Call to Arms entry 10: Bumbershoot

Dan Bruno, maintainer of the blog Cruise Elroy, submits a Call to Arms concept which subverts the expectations of playing a platformer, and encourages the player to seek out the game's hidden agenda.

Summary: A puzzle game disguised as a platformer, Bumbershoot uses player expectations to disguise its true mechanic. It’s my hope that the subversion of a familiar genre will address the conflict between convention and innovation, while the “metagame” of figuring out how to play will evoke a unique sense of discovery and accomplishment in the player.

Play: Bumbershoot looks like a simple 2D platformer. There are critters to jump on, coins to collect, and obstacles to overcome as the character progresses through each level. The game offers no instructions beyond explaining the controls, so an experienced player will treat it like a Mario game.

However, the feedback and reward mechanisms that are typically found in platformers are absent in Bumbershoot. Jumping on critters doesn’t yield any powerups or bonuses (and isn’t necessary anyway, as they aren’t actually dangerous); collecting coins doesn’t make a “pling” noise, count towards an extra life, or otherwise give any indication of being useful; getting to the end a level doesn’t cue victory music or a cutscene, but just dumps the player unceremoniously at the beginning of the next one. In short, the player can complete the game “normally” by moving from left to right through each level, but the game will give no particular indication that she’s doing anything right. If all goes well, such a victory will be hollow and unrewarding.

During play a score is displayed prominently at the top of the screen, but typical platformer actions like the ones described above have little or no effect on it. Meanwhile, seemingly random actions will send the score through the roof, and the game makes a big deal out of those events. Right now I’m thinking of the score-tallying beeps at the end of a level in Super Mario Bros. or the extra life fanfare in Sonic the Hedgehog, but there may be better signals.

The point of the game is to first realize that typical platformer behaviors are not rewarded, and then figure out what behaviors are rewarded instead.

The plan is for each level to have a different hidden task. One might require the player to perform some action in time with the background music, like the Koopas in New Super Mario Bros.; another might be to jump on all objects of a particular color, or to touch all the floating platforms. Ideally they would be simple enough that the player could find them and unusual enough that she won’t do well at the game without trying to. If necessary, there could be clues embedded in the environment — the colored objects could catch the light and sparkle to attract attention, for example. Completing these tasks will increase the player’s score, trigger sound effects, earn extra lives, and feature all the other reward mechanisms that gamers have come to expect.

At the end there will be a high score chart and a catchy song, because after Portal, You Have to Burn the Rope, and On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness I’m convinced that every game needs to end with a catchy song.


  • Designing the hidden tasks would be difficult. At least a couple of them will need to be obvious enough that an average player will stumble upon them so that the meat of the game isn’t missed completely. Ideally I’d like to see someone play it like a standard platformer, accidently earn a ton of points for something that seems insignificant, and then think “what the hell did I just do?”
  • Using a mysterious game mechanic to evoke a feeling of discovery may not be enough to make the game hold together. Hopefully combining that idea with the genre subversion is enough to keep a player interested. If necessary, the score could be replaced or combined with some other kind of feedback.
  • Since the real impact is the initial discovery about the nature of the game and not in the subsequent puzzle elements, the game needs to be pretty short. As with Jason Rohrer’s games, I actually think Bumbershoot will make its point rather quickly — perhaps five Super Mario Bros. 3-length levels would do the trick.
-Dan Bruno



Call to Arms entry 09: Survival

Coleman McCormick, an old friend and maintainer of Chucklefest.net and his Tumblelog, Shodan Lives, submits a Call to Arms entry about the challenges and rewards of leaving modern society behind.


You’re a simple, essentially talentless man, waking up in the middle of the wilderness. In complete desolation. There may be no people within tens or hundreds or thousands of miles, you have no idea. Your objective is to reach something resembling civilization, be it a full-blown city, campsite, cave-dwelling natives… something.

You begin your trek armed with only some pocket items. You have your wristwatch, cell phone, wallet containing a few items, and maybe a candy bar. Because the wilderness is completely foreign to you (maybe you were previously a Wall Street investor), you have some serious things to learn if you wish to survive even the first few days. Feeding yourself will entail scrounging for berries or fruit initially, and as you collect some basic elements, you may even be able to fashion some primitive weapons. You’ll have to acquire clothing and create some form of shelter in order to stay healthy, otherwise exposure will weaken and possibly kill you. Clothing yourself might include killing an animal, cleaning it, and tanning hides or tailoring the fur into warmer garb.

