At a time in which the lines between fact and fiction have blurred, misinformation runs rampant, and tech conglomerates can sell your browsing habits for top dollar, it’s no wonder many folks find themselves pining for the early days of dial-up.
While The Big Con, which releases on Xbox and Steam on August 31, certainly isn’t the first video game to mine ‘90s nostalgia for inspiration, it taps into the overall ethos of the decade with an enthusiasm all its own. As its title suggests, the point-and-click game centers around refreshingly analog grifts—pickpocketing, rip-offs, baits, and switches—which protagonist Ali must master in order to raise 97,000 dollars and save her mom’s video rental store from loan sharks, a quintessentially Clinton-era concept that’s awash in shades of bright pink and purple.
According to game director Dave Proctor, one of the founders of The Big Con developer Mighty Yell, studying the art of cartoons like Doug and KaBlam allowed the team to better embody the optimistic spirit of their own childhoods.
“We started by playing with big, thick lines and bright, flat shading,” says Proctor. “Mighty Yell is something I founded in order to bring a bit of joy and positivity to video games where we can, and the first opportunity to do it was in our screenshots.”
Be Kind, Rewind
While the game’s visual style might recall Saturday mornings spent slurping cereal and watching Nicktoons, The Big Con’s plot feels better suited for the silver screen than an animation block. It’s a classic coming-of-age adventure, in which Ali ditches band camp in order to go on the lam with nineteen-year-old con man Ted. As players progress through the game, the scope of Ali’s schemes expand from small town petty crime to full-fledged heists in the big city.
The Wizard, the 1989 film following three kids’ pilgrimage to a Super Mario Bros. 3 tournament in Hollywood, was one of Proctor’s favorite childhood movies, and it served as a rough blueprint for The Big Con’s road trip theme.
“We focused on this idea of young people going off on their own,” says Proctor. “No parental guidance, and they have to make it somewhere to do this big thing. The Wizard is a great example in the 90s. But going back way further than that, you’ve got something like Paper Moon, which is a story about two traveling con artists: a young girl and a sort of father figure with a complex family dynamic.”
Designing Ted, Ali’s de facto father figure, was one of the biggest challenges in developing The Big Con’s characters. In early press images, his face was more angular and shaded, giving him a more sinister aura. Playing the final version of the game ahead of time, I noticed subtle revisions to the character’s appearance.
“He was a completely different character in the original prototype,” says Proctor. “He was much older. But we wanted to explore what the relationship between characters is when you’re without parents traveling on the road, right? So Ted’s age came down a lot closer to Ali’s, and as a result, his hairstyle and body shape shrunk a bit. That’s one of the fun things about game development, being like ‘Ted looks 22, how can we get him to look 19?’”
Big Con, Big Debut
The release of The Big Con will mark the completion of Toronto studio Mighty Yell’s debut project—a venture Proctor undertook after working on 13AM Games’ 2018 title Runbow.
“It was a lot of fun, and they’re still some of my greatest friends,” he says. “I just had this game I really wanted to make and they had some other ideas. It was a very amicable thing—like, ‘guys, I gotta go see a man about a game’ and they were like, ‘yep, I get you.’”
One of Proctor’s foremost goals in starting Mighty Yell was creating a company culture that reflected his own optimistic spirit. The Big Con was intentionally conceived as a game without violence or combat, and a focus on humor and storytelling.
There are a slew of accessibility features built into the game, from optional dyslexia-friendly fonts to the ability to shut off the game’s pickpocketing mini-games, ideas championed by Mighty Yell UI UX director Tabby Rose.
“I think are a great source of entertainment. The Big Con is meant to be a chill experience—I don’t want to stress over it,” says Proctor.
The development team is currently working on adding fully remappable controls to the game for those with alternate controller or mobility requirements.
A Non-violent Hitman
While The Big Con is primarily a point-and-click title, requiring players to solve puzzles and fetch items to trade with NPCs, it’s the game’s pickpocketing mechanic that makes it such a unique experience. Creep up behind any character on screen, and a single button press triggers a quick time event that can net Ali a small wad of cash that counts toward the final score.
“We went through a couple methods of pickpocketing over the course of development,” says Proctor. “One of our earlier ones was that it could only be done during conversation. You’d get a good conversation going and you’d have to do the golf-swing sort of minigame in the meantime. We also tried this thing where you’d have to watch while the text scrolls by and you’d have to watch for ‘distracted’ words, and when those words appeared you could move a little closer. I have zero problems with games that are just text and story, but also it’s fun to throw in this little powerful thing.”
LucasArts titles like LOOM and the Monkey Island series were the primary sources of inspiration for The Big Con’s overall experience: putting an emphasis on humor while simplifying inventory management.
“What I wanted was something that felt a lot more open-ended than ‘find something that needs a wrench,’” says Proctor. “More like five things that need a wrench. It’s not about finding a key, it’s about weighing options and picking something. It’s more like Hitman to me. I wanted to make a non-violent Hitman.”
That synthesis of retro influence and contemporary accessibility was enough to earn The Big Con an official selection for the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival—a distinction shared with games like Sable and Norco.
“It was a huge, bonkers honor that we still haven’t recovered from,” says Proctor. “There’s something wild about being acknowledged by an organization that traditionally recognizes film. And now we get to put the little laurel leaves on our game!”