Overall the play testing was quite successful – people felt sad, but the problem was the mechanics didn’t compliment the message. To rectify this I have iterated in the following ways:
The title provides an immediate goal and context for the game: Get To The Bridge. Players know they must find a bridge as their objective, and want, in the game. This means they have unity of purpose from the first moments of the game.
The addition of an extra level to continue to reinforce the unity of purpose between the player and player character. The game now begins with a shooting gallery, the player controls the father character and is shooting at escaping prisoners.
They gain points for each prisoner they kill, which will establish a social norm. It will be utterly second nature to players to shoot the characters, because they are rewarded with points for doings so and there is nothing else they can do. This will continue until the mother character enters the screen. The player can either shoot the mother or not, but either way she gets injured and falls to the floor, violating the previously established social norm. Hopefully players will identify that she is a character to care about by the fact she is visually different to the other characters, and the fact that when she is shot no more prisoners appear. I want the players full attention to be on the player character and the mother character.
After this the player can move to the injured mother character, and give her the green circle to feed her. By placing the player in a caretaker role over the mother character hopefully they will not only be moved to go to her out of guilt and regret, but want to help her because they (the player) injured her in the first place and because they will identify with her want. To escape. This section of gameplay will also indicate that the father character possesses a valued trait: remorse and heroism as he tries to save her.
The idea of this is that players will be moved to help her through compassionate empathy. Partially due to the fact there is no other action available to them, partially due to the reasons listed above. Love hearts appear above the father’s head when he gets close to the woman, to indicate he knows and loves her. This is the part where the player characters want aligns with the mother characters, and the father and player both will want to escape with the mother character.
Once the player has given the mother character the green ball she ran on screen with
, she recovers making the player feel triumphant because they have saved her. More love hearts appear, indicating that the feeling between them is mutual and therefore can be shared by the player.
To bring some tension and panic to the scene straight after the positive emotion of triumph for saving her, straight away I have used a reversal of the characters fortunes. A single guard appears on the screen and catches them, then summons a spotlight and more guards to chase them down. The sound of a siren should trigger tension and panic in players, as well as the image of the spotlight and advancing antagonists. Players should feel exposed and under attack, which makes them automatically want to run away to the right of the screen. This aligns the characters and the players purpose (wants) as well as actions. It is entirely believable that the character will want to run away at this point, and the symmetry of this want matched with the players will create a shared perspective which should lead to identification of character emotions, as well as concern for the characters.
Upon reaching the edge of the screen, the player is surrounded by spotlights and guards. There is nothing the player can do to prevent this. The hope is that players will feel tense and desperate here, because they have no control and have to watch what happens helplessly. The father surrenders, and his animations are of someone kneeling with their arms up to indicate this. However his surrender is pointless as he is shot dead regardless. The surprise of this moment will be punctuated with a gunshot and should promote feelings of sadness, as players watch the mother character cry over the loss of her partner.
This section needs some serious iteration, while the basic events and intention of the scenes are understood by players they don’t develop the level of concern required to make the moments truly sad. It leaves the events of the scene somewhat flat and unemotional.
The next scene then loads with the player controlling the mother character. The mother character is alone, with a purple circle that acts as food similarly to the previous scene. I am hoping that this indicates her isolation and loneliness, and will be a juxtaposition from the last scene where there were lots of characters on screen. As she picks up the circles the child she is carrying grows, to heighten the emotions stakes and add meaning to failure (death). This worked well in the previous iteration, so apart from updating the art and polishing the birth process I haven’t changed anything.
Below is an image of the birth process. The mother character hunches in pain to tap into the sympathetic pain(emotional contagion) in players, and the child grows and slowly is moved to the outside of her body. I also added hearts throughout the birth so that whilst players knew the mother character was in pain, that she was happy and loved the child.
