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.
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.
Welcome to the second edition of Unique Game Mechanics! If you haven’t read my post on psychographic profiles or need a refresher from the Part 1, allow me to give a quick summary.
Psychographic profiles are a more precise way of looking at groups then demographics. In terms of games and game development, psychographic profiles can be used to help game designers determine who they should design their game for and who will buy their game. This may seem like common sense, but when creating games that involve unusual or lesser used mechanics it is important to consider “Who will actually buy this thing?” One such mechanic that we don’t see much of in games (at least compared to others) is humor.
With this mechanic, the player must create something that is funny or amusing to do well at the game. Sometimes there will be restrictions on what they can do to be amusing, like in Cards Against Humanity where you can only use the cards you’ve been dealt or in charades where the player is limited by what they are supposed to depict. Other games like the VR game Comedy Night give players more freedom, with the only restraint being keeping to the relevant topic of the chat room (and the player has can choose what room they join). Someone who would enjoy this type of mechanic could be an adult individual who aspires to be a comedian or entertainer, but so far has only watched other performers online. They want to try performing for an audience of their own, but there are no comedy clubs or similar venues in their area. By playing Comedy Night, this person can hop on anytime and find people who want to watch standup and will give them feedback. In addition to performing, the person in question can also use Comedy Night to watch other amateur comedians and learn from them.
Recently one of my courses tasked the class with coming up with three unique game mechanics, identify what skills they have the player use, and conjuring up a psychographic profile of someone who would enjoy it. As I explained in last weeks blog post, a psychographic profiles provide a more detailed view of the target audience for a game. By using them in the context of this post, we can see how they are useful to game designers, as they give insight into who will enjoy the game when unusual mechanics are used.
Vocabulary mechanics are used when a player must use their knowledge of words (spelling, meaning, origin, context, etc.) to gain an advantage in or progress through a game. The player must determine which word is appropriate for the situation. An example of this would be Scrabble, because players have to account for the correct spelling of a word, how long a word is (longer words can mean more points), and if the word they are thinking of is a real word at all (e.g. players can’t make up words). All these factors must be carried out with the random assortment of letters provided to the player. This type of gameplay mechanic would be appealing to a well-read person, since they would have a wide vocabulary to use. This would imply they are on the older side, as most young children do not have an adequate vocabulary to excel at this game mechanic. Someone who is highly educated and enjoys mental challenges such as crossword puzzles and trivia could also find vocabulary mechanics enjoyable.
Author’s Note: This review was part of a playtesting assignment. Therefore, the writing style is slightly different and the word count noticeably more then what I normally post on here. Despite these discrepancies, I hope you enjoy this piece!
I played the remake of Demon’s Souls for the PlayStation 5. This my first time playing a Dark Souls type game.
The opening cinematic was very well done and got me pumped to start engaging with the world. The story it laid out was intriguing, but not too complex that I felt lost. I liked how they listed some of the legendary heroes who had attempted the quest before me. It made me wonder if I would interact with them in the game.
Once the cinematic was over I began to create my character. I was very impressed with the degree of cosmetic customization (multiple hairstyles, color slider, races, eyes, body part sliders, voices, etc.), as most of the time the character’s face is covered by a helmet. While I had fun creating my character, I also kind of felt like I was wasting time with customizing (I spent about 10 minutes creating my character). Some of my excitement to explore the game dampened slightly while I was focusing on the minute details of my character. Though it seems like a step back, I think there should have been a little less character cosmetic customization.
While the cosmetic part of character creation felt overdone, I thought the classes where well executed. There was a variety of magic, melee, and rogue type builds. The starting gear each class was equipped with seemed unique and beautiful. I honestly had a hard time choosing one, as all of them seemed like they would be fun to play. I could imagine myself replaying using different classes. This made me feel satisfied with purchasing the game, since by replaying I would get good mileage out of it.
I ended up choosing Temple Knight as my class, since it seemed like the tried and true sword-and-shield type, but with a paladin twist. Once in the game world I ran into a problem with the class I had chosen. The starting gear for a Temple Knight is a halberd, shield, and heavy armor. The halberd was one of the things that drew me to the Temple Knight, as it looked cool and I thought it would be fun to attack enemies with. However, in the tight corridors of the introductory level, the halberd was clumsy and hard to aim. I frequently found myself swinging towards enemies only to have my weapon get caught on the ceiling or wall. Another issue I ran into was with the shield. When I first entered the game, my shield was equipped along with the halberd. However, when I entered a new area the shield disappeared. I tried multiple things to try and fix this, but the shield would not appear. Since I’d only been playing for 15 minutes (about 10 of which was trying to figure out the shield situation), I decided to start a new game as a different class (this time only spending 5 minutes on character creation). I went with a regular Knight this time, and my gear was pretty much the same except that instead of a halberd I had a sword. Unfortunately, this did not prevent the shield from disappearing when I entered a new area. Thankfully I was able to figure out how to reequip the shield (you must put it in a specific one of the two arm slots). I do not know if this shield issue is a bug or a poor design choice, but either way it made the game less immersive and enjoyable to play.
The fight mechanics for both the Knight and Temple Knight were smooth and well executed. I particularly enjoyed being able to hit multiple enemies at once with my weapon, as this made me feel more powerful and in control.
The way the tutorial was executed I thought was well done. Using notes with short messages written on them was effective and helped me visualize what areas the information would be useful in (messages were placed near related areas/enemies). Another reason I think this is a good system is it allows more seasoned players to skip messages with information they already know. It also does not break immersion or take the player away from the game world. One downside to these messages is there is no distinction between different types of information (e.g. fighting instructions, how to move, trap alerts). This could be fixed by having different types of messages be different colors.
