Playable by anyone aged 12 and up, Horizns is a narrative-based, augmented reality (AR) game ultimately designed for collaborative storytelling in grades 7-12 ELA and/or Social Studies classrooms.
Players begin by participating in the (fictional) “Horizns Rewards Program,” an AR tour of the history of Times Square, NYC. The plot takes a dark turn, however, as players must “dystopify” the world around them; and everyone’s best chance at escaping a dire future means interacting with the dystopian visions of others.
If you’re interested in my (six-minute) talk introducing Horizns to attendees of the ECT-DMDL Design Expo (5/15/15), you can find it here. [Warning: Contains spoilers! ;-)]
My general aim with this project was to make something that was a) genuinely constructivist and constructionist; and b) a genuinely engaging gaming experience. More specifically, as far as learning theory goes, the game’s design is ultimately driven by the notion of “Social Imagination,” which Maxine Greene defines as learners’ “capacity to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we live, and in our schools” (Releasing the Imagination, 2005,p. 5). And for a bit more on the theory behind Horizns‘ design, please feel free to check out my Design Expo poster (pdf).
This dialogue tree was written (in 2016) for (though unused by) a health simulations and training company. The simulated conversation was designed to be used to train pediatricians on Motivational Interviewing (MI) skills, which can be used to help change patient behaviors.
In this conversation, a pediatrician (“Dr. Naru,” whose choices the player controls) is conversing with a father (“Jerry Phillips”) and his daughter (“Kristen Phillips”) about a potential pediatric sleep disorder.
In keeping with the MI approach, the dialogue favors open-ended questions—in order to encourage the NPC to open up more and build rapport with the player—and “reflections”—repeating back and summarizing a conversant’s statements.
The progression of the dialogue is designed to be relatively non-linear and to contain “pitfalls,” which produce negative consequences in the simulation.
Medium-to-long (approx. the last third of the term; first/only group project in the course).
Matt McGowan–game concept, narrative design;
Maria Jose Saint Martin–project management, UI;
Jeremy White–art; and
Allen Yu–lead programming.
Some of the proudest and most educational–and most stressful–experiences I had in pursuit of the DMDL degree came from the NYU Game Center‘s Narrative Game Studio course. As one of only two non-MFAs in a class of nearly 20 students, I often felt like an outsider or interloper, but was beyond psyched and honored that the idea I pitched for the final project was selected (by fellow students) as one of the four to be worked on for the course’s only group assignment. This (in somewhat more polished prose than I ended up speaking) is what I pitched:
In this point-and-click adventure game, the player character (PC) is a painting conservator who has been called in by a somewhat secretive, private foundation to clean a mural recently discovered in a long-unused wing of the foundation’s headquarters (HQ). The request is strange, as this foundation is not known for its art collection, but rather for its involvement in developing tokamak nuclear fusion reactors.
Upon arrival at the headquarters, the PC is introduced to two non-player characters (NPCs): the current foundation president and the caretaker of this part of the HQ (a historical structure that the foundation has owned for over a hundred years, around which is built numerous, state-of-the-art facilities). The PC learns from these two NPCs that the mural was created by the foundation’s former chief scientist, who suffered some kind of mental-emotional breakdown shortly before he died (over twenty years ago). Care for this painting (cleaning the various layers/areas of dirt, mold, etc. which have accumulated on the work) has to be conducted in a very specific way, however—with custom-made solutions designed by the painter himself. The formulae for these solutions must be gleaned from texts found in the chief scientist’s former library/office (in an a room adjacent to the room containing the mural). The mural itself is a utopian cityscape, which shows a future in which the foundation has solved the world’s energy crisis.
The game’s first principle mechanic, then, is deciphering the code for the solutions’ formulae, which must be created with precise measurements and timing (and with certain penalties for mistakes). As the PC cleans the mural, section by section, the top layer of paint is stripped away to reveal another mural underneath the utopian scene—a dystopian view of the same scene, with the foundation at the center of the world’s decline. Clues to the story behind this dystopian vision are contained in the marginalia of the books in the library. These marginalia also reveal that, in the course of his experiments, the scientist experienced a series glimpses into the future. His first vision was of the utopia—which then turned into a dystopia. Despite what he believed was the ultimate truth, however, the scientist painted the former vision over the latter one after he, under scrutiny by the foundation, came to fear for his life.
The second principle mechanic of the game is deciphering the differences between the two murals, i.e. determining the course of events, the narrative, of how this vision of utopia turned into a dystopia. Once the PC has determined all the pieces of this narrative (or as many as they can, if they’ve damaged the mural at all with any erroneously created solutions) they must enter the sequence of events into an old (1980’s-era) computer in the library.
