7.06.2008

Call to Arms entry 14: Peace

Animator Christiaan Moleman submits a series of interactive vignettes to the Call to Arms, a selection of ground-level perspectives on the conflict in Gaza.


Call to Arms 2008 - “Peace”

A game of interactive vignettes set in and around Gaza, showing several different non-chronological perspectives in 1st person, not unlike Call of Duty 4: a Palestinian child throwing rocks at a tank, an Israeli soldier on patrol, a paramedic, a Western journalist, and others…

It begins and ends with a suicide-bombing in a cafe. The first time you are a mother with her daughter. The second time, you are the suicide-bomber. Cut to black at the crucial moment, or fade if you walk away.

Open on a crowded cafe. You are sitting in a wooden chair on the far side of the room, sunlight hitting the checkered floor through the door behind you. Still morning. You gently sip your coffee. Next to you is a little girl playing with the ice cubes in her empty glass. With the glass in her hand she looks up and smiles.

You pat her on the head.

There’s a half-eaten sandwich on a plate in front of her, with little teeth-marks.

You gesture towards her to eat the rest of it. Reluctantly she takes a bite.

She freezes. When you turn to follow her gaze and look behind you, you see a man enter the cafe. In his hand is a small device. You turn to your daughter and hold her. The man screams something.

CUT TO BLACK

Putting the player in the shoes of different characters might inspire some empathy for the people actually living through this conflict and reflect on the grief it causes to both sides.

Gameplay varies with each perspective: mother interacts affectionately with her little girl, kid tries to throw as many stones as possible without getting hit by stray bullets, paramedic tries to keep a bombing-victim alive for the duration of an ambulance ride, soldier explores cautiously, journalist tries to get coverage of a shoot-out without getting killed, and so on…

Would be a fairly linear affair, with specific interactions up to the player. There should be choice when it matters, but never transparently so. The player should do what he thinks he has to within the confines of the game mechanics rather than press A for ending 1…

The game should be no more than 30 to 60 minutes long so as not to diminish its impact. The Nintendo Wii could be a good platform as it’s shown itself well-suited to extremely varied interactions, though more conventional control-schemes could also apply and some degree of production value would be necessary to sell the character empathy.

--Christiaan Moleman

6 comments:

Steve gaynor said...

As a series of first-person vignettes, it's interesting. I wonder what form the interactive content actually takes. Are there contextual actions, so that "press button while facing girl" makes you pat her head, while "press button while facing sandwich" makes you motion at the sandwich, etc? Or are there unique mapped control schemes for each character?

Considering the surrounding elements are so heavily authored, I wonder if being interactive would in fact lessen the impact of this project. The most sympathetic audience would simply play their role as authentically as possible, attempting to recreate a scene from a movie; the least would simply flail around goofily, maybe patting their daughter on the head incessantly and staring at the ceiling until the scene ended, and so on. When playing as the peasant boy, maybe the unsympathetic player tosses rocks at his friends and runs away from the fray.

Are the individual vignettes goal-based? Must the player stick to his role to progress, or is it alright that the player doesn't "play along" with the premise? In your example from Call of Duty 4 (I'm assuming you're mostly thinking of the scene that the player sees through the eyes of the middle-eastern prime minister with the execution at the end) there is literally no interactivity except for head-swiveling. Would your pitch need to be this constrained to be effective?

As I imagine it, this pitch sounds like it might be most successful if it were simply a pre-rendered sequence of first-person vignettes. What role does interactivity play?

Christiaan Moleman said...

>this pitch sounds like it might be most successful if it were simply a pre-rendered sequence of first-person vignettes

I would disagree. Personally I've found that even highly linear experiences can be made much more powerful simply by *doing* rather than watching.

You feel much more involved in the scene because for what little control there is, it is control. This has worked for Half Life and it clearly works for Call of Duty, from coup d'etat to nuclear aftermath.

As I see it, each sequence in this pitch would be a sort of mini-game that should be entertaining in itself, further immersing you in the setting and in 'being' these characters. The whole point is taking the film idea of inter-cut vignettes only applying it to gameplay, a bit like WarioWare you could argue except with the aim to build a cohesive atmosphere and feeling for what these people are going through rather than frantically scoring points.

The idea is still a little high-concept so I hadn't thought in detail about exact control schemes, but in order to make the transition between perspectives as seamless as possible I would probably go with something very context-based, with few controls to learn. If on PC I would probably go with FPS WASD/mouse control with a primary and secondary action, (subject of) aim and proximity being the main determining factors for context. Variations within the same context would mitigate repetition.

I am of the opinion that if someone really wants to break your game, they will, so making it idiot-proof is futile. As long you make it flexible enough for those who are willing to be immersed... reasonable actions that are 'in character' should be accounted for in so far as the mechanics allow.


Examples:

Israeli soldier on patrol - plays like one of those moments in an FPS when for now it's quiet... but you know there could be an enemy around the corner any second now. Perhaps ends with the explosion from the suicide bomb in the distance and all your squadmates going "Holy crap, what just happened?!"

Boy throwing stones at a tank - run around with his friends looking for suitable throwing material, click/press action to pick up, take aim and throw (might be nice with some direct control over force, mimicking throwing movements) all the while dodging the oncoming vehicle... occasionally taking cover from stray or not-so-stray gunfire (even rubber bullets can be deadly).

Paramedic keeping a patient alive - Think "Trauma Center: Under the Knife" simplified.

