lesser known older sibling to the legendary The Secret of Monkey Island. “[It] allowed a bit more player expression in terms of what you could use spells on.” 2017’s Night in the Woods gets cited as well: “The way that you can just sink into that game and interact with everyone to your hearts content, how deep you let yourself get lost in their conversations and what those conversations open up for you – that was a really eye opening experience for me.”
Perhaps the most off-beat inspiration for Proctor and his team is Metal Gear Solid. The way a character could die and not come back as the outcome of a key scene impressed upon them the ways that a single small observation of consequence can be so powerful. “I’ve always been in awe of it. I wanted to write hundreds of tiny things like that, but not depressing. In a story that makes you feel empowered for making choices, something that gives you agency.”
Of course, The Big Con doesn’t have nearly that same intensity. There are no psycho mantises or sniper wolves, at least none that I know of. But The Big Con is designed to explore the same kind of consequentialism in a different but still meaningful way. Proctor describes it as, “a story that makes you laugh but watches what you are doing.” So while you won’t be physically hurting anyone in The Big Con, there are outcomes that differ depending on who you steal from. “We always try to give the player more than one way to solve a problem, and in that is also an allowance for them to weigh who gets their wallet stolen. I think in the end this kind of consideration made a more interesting game.”
“We always try to give the player more than one way to solve a problem, and in that is also an allowance for them to weigh who gets their wallet stolen. I think in the end this kind of consideration made a more interesting game.”
Pretty sure that if we had a separate conversation entirely about inspiring game designs, we’d be printing another thousand words here. But I have other questions for Proctor. like to what extent The Big Con’s celebrity voice performers informed the final release. Take Erika Ishii, who by the time the 90s ended was still a preteen, and likely had a very different experience and memory of it than those who were in their teens or twenties.
“To be honest, there’s not a ton of voice lines in the game,” Proctor clarifies for me. “The humor in bringing mega talents on was a big part of our voice actor promo.” But he adds that Ishii had a huge impact on how the lines have been read and interpreted. “Her natural energy, her voice, all of it fits the tone we’ve envisioned for Ali since day one. She also hits certain things with levels of excitement that you can’t in writing. The way she says “Rad” or the heat she gives Ali’s angry growl, that stuff was pure Erika, and brings a whole new dimension to the character.”
Dave Fennoy brought so much real word coolness to Ali’s imaginary (!) friend Rad Ghost, says Proctor. Rad Ghost gives a little bit of perspective and assistance to Ali in deciding what to do next. “Sometimes of course, he just pumps you up and tells you how cool you are. Couldn’t we all use a friend like that?” Fennoy ad libbed many flourishes to the character, adding things like “Aw yeah” and “That’s me baby!” to his lines. “Our audio director Robby and I [were] holding our sides with laughter. I hope people enjoy his performance half as much as we did.”
One final line of inquiry I have for Proctor is about the game’s partnership with ID@Xbox. “The support of a platform, and a big indie-loving platform like ID@Xbox means that we have opportunities,” Proctor says, citing the space made for partnered titles on promotional bandwagons or consideration made for events. But he also stresses the boost to developer morale from having folks that believe in the game. “[They] were willing to take a chance on us and promote this idea we had. I can’t express to you enough how powerful that was when we really needed it last year.”
“To know someone would help you launch this thing, get it in front of people’s eyes, and care about it, was exactly the shot in the arm we needed during a very difficult 2020. We pitched this game to a lot of folks, and its tough to go out there alone as an indie.”