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What Goes Around - An Experimental Anti-war Game
by Reid Kimball on 12/13/09 03:45:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Designing What Goes Around
On December 2nd, 2009 I released an experimental anti-war video game called What Goes Around (download link) that features a procedural rhetoric. The game is for PC, lasting a few minutes and the download is about 7+MB. I encourage you to give it a try because in the rest of this article I will explain what inspired me to make it and why I made the design decisions I did.

Goals
I have a passion for creating games that explore more serious topics like health, the environment, human rights and war. I don't get to make these kinds of games during my day job but I hope to one day because I believe games can provide very engaging and empowering experiences for people. I've written about how games can be used for good in several different articles; Using Games as a Dialog with Players, Infusing Games with a Moral Premise, and Breaking the Vicious Cycle.

Part of the reason I wanted to create What Goes Around was to challenge myself in creating a game that could communicate a specific message through gameplay mechanics (called procedural rhetoric) and combine it with other content that strengthens the message.

The term, "procedural rhetoric" comes from an article by Ian Bogost. In my experience, most games that attempt to have a procedural rhetoric tend to be void of context, such as The Marriage. Bare abstract mechanics are difficult for many players to interpret. It's important for me to explore how to combine both contextual visual and aural elements with gameplay mechanics to say something specific and have it be easily understood.

Inspiration
I was inspired by an anti-war ad campaign titled "What Goes Around" made for Global Coalition for Peace by Big Ant International. The concept of the posters intrigued me because they were printed in wide format to be wrapped around a pole. On one of the posters, at one end was a soldier with his arm extended as if in the middle of throwing and at the other end was a grenade flying through the air. When the poster was wrapped around a pole, it looked like the grenade was being thrown at him.

Another poster with the same concept uses a fighter jet at one end having just fired a missile, which is at the opposite end. When wrapped around a pole, the missile is about to hit the back of the fighter jet.

When I saw the fighter jet poster it immediately reminded me of a video game side scrolling shooter. The concept for What Goes Around instantly came to me at that moment and I challenged myself to adapt the anti-war ad campaign to a video game format with a procedural rhetoric.

The other reason was to express my views about war, especially because at the time the concept came to me, it was August 29th, 2009 and President Obama was debating what to do in Afghanistan. To my disappointment, the night of completing this game, he announced plans to increase troop numbers by an additional 30,000 to be deployed to Afghanistan.

Designing the Procedural Rhetoric
Again, if you haven't played the game, please do, it only takes a few minutes.

The player starts on the left side of the screen as a Predator drone that can fire one single Hellfire missile. The core mechanic that starts the procedural rhetoric is the player shooting at the target in front of them on the right side of the screen. The target, which is a Turban wearing UFO, which I like to call a Turbalien, disappears as soon as the missile gets near it.

The missile continues to move left to right and then when it reaches the right edge of the screen it wraps around to the left edge of the screen. It continues moving and looping, left to right. This establishes the message of "What goes around, comes around."

But it needed to be more than simply having the missile loop left to right endlessly. The missile needed to destroy the player on impact to really drive home the idea that violence causes violence, that what goes around, comes around.

Iteration of Gameplay and Message
The first time I play tested it myself, I knew what would happen and moved my Predator drone out of the way so when it looped, it would pass by without incident. I realized that players could avoid the message easily and wanted to change that. I added random deviation to the Y axis of the missile's path so that it randomly moved up or down. After a lot of iteration, I got it so that it's impossible to survive after launching the missile. This further strengthened the message, since the delivery of the point was inevitable and also says that no matter what, past transgressions will always catch up to you, it's just a matter of when.

During futher play testing with other people, they said they didn't move their Predator avatar after firing the missile, and when it loops around to the left edge of the screen, they died immediately without much understanding of what happened because it was so quick. To fix this, upon launch of the missile initially, it moves down below the Predator avatar so that if the player doesn't move their avatar, it will pass right by them.

On first pass at this new mechanic, when it was flying below the Predator avatar, the missile started to randomly move up or down, sometimes colliding with it and causing it to explode. I didn't want that to happen so soon and had to delay the randomness of the flight path until it passed the Predator avatar. This allowed players to witness the behavior of the missile and hopefully understand what was happening.

