I made this for my parents over the past few days. I’m not sure if will mean much or make much sense to anyone outside my family, but what the hell, I’ll post it anyway.
I can’t say that this site will get more regular attention going forward, but I wanted to post a ‘game,’ I made for the Mini LD # 31. You get a weekend to go from start to finish making a game fitting a theme – this time it was ‘fear.’ Suffice it to say…that’s a different time frame than Convergence but tight deadlines are incredibly motivating.
It’s a short interactive-type-thing about an old man named Escher. Click the picture or click here to play ‘Escher’.
Le sigh, I suppose it’s about time for a postmortem of sorts, even if it’s for a little flash game. You’ve got to look at the past sometime, right? So, I’m going to break this down into two short-ish posts. This first one is looking back at what ideas we tried to put into Convergence. The second will be on the more practical side of putting the ideas to code.
Convergence was conceived one Saturday afternoon in a Panera with the idea for a game with a chapter for each stage of life. Prior to that, we’d made Pong in flixel to get our bearings in the environment. After arguing about what the deuce the physics is supposed to be like in Pong, we decided that we had ‘succeeded’ and that we were now ‘qualified’ to go ahead and make our own game. We had two goals – make something and make that something meaningful. Barring some quantum physics magic, I’m reasonably confident that we accomplished the first goal. The second one is a question for anyone who played it to answer, but I’d hope we at least got close. At least I know the plays on Kongregate can’t be because our game was ‘fun’ ;P.
From the onset, we planned a game with multiple endings with a coherent game world that brought the individual plots together. We wanted players to be able to make their own choices, but at the same time, we wanted them to be able to reflect on those choices and what could have been if they had chosen differently. The idea was there are paths your life can take – as a baby, make some pretty impactful choices without knowing consequences and then as an adult make some more informed choices – and you should be able to catch glimpses of what your life could have been in the people around you.
We played around with some different ideas of how to illustrate what other paths your life could have taken, but we decided to just tie the endings together. It’s left up to the player to notice that if you play a second time, you can be one of the other characters by making a different choice or two. It’s not clear whether that was the right design decision. The gamers tended to pick up on the endings, but on the other hand, my family had no idea there were multiple endings.
With a Heavy Hand…
That last point brings up another challenge we faced in development: making the game accessible to as many people as possible. Ocassionally, we erred on the side of a super heavy hand…like when we explicitly tell the player in dialogue box that they can either go back to work or stay at the party. In retrospect, we could have solved this nonverbally (as a developer suggested).
Other times, we were at least slightly more subtle. Like the tying together of the game endings or the unlockable trophy room which both basically tell you there’s more that you might have missed. (Though apparently, many members of the Kongregate community love to post how to unlock things, so there was a certain amount of the achievement system itself rewarding players.)
Essentially it’s just difficult to make a game such that your parents can pick it up and your friends can pick it up with neither feeling like the pace is too slow/boring/fast/hard/etc. You just have to pick you audience and accept the consequences.
Babies Crawl, People…Talk?
When we set out brainstorming what each stage of the game would be like, we didn’t give too much dedicated thought to a disconnect between narrative and gameplay. We took it as an assumption that the baby stage would be a very physical puzzle, that the adult stage would be more of a cognitive challenge and that the ending, well, was simply just be an interactive cutscene.
As for the gameplay setting the tone of each stage, I’d argue that it worked. The baby level involves a lot of crawling and climbing over things larger than you (while your bigger brother has more mobility). The work level involves some menial tasks like making copies of reports or buying ice cream, but the challenge isn’t about how do you physically execute those things – it’s about paying attention to what the consequences of those actions are.
There’s some semblance of gameplay and narrative integration, but there is plenty of room to improve. The baby level is pretty much a separate platformer from the rest of the game. We had intended the toy collecting to give the choice at the end of the level more weight, but it may just come across as simply a minigame. The noon level has some gameplay, but most of the story is told with words centered on an interaction or two.
In the end, we committed to an idea, timeframe and skillset that potentially didn’t lend itself as fully to storytelling through gameplay as we might have wanted…regardless, it was an idea that needed to be conveyed in a game rather than another medium. And I, for one, had awesome time making it.
A particular topic has been turning over in my head recently – gameplay as the means of conveying the message of a game. Gameplay has been defined many different ways. As painful as it is to be vague, when I’m talking about gameplay here, I’m just generally referring to the system of interaction in a game.
