Call to Arms entry 13: Fruit of the Womb

Roberto Quesada submits a Call to Arms entry which challenges the player to balance human relationships and material success in a world over which he in fact has very little control: the monopolistic corporate stage of the 19th century.

Fruit of the Womb concerns itself with raising children purely to carry on a family's legacy. The player is the middle-aged patriarch of an already-established corporate dynasty sometime in the 1800s or early 1900s, and the game begins with the birth of his first child. The ostensible goal of the game is to groom your child or children to seamlessly continue the family business according to aspirations defined by the player at the beginning of the game.

Starting a new game brings the player to a standard character creation screen: The player chooses what the character looks like, and a certain amount of points will be alloted for distribution amongst various attributes (intelligence, charisma, et c.) and skills (dueling, culinary sauces, et c.), with the distribution of points among the former affecting the weight of points distributed among the latter. The actual attributes and skills present in the creation menu are not important; any game play that would ordinarily depend on these variables will be almost exclusively real-time and depend on the player's own skill, but this will not be made apparent in any way.

After the character is created, the player will form a backstory and mission statement of sorts. The formulation of a backstory depends on the player choosing from various items that make up the history of the family business. All elements here will be generic in nature; for instance, instead of choosing “You're the heir to a steel company,” the player chooses from options such as “You're the heir to a knick knack company.” The instruction manual (or contextual pop-ups) will detail certain aspects of “knick knacks” and “doodads” in an effort to mislead the player into thinking there are nuances that do not actually exist in the game (a history of the materials, a technology tree, popularity of certain items among certain demographics); in reality the way certain products behave or perform will be set mathematically by the game as it progresses (see below). The backstory will also consist of how the family came to its position of power, among other such details, leading the player to believe these variables will affect game play (they most certainly will not).

The mission statement will have a “significant” bearing on game play, as it will be the framework by which the player's “success” is calculated. As part of the process, the player will choose what he most wants to accomplish from goals such as influence, wealth, and notoriety. All goals will be interconnected; the player chooses what he cares about more, with a limited number of things-you-care-about points available for distribution, and the scale created will affect a successometer viewable during game play.

In terms of actual game play, Fruit of the Womb is more or less a sandbox game. It can be first- or third-person, the player interacting with the environment by means of a hand cursor, à la Black & White or that one game that's very dark and requires you to walk around with a flashlight and search through desks. The player has a job as the head of his company, but can delegate nearly all related tasks due to seniority. On the other hand, he has a son or daughter who can be similarly micromanaged or ignored. There is a base level of wealth below which a player can never fall; insuring the funds necessary to delegate the raising of his son: private/boarding school, au pair, military school, whatever. The son's regard for the player/father depends largely on how he is raised, but it is not mechanical or predictable (see below). The player can also directly raise the son by taking time off from work and interacting directly. Via the cursor, the player can smack around or reward his son as he sees fit. He can take his son hunting, or to the zoo, or to a prison for a Scared Straight!, 19th Century Edition-style education. The idea is to give the player ultimate freedom, the likes of which it would be burdensome to describe here, without straying too far from the son/business focus of the game; i.e., the player can somehow be artificially bound to these aspects of game play, but within them he is totally free: if he wants to go downstairs while at work and shoot his accountant in the face, such is his prerogative, though realistic consequences would follow. The player's actions in life will also affect how he is perceived by his son.

In addition to misleading the player with regard to basic gaming conventions, the way the business world and the player's children behave are somewhat randomly determined at the start of the game, with smaller variations occurring as the game progresses. Business trends will follow random occurrences in the game's history, but in an unpredictable way. And when the player's wife pops out a child, the child's personality is randomly defined within the bounds of a loose algorithm created to keep the child's behavior within the realm of reality. The personality will determine how the child responds to being sent to a military academy as opposed to being coddled: will he resent his father more for perceived neglect or for being raised as a nancy boy without the skills necessary for running the family business with an iron fist? There is no way of knowing anything until a route is tried.

The player can also have daughters. Daughters may be groomed in the exact same fashion as sons, but are much more difficult to maneuver into a position of respect within the company as per the societal norms of the proposed historical period. The more children the player has, which is mainly limited by a nine-month gestation period, the more people are vying for power within the company (or not giving a shit, depending on their personalities); this can lead to anything from productivity among the more sycophantic children to patricide. If a player has too many children (the cap is random, within a realistic range), his wife will die, and he will have to engage in a courtship mini game to find a new wife. The wife is little more than a child factory for the player, in an effort to focus the player's affections on his children and business; some wives are stronger factories than others. It's likely that the maximum-children-possible route would never be followed, except for a hearty laugh.

Players' characters grow old and die. The player can then watch time unravel either in real or accelerated fashion. This will allow one to see how things play out indefinitely; though the era never actually changes, the children eventually have their own children, grow old, and die; the player can see how his family and business change. The player is not allowed to continue (“reincarnated” into one of his children, for example) in order to give his actions more weight. He can only start over.

The reasons for the game's unpredictability and sociopathic treatment of the player with regard to his expectations are: 1) To mimic real life and 2) To jar the player. Ideally a game like this would be extremely complicated (on the level of a detailed MMORPG's mechanics, for example, if not greater) in an effort to dissuade the player from attempting to play the game how it “ought” to be played by attempting to max out the successometer, but not so complicated that the player couldn't come up with methods for “success.” This is probably unachievable, but the idea would be to give the game a level of complexity that would require the player to play constantly and attentively (taking his own notes, as the game will not have an automatic notepad or “journal” feature) if he wanted to have success in the manner that the game apparently requires; the game would be tedious and life-ruining but “winnable,” or interesting/entertaining (hopefully) but rewarding on a different level. Note that disregard for the successometer does not mean complete disregard for the business; the player can still groom his son to take over, but just not worry about whether the son will preserve the family legacy to a T. The successometer does not punish, but merely exists. The player can follow his initial expectations or eschew them.

The main theme being explored here is how one's sense of duty forms. The player is deliberately put into a game with certain expectations in an effort to mimic the social stressors that existed in the era; does the player comply merely because there exists an order that the game wants him to follow, or does he ignore the game and form a bond with his child(ren)? Following what's expected is tedious (though maybe not for all people) and results in a gauge filling up; the player can be rewarded with some sort of tokens or with the unlocking of business opportunities the more he keeps his “success” level high. Or does the player pursue a familial relationship with no apparent reward save the relationship itself? Characters would have to be realistically rendered, or at least have realistic responses/emotions, in order for the player to feel some sort of empathy, but pursuing this route, which again would not be presented overtly by the game as a possibility, could unlock more depth to the relationship aspect of the game, making the bond more meaningful as the player pursues this route.


1. Perhaps only a small set of people could actually empathize with the characters of a video game.

2. If this game were made, the concept would eventually be leaked (possibly before the game is even released), in effect making the game meaningless.

3. Misogyny.


Steve gaynor said...

I'm seeing something like The Sims meets There Will Be Blood. It's interesting how this is a similar sort of 'life simulator' as Manveer's "Bereavement in Blacksburg" outline, but geared to a totally different setting, with a satirical angle. It pulls on some of the same apparent agency/actual futility threads that Duncan's "Jump" outline plays with; sitting the player in front of a huge array of switches and dials that actually have no effect seems to be a popular metaphorical concept.

Manveer Heir said...

That cross-over would require a "I Drink Your Milkshake" mini-game somewhere :)

Anonymous said...

That sounds... unethical. The concept of playing that game is physically uncomfortable.