I included images of civilians caught in war that looped right to left because I feel strongly that there is no good reason for anyone to die, especially civilians. I wanted to draw a connection to the player trying to fire at what they may perceive to be an enemy but have very little understanding of (UFO, alien) more often have unintended consequences for civilians, whether displaced, maimed, killed or losing someone they know. War is different in today's modern times. Casualties of today's war may grow up to be tomorrow's Osama Bin Laden. That's how I see it at least. It's insanity to keep waging war and think it will lead to more peace.

The sound effects and music were done by Nikolas Sideris, who did an excellent job despite my not being able to provide him with specific direction. I was only able to communicate the kind of mood I wanted the music to evoke and he did a terrific job. I remarked to a friend that I was afraid the music might out class the whole game and I still wonder about that.

Challenging My Design Philosophy
When I began development of What Goes Around I didn't foresee how much the game would challenge my views about game design and in the end it helped solidify my positions, their reasonings and discover new ideas.

I'm critical of lengthy single player narrative games. I think most games released are too long and overstay their welcome hours after their worth has run dry. Many games I play could easily be the same, if not better, experience in 2 - 4 hours of length. Most games don't have mechanics with enough variety or depth to warrant more time than that and their simplistic plots get padded with busy-work objectives that do little to contribute to the heart of the story.

The goal of What Goes Around was to communicate a specific message and while I could have padded it with extra waves of targets to shoot at, I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to waste people's time or insult them by repeating the procedural rhetoric over and over.

At one point I felt guilty that people would have to download the game but only play it for a few minutes. I realized the game should have been done in Flash. Unfortunately, I don't have Flash and I'm not an accomplished programmer yet. Development would have slowed to a crawl and I'm sure the game would have never been released. Despite my worries and guilt, I had to ignore them and do what I felt was best for the game, making it short and to the point.

Another traditional design I chose not to implement was progression. Most shooters have the player collecting more powerful weapons and facing tougher enemies. I didn't include that for two reasons. One, because it would unnecesarily lengthen the game. Second and more importantly it would have distracted from the message I was trying to communicate.

I see many examples of developers attempting to create "meaningful" games but they fail because they resort to mechanics that make the experience about acquiring meaningless points or achievements and it cheapens what they were trying to accomplish. Life isn't about keeping score, it's about the emotions we feel within and what we do with them.

One thing I didn't realize I believed in until designing the game was the idea that it's OK and even powerful for players not to act. That inaction is just as equally valid and acceptable a choice as acting. In the game, I try to challenge players with this by having a military commander order them to attack the Turbalien. In a way, that military commander is me talking to the player, daring them to attack. If players disregard the order and do nothing, that to me is significant. They reject the call to attack, the traditional gameplay of the genre to shoot anything and everything and instead want a peaceful resolution to war.

After demonstrating their ability to think for themselves and not blindly follow gameplay traditions, I think there is a crack in that moment where they are open to new ideas. After that, a short dialog occurs between the player's CIA Predator drone and the Turbalien.

Finally, the most contentious part of the game is what happens after the dialog between player and Turbalien, which is nothing. Nothing new happens at all. During the dialog, the player is clued into how they can stop the war, but it's up to the player do it. The Turbalien says to the player that they can "end the war". Again, this is me talking to the player, trying to inspire them to act. In the main menu, there is a button labeled, "End War" which replaces the traditional "Quit Game" button. I hoped players would remember that and realize to end the war in the game, they must do what I consider to be a more powerful action, exiting the game, than an action within the game. Most play testers didn't get that and wanted immediate closure, more ways to express themselves within the game world and not outside of it.

In a way, by quitting the game before any real reward event occurs I see it as a physical commitment to the cause of ending the actual Afghan and Iraq wars. My design goal was to transition players from game world to real world and motivate them to think about the game and its content after exiting. I wanted to motivate people and spark real action to end the wars. It may sound naive and silly, but other art forms are able to motivate people to act in various ways.

Final Thoughts
Designing What Goes Around taught me that a procedural rhetoric is fairly easy to put into games and yet we don't see much of that, to my disappointment. There is no reason a game can't. The Modern Warfare AC-130 mission can easily be about poor information and the inability to discern friend from foe from civilian, how one deals with inaccurate information in a war and whether following orders blindly still means doing ones duty. I hope to see more games that use mechanics as a procedural rhetoric coupled with traditional visual and aural content. While What Goes Around won't win any awards, it proved to me there's vast potential in this area to be explored.

Also posted on my personal blog, Reiding...


