For years the go-to critique of Animal Crossing has been how it encourages capitalist tendencies such as taking out loans, buying everything possible, and taking natural resources for profit. While these mechanics are undoubtedly a noticeable part of Animal Crossing’s gameplay, the game features other mechanics that encourage a somewhat contrasting ideology. Players are not just encouraged to sell bugs and fish for money, but also to donate them to the museum. Once players donate items to the museum they are rewarded with some fun facts about the donated item, as well as an update to the museum’s appearance. This appearance update takes the form of the donated item living in the museum display. The more things are donated, the more lively the museum gets. This mechanic is an effective mechanism to encourage players to not just use the natural world for profit, but also for education and conservation.
The various motives for reaping the rewards of the natural world do not just end there. Another use for fish and bugs caught in Animal Crossing is as adornments for player homes. If players place fish or bugs in their houses like they would furniture, these creatures will spawn and appear in either an aquarium or a terrarium. This adds another facet to the player’s relationship to the natural world in Animal Crossing. Bugs and fish are not just there for profit or education value, but also can be a part of the more intimate side of things as pets. Finally, the very mechanic of catching bugs has positive implications for player behavior outside of the game. While out exploring the game world, players pay close attention to their surroundings in case they happen across a critter they haven’t seen yet. This attention to the natural world encourages players to appreciate and notice the beauty of nature, something that will likely stay with them once they have exited the game world for the real world.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is available for the Nintendo Switch.
Due to the various issues impacting the contemporary world, it has been difficult to decide what topic to use when creating a radical/persuasive game. Initially, I was drawn to critique the tendency of video games to be marketed toward men, and the consequential effect this has had on the video game industry. This would have been explored via an alternative history, where video game companies in the 1980s decided to target girls over boys. The player character would be male, and the game would follow his experience as a male who is drawn towards video games in a world where that interest is dominated by females. It would start in the 1980s with the player character as a young boy who enjoys video games even though they are designed for girls (eg this universe’s version of Duck Hunt is Duck Farm where players are tasked with raising ducks, reflecting the feminine-associated trait of nurturing). The later parts of the game would follow the player character as he tries to pursue a career in the video game industry, which in this world is dominated by women. However, as I thought more about how the mechanics would work, I realized this concept might work better as a piece of interactive fiction or a short story. Apart from exploring the world and talking to other characters, there wasn’t much potential to develop game mechanics with the time frame available.
The second idea I had was a game where players must get past a group of protesters. Originally I had envisioned this taking place in front of a Planned Parenthood, due to the recent laws that have restricted abortion rights. The gameplay would involve the player character trying to get through the anti-abortion protestors to go in for a pelvic examination, or another non-abortion service Planned Parenthood provides. In terms of mechanics, there were several ideas I had in mind. One was platforming or traveling through a maze that was the parking lot, avoiding the protestors who would force you to lose health or start over. This would demonstrate how anti-abortion protesters make life difficult for people and can make people who go to Planned Parenthood feel in danger.
Since the protester-game mechanic seemed like a better mechanic than the one for the alternative history idea, it seemed like the one I would pursue. However, after mentioning these two ideas in class and on Discord I was approached by other people interested in forming a team. While getting to know each other it came up that all of us have a dislike of Karens, which led to the idea of having one of the protesters be a Karen. This led to the idea that it would be fun to be able to play as or against a Karen. After discussing it in a group meeting, this idea evolved into the game we are currently in the process of making: a fighting game between a Karen and a barista. While on the surface humorous, the subject matter is reflective of how service industry workers are often treated poorly. To emphasize this, one of our mechanics is for every hit Karen serves she gains 5 to 10 times more points than if the barista hits her. The key inputs for the barista are also more spaced out than the ones for Karen, making it easier for Karen to hit more often. In addition to this, Karen has double the number of attacks that the barista does. This leads to a game that while technically possible to win as the barista is, like so many things for the Boomer generation, heavily tilted in Karen’s favor. Hopefully after players experience Ultimate Karen Smackdown (working title) they will treat service workers with more respect and empathy.
