- Digital Media Design for Learning (DMDL) degree, Narrative Game Studio (elective taken in NYU’s Game Design MFA program in Spring 2014).
- 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):