Designing with PGDI: Set 2 Conceptualization

A bit ago, I proposed three different sets of randomly-generated components for designing a game with PGDI. In the last post, I worked out a concept for the first set of components, a game about a minor god trying to gain a following among both the people and the larger pantheon, in order to ascend into greater divinity. In this post, I’m going to work through the second set of components, in order to find a concept for that game. The eventual aim is to select one of these concepts to be made over the next eight weeks, as part of my first quarter in my MFA program.

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The Epic of Sadko the Street Performer (Introduction)

Today I am going to begin in earnest my summer project. I am going to try to work on it a little every day, but focus on it on Saturdays, during which I have the most free time. I’m not really setting a timeline on this game, because I feel like it should take as long as it needs to take. If it lasts past the end of the summer, then so be it, but it might get interrupted by school if it does.

Today, I intend to describe what my summer project is about, how it came about and why I am doing this instead of a number of other projects I already have going.

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Einstein would turn over in his grave. Not only does God play dice, the dice are loaded.
Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Looking God in the Eye”

Just this morning, I was thinking about all the exciting happenings in science and technology lately (particularly the faster than light particle) and my brain suddenly jumped to, “Hey what’s that quote about god playing dice in Alpha Centauri?”  I went searching for it and found a list of memorable quotes from the game, and there it was.  And then, I went on to read all the other memorable quotes from that game, and a great nostalgia kicked in.  And then I thought, “It’s amazing how I remember so many of these and how happy it makes me feel to remember them.”  In fact, I noted that Alpha Centauri holds greater weight in my memory and my emotions than similar games.  Alpha Centauri (Firaxis Games), a response by Sid Meyer and Brian Reynolds to Civilization II by Microprose, is a turn-based strategy game dealing with the far future of civilization colonizing a new planet.

In the great commons at Gaia’s Landing we have a tall and particularly beautiful stand of white pine, planted at the time of the first colonies. It represents our promise to the people, and to Planet itself, never to repeat the tragedy of Earth.
Lady Deirdre Skye, “Planet Dreams”

The game plays similar to Civilization.  You pick a faction, and the world is generated and there is a planetfall.  The ship everyone was coming to the planet on breaks apart on re-entry and the factions are scattered about its surface.  The first objective is survival, the second is domination.  The factions are broken up by philosophy. Like-minded people banded together, and so the game is charged with idealism and a thirst for resources and power.

Resources exist to be consumed. And consumed they will be, if not by this generation then by some future. By what right does this forgotten future seek to deny us our birthright? None I say! Let us take what is ours, chew and eat our fill.
CEO Nwabudike Morgan, “The Ethics of Greed”

And so you play the game.  You build your capital city, hunt for resources, discover new and alien technology, reform the planet to your will and interact with the other factions.  It is, in this respect, very much like Civilization.  Why wouldn’t it be?  After all, it is a Sid Meyer game. It was designed to be a sequel to the original Civilization. It answers the question. “What happens after the space race?”  And the ways to win?

Man has killed man from the beginning of time, and each new frontier has brought new ways and new places to die. Why should the future be different?
Col. Corazon Santiago, “Planet: A Survivalist’s Guide”

Killing everyone is always a staple of Civilization-type games.  You win if you destroy every other faction.  But there are other ways of course.  In stark contrast, you can win diplomatically, by getting everyone to like you well enough to vote you as leader of Planet.  You can also win by having so much energy (money) that everyone must rely upon you to lead them, transcending to a higher state of being (technically, this is the technological victory).

But as the game progresses, you get a sense that what is really the overarching feel of the game is that of dueling philosophies.

I hold a scrap of paper in the darkness and light it. I watch it burn bright and curl, disappearing into nothingness, and the heat burns my fingers. Where has it gone? What has it become? I cannot shake the feeling that I have witnessed a form of transcendence.
Commissioner Pravin Lal, “The Convergence”

The game has in place something called “Datalinks”.  Each time you discover a new technology, or when you first build a new building or secret project, a screen will pop up with a quote, read by a voice actor.  A number of these are quotes by one of the faction leaders.  The things they say at times are chilling and deeply cutting into the philosophy and ethics of the game.  They are read so well and become so memorable that they enhance the game in both memory and emotion.

Imagine the entire contents of the planetary datalinks, the sum total of human knowledge, blasted into the Planetmind’s fragile neural network with the full power of every reactor on the planet. Thousands of years of civilization compressed into a single searing burst of revelation. That is our last-ditch attempt to win humanity a reprieve from extinction at the hands of an awakening alien god.
Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “Planet Speaks”

And the game doesn’t really hide what it is doing.  A good chunk of the Datalinks are about religion or human nature or transcendence.  They are the faction leaders’ philosophy.  I have included one from each faction leader here to give you an idea of them.  The Datalinks provide the player with something very few strategy games seem to have.  Hell, they give you something very few games actually have.  And that something is a strong sense of ideology and character for the roles that you are playing.  It is a story told through snippets of story.  You understand what is going on by hearing the conviction in the voices of people reading these ideas that are so relevant.  You want to read the whole books, but you are only left to imagine them, filling in the gaps with your own philosophy, allowing you to write some of the fiction.

And yet, though these snippets were so fundamental to the enjoyment of the game, they eventually dropped off.  In the expansion to Alpha Centauri (Alien Crossfire), there were fewer new quotations, and many were less memorable, but still served to create the same sense of character for the new faction leaders.  But then, in Civilization III, they were gone, forgotten.  Civilization III has never been to me what Alpha Centauri was.  I enjoy it somewhat, but something isn’t there.  I suppose that some of it could be attributed to being a game of history rather than the future.  Civilization III is about things known, Alpha Centauri is about things unknown.  Even still, there is something in Alpha Centauri that seems missing from many other games.  It is that connection to the character.  In this game you feel as if you know them. You understand who they are.  Most games seem to give you enough to know what they are like, but the connection just isn’t deep enough.  I can imagine a conversation with these people; they are not just representations on a screen somewhere.  I don’t know.  It just seems as though the best parts of games past get cut out for the future.  Then again, this is just like society and the way the world works as a whole.  I leave you with my favorite quote in all of the Datalinks:

Some would ask, how could a perfect God create a universe filled with so much that is evil. They have missed a greater conundrum: why would a perfect God create a universe at all?
Sister Miriam Godwinson, “But for the Grace of God”

(“But for the Grace of God” is her best book.  You should read it.)