Setting up camp will allow you to become more familiar with those immediate surroundings. This may pay off in the short term, allowing you to avoid danger and injury, but only in the short term. You must move along if you expect to truly survive. You absolutely will succumb to some uncontrollable force of nature eventually. A bear might rip you up in your sleep. So you camp for a few days and move on.

As you journey along in search of someone, your experiences will pay off. Hunting more often makes hunting easier and in turn keeps you well fed. Learning about plant life will allow you to gather more varied fruits. With blade-wielding talent you’ll more efficiently clean your kills providing better yield of hide, fur, or meat. Collecting firewood, climbing mountains… it all becomes easier with practice. Life in the wilderness can be exhilarating, frightening, fun, deadly. Climbing a sheer cliff face may get you a hundreds of feet above, providing a better vantage point to view your surroundings, a stunningly picturesque landscape, and access to whatever’s on the other side of the mountain. You’ll encounter rivers to cross, predators to evade, and if you’re lucky: signs of human life.

As you begin to run across signs of other travelers or settlers — old campfires, animal carcasses, beaten paths through the forest — you must use tracking and pathfinding skills to seek out the nearby civilization. But there’s another catch: they won’t necessarily be friendly. You’ll have to figure that out.

If you find friendlies, and they accept you into the fold, The End.


This game would be best if it played out over the course of dozens of hours, giving you time to learn the ropes of survival, as well as making new experiences in the wilderness all the more affecting. Of course since the world is completely open, you play at your pace. However, there is one absolute certainty: you will not last forever in the wild. You’ll do what’s necessary to survive, and sometimes that means it isn’t what you “want” to do. The player would experience hardship, cheat death, overcome adversity, and avoid disaster through becoming one with a foreign environment (without having to risk one’s real life in the bush.)

-Coleman McCormick


Call to Arms entry 08: Potter

In Potter, virtual pottery-throwing allows the player to express their creativity while gradually mastering a craft.

Potter expresses the satisfaction of a job well-done by casting the player as an apprentice to a Master potter, and allowing them to express their creativity and skill to create a wide variety of ceramics. Using the Wii interface to simulate the acts of throwing and glazing clay, the player gradually improves his craft, learning from the Master and sharing his work with others.

Play: At the outset of the game, the player may choose a Master potter whose apprentice he will become. The player browses a sampling of each Master's wares, along with a personal statement about his style and methods. The player's own work will be steered by his Master's guidance, so the player should choose a Master whose work he'd most like to emulate.

Once the player has chosen a shop to apprentice in, he begins introductory lessons in the craft of creating fine ceramics. As he throws his first pieces, the Master judges the work against his own standards, and gives the player guidance as to how he may improve.

The player uses the Wii remote and nunchuk to track the position of his hands as he performs the motions of molding a piece of clay as it spins on the wheel. Depending on which Master's shop he enters, the player may simultaneously have to press rhythmically on the Wii Balance Board to simulate running a potter's wheel via foot pedal.

The player proceeds to craft different sorts of pots and dishware, including pitchers, vases, bowls and so forth. Once a piece has been thrown, the player may proceed to the glaze stage, an entirely different art altogether. With the Nunchuk in his left hand the player slowly turns the piece around, while with the remote in his right hand he strokes on glaze with a brush or other available tools.

Once a piece is complete, the player places it into the kiln. The player may return to the kiln in a number of realtime hours (using the system clock, like Animal Crossing) to retrieve the fired piece and see the final result.

The player receives guidance from the Master while the piece is in process, as well as a more thorough judgment once it is fired and finished. Using the expressivity of the Wii's controls, the player may craft all manner of ceramics; over weeks or months of play, the player's craft progresses from producing clumsy, novice pieces, to creating beautiful works which will impress and instill pride in his stalwart Master, eventually becoming the Master's equal. This results in an extensive gallery of ceramic pieces the player has hand-crafted, which he may look back on proudly, and share with friends via the Wii's online connectivity.

Notes: What I tried to do here is to maintain the process: I didn't start from "I'd like to make a pottery simulator," but rather from the feeling I hoped to instill in the player through the game's interactivity (satisfaction of a job well-done, or more specifically, the pride of mastering a craft.) The follow-through was in choosing pottery as the core activity, and then abstracting that real-world activity in the specific ways which support the chosen core feeling, as opposed to rotely or aimlessly trying to simulate pottery as a purely mechanical act.

-Steve gaynor



Call to Arms entry 07: Jump

Duncan Fyfe, blogger and former contributor to Idle Thumbs, submits a bleak dreamscape to the Call to Arms.