While many have bemoaned the lack of creativity in some game genres, the fear that lack of originality and creativity leads to artistic decline is nothing new. In 1946 Marcel Duchamp warned “a creative lull” will occur when artists merely continue the work that those who came before them had done. (Flanagan, 3) That said, Duchamp also points out that there is hope. Artists can still take from previous creators, they just must adapt what they take to make it their own. Duchamp’s critique is especially true today. So many games, especially those from large studios, are not of the mold-breaking variety. They are either just part of an existing series or so similar to competing games in their genre that they become indistinguishable from their competitors (eg Battlefield vs Hali vs COD). The homogeneity of games can be confounding and irritating, especially given how game-changing (pun intended) having just one radical element can be.
Take for example Bioshock. Parts of it very much fall in line with first-person shooter and action-adventure conventions. While it does take some aspects from previous titles, Bioshock’s creators also adapted it into something unique that makes it more of a critical game than your average shooter. One way they did this was by the little sister gameplay mechanic. In Bioshock the little sisters are young girls that have been bioengineered to grow ADAM (a substance used to make plasmids, which players need to use special abilities) in their bodies. Players can choose to “harvest” the little sisters, which kills them but awards the players more power.
There is also the option to save the little sisters, which allows them to live and cures them of having to grow ADAM.
Having to choose between saving or harvesting the little sisters forces players to grapple with the moral question of how much they value human life over power. (6) What makes this question so powerful in Bioshock is it is both concrete and abstract. Players experience the tangible consequence of gaining a large amount of ADAM should they harvest a sister, but should they choose to spare them then they will get to see the sister return to being a normal little girl (as opposed to a sickly glowing-eyed incubator). On an abstract level, players deal with either the guilt that they killed a child or the heartwarming knowledge that they have done the morally right thing. In addition to these consequences that occur immediately after saving or harvesting a sister, there are also implications for the game’s ending. Should players choose to save the little sisters they will get the “good” ending, but if they harvest them they will get the “bad” ending. This further drives home the importance of making moral choices by highlighting the impact they have beyond the single moment when they are made.
Papers, Please is an indie game that very effectively expresses its values via gameplay. There are several values that Papers, Please though the most evident one is its critique of ineffective, corrupt governments (represented by Arstotzka, the dystopian soviet inspired country where the game takes place) and the rigid unfeeling bureaucratic institutions (the border crossing where the player works) that are a common stereotype of them. At the start of the game players are presented with a simple objective: let the right people into the country and keep the wrong people out. What qualifies as “right” and “wrong” shifts with each new round, which is experienced in the form of a day at work. Sometimes a person’s photo ID does not match their appearance, other times they are from a neighboring country that is hostile to yours. Such constraints constitute the game’s mechanics on a technical level, though they also express values. The ever-changing requirements for entry highlight how fickle our perceptions of right and wrong our, and the government’s role in influencing them. For example, a trade embargo on another country leads to citizens of that country having to be denied. Overnight individuals who had no choice in the affairs of their government are vilified and detained while simply trying to go about their everyday lives. Especially given the US’s treatment of refugees and immigrants from “undesirable” countries, this message is one that can impact players’ perceptions and behavior towards people in similar situations in the real world.
While this surface-level relationship between values and mechanics is striking in its own right, it continues to develop in complexity the longer players play Papers, Please. While it’s not the first game to evolve in a way that “redefines its own…experiences”, the possible ways they can be redefined highlight the complexity of its message. (Zimmerman) Players can choose to work with EZIC, an organization that claims to want to bring down the Arstotzka’s government, but there are multiple ways this ending can go. Even if players help EZIC at several points in the game, they can choose to betray them at multiple points, such as shooting one of their terrorists or refusing to let the members into the country. It poses players with a hard moral dilemma, as both sides can sound right. If players aid EZIC they are betraying their government, risking the safety and security of their family. But is this such a bad thing when their government is bad? Or might whatever change EZIC wants be worse than what’s already there? While the mechanics of Papers, Please pose moral questions in their own right, the game’s narrative and multiple endings reveal that morality itself is not easy to define.
Last month I explored in a blog post the impact that visuals can have on interactive fiction. I compared and analyzed the visual pros and cons of a number of pieces of interactive fiction in an attempt to identify what makes each effective or ineffective. Last week I considered the lessons learned while writing that post. This led me to determine the direction I want to take for my own piece, Let’s Talk Alex, which deals with confronting a romantic partner about abusive behaviors. In this follow up to March’s interactive fiction blog post, I’ll discuss how I’m implementing the takeaways from that post and my rationale for doing so.
