Posted April 1, 2014 by Peter in EGX

EGX Rezzed: Interview with Jason Orbaum, “NotGTAV”

Peer Productions logo
Peer Productions logo

Jason Orbaum is a veteran of the games industry, having worked as a designer for Domark, King of the Jungle and Virtuality in the 90s. However, as a self-described drifter between games, music and theatre, when Virtuality went bust in the mid-90s he made a move back into various roles in theatre. In 2006 he co-founded Peer Productions, a charity that provides apprenticeships to young actors.

So why was he at Rezzed? Other than an appreciation of indie games – especially the undefinable ones found in the Leftfield Collection? Notgames, a side project of Peer Productions, have created a fund-raising game for the charity called NotGTAV; thus followed a conversation about Peer Productions’ work, gaming’s growing confidence to self-satirise, a reductionist view of the GTA series, and parallels between indie gaming and the punk movement…

Jason Orbaum (JO): All the graphics [are] hand drawn, all the sound including the music is a capella.
NotGTAV logo
As one of about three people left in the country who hasn’t played GTA5, I was wondering if I would get the joke of NotGTAV – although the initial section is a disclaimer pointing out this game is very explicitly NOT GTA5, and recommends buying that one if you haven’t already to properly appreciate this one. I did admit to having played GTA1 back in the day, and on immediate viewing that is a closer comparison to the game on show… until it starts running, and it becomes clear the mechanics are based on Snake.

JO: We’re selling it for charity, so it’s a suggested donation of £1.99 but we’ve put up a slider so they can have it for as little as 10p, if their conscience will allow it.

Peter Rolph (PR): It’s like the pay-what-you-want on the Humble Bundles.

JO: Exactly, yes. I like that model.

I continue playing, exploring the hedonistic delights of a Welsh field running over a campsite in a tractor and performing a ‘heist’ stealing soap from the site’s shower block, before moving onto the sunny climes of Swindon where I’m immediately tasked with running over sleeping homeless people in a Lidl carpark.

It is absurd, partly in a way that games can be and partly because the graphics and sound don’t let it be anything other than silly. But there is still a reality-check moment where I think about what I’m doing.

PR: Do you feel it is ironic that GTA5 suffers from its notoriety, and you’re essentially parodying the most notorious part of it?

JO: Well, that’s what I wanted to do. I really genuinely feel that it’s all been really good in [how] films have been satirised, telly gets satirised; games don’t get satirised, there’s nobody really attacking.

PR: This is actually something I was thinking about the other day – it’s actually more in recent years that there are games that are starting to satirise other games, which I think suggests a confidence of gaming as a medium. Because before that gaming would be justifying itself, now it can start ridiculing itself.

[Satirical games are not anything new, of course; even GTA5 itself can be seen as a satire. However, it is often a matter of games satirising other forms of media, while games satirising other games still seem to be catching up in recent years]

JO: It’s a maturity level. I think Dara O’Briain helped to get through that, doing stand up comedy about it.

Access to the London section of the game is unlocked, with an announcement that I can now play as ‘David Cameron’, or at least an impersonation of him.

JO: We wanted to try and combine political satire with game satire, so if you haven’t played GTA there are jokes there for you. We’ve tested it on gamers, non-gamers, to make sure the social stereotyping we’ve used… based a lot on – do you remember The Comic Strip Presents, years and years ago with Rik Mayall, Ade Edmonson? That was my main inspiration because I loved what they used to do, like a Hollywood movie version of the miners strike.

I realise that focusing too much on the game might miss what it has been made for, and ask about the charity.

JO: The charity is called Peer Productions; young people aged 16 to 24 doing a year with us where they train in writing, acting and directing; [they] tour around schools, colleges, and prisons. This year we’re doing a show about addiction; so what we’ve done is go out and do drama workshops with addicts and ex-addicts so we can get their stories [...]

Because often the people who have had the real experience, they’re not confident to go and talk about it or perform it. But if you can then convert that into a play, you get a really honest sort of play. And then we can go into schools and talk to teenagers where you’ve got a cast of maybe 12 or 13 actors who are all only two years older than the audience watching. The impact is amazing.

PR: You think the similarity in age makes a difference?

JO: Peer to peer is really important to us. And it does seem to work. There’s no harder audience than when you go into a school at 9 in the morning and you’ve got 200 14-year olds sat there with their arms folded looking at you, and you’re going to go into a song. It’s 9am and you’re in the first song of the show and you can see them looking at you like “what is going on at my school?!”

And because we use so many young people and they’re funny – the shows are funny, (to) get them on-side, then you can deliver decent messaging.

PR: It’s like the game – you use humour as part of the tool?

JO: We use humour, always. I think humour unlocks people to learn things. People are more receptive if they’re laughing and they’re relaxed.
NotGTAV screen
I’ve seen several people in the Peer Productions t-shirts wandering around, a shade of purple that is noted as being unintentionally similar to the purple shirts of Rezzed staff.

PR: How big is it? I’ve seen four purple [Peer Production] t-shirts here today.

