8 October 2015

Dissertation: Month of September

Most of the month started with one big content rush to complete the pre-alpha stage of my game in time for playtesting day and the rest was spent implementing feedback and getting supportive friends and family to review my written submission. In that time I managed to polish my writing, to make sure my points came across clearly and thoughts flowed smoothly. Also I made some major changes to the UI and fixed bugs in the game. More of that can be read about on the playtesting day blog entry. On the 23rd, I successfully submitted my masters dissertation.

Overall I feel very proud of what I've managed to achieve in 4 months. I think the power of environmental storytelling and games as an expression of an artist's subjective state is an area that is only just flourishing in the games industry. Being able to dedicate an entire semester to psychogeography in games has been very enriching and I've had so much fun immersing myself in the spirit of the Romantics.

There were also challenges in spending four months on independent research and development. When working on a solo project, self management became such an important task in assuring the health of the project and myself. It was thanks to all the Gantt charts and sticky notes that I didn't have to take an all nighter at any point. A vast improvement from the weekly all nighters when undertaking my architecture undergraduate. The input of others also became invaluable to the short-sightedness that often occurs when working alone. That includes not just the kind friends and family who took the time to read and/or playtest my dissertation, but also those that asked me in passing what my project was about. Being able to describe it in a sentence or two really helped me put the project in focus and perspective.

Should my dissertation be deemed worthy by my professors, I plan on taking my work onto more public platforms. With so much great feedback, including this very well written and humbling review by Jack Lowe, I'm hoping to optimize my game for tablets by the end of the year. I'd love to be able to go to events and gatherings and pop out the game for others to play. As it is such a short piece (now that the key issue has been fixed) it would work quite well as a self contained experience.

All in all, it has been a very rich year and I am incredibly melancholic it is over. This course had not only helped me gain confidence in my game design skills but has also been the seed of lasting relationships and budding opportunities. We are a cool class and I have no doubt we are all going to do some amazing things. As for my own path, I have moved down to Brighton where I will be starting my volunteership at 4 times BAFTA nominated and all round geniuses, Blast Theory. In the meantime, look out for blog posts on cool indie games events and artist's happenings in London and Brighton. 

And bring on the next stage!

12 September 2015

Dissertation: Playtesting Day

On the 10th of September our professors kindly let us invite non-Brunel students onto campus to try our games. With that extra pressure of completing something presentable for outside eyes, us masters bonded over tight deadlines and development sprints. Hours before the doors opened we were pinched over last minute bug fixes, keyboards clacking as we polished gameplay.

The event was busy, guests traveled from as far as Canterbury and Cambridge to play our games. (Thank you!) We were overwhelmed by the interest and we welcomed everyone with drinks, cookies and controllers. With only three hours in which to play games and so many playtesters, not everyone got to play all the games. However everyone seemed satisfied with what they got out of the day and we ended the event with some celebratory drinks at the pub.

Thank you Ashley for the picture!
My notebook is filled with notes. Some of the biggest observations was my gross underestimation of the time it would take to play the game. While originally I was expecting it to take 10 or so minutes, the reality of it was closer to 40 minutes. It was a similar mistake to the one we did during Meeting. A puzzle that would take 1 minute to complete for us designers would take 20 for two completely new players. In this game, the time difference was greatly to do with the amount of content in the game (people spent an average of half a minute looking at things, then rechecking them for the number code for the safe). However what took the most time was the fact that the key was accidentally really well hidden. While it took up a quarter of the screen, everyone seemed to overlook it to the point that I would have to interfere in every game session at around the 30 minute mark. It was an interesting optical illusion and while funny to a lot of players, it will have to change.

Some things that worried me before playtesting day were settled. My game has a strange navigation system that might be more intuitive for tablets but on PC might seem a bit esoteric. However the instructions were clear to almost all players and after two minutes they could control the device with ease. To be absolutely sure, I might add an extra line of text to go with the current animations.

While I like everything being diegetic, it will also be easier to include a system that makes it clearer what objects can and can't be interacted with as some players would resort to clicking on everything. This might not need to be the case in the tablet version but for PC, the platform on which it is being graded, it will make interactions smoother. Also, I will have to add in the option to read handwriting as typed text as some players had difficulties with a few words.