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Comments


Kyle Jansen
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Several comments, only one of which does not apply to the actual game:



1) Controls are extremely sluggish and jagged. Obviously, you're using a on_press(){ y++ } type code, when a better one would be on_press(){yvel++}, on_frame(){y += yvel; yvel /= 2}. This gives a smoother, more controllable experience.



2) The variation in the missile looks extremely, well, stupid. It bounces around like you're recalculating the random vector every frame, and just adding the random number to the position instead of to the angle.



3) To quote Miyamoto, "Where's the fun?". Yes, even political games have to have some element of fun. I could have had just as much fun reading the Wikipedia article on Hiroshima. Probably more, since I wouldn't have to go through an install process longer than the actual experience.



4) Install to a subdir of C:Program Files. Never, never, never, install to some custom, egotistical path by default.



5) The "friendly" dialogue came across less as "misguided but fundamentally human", and far more as "political straw-man, a particularly harsh caricature"



Finally, the one not about the game,



6) Unilateral pacifism means that the violent go unchecked. Look at Europe and China at the end of the 1930s. Had there been violence then, rather than later, there would have been far fewer casualties. By all means, I do not want a war, but there will always be someone willing to use violence. Keep that in mind.

Luis Guimaraes
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Since Kyle Jansen already said all about the execution details,



I really liked to see some game in that matter, specially because I myself have many insterest in covering such themes with the power games can have to tell such messages to the player. Sadly, I didn't really fell the impact it needed to create. In other words, I didn't feel in the villain hole, I didn't order the attack. Of course it comes closer to the wider reality, since I played a mindless tool following orders, but even in that it lacked the brainwashed side of the thing, in which I believe or agree with the given order, I just follow the order.



I think this is something that we game creators must explore further in the future.



Well, good start. :)

Reid Kimball
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@Kyle

Thanks for the feedback. You are right about the programming implementation. Will try to play around with it some more just for my own learning.



Regarding fun, that was not the objective of this game and I don't believe all games need to be fun.



Can you explain what you mean by the friendly dialog coming across as "political straw-man, a... harsh caricature"? I think I know and disagree, but want to be sure.



I can't see how one can argue that position on unilateral pacifism. Who's to say that more violence in the 1930's wouldn't have sparked even more years later. We'll never know.



@Luis

I agree that they game isn't going to make any feel a great sense of responsibility or sadness because that wasn't my intention. It was only to communicate that message. To make the player feel responsibility and sadness for their actions would take a much different game of larger scope.

Glenn Storm
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Reid, thank you for sharing this with us; both the game and this write-up. I agree, this should have been a Flash game; browser-based, wider audience. On the design side, I wonder if it would've been more powerful if the initial soldier dialog was simply cut. Let the 'natural' gamer reaction to shoot propel the message. As it is, I felt the dialog made the game (and unfortunately, the associated message) seem superficial and cartoonish. By the same token, the iconic anti-war imagery used at the end did not seem to support the specific message you had (at least for me) because those images weren't directly related and they carry their own baggage. Finally, I'd wonder about the intended audience. If the idea is to appear as a shooter, then deliver an anti-war message by surprise, the audience is likely to be disappointed they didn't get a shooter, so the surprise better, at minimum, make up for that and deliver something they can take away. If the take-away was the text displayed at the end, I would present it in such a way as to provide a 'story' they can easily tell their friends; something short, novel and to the point. /my $0.02

Eric Scharf
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Reid - thanks for posting this article and your findings.



A loosely-related serious game - in the vein of peaceful protest - that may be of interest to you is "A Force More Powerful."



You can find out more information about it at http://www.aforcemorepowerful.org/game/index.php.



Additional material can be found at http://www.emscharf.com/portfolio/gamesindustry/breakaway_afmp/br
eakaway_afmp_userinterface/breakaway_afmp_userinterface.htm.

Alexander Jhin
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We need more examples of procedural rhetoric! I offer a critique to further the procedural rhetoric dialectic:



One can analyze rhetoric games using the following system:

1) Identify all static elements in the game.

2) Identify all choice points in the game.

3) Identify all paths through the game (choices + static element combinations)

4) Analyze a user's reactions to all paths taken by that user, including replays and generally discounting static elements. Replays are key, as it is through replays that a user understands a game as a system rather than a game as a single incident. I'll explain why I discount static elements later.