My exploration of interactive fiction revealed that often the best pieces of interactive fiction rely more on their writing than their style. This is why I have decided to go in a similarly minimalist style for my piece. There will be no visual imagery, allowing the words to paint the scene. I am also leaning towards shying away from extensive animations and dramatic fonts. My hope is that if the narrative is well written the feeling of the scene will be conveyed effectively enough. That said, I have not completely closed the door on implementing such effects. I’ve seen them be effectively used before in pieces like Miss No Name, so I am aware that they can have a positive effect. Yet I’m hesitant to employ them as I’m concerned that combined with the visual changes I have already implemented, it will come off to the reader as too flashy and distracting from the story.
I was very impressed with the thought put into the visual effects of Queenlash and States of Awareness. Though minimal, it was clear that their authors gave thought into their choices. The regal purple font of Queenlash’s text constantly reminds readers of the characters’ royal status, along with all the responsibility, danger, and historical significance it entails. In States of Awareness, the light sickly green text color acts as a subtle reminder of the zombie apocalypse that is the story’s backdrop. While I will be changing the font color in Lets Talk Alex it will not be determined by the setting, as a regular apartment is not as exotic Ptolemaic Egypt or a zombie apocalypse. Instead, I looked to color theory to find what color would make players feel tense, uneasy, and anxious. While red can evoke these feelings, I was concerned about its connotation as a “bad color.” It is supposed to be unclear to readers if their perception of the romantic partner as abusive is valid or not, and having the font be too much of a give away. While it might change after getting playtester feedback, I’m currently planning on having the font be a pale yellow, with links being a brighter yellow. Since yellow is associated with frustration and illness it may have the effect of making readers feel uneasy, but will not overtly imply that something is wrong. By having the links to new passages be bright yellow, my hope is that this anxious feeling will be heightened when players are deciding how to respond, thereby making the confrontation feel more real. While the effectiveness of this and other style choices I have made will need to be investigated further through playtesting, I am hopeful that the insight I’ve gained from other interactive fiction will make for a strong starting point.
Let’s Talk Alex is planned to release in Summer 2022 on itch.io.
Free Rice is a game that was created for the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). The core mechanic is to answer questions by choosing from a list of four words which one most accurately defines a given term. This in itself is an indicator a social impact game as it prioritizes knowledge instead of the “antagonistic, and antisocial themes” that are embodied by many modern games. (Flanagan & Nissenbaum) However there are a few other additional social and political messages that are part of it. One which the game is fairly straightforward about is that for every question answered correctly 20 grains of rice are donated to the WFP. This acts as the game score tracker, as a bowl of rice and counter are present at the bottom of the screen to remind players of how much rice they have caused to be donated. This visual indicator effectively gives players a reminder of the positive impact their playing is having, as well as reminds them there are people out there who are struggling to have enough to eat. This reminder could potentially open up the door for players to find other ways to help those who are hungry, such as donating to or volunteering at a local food bank.
Similar to the potential consequences of players being conscious of food scarcity, Free Rice has another social message that is not overtly obvious. While there is always only one correct answer, some of the incorrect choices have the potential to seem correct depending on the player’s background. For example, one of the questions has “horror” as the word that needs defining. The options players have to choose from for this question are attorney, small horse, motor, and dread. While it seems obvious that dread is the correct answer, it is possible the others could be viewed as horrors as well. To someone living in a society that relies heavily on animal labor, a small horse could be a horror. An individual who has lived their life in an isolated tribe could view a motor as a horror due to it being a threat to their pre-industrial way of life and culture. In the case of myself, I’m biased towards feeling that attorneys are horrors due to coming from a family of lawyers and being in a relationship with one (both of whom are fans of the “lawyers = bad” trope often found in American comedy).
This more nuanced aspect helps make players more aware of how “surrounding societies and cultures” promote certain values and how that impacts views of what words means. (ibid.) This combined with the other positive impactful features of the game’s mechanics makes Free Rice an enjoyable and thoughtful game.
Free Rice is available for PC and Mobile on its website.
