This year’s GDC brought me in contact with a wide range of really interesting games, demonstrating the incredible spectrum of what games are good at and for: not just frustration, fear, exploration, and adrenal rushes, but many stranger and more nuanced emotional reactions.
Here are some highlights of many different types, several from the IGF Expo floor and others from other encounters:
Storyteller by Dan Benmergui is an expansion of an earlier work of the same name (that I actually reviewed long ago). The winner of the 2012 IGF Nuovo award, Storyteller is a puzzle game whose mechanic is essentially about understanding the rules of comics, in good Scott McCloud style.
On each screen, the player has a small set of possible elements to place into a blank comic strip (typically only four panels or so long) in order to match the level description. The computer guesses how the characters are intended to relate to one another, what it means if a background changes or a character vanishes from one strip to the next, and more. Despite the name, it’s not so much about empowering the player to tell new stories as it is about exploring the means by which stories are communicated and the extreme economy of the comic medium.
Prom Week is a social puzzle game about high school, from the Expressive Intelligence Studio at UCSC. I’ve known about it for some time now: Aaron Reed of IF fame did some of the writing for it, and I’ve seen demos both at UCSC and at the AI Summit at various points, so I’ve been tracking its development from a distance. It got its official release Valentine’s Day of this year, and creators Mike Treanor and Josh McCoy spoke at the same AI Summit panel with me. The game consists of a series of level challenges based on a social simulator that tracks character relationships along three axes (friendship, romantic interest, and coolness); reasons about the indirect effects of actions propagating through the social graph (Oswald insulted Cassandra, so Cassandra’s friend is now annoyed at Oswald); and stores a history of past events that characters can use to discuss and justify their feelings about one another.
Playing Prom Week in its final form is much different from experiencing the demos and examples I’ve seen before. For one thing, it’s much better directed than in the earlier forms I saw: the levels are clearly defined and goals are well articulated, which is absolutely necessary to turn this sandbox into a game.
That game, however, is still hard. The simulator has a huge amount of information about the characters, and some of it the player doesn’t have such easy access to: for instance, a social gambit can fail because of some piece of interpersonal history that happened (presumably) before the game began. And while it’s relatively easy to figure out how to annoy people or how to raise or lower one’s coolness, some other social transactions are more difficult to manipulate, and in particular I have trouble figuring out how to awaken romantic interest between characters naturally. There are a lot of times when player agency fails because an action you thought would have one effect (Nicholas asks out Oswald leading to them dating, since Oswald has a crush on Nicholas) leads to a different one instead (Oswald distrusts Nicholas’ invitation and blows him off because Nicholas once upon a time did something mean to another character).
Prom Week provides a few mechanisms for overriding these outcomes. A small meter at the bottom left of the screen fills with social points as you perform interactions, and you can then spend those points to get characters either to perform actions they normally wouldn’t (such as asking out someone they don’t really like that much) or to respond to actions in a different way (such as accepting an apology they would normally blow off). Even looking ahead at what the result of an action will be costs points — so there’s always the question of whether you want to blow some of that precious social capital just to make sure an intended action will really work out the way you expect it to. Sometimes I found myself thinking more about hoarding this precious resource than about thinking through the social patterns the game is intended to simulate.
That said, there’s a lot going for Prom Week as well. The writing is funny, and there are some delightful moments to be had when, say, apparently incompatible characters decide to start dating. It’s especially good at reflecting the inherent conflicts embedded in relationships. Enemies can grudgingly recognize that their rivals are really cool; couples can gradually come to find each other annoying. It’s one of the more interesting social-gameplay systems out there (not that that’s a large field) and it rewards extended experimentation.
Snowfield is a piece from the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT game lab. The mission statement is intriguing:
The method involved designing and creating many different “building blocks” – characters, behaviors, and/or objects – that stories could be made out of. Through observation of how players played with them in early builds, increasingly fine-tuned decisions were made that would push towards a final product. In other words, The Snowfield is an experiment in seeing how inverting the traditional relationship between Design and QA can streamline a development process for creating highly improvisational, simulation-based narrative worlds on a tight schedule.