So, how does a gamer understand "What Goes Around" as a message? Well, the gamer paths are probably, discounting static elements, as follows:

Path 1:

A) User starts game.

B) User fires, destroys enemy.

C) Missile comes around, user evades until finally getting blown up.

Path 2:

A) User starts game.

B) User chooses not to fire.

C) Game stalls.

D) User quits.



The message is: Attacking the enemy is an attack on myself. The only way to not lose is to either not play or not attack.



Unfortunately, the first part of this message lacks sufficient metaphor to the real world. Except for friendly fire incidents, wars rarely lead to directly to damage to ourselves. Every bullet fired doesn't turn around and hit us back, except in an extreme metaphorical sense. Rather, war has more subtle effects -- the degradation of morality, degradation of society, creation of new enemies, etc. Your message is strong but I strongly disagree with your metaphor, except in the most throw away sense of "what goes around comes around." For me, it's too cartoony, like a man trying to kick a dog and kicking himself instead.



Why do I discount static elements? Because static elements are not interactive. They rely on linear narrative, either presented by the game or brought into the game by the user's past and biases. Static elements are linear rhetoric not procedural rhetoric. Any static graphics, sounds, or text should serve as symbolic, abstract ideals which are discovered by the user through game play not historical player bias or knowledge. Perform the following simple thought exercise: Would "What Goes Around" work if you replaced all graphics with squares and all sounds with beeps? In this case, the answer is yes. So, as a creator, you must ask yourself, "How much linear rhetoric will I include? Will exposition help or hurt the procedural rhetoric?" Currently, I prefer as little linear rhetoric as possible. I can see UFO's wearing turbans in political cartoons. Only through games can I experience it. "Involve not show or tell."



Brodie's "The Beggar" is a good example of a message game that has almost no static elements (the graphics are so crude that different colored pixels represent different ideas, but only through playing can you discover it.) Braithwaite's "Train" is an interesting twist on this idea: The game misleads you to believe that the symbolic tokens are one thing, but by bringing in a final, shocking, and real world element at the end of the game, the real world associations rush in, crushing any previous conceptions of what the token were and replaces them with something else. In this example, real world associations are used to counter the in-game associations that were carefully crafted through gameplay.



The current trope of procedural rhetoric is to make users think they are playing a classic "win/lose" game, disguising the fact they are actually experiencing procedural rhetoric. This element of surprise is an advantage rather than a disadvantage. By twisting the user's expectations, they are forced to be introspective about what happened. It demands attention like a car driving on the wrong side of the road. Your game, however, goes out of it's way to distinguish itself from a standard game removing the element of surprise. (See Train or September 12th for examples of procedural rhetoric that rely on the disguise of a "normal game" to work.) In fact, when I first played your game, I took path B immediately and didn't fire. It felt too much like a message game and I guessed what the message was rather than experiencing it. Is this trope a fad? Maybe but gruesome horror movie villans still jump out when the viewer least expects it. I supposed rhetoric games are no different.



Thank you for creating this, even if I don't necessarily agree with many of your decisions. I learn more through disagreement than agreement.

Luis Guimaraes
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@Alexander Jhin



That's the brainwash thing I was talking about, when you first think you are doing the right thing, cause you've been manipulated to.

Kyle Jansen
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@Reid



Every game has to be fun. That is the very definition of a "game". What you made was more akin to an interactive movie, or a simple demonstration-of-principle.



What could have made this somewhat fun, while keeping the exact message, is making it possible to continually dodge your shot, and have more targets, possibly including civilians. Then, the player could try to stay alive as long as possible, but ultimately fail to keep the consequences from piling up. If, once dead, every missile continued to hit the "player", it could symbolize how, the longer the violence continues, the worse everyone is. If the player lasted long enough, it could take quite some time for the game to end, giving the player time to contemplate.



When I spoke of how the "commander" was a caricature, I meant that no actual person would ever talk like that. Soldiers, especially in America, are professionals. They may joke around, and maybe even act like that off-duty, at home, but on the job, they speak like pros. Here's some examples you could use:



"Tango identified, coordinates 52.336 / 17.109, building beside the school" -> directly but subtly shows the collateral damage, but doesn't make one side or another "evil"

"Target spotted, making a run through the market."

"Ground team Echo needs support, 2km North, near the old mosque."

"Delta needs saturation fire, grid JJ-27." -> Saturation fire means, essentially, shoot enough that nobody can still be alive. Literally, saturate the ground with bullets.