Flanagan, Mary & Helen Nissenbaum. “A Game Design Methodology to Incorporate Social Activist Themes” CHI 2007 Proceedings • Politics & Activism. San Jose, 2007. PDF.
Due to it’s literary foundations, visual flair is arguably something that can take a back seat when it comes to interactive fiction. While researching interactive fiction these past few weeks, I noticed that some of the most lauded pieces were lacking in extensive visual style. For example The Golden, States of Awareness, and Queenlash had the same default black background that comes when making a Twine game. Apart from the font color of each of these being changed to something relevant to their topic (purple for the royalty of Queenlash, green for the zombies of States, and gold for Golden for obvious reasons) there was not much to differentiate each visually.
In contrast to this, some of the more lackluster pieces of interactive fiction I’ve read were noticeably stylized. Some Space is memorable for its sci-fi background and futuristic font just as much it’s preference for puzzles over narrative. While it does add a futuristic aesthetic that fits with the narrative of a human immigrating to an alien world, there are also drawbacks to Some Space’s embellishment. The impressive quality of Some Space visuals juxtaposed against its lackluster parts do not result in a positive impression. It makes readers wonder if the writer didn’t spend as much time incorporating the puzzles into the piece as they did finding the right font. Granted this view might be unfair. Everyone has different strengths, and it is natural to want to show off what you’re good at. That said, it’s not entertaining to play or read something that was made just to show off. A piece of interactive fiction can look amazing, but it’s primarily the story being told that makes readers want to interact with it.
Although it doesn’t have as much of a sway on readers as narrative, writers of interactive fiction should still give some thought to the appearance of their work. It is possible for interactive fiction to have a memorable style and story. A good example of this is Bogeyman. The eerie black and white style of Bogeyman’s passages appropriately matches the dark subject of child abuse that is one of its themes. It sets the stage for the dark and intimidating world the protagonist finds themselves in, effectively setting the mood. In addition to color, a different font is used to indicate when the Bogeyman is talking. The heavy slightly jagged font paired with the lack of quotations makes the Bogeyman more intimidating. He comes across as speaking directly to the reader instead of the characters, making for a chillingly memorable experience. Bogeyman, along with Some Space, shows the impact style can make for better or worse when writing interactive fiction. It is worth it for authors to consider how to make their work visually unique, because when done right it can elevate an already good work.
Compared to the visual and technical complexity of modern video games, digital interactive fiction can at first glance seem simple and mundane. Their core gameplay is easy and intuitive to learn: read a passage, select an option to continue, rinse and repeat until you reach an ending to the tale. Anyone who has ever read a choose your own adventure book, or arguably even had a conversation, can do it. Whether in spite of or due to this simplicity, interactive fiction has blossomed to include a large body of unique works.
Some works of interactive fiction don’t stray too far from the medium’s core gameplay, adding interest through narrative and writing style. Two examples of this are Miss No-Name and Queenlash, two award winning titles from the 2021 Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction. At first Miss No-Name comes across as a fun innocent story about a popular kid in school trying to learn more about a loner in their class. Players can approach this objective a few ways, most of which are hinted at being more or less effective by situational context. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that what seems like the “right” way to approach getting to know this shy classmate is not always the most effective. This adds to the mystery of who Miss No-Name is. Not only is her identity unclear, but her preferences are abnormal. The length of Miss No-Name also works in its favor, as players can go through all the options and endings in a relatively short period of time. This provides a satisfying conclusion to the piece’s mysteries, which increases player satisfaction.
While it does not have the benefit of brevity that Miss No-Name does, Queenlash is a highly effective piece of interactive fiction in its own way. Instead of the narrative being its main draw, the writing style of Queenlash is where it shines. With long poetic passages, Queenlash is more of an immersive experience. Readers are surrounded by long walls of text using words that seem archaic and foreign, appropriately for a narrative set 2000 years ago. The story is one many people are familiar with, the rise and fall of Cleopatra VII. Unlike Miss No-Name, where the hyperlinks take players is not always clear cut, though there are still clues. For example, in a conversation where several people are being discussed the words that serve as hyperlinks have some connection to one of the subjects. This conveys to the player that these links will take them to a passage from that subject’s point of view, or go into more depth on their past or motives. It is a more effective way of getting to know the characters that feels more natural due to the hyperlinks being part of the conversation. This makes the story feel more personal than if choices were simply reactionary.a
Authors of interactive fiction have done an impressive job of embellishing and adding to the core gameplay of their medium, further inspiring other authors to evolve their own works. The pieces examined in this post are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creative ways interactive fiction authors embellish their work. Pieces like Depression Quest combine their written components with impactful visual effects and sounds, while others like Some Space incorporate complex puzzles and code. For anyone who considers interactive fiction to be a lackluster part of the digital landscape, I hope this post will make you reconsider that stance and give interactive fiction a try.