It starts in a house -- don't know how you got there -- and this game is clearly a shooter because there you are in first-person perspective with a crosshair and health/ammo meters and weapon slots. But your health is set at 40 for some elusive reason, and you don't have a gun. Neither does the game. No weapons at all and no enemies either. You can jump, crouch and strafe but there's nothing to jump over, crouch under or strafe around. Nothing in your inventory. What you can do is wander around the dark, empty rooms of this boring house looking for, well, a game to play. The doors are locked. You can see out the windows, but because the game won't let you punch anything you can't break them. There's a complete lack of direction to the level design: it's not subtly or overtly ushering the player down a specific path. Everything's open to you; you can go anywhere you want. It doesn't matter.

There are people in some of these rooms, but you can't talk to them. You have an all-purpose 'use' button, but nothing happens when you press it. You can't ask him what you want to: what's going on and how do I get out? If you're within a certain proximity, something will trigger and they will talk at you -- but they won't address you personally and you have no input into the conversation.

These NPCs will give you a quest -- something to find or something to fix. You oblige them, because what the hell else have you got to do. This is added to your quest log, which is viewable at any time. It's a big house and there are no clues so you can only hope that you'll stumble across this thing. Say one guy is looking for his telescope and say you do actually find it. You center it in your crosshairs, press the 'use' button and nothing happens. Check the key bindings, yeah, okay, that's right, press it again. Still nothing. You could walk back to the guy but you're unable to tell him anything, much less the whereabouts of his dumb telescope. Using a late-90s physics engine you can kind of nudge the telescope with your body or other objects. But the thing only gets so far before it breaks. Whoops. Immediately, you lose the quest.

Now the guy will talk to you; in fact he'll start yelling at you. There are other people around, so you can repeat this process for a while, but the object will always break. After x number of failures, word gets around (via our groundbreaking influence system) and NPCs you've never met will decide not to give you any quests. If you keep trying to help them then nobody will even talk to you.

The quest log is represented in-game by a piece of paper. It will soon surpass that original allocation -- you've taken on more than you thought you could handle-- and you'll start to see quests written all over the screen, with failed objectives furiously scratched out. Eventually, even though there's some space left, you'll stop writing down quests even as you get them, because what's the point?

It shouldn't take long to recognise that this game isn't very good. The game really sucks. And once you learn there's no way to win then the only thing left is to lose. After a certain number of quest failures, the world changes. It gives you a break. One of the windows swings open and at this point all you can think to do is -- from ten stories up -- jump.


I like the idea of a game where you act out one long metaphor, forcing players to empathise with a certain psychological state. I like subverting typical game mechanics to render the player depowered and useless. It takes away the basic tools players rely on to cope in a game world, while retaining enough dead-end artifice (weapon slots) to make them feel like there's all this potential they're failing to unlock. Players don't feel like a hero or even competent. They're depowered and useless and no one likes them.

Have I achieved profundity yet?



Call to Arms Entry 06: Strange Land

I'm tossing another one in the ring, just for fun. Thanks so much to everyone who's contributed so far to the Call to Arms!

Strange Land casts the player as a 'stranger in a strange land,' who must survive in an urban setting with no initial knowledge of the native language. At first the game conveys the alienation of living behind a language barrier; as the player progresses, he gains the pride of mastery by internalizing and becoming fluent in that same language.

Play: Strange Land is a single-player game structured somewhat like Animal Crossing, or The Sims, or Shenmue without the story; the input and point of view is most similar to the latter, with the player directly controlling his avatar at ground-level. The player takes on the role of a young person who has left their native country and recently arrived in a bustling town somewhere in Strange Land. The people here are much like those of the player's homeland, but with different language and customs. From this starting point, the player must first figure out how to communicate well enough to survive, then build a life for him or herself in this new place.

At the outset, most spoken and written language in Strange Land is indecipherable to the player, making navigation and communication a challenge. Signs, instructions, menus and the like are written in Strange language. Initially the player may speak to Strange people, but can only reply in English and make hand motions, which communicates relatively little.

The gameworld contains tools for the player to make inroads towards learning Strange language. Some signs include an English translation along with the Strange text, working as bits of Rosetta Stone. The player carries around a digital notebook, in which he may copy down these translations for future reference. Once he has seen the same Strange text enough times, he should be able to interpret it directly without referring to his notebook.

Similarly, whenever a character speaks, the words appear as text which the player may highlight and save into his notebook along with a corresponding label in English. Then, when later speaking to a Strange person, the player may select any previously-saved text from his speech bank and say that phrase. So for instance, if the player wanted to order a sandwich, he could observe a Strange person ordering a sandwich, copy their speech text, then repeat the phrase used to order one for himself.