In practice I’m not sure what I think of this. The material is not easy to engage with in the context of a big crowded Expo, which probably didn’t help my attempts to assess it: the Snowfield opens with a character who appears to be a WWI soldier, in a desolate environment. No explicit goals are specified, but body language conveys coldness and despair. In my playthrough, I approached another soldier who was seated on the ground. I wasn’t able to interact with him, but he did follow me to a location with a fire. I couldn’t interact with the fire either, however, and soon set back out into the snow, where I picked up something that looked like a piece of firewood, then wandered a long time in a desolate trench.
What this communicated to me emotionally was a sense of loneliness, hardship, and desperate pointlessness: the landscape and the characters bore the marks of suffering from war. After a time, the slow walking pace and lack of incident reminded me of the boredom I’ve felt while playing works by Tale of Tales: a boredom that seems to be part of the point of the experience, and that isn’t even completely unpleasant, but that differs strongly from the constant reinforcement one usually gets from a game.
After I had wandered through Snowfield for a while, I gave up, because I was not sure what else I might be looking for or be able to accomplish in this environment. The offer/response structure of improvisational theater didn’t seem to be available, or else I simply didn’t understand the offers the game was making. That said, it may be that the context in which I played made it difficult to assess what Snowfield was trying to do.
Nous plays with the idea of the game as a personality searching for self-knowledge and at odds with the player (like You Find Yourself In A Room), and with the possibility that the game will break down due to your interactions with it (see also Glitchhiker, Degeneracy). It veers through sadism, self-destruction, and passive-aggressive negotiation with the player; my favorite level is one where (spoiler rot-13ing) gur tnzr sybbqf gur cynlre jvgu cbvag-tnvavat cbjre-hcf naq ab punyyratr, gura qrznaqf gb xabj jurgure gung jnf na ragregnvavat rkcrevrapr. While it’s a very brief game — the only game I played from start to finish while standing on the Expo floor — it demonstrates considerable emotional range.
Without question the weirdest of the IGF Expo games I tried, Mirage presents the player with an avatar that looks like a floating top hat. The player can choose to expand this avatar by selecting additional appendages that then grow out of the top hat on stalks: a hand, a foot, a mouth, an eye. This weird, self-modifying entity floats through an underwater environment full of unexpected obstacles and helps, such as a bunch of popcorn. What does it mean, what’s it about, what are you trying to accomplish? Not so clear. I was never sure what I was supposed to be accomplishing with the level I was on, or whether there were multiple levels for that matter. It may be that the entire point of the game is to use your hand appendage to grab popcorn for your mouth appendage. Curious, dreamlike, grotesquely evocative.
Wonderputt. This has been out for a while, I guess, but I hadn’t run into it before: a flash game that implements fantasy mini-golf isn’t the sort of thing I am typically watching for. There’s no particular narrative to Wonderputt, and not much that I would categorize as novel or inventive gameplay: you’re just knocking a ball around a golf course with simple controls for direction and force. Wonderputt succeeds instead by simply being extremely good at what it’s doing. Sound, image, and animation evoke a gentle world full of enchanting surprises, as the landscape and its animals react to the ball. Wonderputt achieves a joyful combination of silliness and beauty.
While at GDC I also read Anna Anthropy’s new book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, and played her new game, Dys4ia. I mention these two together because the book and the game have a lot to say about one another. Rise is a manifesto about why and how more people should be making more games and expressing more diverse voices in game form. It ends with a couple of useful appendices, including a list of tools (listing not only GameMaker but also things like Twine, Inform, and Ren’Py) and a list of especially unusual indie games that would never have existed as commercial products (including The Baron).
Dys4ia is Anna doing exactly what she advocates: it’s a highly personal work of interactive autobiography about the experience of undergoing hormone replacement therapy. The levels are small and simple, and the story proceeds whether the player succeeds or not (which leads to a certain amount of inevitable and tedious bickering about whether Dys4ia is “really” a game). But the interactive components are an empathy-reinforcing, absolutely necessary piece of the story being told. The same story sans game segments would not be nearly so powerful, and the simple, lo-fi nature of the experience does not detract, for me, but gives the whole thing a persuasive immediacy. (In an obscure way, it reminded me of Hyperbole and a Half, though not so funny.) I teared up both times I played.