After much hemming and hawing, I thought it would be good to lay out what the project concept is from a high level without being too abstract. A lot of my earlier posts are a little evasive, so here I’ll try to be a bit more to the point.
Game Design Concept
The Seal (working title) is a third-person 3D puzzle-platforming game. In the game, an unnamed protagonist carries a manhole cover through a series of platforming levels in a temple setting, solving puzzles and evading enemies and traps. At the end of the game, the protagonist places the manhole cover over a manhole.
The protagonist of the game has no given name, but I refer to them as the child. The child’s motivation may or may not be explicitly stated in the game, but conceptually the child’s motivation is that they inherited or were otherwise given the gift. The gift is an object that the child received; they did not make or earn the gift; and this may be stated explicitly in the game if development time allows. I would prefer to make this element explicit, but if I don’t have the development time to do so, it may not make it into the game. The child doesn’t hate the gift. They feel responsible for the gift. Although the gift is in their possession now, they think that nobody should own the gift.
The child seeks to return the gift to its original resting place at the end of the temple. The exact reason why they want to return the gift and why they think nobody should own the gift is open to interpretation. What is on the other side of the manhole I also plan to leave unspecified.
The gift, referred to as either “the artifact” or “the treasure” in previous posts, resembles a manhole cover in size and dimensions.
The gift must have the following properties:
- it is perfectly circular along one axis, allowing it to roll along the ground
- it is flat on both its top and bottom
- the top and bottom are symmetrical
- it is wider than the child
- it is heavy enough to be used as a weight throughout the game
- it is no more than a few inches thick
The temple will be reminiscent of temples as depicted in Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia, Zelda, Indiana Jones, etc. The representation of the temple itself is meant to be familiar and evocative of other video games.
As a puzzle-platforming game, the game allows me to hone my craft of level and game design. It should be playable without much difficulty to players familiar with tropes of platforming games.
The narrative concept of starting the game with the treasure and returning it is meant to stand in opposition to the presentation of many popular games. Whereas games often portray the game world as existing for the joy of the player, and of the game world’s resources as being inherently there for the player to conquer and colonize, The Seal presents the player’s relationship to the world in the opposite fashion: rather than taking from the world, the player is giving to the world.
It’s hoped that in playing this game, players will examine why it is that they are returning the gift. They will hopefully play other games in the future and ask themselves why the player character deserves to steal from the game and from the environment.
If we think back to even the most seemingly innocent of games, theme of colonization and theft are common. Mario jumps through the Mushroom Kingdom, taking coins as he goes. Link smashes pots throughout Hyrule, taking rupees for himself wherever he is. Players rarely ask “why does Mario deserve these coins” or “why does Mario want these coins” or even “where did these coins come from”. The tacit message within the game is that the game world was waiting to be discovered by the player. Although the player character is causing harm to the characters already present in the game world (goombas, koopa troopas, etc), we are led to believe that this is Right and Just.
There are many ways of critiquing these structures in games, but rather than critique them directly, The Seal critiques them obliquely by inverting the expectations of the player. My responsibility as a designer is to figure out how this can still be fun.
As an artist, I have a responsibility to make this game fun, because my central argument is that games do not have to center the players' desires at every turn in order for the game to be fun; that the player’s fun does not have to be at the expense of the non-player characters in the game. It is actually at the expense of the player character that the player has fun; this calls into question the relationship between player and player character. The player character is thus an instrument of and toy of the player, but is not the player themselves.
Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics
Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek’s MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research describes one possible framework for analyzing the components of a game’s design. Through this lens, game design elements can be considered through the following paradigm:
- Mechanics describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms.
- Dynamics describes the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others' outputs over time.
- Aesthetics describes the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system.
- The player can run, jump, lift the gift, drop the gift.
- The gift rolls along the ground by gravity and by inertia.
- Stone doors throughout the temple impede the player’s path.
- Switches on the ground open and close doors.
- The gift can be placed on a switch to keep the switch pressed down.
- The camera is not under the player’s control.
- The player and the gift may be used interchangeably as weights in various puzzles.
- The gift is a durable object that is impervious to damage from fire, spikes, poison, cold, and other environmental hazards.
- Some puzzles may require that the player start the gift in motion, and then run ahead of it to clear its path.
- The player should use the gift as a defensive object. For example, by holding the gift over their head, the player is protected from dripping acid. By placing the gift on top of a vent, the player can be protected from fire. Etc.
- The player should feel responsible for the gift.
- The player should perceive the gift to be valuable in some way.
- The temple should feel familiar to the player, as if they have been there before. That is: the thing that I consider to be the innovative element of this game is the idea that you’re returning a treasure instead of seeking a treasure. The environment is not meant to be shockingly new; it is meant to be similar to other video games, it is the player’s actions and the player’s quest that are intended to be novel.