Interactive documentaries have been widely available since the CD-ROM boom of the 1990s. Yet while they have become a genre unto themselves, few have included a game component. With “Fort McMoney,” a free program released online this week, Mr. Dufresne has tried to change that.
His team created an interactive tour of the region’s landscape, people and issues to illuminate what he calls “a very complicated world, a very secret world, a city of complexities.” The game portion, he said, is a way to discover what goes on in a gold rush community experiencing serious growing pains. The project includes more than eight hours of video and is to be rolled out in four parts over four weeks; an iPad app is to be released next week.
Through wide, lonely shots of tundra, the camera shows an isolated Fort McMurray. Monstrous, thick smoke rises from its refineries. What viewers encounter can evoke both envy and sympathy. Early on, players meet and interview residents, including a saleswoman, a homeless man and the mayor, whose prerecorded answers come in responses to a menu of questions. They discuss the economic success, along with drug and prostitution problems. Players can essentially step into a leader’s shoes to decide whether to build more. Then they can vote on referendums covering refinery expansion and support for social services.
Other films, including “Petropolis,” have sought to place Fort McMurray and its get-rich-quick essence into perspective. But Mr. Dufresne’s test of a new form lets players consider dozens of viewpoints and societal challenges. Indeed, thought-provoking games have drawn more attention in recent years, from releases like Papo & Yo, about an abused child in Brazil’s favelas, to anticipation over Thralled, a coming independent game about a runaway slave.
The game element of “Fort McMoney” involves no shooting and no acrobatics. Instead, it is inspired by SimCity, the influential community-building game from the designer Will Wright.
Mr. Dufresne, a lifelong gamer who coded a text-based adventure at the age of 14, said that Mr. Wright’s concept was all about capitalism and provided a synergy between documentary and game. “Capitalism is the biggest game in the world,” Mr. Dufresne said. “Everyone plays it every day. And Fort McMurray is the most capitalist city in the world. That’s why we call it ‘Fort McMoney.’ ”
Those employed in Fort McMurray’s oil industry can earn, on average, 178,000 Canadian dollars a year. But Mr. Dufresne, a Paris-born former journalist for the left-leaning newspaper Libération, noted that “a teacher and a doctor were showing up at a food bank because they couldn’t afford meals.”
For Mr. Wright, a founder of Syntertainment, a company whose goal is to blend reality with entertainment, reading about issues is one thing. Being in the driver’s seat “to make decisions yourself,” he said by email, allows for something deeper. Though he had not yet seen the final version of “Fort McMoney,” he said, “Games are becoming an important part of our way of seeing the world.”
The creators of “Fort McMoney” hope that people see their effort as far more than a gimmick.
“My goal was that the game should never get in the way of the narrative; it should complement it,” said Guillaume Perrault, one of the project’s game designers.
Mr. Perrault, who has previously made his own online games, said that much research went into fashioning a game model that focuses upon weighty factors affecting life. After a few weeks, he said, “you get a picture of how the city would evolve if the online community was in charge.”
Dominique Willieme, an interactive producer at the National Film Board of Canada, which provided 30 percent of the project’s budget of 870,000 Canadian dollars, was initially skeptical, because other documentarians and news organizations had covered the oil sands issue. “But this asks the question, ‘How does interactivity change the way we can talk to people and to involve them?’ ” he said.
Another major financial supporter was the Montreal-based Toxa, which underwrites a panoply of Canadian interactive projects. Raphaëlle Huysmans, a producer at Toxa, was not sure what kind of audience “Fort McMoney” would attract. She described the docugame as “a fascinating social experiment, a huge presentation of concept and technology and business model.” After a short pause, Ms. Huysmans added, “But we know we won’t get a return on all the money.”
If “Fort McMoney” fails to draw crowds, it won’t be for lack of trying. As Mr. Dufresne prepared to leave for Amsterdam, where his work had its premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival, he spoke of the future. He is awed by projects like Watch Dogs, a game from Ubisoft due in 2014 that features a pernicious government surveillance program.
“In the documentary world,” he said, “we can learn a lot from gaming logic. Both worlds are ready to merge now — the game industry and the documentary world.”