As these saved text samples accumulate, the list grows unwieldy. If the player takes too long choosing a phrase from the list while speaking to a Strange person, that person will grow impatient and turn the player away. So, the player may instead type Strange phrases directly into a parser using the keyboard (or 360 thumb board, depending on platform.) This encourages the player to internalize the language well enough to use it effectively without picking from a list of English translations. This mimics the feeling of actually learning to use a language naturally instead of running it through the filter of one's own native tongue.

The player's first goals are simply to make money, buy food, maintain domicile, and generally to survive. Especially in the early stages, this can seem a daunting task, when one doesn't even know how to say "yes" or "no" in Strange language. Attempting to talk to Strange people generally leads to confusion or rejection, and the only available jobs are the menial kind that don't require much verbal communication; living at the English-speaking hostel is easy and cheap, but securing an apartment is another story. The player must either push themselves to better understand Strange language and culture, or simply to subsist as an outsider.

The player uses context clues and closely observes Strange people to learn their customs and how to perform simple tasks. The player may run into other native English-speakers, who may befriend him and help him get by.
At any time, the player may highlight an NPC's speech text and ask "what does that mean?" The player's social standing with that NPC will determine whether they help you out or not. As the player becomes more integrated into the daily routine of Strange Land, his reliance on these helper characters lessens, and he gradually becomes more able to start up friendships with Strange people, using only their own language to communicate, without any training wheels.

Over time, the player's improved abilities allow him access to more fruitful aspects of Strange society: better language skills allow him to get better jobs, attend more obscure or exclusive cultural events and venues, meet and befriend more and different Strange people, and generally become a full-on Strange citizen for all intents and purposes. By increasing his own fluency, the player naturally gains access to deeper parts of the Animal Crossing/Sims-like gameplay of living in a nicer home, getting better jobs, buying more and better stuff, and expanding his social sphere.

Along with text, all Strange language is read aloud via voice synthesis. Strange language is a relatively simple, consistent syllabic, most appropriate for text-to-speech software interpretation. Hereby, the player's experience isn't limited only to the game designer's authored voiceover samples; all NPCs' speech text and the player's own input are both written and voiced. Since the natural result of game mastery in this case is fluency in a foreign language, Strange Land could even be used to teach a real-world language by acting as a "virtual immersion" tool. The trick in teaching a real-world language in this way is to make the final goal not simply "learn the language," but to make learning the language the means towards some other attractive end-- an end which could theoretically be supplied by the desire to progress in a Sims-like life-building game.

Concerns: The core language internalization mechanics would take a huge amount of prototyping, playtesting and revision to get right. Would the described system allow a player to really grasp a language and begin using it? Would the game be 'smart' enough to interpret the player's reuse of saved phrases, and further his typing strings directly into the engine? Like a language itself, executing on this concept well would be intimidatingly complex.

-Steve gaynor



Call to Arms entry 05: Resonance

Michael Clarkson, a postdoc from Massachusetts working in the biotech sector, submits Resonance: an entry to the Call to Arms which allows the player to explore a number of philosophical conflicts, all under the umbrella of an interactive oratorical simulation.

Resonance takes place throughout the history of a city-state. The particular kind of setting (fantasy/sci-fi/kittens) doesn't particularly matter because the idea is to tap into the universal aspects anyway. On each mission the player become the Muse of a Hero, whose task it is to guide the city through a crisis. The Hero comes with his own point of view, and strengths and weaknesses in communicating to particular demographics. The player's task is to preserve the city, and his only means of doing so are telling the Hero when and where to speak, and providing inspiration for the Hero's speeches.

Each crisis poses a sort of yes/no question: should the nation accept a large influx of refugees, should it go to war against an evil nation that does not threaten the city directly, should workers form labor unions, should income be radically redistributed, etc. By adjusting his strategy the player can allow either of the propositions to "win". The Hero's position is not always "right". Indeed, were I making this game I would have at least one mission where the Hero's choice is quite obviously wrong.

The Hero works his magic through speeches. In a speech, the Hero supplies the main talking points, but on his own the speaker is very dry and dull. Without inspiration from the player, his speeches suck the spirit right out of an audience. The player's task is to provide images that fit the speech and raise the audience's spirit. In doing this the Hero's influence (and the size of his future audience) is increased, listeners convert to his position, and those who are unconvinced become more open to it. At the same time, there will be an Opponent moving around the city trying to convince people of the other side of the argument.