JO: There are eight of us here today, who are all of the people involved with making the game. The charity over the last eight years has put about 90 to 100 people through as full-timers, and we’ve played to 70,000 kids. [17,000 of those in the last year alone]

Our actors come from all over the place; we’ve had actors move down from Scotland and Wales, coming together to do it because there is no other course like it. And it pays, we’re a paid apprenticeship [...] and that is very appealing these days where the training costs 10 grand a year.

PR: I’m assuming your graduates (for lack of a better description) have then been able to put it down as a portfolio, they’ve done this work.

JO: Well, when they go to drama school, when they first apply at 18 very often drama schools will say “go and get some experience”. So when they come back a year later and go “I’ve done 140 shows, I’ve made three films this year, we’ve devised this, I did these workshops, I can now teach, I’ve done a lot of work with [schools for children with autism or Asbergers]” (because very few people will go there, and actually these kids are so amazingly creative); it fills these actors CVs.

About 85% of our graduates go on to a drama school or university of their choice once they leave us, which is an incredibly high amount. And it’s partly because we audition, they’re pretty good when they get to us. And the other 15% tend to get about halfway through the year and go “I want to work backstage”, or “I think I’d rather work in tech”, and that’s great as well as that’s before they’ve spent 30 grand on drama school [and] discovered is not for them. It’s a real win-win.

But it’s really hard to cover itself because it’s theatre and they’re big shows. Normally when schools book shows they get three actors turn up in a van with a hamper; [in comparison] the show we’re sending at the moment has a full live TV studio, so we get to the school an hour early and rig giant screens, and while the show is going we’ve got live cameras on it.

It’s all about body image, and how the media affects body image so it’s important to have those cameras there… when our anorexic character is sobbing at the dinner table you’ve got the reality crew in the house filming her and you can hear the director go “push in on the tears!”, so it gets really…

PR: Uncomfortable. Emotionally uncomfortable.

JO: And it’s properly grown up for the audience, which they appreciate. They’re all watching Breaking Bad anyway! Tell them the truth, treat them like adults, and they’ll make the right decisions.
NotGTAV screen
Emma, another member of the Notgames and Peer Productions group interjects with a personal experience here.

Emma: I was touring with Peer Productions last year, and I think there is something really special about being the same age [as the audience]; because people would come up to you after shows, people you’d never met before in your life and feel they could talk to you about this kind of stuff. So we’d have girls coming up to us, 13 and 14 years old saying “my boyfriend is pressuring me into sex and I don’t want to have it, is it ok for me to say ‘no’?” And you’re kind of… “how has no one told you? Of course it’s ok.” I just think there is something really special about giving people that kind of platform that gives them someone they feel they can talk to.

We get back to discussing the game.

JO: We’re launching on Friday [April 4th], and it’s £1.99 but there is a slider.

PR: So pretty much any donation is welcome?

JO: Yeah, and as soon as you donate we send you a link to a copy of the game. The pitch we’re trying to get out there is that it’s a couple of quid, it’ll make you laugh, it’ll give you 20 minutes of good fun, and it’ll save a charity. “What’s stopping you?”

PR: You feel that [this is] the selling point of the game?

JO: We wanted to give people an experience. And it does have replay value, there are difficulty modes.

PR: It sticks with the Snake mechanic?

JO: Always the Snake mechanic; we wanted to use reductionism as a satirical form, and that is the reductionist approach to Grand Theft Auto – get a trail of police cars, avoid your tail(!).

PR: With your intro, you’re being satirical but you also recognise that Rockstar might go ” … yeah, that is a little bit too close.”

JO: We’ve told Rockstar what we’re doing, but haven’t heard anything yet.
NotGTAV screen
We mention how charity is becoming a bigger part of gaming, with things like the regular Humble Bundles and organisations such as SpecialEffect (who were attending Rezzed), and how this is part of gaming maturing as a form. But this thought is taken in an unexpected direction.

JO: [Gaming] at the moment reminds me of the punk explosion in the 70s; electric guitars became cheap enough and everyone could be in a band, and you had that explosion of punk bands. And I think the tools for making games have reached that point.

PR: Yes, because indie gaming -

JO: – is punk.

PR: You have the big triple-A companies; and you have all of the indies which is the thinking-outside-the-box, “here’s an idea no one has thought of, it may not sell but…”

JO: I’m really looking forward to the Leftfield Collection [the special area in Rezzed for games that defy most common classifications]; it’s where I spent most of my time here last year.

PR: It’s interesting that you’re doing this cross-media [theatre and gaming]. I suppose the BAFTAs are justifying gaming [with ever bigger award ceremonies, reaching mainstream news sources] more now, games as an artistic form.

JO: Finally! How long has that taken? It’s unbelievable.

NotGTAV is intended to be released this coming Friday, 4th April, via Notgame’s website. Alternatively, donations can be make via Peer Production’s website.


Peter can be described as an old, hairy gamer, a survivor of the console wars of the 1990s, and a part-time MMO addict. He has an especial fondness for retro gaming and observing the progressions in long running gaming series. When scandalously not caught gaming, he can also be found reading comics and fantasy fiction, or practising terrible photography.