Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Call to Arms: Bereavement in Blacksburg

Steve Gaynor, designer at 2K Marin and writer of the excellent Fullbright, posted a Call to Arms a couple of months ago. He asks for designs that “express through interaction an experience that the player will find meaningful-- something novel, poignant, interesting, personal, or enlightening.” I've been meaning to write down my design for a while, but just haven't had the time until now. Before I go into details of the game design I wanted to write a few personal notes to put it into context.

I graduated from Virginia Tech in 2004 and the events of April 16th, 2007 affected me as an alumnus and person. Not because I knew anyone directly affected by the attacks, but because I felt so saddened to see such a horrific act occur to a community that was so good to me. As anyone who knows me could tell you, I have an unwavering love for my alma mater. This leads to great amounts of school pride and also makes me feel constantly connected to the community, even though I now reside hundreds of miles away in Madison, WI.

To make a video game based around these events is difficult and delicate. Instead of dealing with the violence of the actual attacks, what struck me was the way the community rallied together to start the healing process. I wasn't in Blacksburg at this time, yet when I saw Professor Nikki Giovanni's impassioned poem “We Are Virginia Tech” followed by the crowd of thousands chanting “Let's Go Hokies”, I was moved to tears. Together, the community said “We will not let this be the defining moment in our lives or of our school.”

I wish to explore that feeling of togetherness and understanding of what it is like to go through the grieving process. I present my design, titled Bereavement in Blacksburg, and hope that it is a step in the right direction to expressing such feelings in an interactive medium. I fully admit these thoughts aren't fully fleshed out, even after I attempted to build this game for months, due to the difficulty with exploring these emotions and the scope that I felt it would take. However, I think it is best to write these thoughts down and put them in the public domain.

Bereavement in Blacksburg centers around the concept of loss and grief, and how people cope with it. The game takes place on April 17th, 2007, the day after the shootings. You plays as a male character who resides in a dorm on campus.

You begin the game laying in bed, early in the morning. The phone rings and goes to message. It's your girlfriend's voice and she's asking you to answer and talk with her. It is apparent from her dialog that you knew someone directly killed in the attacks. For obvious reasons, who that person is isn't revealed, nor is it relevant.

Once the message finishes, you take control of the character. From here the world is rather open. There are multiple objects to interact with in the opening room. You can use the phone to call your girlfriend back. You can use your computer and see e-mails from the administration, as well as condolences from friends. You can watch TV or listen to music to escape from things. You can turn to bottles of alcohol to drown your sorrows. Or you can just leave the room and venture to other parts of campus and find other interactions. The choices are yours and they affect the way your character progresses through the game.

Getting drunk and then talking to your girlfriend may cause you to speak in a belligerent or flippant manner. It may also make certain choices unavailable to you later, such as going to the school's convocation with her later. Speaking to her sober may open up a dialog that wouldn't occur otherwise, one that may have the character ultimately express his true feelings verbally.

Internally, the game keeps a “grief score”. You start at zero, and positive influencing interactions will increase this score and negative influencing actions will decrease it. However, the player is not aware of this scoring mechanism. In my experience, often during the grieving processes we do not see the whole picture of how our actions can positively or negatively affect us. Hiding the true outcome of different interactions helps proceduralize that state of mind.

The player has an idea that drinking isn't probably the best idea, however they may not realize how bad of an idea it may be. Additionally, this means different actions can have different values depending on the circumstances surrounding it. Using alcohol again as an example, drinking alone may be negative but drinking in moderation, with friends may be neutral or even positive.

As you leave your room and explore more of campus more interactions are available. You can write your thoughts in your journal or compose music that expresses your feelings. You can attempt to go on with life as if nothing is wrong, by just doing normal everyday things such as going out to dinner. You can stop going to classes, once they resume. You can visit the memorial erected to the victims. There are many possibilities available.

All of these minor interactions will force scripted major events, depending on your “grief score” at the time. The minor interactions of beginning to drink and never answering your girlfriend's phone calls may result in the major event of her breaking up with you. The minor interactions of regularly writing in your journal and communicating with others can lead to the major event of moving to the next stage of grief.