Old School Runescape (OSRS) is an MMO that fosters the two different types of personalities described by Dovey and Kennedy in Game Cultures: the Cyborg and the Hacker. One of the biggest goals for Old School Runescape players, myself included, is to acquire more in-game wealth. To do this often involves long sprints of grinding for resources. On it’s own this tends to be fairly tedious and take a long time, so often I try to have time in my schedule where I can simultaneously do grinding heavy OSRS tasks and “real world” tasks. This has had the interesting side effect of two parts of my life, gamer and student, becoming symbotic. From the gamer side, by doing AFK tasks in OSRS while I work on an assignment I’m increasing my in-game productivity. Looking at it from a real world perspective, I’m giving my brain a brief respite when I take a few seconds to deposit items from my inventory or click on a newly spawned resource. These small detours from my primary task allow me to work for longer periods of time, as they stave off the feeling of being burnt out. By emeshing my virtual and real world work I’m simultaneously in both of these worlds, which is in line with the fluid identity of the Cyborg. (Dovey & Kennedy 68) This phenomenon is not isolated to just myself, as conversations with other players of OSRS revealed that the practice of AFK resource gathering while doing real world tasks is a relatively common practice. (personal communication)
While engaging with OSRS from a Cyborg approach allows for an increase in productivity, and by extension earnings, other players choose to go a different route. This is that of the Hacker, where players use outside technologies to advance their productivity and earnings. Unlike Cyborg players, Hacker players use technology that is not part of the game’s original design to circumvent grinding. The most common way to do this is by using bots that automatically gather resources. Some might argue that this is not that different from the AFK routine Cyborgs utilize. The difference lies in how bots remove the necessity of shifting from real world tasks to manage game tasks, thereby making the player’s identity less fluid and more static in the real world. It should also be noted that the designers behind OSRS never intended it to be a game where players can completely disengage from their tasks, as seen in early versions where players had to click a resource almost continuously in order to keep harvesting. (Calvin 44) Someone using bots does not have to worry about periodically checking in to manually empty an inventory or click a respawned resource. Because of this they are changing the technological systems of OSRS in a way that was not part of the original design. (Dovey & Kennedy 67) Another, more nefarious type of Hacker approach is the use of scam promoting bots. These are often seen in popular areas for player to player resource trading, such as outside house portals or the Grand Exchange. These bots will spam messages promising fast cash and valuable items, often embellished by flashing colors and fonts. While some of these are real players who are liquidating their wealth prior to quitting the game, many more are just get rich quick schemes that at best will rip off players and at worst steal their personal information.
It may be surprising to those outside the OSRS community to learn that removal of these Hackers is something many OSRS players are not 100% in favor of. The use of bots has been going on in OSRS for so long that they have become part of the game’s cultural landscape. Whether it’s 2007 or 2022, every time I walk up to the Grand Exchange I’m filled with eager anticipation, excited to see what dazzling display of multi-colored flashing posts promising quick and easy gold I’ll be greeted with this time. The spamming of “EZ 1 MIL” and “FREE LAVA CAPE” are enticing reminders of the riches one can acquire. Visiting the Grand Exchange is a lot like going to the Las Vegas Strip. Most players know not to fall for the flashy ads for coin and loot, but knowing that doesn’t stop them from getting amused by the Hackers’ hustle. It may not be the approach to gathering wealth the game’s creators intended, but it’s one that enough players have acknowledged as a legitimate option that it has become accepted by the community. Just as Hackers and Cyborgs play an integral role in shaping overall game culture, so too have they had a hand in shaping the economic landscape of Gielinor.