After this the mother character and child will move together, dodging spotlights and hiding as required. The pacing of this scene has been difficult to manage. To hit the emotional highs and lows effectively players must experience fun emotions, challenge, frustration etc in order to feel like they are struggling along with the character to reach safety and accomplish their want: to escape. The level has been extended with multiple paths to promote exploration and curiosity, as well as a different experience each time and the moving spotlights have been placed to ramp up intensity and difficulty right up until the bridge. Unfortunately extending the level aeems to have diminished the emotional intensity of the scene. There isnt enough emotional triggers and events for players to remain emotionally engaged. that is, until players reach the bridge. They know immediately that it represents the end of the game. They haven’t seen anything like it previously in the game, and its inherent difference makes it a landmark that players immediately head towards. There is a small moment of triumph and joy here, as players are anticipating the characters escaping and the end of the game.
Once they reach the bridge there is the most shocking reversal of the game, when the mother dies just as both characters have reached freedom. It is the most intense moment of the game, shocking and devastating due to its unfair and abrupt nature.The sound of the siren and gunshot, the spray of blood and the child’s crying all combine to create sadness in players. This moment has been iterated to have more polish for timings, animations etc to improve the emotions that were already being experienced.
The level design in this game is poor at best, being barely more than a grey box level, it doesn’t tell its story very well. The game is essentially one linear, boring path. It tells the story of setting (a prison) well, and this setting requires no explanation or context for players to use to fill in the narrative blanks.
Ideally the game should possess more mechanics than shooting, walking, hiding and timing. It is essentially a walking simulator that would benefit from some depth. Ideally both characters would be controlled independently, with fully fleshed out character designs and animations to display who they are as an individual and how they are feeling to reinforce the identification for players. The mechanics would be implemented so the player could not progress without using both characters in the intended way, to reinforce and demonstrate the way said characters feel about each other as well as events within the game. The mechanics could also be implemented in such a way that the narrative came from the mechanics, so players could explore choices, morality and character personality through the mechanics. Similarly to how This War Of Mine and Papers Please use management and survival mechanics to force players to make difficult choices, and then watch those choices play out and impact the characters lives. If i was to increase the length of the time in the shooting gallery and use that to set up the characters, backstories and inciting incident correctly there would be much more of an emotional impact when the father character makes a big decision and helps his partner escape.
If the section played as the mother was shortened, but forced the player to move around a lot more and discover the “correct” direction by themselves then it would probably have more impact because it encourages curiosity and exploration, which compliment stories which the player figures out for themselves. There is going to need to be ambiguity for the story, because of asset creation limitations. How i use that ambiguity is vital to improving the experience, rather than allowing it to solely burden me. By avoiding text and dialogue, all of the interactions and events in the game are through sound and images, and somewhat ambiguous due to the nature of the poor quality art. However sound has proven vital to bridging this gap. Sound tells a story in a way that is universal. The sound of a gunshot before a character drops down dead removes a lot of the ambiguity from a situation, however leaves some behind in terms of character motivation. Why did the father shoot the escaping prisoners? Why did he shoot his partner? Why did the other guards shoot the father and mother? These are all things that the player needed to understand to fully form an attachment to the player characters, and things that they didn’t because there was still too much ambiguity for them to construct such a nuanced series of emotions with so little stimuli. This is why the events that included sounds, and very obvious actions and consequences created an emotional response when other events did not. For example, if we compare two events in the game. Both will be scripted events, to remove the players ability to change anything for ease of analysis.
- When the mother gives birth. This moment is scripted that the mother will become stationary in a safe place, and slowly give birth. The character is shown hunching in pain, with love hearts appearing above their head. Eventually the child is born, and the player can move them on.
- When the mother dies. The player comes to a bridge, as they try to walk across a spotlight sees them. The sound of a siren, followed by a gunshot. The mother is dead in a pool of blood, the child crying. The child gets up and can carry on.
The section where the mother dies always gets a reaction of surprise from players, and it was the moment that most consistently produced a sad reaction. I think a big part of that was the audio, and the simple nature of the event. The siren is a common dread-inducing sound, as well as a gunshot. The intention of the event was so simple it could be understood in a raw form: a character wants to go across the bridge, but as they try are shot dead” it required very little else to get surprise from players. Its ambiguity does not affect the perception of it players have in the way events that require prior knowledge do. However i failed to include any foreshadowing to resolve this, meaning that players had no setup for what was to happen, leaivng all events in the game feeling abrupt.
