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.
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.
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.
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...