The overall feedback was fantastic! After finishing the game I would ask my playtesters: "What do you think happened?" What a relief it was to hear them relate back to me what I was trying to say! Everyone understood my main point while reacting differently to it, the more observant players would go deeper into the story, others caught the references to surrealists and romantics. One of the playtesters, Adam, put it wonderfully: There are many layers to the story. Not everyone will explore the deepest layer but everyone got the overarching concept.

I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to play my game:

Negin Aminy Raouf
Charles Weston-Smith
Adam Chladek
Jack Lowe
Joseph Moran
Ivo Chladek

Your feedback is helping me greatly in polishing up this game. And apologies to those that wished to play but where cut short by the time. Drop me an e-mail and I'll be happy to send you the prototype.

With so much to do, us masters are living 24/7 in the labs while we all finish up our games. Wish us luck!

4 September 2015

Dissertation: Month of August

The quick rundown: The paper has been sent to various of my very kind friends and family for proofreading. Thank you everyone who gave me feedback! I owe you a beverage for taking the time to read a very lengthy essay and put in the brainpower to criticise an academic text. After standing so close to my writing, getting fresh eyes has been very encouraging. I can safely say the paper is a couple of days off from being ready.

Most of the month of August has been spent creating the ludic sketch. No matter how short I've tried to make it, a game takes its time and getting it all done in 6 weeks is proving a challenge. The most time consuming factor has been the content but, as it is a game based on environmental exploration, content is everything. I'm not very happy with the art but with how little time I have it is going to have to wait. But all is going well and I should be going into testing next week. Which brings me to...

On the 10th of September we are holding a playtesting day at Brunel University London. This is all thanks to our very kind tutors who let us open the labs to guests. Setting myself such a harsh deadline has been tough but productive. The game definitely needs to be of a good enough quality by then.

And with that, I'm delving right back to work.

2 August 2015

Dissertation: Month of July

Brunel students, there is a wonderful patch of tall grass between Isambard and Cowley Road in which to get lost. If you keep exploring you might find perfect picnic alcoves and secret gathering spots. Keep walking and you might come across a 20-something talking animatedly into her phone, except no one is on the other line. That would be me, and just this month I was wondering why a town, street or house would lay completely abandoned and what the core message of my game would be.

The story and the mechanics of the game are there, both birthed out of each other and capture the requirements I outlined the month before. Even some of the ideas that arose from that one afternoon on a Barcelona balcony made it's way into the game. I spent some time placing the story in various settings and observing how it changed however I ended up going with what made the most thematic connections, with a setting that represented from all perspectives what I will be trying to say.

I'm thinking these two images, by the same Caspar David Friedrich, when placed next to each other. And Sylvia Plath's "Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can, I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night." I'm thinking Anna Karenina, her mind consuming itself indoors. Le Corbusier calling homes "machines for living" and Will Self's spiritual exultations in the classroom and on walks. Yes, I am being vague on purpose because nothing will show it better than the game (if all goes well).

After the walk, I set off to test the core mechanics. Nine lines of code later and I had a rhythmic walk that made use of parallax and the technicalities of a tablet. Some digital brushstrokes later I had a sky (shown below) and some mountains which move to the rhythm of the tablet. Watching it come together in one satisfying afternoon is getting me all excited to get this game done and out there.

But there is still a lot to plan until then. Like for example the placement of the story in the environment. Something I have been working on through the help of post it notes and markers, and of course by making friends play it through like a text-based adventure game. The shape of the house has changed so much while placing the story in it. Everything from the objects to the style of the architecture is becoming a metaphor for the characters and the mechanics.

Over the course of the next week I will be working on re-drafting the first version of the essay. Maybe it's because I've been in the same room for so long while writing, it's been a really slow process. I'll be printing out the essay and writing by hand this week in hopes it might help loosen up that creativity. Onwards!

16 July 2015

Develop Brighton and the Role of Games Education

The late 1950's film industry saw a revolution in their medium through names like Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. The primary distinction from their anterior maestros is that these filmmakers had studied their crafts at universities. They understood their semiotics and aesthetics and this strengthened their script concepts and filmic frame. It lead to innovation. It is my belief that we have reached a similar point in the games industry.

