Platformer Prototype: A Design Literacy

So, for the past month I have slowly been working on a game project for a class I am taking.  The class is Language and Learning in a Digital Age, and a lot of it is about literacy, or how we as individuals morph and understand language, particularly in this age where language is everywhere and is evolving in new media.  That being said, I approached this project a bit in the wrong direction.  Today I’m going to try to wind it back to something that fits with the class I am taking.

So, to get things started, I’m going to discuss the game, how it started and what it’s like (and going to be like).  Then I’ll talk about how it fits into the class that I’m making it for.

It all started from this post.  As a writer and a game designer, I was frustrated with the idea that wanting to experience a story meant that the game had to be easier.  More precisely, I felt that if you wanted a better story, you had better work for it and show that you really wanted it.  If you just want to play the game for the sake of playing the game, then A) you shouldn’t have the reward of a deep and complex story and B) you probably aren’t going to pay attention to the story anyway.  In a way, Nier does this, but not the way I would do it (Nier is a wonderful game and you should all play it, twice-through in one go).  It makes additional story optional, and you do have to work for it if you so choose.  Oblivion (and Morrowind, perhaps Daggerfall) also does it a bit by accident.  The difficulty of the game is, essentially, set by how long you have played the game.  The more you run around doing side quests and getting optional story the harder the game will eventually be.  The story of the main quest does not change, no matter how hard the game is though.

And it was on this point that my game was conceived.  The question was, how do you make it so that the harder a player works for it, the overall story of the game becomes more complex or more interesting?  At least, without making it into a game designer’s nightmare (endlessly designing a different game for minute changes in player actions).  I’m not sure if I fully solved this with my design, but I made an attempt.

My idea was to make it so that a player could choose, while playing, to make the game easier or harder, and this was directly tied to an increase or decrease in story complexity.  I centered this decision on a meaningful choice.  I wanted to make sure the player knew that if they chose to perform an action, the game would get harder or easier, but also that there would be a corresponding reward or sacrifice of story complexity.

To do this, my prototype employs two systems.  One system is such that there is an optional area in the game.  The player does not need to enter that area, but by doing so, the remaining required part of the game will become harder.  The optional area has access to objects that disseminate story (and specifically complicate the basic story).  This system can be described as normal or hard.

The other system uses a resource that can be used as story currency (you use it up to get more of the story) or as a powerful weapon (using it up to defeat enemies).  Basically, the player chooses to make the game easier by using the resource as a weapon, or keeping the difficulty at the same level by using the resource to get more story.  This system can be described as easy or normal.  It is possible to not use the resource at all.  This is classified as easy, as the player avoided making a difficult choice.

From this, then, then, the end of the story must change depending on how the player has chosen to play the game.  There are, then, four endings:

Normal/Normal (The player does only the required path and uses the resource for story)

Easy/Normal (The player does only the required path and uses the resource as a weapon at least once)

Normal/Hard (The player does the optional path and uses the resource for story)

Easy/Hard (The player does the optional path and uses the resource as a weapon at least once).

Four endings is not so bad, not quite a game designer’s nightmare.  I could have chosen to make endings based on which of the stories the player entered into, but this could quickly spiral out of hand.  I’ve tried to avoid this, by creating difficulty levels and using those levels as an indicator of the ending.

This is the design of the game, and so now I will pull it around to my class.

I came across this article while I was doing work for another class.  it talks about developing a ludoliteracy, which is just another way to play a game.  I’m not sure if it is appropriate, as the ludoliteracy is about students understanding games (it is a kind of criticism or method of rhetorically “reading” a “text” that is a game).  Although it doesn’t quite apply, it got me thinking.  Many games do not alter a game’s story based on difficulty level.  Many games do not have a concept of story as being easy or hard.  Many games do not use story as a mechanic.  Gamers have come to expect that.  It is part of the playing of a game.  It is part of the literacy of playing the game.  This could be discovered by using ludoliteracy, but that is digressive.

Instead, what I am doing is upsetting that standard literacy and proposing a new literacy for playing and designing games.  I am suggesting a new way to understand and use story in a game.  To me, this is exactly what I mean when I talk about story and play working together in a game.  I don’t know if it will work, or if it will be successful, but I hope it will spawn discussion about a new way for story and play to co-exist and work with one another.

My prototype is not done yet, but you can follow it and its updates here.

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