Call to Arms entry 03: Last Call

Game programmer and blogger Borut Pfeifer contributes a Call to Arms entry which conveys the experience of dating through his own subjective lens.

Last Call

I don’t even know how to describe this feeling with words, that’s why I wanted to make a game about it. So by way of explanation, I’ll just describe some of the circumstances that inspired it. Between October 2007 and March 2008, as a single 31 year old man, I went to 4 different weddings (3 of very close friends, and one old, good, friend from college I hadn’t seen in a long time). Prior to this, I had moved to LA in early 2007, and was trying to date there.

By the end of all that, perhaps needless to say, I had numerous opportunities to reflect on my life, where I am, the choices I’ve made, and the problems I was facing finding what I wanted. Dating had in recent years (especially in LA up to that point) been a fairly empty process - I might go out with nice people ending up having nothing in common or no chemistry/passion for the other person (or vice versa). Seeing so many of my friends get married at that point made me question not just my decisions but whether the whole process was just flawed. The feeling I wanted to get at in the game was this complex combination of feeling loss for the experiences I had not pursued, as well as an understanding of the impermanence of life - the sense of the passage of time being constant and unrelenting, motivating one to act & not let opportunities go by. Along with a critical (or at least sarcastic) questioning of the whole dating process.

The game is top down, you control a character moving around a static screen/map of one location (mechanically similar to Pacman). That location is a bar. You move left, right, up, down, around obstacles such as tables, barstools, and other people. On some edges of the screen there’s an exit - if you walk out the exit you enter into another screen, a different bar with a different layout. Even if you immediately walk back you always enter a new, random, location.

Other characters are walking around the environment. Periodically they will stop next to each other or you to talk. Characters immediately around you move the same speed as you, but the further away a character is, the faster they will move (the distinction is to highlight the notion of time passing).

You play a male in search of a female date. In earlier versions you could pick gender, but I couldn’t really come up with mechanics I thought were authentic to both genders (not to mention trying to allow same sex dating options), so I decided to stick with what I know. The art style was meant to be a standard sort of cutesy top down, 2D JRPG style, including those super low frame walking animations (think Phantasy Star, sans anime hair colors and character proportions).

The men are in muted, cool colors, while the women are in warm, more saturated, colors. There are a couple exceptions - the longer you stay in any one bar the women become more muted in color, and the longer they’re next to you, the more the their color will also become less vibrant (although this amount will improve once away from you). Both rates are meant to be fairly slow, just above what the length of time it would take to be perceivable (so after playing a minute or two, you might make the association). There might be other effects around women who are maxed out on color, like sparkles. If you go to a new location, you’ll get a new random distribution of character vibrancy.

So you and the other characters walk around the environment, stopping at the bar, dance floor (some locations have them), or to talk to other people they bump into. When you stand next to and face a woman, a little bar over her head will come up and start growing to its max. If you or she moves or turns away, the bar goes away (and resets). If it reaches max, you’ve gotten a date (she will now follow you). Your date has to have at least a certain vibrancy in order to successfully date her. If she goes below that threshold, the bar over her head grays out telling you that you have to move on.

You have three jokes you can tell during the course of the evening. When you hit the joke key, all nearby women will turn to you, move closer and laugh (standing still for a couple moments afterward). The remaining number of jokes is displayed in the top left (an icon of a laughing face for each remaining joke). You can’t do anything to get more jokes.

You can go to the bar to buy a drink. Once you do it shows up in your hand. You can drink it or give it to someone next to you. If you drink it yourself, the speed of characters according to their distance from you slows down (further away they’re still faster, but much less so), as well as slowing the overall in game clock. If you give a drink to a woman, she will either turn and walk away (random chance) or her date-success bar will fill slightly faster. The number of drinks you’ve had is represented by empty glass icons also in the top left. You can have up to five. Over time each empty glass icon will fade out (allowing you to have another drink if you were maxed out). The more you have, the more the time & speed of characters are effected, but the higher chance women will walk away from you (trading off ease of reaching characters for lower probability of success).

Now as to the end condition… I felt there needed to be one as a pause for reflection, and simply having the player stop playing was leaving it too open to have them perhaps miss the point. Furthermore, I knew I wanted the game to be over after a specific period of time (to reinforce the notion that we have no control over the passage of time). That in turn inspired the name and the notion that it would specifically take place over the course of one “evening” fictionally.

However that’s not a compelling enough end condition to tell the user up front to motivate them to play (play for 5-6 minutes? yeah, not gonna work), so I figure the only recourse is to give them a completely false end condition. It could be unachievable, but I actually liked the idea of making it false but achievable, so if a player got it, they stop and realize their perception about what was important was wrong (hopefully this is a nice inflection point and not an annoying one). So the goal you’re told upfront is that you’re supposed to find a date (via the mechanics described of standing next to and facing a girl).

Each location has a very visible clock. The game starts at 8pm and will finish at 2am. One minute of real time would be roughly one hour of game time. Once you find a date in the game, it momentarily displays a score (yeah, rising over your head like a hit point spell). The score varies with how strong the girl character is in color (but the actual numeric correlation is hidden). The game still continues once you do that.

Your date’s vibrancy will still be going down as she’s next to you, eventually going below the threshold for dating, where you will lose your date. You can continue to play and try to find another date (best your high score, even). At 1:40am the game displays “Last Call” in big letters on the screen. All character speeds are increased as well as the chance any woman you’re talking to will turn and walk away (thereby ensuring you will end the game without a date). At 2am, the game stops. The HUD fades out. The characters stop moving and fade out slowly (as well as the soundtrack of background chatter). Then the bar fades out, leaving you alone on a black field, and then you fade out. Game Over.

Concerns: The impression of time the game is meant to give is highly dependent on a bunch of different rates, which may be difficult to get just right together, given all the mechanics. The style (both the intended visual style & the types of mechanics) has to draw a very balanced sarcasm - too much and it dampens any other emotional undertone (worse still, being seen as the game’s primary point, which also might incorrectly be taken as mysogenistic), but too little and the user might not be drawn into the game enough to get to what will necessarily be a down ending.

-Borut Pfeifer


Steve gaynor said...

I guess, working backwards, the theme being expressed here is maybe the feeling of "isolation in a crowd" or "the futility of trying to connect with others." A bit pessimistic of a thesis sentiment. Hopefully some personal experiences in your future will inspire you to dream up the counter-point game design to Last Call :-)

Borut said...

Yeah, that's about it. Now, don't get me wrong, life's actually pretty good, but it's not always the happy feelings that move one to self-expression. :)

mwc said...

Well, it's certainly a depressing take on dating. I think varying the time compression might also be something interesting to try in a game like this. The rate at which time elapses on the in-game clock could be directly related to the degree of your date's vibrancy. Having time slow down when a dull person is around would mimic a familiar feeling.