And so on. A lot of care would have to be taken to make it immediately obvious to the player both what is expected of him and how to do it, but I think this should be feasible. Preferably there should be as little outright instruction as possible, nor any HUD.

Each perspective would have a goal implied by either context or by example through NPCs. I think in some instances the scenes could be time-based and not meeting the goal would still let you progress.

The only major choice that I can think of at this stage would be what the player chooses to do at the end of the game after having been through these various experiences. The context implies he should enter the cafe and complete his mission, but the player may choose not to do so, though this is never explicitly stated. Probably this would take the form of simply turning around and walking away from the cafe resulting in a fade to credits. I don't much care for patronizing the player with a "You win" or "You lose" message. Interpretation is best left alone...

- Christiaan

L.B. Jeffries said...

I'm not sure a multi-design system would best pull out the drama in a coherent manner. Too much player input variable...you'd have one person wanting to shoot more and another wanting to be more dramatic. A unifying coherence needs to keep the whole thing together, which means a unifying method to gauge the overall experience. You can't do a win/lose approach though...well, not a traditional one.

What about this, you create a method for scoring the drama and emotional impact of the game. You could literally hire a couple of theater critics and have them organize a criteria for timing, purpose, and give the player a wide variety of 'role-playing' options for each scene. You'd also give them input on the script itself, in varying amounts such as getting the girl a sandwich or having the boy run away when a tank blast goes off. Certain elements are unchangeable, others aren't. Depending on how the player makes their interpretation of each vignette flow together, they get scored for dramatic effect and narrative coherence.

Might be too obscure though...you have the issue of the player not agreeing with your rule system once you do that. Maybe a Youtube culture or some other way for peer review?

Steve gaynor said...

Fair, I'd say that suggesting the concept be pre-rendered was overstating things a bit. However, I still wonder if such a pointed set of experiences are best conveyed interactively. The car ride sequence in COD4 was so effective 1) because you had no agency whatsoever; even being able to yell out to your captors would have fractured the believability of the scene, and 2) because in the context of an action-heavy FPS, tension was derived from the player's expectation that they would soon be able to play, not just watch. The player sits with controller in hand, waiting for the moment when he'll be broken free, grab a gun and escape. But the moment never comes. Would the player have any particular expectations when playing Peace?

I wonder if these scenes would have any personal gravity for the player as mini-vignettes. Who is the boy I'm playing in the rock-throwing segment? Do I understand the situation he's in? Do I feel outraged as he does? I would think that, to truly put the player in the subjects' shoes, we would want to see the context first-hand-- the boy's house and neighborhood, his relationship with his family as they try to get by in wartime, the bulldozers coming and tearing it all down, the effect it has on the people we've come to know through him, and then the moment of catharsis when he strikes back by pitifully throwing stones. Would there be any way to effectively compress this context in time without using filmic, non-interactive techniques?

I feel like it's a problem lots of games have: throwing the player down into a conflict in media res, and expecting them to take the designers' word for it that they should feel personally driven to participate in the struggle. Film can get away with it since we're observing the characters' experiences second-hand, but games are largely realtime. I wonder, would Peace benefit from a calm introductory segment where we get to know our subjects-- interactively establish a relationship with our daughter, live life as a student before becoming a soldier, experience our indoctrination into a terrorist organization-- to inhabit their roles naturally, and feel along with them as we live through the violence of their lives?

Christiaan Moleman said...

In terms of cohesion I think basic navigation should be the same across all perspectives with only contextual actions varying.

I like the idea of tracking the player's dramatic appropriateness and letting them roleplay in various ways, but I think this is something that should take place behind the scenes only. Visibly scoring kills suspension of disbelief. Still, you could use it to detect when the player is getting lost and have an NPC do something or an event happen to draw the player back in (an AI director, if you will)...

> Would the player have any particular expectations when playing Peace?

I think so. You never know who's shoes you'll be thrust into next and you're gradually piecing together the events that culminate in beginning and end. Not everything is necessarily connected directly, but the lives of everyone you play are affected. While not an action-packed shooter, there would still be some pretty intense scenes...


>I wonder if these scenes would have any personal gravity for the player as mini-vignettes.

Empathy can be built over a short time. We can assume a few things: the player knows people and how they behave and, having chosen to play this game, they probably also have a basic knowledge of the setting from the news, so there's a lot you don't need to explain.
If the art, and particularly the animation is good enough the player should have no trouble connecting with the characters around him. You don't empathize with Gordon Freeman, you empathize with Alyx and Barney. You don't need to know the full story of your avatar as long as you understand how he relates to his environment.

Going out of your way to explain backstory I think would really hurt the pacing. That's why I said no more than 60 minutes. Trim all the fat. You don't have to meticulously build up these stories, you just throw the player in the deep end and let him deal with things as they come up. That said, it could be nice to see the same characters in different situations at different times as long as it fits in with flow of the game. One scene might be very frantic or action-packed while another more calm or foreboding...

I think by limiting player agency through most of the game the choice at end is made more significant to those who are aware of it. You could argue that the indoctrination of going along with everything in the structure of the game mirrors the single-mindedness of fundamentalism and going against that at the very end by refusing to complete your final task is the whole point.

But, mostly I just think different games call for different degrees of agency and limitation does not negate the significance of interaction.

- Christiaan

Reid Kimball said...

Hi all,

I love this concept and want to share some ideas that I wrote up on my blog. I made a separate entry instead of leaving it in the comments because it's rather long.

http://blog.rbkdesign.com/?p=21

Christiaan I would be interested in what you think of the ideas.