Expressing An Emotional State Of Mind In A Game

There are games I’d like to create, but for the life of me, I cannot figure out how to approach them. Many of these games have to do with true emotions that are difficult to describe in game form, however, I still feel the need to make them. Games are the only "art form" that I have seen to any serious level of completion. In a way, games happen to be the one of the only ways I can express myself, albeit, in a very primitive way. A game like Home Computer Wars was created so I could express the feeling of being 14 years old in 1984 and thinking my Atari Computer was the best thing in the world. Games like Daphnie’s Balloon Pop and Katie’s Heart Catcher were created to express some rather simple emotions about my children (i.e. "I love You, here is a game I made for you"). Even some non-game projects like Game Storm! were created because of my frustration with trying to come-up marketable game ideas while others flood the market. However, while these games were created because of an emotion, they really don’t express it or help the player to understand anything more about it while playing.

This has started to bother me. I have chosen games as a form of expression (or did games choose me?), yet their very nature makes it difficult to express anything beyond the very basic thoughts and ideas. People who find other forms of expression their forte, (seemingly) have a much easier time with this. Rock musicians can write songs about emotions, and if they are skilled enough, they can convey those emotions their their work. Painters have a similar ability, mostly because they are some very common images that can universally create certain emotions for people. Games can include both of these elements, and they do help set a tone, but I’m more interested in creating a game that let’s someone experience an emotion by actual game-play.

After I have a life-altering (or even semi-life altering as described below) emotional experience, I’d love to have the ability to make game that helps me express my true emotional state of mind in game. I don’t even necessarily care if anyone plays it (OK, I do), but if they did, I’d also like them to get some understanding of both why it was made, and what I was feeling when I made it.

An Emotional Story To Tell

For example, last week while at the local park with my oldest daughter, she had an unfortunate accident. Because the city cannot afford to have anyone clean the park, I had taken it upon myself to clean-up the trash and sweep the wood chips off the play area and back into the pit under the swings. Along with her scooter, my daughter had asked me to take our baseball gloves with us. She does not play baseball, but she loves to play catch . Playing catch with her is one of the greatest simple joys of my entire life. However, I was so involved in my "sweeping" to clean-up the deteriorating park, the gloves and ball lay unused on the grass, and my daughter rode her scooter around the park. All of sudden, I heard her scream, and I looked over to see that she had dived off her scooter (trying to dodge some other little kids), and had landed on her right hand. After a trip to the after-hours doctor, she had a cast on her broken arm, and I had guilt in my heart. If I had not been so adamant about cleaning the park, I would have been playing catch with her, and she would not have had her accident. Now, playing catch (or anything else) is going to be impossible for some time.

So, if I was a writer I could, for example, just craft a story about someone who concentrates on the wrong things and eventually regrets his choices. A musician could take those words and make a song about it. How, as a game maker can do the same thing, but make the game interesting to play, and allow the player to understand a bit about the emotional underpinnings of the situation portrayed?

What follows are some explorations of game types that I might use to create a game that tries to express complex emotions.

Choose Your Own Adventure

This seems to be the easiest and most base form of trying to express some kind of emotion based on story in a game. You create an in-depth narrative, and allow players to makes simple choices to see where it goes. The interactivity level is very low, but it does allow the game-maker to craft the exact story they want to make. This is obviously more like writing than game-making, and it requires a really talented author to pull-off something that is truly "emotional". However, to keep players interested in reading reams of text, you need to create fantastic and/or controversial situations and cliff-hangers, and then let them decides on the actions. However, not all "emotional stories" have these types of choices. Still, it’s at least a very straight-forward way to go and creating an indie/Flash game would be quite simple, if not entirely successful way to go.

Interactive Fiction : Z-Engine

I suppose the second easiest way to express these emotions would be to create a piece of Interactive Fiction (a fancy word name for a text adventure). There are a plethora of mature tools available to make Infocom-like text adventures that allow the author to express all sorts of situations and emotions that are difficult in other game types. Inform is one of the most well-known free pieces of software available for the creation of Interactive Fiction. You write a story-game that then compiles down to a Z-Engine compatible file that can be played by multitude of interpreters on different platforms. You can even find a JavaScript engine to play in a web browser named Parchment , and there are Flash interpreters being built right now…but they are are either proprietary (like the Violet engine used by JayIsGames,com), or unfinished like the promising Flaxo engine. Without a freely available and working Flash interpreter for Z-Engine games, the audience would be limited to the hardcore I.F. crowd. Furthermore, that hard-core Interactive Fiction crowd who would probably find the emotions I want to express rather primitive for their sophisticated tastes.