"Delta, request target confirm, I read possible civilians, acknowledge."



See, that not only sounds more authentic, but doesn't demonize anybody. The way you wrote it, it came off as more anti-American than anti-War.





As for the pacifism comment, if WW2 had started a year earlier thus ended a year earlier, the Holocaust would have ended a year sooner. Similar casualties from war, but less from genocide. War may be evil, but sometimes it is the lesser evil.





PS: One trivial note: WGA_Install.exe was a poor choice of filename, since it (or something extremely similar) is used by Microsoft's "Windows Genuine Advantage" installer, and might trigger some virus alerts. Not really bad, it just confused me when I was deleting it.

Luis Guimaraes
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Until now I didn't get WTF the genocide was. I sounds like an stupid propaganda/excuse act to keep going with the already idiot whole war act that started as a retaliation act with an already stupid excuse. It's already a good exemple of violence generates violence. War is a poker game where people keep raising the bet, but everybory loses in the end.

Reid Kimball
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@Glenn

Reading your comments, I am reminded of the serious game Harpooned, which is excellent, have a look if you haven't yet (http://harpooned.org/). Playing it in full takes about 10 minutes and it uses your suggestion of surprising the player at the end.



I'll give some thought to how to redesign What Goes Around along that framework.



@Eric

Thanks for the suggestion.



@Alexander

Glad you found the game and article of some value. I don't agree that What Goes Around should be stripped of all context. I wanted it to be about war and needed to contextualize it with Predator drones and missile, not squares and circles. If I made it completely abstract, then players may get the message, but not the context for it. It will be a "so what?" moment for the player. But in What Goes Around, at least players get that it's about the cycle of violence and endless global wars on terrorism. At least at that point people can think more deeply about what the game has to say if they want to.



I played The Beggar just now and think it also uses static visuals. There are clearly policemen and jails and shop owners, etc. It's not purely abstract. It's a good game, but not an example of pure 100% procedural rhetoric games like The Marriage. But then you mention a game like September 12th, which is excellent. So, I'm not sure why you don't like the Turbalien, it's no different than trying to bomb a terrorist in September 12th, except it's a commentary on how some American's view foreigners, as "aliens" to be feared.



@Kyle

You say the very definition of game is something that is fun. I propose that the definition be expanded so that game can include other experiences besides what is fun. See the recent article on Kotaku about Heavy Rain. Apparently, it's slow and depressing. Doesn't sound like fun, but sounds like an engaging experience that many players will want to explore. Sony must also agree because millions have been poured into its development.



I see what you mean about the dialog of the military commander, thanks for the examples of more realistic dialog. My dialog does take a swipe at politicians and presidents past for their rhetoric. They often sounded like cartoon characters to me. "They hate us for our freedoms." *sigh*



My knowledge of history isn't deep but I do know about Hitler's genocidal campaign against Jews and others. What I question though is the system, that war was the only solution. Again, I will admit my knowledge of history isn't complete, maybe it was at that time, but I'd rather question it and find the answer myself than to blindly accept that war was OK. What happened to Hitler? What caused him to grow up with so much hate? I think something broke in the system of his upbringing. That's the root cause and that could have been solved to prevent war I think.

Jose Enrique D'Arnaude
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Just a comment about history which I personally think its important, war is just another tool of human relationships. You may not understand it, hate it and not accept it as what it is, but unfortunately its mankind oldest "hobby", and its sometimes needed. As the Romans said: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" (If you want peace, prepare for war).



About the game and its goal, its nice to see someone trying to infuse some ethic values in a game, but I have to agree with Kyle, the fun is needed in order to be appealing. My point of view of course.



Regards,

James Hofmann
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I wasn't able to run the game for some reason(probably the integrated graphics I'm using) but the concept does sound cartoonish. Game mechanics are blunt instruments, so using them to make a point at such a base level makes it come across like a sledgehammer:



"Why does the missile come back at me?"



"BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU SHOOT PEOPLE. GOSH!"



As rhetoric, or as thrilling gameplay, this isn't exactly compelling.



If your goal is a incisive indictment of war, you should add as many valid motives as possible so that the results are inarguable. For example, here's a sketch of a game that progresses through some loop of events:



1. The President gives the order to go to war(our gameplay models the political pressures that are inducing him to do this.)

