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Snowflake: One Year On - Mechanical Metaphors in a Charity Game
by Shaun Leach on 10/20/14 02:12:00 pm   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.

 

It’s been a year since we finished production on Snowflake, the game that’s seen us selected as a finalist in the ‘Games with a Purpose’ category of this year’s TIGA Awards.

Snowflake is a game for, and about, a charity. Home-Start works to support families build better lives for their children through social support, education and encouragement. Each year they run an annual fundraising campaign to raise awareness, and in 2013 they approached us because they wanted to do something a bit more innovative and engaging to raise awareness.

Serious games pose some unique challenges. How do you convey key messages in a clear, memorable and transparent way, while also creating an experience that succeeds as a game in its own right? It’s a question we mulled over for weeks during the design phase and, one year on, we wanted to reflect on these ideas.


 
One thing in particular stands out all these months later: Home-Start’s rare willingness to get hands-on, and how open they were to collaboration. When working with other organisations, stepping outside of comfort zones and delve into the unknown can be quite an unusual thing.

After a series of meetings and workshops, we presented to Home-Start an idea for a truly interactive story book: a game in which players step into the shoes of a Home-Start volunteer, visiting a family in need of support. Players return each day to help, assist and advise the family - shaping the tale in subtle but meaningful ways throughout.

Mechanical metaphors

We set out to find a way to translate Home-Start’s very human, very emotional, and very real message into game mechanics. We decided to focus on what volunteering really feels like. Home-Start has volunteers that go and help families in need, whether they’re families at a disadvantage or a family in crisis.

Volunteering for a charity like Home-Start represents a significant personal sacrifice: that of time. To represent this commitment, we set up time-sensitive event scenes and a time-lock mechanic. Players can choose to accept time-sensitive events - for example, helping the family to watch over their child during a hospital appointment.

Creative use of technology is very important to us. For Snowflake, we synced the game with the player’s real device calendar. Once these tasks are accepted, this is booked into the calendar alongside their real-world commitments, and they are responsible for checking back in at the appropriate time. Our use of the device calendar was our mechanical metaphor, designed to really resonate with people how hard these volunteers work, and the emotional engagement involved.

Convincing people

Emotional engagement in games is a long-standing challenge. It was important that we were able to create characters that felt genuinely relatable, and a convincing story for them to sit within.

The story needed to adapt to the player’s decisions fluidly and subtly. The narrative needed to feel non-game-like, but still engaging as an interactive experience.

We looked outside of games and into interactive storytelling, movies and other works of fiction. At one point we even created paper puppets for all the characters. We still have one of them lying around somewhere. It became clear that the game’s look and feel would be key to achieving this careful balance.

One thing that really caught our eye was the French short Le Café. The characters had a weird and wonderful style, and were constructed from unusually pronounced shapes.

Shape became key. The uncanny valley is well documented: it’s hard for people to relate to perfect looking characters. It’s always important to us to create something unique and quirky, but we also wanted to form an art style for Snowflake that was as delicate as the name suggested, and for that we had to make sure the characters were both visually appealing, and approachable and multidimensional as people. 

Taking risks

Choosing to stay true to these goals was a risk. Mobile games are something people pick up to play in their spare time. By using the time lock mechanic, we were subverting the core of casual mobile games.

There’s a great Dara O’Briain skit in which he talks about games being the only entertainment medium that locks you out of content if you’re not good enough. Traditionally, games are based on skill, and the commitment they ask is in bettering your abilities.

Snowflake is not about skill. It’s about choices, options and crucially, commitment.

The player can’t make a bad decision that will end the game. Instead, they have to make sure they are available at specific times during their day, consistently throughout the week, just like a regular volunteer would. It’s all about how much time the player is willing to invest in Snowflake, and we were hoping this would really strike a chord with Home-Start’s core audience.

Time and commitment is frightening enough under real-life circumstances, and not usually something player’s are willing to work with in a game. We were incredibly fortunate to be working with a client that was brave creatively and to put their faith in our ideas for the game.

Conclusion

Snowflake, in many ways, was an exploration of the unusual within our field. Home-Start were eager to communicate the uniqueness of each individual situation that they handle; the resulting game, at its core, was our response to this.

It’s an adventure game without logic puzzles. A video game story without guns or monsters or an overwhelming evil to overcome. A game in which characters don’t always respond or react in the way you expect, and where there’s not always a clear objective to meet.

One year on, it wouldn’t be fair to say there’s nothing we’d change about Snowflake. Every game is a learning curve and hindsight is a wonderful thing. But the subtlety of the fundraising angle, the credibility of the characters, and the mechanical metaphors we crafted are still things we’re proud of. We are incredibly fortunate to have been given the chance to explore these ideas - and to do so with a client who trusted us when we championed ideas that sat some way away from the norm.


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