Ultimately, there should be multiple paths to end the game, just as there are in life. One can move through all the stages of grief, or become stuck at certain stages. The needs to be a clear end to all narrative paths. In the end, the game is one of choices and how these choices ultimately affect how we deal with grief.

My concerns with this design are numerous. Are there enough interactions available to make a meaningful experience out of? How does one define what are positive and negative choices? One person's positive choice could be another's negative. Also, does this actually help the player understand the grieving process or does it rely too heavily on narrative to push this feeling and just have simple interactions as the way to branch that narrative?

These are only some of the problems that exist with this design, but with enough time I think they can be conquered. I, unfortunately, just do not have that time currently. I consider this version 0.1 of the the high-level design and will continue to think of ways to solve these problems in this context. If anyone has ideas or wants to run with this game and try to make it, please let me know.


  1. Interesting design--I grew up in NoVA and had a bunch of friends who graduated from VT in '05, but also a lot of younger friends who were seniors at the time of the shooting. I did not know anyone personally who died, but friends of my friends did.

    Two thoughts occur to me immediately. One, that I would definitely like to see playing video games as a mechanism in the game. Two, that this would be a perfect candidate for prototyping as a text adventure game, to see if it really worked.

  2. Here's a thought I don't know if you thought of: Start the game three days *before* the shooting, and give the player a chance to defeat the shooter in the midst of--or even before--the massacre. (Of course, I'm thinking of an Epic battle, but I digress) The actions of the player, including whatever or not he or she stops the tragedy, could have an effect of what will happen next.

  3. Davey, don't you think that's a little bit of a tangent from a game about bereavement? That really falls squarely into the power fantasy of "what if I had a time machine, could I have prevented all this?" Which is exactly the kind of thing a bereaved person should NOT be thinking.

  4. Yeah, the point of the game was to deal stricly with non-violent acts. It's far to easy to deal with fear and aggression in games, and far harder to deal with grief.

    I also think a "what if" scenario doesn't help make a case for "Hey games can be more than just entertainment" which was my original envisonment for this.

  5. You have some very interesting ideas here, and it looks like this is something you're very passionate about. However, with all of the recent criticism about Metal Gear Solid 4 feeling almost like an interactive movie, I kind of feel motivated to ask the question: How is this game any less an interactive movie than MGS4?

    Another concern I have is, I think it would be very difficult to follow the Kübler-Ross model to the letter, seeing as I don't see how the bargaining stage applies to permanent loss.

    Finally, might I suggest removing the game from the scene of VT? Anonymous victims removes the meaning of their relationship with the player's character, and that relationship is what the character ultimately mourns. However, I agree that it would be in poor taste to use the names or likenesses of any of the real VT victims. But I think you can get around this by creating a fictitious setting. That way, you could have elements like your character had made plans to meet up with one of the victims on April 19th, but those plans won't be carried out now, and it creates a greater need to find something positive to do.

    One more thing: Have you seen Gus Van Sant's film, Elephant? It explores a high school shooting from multiple vantage points. You said something about how what moved you about what happened at VT is the way the community reacted. If the game followed the perspective of multiple characters, you might be able to better explore the idea of how a community grieves, not just how an individual grieves.

  6. MGS4 is different in terms of it is meant to be a pure measure of entertainment. I am not attempting to entertain with this game, necessarily.

    But yes there needs to be more interaction, which is the part I need to work on, and less "scripted narrative"

    I have thought multiple characters would be a great idea actually and would be open to trying that. It was one of the things I nixed when I tried to reign in scope. Yes, I have seen Elephant and thought it was mostly well-done and thoughtful. The "these boys are gay" scene at the end felt a little forced admittedly, but that's an easy way to explain why they may have felt so isolated from the rest of the community and detached

    Removing the setting from VT would be hard for me, because it's such a close part of me. All characters in the game would be fictional. No references would directly be made to actual victims. Just discussion that people in general were killed and harmed. I think that is the best way to both be tasteful and stay true to my overall vision here.

