A few samples of my senior thesis video game. The player controls a white orb and travels around the world gathering smaller orbs. The more they gather, the further they can see. If they collect too much, however, their vision will become hindered by the light.
Art, sound and programming by abitfrank.
Advanced apologies for the over-ambitious concept statement.
Interactive media offers its users the chance to interact within a universe outside of their own. As a religious user of such media, I have grown accustomed to many of its conventions and have encountered many of its stereotypes. The videogame genre in particular relies heavily on its own language in order to completely immerse players in its fabricated worlds. In many games, “macho” characters, hyper-realized game worlds and forced means of interaction cause the player to lose their personal identity to that of the avatar they are controlling. This mainstream lack of focus on the player’s imagination is a loss that needs to be exploited. I am creating an environment that critiques mainstream game experiences by destroying the stereotypes the genre has proliferated.
I have found that mainstream games don’t allow the players to creatively immerse themselves in game reality because the game worlds are extremely fleshed out. Videogame characters, for instance, are often highly sexualized and extremely muscled. As many individuals do not fit this description fully, their digital representation causes an immediate disconnect from reality and personal experiences. Furthering the gap between the individual and the media are the highly polished, over-realized environments that the player exists in. While beautiful and engaging, these backdrops emphasize the purpose of the game, rather than the purpose of the individual playing the game. Gameplay mechanics, (such as jumping, shooting, break-neck racing, etc) estrange the individual further by focusing the player’s attention on a decided objective and concrete result. Sound design, too, cues they player to what they need to do to proceed. With hyper-realistic explosions and a racing tempo, it is difficult, even at the distance between screen and individual, to resist the need to sprint out of danger, shooting every possible threat in sight. Forced narrative can be used to drive a player to continue to play, but other than on the rare occasion that the plot stirs up emotional resonance with the individual, many times it hinders how a player wants to interact with their digital situation.
While it seems an overwhelming task to counter over-developed and highly-accepted games, such giants are best overcome with direct simplicity. For this reason I have chosen to design a game that draws on abstraction and relies on player’s personal gaming experience. Precedents for this concept have started to appear in many underground independent games. Sony’s Shadow of the Colossus questions the trend of uncontrolled destruction. By forcing the player to painstakingly kill gentle and ambivalent giant, the player’s sense of morality is spotlighted. Music is scarce, but as the player struggles to drive their sword into the calf, forearm and skull of a pathetically floundering teddy-bear character, a slow dirge picks up. Once the player “beats the game” (by destroying the oblivious sentient creatures) they are turned into one of those gentle giants, and left questioning the purpose of their quest. Another game that challenges mainstream purpose is Mazapán’s You Have To Burn The Rope. The way to beat the game is stated in the title, as well as while the player walks through the single level. The player cannot die, and the game is very direct – instructions appear every few seconds. The only abilities granted to the player are “run” and “jump.” To defeat the “boss” the player has to jump over a few platforms, landing on a chandelier that falls on the boss (the rope burns because the player is carrying a flame). After this grueling battle, the player is treated to a 10 minute looping song about how great their conquest was, critiquing hardcore games all the while.
Using these two (among many) independent games as references, I am setting out to challenge how individuals perceive videogames. While many games ground the player in a very concrete reality, I am using abstraction to call attention to the disconnect between “real” reality and “game” reality. The player’s avatar, as the first encounter with the game world, is easily relatable and unassuming. Unlike macho gunman and scantily clad women, my game represents the player as a small, pulsing orb of light. This makes the game accessible to individuals, regardless of gender, physical fitness, etc. The player moves through the game world easily, but with a limited range of vision. To increase (or decrease) the distance they can see, the player must either pick-up or drop smaller glowing spheres as they go through the various gamescapes. If the player has not collected enough spheres, they may not be able to see a jump to clear it. Conversely, if too many spheres are gathered, the field of vision is obscured by the brightness of the player, causing the background to be blown out by varying degrees. As the player explores the possibilities of growth and decay of vision, they will notice that option of continuing on or remaining stationary (or stuck) is determined by the amount of light they have acquired. For example, if the player is too big and bright, they will not be able to navigate through narrower spaces.
Rather than have a narrative or objective that motivates the player, this game assigns no goal, but rather encourages the individual to creatively and conceptually interact with the environment. Many of the levels are natural-scapes that range in degree of detail, color, and logic. At any point the player can drop a glow to enhance the mood of a scene, change the color palette, or unleash a host of other effects. In exchange, however, they stomp down their ability to see. The tension of growth vs. decay is further explored as the player stumbles upon the ruins of other videogames. Not only can these “decayed” levels be manipulated by the player, but they also harken to their over-rendered counterparts. The player is free to create their own narrative as to how the games decayed, or else just accept the current state and continue.
The abstracted feel of the scenes and the vague (if present) agenda allow the player to connect more intimately with their environment. When forced to a slow pace and limited range of vision, the player takes in overlooked details in other games. The connection the player has to a space depends on their familiarity with game culture. Experienced gamers may recognize, for instance, that they are treading on the remains of a “Legends of Zelda” temple, whereas a casual gamer may just acknowledge they are treading in a site of former grandeur. The untold story from whole to fragmented is up to the player to narrate or critique.
I am challenging an industry that bars individuals from bringing their own creativity to their experience. Too often players are told what to feel, how to behave, what attitude to have. Visual and aural clues engage the player in their experience as dictated by the game. In assigning an agenda, players have lost the opportunity to use a truly wonder skill-set: creative curiosity. I am giving the player a chance to explore an abstract environment, fraught with the tension of growth and decay, continuation and stagnation. This is not to say that all mainstream games are “bad” – they offer players an experience that they may not have access to in their everyday routine. This game seeks to do the same, although in reverse. By giving players a chance to slow down the pace of gaming, they can appreciate that they are, in fact, playing a game.