This Wednesday, Tim Phillips and I tubed and trained our way from Brunel University to Brighton. It wouldn't be my first time at Develop: Brighton, a game developer conference where indies dress up like their triangle-breasted characters, academics mentor visiting students, and Peter Molyneux makes ghostly strolls on his phone. Though slightly sleep deprived from days of working on our dissertations, we jumped from stand to stand, playing games and debating the state of the industry with developers and fans.

We must have played every game at the expo when Tim collapsed on a bean bag. I had just been talking animatedly with the masters students at the National Film and Television School and my mind was sparking with excitement, frustrations and ideas. In that pause Tim and I shared a thought:

The most innovative game designs are coming out of universities. The boundaries of games were pushed that day by people like Mata and Elwin of SassyBot, Paul Dillon of Cupboard Games and the various students of the National Film and Television School. They have games that break our understanding of agency, transform storytelling or go Dali and take you on an experience on the development of an egg.

We are at the game industry's European New Wave where the Henry Jenkin's and the Janet Murray's guide the university student's design decisions and expressive journeys. Through a deep understanding of theory, these developers strengthen their craft. It is no wonder to me that they are coming out of universities.

Underneath the burnt shadow of the long-gone Brighton Pier, I watched in wonder as Tim Phillips transformed a traditional hack-and-slash mechanic into a piece-together-narrative, Quantum Leap game in the style of Hitchcock's Rear Window. It is minds like these, minds that understand the theory, who will have the basis with which to break the factory mould of the games industry. University students are going to change games.

11 July 2015

Midnight Scanning

Three hours ago master visualiser Atahan circled a Kinect around me as I watched a 3D replica of myself form on screen. He opened me up in blender and turned me into quicksilver and silk, marble and glass. Below are a few of the renders that Atahan quickly did to show me the program, including the one render where I become custard!

It's way past midnight now but I've turned the excitement of playing with your own face into a crash course on the blender software. The image above is the fruit of some of my playing.

Update: Got an hour in to play around some more with Blender and their nodes. It's amazing how much you can do with this!

8 July 2015

Dissertation: Month of June

Walks have stopped feeling solitary the more I read on its origins and practice. Strolls over the course of this month have been haunted by the ghosts of Benjamin and Poe, Breton and Garrett. Even during recreational time Lefebvre and de Certeau invade my "City: Skylines" and "Her Story". Side effects of writing a masters dissertation.

Most of what I was aiming on exploring for this paper has been read and gathered in a structure of quotes, post-its and notes. That means the most time intensive section of the paper is drawing to a close. Rather later than I was hoping but it is super satisfying nonetheless. I will be doing a final printing and restructuring this week before sitting down to typing it all out into a coherent draft.

In terms of the game, I spent two weeks in Spain, Valencia and Barcelona. While I was hoping to set the game in Valencia, the more I read, the more I realised how unrealistic it would be to make it all the way from London. It was in one of UCA's guest lectures where CJ Lim called London a victorian sponge cake: layered with stories and dreams. When you've got JG Ballard across the road and Thomas de Quincey in your foundations, it makes little sense not to draw inspiration from the London around you. Valencia will have to wait.

A few basics have started to form from chats on Barcelonan balconies and walks around Uxbridge. While the exact story is a mystery still, I have outlined four requirements:

1. The game must provide a constant urge to explore. The player must feel curious about their environment. This can be done through hidden objects that relate to the story or the environment found through exploration.

2. The story must be told through the environment. The game, what you do and what its messages must be communicated entirely through the design of the environment. Ideally this would be a small, urban and abandoned location.

3. Walking must translate mechanically. It needs to feel rhythmic and fit tightly into the exploration of environmental stories. A fair bit of experimenting might need to be done to get this right.

4. Played in the first person and in 2D. The screen must feel like a window to the world. Without a character to draw your attention to, the eyes fall solely on the landscape. The 2D is mainly due to limitations of the software.

Everything around the game might change. These four pillars are solid. Meanwhile the loop of the game will probably follow a structure of walk>discover objects>piece together story>unlock new space>walk. But things might shift once I'm done writing the essay and start contemplating the game more. The longer I spend writing the essay, the smaller the scale of the game becomes. Time is running out.