Interactive Storytelling : Storytron

A step or two beyond Z-Engine games is Storytron, the Chris Crawford led project to create a system to build games based on human interactions. The example game Balance Of Power 21st Century is very interesting. It certainly allows a game-maker to create a set of circumstances in which they must make choices and then live with the consequences. However, the game looks more like a way to simulate how a group of people feels and reacts to one another, and less like a system to help express a emotions stemming from an unfortunate event. Also, to be honest, somewhat like the original Balance Of Power, the game require someone with an immense amount of patience to play, otherwise the casual player (me) will simply make the most controversial choices to see what they affect. The good news is, there is a Java based player (that I could not get to work on my Mac) so getting a web audience to play a game should not prove very difficult. Still, there is no way to play games in Flash, so the audience would be limited.

A Custom Game Engine

So, after going through the most common forms of interactive fiction/story engines, I’m left with the desire to make my own engine that would allow me to create a game based on a sophisticated emotion and let the player experience some of it. However, I cannot escape the feeling that it will not work as any kind of game. Still, my desire to try to express some kind of complex emotion that can be experienced by a player outweighs my misgivings, so I’m going to make an attempt to design something that might work as a game. Without any further adieu, here is the my design for a game based on the experience with my daughter in the park.

Name: Catch In The Park

Genre: Real-Time Strategy/Resource Management

Based On: Lemmings, Diner Dash

Setting: A Suburban Park with a large field, swings, play equipment, and a circular path that can be used to ride bikes, scooters etc, around the outside.

Game Set-Up: The game starts with a pristine, empty park on a bright summer day. Soon, children begin arriving with their parents in groups of 3. One parent and two kids. The groups wait at the park entrance so they can be "assigned" what to do by the player.

Game Play: The player’s job is to keep the park patrons happy, and to keep the park clean. However, this is not as easy as it first looks. Since there is only one parent forr every two kids, the player must divide the attention of each parent (color-coded to their children) as equally as possible. Children will want to do different things, and the parents much stay in as close proximity to each child. However, the "emotional" state of the parents much be kept up at all times. While the kids have arrived just to "play" at the park, the parents are the selfish ones, each requiring a specific activity with one or more of their children to be fulfilled before they will be satisfied and leave the park. The player completes levels and scores points as satisfied parents leave with their kids.

Game Leveling: On the initial levels, a parent will arrive with kids that are close in age. That means that they will want to do mostly the same things. If the kids want to "swing". the parent can remain close to both, and thus fulfilling their (possible) internal desire to push both kids on the swings at the same time. The same thing goes for the slides, or riding bikes/scooters around the path. Parents are easily satisfied, and leave happily from the park. However, as the game advances, the ages of the kids gets further and further apart, and the parent arrives with a desire to satisfy some kid of specific activity with each one. However, by performing an activity with one child, leaves the other open for disaster or a "tantrum" from the other. The most "advanced" activity is to play "catch" on the grass with the older kids, but this also takes the most concentration and leaves the other child open for a disaster. If a child falls and breaks and arm. leg, etc. the park clears-out, and the player has to wait for more parents to arrive to make them "satisfied". A level is "won" after a set number of "satisfied" parents leave the park.

Other Activities:

  • Catching Falling Children: The player can save the day by noticing when a child is going to fall (off the swings, slides, on their bike) and try to catch them. This will send the closest "parent" over to save a child, usually not their own. If they succeed, the actual parent of the child get so embarrassed that they leave the park, but at least the leave "satisfied".
  • Cleaning The Park: As the day goes on, the park gets very dirty. If it gets too dirty, people will stop coming. Since the city cannot afford to send anyone to clean-up, parents can be assigned to pick-up trash. However, this means they will be away from their kids and accidents can occur. Successfully cleaning the park will open it to more parents and their children.

Winning The Game: Ultimately, there is no way to win the game.The parents will never be able to suitably satisfy all their own needs (or their children’s) needs on harder levels. A game is "lost"if the entire day goes by and not enough "satisfied" parents have left park. This is inevitable, but they the player can extend their play by getting better and better and managing the emotions of the parents with the needs of the children. Still, the game has a fatalistic streak,as there it truly no way to be successful.

So would "Catch In The Park" be a an enjoyable game? On the surface, it could appeal to players of "casual" management sims, with the underlying emotions of "joy" and "satisfaction", but also "guilt", and ultimately "hopelessness" coming through the actual playing of the game. The game could be played as straight sim by people who did not really understand the circumstances, but for parents who might find the situations portrayed familiar, it could allow a totally different level of play and expression. Or, it could just be a terrible mess. I suppose the only way to find out is to try to make the game. Maybe I’ll follow-up this post at a later date with an update on my progress…or maybe I’ll just wait until my daughter’s arm gets better, and take her to the park again.


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