Usually several inspirations will be suitable for each talking point, but they will affect different properties of the audience. I think a 3-4 point matrix like Fear, Anger, Pride, Acceptance would be appropriate. The city is divided into different districts in each era, with different demographics and varying levels of these characteristics. Harsh, divisive rhetoric lowers your side's Acceptance (making them more resistant to conversion) and increases their Anger, making them less likely to attend opposition speeches. However, among the portions of the population that are uncommitted or opposed to the Hero's position, this kind of rhetoric will increase their Fear and decrease their Acceptance, making them more difficult to recruit. On the other hand, inspirations that stress unity would tend to increase Pride of the people on the Hero's side and increase the Acceptance of other groups. However, in an area that already has low Acceptance among the Opposition, a good, harsh speech may provoke Fear that drives them to pay more attention to the Hero.

The strategic task of the player is a balancing act of trying to choose the right kind of speech to give at the right time to the right people, so that the city does not descend into a panic or widespread rioting. When Pride and Acceptance are low, and Fear and Anger are high in any group except those who are undecided, violence can erupt. Usually this will only happen in one district at first, if left alone the violence will spread. Fear and Anger will rise for all groups in neighboring districts. If your side riots, the Pride of your allies in other districts will decrease, while the Acceptance of the Opposition will decrease. So the Hero must calm the violence by giving speeches. If his influence is too low (from making poor speeches earlier), however, nobody will listen to him. The player has to keep the Hero popular, so just flubbing all speeches outright isn't really an option. However, flubbing a few key speeches may work. Having the city descend into riot is the only way to "fail" a mission.

The tactical task of the player (in speeches), is to choose the right inspiration to go with an idea, and also to time the delivery of that image correctly. The spirit of the audience will rise and fall during the speech, rising when the right inspiration is used and falling as the Hero goes over the nuts and bolts. The player has to choose the right time within each talking point to apply the inspiration, and also when to use more powerful vs. less powerful inspirations. So this could be implemented like a rhythm game of some sort. For instance a player could use gestures with a Wii-mote to set up the speaking cadence and then some button combo to use the inspiration at the right moment.

The mission hub takes the form of a giant, labyrinthine library. The character starts in the deepest part of the library and must find his way out. As he moves through the library, the character finds two kinds of books. Opening "Histories" initiates new missions, and when a History is completed a nearby door unlocks, allowing further exploration. Also, the character can find "Literature" books that give him new inspirations. Because the "combat" is oratory, these will obviously include important speeches ("I Have a Dream", the sermon on the mount, "Never, never, never" etc.). However, since the player's task is to supply imagery and inspiration they should also include poems (Dwarf Birches, If) and excerpts from plays (Henry V) and novels.

Different outcomes to the missions unlock different doors and thus different routes through the library. The inspirational Literature available to find along the way (and the powers to be used in combat) therefore depend on the outcome of the missions. In addition, the Hero of each mission becomes available as an inspiration power for future missions; the strength of this inspiration will depend on the mission outcome. This need not be linearly related to whether he convinced people of his position. Losing to the opposition for strategic reasons while performing well in individual speeches may result in a powerful inspiration; succeeding strategically while barely scraping by in speeches may result in a weak one.

Unlocking the final door of the library releases the character as a citizen into the city he has created through previous missions. The character of the city will be decided by the character as well as the facts of the decisions made. So, if the city accepted the refugees, then traces of that race of refugees will still be physically present. In addition, the inhabitants of the city will tend to be kind and helpful. If you opted to take on the evil city, they will be proud of their city but have a militaristic streak. The city will be facing one more great moral crisis, but one that is a trick question, in which one of the alternatives seems quite reasonable and comforting but is, when properly considered, a path to destruction. The player must now serve as his own muse, working up influence from street level so that he can convince the city to do the right thing. This will be easier or harder depending on the ways that the previous missions were performed.

Having only one Hero position per mission would simplify the programming task while confronting the player with the fact that people can be just as honestly passionate about a proposition he disagrees with. If I were to pick one feeling out of Steve's laundry list that I meant the design to speak to, it would be vindication (in seeing the city you created through your actions as a muse). The individual missions could be tailored so that they speak to several of the conflicts he proposes, though the conflicts of Pragmatism vs. Romanticism and Tradition vs. Progress are clearly built into the fabric of the design (such as it is).



Call to Arms entry 04: Sellout

JP LeBreton, a designer on BioShock and now lead level designer on BioShock 2, shares a musical take on the conflict between Pragmatism and Romanticism: Sellout.

Sellout is played with the Guitar Hero / Rock Band guitar controller - you could extend the concept to include an entire band, but I wanted to keep the focus small and personal.

Sellout puts you in the role of a busker on a populated street corner. Over the course of a session, different people will pass by who value very different qualities in the music you play. The core loop of the game is about choosing what sort of audience impulses you cater to.