3 June 2015

Dissertation: Month of May

Six hours a day, five days a week from now until September is the rough schedule for dissertation work. While most of it has been spent making the most of opportunities outside the course, it's time to focus on what I came here to do. It's dissertation time.

Days have been spent writing on windows, drawing clouds of thoughts that would combine into storms of ideas. I've been trying to find a string that would tie together the research I've been doing over the course of this academic year. This includes fields such as architecture, geography and games design, writers from Henri Lefebvre to Henry Jenkins, games like Gone Home or Year Walk, environmental storytelling, immersion, navigation, urban narratives and of course my sweetheart: psychogeography.

A little snippet of what I plan to do:
Walking is a practice that has gone beyond the mechanics of bodily movement. It is endowed in meaning, critical and aesthetic, environmental and personal. In 1790, Wordsworth and Jones began a 2000 mile journey through the European continent.  The hypnotic rhythm of walking stunned them with fatigue and raised them to a plane of transcendence (Self, 2015). Walking to the early British psychogeographers was a route to spirituality in a disenchanted world. The nineteenth century flaneur, a leisurely observer of urban space, would end up immersing themselves into the intoxicating past of the city (Benjamin, 1939) similar to the ‘deambulation’ practices of Surrealists who would walk to reach a state of hypnosis (Basset, 2007). This immersion into the landscape allowed for the excavations of hidden secrets and exploration of spatial patterns. The exploration of landscapes was used politically by the Situationists International (Sadler, 1999) and as a window into an occult mysticism of the city by British psychogeographers (Coverley, 2010).
Like the Situationists International, geographers like Michel de Certeau (1988) use the immersion invoked in walking to read cities. Walking is a spatial trajectory that allows the exploration of hidden stories, embedded in the landscape. Early writings followed the spatial pursuit of a secret. In Edgar Allan Poe’s Man of the Crowd (1840), the writer followed the nightly wanderings of a man through London. Throughout the voyage, in which the author falls deeper into the hypnosis of insomnia and the rhythms of the walk, Poe takes a psychological anonyme. He abandons his identity so he can reattach himself to that of the vagabonding stranger and at the same time assume the position of Walter Benjamin’s archaeologist, collector and flaneur. In his alienated position, the flaneur can excavate the hidden secrets of nighttime London.
At the heart of the ‘derive’, or ‘drift’, is a ‘playful-constructive behaviour’ (Debord, 1958). Playful walking represented a fight against the boredom of the modernist city and the delusions of control (Chtcheglov, 1953). It aims to excite the body and the senses through the sudden changes in ambiance in an attitude of resistance against functionality. The practice is often considered an ‘elaborate game’ by geographers (Bassett, 2007: p.401). One that draws a player's attention to the stories of the environment.
The steam store has seen a sudden appropriation of the term “walking simulator” used on games such as Year Walk (Simogo, 2013), Gone Home (Fullbright, 2013), Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012), The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (The Astronauts, 2014), The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2011) and Life is Strange (Dontnod, 2015). Even games from before the term was coined such as Myst (Cyan, 1993) have been tagged as a walking simulator. This project is a literary analysis into the patterns of these games, arguing that at the core of their design is the psychogeographic derive.
This project will concentrate on Year Walk and Gone Home as two examples of walking simulators. Year Walk has been chosen for its critical acclaim (Unity, 2013; BAFTA, 2014) as well as its strong references to psychogeographic practices. Gone Home has been chosen for the writers extended experience with the game as well as its use as a point of reference for other walking simulators. It will identify the similarities between walking simulators and derives by comparing these two games, formally and aesthetically, to psychogeographic practices. Through the use of a gameplay log, it will identify the games goals and mechanics as well as their use of environmental storytelling and ludic experience.It thus argues that an understanding of psychogeography, its practice and reading, can help create more immersive environmental storytelling games such as walking simulators.

I'm aiming to have the essay come in conjunction with a game demo. What the game is going to be is still a bit up in the clouds. To brainstorm I've been walking down the route of Valencian rondalles, les falles and various other local traditions. I think it's time I put my home city on my map of games.

22 May 2015

London Spring and Games

Spring in London is the season of picnics, rooftop networking and plenty of opportunities. Us Brunelians have dived straight into it.

