Last week I walked through 3 different prototypes for my single-player storytelling game. It ended with the following thought:
I want the player to care about all of the characters, but I don’t want game maintenance to hinder gameplay. I want the player to make meaningful decisions, but I don’t want the player to have to make so many of them that it becomes taxing. Finally, I want the experience to offer a variety of emotions, but I don’t want it to be a life simulation alone — it’s just not enjoyable.
With that in mind, I put my thinking cap on for my next prototype:
Prototype 4: Mandala
Summary: The player starts with 3 people (2 parents and a child), each with their own emotional state. Five different colors represent five different emotions in the game: Fear is gray, Love is peach, Sadness is blue, Joy is green, and Anger is red. The color in the bottom-middle of each card is the current emotional state of that person, and the colors on the sides of the card are the emotions that person is giving to the other people around him (with Fear being the most contagious, and Anger being the least). For example, on the lower-left of the picture you can see Fear leading to more Fear. You can also see Sadness leading to Anger for others, and the rare case of Anger leading to Joy and Love for others (some schadenfreude there). The goal is to end the game with all people in a state of Joy.
What the Player Does: For each person, the player looks at the two colors between that person and the one to the right of him. The higher color is the one that stays for the next row, so the player draws two cards from that color’s deck and chooses one of them to place above the person. While colors can repeat themselves from row to row, they don’t always (e.g. Fear tends to do this more than the others, but Love tends not to). When the player is finished doing this process for each person, he looks at that row and the past 2 rows to see if any effects take place. An emotional effect triggers when one person has the same emotional state over 3 turns, OR three different people have a state in common over 3 turns. An effect removes from the game all past state cards, then does one of the following:
- Fear – remove one card from each deck from the game.
- Love – create a new person (another column).
- Sadness – lose the game.
- Joy – replace one card in this row with one from a deck of your choice.
- Anger – remove a person from the game.
Results: So how does this stack up against the quote from earlier? Let’s look at them one-by-one:
I want the player to care about all of the characters, but I don’t want game maintenance to hinder gameplay.
Game maintenance definitely didn’t hinder gameplay. It was easy to take my turn, and there were interesting decisions. However, I failed to make myself care about the characters. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and there are several problems here:
• On the surface, there’s a prototype problem. The people/situations don’t have names, faces, or anything that tells you who they are or what’s going on.
• A game session only lasts ~30-60 minutes. Is this really enough time to build relationships with the characters such that I care about them?
• While there were interesting decisions, I didn’t feel like I had enough agency as a player.
I want the player to make meaningful decisions, but I don’t want the player to have to make so many of them that it becomes taxing.
While I wasn’t completely on the mark with this one, I felt I was making somewhat meaningful decisions despite that I didn’t care about the characters. The game didn’t feel taxing with these, either. It felt just right (varied).
I want the experience to offer a variety of emotions, but I don’t want it to be a life simulation alone — it’s just not enjoyable.
This prototype erred on the side of gamey-ness rather than offering a variety of emotions (this has to do with not caring about the characters). It felt most like a puzzle game, which was fairly intentional.
Next Steps: Looking at the findings above, there are 3 things I will try in my next prototype:
- Characters with Names and Art
The first two prototypes had named characters, and I want to bring that back to make the player care about them more. In addition, I think it’s been a mistake to not include simple character art on the prototype cards. Yes, this is the prototyping phase, so my focus should be on the game’s mechanics, but as a player I need to be able to project myself onto the characters. Granted, I won’t go overboard since people project more easily onto simpler-looking faces (see Scott McCloud’s triangle).
- Progression Over Multiple Play Sessions
This will allow the player to build sympathy (or even empathy) with the character(s) over time. Also, this will give the player a sense of long-term achievement in the game. This is something I initially wanted (see prototype #1) but removed earlier in an attempt to simplify things.
- More Micro-level Decisions
Each prototype up to now has given each character a very finite number of turns, with each turn representing a number of years. While this gets me to the goal of having characters die, it misses the more important step of making you care about them before they go. Turns will no longer be in years, but something more micro such as days or weeks. This will give the player an opportunity to spend more time with each character and become “used to them,” giving me the opportunity to evoke emotions in the player via the characters.
Of course, all of this needs to happen while keeping player maintenance to a minimum. This continues to be a challenge, but I’m not finished trying yet!