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.