    Thanks everyone for their comments so far

  7. I really like your ideas, but one issue that I think might come up is that without any emotional impact on the player themselves, (In your design it would be clear that the character is emotionally effected) I think that the idea of coping with sadness cannot be fully achieved without any sadness on the players part, relying only on the memory of any player who remembered the events that happened in reality. This may just be my philosophy in game design, but I think that having the player experience the emotion instead of having a character in a game show that they feel these emotions is the way to design a game. Like in a sad movie, it is not that the actors are crying, it is sad because the audience is crying. Also, somebody mentioned MGS 4. Note, these following oppinions are not of my own making, but those of the staff on GFW Radio (It's a good podcast, worth a listen) in their discussion of Metal Gear Solid 4. I couldn't help but agree that the theme of oldness and obsolescence came less from the fact that the player's avatar had gray hair than the scenes that Hideo Kojima put in that reminded players of the first PS1 game, and it was the players memory that was able to trigger those emotions. Other than that, I think you have a very good promising idea and I think that it could be very well done. It's just without that personal emotional attachment, that the Player, not the character, feels they knew somebody who was lost in such a terrible way, the experience will not be as effective on the audience.

  8. In follow up to @daveykinsfoxfire, although the idea of having a gun battle with the killer is off topic and irrelevant in the case of a game about dealing with grief, I think that "darius kazemi" is not totally right in saying somebody in mourning would not be thinking about what if. However, instead of letting the person play the "what if" instead, have the player think it. In my previous comment I was saying that the game should start before the tragedy although not necessarily show it (perhaps you could be sleeping through it and wake up like in the original design?) but right before, see the person who you later find out is the killer, maybe even talk to him, so that once you find out what happened, and who did it, you will think "what if I had stopped him!" but because the game will not let you go back, because the flow of time like in reality is unidirectional, you can't do what if, only imagine and wish. It reminds me a little of an experimental little game I saw called "Execution" I believe. When you open the game, you are just presented with a prisoner tied up on a pole, and you are looking through a gun. It just says, you can win or lose, that's it. If you shoot the man tied up, you lose, and even if you close the program and open it, reinstall it or anything, what is done is done. If you could include that kind of emotion into your game, and that kind of lesson about life, "what is done is done" into your design, I believe it could really be great, and truly express the emotions you want to express to the player.

  9. I failed that game because I thought waiting would be how to Win and it didn't so I finally killed him after 5 min...

  10. Worst idea for a game ever.

    The replay value for this really kills me. So many people will take it lightly and just choose the most ridiculous options.

    "OMG LOL I just got drunk, and now I'm raising my grief meter to level 7... OKOK now I'm going to try to commit suicide in the middle of the quad"

    Your asking people to explore an open ended circumstance in a controlled world. You see how those two don't match.

    Your approach is too linear. You either need to take a Dragon's Lair approach (Extreme) where you punish the person immediately for making the completely wrong choice or you need to rethink some of the basic mechanics.

    What you've created is an experience that anyone could have, you need to look at video games as a median that can do something that no other experience could do.

    Way to get on Kotaku though. Good 5 minutes of fame coming at you.

  11. I like your idea, and I like what you're trying to do with games. That said, I have a few suggestions...

    What you're trying to do is create a game that asks with player to deal with grief, but by starting the game after the death of the character, you fail to place any sense of loss into the player. If the game starts this way, they player will only be able to tackle the ideas presented as abstract and foreign ideas, and not as something personal. In order to instill grief in the player, or at least a good simulation, you need to start by creating a relationship between the player and the character who is going to die.

    My suggestion would be to start the game earlier to a period in which the player can interact with his or her in-game friends. There could be situations in which the player is asked to complete an activity which they can only do with the help of their friends. Create situations in which the player feels dependent on these people. This can even be months before the tragedy, and you could even skip ahead past the events to the next day, when the player discovers who has died.

    As another suggestion, play Half-Life 2 and study how narrative is presented in the first chapter of that game. I love this game because it so successfully places you into the story by making you feel helpless and scared.

    And finally, when you do start on this, make sure to give your project some depth by actually going and trying to talk to some of the people this has affected. Their experiences will help you build something which is true to life and sincere.

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