The ending of the game is determined by the PC’s choice of whom they discuss their findings with—the president or the caretaker. An incorrect choice will result in PC death (a shot to the back of the head, represented by a sudden blood splatter on the computer screen once they input the correct narrative), with an epilogue of the murderer (the “bad” NPC) declaring that the truth must be hidden. A correct choice causes the “bad” NPC to flee and the good PC to reveal a hidden room filled with hundreds of paintings of the dystopian vision, which, they state, must be deciphered and revealed to the world.
So, with the advice “Kill your darlings!” firmly planted in the back of my head, perpetual concerns about scale chirping on my shoulder, and determined that every team member felt thoroughly invested in the project (i.e. it was no longer just “my” idea), I gulped down my apprehensions, gratefully accepted my team members’ generous goodwill, and we went for it.
We didn’t end up with everything I first pitched, of course, but we did get a lot of it, relatively speaking. Having one (or 25%) of our team members effectively drop out during the final stage of production (due to unforeseen, unfortunate personal circumstances) was a pretty intense challenge; but, fortunately, adjusting to this became largely a matter of further scaling back cuts we had already made. Did we end up with the game we wanted? Not quite. Did we learn a ton and explore a bunch of new stuff and ideas and have more than a little fun? Absolutely.
In brief, the main/major changes from the original pitch were the following:
in the interest of realism/scale–we cut the (second) mechanic of deciphering and inputting the differences between the two murals, in favor of creating a more complex puzzle around the discovery and creation of the (singular) paint-stripping solution;
in the interest of ease of game play, given our platform (AGS)–we simplified the chemical solution puzzle a bit by removing the timing aspect and reducing the stakes for failure; and
in the interest of a more interesting/compelling/involving story–we changed the protagonist’s gender to female and making her the–long-estranged–niece of the late chief scientist.
And here’s some screenshots of the results:
As far as my writing/narrative design duties went, here are a couple of screens of the–non-linear/branching–dialogue (created in Dialog Designer, which integrates fairly well with AGS):
Create a game using Inform where the player must solve a mystery based on the traces left in the environment. As part of the concept of the world, establish events that happened in the mystery and that the player will have to reconstruct.
Your game should at least have one NPC [non-player character] to talk to, and there should be a set of mechanics that allows the player to input the solution of the case.
In the coding, the length of the strings is 140 characters. You can generate text dynamically that is longer than that on the screen, though.
The final game should be a short scene that players can solve in 7-10 minutes.
Here’s part of the description of “Mama Hen Is Sick” as originally conceived (with inspiration swiped from The Space Merchants and–the Sonmi~451 story in–Cloud Atlas):
The not-too-distant future, in a factory that grows and processes vat-grown meat, the mass of which is named “Mama Hen.” The processing is attended by three dozen human clones (all male), supremely loyal and compliant laborers who live in the factory where they work. Unbeknownst to the clones, however, the factory is about to get bought out, meaning the fate of the entire operation is up in the air. All senior management staff are off at a “retreat” (a Machiavellian buyout negotiation preparation summit), leaving the janitor (a non-clone human who also lives in the factory) and the factory AI in charge.
The story takes place at night, when all the other clones are asleep. The central mystery revolves around finding a saboteur who has infected Mama Hen with some kind of flesh-eating disease that’s causing her to rapidly (and disgustingly) deteriorate. She could be dead by morning. The player character (PC) is awakened from his sleep cycle by the factory janitor, who says he needs help cleaning up the unholy mess that Mama Hen’s deterioration is creating. The janitor also wants to see if the PC knows anything about what’s happening to the meat.
The principle/iterative difference between the finished product and the outline for the game is that I ended up getting rid of the janitor NPC, as the AI NPC served all the story purposes I had in mind just fine (and I only had 7-10 minutes of play time to tell that story).
“Mama Hen Is Sick!” is entirely a text-based game, but this is the “map” I had in mind when making it:
And here’s a game play screen from the opening scene:
This interactive fiction assignment was my first-ever intensive coding experience. I’ve since learned that Inform 7 is a…let’s say “weird”…place to start such a journey. It felt it. This fact, combined with the assignment’s constraints–the 140-character string limit, in particular–, made for an extremely challenging design scenario. It also made for one of the most educational experience I had in the DMDL program.
If you’d like to play “Mama Hen Is Sick!”, the zipped Inform file is here on Dropbox. (And if you don’t have an “interpreter” to play interactive fiction on, here’s a list of a bunch.) I plan on going back to work on–expanding, tightening, polishing–the game in the not-too-distant future; but, until then, if you do play it, feedback (good and bad) is most welcome!