Unlike Guitar Hero et al, you’re not playing an existing song and trying to hit the right notes at the right time. Instead, you’re improvising. Improvising has some objective quality metrics that you must hit to keep from being booed off of your corner entirely, such as playing in rhythm and in the key of your bassline, both provided by your computer-controlled backup band.

However this requires only a basic level of skill. One of the most difficult parts of playing a real guitar - navigating the huge number of possible fret configurations and playing coherent melodies - is handled for you. You can change keys with the Select button on the controller, and the normal fret buttons play notes on a pentatonic scale that harmonizes with that key. This isn’t really any kind of technological/musical alchemy at work - a huge amount of Blues guitar solo work, and by extension modern rock music, is all about doing just this.

The point of all this is to free up the player to focus primarily on the melodic patterns they’re playing, because again the game is all about deciding where you sit on the continuum between Pragmatism and Romanticism. So here’s how that plays out.

Some passersby want to be challenged by art. They want to hear something surprising and distinctive, and they’ll lose interest if you begin repeating yourself. The struggle for you becomes how to continually reinvent your style, to constantly produce novel melodies without falling into a rut. If you succeed at this, “artsy” passerby will stop to listen, and draw more closely as they enjoy themselves more. If you succeed in moving a particular person for an extended period, a glow will appear around them - you have touched them deeply.

However, these people will leave little to no money in the hat you’ve placed out in front. Maybe they’re all scruffy, penniless art students. They appreciate what you’re doing, but money isn’t how they want to or are able to express that. Maybe if you’re a Romantic, you don’t care about this.

On the other hand, you have passersby who want something familiar and safe. These people want to hear minor variations on something short and catchy. You’ll bore them if you play the exact same riff over and over again, but you’ll also alienate them if you mix things up too much. The challenge here is to stay in a groove, where you can hit the same notes with reliability, occasionally throwing in a well-chosen minor deviation.

When these sorts of people - possibly well-dressed business types or tourists - like what you’re playing, they’ll drop some money in your hat and move on. No glow, no lingering adoration, but a dollar amount in one corner of your screen goes up. You haven’t moved them deeply, but you’ve earned some scratch - a fine outcome, perhaps, if you’re strongly Pragmatic.

It may be possible to alternate success along either axis, playing something unconventional and weird for a while, then switching over to something that brings in the money. But the nature of the pattern-frequency-polling algorithm that lies at the heart of the game, in effect a systematization of the conflicting audience motivations, means that you can’t please all the people all the time.

It’s quite likely that the musical output of this game will not be what most people consider good music. Even when you’re playing “well” by one metric or another, it will probably sound like wanky noodling. That’s fine because Sellout is not about wish fulfillment. You are not a rock star being worshipped by a cheering arena, you are a struggling performer trying to please an amorphous mass of strangers. With no single explicit success metric, it’s up to you to navigate this philosophical continuum.

To bring this idea the rest of the way from game mechanic to game, you could divide play sessions into days and add a survival imperative that problematizes the “pure art” play style. At the end of each day, your earnings are tabulated, and you can spend that money on food. You need a certain minimum amount of food each day to survive, otherwise you die in the gutter. Do you earn just enough to get by, do you play money-earning music for a short time each day to live comfortably, or do you go for maximum earnings but get sick of playing the same hits every day? I’m not sure this mechanic is essential or adds much, it depends on how important you think it is to contextualize the player’s choices.

The next step for this game would be to start exploring it in a prototype - the pattern detection code isn’t anything crazy but it would take some work to get just right. I’d use a USB adapter to get the controller working on a PC, and probably PyGame for the programming. Sadly, I’m too swamped between the day job and Purity to be able to justify jamming on this, but if anyone else is interested in running with the idea, I’d be happy to share my notes and give feedback.

-JP LeBreton


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



Call to Arms Entry 02: Family Commute

British ex-pat game developer, our man in Japan, nom de plume extraordinaire JC Barnett offers his satirical entry to the Call to Arms: a game that interactively expresses the challenge of surviving a Tokyo train commute.


Using the Wii balance board as a control mechanism the player must, simply, survive a commute on Tokyo's busy rail system. There will be a set of difficulty levels of increasing commute length, all played out in real time, from the "easy mode", a roughly 10 minute ride, right down to "salaryman mode", a full hour and a half of commuter Hell.

The player stands on the Wii Balance Board and must keep his balance in the face of the train's swaying and the crowd of other commuters who will try their best to pick fights with you or shove you around simply for being foreign. Special boss characters will be "broadsheet guy", the idiot who will try to read a newspaper, and "roidrage", the racist knuckledragger who will shout at you to die or go back to "your country."