A team of masters students have started a game design collective by the name of Untold Rubies. We design games for studios, filmmakers and competitions. Really good news and interesting doors have opened up since we started laying down the groundwork in winter. Working with game and film studios, we have made many prototypes, game design documents and artwork. My role was mainly in game design, layouting and editing of documents, and art asset creation. Two projects have been particularly successful.

On the 30th of April a team of us submitted E-Sol, an entertaining and informing mobile game that interacts with pollution databases across Europe, to the MYGEOSS European Commission competition. We won! With the EU grant under our belts, we are now in the works of making this game a reality. But first a bit about the game and how it came to be.

E-Sol gives players a virtual pet plant named Sunny who needs your protection from air pollution. The more attention you give your plant, the happier it will become and the faster it will grow. However Sunny is directly affected by the air pollution of the country it is in needing you to clean the air, water it and encouraging it to stay happy and grow tall. The game promotes environmental awareness to young children and encourages them to learn about air pollution levels across their country as well as the rest of Europe.

The project started when I received a very enthusiastic call from Andreas Paspatis about an opportunity for Untold Rubies. A group of us gathered and began brainstorming for an interesting way of beautifully showing the data provided by MYGEOSS. The challenge: we had a week to bring it all together. Luckily, we have a lot of talent in our collective. Many daily meetings, sleepless nights on Photoshop and discussions over tea and whiteboards were had. A day before the deadline I was arranging Pong Nantapan and mine's artwork on InDesign. Then playing with fonts for the excellent text Andreas, Toni Brasting, Tim Philips, Givoanni Rubino and Daniel Thompson had written. A week of insane work payed off with such talented people on the team. Our game was picked as the top 10 apps and won the European Commission grant.

The winning GDD will be made public on the 10th of November.

Shortly after the E-Sol project, we were contacted by Kate Stonehill, documentary filmmaker applying for the Tribeca New Media Fund. The brief was to create a game to complement her documentary on a very interesting development on the West Bank. "A Palestinian millionaire has built the fist futuristic, high-tech city in Palestine but the fate of his dream city is threatened when an Israeli official refuses to supply the city with water." I jumped at the opportunity to work on such a game. In collaboration we created DRIP, a game where players assume the role of water and navigate the pipe infrastructure of the West Bank. On their journey, they become witnesses to a multitude of events and discussions relating to the conflicts in the West Bank.

The proposal has been submitted to the Tribeca New Media Fund and we are looking at beginning the development of DRIP in late 2015. You can view the game design document here.

With so many projects popping up, I think it is time I temporarily retire from these rooftop networkings, however fun they may be.

12 May 2015

Digital Games: The Final Taught Weeks

The last taught classes of the masters course are done and the final assessments have been handed in. But the young game designer never rests. The past two months have been a series of non-stop work straight through the Easter holidays and into the summer break. It included pitching, theory work and creating a game demo.

Geopets was the focus in design. A solo project for the game design module. Geopets is an augmented reality iPhone/iPad tamagochi that uses geolocation and object recognition software to pin your pets to a particular location in the city. Originally, it began with the idea of using magic realism to enchant the day to day lives of citizens. Some brainstorming later and it had evolved to enchanting Londoner's commutes with creatures hidden in the city.

The pitch was done entirely using Adobe After Effects. The result was a 10 minute long animated presentation that illustrated the game. It took a relentless fueled week to create the presentation, including artwork and practicing the timing. Above is a short compilation of some of the highlights of the presentation.

After pitching the game comes making it. There were massive limitations in terms of tech (augmented reality and geolocation services in particular), however I found ways to simulate the feel of it through the games presentation. As this project was entirely solo, the biggest problems were overcome through feedback. A week into creating the demo I had people playing prototypes of the games. It became invaluable to making the game flow smoothly in ways that players could understand intuitively

Above are various screenshots of the demo. You can play the game here.

Theory work centered on my ongoing research on psychogeography in virtual worlds. This particular one featured how the architecture of Skyrim evoked a sense of place, drawing together fields of geography, myth and virtuality. Will Self's lectures were particularly useful in broadening the scope of the paper beyond games design.

End of March we had a Brunel research evening in which a group of us lecturers and students presented our research. You can read all about it in Ashley's blog.

And with that, the taught section of the course is over. Bring along the dissertation!

