[In his latest 'Persuasive Games' column on sociopolitical games, designer/author Ian Bogost analyzes the 'vignette' that is Hush, a student game which movingly chronicles the massacres of the Rwandan Civil War.]
Hush is an unusual game created by University of Southern California Interactive Media Division MFA students Jamie Antonisse and Devon Johnson in their fall 2007 Intermediate Game Design and Development course.
Like Darfur is Dying, created by fellow USC IMD student Susana Ruiz, Hush creates a personal experience of a complex historical situation. Ruiz's game addresses the contemporary crisis in Darfur; Hush's inspiration is another genocide, the 1994 slaughters of the Rwandan Civil War.
Darfur is Dying is part role-play, part simulation. First the player takes the role of a displaced Darfuri child trying to retrieve water while avoiding Janjaweed militia patrols. If successful, the game becomes a management game, in which the player must uset the water to grow crops and assist hut builders.
Even though the camp management game bears much more similarity to existing game mechanics -- using resources and time wisely -- the water fetching part of Darfur is Dying feels far more effective as a game about genocide.
The game offers a zoomed-in, personal experience that characterizes one aspect, albeit simplistically, of one aspect of lived life as a refugee. The management game's social rationalism betrays the sense of emotion portrayed in the water fetching game.
Antonisse and Johnson surely knew of their forerunner's work. Hush avoids Darfur's mistake, its creators choosing to focus on a singular, personal experience as a solitary approach to the topic of genocide.
The game is about a Rwandan Tutsi mother trying to calm and quiet a baby to avoid discovery by Hutu soldiers. Its gameplay attempts to simulate patience. It's a rhythm game, but one that demands slow response rather than the fast action of Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero. Letters corresponding with words of a song fade in and out. Pressing the correct key at the apex of brightness registers a successful soothe. Pressing too early or too late fails to calm the child, and his crying increases.
Hush is a short game; it takes around 5 minutes to play, maybe longer for players who take a while to acclimate in the how-to at the beginning. Allowing the child's crying to increase too much alerts a passing Hutu patrol, and the screen fades to red, a not-so-subtle implication of the pair's bloody end. Successfully working through each "level," which corresponds with a word of the lullaby, ends the game, as the Hutu patrol passes.
The ambience of Hush is created primarily through aural and visual ambience. Whether by design or by accident, the overall aesthetic of Hush bears some resemblance to other titles that have come out of USC Interactive Media, especially flOw and Cloud.
Hush and Cloud share the use of illustrations and broadcast-style motion graphics as a stage setting tool, although the former uses them in-game rather than as preface. Well-crafted, stylized renderings of documentary imagery and sounds from Rwanda of the early 1990s give a sense of the time and place. Oddly, the static woodcut-style image of mother and baby are the only figures that remain static throughout the game.