2. Soldiers go into the country and intervene in various ways...(this could be abstracted in many fashions)

3. The interventions cause more problems than they solve, draining the national budget and the President's ratings. The player can opt to pull out or to sink more money into the war, with consequences for finances and public opinion either way. Spending enough will result in an easy victory, but it should be obvious just how inefficient this is.



Essentially, it should be made incredibly difficult to avoid going to war, and it should also be incredibly difficult to win the war. But the pursuit of the optimal strategy for keeping the President's ratings high and minimizing expenditures, even if it's using abstracted mechanics, is going to compel the player to translate the game's model to the real world.



If you wanted to blow up the game into a big scope, you could add a rich narrative that follows the President, a General, a soldier, and a native of the country: the decisions the President and the General make ripple down into the other two plots, and while the President and General would have "cool" gameplay, abstracted from the situation, mostly talking and planning, the soldier and native would have "hot," action-intense gameplay.



Maybe I'll make that game someday.

Reid Kimball
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@Jose Enrique

That's an Orwellian view of the world. "War is peace." - 1984



@James

If you want to try, use the winsetup.exe to try changing your graphics settings and that might help get the game to run.



What you describe at first sounded like a simulation type game, which I don't think does a good job of moving hearts and minds because it's distanced from the human impact of the decisions. But your other suggestion of layering that with a narrative, I do agree would be ideal. I see those as the Blood Diamond and Erin Brockovich of video games. If I had the kind of time and budget, those are the kinds of games I would make.



Which brings me to a general comment that people seem to be forgetting that my goal was to adapt an already existing ad campaign into video game format. I think it's interesting to compare how well the concept works in different mediums. It's clear people don't think it works as a video game. I'll have to find out if people similarly panned the posters that were made.

Alexander Jhin
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@Reid -- "I don't agree that What Goes Around should be stripped of all context." I agree. I don't think it should be stripped of all context either. Stripping context is just a thought experiment that allows you analyze: 1) How well your game succeeds as pure "procedural rhetoric" 2) Finding the balance of how much linear rhetoric to introduce. Your game actually succeeds quite well without "static" context. In my personal opinion, the static elements are bit too heavy handed for me. The game tells me too much what to think rather than letting me figure it out myself. It's like viewing Guernica and having Picasso yelling in my ear: "Get it? War is horrific!" So, for me, it's not even so much an issue of linear rhetoric vs procedural rhetoric as one of subtlety versus bluntness.

Reid Kimball
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@Alexander

OK, I understand what you mean now. Thanks for clarifying.

Miroslav Martinovic
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First time I ran it, the missile killed me instantly when wrapping around screen. I think i moved the predator a little, but i was really confused as to what the hell happened... Then i just waited, watched the pictures and read the text - the fact that the game didn't end, nor gave any "game over" indication made me into thinking that this may be a part of desired "scenario". Well, i was kinda right, but i didn't thought that it's already the end... When the text started to repeat itself, i hit escape, and restarted war, as to find out what the hell happened...



This time, i moved predator into the middle of screen, because of the logic "the thing that killed me had to go from the left edge, otherwise i'd see it coming...". And yup, there it is, my own rocket...



Damn, that's weird, okay, let's dodge it, now I'm supposed to move right, or...?



Hey, the rocket's back again, jumping like hell, okay let's assume it's intentional, and try to dodge it some more... Nope, killed.



Well, yeah, that was... kinda strange...



The idea behind this is... interesting, in a very unusual way, at least to me. I never came across something like this, not in so "pure" form.



But the idea is not enough, this piece just mostly leaves the player confused, thinking "was this really it? why? it's strange...", and the surprise/confusion to me was so strong, i wouldn't think too much about it, if not for this article...



I think you have to prepare your players for something like this... For the very least, having an animation in the menu, visualizing one of those posters (or something like that), hinting the message on the beginning...



Or, the better idea would be first immersing the player into the game... Let him build some emotional tie, and THEN start throwing messages on him, so even when the messages do strange/unusual (according to what people are used to) things to gameplay, he'll be willing to think about it, because "this game was so good, I can't believe those strange things are just some kind of error, they have to have a point...".



The idea of this ...mindtoy (i wouldn't really call it a game, sorry, doesn't meet my criteria) is good, the overall idea of mere game mechanic carrying a moral/philosofical/whatever message is VERY interesting, but the way it's done ruins it quite much, in my opinion.


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