The designers of Journey and other games discuss creating experiences that foster meaningful connections and encourage players to reflect on their lives.
"Love is a game that two people can play, and both can win." -Eva Gabor
This quote was presented by designer Martin Hollis during his talk at a GDC panel called How Designing for Love Can Change the World. Of course, the overwhelming majority of games people play--be they board games, card games, or multiplayer video games--are about conflict and competition. Chess, one of the oldest games known to humankind, symbolizes a war, and the first video game I can remember playing was a simple two-player tank combat game. Both of these end with one winner and one loser. I don't generally mind games with violence or competition, and I often love them, but at times I've wondered if the preponderance of such games is an inevitable reflection of human nature, or if we can create a more diverse gaming landscape; one in which other values, themes and emotions also flourish.
Sometimes games stay with us as a result of their emotional impact rather than their gameplay.
Hollis--no stranger to violent games, having produced and directed GoldenEye 007--posited that a change is in the air where video games are concerned. Everyone is swimming to make competitive games, and there is an ocean of possibility for those who want to make romantic games. Hollis voiced a hope that thousands of years from now, at GDC 7001, the balance will have shifted somewhat, and that perhaps only half the games discussed will be about war, with the other half being focused on love.
A good game can invite players to be vulnerable, to consider their place in the world and the impact of their decisions, and to bring those experiences from the game back to their experiences in the world.Rather than waiting until 7001, Scott Brodie of Heart Shaped Games is one designer who's making games that deal with love today. Via a prerecorded presentation at the panel, Brodie talked about how life often presents us with difficult choices, like the choice between staying in a secure situation or pursuing an uncertain dream. His game, Hero Generations, attempts to confront you with these kinds of major life decisions by casting you as heroes in a family line. The choices you make as one hero, between glory and stability, between adventure and investing in the future, echo down through the generations, influencing the opportunities that are or aren't available to the children and grandchildren you also play as.
He thinks that if game designers want to create a meaningful engagement with their players, they need to look at their own lives and put some of that into the games they create. Games, he said, can change the world, one player at a time; a good game can invite players to be vulnerable, to consider their place in the world and the impact of their decisions, and to bring those experiences from the game back to their experiences in the world.
Most games focus on conflict or competition. Will it always be this way?
Designer Michael Molinari took to the stage and talked about The End of Us, a game in which you play as a comet that's hurtling through space. Thankfully, you don't have to hurtle alone; you have another comet alongside you, and through a series of simple, playful interactions, you might find yourself forming a bond with your comet companion. The game deliberately avoids extrinsic motivators like a point system or achievements; you are free to approach the experience purely, doing what you want simply because you want to.
Soon, the comets find themselves on a collision course with Earth. You can let your companion hit the planet, destroying the other comet and leaving you alone in the infinite emptiness of space, or you can sacrifice yourself to save your friend. Whichever option you choose, the game offers you no option to replay. It's designed to make you confront and contemplate loss, and Facebook comments players have made about the game demonstrate that many of them have found in it a powerful reflection of aspects of their own lives.
At the same talk, designer Chelsea Howe reflected on how her favorite games, which include games like Flower and Mirror's Edge, have stayed with her because of how they made her feel. She discussed the concept of contagious positivity--the notion that positive feelings spread from one person to several others, and from those people to still more people--and about bringing that to games. I found this an admirable pursuit, and thought that many of the games discussed showed a great potential to make individual players reflect on the connections and choices in their own lives, which is certainly valuable. But what about games that actually have the power to form meaningful connections between players?
To the Moon has been cited as a game that encourages reflection on love and loss.
Later that day, I went to see Chris Bell give a talk titled Designing for Friendship: Shaping Player Relationships with Rules and Freedom. Chris Bell recently worked on the games Journey and Way, both of which allow for anonymous, cooperative relationships between players.
Bell began his talk with an anecdote about a time he was in Japan and had to rush to a shrine to catch a bus, but he had no idea where the shrine was, and he spoke only a few words of Japanese. He wound up communicating by holding up a picture of the shrine on his phone; an older Japanese woman ended a conversation she was having, took Bell by the hand, and ran with him to the shrine, getting him there just in time to catch his bus. At that point, she disappeared from his life forever.
He talked about the elements of the situation--a time limit, the high stakes involved, and the very limited communication between him and the other "player"--and said that at the center of this situation was empathy; that's what bridged the limitations between them and enabled them to form a brief but meaningful connection.