13 March 2015

Made in Brunel

Our game, Meeting, is now an award-winning game! Judged and awarded by Steve Jackson, co-founder of the Games Workshop, Lionhead Studios and writer of the Fighting Fantasty series. Here we are, accepting the award at the Made in Brunel event. From left to right: Steve Jackson, Matthew Halls, Tim Phillips, Rosa Carbo-Mascarell, Dan Thompson and Olga Guseva.

How it happened: Every year the Department of Computer Science hosts a software innovation event where students showcase their software to academics and professionals. This was the first year (of hopefully many years) that Games Design collaborated in the event. The heads of Game Design decided which would be the four chosen games to be displayed at the event. Apparently it took some "heated debate with some wrestling and walking over fire challenges" before deciding on the games. The four games that were finally chosen were "What do we do now?", "Tribe", "Nope!" and "Meeting".

The event itself was a very busy success. There was a blurr of many game players and curious students. Dan did an amazing job at describing our game to newcomers and many players high-fived each other when completing the game.

The highlight of our showcasing was when Steve Jackson came around to play our game. There was much laughter and banter ping-ponging between Steve Jackson and his co-op as they played Meeting. After plenty of shouting across laptops, they solved the puzzle with much cheering, back-patting and hand-shakes. As a game designer, seeing the two players leave the game buzzing with camaraderie and amusement was the most rewarding experience of the event.

The games showcased at the Made in Brunel were all made as part of the Global Game Jam 2015 in collaboration with the department of computer science. If you are interested in the event, I have written about the experience here. I am incredibly proud of the games my fellow Brunel students have made. If you have a chance, make sure to check them out at the GGJ website here.

Read about the award-winning Meeting on Gamasutra.

Play v1 of the game!

4 March 2015

Digital Games: Weeks 22-23

Story was the requirement for the weekly game. We discussed branching narratives and how to make a story appear non-linear. As an example, we looked at Harry Potter. How different would the story experience be if the exact same things happened but Harry was portrayed as an evil antagonist?

I paired up with Toni (who's storytelling skills have awed the course more than once) and made a game inspired by a short film. "Feeders" is an anti-commercial about psychic vampires - beings that suck your energy dry.

The game is set around a dinner party with old friends and rising tensions. The way you respond to conversation changes people's mood around the table. Toni did an amazing job at the script which Ivo, director and creator of Feeders, Toni and I then edited together.

We used various game design tricks to give the sensation of non-linearity. Starting with the player feedback loops: upon making a choice in dialogue, the facial expressions of the characters change, giving the player a sensation of meaningful choice. The script itself follows the same topics and happenings, the only difference is the tone in which the characters can respond. They have three moods: positive, neutral and negative. Because of these changing tones and moods, players can get a different perception of the characters. For example in one playthrough, Lorenzo might be really aggressive, in another he might be really loving. This can tint the player's opinion of who is the psychic vampire.

You can play the game here.

In theory we discussed race the first week and age the second and both were preceded with a fun exercise related to each topic. For race we had to create a fantasy or sci-fi race that was not based on any real-life cultural references. The stuff some people came up with was hilarious but probably the most profound lesson learned from the exercise was this: If play is the basis of all culture, then the first question we should ask ourselves when designing a culture is "how do they play?"

The second exercise was a look at representation of age in games. I went on a quest on Reddit to look for women over 40 to see if I could identify any patterns or, in fact, if any existed. Many answers were given and I collated portraits of the highest voted replies. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised at the range and complexity of female characters over 40. Less so when I looked at how many of these women were playable characters.

For the second week I took a break from the a game a week exercise due to other commitments. While at a loss in terms of game design practice, it has allowed me to step back and evaluate my schedule. Deadlines are looming. It's time to fight these hand-ins with my deadly post-it notes of ultimate planning.

21 February 2015

Digital Games: Weeks 20-21

I'm not quite sure how to begin about these two weeks as it was a roller-coaster of events that ended with Tim and me working night and day to make a game about sex and contraception.

Before I continue, let me do a little disclaimer: If you are uncomfortable with sex, female sexuality, contraception and personal women's issues you might want to skip this blog entry. I've thought long and hard about how to go about this professionally but there is no way to talk about the very personal game Tim and I made this week without raising well... personal female issues. If you are uncomfortable with this in any way, I suggest you stop reading here.

