Indie game ‘Paparazzi’ has fun with the celebrity hunt

Feb. 21, 2015 | 4:00 a.m.

THE PLAYER

Composer Justin Jimenez, left, and designer Mike Longley skew celeb culture in "Paparazzi." (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Composer Justin Jimenez, left, and designer Mike Longley skew celeb culture in “Paparazzi.” (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Mike Longley’s first commercially released game started with an old Matthew McConaughey comment.

“Cameras aren’t guns,” the actor told the Associated Press in 2005. “They can’t really hurt you.”

Those words served as a challenge to Longley and his friends, who made it the basis of an all-night “game jam.” Common among game students and the independent community, game jams often function as meet-ups in which developers must explore one theme in a limited amount of time.

Longley’s theme? McConaughey.

“It was just something he said that was so random,” said Longley, who at the time of the jam in 2014 was close to finishing his degree from USC’s game program.

“We took that and said, ‘Well, you can’t hurt someone, but you can hurt their dignity.’ That was enough to make a game about paparazzi and celebrity. People just ended up really liking it, even in its simple form. We made it in nine hours. It was quick and chill.”

This week Longley’s game, “Paparazzi,” was released for Nintendo’s Wii U, Sony’s PlayStation 4 and home computers. Drawing inspiration from TMZ and red carpet extravaganzas such as Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, “Paparazzi” is a frantic two-person game in which one player, as the celebrity, works to avoid capture — that is, capture by camera lens — by another player, the paparazzi.

It's the celebrity on the run from the photographer in "Paparazzi." (Pringo Dingo Games)

It’s the celebrity on the run from the photographer in “Paparazzi.” (Pringo Dingo Games)

It’s certainly timely. Celebrity car accidents too often involve paparazzi trailing nearby, and altercations between photographers and the likes of Kanye West or Justin Bieber are easily found on YouTube. What’s more, the legality of an anti-paparazzi driving law has been a hot subject in the California Legislature for the last five years.

Longley, 26, and his team were aware that they were stepping on some political turf, but they wanted to avoid making an overt statement. Instead, the trio aimed to capture some of the thrill of the hunt, albeit without offending anyone. One celebrity, for instance, is a bear on a tricycle. It’s less dangerous and more screwball.

“We really wanted to poke fun at the whole idea,” he says. “This is L.A., and this is a thing. Whenever there is an event, you can count on paparazzi just hanging out and exploiting people. We wanted to poke fun at that. I don’t approve of the act of being a paparazzi, but I think poking fun at it is funny. We wanted to keep it as simple as possible.”

Thought a players' dignity is at stake, the tone is light in "Paparazzi." (Pringo Dingo Games)

Thought a players’ dignity is at stake, the tone is light in “Paparazzi.” (Pringo Dingo Games)

Simple it is. And though celebrities can slip on banana peels to make for embarrassing paparazzi photos, Longley, lead engineer Joel Clark and composer Justin Jimenez found deft ways to give the game a little more gravitas.

Matches are short — a couple of minutes — and are decided by a tug-of-war system. The paparazzi player is trying to make as much money as possible by successfully snapping pictures of the celeb. Meanwhile, the star tries to maintain his or her sense of dignity by evading the camera. Fans provide self-esteem boosts, and the celeb can run to a shady character who will create a host of celebrity doppelgangers for a few seconds.

While everyone likes playing a bad guy, a trick for the team was to avoid making the paparazzi feel evil. Jimenez’s score is Looney Tunes silly — surf music one moment, playful jazz the next — and the look is bright and 8-bit colorful.

The heavily pixelated celebs may look a little familiar — is that cobalt-haired vixen Katy Perry, or Trixie Blue as the game tells us? — but everything is hyper-exaggerated so as not to get too close to reality. The tone ultimately distracts from the fact that one player is trying to destroy another’s dignity. Hey, that’s not too unlike Hollywood after all, is it?

“We did want to do that,” says Longley of making the paparazzi a clear villain, “but then the game would have taken a whole different route. Then it would no longer be fun. It would just be kind of sad, you know?

“We wanted to keep it lighthearted,” he says. “We want kids to play this.”

Composer Justin Jimenez, left, and designer Mike Longley go at it in "Paparazzi." (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Composer Justin Jimenez, left, and designer Mike Longley go at it in “Paparazzi.” (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Young’uns, in fact, were a key audience during the development of the game. The trio raised $5,100 to make the game via Kickstarter, and to save money Longley and Jimenez moved in with Clark and his family in Kansas for two weeks. There, Clark’s mom, an elementary school teacher, made them home-cooked meals and provided access to an army of students to test the game.

Perhaps that’s why some darker elements were nixed from the project. Initially, one level was going to be a rehab clinic. Instead, the team went with a Hollywood studio, a nightclub, a beach, a zoo, a city and black-tie ball.

The journey to getting the game made was ultimately relatively quick. The Kickstarter ended in July, just weeks after the team was chosen by IndieCade to be among the independent showings at June’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the largest video game trade show in the United States. While at E3, the team walked the floors of the Los Angeles Convention Center and asked representatives from Nintendo and Sony to check out “Paparazzi.”

“And they did,” Longley said. “That’s how we got publishing deals. It was amazing.”

A company, Pringo Dingo Games, was formed. Whether it makes another game will depend solely on sales of “Paparazzi.” Helping its cause is the fact that the game is cheap, $4.99, and that society seems to be endlessly fascinated with all aspects of celebrity culture.

“I think it has to do with the superhero culture. As people, we’re always looking for that superman, someone to look up to, idolize or just make life that much more interesting,” says Jimenez. “So I believe that most people view celebrities in the same way, not really being ‘just a regular’ person but something more than just ordinary.”

As is a bear on a tricycle.

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