On-screen a delicate balance must be held by shifting your body weight to match instructions. Sudden jolts from the train's movement or idiots will give you a very brief chance to correct your pose before you fall over and are penalised. Holding the Wiimote and nunchuck you can control your on-screen commuter's hands to slap away newspapers, though if a woman happens to be standing in front of you, the player must adjust his pose so his hands are at all times visible for fear of being accused a groper, "chikan!", at which point you'll be arrested and the game will end. Push-fights take the form of a series of balance challenges and hand motions wherein the player must fight for space with another commuter who won't grant you the room to breathe in favour of his own comfort.

Along the top of the screen is a "health bar", titled "the will to live", which constantly, slowly, depletes. The only way to top up this bar is to unbalance aggressive fellow commuters or to find a spot next to an attractive female (boy, for the female players, who can only ever play on "extreme difficulty" and must use the nunchuck to constantly elbow perverts in the groin). Once the bar is completely depleted, the player's avatar will exit the train and jump in front of it.

Special periodic challenges include covering your face when old men cough and sneeze all over you and jostling for a seat when the previous occupant disembarks. If successful the commute time will be depleted by several minutes of comfort.

If enough commercial interest can be found, a special peripheral could be created; a velcro band to be tied around your chest which, much like a blood pressure meter, would slowly fill up with air to restrict your lung capacity and, literally, crush you to death.

Successful completion of a level will unlock the "bonus mode", which is the return commute on the same ride, but with a machete, controlled by the Wiimote, and a taser, controlled with the nunchuck.

The game will not only teach you vital survival skills, but strengthen up your calves and resolve but mostly, it’s an exhausting, depressing experience, constantly jostling, readjusting your balance and gradually losing all hope in humanity and any will to live. Playing the game is living the game and if you don’t want to kill yourself after playing it, you haven’t played it correctly. The bonus mode is pure, classic fantasy fulfillment gaming at its best.

Fun for all the family!

-JC Barnett




A brief interruption to the Call to Arms: Michael Abbott has generously allowed me to contribute to his latest Brainy Gamer Podcast, by encouraging me to blather on and on in response to his thoughtful interview questions. Give it a listen to hear my thoughts on art school, Gears of War, and playing video games on the last day of your life.


Call to Arms entry 01: Couples Counseling

Writer L.B. Jeffries contributes his response to the Call to Arms, a proposal involving marriage counseling and conflict resolution.

I've always wanted to make a game about couples counseling. My Mom is a marriage counselor and she uses a variety of social exercises and games to get people talking, so I figured just transfer it to the digital medium.

There'd be a variety of games within the overall title. One would be the two partners picking whose the upset party. You'd then go through a mundane dialogue tree that lists out how upset you are, while the other person selects responses like "I'm sorry" or "I don't see why this is a big deal". Back and forth, back and forth, scripted responses. The reason you do this is because people often have trouble voicing their complaints to a partner. One person might be too dominant, while the other might be afraid of them (in that nice, couples kind of way). The pre-set responses let them slowly get the dialogue going by giving someone a chance to say they're upset and then letting the other person say they don't get why. It's literally just an RPG-dialogue except there's no NPC.

Lets see...another would be people creating a running score system. You both setup 5 things you'd like the other partner to do that week and then you get to mark if they did it or not. Wash the dishes, leave the toilet seat down, etc. Sort of a Wii-Fit scoring system. That's more a graph than anything though.

Another would be basic games that involve co-operation and sharing. If one partner feels like the other doesn't pay attention to their needs, make them play a co-op game where one is responsible for the other's health. A sharing one could be where two people have to get through a level but only one can hold the sword or jump boots or whatever. They have to swap the item and get through obstacles working together. The key being, they have to communicate with one another to get through the level. Once the couples get used to talking to one another about a video game level, maybe they can upgrade to more serious stuff?

I dunno...I guess this isn't quite the emotion you were talking about but I know a lot of people who would buy this for 20 bucks over paying for a counselor.

-L.B. Jeffries



Call to Arms 2008

Entry 01: Couples Counseling by LB Jeffries
Entry 02: Family Commute by JC Barnett
Entry 03: Last Call by Borut Pfeifer
Entry 04: Sellout by JP LeBreton
Entry 05: Resonance by Michael Clarkson
Entry 06: Strange Land by Steve gaynor
Entry 07: Jump by Duncan Fyfe
Entry 08: Potter by Steve gaynor
Entry 09: Survival by Coleman McCormick
Entry 10: Bumbershoot by Dan Bruno
Entry 11: Friends Like These by Justin Keverne
Entry 12: Bereavement in Blacksburg by Manveer Heir
Entry 13: Fruit of the Womb by Roberto Quesada
Entry 14: Peace by Christiaan Moleman

Memories. Feeling. Meaning. Conflict.