It started with a strand of contraceptive pills that unleashed its wrath complete with sudden depression, debilitating migraines and violent mood alterations. Around me, we were discussing some very heart-felt topics in Ashley's theory class. The first was gamer culture and gatekeeping issues women face, the second was gender representation and sex in videogames. The first left me in a pit of hopelessness, the second with the powerful outlook that I could change something. So when Justin gave us the task to create a game with strong use of numbers and balancing systems, I knew what I had to do.

The goal was this: Create a game that would voice a problem a lot of young women have to face. Namely, (if they wish to) not getting pregnant. You play a young woman who is starting university with the aim to get amazing grades and great friends. Her boyfriend moved with her and the last thing she needs on her plate is a pregnancy. The game is one of balancing fertility, contraception and its effects with day to day life.

I went to Tim for game design advice and he exploded with great ideas and enthusiasm. He came onboard and we sailed off to create a sex-positive exploration of female sexuality and contraceptive use. Of course, true to the design task that Justin set us to do, it was backed by a mathematical system of balancing numbers: intimacy, pleasure and day to day activities.

The news spread quickly in the university labs that Tim and I were making "a sex game". We were approached many times by bewildered and curious faces. Often both at the same time. As we came closer to Wednesday, I worried about presenting the game to a male-heavy class however the reactions of some ("What is the pill?" "You have to take it every day?! That's so tedious!" "What does this day in cycle mean?") made it all the stronger. By putting players in the shoes of a sexually active female character, those that were uninformed became curious, asked questions, they initiated conversations on female issues as in the context of this game it also became the player's issues.

At this point I need to mention the game is far from perfect right now (like the very humorous but inappropriate need to have sex every night in the game to move onto the next day) but as a prototype of a more polished life-style game, it really works to spark curiosity, play with systems and, most importantly, empathise.

You can download and play the game here.

3 February 2015

Digital Games: Week 19

So many developments on the psychogeographic end have happened this week starting with auditing Will Self's classes. Various students in game design heard about my work on psychogeography in virtual worlds and let me know that the quirky and legendary Will Self is a professor at Brunel. After contacting him, he was kind enough to let me audit his weekly module literally called "Psychogeography" where he trains and takes students on derives. The experience was fantastic! The most fun I've had in a while. I'm so looking forward to Monday mornings.

On the other hand, in Design class, Justin introduced us to the topic of the week: out of the box. We are to create a game without thinking what a game should be. As an example he showed us three videos:

There were many great points made that have stuck with me. 1. Don't give a damn about rules. 2. When you forget the rules and play with your medium, you will fail 99% of the time. But 1% will be amazingly innovative and eventually become mainstream in the medium. 3. There are no rules to being creative. In fact creativity is often so out there that it is dangerous and, quite honestly, scary.

I paired off with Tim for this exercise and suggested an idea: "Let's make the first psychogeographic videogame." There have been movies, there have been drawings, there have been texts. But what would it look like as a digital game? Honestly, one week is not enough to explore this concept but we gave it a full day where we grabbed the metropolitan line all the way to the end, wandered, and then tried to express our observations through gameplay.

So what did we observe? Contradictions. Plenty of ridiculous contradictions. Government signs prohibiting drinking in the streets while two meters away, a barista practiced his juggling skills with a plastic alcohol bottle and cocktail cup. We saw a car park with a big "No Parking" sign. A coffee shop that called itself the Antishop. While Shoreditch puts on a facade of quirky liberation, it is still surrounded by corporate glass high-rises and considered a "good behaviour zone" in the controlling fist of the police.

What game came out of this? One precisely about these contradictions. Tim and I spent two days playing around in MMF and in between we watched Salvador Dali and Luis Bunyuel's L'Age D'Or. We observed that the film is full with meaning, only that they would put the message above anything else, including reality. For example, there is a close up shot of a character who has flies all over his face because he is literally "a piece of crap".

We collaged images from our trip and gave them behaviours to literally represent our observations from our psychogeographic wander. I will not say anymore since I feel this is very much a game that is a game for a reason: it cannot be expressed in anything that is not a game. (Although whether or not this is a game can be really contested. But that was the least of our worries.) You can play the game here.