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Duck Season: All About Imagination

by Jack Pritz on 11/07/17 09:23:00 am

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.

 

[Spoiler Warning: This article freely discusses all aspects of the VR game Duck Season]


Duck Season is not a game about shooting ducks.  The latest game by Stress Level Zero, makers of VR launch title Hover Junkers, puts us in the head of a young boy during summer vacation.  His mother has rented a game for his Kingbit game system, and he is looking to make the most of it.  Through the game you pass the day playing this game - but that's not all there is to it.  Some bizarre things start to happen.  Without summarizing the whole game, suffice it to say that there is something deeper going on - but what?  Well, I have been working my way through John Truby's book The Anatomy of Story, wherein Truby lays out the fundamentals of storytelling.  Among the basics are the ideas of premise, designing principle, and moral argument.  If you are tuned in to these ideas, then it is quite striking how clearly Duck Season shows its premise, designing principle, and moral argument.  So strap in - because we're about to dive into one of the most interesting VR games to date!

We will start with the premise.  On its surface the premise is clear: we have a young boy passing a day with his toys.  When we start playing the titular game-within-a-game, however, a deeper premise reveals itself.  Once the player inserts the Duck Season cartridge into the game system and starts the first level, they are loaded into a surprisingly high-polished environment.  This is no 8-bit world.  We are standing next to a serene marsh lake.  Our dog companion is dancing to our right, and the truck we rode in on is on our left.  Looking further behind us, however, the illusion falls apart.  Bushes next to us are wooden cutouts.  Above us are theater lights.  And behind us?  Why - there are TV components and a window back to the "real" world.  The boy we were playing as earlier is sitting there, matching our hand movements.  The game is an illusion put on by tiny people in the TV - or is it?  Being young, this is exactly what the boy imagines the inside of the TV to be - a show put on by tiny people.  Here the real premise reveals itself.  We are not a young boy passing a day with his toys.  We are a young boy passing the day with his toys and his imagination.

Premise: A boy experiences a 1980s summer afternoon filled with toys and fantastic imagination.

This premise explains the fantastic elements that we experience later in the game.  It does so without hand-waving "the world is just magic," and unites elements in a clear way.  It gives meaning to those fantastic elements on a deeper level that we will explore as we move on to the designing principle of the game.

John Truby defines the designing principle of a story as "...what organizes the story as a whole.  It is internal to the logic of the story, what makes the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  It is what makes the story original."  Building on the premise, Duck Season's designing principle explores where imagination causes fantasy and reality to merge.

Designing Principle: The boy's imagination blends fantasy and reality, and the player's choices impact the consequences of that imagination.

As actions occur during the game, they work their way into the boy's imagination, and this affects the boy's world.  It is no mistake that the majority of endings occur if you shoot the dog in his game world.  Working off the previous point that what occurs in the TV is a show put on by tiny people, imagination dictates that each of these people have feelings and lives.  Upon loading into the game, the dog is not just waiting for us - he is smoking a cigarette, which he puts out under his heel once he notices us.  When we break the friendly relationship by shooting him, the imagined dog requires vengeance.  After you shoot him, he is coming for you.  The perceived agency of this virtual K9 is reinforced by other actions in the world.  The newscaster talks about missing families - and so of course the dog comes for your family later in the game.  When mom loses her knife in the kitchen, that becomes the dog's final weapon.  The broken "Dessert Boss" cartridge shows that games can break - so what happens to the characters inside when that happens?  What do you do when characters come to seek their revenge?  Well, how you should behave is exactly what the moral argument tells us.

Moral argument, also known as theme, is a lesson from the storyteller to the audience about how they should behave in the real world.  In Duck Season, our imagination gets us into creepy situations - so is the theme to eschew imagination?  Does imagination only get us in trouble?  Depending on the ending you achieve first, you can interpret the moral argument to be pro- or anti-imagination.  For the real moral argument, I believe we need to look at the "Canon Ending."  The Canon Ending starts with a Duck Season play session, but everything has become corrupted.  The skybox is pixelated on one side.  The lights have turned red.  Then: the dog attacks.  If you do not defeat the dog, then you have failed to learn the learn the shooting mechanics, and you become stuck in the game cartridge.  However, if you are victorious in the game then you are pulled back into your living room, and you must endure a few minutes of rising tension.  As the music swells you have to look around for a way to defend yourself.  If you fail to find something, then the dog ends your suffering.  If, however, you can get into the mind of your character - and you pick up the Kingbit game system gun - then you can defeat the dog.  It takes your imagination as a player to defeat the dog and achieve the canon ending - and here is where the moral argument becomes clear.

Moral Argument: Imagination can lead to blissful or horrifying fantasies, but one must embrace it to live a full life.

Early in the game, you can embrace the fantasy of returning to childhood.  This gave me a few blissful moments of nostalgia as I watched the VHS tapes and the charmingly crude 8-bit mini games.  This is the best part of imagination.  This is the joy of a happy imagination and a fresh young mind learning about the world.  The end of the game, by contrast, reminded me of what I imagined lurked in the shadows at night.  It reminded me what it felt like to be afraid of the dark.  It reminded me of what I imagined was lurking over my shoulder or in the closet.  Duck Season shows us the best and worst that can come out of our imaginations.  It takes the stance that the joy outweighs the fear, and that we should embrace our creativity in order to survive in a meaningful way.

Duck Season is about so much more than shooting ducks.  The actual duck-shooting mechanic is really just another mini game that passes the time.  But isn't that what all games are?  As you shoot the ducks, you can let your mind wander to the other mysteries of the game.  Shooting ducks is easy to master, and so these sections let your imagination run free.  It gives you time to imagine what the game is about.  It lets you ask yourself questions.  What is waiting for me outside the game this time?  Where is the family's father?  Does the dog exist in the real world?  These questions may have canon answers, or they may not.  In a game about imagination, I believe it is up to you as the player to imagine for yourself.  After all, Duck Season's description on steam does refer to it as "The game of your dreams..."

This article was originally published here: http://jackpritz.com/blog/duck-season-all-about-imagination


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