Certainly gameplay can be fun by itself, as the massive sales of FPS games can attest to. Gameplay is the mechanism of engagement and makes games unique as compared to other mediums, but it is also something that I’ve felt has not been fully explored is the potential for gameplay to tell a story.
Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, God of War, Final Fantasy, Diablo, almost all point and click games, all generally told their story in the ‘story’ areas of the game and engage the player in the ‘gameplay’ areas of the game. ‘Ludonarrative dissonance’ is a phrase thrown around to capture this disconnect between gameplay and narrative in a game.
Recently, I’ve found the most powerful narratives in games that more freely mix gameplay and narrative. Small Worlds, Today I Die, …But That Was [Yesterday], Digital: A Love Story might be good examples, but The End of Us resolutely decides to tell its story primarily through the gameplay.
The End of Us is such a short game that you should go play it and form your own opinions (as a bonus, you can then come back and tell me about how wrong I am). It’s a game that Michael Molinari (aka OneMrBean) and Chelsea Howe created for the 2011 global game jam. Aside from the obligatory “Loading” and title screen, it’s a game without words. You are a purple meteor hurtling through space who is quickly accompanied by a yellow meteor. The gameplay wonderfully captures a playful, hide-and-seek type relationship that makes a beeline for childhood memories. In the end, it’s up to you make a choice that amounts to taking a bullet for a friend or sacrificing your companion to survive.
The game is about exploring the rules that are set up for interaction between your meteor and your companion. There is some chasing and avoiding behavior. There is a mini-game of sorts in which you have to collect starts that has this competitive or cooperative nature (depending on how you view it). It may seem simple, but these mechanics are convincing abstractions of playful interactions that breathe life and meaning into the game.
I think The End of Us is a gem, but what I really love is that it gives a glimpse of where games can go. Instead of worrying about bridging the narrative and gameplay, Michael and Chelsea had the story emerge from the gameplay – a unified whole. What’s more, they did it in 48 hours. If there is a more definitive answer to whether or not games are art, I think it would be found in something that fully embraces gameplay.
Here’s a bit of something that was sitting in my bookmarks from last year that may become particularly relevant in the development of our next game.
Virtual Barbershop. If you don’t try it out with headphones on, I will be upset.
We started working on a new concept for a game in Unity that’s a bit more ambitious than Convergence…which requires a shift from pixel placement to vertex placement and materials and lighting and a third dimension. Saying any more might scare the project away.
On an unrelated note. s&s ep is epic. It’s been a while since I played it, but with the recent-ish iPhone release, I felt compelled to link it. My complaint would be they created a world rather than a story, so emotional impact of the narrative fell short for me. BUT that audio-visual mashup of a world they created is so alive and lush on the iPad. Recommend X 30428409.
I am not a fan of trying to write up my thoughts on a game when my initial play was a while ago and my reactions have faded. Still, I feel compelled to write about one of Terry Cavanagh‘s games: Pathways.
As with How to Raise a Dragon, I don’t want to review the game, so I’d just recommend downloading it here and playing it yourself. To me, these games are experiments, and ranking them strictly on how entertaining they were would be missing the point. They are short and cut straight to the core of a particular thought.
Pathways has you take control of an avatar that can only move forward and occasionally follow a path up or down – which means no retracing your steps. You follow a path until it yields an ending, then you must start over and explore a new path. The game ‘ends’ when you’ve explored all paths. Summarizing the story…honor a fallen friend, get drunk, have an affair, visit your son, fail to pay a bookie, go to war and go off to fight a dragon. The game is open-ended, it is up to you to connect those paths as you see fit (or to reinterpret those individual paths differently).
The thought that manages to remain from that first play a couple months ago was “I am a sad person.” I distinctly remember feeling like I was causing the events even though there was nothing I could do to stop them (shy of just not playing). I didn’t think “this is a sad person,” because I felt like I was throwing the switch.
I think this is, in part, simply an effect of having control of an avatar makes us assume a first person perspective (even if that control is massively limited). I think the other cause for the agency is the ambiguity around the plot. Events occur without explanation, and it’s up to you to add an interpretation (particularly the ending). Similar (in a way) to Scott McCloud’s description of what he calls closure in comics – the implicit filling in that we do when reading a comic. If you see a guy walking towards a banana peel that is on the ground in the first panel, and you see the guy lying on the ground in the second panel, you automatically imagine what transpired in-between the panels. I think that the narrative in Pathways has gaps for the player to fill in; the difference as compared to comics is that you control the avatar the story is about, so the closure has more personal implications.
So a game in which I really had no agency in directing the observable events still led me to internalize the narrative.