Call to Arms entry 12: Bereavement in Blacksburg

Manveer Heir, designer at Raven Software, writer of the Design Rampage blog, and weekly columnist for GamaSutra, contributes a Call to Arms design based on his personal reactions as an alumnus to the Virginia Tech shooting incident of 2007. Please visit his original post on Design Rampage for a thoughtful preface and conclusion to the outline.

Bereavement in Blacksburg centers around the concept of loss and grief, and how people cope with it. The game takes place on April 17th, 2007, the day after the shootings. You plays as a male character who resides in a dorm on campus.

You begin the game laying in bed, early in the morning. The phone rings and goes to message. It's your girlfriend's voice and she's asking you to answer and talk with her. It is apparent from her dialog that you knew someone directly killed in the attacks. For obvious reasons, who that person is isn't revealed, nor is it relevant.

Once the message finishes, you take control of the character. From here the world is rather open. There are multiple objects to interact with in the opening room. You can use the phone to call your girlfriend back. You can use your computer and see e-mails from the administration, as well as condolences from friends. You can watch TV or listen to music to escape from things. You can turn to bottles of alcohol to drown your sorrows. Or you can just leave the room and venture to other parts of campus and find other interactions. The choices are yours and they affect the way your character progresses through the game.

Getting drunk and then talking to your girlfriend may cause you to speak in a belligerent or flippant manner. It may also make certain choices unavailable to you later, such as going to the school's convocation with her later. Speaking to her sober may open up a dialog that wouldn't occur otherwise, one that may have the character ultimately express his true feelings verbally.

Internally, the game keeps a “grief score”. You start at zero, and positive influencing interactions will increase this score and negative influencing actions will decrease it. However, the player is not aware of this scoring mechanism. In my experience, often during the grieving processes we do not see the whole picture of how our actions can positively or negatively affect us. Hiding the true outcome of different interactions helps proceduralize that state of mind.

The player has an idea that drinking isn't probably the best idea, however they may not realize how bad of an idea it may be. Additionally, this means different actions can have different values depending on the circumstances surrounding it. Using alcohol again as an example, drinking alone may be negative but drinking in moderation, with friends may be neutral or even positive.

As you leave your room and explore more of campus more interactions are available. You can write your thoughts in your journal or compose music that expresses your feelings. You can attempt to go on with life as if nothing is wrong, by just doing normal everyday things such as going out to dinner. You can stop going to classes, once they resume. You can visit the memorial erected to the victims. There are many possibilities available.

All of these minor interactions will force scripted major events, depending on your “grief score” at the time. The minor interactions of beginning to drink and never answering your girlfriend's phone calls may result in the major event of her breaking up with you. The minor interactions of regularly writing in your journal and communicating with others can lead to the major event of moving to the next stage of grief.

Ultimately, there should be multiple paths to end the game, just as there are in life. One can move through all the stages of grief, or become stuck at certain stages. The needs to be a clear end to all narrative paths. In the end, the game is one of choices and how these choices ultimately affect how we deal with grief.

My concerns with this design are numerous. Are there enough interactions available to make a meaningful experience out of? How does one define what are positive and negative choices? One person's positive choice could be another's negative. Also, does this actually help the player understand the grieving process or does it rely too heavily on narrative to push this feeling and just have simple interactions as the way to branch that narrative?


Steve gaynor said...

I think this concept is a useful one, which could be applied to many broader contexts than specifically the Virginia Tech shootings; it is generally a game about dealing with grief or trauma, or could possibly be adjusted to deal with simply keeping your character's head above water in their everyday life.

Mechanically I appreciate the idea of hiding the longterm 'grief' metric, but it seems you would want to display a short-term 'mood' or 'sadness' or 'coping' metric that would be the player's moment-to-moment guiding compass. The mechanical challenge then would be to handle your grief in constructive ways: getting drunk might increase your mood greatly in the short term, but cause it to crash later when you woke up sober and hung-over, while your longterm (invisible, narrative-guiding) grief score would be negatively impacted. Alternately, writing in your journal or talking with a close friend might only slowly increase your short-term mood, but the increase would be sustainable instead of temporary, and your longterm grief score would improve. In this way, the player could either build his way up out of grief, or spiral into alcoholism as he tries to drink more and more to keep his mood afloat while destroying his health and never confronting the real source of his grief.

This design has much in common with The Sims, which I think is far from a bad thing. In my estimation, The Sims provides a framework that could be applied to many, many more specific contexts aside from "generic suburban life," which almost no one in the development community has latched onto yet.

Kirk Battle said...

Ben Abraham had a really interesting blog about improving the emotional variable of a game, except he was criticizing 'Super Columbine RPG' and going into an academic essay about doing away with narrative terminology in games.


The distinction he made was that a game is better served by designing reactions to the player rather than conceiving of things for them to do. If someone were to really sit and down and tackle an enormous topic like this, play testing multiple people and asking them what they wish they could do and thinking up responses might be the best route. We all have our own ways of dealing with grief, it is the reactions to those methods that are finite and designable.

Anonymous said...

Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy) featured a Mental Health Status for each character that could be modified by drinking, talking to friends or having sex. The current status was visible when a change occurred and could be checked otherwise, also the extent to which some things influenced your Mental Health seemed to be out of proportion. However it still led to some interesting situations; if you became too depressed you either went mad or became suicidal.

It also tied into the gameplay at specific times. For example one character has an acute fear of the dark, and you have to guide her through a hospital during a power cut, before she begins to deteriorate.

There was also a situation where you could risk being recognised by a Police Officer in order to save a little girl from drowning. Abandoning her would help you in the short term but lead to depression in the long term.

I like the idea of hiding the mental status of players, but how could you then provide feedback regarding their grief? Would it simply be revealed by which ending you reached? Or could you use something like a behaviour modifier? Or maybe even dreams?