Ex-reporter creates journalism-themed sci-fi video game

· The Pulse

An Edmonton-based journalist-turned-developer is getting ready to release a new video game that draws on his experience as a reporter.

Times & Galaxy is the latest product in the works from Copychaser Games, an indie studio founded by former Edmonton Journal reporter Ben Gelinas. It's a bit of a marriage of two passions.

"I have a Super Nintendo controller tattooed on me next to a newspaper," said Gelinas, who founded Copychaser in 2017 after working for almost six years at BioWare.

The game centres on a playable robot-reporter intern who gathers information and writes stories with the goal to be hired permanently by the titular newspaper, the Times & Galaxy. Its trailer dropped on May 2, ahead of a planned release in early 2024.

"I've often said that you can make a video game about anything, and I wanted to make a game that really focused on exploring a unique science-fiction setting," Gelinas told Taproot. "But I didn't want the player to go around needing to shoot things every 10 minutes like you see in a lot of science-fiction games."

Funded primarily by the Canadian Media Fund, Gelinas works full-time on the game alongside a team of 10 part-timers. Writers Sunny Evans and Paul Blinov (who was once the arts editor for the now-defunct Vue Weekly) also bring real-life journalism experience to the game.

"We're bringing in our experiences from our past lives to inform the game's story and setting, and to really bring a sense of reality to this very unreal world that we're creating," Gelinas said.

While there are already some games that involve journalism, such as The Republia Times, they are often "dystopian" and focus on the roles of editors rather than reporters, he said.

"We wanted to go left of field there, and still say things about the practice of journalism," he said. "But really put the player on the ground so that they have this experience of what it's like to gather news, and how challenging it can be to decide what is important for your readers."

A still from Times & Galaxy depicts the character-building screen. There are three different robots in the centre-right, and fields for name, pronouns, model type, and colours on the left.

Users play as a robot-reporter intern in Times & Galaxy by Copychaser Games. The demo is now available on Steam. (Fellow Traveller Games)

Gelinas worked at the Journal from 2008 until he moved on to BioWare in 2011.

"(It showed me) how the field of journalism and the field of narrative game writing had a lot of overlap," he said of compiling the lore for Dragon Age's fantasy worlds. "It was essentially the practice of journalism, but in a fictional world. I had to research, I had to interview, and I had to fact-check."

Gelinas left BioWare in 2017 when his life partner, reporter Madeline Smith, took a job in Toronto and the pair moved to the Big Smoke. It was then that he founded Copychaser as a dual-armed venture for freelance game writing and independent game development.

"I decided to take another risk — it's the most Edmonton thing you can do — and go freelance," he said.

Gelinas immersed himself in Toronto's indie game scene. While writing for other game developers, he and collaborator Mikey Hamm created Copychaser's inaugural game, Speed Dating for Ghosts, in just three months. (An initial release took place on Valentine's Day 2018 ahead of the game's full release on the same day in 2020.)

He and Smith then moved to Calgary before ultimately returning to Edmonton.

"Coming back to Edmonton helped the indie side," he said. "It's a good place to do something like this because the video game industry here is diversifying. There are more and more studios cropping up, and it's not just BioWare anymore."

He still mostly pays the bills with freelance writing for games, although the backing for Times & Galaxy has allowed him to be "laser-focused" full-time on that project. Two of his most significant freelance credits are WB's Gotham Knights and Remedy Games' Control. He's also doing a little work on BioWare's forthcoming Dragon Age: Dreadwolf.

'Small, weird games' for everybody

Times & Galaxy is Copychaser's first time working with a publisher: Australia's Fellow Traveller Games, which helped fund the project.

"We as the developers create the game, and it's the publisher's job to sell the game, to get it as far and as wide as possible," he said. "The publisher's job is to cut through the noise and bring the game to market in a significant way."

Unlike movie trailers, which are usually cut from a film nearly ready to be released, game trailers feature demos that are essentially the minimum viable product the developers have ready to play. Gelinas and his team remain hard at work to meet the deadlines for a 2024 release.

"Right now, we're putting meat on the bones," he said. The remaining work includes character art, level art, audio, and more. "The demo has two cycles, two shifts at the newspaper, and we're planning on 17."

Gelinas is looking for distribution platforms (as in, consoles) for Times & Galaxy outside PC-based platforms like Steam, which he says indie games "live and die by." He said he's hoping this could be Copychaser's breakthrough moment, even if he's not aiming to be the next mega-developer in the market.

"I don't want to turn this studio into a 300-person studio. That's not our goal," he said. "I want to create a small team that can confidently and with stability create small, weird games for the audiences that are out there, and for new audiences. There's a video game for literally everybody. They just haven't found it or played it yet. And that goes for everybody — I'm talking, your grandmother."

Correction: This file has been updated to correct the names of Sunny Evans and Madeline Smith.