When adding the child to the picture it generated the sadness, because it added another want: for the child to live. Especially as the player had invested time and collected food to make that child fully grown. The event on its own required no depth or context, the simplicity of shooting dead a mother trying to get her child to safety across a bridge was enough to evoke sadness. However the mother giving birth didn’t have very much emotional response at all, this could be because there is no sound, and because players didn’t realise the woman was pregnant until the birth event happened. However i think it was also because the event itself broke the immersion of the moment. Players were unable to suspend their disbelief, because the visual representation, on screen, of the birth didn’t present a believable version of events. When the event was depicted by circles, players immediately recognised that the character was pregnant, and giving birth. The ambiguity of the character allowed players to suspend their disbelief that the birth event was “realistic”, as soon as the character became humanoid I should have changed the events. Instead I could have had the mother character be carrying the child from the beginning, to have provided the immediate image of woman and child so players could immediately identify that they were a family and were immediately concerned for their safety. Players would also immediately have perceived higher stakes and higher cost of failure.
Additional areas to discover during play would also be a good way to build the world, characters and events though environmental storytelling, which would have been a good way to set the stakes and consequences of failure for players so they knew what would happen if the characters failed to obtain their want. It would also have been a good way to explore the game world. Why the father character is shooting people, why those people are trying to escape, and where they are escaping from? This would have created an mental anchor point for players to allow them to learn the rules and customs of the world, to give better understanding of who the character is, what they want and how they are trying to get it. For example in the game The Solarus Project, where the player has crash landed on an alien planet and must escape and survive. Inside ancient temples there are wall murals depicting how to use machinery and complete puzzles, as well as maps and the history of the alien race. I should have considered the powerful way this enables player to piece together the world and story. I could have used a brick wall with barbed wire instead of a fence, and used graffiti words and images to provide a thin layer of world building, so players could more easily understand the character and develop a bond with them instead of the player having to fill in too much information themselves, leading to no bond because the character offers the player nothing but a vehicle to work with. And as discussed in a previous blog post, this is a perfectly acceptable type of character bond but ideally I would like to create an emotional bond where the player feels sadness for and with the player character.
Players are identifying with the character, and how the character feels. However they are still not fully receiving the emotions vicariously from the character except for the climactic ending. I think this is due to a combination of the above reasons, mixed with the fact that the visual design is lacking any kind of finesse and does the bare minimum to convey a sense of personality and change for each character. The characters also don’t go through that many challenges and opportunities for change whilst trying to achieve their goal of escape, meaning there are very few opportunities for players to feel concern and empathy for the characters. The characters have no arc, which leaves them feeling (forgive the pun) very two dimensional.
Overall the project has been a mixed bag of results. Whilst I struggled with the non-digital creation of a player-character bond, i created a game where players were engaging in and telling interesting and fun stories, but the emotional emphasis was not on and from the characters. However when i made the switch to digital i managed to create a player-character bond in which the player experienced sadness through and with their character, however failed to draw emotion from the story itself in any way.
I feel that the failure of the non-digital project was in my attempt to make players feel vicariously through a character they have created. It was one of the times conflicting pieces of research allowed me to become distracted and go on an unnecessary tangent. Despite my struggles with the player -character bond the storytelling in the non-digital game was good, the structure of the narrative generation worked well and players were constructing interesting and fun emotional moments. By fun emotional i mean emotions that are linked to fun, such as joy, laughter, triumph, frustration etc.
The failure of the digital project was that it neglects the narrative elements of the game because it is rushed. Basic techniques such as foreshadowing, world building and plot points have been ignored or thinly used leading to uneven pacing and a mish-mash of inconsistent ideas. Too much time was spent on the character arcs and trying to convey the character changes and emotions, however that effort wasn’t wasted because it did improve the players bond to the characters. Players felt sad when the mother character died, despite the need of vast iteration and improvements to virtually every area of the artefact.
Generally I am pleased with the project, and while the artefact should and definitely could be better I am happy I managed to make some of the people I asked to play the game feel sad by design. At time of posting this the tally from playtesters is: of 15 people who played it, 4 people felt sad when the mother character died.
A copy of the GitHub repository can be found here: https://github.com/HeatherBishop/Dissertation