GDC 2012: Day Five

Congratulations!  You’ve completed level five of the GDC!  Here are the secrets you discovered:

You saw a game about making objects smaller and bigger:

Steve Swink demonstrated this game concept, called Scale, at the Experimental Gameplay Sessions at the end of the day.  This particular concept revolved around the idea of using a handheld device to suck mass out of certain objects in the game world, and put them back into others.  Any object in the game can be scaled this way, including the clouds in the sky and the ground on which you stand, producing some very interesting situations in the puzzles he demonstrated to the audience.  One section I found particularly fascinating was a level with a tiny house in it.  If you sucked up enough mass from other nearby objects, you could make the house big enough to walk inside it and explore.  At this point, Swink commented that he had thought about adding an even smaller doll’s house inside the first one in a reference to The Secret World of Arrietty, and as I’m kind of a sucker for miniature things and loved Arrietty, I thought that was really neat.

You learned how Dan Benmergui created his award-winning game Storyteller:

Storyteller, which won this year’s IGF Nuovo Award, is an experimental game in which the player tells stories by placing digital “actors” into a comic strip.  Each level has a goal (a particular story that the player is supposed to tell for that scene), and a collection of different actors and props for them to make use of in order to tell their story.  Once the elements are placed, the game tries to figure out what the characters’ actions are in each panel, based on the roles they are playing in a particular panel (each actor can be one of many different roles such as “lover”, “hero”, “villain”, etc) and their relationships with and actions towards the other characters in previous panels.  He’s currently experimenting with various other elements such as different settings, flashbacks, and dialogue to add complexity to the game, and it looks like a lot of fun to play.  It’s a fascinating take on the problem of modeling social interaction in games.  What I found most interesting, however, was the possibility for players to create their own stories, relying on the game’s engine to interpret the story correctly.  Each level has a camera that allows you to take a picture of your story and share it with others, and I’d be interested to know if he’s planning a freeform or “create your own” mode for the game where he gives the player access to all the characters and props and allows them to create their own, freeform story.

You heard how the game GlitchHiker was made, and how it was eventually killed by its players:

GlitchHiker was a game made by Rami Ismail for the Global Game Jam in 2011.  The theme for the jam was “extinction”, and the game consisted of two parts: one was the game itself, where you ran around on a single screen collecting coins and trying to avoid dangerous “glitches” on the screen.  The second part, which made the game far more interesting, was called the “system”, and there was only one system which every instance of the game connected to when you played.  Here’s how the system worked: when the game was first released, the system had 100 lives (that’s right, the game had lives, not the player).  Every time the player died, it subtracted one life from the system.  Every time the player collected 100 coins, he added a life to the system.  As the system gradually lost lives, its health started to degrade: graphical glitches would start to appear on the screen, blocks that should have been stationary would begin to shift and flicker, the audio would become erratic and nonsensical, etc.  All of this, of course, makes the game harder to play.  Once the system reached zero lives, it shut down and the game became unplayable, permanently.  You can still download GlitchHiker onto your computer, but it won’t work because the system is extinct.  To me, this is a fascinating look at the potential for games to say something meaningful about real and serious concepts like responsibility and death, without having to do it through a “deep” narrative or pretentious graphics.  The game, on its own, is a pretty simple popcorn game about collecting points and avoiding hazards, but GlitchHiker managed to demonstrate that simple concepts such as this can still be about more “serious” subjects.

You found renewed inspiration for the capabilities of games to be immersive experiences with Robin Arnott’s Deep Sea:

The next game that caught my interest was Robin Arnott’s installation game Deep Sea.  It’s an especially unconventional game in two respects: first, it’s played using only headphones and a joystick (no graphics); second, you have to wear an outfit while playing that includes a confining, uncomfortable gas mask that blocks out all light and measures your breathing, and a heavy coat that simulates the feeling of being in a deep-sea diving outfit.  The game consists of listening for monsters that are nearby, moving the joystick to turn in their direction, and pressing the trigger on the joystick to shoot at them.  Every time you breathe, the game plays a loud breathing sound that makes it more difficult to hear the monsters approaching, so you have to pay careful attention to your breathing while playing and breathe as little as possible.  Although for obvious reasons, Arnott couldn’t put us all in gas masks to demonstrate, he has a volunteer come up instead and then dimmed the lights and played the game over the room’s speakers for a few minutes to give us an idea of what the player was experiencing.  Although Deep Sea’s unusual setup insures it won’t catch on with people playing at home, it’s a fascinating experiment in the level of immersion and atmosphere that can be achieved through the use of sound alone.  Many of those who have played it come out of the experience shaking, and Arnott even said that a few people have fainted while playing.  I wonder how some of these properties could be applied to more mainstream titles?  Obviously, distributing a coat and gasmask with a major console title would be impractical, but perhaps there’s another lesson that can be taken from Deep Sea’s example: the most useful tool you have as a designer for heightening a player’s immersion is often the player’s imagination.  As Robert Briscoe mentioned in his talk on Dear Esther, this means that often the best path toward immersion is not realism at all, but rather a sort of impressionism that outlines a feeling or mood, and leaves many of the details to the player’s imagination.  Perhaps mainstream titles could achieve greater depth of emotional response in their players by removing elements rather than adding them.

You discovered that game designers are not very good at cooperation:

The final game of the evening was a game by John Sear and Adam Russell.  They run a company called Wall Four that makes large-scale, collaborative games for very large numbers of players that are played on a projection screen.  For this session, they got the audience to play their game Renga, which combines elements of real-time strategy games with the different “phases” often seen in old-school arcade games.  Here’s how it works: up to 100 people in the audience are given ordinary laser pointers that they can point at the screen.  The game tracks the position of each of the laser pointers and uses that as feedback.  Play is cooperative on a large scale; players need to coordinate their actions and work together to achieve objectives such as defending their base, gathering resources, and building structures.  An entire game usually lasts about an hour or so, and as the difficulty of the game increases the audience needs to improve its cohesion and become better at working as a team.  Unfortunately, the audience at GDC didn’t seem to be very good at cooperating.  The game John and Adam used to introduce us to the idea was a much simpler game about assembling a jigsaw puzzle; and it took the audience several minutes to even put the first piece into place.  Later, when the game proper had started and we were trying to collect resources while fighting off baddies, there were a lot of players that either hadn’t figured out how the game worked yet, or were just being stubborn.  Figures; get a group of game designers together all playing the same game, and the first thing they try to do is break it.

Well, that about wraps it up for this year’s GDC.  I’ll write up a post a little later where I go over everything I’ve talked about, address some of the more interesting points I took away from the conference, and try to break out a few of this year’s common themes and threads in an effort to tie the whole thing together; you can look forward to that in the coming week.  See you then!

High score! – Bonus level unlocked!  Continue?  (Y/N)

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