When I tried to fight the tutorial boss I died and was sent to the Nexus. While a gorgeous environment and a unique approach to player death (compared to reloading the last save), I found the place to be kind of confusing at first. It took me several minutes to figure out how to get out of it and return to the game. This sojourn to the serene cathedral-like Nexus interrupted the pumped up, adrenaline-filled mood created by fighting the boss. I don’t understand why the game does this mood shift. Personally, when I’ve just finished trying to defeat a boss I don’t want to take a break, I want to try again immediately.
Another less than perfect aspect had to do with saving. It was not obvious when the game saves. Given the difficulty and how often I was dying, being unsure when saving occurred was kind of frustrating. I’m not sure if a saving icon appears, but if it does then I did not see it. Adding a visible saving icon would help, that way players know when the game is saving. There could also be something in the tutorial that mentions how saving works. Eventually I figured out one of the times the game saves is when the player goes through a mist shrouded door or moves to a new location via bonfire. I feel like it saves at other points, because I recall loading a game and not being near a bonfire or shrouded door. However, I might not have noticed a shrouded door was there in the first place.
The environment and level design are very well executed. They invoke a mood of an area that is in decline and decaying. While there are some areas where visibility is limited due to a darkened environment, they are not used so much that it becomes an annoyance. Having areas of the world be well lit does not take away from the depressing tone. I felt like the portions of the level with more light were more effective of setting the mood than the darker areas, since you can see and appreciate the detail put into the world.
Demon’s Souls is not an easy game. In the hour I was playing I did not make it past the introductory level. However, I still had a fun time playing. Overall, Demon’s Souls is brutal yet enjoyable.
Saving can be an important mechanic in exploration heavy video games. The main purpose of exploration video games is self-explanatory – to explore the game world. This is often spurred on by interesting landmarks, quests, non-player characters (NPCs), or lore. That said, not all exploration games handle saving the same way. Some systems of saving are better suited for exploration gameplay then others. An example of a saving system not well suited for exploration games can be seen in Outward, a role playing game with a heavy emphasis on exploration.
Saves occur in Outward when a player enters a new area, such as a city, building, or overworld. There is no option for the player to save their game progress in the middle of exploring, battler, or other in game activity. While this is not necessarily a bad system, I found it influenced how I played the game, and not in a good way. In my first playthrough of Outward shortly after I exited the tutorial stage I approached two mundane looking NPCs on the main road, who promptly attacked me and took me to their hideout. After several failed attempts I finally escaped the hideout, only to fall victim to a trap set on a promising looking bridge. Having learned my lesson from these misadventures, when I next set out to explore the world I was much more cautious. I did everything I could to avoid anything that moved, appeared to be infrastructure, or looked more interesting than a static piece of set dressing. Even if a creature looked easy I stayed clear of it, I had learned my lesson the first time. I acknowledge that this seems overly cautious of me, and in games where I have more control over when I can save I am much more daring. However, considering the amount of time I spent getting from one area to another in Outward I did not want to risk dying and having to retrack through everything again. This cautiousness made playing the game much less interesting and noticeably less fun then games where I had the security of quick saving. It felt like there was less I could do without risking wasting a half hour of exploration.
There are good games that feature both exploration and a save system similar to Outward. That said, some of these other games, like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (released in 1998), have such a save system due to the limited technology of their time. Outward (released in 2019) does not have that excuse. With quicksave options being a common (and I would argue beneficial) feature of many modern games, I remain baffled why Outward would choose to use the save system it did. It does not encourage the player to explore and hinders their confidence when interacting with enemies. I’m sure some will say that I was being a wuss and should have just taken the risk, and maybe they are right (everyone is entitled to their opinion). But with only so many hours in a day, I do not want the time I’ve invested in a game to be wasted by an ill-fated encounter with a knock-off chocobo.
Outward. Nine Dot Studio, 2019. PC version. Video Game.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Nintendo, 1998. Wii version. Video Game.
If the story a game is based on is compelling, players may be more willing to overlook the use of common (and possibly uninspired) mechanics. The trouble with this is that there is no one story that will appeal to everyone. Thankfully there exists many tales in literature that have withstood the test of time. While they still might not appeal to the everyone, fairy and folk tales are popular enough that they are a go to when brainstorming ideas for new projects. Along with their enduring popularity, the lore and plot of most fairytales are well understood by their respective cultures (e.g. Grimm’s Fairy Tales in Western/Euro-centric cultures, or The Panchatantra in Indian/South Asian cultures).
This established understanding presents a double edged sword when using fairytales as inspiration for games. The benefit of this approach is the audience already knows the background and motive of the characters, which means less time needs to be allocated for exposition. This is good news for gameplay, since designers get more time to focus on it and players spend more time engaging with it. The downside to this is that outcome of the conflict is predictable. Audiences know how the story ends, so they will likely not be as invested as they would with an original story. Thankfully, there are multiple ways to minimize this drawback.
One of the great things about games is their mechanics allow us to explore and interact with scenarios in a way that is not possible with other mediums, such as art or writing. This means that the possibilities for telling an established fairy tale a different way are greatly expanded. The player can take the role of someone other than the established protagonist, or play as a totally new character who changes the outcome of the original story. They may even step in the shoes of the villain, which can lead to the player having to commit atrocious acts or getting to see the villain in a more positive light. Games can also expand the upon the setting where the story is set, taking the characters to places they otherwise would or could not go and dealing with the wider impacts of their actions. With how much potential games have for breathing new life into well-established stories, I think game designers should not shy away from looking to folk and fairy tales for inspiration.