They can all be expressed through interaction-- games. Interactive experiences are driven by design. And we're all designers. Of any discipline involved in game-making, design's door is open widest. There is no barrier to entry. Players, artists, teachers-- we're all designers.

The challenge then is to express through interaction an experience that the player will find meaningful-- something novel, poignant, interesting, personal, or enlightening. As video game designers, we've explored a few forms of conflict with great fidelity: mostly direct and violent; mostly expressing the feeling of prevailing over one's rivals.

So, Fullbright proposes a public thought experiment; a decentralized game design symposium; a call for new takes on interactive expression. If we've succeeded by now in conveying feelings like "exhilaration," "fear," and "victory," and conflicts such as "individual power vs. strength in numbers," "man vs. rule system," "entropy vs. order," and "good vs. evil," the Call to Arms focuses on some more elusive aesthetics. Here's the procedure:

  1. Choose a feeling or a philosophical conflict listed below, or come up with one of your own. If someone has already posted an entry on an item that interests you, don't be afraid to tackle it in a different way; multiple approaches to one problem are encouraged.

  2. Write a simple game design which would express that feeling or conflict directly through interaction. The rules of the game-- what you do as a player and how the system (or other players) may react-- should speak directly to the tenets of the premise itself. This can be a proposed video or analog game-- computer, console, tabletop, boardgame, or other; any format will be accepted. Proposing a loose fictional veneer is valid if you feel it's necessary, but should not be the focus of your design; focus on the interactive elements, the rules of play, what happens, and how that speaks to the significant aspects of your chosen aesthetic. The game's framework can be purely abstract or it can be character-based; it's all open to your interpretation.

  3. Post your design in written form (illustrations and functional prototypes totally optional) on your blog or website and link to it in the comments here. Or, if you don't already have a soapbox, post your design directly into the comments here, or e-mail it to Fullbright. All designs will be displayed here once received, resulting in a public collection of theoretical game designs.

  4. There is no judging or prizes. All submitted designs become public domain, so don't post anything you're horribly attached to. The goal here is to share ideas with the world, not to put any of the resulting designs into production.

  5. Don't disqualify yourself! Everyone is a designer. Ideas are design; play is design. If you've never made up a game before, or created a design document, take this opportunity as your first.
Below are my initial proposed feelings:

  • The sadness of loss
  • The satisfaction of a job well-done
  • The joy of discovery
  • The vindication of upholding one's convictions
  • The anxiety of uncertainty
  • The thrill of infatuation
  • The alienation of being in a foreign land
  • The comfort of true friendship

Next, my initial proposed conflicts:

  • Duty vs. Passion
  • Indulgence vs. Prudence
  • Faith vs. Skepticism
  • Ostracism vs. Acceptance
  • Patience vs. Impulse
  • Masculinity vs. Femininity
  • Tradition vs. Progress
  • Innocence vs. Cynicism
  • Pragmatism vs. Romanticism

This exercise bears something in common with Clint Hocking's "Seven Deadly Sins" elective from the Game Design Workshop; for a starting point, check out how one team of designers at this year's GDC expressed Gluttony with a card game. Alternately, note how BioShock used a character-based approach in expressing Altruism vs. Self-Interest, and whether its mechanics supported the implications of that conflict. Or, how Jason Rohrer explored the bittersweet melancholy of aging with Passage.

What is meaningful to you? How can that be conveyed to others through interaction? Design play to share that experience with others. Heed the call to arms!




Being out of the house all day certainly leaves less time to blog.




It's a bit belated, but I can finally share the news: about a month ago I started as a designer at 2K Marin, working on BioShock 2.

Building a career in the games industry feels weirdly analogous to dating: a process of finding a studio that you're right for, and who's also right for you. My early flings as a tester were never meant to be long-term, and my first serious relationship with TimeGate was good while it lasted, but a long-distance arrangement just didn't turn out to be what I was looking for. Now it feels like I somehow stumbled into catching the prom queen's eye, and we're getting along great so far. Hopefully it'll be a while before she realizes she's totally out of my league.

As a studio, 2K Marin seems to be just what I was looking for: a group of super-talented people, working on a property I love, who are 100% invested in the design philosophy that drives me. I have conversations at the office daily about gaming and design that I'm only used to having with like-minded friends or on this blog, which is an amazing place to be at with your day job.

I have an enormous amount to learn from my new colleagues here, and I only hope I'll be able to absorb some of their knowledge and creativity, and feed that back into my work. As a gamer and designer, being involved with the next BioShock is thrilling. I'll try not to let anyone down.