My favorite talk on the first day of GDC was Margaret Robertson’s The Gamification of Death: How the Hardest Game Design Challenge Ever Demonstrates the Limits of Gaming, so I figured I’d break out my notes on that to a separate blog entry.

Her takeaways from the project that this session was about:

  1. Your work is flawed.
  2. Your career is doomed.
  3. Your life is shit.

In other words: the bleakest GDC session ever!

She wasn’t working on a project about death: instead, it was a project about a death, which turns out to be a much harder thing. It was associated with a movie called Dreams of a Life, about on a woman named Joyce Vincent whose body was found in her flat 3 years after she died.

The film was by Carol Morley and Film 4, but they wanted something more interactive to go along with that, so they contacted Hide & Seek. Margaret thought it was a brilliant idea; it really wasn’t.

Things that were hard:

  • Aesthetics. The game had to sit next to a feature film, a documentary: what will feel right next to that?
  • Timing. They want to be ready when the film comes out, which means that they had to stop development before the film was finished. That’s hard enough for a film that’s a known quantity; this film is based on interviews, so new information was appearing up until the last moment. Hide & Seek didn’t have access in advance to that information, or indeed to the team working on the film.
  • Joyce. The film was presenting her story; the game doing that would be unnecessary, impertinent. You need to start there, maybe by recreating the environment; but if you create a replica of the flat, do you include Joyce’s body or not?
  • Budget. It was probably the best funded art house digital transmedia project ever. Which isn’t saying much.
  • Compliance. Touches on issues of suicide, domestic violence, potentially on drug use, people going missing, people being left behind. Film 4 isn’t worried about taboos, but they do have compliance guidelines (e.g. triggers for self-harm in viewers) and legal issues (e.g. questions of libel and negligence).
  • Not Being an Asshole. You’d like to learn about who people talk to, maybe scraping the machine-readable portions of their life, e.g. Facebook profiles? But of course that’s a very bad representation of who somebody is; and even if you don’t do that sort of thing, it’s not a game’s business to ask how long it’s been since you’ve called your mother. But if you step farther away from such details, you end up with something way too wishy-washy. And: maybe people “go missing” because they want to: they like solitude, they want to manage their relationships.
  • Mission. Joyce’s body was found completely by accident; how can we express this lack of mission in finding her within a game design context? It goes directly against the way games are traditionally designed.
  • Systems. There were systems that underlay the events of Joyce’s life and death: domestic violence had led to her being helped to move; that’s good, but it led to her being separated from her friends. She’d been in the hospital and listed her bank manager as her next of kin, which in retrospect was a big warning sign. (She had a father and siblings alive when she died.) There are lots of details in her life and death; if you boil them down, you’re not being faithful to the reality of the situation, but if not, there’s not enough of a system to make it a game. (And you want the game to be very accessible, too!)

How on earth to represent this as a game? Maybe a sort of interactive fiction locked room game where you have to use objects from your own life as keys? It’s hard to imagine non-banal realizations coming out of that, though; and the gating/progression structure led to people second-guessing their responses instead of answering naturally.

Another idea: the floor labyrinth from the Chartres Cathedral. It’s one continuous line: no choices, no possibility to get lost. The goal is right there, just a few feet away, but you don’t know how long it will take you to get there. While walking there, you might meet somebody who seems to be going the other way, but you don’t know if they’re going in or out, are ahead of you or behind you.

Still: completion / goals led to people feeling less honest. Maybe add lots of ending conditions, lots of personas players can adopt? Or let players define the goal? (But players still say what they think they’re supposed to say, not what they really believe, even when setting their own goal.) Or maybe don’t have a win condition at all?

Her conclusion: this can’t be a game: games can’t do this. Arse. They ended up making a pretty good thing that wasn’t a game, see Dreams of Your Life. Which worked! And that’s great, but she really likes making games.

Did they have too many constraints? Did they overlook their design process? Maybe, but this isn’t the first time that’s happened to her. A laboratory project that is still under NDA but where an external game would work against the real-world goals. A science project, The Milky Way Project, where you’re looking at structures in space; but if you layer goals over that, it corrupts the result. A secret music project; but if listening habits have game effect, it makes you hate music, which is awful.

(Side note: I really wonder what Roger Travis would say about the mismatch that Margaret sees between games and the sorts of learning in The Milky Way Project and in the unnamed laboratory project.)

Things that might be true:

  • She might just be rubbish at this. She’d love to hear better ideas.
  • Or it might be really hard.
  • Or it might be a contradiction in terms.

Oh boy.

Games are more like Agro from Shadow of the Colossus than the horses in Skyrim. Can’t go everywhere, but you care about them more. So learn what about games makes them special!

And: she’s trying again with a live game based on Joyce’s life and death at SXSW. And, of course, she’s talking to people at GDC.

She’s put up her slides; I highly recommend looking at those, both to see the changing backgrounds and to read her rather detailed speaker’s notes.

Update: Now the video is available for free.

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