Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Deception Design Diary #1: Where I try to expose a phony psychic

Those of you who follow my Facebook or Twitter feed probably already know that the next game in the Blackwell series - entitled Blackwell Deception - is underway.  Things are moving a bit slowly while I get the last few design issues sorted out, but I envision things to start taking off very soon.  I am aiming to get it done before Christmas, but I'm not going to officially announce a release date until I am sure.  This has been the first time in a long while that I've been able to design and produce something completely in-house without any distractions from a publisher, so it's very exciting.  I feel like I've got my indie cred back.  Anyway, I thought I'd start a design diary to talk about the ups and downs of making it. 

The Inspiration

A few years ago, I got a call from a friend.  She needed a favor, but was embarrassed to ask it.  To respect her privacy, I'm going to use a fake name and call her Cindy.  For around six months or so, Cindy had been seeing a psychic.  One of those storefront psychics that you see on every other block in this city.  At the time, she had been drifting a bit aimlessly, unsure about her career choices and her place in life, and the psychic totally took advantage of that.  The psychic told Cindy that her aura needed energy work, which cost about $200.  After Cindy paid this amount, the psychic said that she would immediately buy a special candle and meditate on it.  From there, Cindy just went deeper.  By the time Cindy wised up, she was about $5,000 in hock to the psychic.  Angry at herself, she decided that she was going to expose the scam and prevent the same thing from happening to others.

So, she called a news network.

The news network was interested, and they wanted someone to go in with a hidden camera and get footage of her defrauding someone.  Did Cindy know anyone who'd be willing to do that?  Yes, it turns out, Cindy did.  I had just finished the first Blackwell game and she knew I was interested in that kind of thing.  "I figured you'd think it was cool," I remember her saying.  She was right.

I met up with Cindy and the news crew and they affixed a button camera to my shirt.  It was pretty slick, even though it was a slightly different color than the other buttons.  "Don't worry," the news lady said. "You just look like a guy who doesn't care about his appearance."  Fair enough. 

So I went into the psychic's office to get defrauded.  She asked me a bunch of questions about my personal life and did something with tarot cards.  Sure enough, the psychic eventually told me that I needed energy work and it would cost $200.  I told her I'd think about it, and I left feeling proud of myself for getting it all on camera.  Unfortunately, my life as a spy was a short-lived one.  I had aimed the button camera one inch too far to the left, and ended up with 20 minutes footage of her wall.  James Bond I am not.

In the end the network decided not to pursue the story, but the experience opened my eyes to a subculture in New York that not many know about.  Cindy's story is not an isolated one.  Fortunately for her, she got out before any major damage was done.  She's now kicking butt and taking names in the self-esteem department. Others... are not so lucky.

The inspiration becomes a Blackwell story

In the years since this happened, it's stuck with me.  I would walk around the city and I would see one of those psychic storefronts and I'd flash back to what happened to Cindy and what the psychic attempted to do to me.  I have read reports of victims who got totally brainwashed by these psychics; giving over their life savings and breaking off from their families, simply because their psychics told them to.  They attract the kind of people who are confused or lost, and then milk them for all they are worth untill they are dry.

I knew there was a Blackwell story in this somewhere, and as I've seen more and more of these storefronts my imagination began to wander.  It's weird, I'd say to myself, there sure are a lot of them.  I know of four psychic storefronts in my neighborhood alone.  Move up towards midtown and you'll see them even more frequently.  They've all been in place for as long as I have lived here.  Even in this economy, they are still around.  How come major bars, restaurants, and shops - which have been in existence for 50 years or more! - are all going out of business left and right while all these parasitic phony psychics remain open?

Surely, I felt, they must be organized.  There must be some kind of unifying power behind them.   Something beyond the mere storefront.  Something even more sinister behind the scenes.  But what could it be?

I think Rosa and Joey are about to find out.



  1. Excellent! I thought you were taking a break from adventure in favor of your RPG project. I'll be looking forward to following your progress, knowing I'm not the only one out there doing this.

    As for research, I highly recommend the "Pen & Teller's Bullshit" episode on psychics. I think it's on Netflix. It reveals some interesting methods to their sneaky defraudations.

    Good luck, good sir!

  2. Cool! I think I've seen some of those. I read about Houdini's attempts to expose fake seances, as well.

  3. Oh, and you're right. We are working on an RPG as well, but not in our usual AGS engine. Janet is working on the engine, but since it will take awhile I am working on this Blackwell game instead.

  4. There's a popular british entertainer called Derrin Brown, he debunks psychics and performs elaborate psychic shows (often explaining them).

    It's cool that you're doing a development diary for this. I'm often torn on the nature of doing a dev diary, the problem of showing too much too early, but maybe that's not actually a problem.

  5. The New York police once did a raid called "Project Crystal Ball" or somesuch. You can read about it here. It's pretty wild stuff:

    I worried about revealing too much too early as well, but fortunately I am blessed with the talent of talking a lot without actually saying anything! :)

  6. Sounds like a great concept for a Blackwell game. I never realized it before, but by having Rosa assist the dead rather than the living you've neatly avoided the whole issue of her being suspected of preying on the recently bereaved. Am looking forward to seeing her take on some of the parasites that do exactly that.

    I'm sure you've come across James Randi during your research (if not before), but he's definitely a major authority on fraudulent psychics and mediums - also one of Penn Jillette's personal heroes. Google or search youtube for "James Randi" and "cold reading" for plenty of entertaining and educational video clips.

    I second Hayden's suggestion of Derren Brown. Especially a recent episode in his 'Derren Brown Investigations' series titled "The Man Who Contacts the Dead" should be of interest.

  7. Can I just say...... new Blackwell game?!? Yesssssssssssss! I didn't know how long we were going to have to wait!

  8. I enjoyed the Blackwell Convergence a lot. I'm looking forward to the new game.

  9. Yay! A new Blackwell game! Can't wait!

  10. YAY! I'm really excited about the new Blackwell game as well. :) I'm a big fan.

    TNT's Leverage had an episode on psychics and cold readings and that sort of thing a year or so ago. I found it all very interesting.

    I'm looking forward to Rosa and Joey's next adventure. (And maybe a hint or two about Joey's story? :))

    Just played your Shivah game as well and enjoyed it! Keep up the great work!